Dan Deacon's High Art Dance Party
Published Mar 26, 2009Getting in touch with Baltimore electronic experimentalist Dan Deacon has proven nearly impossible. In the last three years, Deacon has exploded in popularity, winning over fans and critics worldwide with his 2007 album Spiderman of the Rings, regularly hosting shows and dance parties with his Baltimore art collective Wham City, and getting crowds involved worldwide with his highly interactive live show. Now, with his anticipated Bromst album just around the corner, he's busier than ever. When I tried calling earlier in the week, he was still jetlagged from an Australian tour and literally fell asleep after the first question. Today, Deacon is overseeing a synthesizer rehearsal with his keyboard section. "It's pretty loose. It's four dorks with MIDI controllers and synths, and then one hovering dork," he says of his presence at the meeting. The players are part of the 15-piece ensemble Deacon has been using for his current tours. Decidedly larger than his previous one-man show, the backing band is a necessary addition to respectfully convey the opaque vision of Bromst, a mountainous work that outstretches anything Deacon has done.
"All of those tracks are much, much more dense and intense, but at the same time they're a lot more fragile. If I were to run them through a crappier PA, they would clip right away, and you'd lose a lot more of the detail and subtlety of the sounds." There's no question that Bromst is an immense undertaking, playing out as a maximal, singular piece rather than a collection of tracks. With the inclusion of live instrumentation like mallets, drums, and keys, Deacon's feral electronics are given a more human, more relatable foil. The album is named after a word Deacon invented for both its guttural sound and lack of meaning. "I wanted a word that didn't have any pre-existent meanings so there wouldn't be like an external context attached to the record, and just something that has a low percussive sound to it, which is what the record is based on."
In many ways, the development of Bromst harkens back to Deacon's early musical exploits. In high school, Deacon discovered his love of the avant-garde when he heard a song by Japanese noise rock godfathers Boredoms on an otherwise bad mix CD. "I had never heard anything like that, growing up in 'homogenized culture-land': Long Island," he recalls. Soon after, Deacon discovered a simple MIDI program for the PC that he describes as a musical version of MS Paint. One of the program's most formative features was the fact that it had extreme limitations; the volume couldn't be controlled, so it had to be affected by layers. "It was ingrained into my head to have static loudness all the time," he recalls. "That's the way I would write, and I could only make something louder by doubling it and I could only make something quieter by taking it away. It's sort of how I started performing a lot of musical ideas."
From there, Deacon's musical education took a more serious turn when he attended the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College in Purchase, New York. Besides the fundamentals of composition, Deacon also learned that he didn't want to stop enjoying music at face value. "I think a lot of the academic nature of 20th century composition was horribly regressive," Deacon says. "It was very innovative at the time, but I think those ideas are no longer relevant."
Using his balance of higher education and half-functional computer software, Deacon developed his solo work into a collection of bizarre dance anthems comprised of complex musical phrasing, something the music nerds and loft party enthusiasts could enjoy equally. He started working on Bromst simultaneously with the much more feasible Spiderman of the Rings, but shelved it due to its expansive nature. "Spiderman of the Rings was the album of practicality," Deacon recalls. "These songs sound good through the minimum of PA equipment. They don't need subs, I just need something that can get loud and has a full frequency response like powered speakers or guitar amps."
The album, a collection of bizarre pop structures and universal party albums, was a massive success, giving Deacon the financial and musical means necessary to complete the more intricate Bromst. "After Spiderman of the Rings came out, I was like 'This is actually working, people like the record!'" Deacon recalls. "I was working on another body of work that was more solo performer party type jams, but the main reason that I started focusing on Bromst was because it was available. As the reality became more real, it was like 'Let's record everything acoustic. Why would we use a bass drum sample when I can record a bass drum?'"
Unfolding with the slow climax of "Build Voice," it's immediately clear that Bromst is a fully realized and cohesive statement. The layers of MIDI eighth notes that comprised Deacon's early work have blossomed into layers of thick synthesizers and classical instrumentation that ebb and flow with the same sonic intensity, allowing for deeper expression and emotional diversity through its expanded palette. While songs like "Red F" and "Baltihorse" maintain the chaotic dance elements of his previous work, they are complimented by the vocal build-up of "Surprise Stefani," the haunting voice samples of "Wet Wings," and the riotous player piano that erupts at the end of "Slow With Horns/Run For Your Life."
A driving force in the album's aural complexity is the fact that it was partially recorded and mixed at Snow Ghost, a recording studio deep in the woodlands of Whitefish, Montana. Besides their top-notch equipment in both the analog and digital fields, the studio allowed Deacon to live his lifelong dream of using a player piano. "I'm really influenced by this composer Conlon Nancarrow, who wrote almost exclusively for the player piano," he says. "Ever since I've heard his stuff I've always wanted to write for player piano, and being out there and seeing the mechanized instrument moving as fast as it possibly can was a lot of fun."
Now, the goal is to bring Bromst's endless studio experiments to the stage without sacrificing the inclusive nature of Deacon's comparatively simpler one-man show. After all, audience participation has been a goal of Deacon's from the beginning. "I wanted to make dance music for people who liked to have a good time but didn't like feeling like they had to dance sexy," he recalls. "I think it's important to make people feel connected to other people, to strangers, and to themselves and the materials they surround themselves with."