Arts & Culture
Dan Deacon Makes the City’s Next Great Masterpiece
We talk with the electronic musician about fear, friendship, and his mindful new album.
Over the past 15 years, electronic artist Dan Deacon has become one of the most important figures of the Baltimore music scene, putting the city’s DIY spirit on the national map and cementing himself as its resident mad genius maestro along the way.
In many ways, the classically trained artist’s new album, Mystic Familiar, out January 31, feels like the Dan Deacon album we’ve all been waiting for. Of course, it’s been a long time in the making—after four other acclaimed, cult-followed records, as well as multiple short and feature film scores, and collaborations with renowned symphonies and ballets—maybe even, you might wonder upon first full listen, his entire life.
Simply put, this new, fifth feat is a sort of magnum opus—11 climbing, cascading, all-consuming songs that sweep your senses, tug at your heartstrings, and tap on your inner psyche. Fusing his signature merry-prankster chaos with newfound practices of meditation and mindfulness, Deacon creates a symphonic window into the pivotal moments that takes place as we get older, and at the midpoint of an artist’s career, particularly in these strange, modern times. With vocals at the forefront, he appears more open and vulnerable than ever before, each melody shifting through myriad emotions, and imaginative lyrics that take us through ruminations on life, death, age, time. A record of self-discovery, best listened to as a whole, it is a deeply human epic, even in its digital clothes. He fights fear, doubt, and darkness, and finds a luminous sense of hope.
To many, this will be the moment that Deacon officially arrives. In Baltimore, we’ve known that this sort of masterful artistry has been here all along.
We sat down with Dan to talk about his new album, and how he got there:
You once told us a great analogy, comparing the creation of an album to growing a tomato. That first, you put seeds in the soil, then water and feed the seedlings, and eventually, a plant grows, and a tomato forms, and then you pick the fruit, and hopefully share it with your friends. With Mystic Familiar, what was the seed?
I wanted to make an album. I’d been writing so much music for other projects: scores, commissions, co-writing with Ed Schrader’s Music Beat. I loved the collaboration, but I also really needed to write music that was mine. I found myself starting to feel the need to write new, for lack of a better term, “Dan Deacon” songs. Then, of course, I was like I’m all alone, as I had really grown accustomed to it. When I was the only one in the studio, there was a lot of doubt, and it took a lot to regain that confidence, which is why I think it took four years [since Gliss Riffer in 2015]. It took a long time to set my intentions. I used these extremely esoteric Oblique Strategies cards from Brian Eno…
Like tarot for artists?
Very much, but they really did help. And meditating helped a lot. I’d try to start each session by meditating. Then I’d start thinking, well, did this session start with my intention to meditate, or the moment I hit the chord? And I record in my house, so I was like did the session ever end? Is it still going? Because you’re thinking about the record all the time. It became very consuming, and that’s what I loved about it. But like anything, you have to be able to walk away.
You did end up collaborating with many artists on this record, like much of your past work. What was that like this time around?
I wanted to engineer and produce this record by myself, but I don’t know if I’ll ever do that solo again, because there was a lot of inefficiency. You can grow too attached, and to a negative idea, like this isn’t good enough. Time is finite, so having another set of ears in the room is important to be like, no, it’s good, let’s move on. And I like the ideas that other musicians bring. They can completely change and shift a song. There are a couple longtime collaborators on this album, especially Andrew Bernstein.
Were you the maestro, or did these arrangements stem out of improvisation?
Both. I wanted specific instruments and textures, but when I score film, I put together ensembles and bring them into the studio like, okay, let’s only play these four notes, and only play them frantically, or forlorn. Or, okay, now, everyone except for this instrument, or this one do a solo, or only play when another instrument plays—these kind of Fluxus concepts I was obsessed with in college. You essentially create this large sample bank or library, which is fun for the players because the options are endless, there’s no way to make a mistake. That’s the beauty of collaborating. I go tubing a lot, so I think about that with music. You don’t know where the river is going to go. You’re flowing one way, and then you bring in someone else’s tributary, and it completely changes the direction. And then when you’ve archived 200 channels…
How do you finally decide which way to go?
You start to hear it. You take something out and you long to hear it again. You add something, and it feels like a flavor that hasn’t merged, so you take it out. Sometimes it takes hundreds of listens to find the one you like the most. You could paint a room in your house over and over, but eventually you have to decide, this is the color. And once you do, you can start decorating it. Form was the hardest part, but I think because of editing film scores, I was able to see that less can be more.
Did those film scores seep into the music in other ways?
They 100 percent bled in. It felt like when I had studio members in Wham City. Their projects would influence mine, and all of my collaborations started to influence this new record. There’s no way that Rat Film or Ed Schrader’s Music Beat or Mind On Fire or the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performance aren’t in it. If it was a garden, the rows of crops would be interwoven and chaos.
Speaking of the BSO, this album has such an epic, symphonic sound to it. Was that part of the idea?
I like a big sound, and I like the idea of playing with a lot of musicians. I think that’s why I do so much audience participation, because I usually play solo, but it creates this theatrical environment, and justifies the reason to have a stage. I wanted to make sure the record’s sound had that quality, but I didn’t want it to just be big, layered electronics. I wanted to think about it like sections of an orchestra. A percussion section, a brass section, strings. And I knew, with “Become A Mountain,” I wanted to start the record with solo voice and piano. I’m known as an electronic artist, but I don’t make EDM and I don’t make indie rock and the genre of “indie-tronica” makes sense to no one. I’d never made a piece of music that was completely acoustic before, but I was feeling really vulnerable, and going through a big period of becoming more in-tune with my own mental health, so I thought I should embrace that in the arrangement.
What is a “mystic familiar”?
The first time I heard the phrase was with [friend and illustrator] Kevin Sherry. He’d been designing his board game, Scales & Tales, and I like playing tabletop board games, especially Cave Evil. A familiar is a magical entity that a person can communicate with, like Merlin’s owl, or the cat in Sabrina The Teenage Witch. A mystic familiar can cast spells, or transport itself. That idea started shaping the lyrics.
Often when I’m in the woods or meditating, I like to ask a tree a question. Most people, myself included, think about nature as this very stoic and reverent entity. But really, if you’re going to attribute human qualities to nonhuman things, I think there are also going to be dickheads. They’re going to challenge you. Like one time, I asked this tree, what should I do…, and it was sort of mockingly like, what should I doooo. And I was like what! [Laughs.] But the tree was like, why do you think you could even ask me that, let alone that I would give you the answer. I think trees are ancient and wise, but if there’s anything that comes with wisdom, it’s a good sense of humor. I kept thinking about that, and whenever I’d have challenging thoughts, I’d go to a tree and try to imagine it being more like a jester than a sage.
Is the record meant to be listened to in full?
It’s like a forest, in that you can walk through and see the entire woods, or you can look at one tree. “Sat By A Tree” is the single, and it frames how people listen to the record, but in my mind, when they first hear “Become A Mountain,” that’s how it should be listened to. Lyrically, there’s definitely an arch. I start by talking about waking up and already feeling depressed and a sense of doubt. Am I going to seize the day, or waste it scrolling on my phone? That was literally the dialogue I was having myself at the time. Then trying to work through that, and finding ways to deal with it—some healthy, some insane. “Bumblebee Crown King” is a credits-rolling epilogue.
Your music is rooted in digital technologies, but your lyrics are very human. What has that writing process been like for you?
I used to not be a very lyrical listener—on Spiderman of the Rings, half the lyrics are gibberish—but I became one toward the end of Gliss Riffer. I got a lot of emails about “When I Was Done Dying” from people who talked about how that song helped them process the loss of friends and family members. It was very heavy, it makes me emotional to think about. But I started thinking about, not the responsibility, but the opportunity of lyrics, to speak to people. One of the only good things about social media is that it gives people the ability to know that other people feel bad and anxious a lot, too, and it’s okay to feel those things, and you don’t have to feel bad about feeling those feelings. There’s a vulnerability to talking about things like that, but being an artist is to be vulnerable. Embracing that made it a little bit easier.
Recurring themes seem to delve in the likes of life, death, age, time.
Since Bromst, I’ve felt that I can’t just write more candy. I love candy, but I want to write meals. I want to make music that you can savor.
There are places on this album that feel akin to the guided meditations you lead your fans through during your live shows. Was that intentional?
I don’t think I’m the right person to ask. The music is for me to make, but it’s not for me to listen to. I didn’t really even realize those were meditations until someone told me. I had thought I couldn’t meditate; I’m a little scatterbrained, frantically pinging between a million things. But I had started to do these visualizations during my sets and eventually I found myself thinking, maybe these are meditations. Like, I can meditate, I do meditate, I am meditate! It’s a practice, and it’s okay to be bad at it at first. There were a lot of self-discoveries—realizations, relationships ending, changing, growing—in the process of this record.
How do you not get mired in those sorts of feelings of doubt now?
I definitely still do, but the weather always changes. You can’t force it to be a certain way. Even if it’s raining every day for a week, it’s going to get sunny at some point. I try to think about even when I’m happy—I will not be happy forever—so when I’m feeling down or anxious or mentally lost, it’s good to know these feelings will pass. I don’t know when or how, but when I stop putting the pressure on myself to stop feeling that way, it tends to be easier. If it’s cold outside, you can’t will it to be hot. You put on a coat. So find whatever coat you can wrap around your brain, whatever self-care you can do. And in regard to doubt, you just have to trust yourself. And if you have peers or friends and you can ask and trust their opinion, do.
The record ends with a similar sense of hope.
I wanted it to feel like opening your eyes after they’ve been shut for a while. Certain things coming into focus, while other thoughts drift out.