Dan Deacon is going to Australia. He’s concerned his copy of Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn’s Yes Yes Y’all won’t arrive in time. He seems anxious about it for a split second, but then his worry lines vanish into a wide, bearded grin. “I don’t want to have to pretend to read [Cormac McCarthy’s] Blood Meridian again,” he says, jokingly.
The 33-year-old musician is easygoing and conversational, and highly prone to digression. “Someone once described my sound as Daffy Duck making electronic music,” he says. He pauses, then takes a detour. “I wish there was a really heavy and philosophical Daffy Duck. Like Daffy Duck’s … not dark side, but what are Daffy Duck’s anxieties and what are Daffy Duck’s regrets? Besides Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, what are his aspirations?”
Put simply, Dan Deacon is an electronic music producer. Within the electronic community, his art is often given the less ambiguous label of absurdist composition. His productions tend to straddle the line between experimental and indie, and they’re all very weird. Critics have pegged the music as avant-garde. He thinks it’s less vague than that: “To anyone making true avant-garde or experimental music, I make pop music; to anyone making pop music, I make nonsense.”
Entering 2015, Deacon is now over two years removed from his last album and Domino Records debut, America, which was a major departure from the “nonsense” that initially made him so popular. New label aside, America represented a slew of firsts for the Baltimorean (by way of Long Island): It was his first album to feature live instrumentation and the first time his music set out to say anything specific.
Built around the “USA Suite”, America was inspired by the geography and topography of the country Deacon calls home, and it’s the closest the producer will ever come to being even remotely political with his music. It’s an experience that left him feeling inclined to say nothing in particular, which may be why his latest work, Gliss Riffer, sounds like a digression — another detour, so to speak. “I just want this record to be fun,” Deacon admits, “because the last record was very much about confusion and anxiety. This one is, too, but about getting away from it rather than miring in it.”
Since his 2007 breakthrough, Spiderman of the Rings, Deacon has made a career out of wishing the sky would fall. He uses levity as a mask to come to grips with the harsh realities of being alive. Both Spiderman and its 2009 follow-up, Bromst, lean heavily on whimsy, but you can feel the pursuit of equilibrium inside them. His ideas have always sought middle ground; sometimes they just struggle to find it.
About 10,000 miles away from Melbourne, where he’s set to perform at Sugar Mountain in 12 days, Deacon sits in his cold, damp studio on N Charles Street in Baltimore City. The studio itself is about as inconspicuous as a CIA black site; its plate glass double doors are boarded over. An outsider wouldn’t even know the building is occupied and it wouldn’t warrant a second glance, especially on a rainy, winter afternoon like today. Inside, the walls are lined with cables and production gear, surrounding Deacon as he sits comfortably on a rolling chair in front of his computer. Adjacent to him is a piano, littered with hammers, strings, and keys. He grumbles about how he should have grabbed some coffee prior, but he’s fully functional nonetheless. He isn’t jittery; he’s keen.
Deacon’s also not shy about broaching the subject of integrity early on, and that goes double for the industry and journalism. He dislikes creative nonfiction in music writing. In his ideal world — the one he once hopefully envisioned back when the Mayan apocalypse loomed large — there wouldn’t be any sensationalism. That goes especially for music and its ensuing culture. “It’s a lot of fashion,” he says bluntly. “There’s nothing wrong with fashion, but when I want to find out about music, I don’t care when they moved to Brooklyn or what they were wearing at the time of the interview.” Dan Deacon doesn’t like mystique. “Maybe my mystique is no mystique.”
The guy’s an open book.
“I tend to put all of my cards on the table,” he says. “It’s a dangerous way to play the game.” He’s getting back into reading, but he’s admittedly a bad reader. He wants to read more religious texts. “I’d like to know why people are always fucking fighting,” he laughs. “It’d be great to know … what the fuck are we really talking about?” He hadn’t heard My Bloody Valentine until recently. He “doesn’t know shit” about hip-hop or techno or shoegaze. He’s more than willing to be self-deprecating if it means being honest. Being honest is a forte of his, and he’s far more insightful than he credits himself.
It’s that same insightfulness that has inadvertently led him to a solution for his balance problem: Trace it back to the source. Since America, Deacon has made a point of figuring out why he enjoys making music. He has battled stress addiction in the past, an addiction that peaked in 2009, and for a long time he was motivated by stress, but now he’s spending less time wrestling the things he can’t control and more time rediscovering why he loves doing what he does.
The epiphany came from watching a lecture on the subject of fun. “People think about fun in a lot of different ways: A party is fun, but so is gluing little trees by a fake mountain by a train set if you’re into trains,” he explains. “I keep thinking, Why is music making fun for me? Why do I like doing it? I’m not smiling, laughing, or giggling while making it, but it’s still fun. I wanted to make sure that it’s largely only that. Because when music is your job, it also becomes stressful because you’re applying for your job every time you go on tour and every time you make a record.” The back-to-basics approach has produced great results for Deacon; though he hasn’t gone through an ideological metamorphosis, he is conveying feelings with more depth, lucidity, and harmony than ever before.
For a while, external factors derailed the producer’s pursuit of a functional middle. He was worried his music’s fantastical appeal was sending the wrong message. “I didn’t want my music to be just about escapism,” he says. “When I was playing on the floor, there would be kids just fucked up out of their mind on chemicals — drugs isn’t even the right word. I was like, I’m creating this environment for these kids to get fucked up, and I hate this. I hate what’s happening. Especially when I was on the floor and they’d be touching my equipment or me or other people. I’d just be like, what the fuck are you doing? That’s what I think really turned me off of early EDM.”
Dan Deacon is an excellent storyteller, an observationalist who scans personal experiences, analyzes data, and then makes connections. His thoughts taper off into tangents, and he wanders his memories, trying to chase one back to his original idea. He posits a lot of theories and they’re all fascinating. Many of them are existential in nature. His backstory mostly explains that fascination with the human condition: psychedelics and self-discovery and working at Greenpeace.
In an interesting twist, the electronic producer is a product of rock. He doesn’t identify with the music more typically considered electronic. “I had very limited exposure to the music of the ‘80s and ‘90s,” he says. “I only heard what I heard growing up, which was mainly classic rock — because that’s what my mom and dad listened to, what was on the radio, which was like Aerosmith and shit, and then what my other friends listened to.” Because of this, his sound is more informed by post-punk and new wave than EDM or IDM. He quotes Ozzy Osbourne and Ian MacKaye. He’s always liked Brian Eno, but he didn’t find Aphex Twin until after he’d formed his own musical taste. He’s closer to experimental or psychedelic rock than he is house. If electronic music is the music of robots, his is less T-1000 and more Sonny from I, Robot: There is a human element that is ever-present.
Deacon spends a lot of time thinking about humans and what it means to be one. He wonders openly about consciousness, calling it the final frontier: “Sometimes I have a really horrible time looking at a painting or an object — especially something that has a face — and I imagine it having consciousness. It has no ability to move. It has no idea what’s going on. But it’s conscious of itself. I often wonder if that object has the same perception of time and emotions as I do now. For me, to be that object and have the same consciousness would be hell.”
He ponders morality as a shifty cosmic proposition: “A mountain would not have the same morality as a human, nor would a dog, nor would a deer, nor would a cell of bacteria, you know what I mean? The concept of justice to a mountain would be very different than ours.” He questions the tendency to add human characteristics to gods. “We’re like, ‘Well of course God’s just going to be the coolest person we know but like, God.’ I think it’d be much more like the sun or the entire galaxy. It’s hard to think of the galaxy being like, ‘You just jacked off too much. I’m going to send you to the black hole, which is also me, but sucks,’” he says, playing God with funny voices.
The Baltimore producer has a dark thought process that borders on gallows humor. When he wrote one of his best new songs, the unusually lyric-driven “When I Was Dying”, he was thinking about what he calls the “asshole seed”:
“I was thinking of this seed that’s going to grow a tree and create other seeds as being a jerk. I really like thinking about a jerk tree. And then I like thinking of a seed that hates the fruit that it’s in and the tree that it’s in,” he says. “I feel like people think about other people that way. They can think, Well, oh, there’s this person that hates their family, or they hate their country, or they hate all other humans, but you’d think it was weird if someone said there was a bear that hates all other bears, or if there was this acorn on this oak tree that hates the rest of the tree.” He stops and laughs. “That’s what I think about when I write songs.”
Gliss Riffer may be his best and most complete collection yet, a texturally layered bridge between past works that charts emotional response, a coping mechanism masquerading as escapism. More than that, it’s a window into Deacon’s jumbled mind. There are forces constantly at war there — a desire to be positive and an innate impulse to hit the reset button and scrap human existence entirely — and they each manifest differently on this album.
“Lyrically and musically, it’s me trying to relax,” Deacon says. “I wanted to make Gliss Riffer about me trying to confront my own anxieties or insecurities and the stresses in my life. In saying that, I also wanted the record to be fun. I wanted to figure out why music making is fun for me.”
The album settles into a stylistic comfort zone and pinpoints exactly where his previous works overlap to strike the right balance among them. But more than that, it’s a blast. “I didn’t want to stop making Gliss Riffer,” he insists, “I had so much fun making this record.” You can hear it in the hyper-kinetic rhythms of “Take It to the Max” and the bouncy vocal chops of “Meme Generator”. Both songs initially had lyrics, but Deacon, a tinkerer, decided they were better without them.
“They were a distraction,” he argues confidently. “They distracted from the interlocking synth parts.” He worries about distraction often. He wants you to get it as badly as he wants to get everything else. His music is all about creating a world where bizarre sounds and big ideas can coexist. It’s about clarity.
Gliss Riffer moves from one end of Deacon’s spectrum to the other, playing in the backyard of Spiderman of the Rings and dabbling with the grand production values of America. “This record is definitely informed by the previous ones,” he agrees. “After several albums of building in scale with acoustic and orchestral instruments, now that I made a pretty much all-synthetic album of song-based material, I feel like it’s all those albums in certain ways but unlike them in others.”
Like almost everything Deacon does, Gliss Riffer is an experiment in transparency. It’s about making sonic structures that adequately showcase his feelings and ideas. Their casings are layers of dense, overlapping synthesizer patterns and heavy 808 drum percussion. As a follow-up to America, Gliss Riffer puts off identifying with the world on a macro scale for identifying on a micro one. “I feel like it was a reopening of an old door for me and I’m like finding new things in that room that I hadn’t gone in for a while,” he postulates. “And it’ll be nice to expand on that sound and see where it goes.”
Deacon admits that he’s come to terms with the fact that he makes weird music and how he refuses to compromise that vision. The music has benefitted as a result. He considers himself a maximalist of density and instrumentation, and that is certainly true, but he also utilizes space efficiently. He packs a lot of stuff into small spaces, but the parts don’t so much battle for your attention as vie for it, challenging competing melodies to stand out. The music is intricate but never convoluted. It weaves a tight web.
Lately, Deacon has been posting snippets and individual parts of songs from Gliss Riffer on his Soundcloud. He plans to do this right until the album is officially released on February 24th. “I want to change the way they hear it, enjoy it, and process it,” he says. “I make my music with micro samples. So it’ll be exciting to see what people make of these stems, how they enter the world, and how people listen to them.” He wants you to hear what he hears. He wants to be clear.
Now, it’s back to the drawing board. With the end of a project comes a new beginning. “There’s a fear to finishing a project, for me,” he says. “It’s hard staring at a blank canvas.” He’s been making some experimental piano music. He just worked on a side project called Stint Riddler with Jimmy Joe Roche, another member of his Wham City collective. “I feel like when I’m done with a record, I just want to make a left turn and move in an entirely different direction,” he insists. Before that, though, he’s anxious to see how this one is received.
But what the hell does Gliss Riffer mean?
“Well I was borrowing these robot guitars from this guy in Pittsburgh,” he explains, “and I started realizing how I write in these cascades and I like writing these ascending melodies. It’s very rapid motion in a lot of the parts. Even in the slower songs, like ‘Feel the Lightning’, pianos are still going wild. Everything is in the waveform patterns … when you apply it to a real instrument, they’re slides or glisses. ‘Gliss’ is short for ‘glissando,’ which is a music term meaning ‘to slide.’ And riff is obviously, like…” He stops and hammers out a classic riff on air guitar. “I like the idea of riffs on these glisses.”
And that’s that.
“Did you ever see Total Recall?” he asks after we’ve found ourselves in another conversational rabbit hole. “You remember the scene where he has the safety deposit box and opens it up and it’s just a flyer to go to that weird club? There’s a Daffy Duck version of Total Recall where he opens the safety deposit box and there’s just a flyer with the title Gliss Riffer on it. I should remake that where it’s like an ad for the album.”
He pauses and thinks to himself; you can almost hear the gears turning.
“I’ve got to write that down.” He smiles and turns to his computer to type the idea into a Facebook chat tab before another idea clicks: “Daffy Duck Total Recall. That’d be a great name for the album. Too late. Next one.”
Photography by Wei Shi. Artwork by Steven Fiche and Cap Blackard.