Dirty Projectors are the long-running project of Dave Longstreth. The Brooklyn-based Longstreth synthesizes a huge spectrum of influence —lo-fi, Americana, ethnographic field recordings, West African guitar-pop, and R&B ballads— into a singular sound. After five albums essentially solo, Longstreth settled on a solid line-up for 2007's Rise Above, which Dirty Projectors followed-up with their breakout Bitte Orca LP in 2009.
Longstreth (born 1982) grew up in Southbury, Connecticut, heavily influenced by his elder brother, Jake. When the elder Longstreth left for college, he gave his four-track recorder to his 12-year-old brother. "I didn’t know how to play music, and wasn't even really interested in 'knowing,' but I just loved recording," Dave would later recount.
After reading Ian McDonald's Revolution in the Head —which details every Beatles record ever— Longstreth grew intrigued with the idea of the 'studio as instrument'; an idea that would become a defining Dirty Projectors ideal.
Longstreth didn't play in bands, but was a fervent home-recorder. Attending Yale to study music, he dropped out after spending so much time recording that he rarely attended class. "I hung out with no one," Longstreth recounted, to New York magazine. "If there had been an indie-rock scene, I probably would've hung out with those kids. But there was nothing. In hindsight, I think it was really, really good for me. I got totally introverted."
After dropping out, Longstreth moved in with his brother in Portland, Oregon, and set about recording his first album, 2002's The Graceful Fallen Mango. Though issued under his own name, it's the de facto Dirty Projectors debut; a largely acoustic set in which Longstreth's keen, confident, cracked voice resounds.
Longstreth returned to Connecticut, and knocked out his second LP, 2003's The Glad Fact, which mixed more electronic, 'jazzier' elements into its lo-fi fug. "I attended to things with an amateur’s indifferent cheer," Longstreth would remember. "I was psyched to make my own way through it, psyched to not know what the f**k I was doing."
The Glad Fact found a champion in a young Columbia student named Ezra Koenig, who reviewed it for Dusted, proclaiming proudly: "Dave Longstreth is making his own f**ked-up version of American music."
Koenig and his friend Rostam Batmanglij, the future core of Vampire Weekend, would end up playing in the ad-hoc live-bands Longstreth assembled. "I wasn't at all interested in having a consistent band," explained Longstreth, "I would just write a bunch of songs like 'I'm going to take this on tour once, for this period, and then it's going to be done, and I have absolutely no idea what the next thing I'm going to do is.'"
Over the years, countless musicians blew through Dirty Projectors: Extra Life honcho Charlie Looker, oddball songsmith Spencer Kingman, freak-folk siren Larkin Grimm (who called Dirty Projectors "what happens when an egomaniac tries to control everyone"), White Rainbow cosmonaut Adam Forkner, and Ra Ra Riot frontman Wes Miles.
All the while, Longstreth was furiously finishing a flurry of oft-conceptual records. After 2003's Morning Better Last! cleaned out a backlog of wildly-varied home-taping works, 2004's 'twin EPs' LP, Slaves' Graves and Ballads, was divided into two sections in a study of American folksong; on half with chamber orchestra, the other Longstreth wholly solo.
Longstreth's ever-growing sense of ambition was brought to bear on 2005's The Getty Address, a concept album about environmental degradation that tied in Aztec worship, the American Civil War, and the life of Don Henley into a stoned-seeming narrative. Compositionally, Longstreth cut up recordings of female choirs, wind ensembles, and small orchestras into thousands of pieces, recontextualizing them in pop-songs referencing R&B production ("setting up," Longstreth claimed, "the contrast between the incredibly-compressed, gangster way the percussion and drums are put together, with the spacious quality of the winds.")
Touring behind The Getty Address —with a liveband including Koenig, Batmanglij, Miles, and Forkner — as documented on 2006's New Attitude EP— Longstreth turned an ideological corner. "In the recording, the decay of the sounds themselves was the thing that fascinated me; whereas, live, it’s way more about energy, about however many people there are on stage all doing this thing together," he'd proselytize. So, Dirty Projectors would become a band.
Late in 2006, Longstreth settled on his first-ever settled lineup: girlfriend Amber Coffman on guitar/vocals, Angel Deradoorian on bass/vocals, Brian McOmber on drums. Working with frenetic, interlocking guitars and cascading three-part harmonies, the quartet became a dynamic, virtuoso combo. This 'band' sound was captured on Rise Above, a concept LP based on a Longstreth's fantastical attempt to "rewrite Black Flag's album Damaged from memory"; not, he explained to The Stranger, by listening to the LP, but by "trying to access the memory crystals stored from when I loved it back in middle school."
Making the 'band' album, Longstreth ceded more control, recruiting Christopher Taylor of Grizzly Bear to record it, the first time he'd ever let anyone else do so. "I was really pushing myself into an uncomfortable place," Longstreth surmised. "I didn’t, to be honest, hand over control particularly well."
Longstreth again took recording reigns for the seventh Dirty Projectors LP, but, this time, he tailored the songs specifically for his band-mates; include lead vocal turns for Deradoorian and Coffman. The latter's star-turn on the astonishing, futurist-soul single "Stillness is the Move" proved huge; the song priming the album, 2009's Bitte Orca, for breakout status.
By the end of 2009, Dirty Projectors had collaborated with David Byrne (on the Dark Was the Night compile), Björk, and Solange Knowles (both live), and Bitte Orca ended up on seemingly every best-of-2009 list.
In 2010, their collaboration with Björk was released. Initially written for one-off live performance, Mount Wittenberg Orca was made a record, and released digitally, with all proceeds benefitting marine-life charities. The 21-minute suite was a set of songs charting the journey of a whale pod.
2012's Swing Lo Magellan confirmed Dirty Projectors place as indie powerhouse. The set carried a directness and sincerity that was new to the band. "It's about taking the simplest possible tools —the tools that everyone has, that everyone uses— and using the rules," Longstreth explained, of the album, "and seeing if I can say something that feels irreducibly personal even whilst it's simple."