Published Jul 01, 2012"Before, a lot of Dirty Projectors albums were organized around a central idea," Dave Longstreth explains. "[Then] I just got kind of unhealthily obsessed with Bob Dylan and Lil Wayne, and I got obsessed with the concept of the song itself. I wanted to do things that were self-contained, that were capable of speaking without context. You'd hear them and everything would be communicated."
It's a big step for a Yale-trained musician, but like the music he makes with his band, art-pop troupe Dirty Projectors, Dave Longstreth is hard to pin down. After a youthful love of punk rock, he developed an understanding of complex classical and jazz music during his tenure at Yale and, when he met guitarist and vocalist Amber Coffman, she explains, he "was heavily into Beyoncé."
Such disparate influences are a good indicator why it's so hard to define Dirty Projectors' sound. Even when you throw "experimental" in front of it, "indie rock" hardly suffices, since they change genre not just album-by-album, but track-by-track. The band's forthcoming sixth full-length, Swing Lo Magellan, shuffles through DJ scratches, distorted rock guitar, sputtering djembes, beds of three-part female vocal harmonies, guitars both acoustic and West African-style, and hand claps, all within the first five tracks.
It's "pop" music, sure, but its complexities ― the irregular time signatures, the stacked harmonies of four singers, and the unconventional instrumental arrangements ― are what differentiate Dirty Projectors from the thousands of bands that also wear the catch-all "indie rock" tag.
Longstreth values the band's constantly shifting sound so much that he's changed his line-up on every album since adopting the Dirty Projectors name in 2003. And though, for the first time ever, he's kept the membership relatively stable ― from the line-up that made 2009's Bitte Orca, which landed on the year-end lists of Time, Pitchfork, Stereogum and Exclaim! for its balance of outré and pop hooks, only vocalist Angel Deradoorian is sitting out ― Longstreth refuses to remain in the shadow of past achievements.
"Bitte Orca was built as an emblem of the touring band that we had become," Longstreth explains. "It was built with the stage in mind, with this idea that I was writing for everyone in the band, and making a caricature of what each of our musical personas were.
New album Swing Lo Magellan, he continues, "is less about tying a bow around the whole thing. It asks new questions, it's sort of a new beginning."
Longstreth's pursuit of music began as a solitary affair. "I got into music from punk rock. I would hear something and I would be so curious about how someone could make those sounds."
Once in college, however, the self-described "academically-driven student" found a world of conservatism and traditionalism. "I really didn't enjoy college. I've always felt very distrustful of the rules and orthodoxies [around music], but at the same time I've had this weird pull toward knowing. I'm super, super curious and I just love it all, [but] studying music at Yale, I didn't really relate ― I just hung out by myself and made four-track records."
Those solo recordings became Longstreth's first official release, The Graceful Fallen Mango. Its 2003 follow-ups, The Glad Fact and Morning Better Last, introduced the Dirty Projectors moniker and captured Longstreth spreading his creative wings after college, where he'd picked up knowledge about orchestration and musical "colour." The albums were ramshackle: shakily recorded, spontaneously orchestrated, and with an urgency that suggested Longstreth was more interested in sounds and concepts than songs.
They were interesting, though, and his distinctive croon, preference for unusual time signatures, and unconventional arrangements soon attracted attention, including that of Pitchfork.
By late 2003, having left college and relocated to New York City, Longstreth played shows during which he perfected songs that would become 2005's The Getty Address. With its superior production values, listeners were able to better hear Longstreth's knack for instrumentation and percussion, and, if they dug deep enough, the fractured melodies that would soon come to characterize his work.
It was while touring Getty that Longstreth crossed paths with singer and guitarist Amber Coffman at South by Southwest. "We exchanged emails and I just wrote him saying, 'I really love your music, if you ever need singers or whatever...' I had been throat-singing with some girls at that time; I just kind of offered myself up as a tour singer."
At the time, Longstreth was in the midst of a new project: a track-by-track reinterpretation of Black Flag's debut Damaged, completely from his memory of listening to the album well over a decade earlier. His vision for the album, to be dubbed Rise Above, required female voices, so he hired Coffman and vocalist Susanna Waiche; the latter was subbed, shortly before the tour, for Angel Deradoorian.
Longstreth's songwriting was a solitary endeavour, so adding to the band made little difference to Dirty Projectors songs. "The way I use the women in the band is as a vocal ensemble," he explains. "I just love the sound of voices singing together. It's insane because you can still do new things with voices, even though it's the simplest instrument. Every voice is different."
The women were instruments Longstreth needed to express his vision, not "bandmates," and because the Dirty Projectors line-up was constantly in flux, neither Coffman nor Deradoorian had any illusions of becoming a permanent member. "When we first decided I was going to come on tour," Coffman says, "Dave had a different band every album. I had no idea that I was going to continue.
"I kind of clicked," she adds, "and same with some of the other people who have stuck around for a long time." The women's voices brought a new, accessible pop dimension to Longstreth's knotty compositions, which found an apex two years later on the band's Bitte Orca single "Stillness is the Move." Over cowbells, clanging, wiry guitar lines and an R&B-influenced melody, Coffman flaunted her impossibly high soprano, winning over countless fans who'd found the band's previous work impenetrable. Though the rest of the band's breakout album was similarly accessible, it's noteworthy that the one song on which Coffman contributed lead vocals and co-wrote the most was the one that hooked the most fans.
To those familiar with the band's past, it seemed like the women, including third singer Haley Dekle, had brought Longstreth kicking and screaming into the world of pop music. But that pop element, Longstreth asserts, "is me. It's just kind of how I'm developing as a songwriter. I've always been the songwriter of the band, the writer of the music. We wrote the lyrics to 'Stillness' together. There are a couple of songs on the new record that [Coffman] worked on a little bit, but generally, my work is very, very solitary. It always has been."
Now that Longstreth has been with the same musicians for the better part of five years, however, his penchant for working solo is being challenged by his desire to work with the band with whom he's now established relationships.
Like he's done on every Dirty Projectors record to date, Longstreth composed the band's new album, Swing Lo Magellan, in its entirety: all the instrumental parts, including drums and orchestral flourishes are his, as well as the lyrics. He even wrote and recorded ― in his own voice ― all the harmonies to be sung by Dirty Projectors' three female members.
Longstreth introduces the parts they'll be playing after they're already written. "It's not a conventional rock band," he reiterates. "We don't get in a rehearsal space and figure out what notes to sing. I'm bringing it to the band formed."
Asked whether Longstreth is a perfectionist, Coffman explains that "As far as the execution of things, yes, but on some of the recordings, this or that wasn't perfect, but it had just a real vibe, you know? A trueness to it. When it comes to stuff like that, he isn't a perfectionist. He wants it to be real. But when it comes to performing and practicing, we do try to perfect it as much as we can."
It's odd, then, that Swing Lo Magellan is far more relaxed than anything the Dirty Projectors have done before. It's more "about the space, the negative space in the recording," says Longstreth. It's apparent, in songs like the percussive "About to Die" and the lilting, piano-led "Impregnable Question," that he wants to explore single sounds, and how their isolation in sonic space emphasizes their meaning.
It's also, he says, "so much about imperfection and the performances as they are." The title track is laid-back, acoustic; "Unto Caesar" features the female vocalists' in-studio chatter throughout the song, and casual, drawled responses to Longstreth's lead; first single "Gun Has No Trigger" features what "might be the demo vocal," according to Coffman. "I don't think Dave even redid it. That was one thing he was trying to do," she explains. "Stick with the spirit of the moment for each song, because it's hard to recreate that once you're out of the moment."
It's less about channelling specific cultural influences, too. Although he's firm that Bitte's West African style "was never about this year's model, or some sort of vaguely vogue-ish signifier to invoke," he's also intent on getting somewhere deeper with this album. "It isn't really that kind of record," he says, where one can say "'Oh, I got super into Gamelan music, so there's that influence, I got super into Krautrock, so you hear that motorik drumming all over the record.' It isn't like that. It's more an album about what you're thinking, what you're feeling."
Magellan's got feelings in spades. There are lyrics about death, love, and uncertainty about music's role as a political and social force. That Longstreth uses his voice more for singing than for wailing adds to the relative tenderness of Swing Lo Magellan.
When he's speaking about the writing process, Longstreth is all "I" and "me," but as soon as he's talking execution, he switches to "we." It's his way of indicating, despite writing all their parts for them, that he respects and appreciates his bandmates.
They appreciate him, too. "It's really exciting," Coffman enthuses. "I love his songwriting, I love his songs. [They're] never not good. Every time he writes a new batch of songs, it's really fun to hear them, to imagine performing them, and being a part of them."
Longstreth wrote "between 70 and 80" songs for Swing Lo Magellan, and decisions about what made the record were made by the band. "It's about which songs people respond to. They're the favourite 12 of everybody [in the band]."
Coffman says that preparing for tour, "is really intense. We've got a lot of work to do, a ton of new songs. We're working all day, every day, pretty much. We've been working for ten days or so now, and we're working until we leave for tour. But," she adds, "it's really fun. We're having a good time."
Longstreth is excited for the road, too, and a chance to spend quality time with his bandmates. "There's so much I love about it," he says. "It's a really amazing way to live, playing music and connecting with people around the world, hanging out with your friends ― it's fucking awesome."
"Every interviewer asks, 'Is Dave quite a control freak?'" says Coffman. "They love to try to figure out whether they can paint him as some mad scientist or something." Such a portrait of Longstreth is, like many definitions of his genre-shifting band, facile. There's a place for everybody in Dirty Projectors, and everybody knows their place. "We definitely believe in his songs and what he's doing," asserts Coffman, "and he believes in our dedication and ability." Control freak or not, Longstreth is content as well. "It's a good group. The people I've got with me, we can do anything. We can do anything."