Dirty Projectors' David Longstreth on relearning how to write songs

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Dirty Projectors 'Swing Lo Magellan' is out now. ()
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David Longstreth, the self-described musical "dictator" of the experimental rock group Dirty Projectors, was thinking back to the last show they did in support of the Brooklyn band's sixth and, as of then, most highly acclaimed album.

It was December of 2010, and they were in England, at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival.

“Being on one of these depressing British holiday camps in Butlins, in the darkness of December in the U.K., it felt like an ending,” Longstreth said, in a phone interview.

And so there had to be a beginning.

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“I had a completely different set of interests going into making this record," he said. (The record, Swing Lo Magellan, is in stores today, and the band is playing a concert tonight in Prospect Park.) 

"I was obsessed with what a song was, and what the possibilities of language in a song are. I didn’t really think about the idea of making a discrete album—I just started writing these songs.” 

He wrote a lot of them. 

“Every 12 songs or so, I was making rough mixes of them and calling those an album. So there are all those albums the world will never know, at least as they were originally parsed out.” 

There were seven, with joke titles: C.D. Quality, Face Champions, Buddha Interface, Tim Riggins (after the character on "Friday Night Lights": “It was a kind of John Wesley Harding style name,” Longstreth said with a laugh). 

Then he took the 12 best and turned them into Swing Lo Magellan, out today on Domino and easily the most immediately legible—and long-haul enjoyable—album the Dirty Projectors have made. It’s still somewhat jagged—that’s the Dirty Projectors’ M.O. But Magellan is more straightforward, more rocking, maybe more rock, in the classic sense, than anything the band has done. I know people who have real trouble with Longstreth’s use of off-kilter vocal harmonies on his other albums, but here they’re deployed carefully and beautifully, alongside melodies I found myself humming within a couple of plays—and haven't stopped humming since. 

“Every Dirty Projectors album is a world unto itself,” said Longstreth. “This one, I think, turns its back on a lot of the things that Bitte Orca did. Bitte is about these shimmering surfaces, these tapestries of guitar woven together, or these vocal pockets that interact in a [certain] way, or about this certain kind of color spectrum.” 

But of course, while the new record might be in many ways more accessible, it was Bitte Orca that was the band's breakout album and, despite its complexities, it did connect not just with critics, but with fans, elevating the band from an art-rock oddity to an arena-filler (and winning a spot just shy of the top of Pitchfork's top albums of 2009). That kind of positive reinforcement cuts two ways, of course, and Longstreth found himself, when he sat down to compose, running over a lot of the same ideas that yielded Bitte while also feeling they had lost their luster, become overly obvious.

“The first 15 [songs] I wrote were basically Bitte Orca-style,” he admitted, before switching to heavy self-mockery: “Oh, cool, Les Paul riff and big, bombastic snare entrance—you know, that kind of shit. But I wanted to keep on going. There were a lot of songs that I had to write. It wasn’t till I got songs like ‘Irresponsible Tune’ and ‘Dance for You’ and ‘Impregnable Question’ and ‘Offspring Are Blank’ that I got to where I wanted to get…. [A] lot of the music that I've written does that same thing, in that it explores new ideas of arrangement, or even new ideas of organization in terms of writing an album: Exploring the idea of rewriting a Black Flag album from memory”—i.e., 1997’s Rise Above—“or telling a story about Amber [Coffman, Dirty Projectors singer-guitarist] and a pod of whales”—the 2010 Mount Wittenberg Orca, an E.P. collaboration with Björk. 

Still, it's not as though Longstreth was sick of Bitte Orca, its musical ideas, or its complexities. Actually, its very complexities helped to determine the turn his new compositions would take.

“At the end of the touring on Bitte, looking back on all that stuff, I feel really proud of having written that music and of us for having really played awesomely on those tours. But it just like the most different thing to do—in a way the hardest thing to do, maybe the most fulfilling thing—would just be to try to use very simple tools, just say simple things, and just to see whether that would amount to something that was irreducibly personal.” 

It's rare that an artist's intention so closely matches his or her results, but in this case: mission accomplished. Take “Impregnable Question”—a somewhat opaque title for a song whose refrain is, simply, “You’re my love and I want you in my life.” Such a direct, emotionally bare sentiment feels rather distinct from the more tangled, intentionally obtuse uses of language that have appeared on a Dirty Projectors albums before.

“Yeah, exactly!” said Longstreth. “Any one of these songs is a song that I couldn't have written until now. I just got obsessed with this idea of a song, what a song could be, what a song could do, a song without context to the rest of its album or some other kind of cultural touchstone that it builds off of or something like that, completely and without any context, a song by itself, something you could hold in your hand like a little pebble or something, something that had a weight and a shape…. And it felt very dangerous, on so many levels, to write simply.”

When one thinks of the permutations of sound, melody, harmony, and structure that Longstreth has examined through the band's output, that danger seems twofold, both in abandoning experimentation (something that's largely defined the band) and in alienating an audience for whom the knottiness of the songs was the appeal. Yet even if he was aware of the chance he was taking, putting the songs together once written was a relative snap, Longstreth said. 

“To the extent that the songs have inventive arrangements, that's just under my fingers at this point; that's very easy for me to do. And it's kind of incidental on this record. The meat of it is the songs themselves: the melodies, the ideas, the feelings, the language.”

Another openly vulnerable, and openly simple song, “Dance for You,” could be an address to a specific person: "There is an answer/ I haven’t found it/ But I will keep dancing till I do/ uh, uh, uh/ Dance for you." (It also contains my favorite line on the album: “I boogied down gargoyle streets.”) The song could almost be addressed to Dirty Projectors fans, but Longstreth claimed that wasn't the specific intention, and that, uncharacteristically, he wrote the song quite quickly.

“The lyrics for me were a huge, focus … this time. In the past I've always tended to regard lyrics as they can do whatever they need to as long as they don't really get in the way of the music itself…. This time around it's very different. I got obsessed with language. I'd always tended to regard song lyrics as sort of a bastard medium, because they're subjugated under the music. If you were to regard them as poetry it would be bad, embarrassing, confessional poetry—a lot of the lyrics I love. So I came to the idea of writing lyrics with a certain amount of—I don't know if you'd call it disdain, but I just didn't really take them on. I didn't know what to do with them. The prospect of writing some sort of embarrassing fake poetry or something would be mortifying."

What Longstreth ended up with is at times intense, confessional, and raw, but never embarrassing, and that's due in large part to the sort of devotion to songwriting that formerly yielded compositions in dense layers, but now seem to have compacted those layers into something with cleaner lines, fewer digressions, clearer purpose.

"The song is a thing that's not anything else," Longstreth said. "A song isn't a poem. A song isn't a piece of instrumental music. I got obsessed with how you could get the melody and the language working together in this concord and make them do beautiful things together.”

The Dirty Projectors play Prospect Park tonight at 6 p.m. Second photo from top by Jason Frank Rothenberg. Last night's Dirty Projectors show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg is viewable, for a 24 hour period, here.