Dan Deacon

Dan Deacon is best known for his work as an electronic musician and, more recently, even as a classical composer. He's received tremendous (and well-deserved) critical acclaim for the novelty of the sounds in his electronic music, not to mention his live shows. His new album, Gliss Riffer is the first of his releases to feature vocal tracks, to see his voice as an instrument to ply just like all the myriad instruments we hear on his albums.

My interview with Deacon is not about the specifics of the writer's routine, as many of my interviews are. Deacon sees himself as an artist in the true sense of someone who creates art. He's much more than just a songwriter. So this conversation is more about the amorphous idea of creativity. More specifically, it's about Deacon's frustration with not having enough time to create. As his popularity increases, so do the demands of his career: the interviews, the meetings, the emails. Even the live shows. When he's touring for an album, he's not able create new art. And that means less time to create, which frustrates him. In short, Deacon would like more boredom, more time to do nothing, because that's when he's at his creative peak. It's his "proper headspace," according to Deacon. I suppose it's the never-ending anxiety of the artist: you have to sell your art to survive, if that's the only source of your income, and the more time you spend selling, the less time you have to create. "I can't find time to write," Deacon told me.

Read my interview with Dan Deacon about his creative process after the video for "Feel the Lightning," off Gliss Riffer, out now on Domino Records.

Do you have any other creative outlets outside music?

Very little. Most of my creative process is focused either on my studio practice or performance practice. I keep telling myself that I need a hobby and that I should be getting back into other arts, but I keep taking on other projects. It takes up so much of my time, so when I get home to Baltimore I just like to relax and be social.

That’s interesting, because some songwriters tell me that they deliberately set aside time not creating so that they can fill the well. Then, when it’s time to make music, they are recharged.

No, I have terrible time management. My days are usually completely packed, so if I don't block out studio time on my calendar, then it gets filled up by other stuff.

Do you set aside time every day to create?

Not really, because finding time to write for me now is like when you play a video game and you’re about to die, then at the last second you find a fully cooked turkey and you get healthy again. That’s what finding free time to write is like for me. Especially on tour, it’s tough. When I’m on tour, it’s mostly about thinking what I want to write about when I actually have time to write.

Oh, you have to explain the turkey metaphor.

Good question! Laughs. I can’t find time to write. There’s too much to do on every tour. Since we do a different stage set up every tour, we’re always reinventing the wheel. It’s a huge logistical undertaking. So much of my brain is taken up by tour issues. We all wear multiple hats on the tour, so even a three-hour drive is taken up by interviews, calls, meeting, things like that. If I have 20 minutes free, I'm probably going to use that time to stare out the window or check my email. I'm not going to write music because I'm probably not in the proper headspace.

What is that right headspace?  You mention staring out the window, but some songwriters tell me that staring out the window is a good way to generate ideas.

Boredom. You have to be bored. You need boredom to let your mind generate something, to get lost in thought. If you're constantly faced with obligations, then you can't be bored.

That’s what Scott Adams wrote a few years ago: you can only create when you're bored.  When you do sit down to write, is there a routine?

I don't think there’s a formula. That’s not a bad thing, because it makes the albums different. I think of my computer as a sketch pad. I tinker around on it and just doodle. Eventually I step back and realize that I've gotten to a spot where what I've created is worth keeping. It isn’t just me riffing; I'm now at a place where it can go somewhere. Once it gets to that stage—which is normally when I'm able to give it a file name, not just a date—I won't be able to stop thinking about it. Obviously, my memory will distort when I go listen to it again because I remember it differently. So I’ll change things here and there. Most of the time, this process is happening on the road. At home it's a different story. Between album cycles, I’ll have days of nothing, then days of nothing but meetings. So finding time is a little easier.

How does that process start?

Most of the time it starts with texture. Once I find a texture that I like, I want to surround it with other textures. A lot of other people, if they start with a piano or a guitar, they start with a chord progression and lyrics. That comes right away because it’s so vital to the song. Then the orchestration process begins.

I feel like my process is the opposite. I start with the orchestration. I'm choosing the timbres I want to work with. After that comes rhythm, then the harmonic content, then the melodic content, then last is the lyrical content.

When you make electronic music, the thing you’re interested in most is sounds. You want to hear sounds you haven’t heard before, or collections of sounds you haven’t heard before. In the rock tradition or the folk tradition, people want to hear lyrics that they haven’t heard before. But with computer music and electronic music, it’s all about textures and sounds, and about making samples sound like new things. That’s why my music focuses on the texture and timbre of the sound. Just until recently, the lyrics and the voice were an afterthought. Not until this last record did I really think about the fact that the human voice is the only instrument capable of lyrics. But if a trombone had lyrics, I'd give it lyrics. If only every other instrument had pitch, amplitude, duration, and texture, and spatial location, why wouldn't I use the added content?

Can you talk more about texture in music?

Every instrument has texture. That's what defines how we use an instrument. A human voice, the flute, a sine wave, a sheet of metal can all make the same pitch, but they are textured differently. They all have different sonic qualities. Think about how cloth, sand, a rock, a fish, water, all feel different. They can all be the same color, but they have a different feel. If you think of color as pitch, texture is the way it feels and looks. With sound, texture is the roughness or brightness of a sound. It’s a sine wave being distorted into a square wave. It's the harmonic content being added so that the texture changed. A guitar chord clean versus a guitar chord distorted is a different texture. To me, timbre is the most important part of music exploration. I always look for new timbres, new collections of timbres. New synthetic blends, new sample blends that sound like nothing else.

Photo by Frank Hamilton

Photo by Frank Hamilton

Is there an ideal writing environment for you?

I don’t think there is. I’d love to find it, though. Laughs. I can write whenever I'm able. That can be the back of the bus or at the airport or at the venue. I prioritize stress. I think I can’t write now. I have to send these emails, and I have to meet with these people. By the time I get done with everything, the last thing I want to do is write.

When I'm finishing up an album, I set aside a time for like three months where all I do is work on the album. Every day, that’s all I do from morning until night. So I guess that's my favorite environment: a day of creation without any obligations. It reminds me of what college was like. I had classes, but all those classes were about music. I’d take a break from composing so that I could learn how to compose better. I miss that. When you become past the emerging stage as an artist, you need to figure out how to continue writing. And it’s not for lack of inspiration. It's for sheer lack of time. I do 200 shows a year and am involved in multiple other projects, and that eradicates my ability to create.

Does that mean that you need to be hypersensitive to your environment so that you can soak up inspiration when you're on the road?

I think it’s super important for people in the creative class to be able to recognize that privilege. Everyone would love that luxury. There’s a chart I just saw of famous creative peoples’ schedules, and you can kind of tell that with the exception of a couple of them, most were wealthy. Only a couple of them had jobs. I know a lot of artists who have to have non-artist jobs. I used to do that too, but that's why I moved to Baltimore. I could live cheaply so that I could focus exclusively on music. But that’s an insane privilege.

I keep thinking about how we’ve tricked ourselves into getting away from the 40-hour workweek. As an artist, I'd love to work only 40 hours a week so that I could spend the other hours actually thinking about what I want to be doing.

So if you’re always busy, does that affect that creative process?

It does 150 percent. Even if you're busy with your career, your career is not your work. Your career is not your output. It’s not your creative process, and it’s not your self-expression. This interview is part of my career. It’s not a part of me creating. This interview is helping me get my music out there, but it doesn't make it exist.

I've spent years writing this record, and now I'm going to spend a year or a year and a half touring behind it. Obviously, I'd like to create new material, but the focus has to be on the performance. I have two practices: songwriting/studio practice and performance practice. Both need focus and dedication. So if all day I'm thinking about composing, then I'm not thinking about performing.

How are you growing as a songwriter?

This is the first album where I've embraced my voice and thought about lyrics as another aspect of sound. It’s so different from writing music, though. When I do that, I get lost in thought. It’s very meditative, almost like I'm in a trance. I’ll listen to a loop or a section again and again and again until it sounds completely different from when I started listening. Then I’ll tweak it more, sculpt it more, or pull things out until I hear things that I hadn’t heard yet that I’ll expand upon or remove. I can't do that yet with lyrics.