Dirty Projectors Through the Years: A Spectrum of Sound, But a Singular Vision

Dirty Projectors Through the Years: A Spectrum of Sound, But a Singular Vision
Photo: Jason Frank Rothenberg
There's no easy way to describe Dirty Projectors. Indie rock, R&B, punk, West African music, glitch — no single genre, song or even album can encapsulate the totality of stylistic fusions nomadic singer, guitarist and sole consistent member David Longstreth has in play at any one time. Even their lineup remains an ever-shifting beast, and with it, the band's sound. As New York magazine put it in 2009, since he started releasing his lo-fi home recordings for public consumption, the Dirty Projectors name has "stood for whatever music David Longstreth was making, wherever he happened to be, with whoever was at arm's length." The one constant across the band's decade-and-a-half in existence is Longstreth's willingness to reinvent it. "We're not one of these bands that does one thing sublimely well over and over and over again," he told Pitchfork in 2012. "It's about taking risks, and with all the glory and hideous failure that that entails." With the Dirty Projector's latest reinvention, Lamp Lit Prose, due July 13, we take a look back at the iconoclastic career of David Longstreth.
1981 to 2001
David Longstreth is born in Southbury, CT; his parents moved from California to start an organic farm. David and his older brother Jake are described in a 2009 New York magazine article as "the kind of kids who preferred to make stuff in the backyard than watch television." Jake introduces David to bands like Fugazi and Minor Threat, as well as Pavement and Guided By Voices. With them came the politics and ethics of DIY. "Punk, I totally related to," David will tell Whole Music Club in 2009. "It required a conversion and a pilgrimage to it."
When Jake heads off to college, he leaves his Tascam 424 four-track behind; armed with the primitive recorder and Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head, an analysis of every song the Beatles recorded, Longstreth begins writing and documenting his own music.
David attends Yale but drops out midway through his sophomore year and follows Jake to Portland, OR, where he discovers the city's potent music community.
2002 to 2003
Longstreth amasses a wealth of recordings and compiles some onto the 15-song album, The Graceful Fallen Mango, which is released under his own name on This Heart Plays Records. Only 500 copies are pressed. He begins playing live shows, sharing stages with local groups like the Microphones. In the fall, he heads out on tour with K Records' band Yume Bitsu. After, he re-enrols at Yale to finish his degree ("It would have been a cop-out not to finish," he'll tell The Guardian in 2009), but keeps making and releasing music.
Morning Better Last, released online in 2003, collects a trio of tapes that he describes to The Stranger as "1/40th of a whole bunch of four-track recordings I made in 2002." Lo-fi and scattershot, it nevertheless showcases many of the elements that would later make up Longstreth's core sound. The Glad Fact is recorded with Yume Bitsu's Adam Forkner and arrives in November on Western Vinyl. Featuring a sketched drawing of a naked man on the cover, it's the first release to bear the Dirty Projectors name. In their 2004 review, Pitchfork calls Longstreth a "nobrow genius," later clarifying, "the unhinged, half-formed kind who sometimes overconceives and overexecutes (see Phil Elvrum)."
After playing a solo gig at a San Diego ice cream parlour, he meets 22-year-old singer Amber Coffman. Speaking with the San Diego Union Tribune in 2009, she'll call the show an "artistic epiphany." Another earlier admirer is future Dirty Projector touring player and Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig, who, in what he says is his only published music review, describes the record as "Dave Longstreth making his own fucked-up version of American music."
Slaves' Graves and Ballads combines two drastically different sessions that had previously been circulated separately. Recorded in a chapel in New Haven, CT in December of 2002, Slaves' Graves sees Longstreth backed by a chamber orchestra called the Orchestral Society for the Preservation of the Orchestra. Ballads was recorded a few months earlier at both Dub Narcotic Studios in Olympia, WA and Southbury. Giving the record an 8.1, Pitchfork notes that "as dour and gray as the record may occasionally get, it's impossible to be sullen by music so boundlessly visceral."
In April, Longstreth releases The Getty Address a "glitch opera" about Eagles co-founder Don Henley wandering through a dystopian, post-9/11 America, with nods to Aztec cosmology. Its origins date back to his sophomore year at Yale. Longstreth records over 25 musicians for the project, chopping up pieces of orchestral and choral tracks, then overlaying his voice, guitar and whatever other instruments suit his fancy. Though its narrative is confounding, it nevertheless is championed by many music critics and gives Dirty Projectors their most widespread exposure to date. In 2009, Consequence of Sound ranks The Getty Address as the number one concept album of all time, ahead of records by David Bowie, John Coltrane and Dr. Octagon.
After touring behind The Getty Address, Longstreth moves to New York. "There's just a culture of getting stuff done here," he tells New York magazine. He rents practice space in an old warehouse, living under the basement stairs free of charge. He later moves into a brownstone on Halsey Street in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighbourhood. The house comes with a leaky roof, a basement that floods and eight roommates, including Koenig, Phosphorescent's Matthew Houck and Ra Ra Riot's Wes Miles.
In March, Dirty Projectors play South-by-Southwest, where he reconnects with Coffman, now a guitarist with San Diego's Sleeping People. In September, Sleeping People play a gig at the Bowery Ballroom; this may or may not one that Longstreth later immortalizes as the night he and Coffman meet in 2017's "Up on Hudson." The two are soon an item and she moves into the Halsey house, leaving Sleeping People and joining Dirty Projectors.
Longstreth latches onto a new, left-field project: recreating the sensation of listening to Black Flag's classic LP Damaged — a song-for-song tribute, even though he hadn't listened to the original in over a decade. He rehearses the core group of himself, Coffman, Baldwin and drummer Brian McOmber incessantly. "I never worked on anything so hard in my life," Coffman tells New York. They record in the basement of their house — credited as the Flavorzone — with Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor producing, in December and January.
The New Attitude EP, initially a tour-only offering, is released on Portland, OR's Marriage Records in November. Though it's a grab-bag of Longstreth's orchestral compositions and more guitar- and voice-based numbers (plus a live track), it sees Longstreth increasingly synthesizing his divergent musical interests.
Black Flag tribute project Rise Above is released in September on Dead Oceans; the sheer temerity of the project guarantees word of mouth notoriety, which is buoyed by positive reviews. Angel Deradoorian joins the band as they hit the road, for the first time presented as a full-fledged group, rather than just Longstreth and whoever happens to be available.
Dirty Projectors sign to Domino Records in April. As the band begin work on their next album, Haley Dekle joins the band, which is now a sextet. "With a six-piece band with four singers, you can get all the colours — keyboard layers, percussion, signing, guitar interactions," Longstreth will tell Exclaim! "It's the most compact version of an ensemble that can render the kind of arrangements that I make really well."
The band record "Knotty Pine" with David Byrne, which appears on the Red Hot Organization compilation Dark Was the Night, released in February. In May, the band collaborate with Björk to write a musical suite and perform it at a benefit concert for the Housing Works non-profit organization in Manhattan.
Bitte Orca is released in June. It's the first Dirty Projectors album written with the entire band in mind. Longstreth even writes a song each for Coffman and Deradoorian to sing lead. "Bitte Orca was about making an emblem of the touring band that we had become, and creating this caricature out of our individual personas," he'll tell Pitchfork in 2012. The record is a critical smash, ranking high on many year-end lists; it also cracks the Billboard 200 — their first release to do so — peaking at number 65 and spending five weeks on the chart. A video is shot for "Stillness is the Move" co-written by Coffman, on which she also sings lead vocals; it's inspired by the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire. It becomes the band's breakout, with many critics describing it as indie rock Mariah Carey; Rolling Stone will later ranks it as the 85th best song of the decade.
2010 to 2011
In April 2010, the band and Björk record Mount Wittenberg Orca, their collaboration from the previous year, at the Rare Book Room in Brooklyn. It's released digitally in June, with proceeds going to National Geographic Society Oceans Initiatives. "[Longstreth] has an almost psychic ability to write for other voices" Björk will tell The Guardian in 2012.
In January 2011, Longstreth moves into a supposedly haunted house alone in Delaware County, NY. "I was building fires in the wood stove and using New York Times papers from 1994 as kindling," he tells Spin. In June, the rest of the band joins him for a week — the first time they've seen each other in months. They spend the rest of the year recording some of his 50 new songs in fits and starts, in a more live-off-the-floor manner than usual. Notably absent is Deradoorian, who amicably bows out.
Swing Lo Magellan is released in July; it's a more songs-focused package, with no overarching theme. Longstreth's influences on the record remain eclectic, but it feels slightly removed from the indie-R&B hybrid that propelled Bitte Orca. "You could call it more basic and conventional, but that's the challenge: If I just focus on the most straight-up shit, is there something there, or is it just a brightly coloured cloud? To me, it feels like a risk to have done that," he tells Pitchfork. Reviews are positive and it's featured on many year-end lists and is nominated for a Grammy for Best Recording Package. Despite positive reviews, the record is not the commercial success Longstreth had hoped for. Unbeknownst to most fans, Coffman and Longstreth break up around the time of the record's release, but nevertheless, spend most of the rest of the year on tour.
Longstreth moves to Los Angeles and builds his own studio in a former cabinet builder's shop on the east side of town. It's named Ivo Shandor, after a fictional architect from Ghostbusters, Longstreth's favourite movie. His brother, now a painter, already lives there and he begins dating an artist's liaison at a local gallery, gaining him entry into local artist circles. "I have all this music to write and the world that I have in L.A. is ideally set up for me to bring it into the world," he says. Still, old habits die hard: Longstreth admits that the studio has made him "pretty insular."
2015 to 2016
He and Coffman begin work on her solo debut. "It was a good thing for our friendship, to reverse the roles we'd played in Dirty Projectors," he'll tell The New York Times two years later. The album is finished by the end of 2015 and the two stop speaking for an undisclosed reason.
Longstreth is invited to a musical incubator session at Kanye West's Los Angeles mansion, along with French Montana and the Weeknd. West then invites him, Koenig, Rhymefest and Big Sean to a rented mansion in Mexico owned by Girls Gone Wild creator Joe Francis, where West is working on what will become The Life of Pablo. Longstreth writes the organ part used as the bridge on "FourFiveSeconds," a song featuring Paul McCartney that West gives to Rihanna.
In September 2016, Solange releases A Seat at the Table, featuring six Longstreth co-productions.
Dirty Projectors arrives in February. Though press releases bill the album as an autobiographical breakup album, in interviews Longstreth oscillates from coy to dismissive about parallels between its lyrics and his relationship with Coffman. "The album doesn't aim to do anything more than just make a series of emotional states or worlds," he tells Exclaim!, while telling The New York Times that the record is "not a journal."
Abandoning Swing Lo Magellan's more pastoral musical palette, the beat-heavy album updates the cut-and-paste aesthetic of The Getty Address. Though guitars appear on almost half the record's songs, for the most part they are not the musical driving force. "I just couldn't really figure out the guitar. I didn't have anything to say on [it]."
In March, Coffman releases a statement about her split with both Longstreth and Dirty Projectors. "I consider it a loss to no longer be involved with Dirty Projectors, but ultimately walking away was the only healthy choice for me." Her solo debut, City of No Reply, is released in June. Though rooted in R&B, the record has a laidback West coast singer-songwriter vibe that makes it something of a departure from her work with Dirty Projectors. Though it was produced and co-written by Longstreth, the two are apparently no longer speaking.
Dirty Projectors play "Cool Your Heart" on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in May, but do not tour; they play only two shows in support of the new record. "When you do the cycle that touring bands do, when it's finally time to make some more songs, you're just kind of like, 'Oh God, whatever that was, I've got to do the complete opposite,'" he says. "Because I didn't go on tour, I didn't have that angst about it. It freed me to be in a place of just building on what I know and what I love."
Lamp Lit Prose is released on July 13. "It synthesizes a lot of the different musical threads that I've been working on for a long time," says Longstreth, "whether it's the guitar stuff or the beat-making, or the string and brass arrangements, the ways vocals are used, it's kind of pulling them all together." Its cover once again juxtaposes interconnected red and blue spheres, this time with a glass sculpture. Recorded by Longstreth in his Los Angeles studio, it features guest appearances from Syd, Rostam, Haim, Empress Of, Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes and Amber Mark.
"Lamp Lit Prose is really about feeling hope again," he says, "finding the things that give us hope, that make us feel optimistic and joyful."
Essential Dirty Projectors
The Getty Address (Western Vinyl, 2005)
Its narrative is too convoluted for all but the most dedicated, but the sheer scope of this "glitch opera" is staggering, sharing more with Philip Glass than indie rock. That Longstreth manages to pull the whole thing off — on an indie budget no less — remains a towering achievement.
Bitte Orca (Domino, 2009)
This is where all of Longstreth's disparate influences came together. Indie rock, West African guitar and R&B commingle in ways previously unimaginable, creating a record with few peers and many admirers. Buoyed by one of the century's best singles, Bitte Orca rightfully catapulted the group to the upper echelons.
Dirty Projectors (Domino, 2017)
Longstreth has spent his entire career hiding behind heady themes and clever conceits, so this semi-autobiographical record documenting the end of his relationship with Coffman is as illuminating as we're likely to get. That he paired introspection with his usual flair for sonic experimentation and pop-minded accessibility is a bonus.