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Dan Deacon’s America

The godfather of Baltimore’s arts renaissance goes national

Photo: Photograph By Josh Sisk, License: N/A

Photograph By Josh Sisk

Photo: Evan Serpick, License: N/A

Evan Serpick

Director Ben O’Brien and Deacon shooting a truly unique video for “True Thrush”


If you wanted to sum up Baltimore in one street corner, you could do worse than the corner of Charles Street and North Avenue.

On the southeast corner is Pearson’s Florist, a well-kept family-owned shop that’s been around for 30 years and doesn’t take credit cards. In the summer months, kids sell classic chopped-ice snowballs to people waiting for the bus out front. On the northwest corner is the Windup Space—a focal point of the Station North arts renaissance—where creative artists of virtually every stripe nightly find eager audiences ready to engage, support, and nurture them and each other. On the southwest corner is a shitty McDonalds, with grime-stained walls and a limited menu that, on three separate occasions over several months, has been unable to produce a Diet Coke.

It is amid this milieu on Charles Street, just a couple doors down from Pearson’s, that Dan Deacon has been spending much of his time lately. For the last couple years, he’s been using the old Paradox nightclub there as his personal studio, doing much of the recording for America, his first album in three years, which comes out in August.

On a hot day in July, the door is unlocked. Just inside, an industrial fan bothers hundreds of crumpled-up pieces of colored construction paper that are scattered on the floor just enough to make them look busy. The detritus, some of it wet, sits on a plot of bright green AstroTurf, along with some wooden chairs and a cardboard cut-out of a gremlin sticking out its tongue.

The set is part of a high-concept video shoot for “True Thrush,” the second single from America, and one of Deacon’s most whimsical songs since Spiderman of the Rings, the 2007 album that gave the electronic musician, a founder of the local Wham City arts collective, a national profile and made him a favorite of high-minded music outlets like Pitchfork and Stereogum.

“It’s a video based on a game, that’s based on the game Telephone,” says Deacon, who’s wearing red Dickies and a black T-shirt that reads “Metal Tunes” and features Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, and Yosemite Sam in studded leather jackets. “When Wham City plays it, we call it ‘Nipples My Garden,’ which somehow came up when we first played it.”

For the shoot, Deacon and director Ben O’Brien, a longtime Wham City collaborator, acted out a detailed 20-second skit as Jerry and Marie, complete with props and costumes. Then, two people who hadn’t seen the skit come into the studio, watch it three times, and then have 40 minutes to create the costumes and props from scratch, and re-enact the skit as close to the original as possible. When they’re done, another couple comes in and tries to copy the previous skit, and the process repeats until 20 duos have taken a turn.

It’s day three, and Deacon and O’Brien are shooting their 19th duo, Monica and Sigrid of the dance company FlucT.

“Let’s just say there wasn’t nearly this much construction paper in the original,” O’Brien says, watching the women gamely try to recreate the chaos.

“True Thrush,” an upbeat tune with chipmunky backing vocals, is more pop-oriented than anything on Deacon’s last album, 2009’s more organic, lush Bromst. In many ways, it’s a throwback to Spiderman of the Rings tracks like dance-party-anthem “The Crystal Cat” and “Woody Woodypecker,” which sampled the tourettic animated bird. The video only reaffirms that Deacon, who didn’t participate in any videos for Bromst, is getting back to his playful side. (His recent remix of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”—the pop hit of the summer—in which he layered copies of the song over and over until it sounded like a distorted noise track with occasional outbursts of “I just met you,” was further evidence.)

The album’s first single, “Lots,” has a more dense, industrial arrangement that features a broad range of textures. Together, “True Thrush” and “Lots” sum up Deacon’s approach on the new album, bringing together Spiderman’s pop sensibilities with Bromst’s more mature songwriting. “I’m trying to fill gaps within what I did,” Deacon says.

We’re sitting in “the dead room,” a recording chamber adjacent to the larger space where the video is being shot. Deacon outfitted the room with padded walls to completely absorb sound. It’s an eerie place to talk. You can hear every whisper, every breath, and when it’s quiet, the silence makes your ears ring. It was here that he brought in a series of Peabody students to piece together the broad range of electronic and acoustic sounds that merge together, with often stunning results, on America.

Deacon is a bona fide musical genius. He could go on for hours about the value of combining synthetic and acoustic timbres, or musical textures, and the fact that acoustic sounds made by live instruments—though so much more limited than electronic or computer-generated sounds—resonate much more deeply in the human mind.

“It’s those human limitations that our ears, after thousands and thousands of years, have grown to love,” he says. It’s like being lectured by a friendly professor, one who talks fast and ends every paragraph with, “Do you know what I mean?”

But Deacon is also a sensitive guy, who talks frequently about how he’s had to stop reading blog comments about himself because they were so personally hurtful. (He told Stereogum earlier this year that getting in shape was a goal because “comment sections of many blogs like to point out I am fat.”) And he admits that the direction of the new album is at least partially guided by a desire to please his fans.

“It would be a lie to say I don’t want to be perceived a certain way, because everybody wants to be perceived in a certain way,” he says.

In fact, for a guy who exists largely outside the main stream of commercial music, it’s surprising that quite a few of his artistic choices seem to have been influenced by critics. The austere, challenging nature of Bromst, with several six- and seven-minute songs was largely a reaction to those who pigeonholed Deacon as a goofball after Spiderman.

“After Spiderman of the Rings, so many of the reviews were like ‘Wacky! Goofy! Cartoon!’ and I was like, ‘Ugh! God!’” he says. “Even though people were saying it in a way that was endearing, I had grown such a hatred of the words ‘wacky’ and ‘goofy’ that I went insane. When, in reality, a song on that album is called ‘Snake Mistakes,’ and I’m singing about bees. What delusional world was I living in where I didn’t think people would figure that to be wacky?”

With America, Deacon seems to have come to terms with his identity. Beyond the sonic explorations, he says the album was formed by months and months on the road, with much of the time spent staring out a school-bus window, observing the terrain, stopping to explore it, and frequently being awed by it.

“I used to be this absurdist nihilist who loved getting wasted and just going to parties,” he says. “It’s not like I don’t like those things anymore, but when you stand at the foot of a giant mountain and you climb it and camp out there and then you come down, you’re like, I’m just a speck of dust on this earth.”

Dan Deacon grew up in Long Island and went to Babylon High School, where he played tuba and trombone and joined his first band: a ska collective called Station 59.

He went on to SUNY-Purchase, where he quickly became a leader of the arts community, booking music shows on campus, including the massive Culture Shock festival. He also played in a wide range of bands, from the grindcore outfit Rated R to chamber music ensembles, and became a tireless advocate of creative expression of all kinds, particularly from weird kids who no one else paid attention to. It was these people that become core members of the Wham City collective and moved to Baltimore, en masse, in 2004.

One of those original members was Ed Schrader, an awkward, depressed kid who felt totally ostracized by most students on campus.

“Back home, I was too weird for the normal kids; At Purchase, I was too normal for the weird kids,” says Schrader, a former City Paper music writer and founder of Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, which released its first album earlier this year. “Dan kind of saved me. I would always end up sitting alone in the cafeteria. I was invisible. I started getting pretty depressed and desperate. Dan and Dina Kelberman [an early Wham City member and creator of Important Comics, which appears in City Paper,] saw me and thought ‘Well, he’s one of us,’ and asked me over to their table. My mind was blown. Dan and Dina always looked out for the freaks.”

The group started living together and collaborating on a broad range of music projects and events.

“We were living these insane and terrifying lives of complete and utter filth,” says Ben O’Brien, an original Wham City member, video artist, comedian, and co-director of the “True Thrush” video. “And there was this intense energy around everything, like anything could happen. It was very exciting for someone like me, at the tender age of 16.”

They moved to the Copycat building on Guilford Avenue after graduation, looking only for cheap rent, but they quickly found kinship with the quirky, DIY arts scene.

“In that mid-2000s, there was Ponytail, there was Ecstatic Sunshine, there was Videohippos—there was this scene emerging of these bands that were interested in making experimental music, but liked pop music and liked playing at parties in wild spaces and stuff like that,” Deacon says. “It was different from the noise scene, and it was different from the rock scene, but it had elements of both.”

It’s hard to explain exactly why, but Wham City and Charm City were and are a match made in heaven. Needless to say, Baltimore has a long history of strange creative types, from Edgar Allan Poe and Philip Glass to Frank Zappa and John Waters. But while so many earlier artists seemed to thrive on the city’s darkness, Deacon and Wham City connected with the city’s friendliness, its curiosity, its tolerance.

Wham City, led largely by Deacon, initiated a series of projects that initially seemed way too ambitious for a group of its size, including the Whartscape festival, theaterical productions like “Shoot Her! Jurrasic Park The Musical,” the Round Robin Tour, and the more recent Wham City Comedy Tour. Pretty much every project came off better than expected.

“Dan is really great at stretching the possibilites of the DIY community to it’s absolute limits,” O’Brien says. “He’ll dream about a project thats already way too big, and then he doubles it and makes it happen. This is something that is distinctly Baltimore to me—these massive projects—and Dan has inspired a lot of it.”

Deacon will be the first to tell you that Baltimore is his muse, that he wouldn’t have accomplished nearly as much as he has if he lived in some other city.

“When a band says where they’re from, I feel like a lot of that has to do with where they come into their own,” Deacon says. “I came into my own in Baltimore, through Wham City, through shows at the Copycat, through playing the Talking Head, through weird opening slots at the Ottobar. I would go to other places and other cities and come back to Baltimore, and Baltimore always had this energy to it, this weirdness to the shows, that was different from everywhere else—a positive weirdness.”

The relationship has become almost dangerously codependent. Baltimore has produced other national acts in recent years, from Beach House and Animal Collective to Rye Rye, but none remain so connected, so committed to the local arts community as Deacon. The attention directed at him from around the world always refracts to the many other worthwhile Wham City artists, particularly on the tours.

But perhaps even more than Baltimore relies on Deacon, Deacon needs Baltimore. He recorded the new album almost exclusively in town and insists, to an almost unreasonable extent, that when he records music anywhere else, it doesn’t work.

“I feel about Baltimore like how Superman needs the sun or he loses his energy—I can’t even remember if that’s true,” he says. “There was a portion of this record that we mixed in Australia, on tour, because we didn’t finish. We submitted the record, we were in the mastering process and we were just like, ‘No, pull it back, we’re mixing again. This isn’t right.’”

And, like an urban-planning evangelist, he says that cities need people like him and his fellow Wham City members, who help build them up. It’s hard to disagree.

“I hate when people move to Portland and New York,” he says. “People move to Portland and New York because they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. If more people stayed in the cities that don’t have those reputations, they would grow. Cities only grow because people go there or stay. The core of the scene that makes Baltimore unique is the people who are either weird enough to grow up here and stay or weird enough to move here.”

Deacon named his last album Bromst—a word he made up—because it had no connotations. With America, he decided to go the opposite way.

“You say ‘America,’ it has thousands of connotations, many of them negative, many of them positive,” he says. “And I wanted it to be that. I didn’t want it be a word that could be easily glossed over.”

Like a lot of us, Deacon has mixed feelings about America, the place and the word. But just as he’s come to accept his goofiness and appreciation for pop as part of his identity, he’s come to terms with his American-ness

“I was on the tour by myself for about a month and never felt so alone or more like an outsider—even in the UK or Ireland, where a lot of the tour was,” he says. “I went home, and never before had I been happy to see the American flag. The American flag, to me, was the symbol of war and oppression and the government, and it still largely is, but it also is the symbol of my home and, like it or not, it is my home.”

Deacon’s America includes references to various representations of the country, from the pictures of Lake Placid and Bryce Canyon (taken by photographer Richard Enders, father of Wham City member Adam Enders) that are on the album’s front and back covers, to “Guilford Avenue Bridge” and “Prettyboy,” two songs named after Baltimore-area locations.

“Guilford Avenue Bridge,” he says, is shorthand for the chaotic energy of the early Wham City shows.

“When I first moved to Baltimore, I didn’t realize how late shows started,” Deacon says. “So we would put 8 P.M. on the flyer and 8 P.M. would roll around, and no one would be there, and we would be like, ‘That’s okay, because everyone knows that eight really means nine,’ and then 9 P.M. would roll around, and no one would be there. I’d be looking out the window from the 3rd floor of the Copycat onto the streets, and seeing no one fucking coming. And then, like clockwork, at 10:30 P.M., hordes of people would be pouring down the bridge.”

As for “Prettyboy,” “Prettyboy Reservoir is just a really beautiful, relaxing place,” he says. “I started writing that song when I was traveling, and my back was hurt, I was stressing out, I didn’t know what to do, and I wanted to just write a piece of music that would relax me. When I got home and was thinking of a title, it made sense.”

While the first half of America is filled with pop-oriented songs, the second part is a considerably denser, four-part piece called “U.S.A.”

“I was thinking very much, like, A-side/B-side,” Deacon says. “I used Low, by Bowie as a big influence for that, because the first side of that, even though they’re all weird songs, they’re all pop songs. And then the B-side is the longer, weird, creepy, instrumental beautiful stuff. ‘U.S.A.’ is my B-side.”

On a lunch break during the video shoot, Deacon ducks out from his studio and crosses Charles Street to Caribbean Paradise for some grub. It’s pretty clear that Baltimore occupies both sides of his America, the positive, pop side, and the creepy, weird side, which is probably why he loves it so much. And why he’ll never leave for Portland or New York.

 

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