3:22 pm Jan. 18, 2011
In October, I saw the musician Dan Deacon and his ensemble perform at the Ridgewood Masonic Temple in Bushwick.
Deacon has a look: He's six-foot-five, and a little chubby; he's balding with a big messy beard and wears coke-bottle-thick red-rimmed glasses. Like an eccentric uncle. On the other hand he's not yet 30 (birthday's in August) and this evening was dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt with a giant gold-painted image of a Pharaoh.
He was in command of the crew heaping the equipment onto tables on the stage: an electric xylophone, at least three drum sets, an army of synthesizers and an even larger spread of esoteric pedals and signal generators. The set-up is part of the appeal for the crowd that slowly gathers in the run-up to the show.
So when the band began with "Get Older,” with its beginning like a computer glitch (one Pitchfork reviewer wrote of Deacon: "It's like [his] switch got stuck somewhere between 'irritate' and 'captivate' and he decided to never bother fixing it") followed by ambient noise culled from YouTube videos and African tribal drumming, the crowd was ready for its build to something loud and raucous. Then the xylophone chimed in, adding a conversational tone to the percussion lines; layering on another synthesizer created a frenzy in the crowd below. Deacon came in, his vocals distorted into the voice of a great joyful robot, and now it was an ode to the pencil pushers, the ones who finally got that promotion, and the audience was clambering to the front, over each other, to get closer to it.
This is a party song but with an unusual ring underneath—literally—a complexity you don't usually associate with party music.
When Deacon gets his crowd here he starts throwing out orders to them. He asked them to open up a circle in the middle of the floor, and sent a band member out into it. The crowd was told to do what he was doing as the music intensified further; others were ordered to carry battery-powered strobe lights around the dance floor; the resulting fine tuned blasts added another rave quality to the concert. People danced and leapt into the crowd, others hung their legs from the railing and watched.
Above: Video for the song "Get Older" on Spiderman of the Rings.
IT'S THESE KINDS OF THEATRICS, AND THIS WILLINGNESS to put himself completely in the care of his audience, that has won over the indie rock enclaves for Deacon's work brand of performative avant-electro-pop: The live shows have helped to drive his last two albums into the 50– and 25– best albums of 2009 and 2008, respectively, on Pitchfork, and he's been championed by Baltimore locals in the pages of Baltimore City Paper and around these parts in The Village Voice, as well as hip online music outlets like Stereogum and Brooklyn Vegan. (Perhaps less surprisingly: He is much in demand in Europe, at festivals as well as in concert halls.)
But his range is really much greater than that. He's played everywhere from that Masonic temple in Ridgewood to the Whitney Museum of American Art; he's even performed on a local network morning program in Ohio. (Devo and Pere Ubu are ancestral children of The Buckeye State.)
In early February, Deacon will premier his first symphony at the Konrad Centre for the Performing Arts in Ontario, Canada. Recently, he was asked to score the next Francis Ford Coppola film, Twixt Now and Sunrise. And on Thursday night, he's joining Brooklyn's well-respected classical percussion ensemble, Sō Percussion, at Merkin Concert Hall to help ring in the Ecstatic Music Festival there. The piece he will be playing at Merkin Hall is called "Ghostbuster Cook: The Origin of the Riddler."
“I feel like I’m finally turning the faucets a little more so that more music, ideas, and output can come out that aren’t so similar," Deacon said in a telephone interview with Capital. "And I feel like it’ll help my pop music stand out a lot more.”
But is it the classical composition that's meant to propel the pop music, or is it the other way around?
"For the past three years, ever since [2009's Spiderman of the Rings album] came out, it’s been exclusively me playing my pop set," Deacon said. And now, he wants something more, or something different, or both.
It's not that he doesn't understand what his audience has done for him.
"Prior to that I was doing the mixture," he said. "Granted, there was no one coming. So this mixture might as well have been an opera singer and a machine-gun artist; the diversity was pointless.”
DOES IT MATTER WHETHER DEACON MAKES indie or contemporary classical music? One way or another, he is gunning to be the next Steve Reich. And as his pop music has become more densely layered and word of his burgeoning composing career filters out to the Gates Avenue stop on the J-line, more and more writers have thought to mention his "classical training" while describing a Dan Deacon bacchanal.
He started his career at the conservatory at the State University of New York at Purchase. A native of Babylon, L.I., he was within a short distance from home of the Grammy award-winning composer Joel Thome and the composer Dary John Mizelle, himself a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen; Deacon studied with both.
Deacon remembers his career at Purchase as having its controversies—one teacher he remembers calling him narcissitic and young, but that guy was pretty close-minded, Deacon said. Another praised him for his "sincerity," something everyone accuses him of but which hasn't always brought him listeners.
His eclecticism is a big part of all that. And it's not something he's willing to give up.
During his graduate studies Dan Deacon played with new-folk Bonnaroo-festival hero Langhorne Slim and in the grindcore band Rated R, full of the dirty punk subgenre's fast beats and grinding guitars. These days, the two are not necessarily that far from each other on the spectrum of indie rock.
But it was in electro-acoustic and computer music that he completed his graduate studies before moving to Baltimore with a group of likeminded friends that would become Wham City, a 19-person collective that puts on art shows, theater performances, music showcases, books, computer programs, fashion shows, and ultimately put together Whartscape, a four-day festival that's sort of the signature statement of the current Baltimore underground scene, which has attracted national followings for bands like Ponytail, Future Islands, Double Dagger, and The Death Set.
As with a lot of these sorts of groups, the organization is loose but forms tight circles for its intensely produced work. Like the X-Men, says Deacon, bringing life into a metaphor from comics (a favorite pursuit).
“It’s like there are so many people in the X-Men, but who really are the X-Men? And sometimes there is X-Factor or X-Force. You know, we’re just like the mutants.”
During this period Deacon put out his early works of experiments and finally released his full-length breakthrough, Spiderman of the Rings.
He'd already released several albums and E.P.s that chronicled his school projects and sound experiments. But over that time he'd committed to the indie angle, and made a relentless touring schedule and Whartscape his chief pursuit.
Preparing for the next chapter, he's decided to make Whartscape 2010 his last: It had gotten too big and Deacon was forced to spend countless hours working on the preparation for the four days.
“I’ll have very fond memories doing it and I think people will miss it but nothing lasts forever.”
And with Whartscape behind him the time between touring can be spent composing and recording new compositions for groups like Sō Percussion and his ensemble.
"I don’t have the desire for the festival to keep growing," Deacon said. "I want to, you know, start something small again. I want it to have less of an impact on my social, artistic life."
Over coffee in Williamsburg, I sat with Sō Percussionist Jason Treuting, a young man in his mid-thirties who dresses and speaks with a casual sort of professionalism, an almost teacher-like vibe complimented by his blonde beard and baldness.
Treuting studied at the Eastman School of Music before going on to Yale where he met the other members of his group as well as Dave Longstreth of The Dirty Projectors.
“I think he’s interested in the idea that he as an artist can make music in more than one way,” Treuting said.
Deacon had been guarded with me about what to expect at Merkin Hall on Thursday. But it turned out, talking to Treuting, that the performers were planning to be surprised too.
“I don’t think it’s really shrouded in mystery," Treuting said. "We’ve played together before but this is going to be a big push to be the first concert we do as a collaboration. We’re not picturing this as the end result but more like the beginning future thing together.”
“I want to try to be the equivalent of like, I swim in the pool, and I go in the hot tub, and sometimes I just lay in the sand and enjoy the beach,” Deacon had said.
It sounds like a lot of work.