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Interview: Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors

"It's easy to get on some weird shit... simplicity is the hardest thing."

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Dirty Projectors

Dirty Projectors (Dave Longstreth, in hat)

Jason Frank Rothenberg

Dirty Projectors are the long-running project of Dave Longstreth, a Connecticut-born, Brooklyn-based conceptualist with a fondness for narrative albums, wild thematic notions, and elaborate orchestrations. After recording his early albums almost entirely in isolation, Longstreth showed the grandeur of his ambitions with 2005's The Getty Address, a suite of songs that found Longstreth working with full orchestra, woodwinds, and choir. By 2006, Dirty Projectors had changed radically, becoming a taut four-piece rockband of interwoven, Afro-pop-influence guitars and cascading harmonies courtesy of guitarist Amber Coffman and bassist Angel Deradoorian. Working from a live blueprint, and with outside help from Christopher 'Cant' Taylor of Grizzly Bear as producer, 2007's Rise Above was, Longstreth would see it, about "pushing [him]self into an uncomfortable place." 2009's Bitte Orca proved a huge breakout, and lead to collaborations with David Byrne (on the Dark Was the Night compilation) and Björk (on 2010's Mount Wittenberg Orca). After a quiet 2011, the band returned, in 2012, with Swing Lo Magellan, which was far-and-away Dirty Projectors' most direct and sincere record.

Interview: 30 May 2012

Where other albums went for reinvention, this album feels more like continuation. Do you feel that way?
"I don't, really. To me, this feels like the most radical departure that I've made. And it's a departure of substance, not a flashy one, so I could see what that might bamboozle you. Whereas, in the past, I've always been motivated by an overarching theme, be it a narrative or the kernel of an idea —remaking a Black Flag album from memory, or telling a story about Amber and a pod of whales or a teenaged Don Henley moving through a dreamland America— this one isn't like that. The things I've been most focused on are colors and textures, creating these shimmering tapestries. Maybe with a contrapuntal vocal part, or an interlocking guitar, or a number of guitars that do a very specific thing when in combination. It's always been about these surfaces. But this music is about the song. It's about taking the simplest possible tools —the tools that everyone has, that everyone uses— and using the rules. It's about not disobeying the rules, like I usually do. And seeing if I can say something that feels irreducibly personal even whilst it's simple. That's true in its simplicity, but also not completely fucking stupid."

So it's a radical departure towards simplicity?
"For sure. Because simplicity is the hardest thing. The hardest thing ever. It's easy to get on some weird shit, to go out into this totally abstract territory that doesn't have any meaning at all attached to it, but that's a modernist project. And there's no energy in modernism, anymore; those ideas were radical in another time, but now, at this moment, that just doesn't feel real. It's not real. It's way more daring to just try to do something simple. That's what this record was for me. And that's why it felt like the most radical departure. Because, for me, to make it, it involved trying to forget pretty much everything that I had ever done. That Dirty Projectors has really defined itself as being about. It felt like trying to find a whole new way to make music, so to me that's pretty radically different."

Are you talking about, in some ways, just sincerity?
"Sure."

Is "Impregnable Question" a song that strongly represents these ideas? That certainly feels like one of the sweetest, most straightforward and sincere songs you've ever turned out.
"Yeah. Yeah. It's rare to write a song like that. Well, for me, anyway."

Did that come early in the making of the record, like it almost set the tone for the 'song'-centric way of working?
"No, it came late. It felt like one of the ones I'd been waiting for. In 2010 we did a lot of festival touring around the world, and that left us with these odd chunks of time to do nothing. It feels like there's more energy in just staying on the road all the time, but when you're playing around festivals you don't always get to do that. So in one of these ten-day breaks I went to rural Mexico and hung out on top of a fisherman's house, and wrote some melodies and ate some tortas. And I wrote that melody down there, and I thought that it was something that was very, very tender, this thing that could almost disappear through your fingers, until it was almost nothing. I waited around for the lyrics for it —it seemed hard to write them, and I didn't want to try to hard because I didn't want them to feel forced— and the lyrics came together really quickly one night. It's a very tender song. It's a really personal song."

Did you feel nervous or reticent about being more personal? More direct?
"Yeah, it's hard to do that. Especially that song. The only time I've ever sung that song, 'Impregnable Question,' in my life, was that one time, when we were recording it. That's what that song is. It's not something hardened by constant performances. It's delicate. It definitely has this delicate, gauzy, sobby quality."

How did playing outdoor festivals, and playing bigger stages in general, change how you were as a band, and maybe what you wanted to do with this album?
"Well, when you go on tour for an album for two years, you come away with the feeling that, if you're ever going to do that again, you want to completely possess the material that you give your life to representing on stage. To the extent that other albums I've made have been idea-driven; that was always the goal of it, to wed together these things that are mistakenly thought of as opposites. To use this intense, visceral approach and at the same time have it be very cerebral, and have this intellectual intensity. Most of my stuff seems intoxicated by ideas. But playing the same songs over and over for two years, you come to the realisation that the best music goes so much deeper than any idea the bozo who wrote it had. The best music isn't any smarter than whoever made it."

Did that realisation mean, in some ways, letting go of the creator's ego?
"Yeah, definitely. You've got to relinquish control, and that's scary. Because, it's a vulnerable position to let go of yourself, to let go of the things that you identify as yourself, as an individual, and as an artist. To let go of that and be willing to just hand your fate over to this weird, amorphous energy, it's a weird, vulnerable, tender, dangerous, volatile energy to submit to. It's crazy. Crazy!"

How different do you, then, expect the live shows to be, now the songs are, to you, so different.
"The short answer? I don't know. The long answer? Well, to me Bitte Orca was very much an attempt to create an emblem of the touring band that we had become, through two-and-a-half years of constant touring; almost this caricature of us as a live-band. But this album is very much its own thing, its own proposition. It's not trying to portray this past that is behind us, it very much is pointing the way forward towards a different era. It's really not very evident, to me right now, how it is we're actually going to play these songs live. And that's exciting!"

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