Arts & Culture

Q&A with Dan Deacon

We talk to the Baltimore electronic artist about his new album, Gliss Riffer.

With the upcoming release of a new, ambitious album (out February 24 via Domino Records and now streaming via NPR), Dan Deacon talks touring with Arcade Fire, being inspired by Bob Dylan and Bill Murray, and the importance of learning to relax.

So tell me, what does Gliss Riffer mean?
[Laughs.] I get that question a lot. “Gliss” is a musical term, short for glissando, which is Italian for “to slide,” like when someone runs their hand up and down a piano. And “riffer” is like someone riffing or doing a solo on the guitar. So “gliss riffer,” I was imagining this character that only plays these sliding, riffing lines, but it was more that I just like the way those two words look and sound together.

You started writing the album in the spring of 2013 and recorded it in 2014, but what inspired you in the first place?
Writing music is kind of my main hobby, so I’m doing it all the time, but I wanted to make music alone again. It had been a long time since I’d made a record by myself. Everything since like 2006 with Spiderman of the Rings had been working with other people, or engineers, or performers.

Yeah, you had some 30 musicians on your last record, America.
There were a lot of people. But, yeah, I was on tour in Europe, in the back of the bus trying to not lose my mind and working on these songs, and I started thinking, wow, this doesn’t need strings or trumpets. I had become so obsessed with acoustic instruments on my previous albums that I forgot how much fun it was to make music with a computer. Plus, I had a studio space in Station North and wanted to utilize it, as both an instrument and a workspace. It was probably the most fun I ever had making a record. I hated finishing it but I knew it was done.

I had a similar feeling listening to it. I didn’t want it to stop. Especially the vocal-heavy tracks, which is kind of a new thing for you.
I did this show for the closing of 285 Kent in Brooklyn. I had a pretty nasty cold but I did it anyways and everyone was smoking and I was screaming and I lost my voice pretty bad. I’d lost it before but this was different. It wasn’t coming back and kept getting worse until I couldn’t even talk.

Luckily, I had just gotten health insurance—thanks Obama!
so I went to the doctor. I didn’t have any permanent damage but I really screwed it up and it got me thinking about the voice as an instrument that expires. It’s going to go away. You listen to Elton John now compared to Elton John in the ’70s and it’s a different Elton John. I never really used my voice as a voice. I always used it as source material to process and make as foreign as possible. So with this record, I wanted to focus on it, because I’m not going to have it forever. I’m not going to be crooning out tunes in my 60s.

There are so many different voices on these tracks. It blows my mind that all of them are yours, even the female ones.
I used this technique where I record the music slower but sing it regularly and then speed it up, but not to an extreme level. The Beatles used to do it to make their voices sound slightly different or to hit harmonies they couldn’t normally hit.

I imagine it takes a while to get each voice, and even more so, each song just right. Was it hard to find that kind of time while touring with Arcade Fire this past fall?
I was planning to record all of August, because I wasn’t expecting to get that gig, but when I got the offer, there was no way I could turn it down. But I didn’t want to stop recording and lose all the momentum I’d gained, so when we were on tour, each night after I played, I’d go back to the hotel, slowly dismantle the bathroom, and turn it into a control room. I’d take the vents off and shove towels in them. I’d ask for as many extra pillows and blankets as I could get and cover all the hard surfaces so there wasn’t a lot of refraction. To diffuse the sound as best as possible. I made it a little isolation booth.

The hotel’s like, “What’s up with this guy…?”
Luckily they never knew till I left. [Laughs.] I mean, I would reassemble it.

There were a few tracks where I heard a hint of Arcade Fire. Do you feel like your time with the band influenced this album? It would be impossible to say it didn’t. Whenever you’re on tour with someone, you merge ever so slightly. You’re hearing the same set of music every night for a month, so you have a much different relationship with it by the end than you did at the beginning. I remember how different everyone sounded after the Baltimore round robin tour we did [with 29 local bands, including Beach House, Future Islands, Ed Schrader, etc.].

Whatever your influences, the lyrics feel rather personal.
It’s really track-by-track. They’re much more important in some than they are in others. I was listening to Ys by Joanna Newsom and Bringing It All Back Home by [Bob] Dylan and realized they were both telling these stories—these sort of surreal stories that don’t make any sense but make perfect sense, you know what I mean? And I thought I’d really like to do that. The song that is most representative of me, lyrically, is “When I Was Done Dying.” In my mind, that song stands out. It’s different from the rest, but it’s my favorite track on the record.

They seem to address such grand, perplexing topics: life, growing old, the uncertainty and fear that circles those things.
America was a larger reflection upon where I exist within the context of the United States and our culture. Gliss Riffer as a whole is much more personal. It’s me exposing myself, figuring out the root of my anxieties, and who or what the hell is going on inside of my own brain.

What made you want to delve inward that way?
I used to really struggle with stress addiction, where I liked to do the most logistically impractical things, like adding 20 people to my band and touring on a bus that runs on garbage, just to create situations that were impossible. I thought if I can do the impossible, then I can do anything, and that became the goal. I was addicted to the stress and the adrenaline and not even appreciating what I get to do, and that resulted in a lot of anxiety and confusion about my work.

And so you decided to tackle that head on?
I made a conscious decision. I scaled back, but I also took everything on myself. Now I was the only ears listening. I was so used to having other people in the room, telling me if it was a good take or we should keep it, but now I had to make all the decisions. And what if it sucks?

Luckily, my friend Eric Hatch who runs the Maryland Film Festival shared this
Bill Murray clip about how you’re the best at what you do when you’re as relaxed as you can possibly be. I saw it during the process of mixing the record and it blew my mind. It changed my whole perspective on the way I work and perform and it brought the album to another place.

Now I see where the track “Learning to Relax” came from. Doing so allows you to just breathe, which in turn allows things to both rush in and out.
Exactly. I used to approach every project like it was a building on fire and I was trying to like get out of it, and now I’m like well, why don’t we just put out the fire?

The album is still ambitious, but there’s this new simplicity that makes it just so…pretty.
I’m glad it comes through.

Well you should probably just revel in this moment for a while, but any big plans for what’s next?
It’s hard to say. I’m going to be on tour for the next nine months and all you can do when you’re on tour, since like six hours of your day is sitting in some sort of vehicle, is sit there and think. I’ll probably come back with a slew of ideas and if I can achieve one of them, I’ll be very happy.

And hopefully we’ll see you in Baltimore?
Oh, definitely.