The following is a term paper from a Brown University class on Computers & Music.
One might say that Dan Deacon’s musical career has always been a conflicted one. Having played in ska and grindcore bands while at the same time studying contemporary electronic and computer music at SUNY Purchase, Deacon grew up as a man of two worlds: the energetic, live hardcore, punk and rock music scene and the intellectual and academic school of music he was enrolled in. But although these worlds may not have been so obviously intertwined, and although these two worlds influenced Deacon separately (the energy and accessibility of the punk scene and the sounds and processes of the experimental scene became essential parts of his music) together what they left Deacon with was a single, unified idea: the idea of subversion. In truth, it is this single idea of doing the unexpected, of changing what music is, or is supposed to be, of changing what technology does, or is supposed to do, that has constantly guided Dan Deacon’s musical choices and compositions, making all of them distinctly his.
Although Dan Deacon started playing music in high school, it was not until after Deacon went to college at SUNY Purchase that he started to take music seriously. While at Purchase, Deacon decided to major in music and started studying under Dary John Mizelle, a former student of Stockhausen, who was, as Deacon said “very much into the new complexity and making music as radically insane as possible” (“Dan Deacon on Computers”). In 2003, while still at SUNY, Deacon released his first two albums Meetle Mice and Silly Hat vs. Egale Hat. These albums were mostly experimental and were certainly influenced in part by Mizelle’s teachings. Works ranged from “Aerosmith Permanent Vacation 24162-2,” a piece in which all the songs from Aerosmith’s Permanent Vacation were layered on top of each other, to “Sound Events,” a 20 minute experimental piece about the interactions between musicians and non-musicians in improvisational settings (Deacon). These experimental pieces, like all Deacon pieces to come, explored the idea of undermining preconceived notions about music, an idea Deacon had taken from his rock and avant-garde predecessors. “Aerosmith Permanent Vacation 24162-2,” for instance, was a wall of noise reminiscent of Robert Ashley’s “Wolfman,” grindcore, and the plunderphonic tracks of John Oswald. By taking an album and piling it on top of itself, Deacon brought into question the concept of what an album was, what a song was, and who owned what. However, while these pieces and many of the others on the album were subversive, they were not really accessible, and although Deacon respected Mizelle, he did not want to be a part of the avant-garde camp, he didn’t like the idea that there was “prerequisite knowledge that a listener needed to have to appreciate the sounds that were made,” instead, he wanted to make something people would listen to (“Dan Deacon on Computers”). This desire was driven by Deacon’s rock influences and it was the very same desire that had led Deacon to compose on the computer in the first place, as he said “I couldn’t write a piece for orchestra because it would never get played, and I wanted to focus on work that would exist and people could hear and it would develop and grow and not just sit in a box in a closet” (“Dan Deacon on Computers”). Deacon’s first accessible track was called “I Will Always Have Juice Today,” and it appeared on Silly Hat vs. Egale Hat nestled between his experiments. At the beginning of the track Deacon spins out a Steve Reich-esque looping process using the software synthesizers and sequencers on the computer program Reason, building and layering these syncopated synthesizer sequences with a slow and electronic rock rhythm. He incorporates the sounds of Stockhausen like bells, made through additive synthesis, and mixes them with the speeding Raymond Scott type rhythms, adding a beat and making this odd electronic and cheerful music almost danceable. It wouldn’t be long before Deacon would take this danceable, accessible music and pair it with the subversive practices of his other pieces, thereby creating a type of music all his own.
In 2007 Dan Deacon released his first truly accessible and actually popular album Spiderman of the Rings. Pitchfork placed it in their Best New Music section and later ranked it number 24 on their “Top 50 Albums of 2007” (Pitchfork Staff). On this album, Deacon found a new way to create unexpected and shocking music without giving up listenability. He took the synthesizers and rhythms of “I Will Always Have Juice Today,” intensified them, sped them up, and paired them with something new: his highly processed, sometimes unrecognizable voice. “Crystal Cat,” the single from the album, is a great example of this unique marriage. The song begins with harsh sawtooth waveforms, heavy bass drum, and sequencers. It is immediately energetic and driving. Then comes Deacon’s odd, highly processed, wailing, catlike voice. Sounding almost like a violin or a theremin, his voice becomes another instrument, treading the line between acoustic and electronic and taking Stockhausen-inspired Kraftwerk’s vocoder use to a whole other level. The song remains fast-paced, switching between simple punk rock rhythms and complex polyrhythmic drums, but soon enough, despite its inherent complexity, the track begins to sound like a buzz, dominated by the chord changes and by Deacon’s shifting but constantly incoherent voice, which provides the hooks. This song clearly combines Deacon’s two major influences, as his rock-based need for energy and for a catchy melody mesh with the sounds of electronic experimental music. But even more than that, what this song does is it plays with the expectations of the listener, it undermines the role that vocals are supposed to play in a rock or dance song. Usually, one thinks of lyrics as an important aspect of any song that has them. How else can one sing along and connect with the musician’s message? But in this song, the lyrics functionally don’t exist. The vocals become a simple melody, an instrumental solo that listeners can still sing along to without ever knowing what exactly is being sung. And of course, Deacon’s subversive tendencies could not simply remain confined to the studio, he had to bring them to a live audience.
Around the time that Spiderman of the Rings was released, Deacon started playing a huge number of extremely unorthodox live solo shows. At the shows, Deacon would play the electronic instrumental versions of his songs using an iPod, while simultaneously singing into a mic through a huge number of processing pedals and synthesizers to get the effects on his voice that he desired. But, he realized that this alone would not be much of a show. So, he took a note from punk garage shows and didn’t play on stage. Instead, he played from the middle of the crowd, making their energy and the energy of the music more important than his presence. He completely changed the role of the musician, of the performer, and he transformed the way a concert was run, by having the crowd play games and create impromptu dance circles during different songs. He became a sort of DJ, yelling out commands as if the commands, like those of the Fluxus movement, were part of the music themselves. By 2012, Deacon had even disrupted the role that the crowds’ technology played at his shows. By creating the Dan Deacon App, he changed their iPhones from an annoying mid-show distraction into a part of the concert experience. His App turned each person’s phone into a light and sound show capable of synchronizing with whatever song Deacon was playing at the time (Kirn). And Deacon’s subversion did not stop there.
In 2009, two years after Spiderman of the Rings and the subsequent tour, Deacon produced his next full-length album Bromst. This album was much more serious than Deacon’s last. He wanted to make “a record that wasn’t escapism,” and what he ended up with was an album with music about “time, and what happens after life” and lyrics “about the future” (“Making Manic Dance Music,” Martins). By making his music meaningful, Deacon was again trying to alter the way people thought about music. He wanted to change peoples’ expectations about electronic dance music, he wanted to change the idea that because dance music was fast-paced and accessible, it was dumbed-down in some way (Martins). At the same time, Deacon was changing the way he played music, he was bringing acoustic instruments into the studio with his electronics and on tour with a 15 person ensemble. Of course, this meant even more subversion, since both on stage and off, the boundaries between acoustic and electronic instruments were blurred, with some of the live ensemble playing a marimba-type instrument that used computer samples, and with some of the differences between things like software and live instruments on the recordings becoming nearly impossible to distinguish. On “Build Voice,” the first song on the album, a piano part that was humanly impossible to play was programmed for a player piano instead, thus creating an incredible live recording of a digital-acoustic instrument (PitchforkTV). It was almost as if Deacon was simply saying “instruments are instruments.” He wanted to get rid of the arbitrary hierarchies and distinctions that had been made between electronics and their seemingly more pure acoustic predecessors by blending them together and making them indistinguishable.
All of these new explorations and intricacies can be found on the fourth song off of Bromst, “Snookered.” The song’s first notes are marimbas, glockenspiels, and sine tones exchanging a simple melody with each other as Deacon’s echo-smeared voice begins to waft in and out. As drums, harsher synthesized notes, and then finally Deacon’s voice join in, there is a reverb that Deacon’s work until now has been purposefully without, and it is this reverb that opens up a space and lets the listener in. Deacon’s vocals are distorted, but comprehensible as they sing “Been wrong so many times before but never quite like this.” The electronic and live drums blend together, the synths and marimbas blend together, the glockenspiels become harsh and faster. As the song builds, it only becomes more emotional, with Deacon’s vocal utterances becoming heavily panned, percussive, melodic instrumentals. The song speeds up, slows down, bends, and reforms without ever really changing or abandoning the original melody at all. “Snookered” is complex, serious, and solemn, it is nothing one would ever expect from dance music.
After Bromst, Deacon toured incessantly, playing shows all over the place, and by the time the tour was over, he realized that he could not handle this harrowing lifestyle forever. His shows were about energy, but eventually, he just would not have any energy left. He needed to find a way to branch out into something new, into a new scene where he could make a living as a soon-to-be older musician without touring down the road. One way to branch out came to Deacon in 2011 when he began working on a score for Twixt, a horror film by Francis Ford Coppola. One might wonder, how could Deacon possibly put the energy of his music into this medium? How could his ideas about music prevail in such a form? Of course, Deacon looked to his playful subversive tendencies to get him through the challenge. He decided to upend the natural world and eradicate reverb itself by building an anabolic chamber to record music in. In this chamber, instruments that relied on reverb, like trumpets and horns, were entirely transformed. Using this chamber, Deacon was able to record and layer 75 string tracks without any noise, creating deceivingly simple sounding, but high energy, music (Pitchfork Weekly). Apart from this foray into film scoring, the other way Deacon found himself branching out was by looking into other genres. He began writing contemporary chamber pieces to be played in theaters by groups like Sō Percussion. Of course, he broke boundaries with these pieces too, as he wrote one of them for water bottles.
These issues of Deacon’s future and of Deacon’s growth would end up coming to the fore on his most recent album America, released in 2012. The album was as serious as his last, exploring what America meant, what the country was, how it had failed, and how it had succeeded. America contained a few short, catchy songs and then ended with a 4-part 20-minute suite called “USA,” which was a contemporary, classical, electro-acoustic piece. Despite the classical influences, despite the changes to Deacon’s sound, what remained the same, and what will always remain the same, was the subversion. America was an album that completely upended the idea of what a pop, rock, or dance music album could be. It bridged the gap between dance and classical, between Deacon’s current life and his possible future, by showing listeners that a 20-minute electro-acoustic instrumental could still be energetic, that it could be performed at either a live dance show or at a music hall, that Deacon could be, despite his occasionally silly performance antics, a serious and influential contemporary composer. While considering his future, while trying to figure out how to maintain the energy of his music and settle down at the same time, Deacon recently said, “I need to think more about, like, what punk is to a thirty year old” (Pitchfork Weekly). But if America and Deacon’s past works are any indication, this won’t be much of a challenge. So long as Deacon keeps subverting the listener’s expectations, so long as he tries to come up with new ways to define what music is, what technology is and should be used for, his work will never lose its energy, it will never lose its novelty, and no matter how much it changes, it will always be clear that Deacon was the punk who made it.
Cody Fitzgerald is currently a sophomore at Brown University and makes music under the name Stolen Jars.
Bledsoe, Wayne. “‘The Road’ figured in to Dan Deacon’s creation of ‘America’.” Knoxville. Web. 8 Nov. 2012. http://www.knoxville.com/news/2012/aug/31/knoxville-music-dan-deacon-pilot-light/.
Deacon, Dan. “Dan Deacon Discography.” DanDeacon.com. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. http://www.dandeacon.com/disc/disc.html.
Kirn, Peter. “Dan Deacon Makes Phones Into Instruments and a Live Light Show.” CreateDigitalMusic. Web. 8 Nov. 2012. http://createdigitalmusic.com/2012/09/dan-deacon-makes-phones-into-instruments-and-a-live-light-show-ios-android/.
Martins, Chris. “Dan Deacon.” AVClub. Web. 8 Nov. 2012. http://www.avclub.com/articles/dan-deacon,26499/.
NPR Staff. “Dan Deacon On Computers, College And ‘Electronic Music’.” NPRMusic. NPR, 28
Aug. 2012. Web. 19 Oct. 2012. http://www.npr.org/2012/08/28/160169376/dan-deacon-it-s-insane-that-people-still-call-electronic-music-electronic-music.
NPR Staff. “Making Manic Dance Music, With Lasting Effects.” NPRMusic. NPR, 5 April 2009. Web. 8 Nov. 2012. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102752117.
Pitchfork Staff. “Top 50 Albums of 2007.” Pitchfork. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. http://pitchfork.com/features/staff-lists/6753-top-50-albums-of-2007/1/?utm_campaign=search&utm_medium=site&utm_source=search-ac.
PitchforkTV. “In the Studio: Dan Deacon: Finishing.” Pitchfork. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. http://pitchfork.com/tv/in-the-studio/1500-dan-deacon/.
Pitchfork Weekly. “Dan Deacon Discusses Working with Francis Ford Coppola” Pitchfork. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. http://youtu.be/KdJZ7KbaykQ.