Oct 30, 2012

Dan Deacon on smartphones, classical music, and America

Electronic artist’s latest album celebrates home country; plans for live shows include technological fanfare

Zoe Power

Dan Deacon on smartphones, classical music, and America
Dan Deacon’s latest delves into exploration and discovery. (www.reeperbahn.com)

When I finally reach Dan Deacon after a frustrating number of dropped calls, he apologizes for the poor reception, and tells me, in high spirits, that he’s “somewhere rural.”

Deacon is currently traversing North America in support of his third album, and Domino Records debut, America. As the title suggests, the album deals with land and landscape—in particular, with travel, including jaunts to the frontiers of mobile reception.

America is inspired by the sweeping scope and immense diversity of the country Deacon calls home. Its very name possesses, according to the album’s press release, “an infinite range of connotations, both positive and negative.”

Deacon, moreover, appreciates the novel aspects that touring across the country brings to his music.

“Travelling with new people, and some people who haven’t travelled before, brings a newness and a freshness to it,” says Deacon; the experience has only reinforced his ideas about the diversity of the land.

This freshness, and its consequent broadening of horizons, seems to be a recurring theme for both the man and the album. Indeed, a good deal of media attention has focused on the changes evident in America, a record which moves away from the energy-charged pop intensity of Deacon’s hit debut Spiderman of the Rings. The changes, however, are less drastic than critics may suggest.

Sophomore record Bromst (2009), while lacking the amount of song-suite-epicness in this latest offering, marks an indubitable transition from the pop ecstasy of former days. Deacon began work on America as soon as Bromst was finished, and shows have featured material from America for quite some time.

The live performances, however, won’t differ too much from what fans have come to expect.

“There’s largely the same energy to the show,” says Deacon. “It’ll be pretty sweaty… people dance quite a bit.”

The break between Deacon’s last two releases can, in large part, be attributed to the fact that he’s been rather busy. His diversions have included scoring Francis Ford Coppola’s Twixt, and several classical music projects, including two compositions which were performed at Carnegie Hall earlier this year.

“They changed the way I think about sounds, instruments, music … they definitely had a big influence,” Deacon says of his side projects. He has a real interest in working with different media, wanting “to try as many different forms as possible … they all have their own forms, settings, contexts.”

When it comes to working with someone else’s vision, such as during the Coppola project, Deacon is amazingly positive—perhaps surprisingly so, for a man who custom-built a recording space for one of America’s tracks to ensure full creative control.

“It’s always nice to work within limits,” he says. “It gives you something to push the boundaries of.”

This penchant for experimentation is not limited to Deacon’s lesser known projects. Audiences on his present tour will be treated to some Deacon-style performance innovation, such as his concert mobile app.

“If you think about [smartphones as] lights and speakers …you can synchronize and utilize those in a way that adds to the performance,” says Deacon.

Having just last week been implored by Dan Mangan to “all put away our phones and just be here,” I can’t help but comment to Deacon that his embrace of smartphones runs counter to the impatience and frustration many other artists express.

His response is that the app “changes the way that people think about the phone. That’s what I like about it. It’s no longer about the individual phone … Our app is deliberately not interesting if you use it by yourself. You can’t really use it by yourself, you have to use it at a show … it needs a critical mass of people to make it work, to make it exciting.”

This latest experiment certainly should be; it’s the latest in a long line of crowd-participation techniques from a man who’s long been known for the unified energy and synchronized dancing of his live shows—Deacon even performed earlier this year to energize crowds at the Occupy protests. This current tour is just the beginning—he is “still figuring out how it all works” this time around, but already looking ahead to writing music specifically to be used with the app in the future.

But where does this interest in getting folks involved come from? “Ah… I don’t know… I think it’s just a weird neurosis that I have,” Deacon replies.

Whatever the source of his talent, working up a crowd is something which the man has mastered. Deacon’s tour hits Montreal on November 10, and a fantastic time is all but guaranteed.

For those who don’t have a smartphone, fret not.

“It sounds cheesy,” Deacon admits, “but the light literally shines on us all… we don’t all need to have the phone.”

Of the show itself, Deacon says, “it’s better to go with an open mind and with no expectations, people might have a better time that way.”

Dan Deacon plays on November 10 at the SAT (1201 Boulevard Saint-Laurent.) Tickets are $17 advance, $20 at the door.

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