Published Aug 14, 2012With Bromst, Dan Deacon achieved a near-perfect balance between introspective electro-acoustics and party-starting jams. It's no surprise, then, that his follow-up takes both elements of his eclectic sound further than ever before. Splitting the LP in two halves, side one follows in the footsteps of Bromst. The flipside is the four-part "USA" suite. A more textured, meditative approach, its peaks and valleys, according to Deacon, match those of the A-side. But its ambitious scope sets it apart from the rest of the album while simultaneously magnifying the "more of the same" vibe of the record's front half. By no means a washout, America is sure to please old fans and appeal to new ones. But by separating his musical personalities into two neat piles, Deacon stopped short of creating a truly epic record. We'll have to settle for just a pretty great one instead.
The record is separated into two distinct halves: more pop-oriented tracks on the A-side and the four-part "USA" suite on the B-side. Why not simply release them as two EPs?
I wanted to write a longer form piece and I wanted it to be on an album. I didn't want it to be a stand-alone thing; I wanted it to exist within the context of another set of songs. And because of the way vinyl is structured, you can get about 20 minutes per side, it had to be an A-side, B-side kind of deal. Ideally it would have been nice to be in the middle of the record, preceded by a couple of tracks and followed by a couple of tracks so it wouldn't seem so divisional. But because of the limitations of the format, that's how it is. I didn't want to have different versions on the CD and digital versions; I wanted one cohesive release. I think the way the A-side is structured is that it sort of has the same arc as the B-side. If you're listening to the way the sections fall on the A-side, where the intensity is and the build, it's similar to the four movements of "USA," which is the B-side. I think that links them together and makes it more of a cohesive album than two EPs.
You've said you spent more time in the studio on this record than any previous record. Did a lot of material come out of the sessions?
It was more that we used the studio as a place to experiment. Normally I use the studio like a camera, as a place to document what we've been doing, and all the experimenting is done prior to the documentation. This time it was a place to workshop things and hash them out.
Was everything recorded in one go or was the "USA" suite recorded separately?
We recorded in spurts, but we didn't set aside times for "USA." When we'd bring someone in, we would record every track that person appeared on. Like the violin appears in three tracks, so we recorded Victor [Ruch] over a period of a week or so and knocked out his parts in "USA," "Lots" and "Pretty Boy."
You're not the one playing these instruments. How do you communicate what you want from the players?
We give them sheet music and they play from sheet music.
Do you write that yourself?
Yeah, it's what I went to college for. I used to do it all by hand, so I never learned a computer program, but it's been years and years since I did it by hand and now I've been slowly learning this program, Finale. Converting it from MIDI, because I write it on this program, Reason, on a piano roll, and converting that to sheet music on my notation program, there's all these glitches and going in and tweaking it, and its always riddled with errors ― I just wish I never stopped doing it by hand. But the computer is a medium for me. I don't play piano, but a lot of composers will sit at the piano and hash out ideas there. But the computer is my medium, in that regard. That's my main method for getting sounds out of my head.
Does it come out the way it sounds in your head?
It always sounds better coming out of a person. I'd say nine times out of ten it's always better to have a human being playing it. There are certain parts I keep on the computer and don't have played on a synth because I want them to be that way. I want them to be precise; I want them to be without variables. Even if you tell someone to play the same note at the same volume five times in a row it's going to have a different attack and a different delay ― it's not going to fall exactly on the beat. Human nature is awesome and beautiful, but so is the opposite. It's the juxtaposition of the two that I like to work with.
You first brought in outside players on Bromst. What made you want to expand your creative circle?
It was budget and people knew the music, and that made it easier to get people to want to do it. I think any composer that likes to work in the realm of trying to get new sounds wants to work with as many new sound sources as possible. That's why electronics are so intriguing, but the sounds you can't make are the acoustic sounds ― no synthesizer is ever going to sound like a violin. It's not going to have the sound of a bow vibrating a string through wood. I think the thing that makes writing for those instruments so enjoyable is the human limitations. A trombone can't do a gliss this far; it can only make a gliss from here to here. I like working within the realm of certain limitations. What the instrument is capable of and what even the most virtuosic humans can do.
You collaborated with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. What was that experience like?
It was an amazing learning experience to see what works and hearing the orchestration live, and being able to workshop the dynamics and articulation and trying to get it to become a piece of music, not just a group of people playing something. They were good; I was kind of in the middle. I was someone who brought in sheet music and knew enough about the classical side, but not really enough to be on the classical side, falling back and forth. I was super-rough. Since I got out school I've only worked in that capacity in very limited [amounts]. Writing for a live context is very different. I wrote this one part where I wanted the trumpets to blast this rapid-fire succession of 16th notes for, like, minutes. And they were like, "you're fucking crazy." So we worked out that they would alternate between the multiple players. The players that seemed into it were very into it. That was great. Having enthusiastic performers is always ideal. You never want someone to play your music that doesn't have the passion to play it. And I think their performance showed it in the end.
Had you ever worked at that scale before?
Did you bring anything from that experience to America?
Yeah, definitely. The limitations of what playing can be made me think about acoustic instruments and how to use them, like, "am I writing this piece of music to exist in a live setting or am I writing this to exist in a studio setting?" I'm talking about the track "USA III: Rail" specifically. It was the cornerstone of "USA," which to me is the linchpin of the record; it's the bulk of the record. I wrote the piece and I was like, "do I trim this down so it's possible to be performed live or do I leave it the way it is and make it a studio piece?" Ultimately I decided to leave it as a studio piece; I don't think that section will ever be performed live exactly as it sounds because of the nature of the piece. The violin part is not indicative of the violin. If we performed it live, we probably wouldn't do it with violin and cello, we'd probably do it with acoustic guitars just because of the nature of the instrument. I wanted the timbre of the violin and cello playing pizzicato; those sounds are perfect for that part.
You told Pitchfork that around the time you were making Bromst, you wanted to get away from just making pure party records. And America sounds like another step away from that. What made you want to take this direction?
I just didn't want it to be vapid escapism. There's nothing wrong with having a good time and going out and letting loose and entering another world and then coming back to reality, but I didn't want it to just be only about that. I didn't want that beat to be all that you can get out of it. I wanted there to be more to it than pure entertainment. I wanted it to have meaning, context and serve a purpose other than just the superficial. And I feel like in electronic music there's a lot of that, especially in beat-driven electronic music. I feel like on the more abstract side there's a bit more of a dialogue between the music, the performer and the audience. Music that's made for parties and dancing in general kind of tends to be like candy. And as electronic music gets more popular in the mainstream, it seems ridiculous to pretend that we're not part of these problems in society and that we can avoid it.
What problem specifically are you referring to?
I guess I'm talking about the massive oppression and enslavement of most of the world.
Does that figure into your vision of America as presented on the record?
I think its impossible to live anywhere in the America and not think about how much exploitation is going on and how little is done about it or spoken of. And how each and every one of us is responsible, but we're sheltered from it, even if we're aware. And if we're not aware of it, it's important to expose this myth that slavery is over or that we're not returning to a new age of kings, that there's not a growing militaristic police force growing throughout the Western world.
Switching gears, you also remixed "Call Me Maybe," currently the most sugar-coated, innocuous pop song going. What attracted you to that?
I had no attraction to do it. My friend Kyle puts out these download compilations that are all cover versions of one song and that one was "Call me Maybe." He did one for that Gotye song too. I was online doing emails and I had to make a phone call, but my phone was dead so I was just killing time waiting to make this conference call and he was blasting me on Facebook IM, "Do it, come on!" It went quick; you can hear the process very easily. It's not meant to be disguised; it's the whole song a cappella, just layered on op of itself 147 times, because that's when my CPU started to squish out on me. Then it was on the Internet and the Internet took over. It was fun to do; it was never meant to be social commentary. I just wanted to see if I could do it in five minutes. The best thing was it got posted on Huffington Post and one guy was complaining, "It sounds like it was made in five minutes."
Read a review of America here.