Part Vaudeville Ham, Part Electronica Genius, Dan Deacon Turns Every Show Into a Wild Ride
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Life changes come in the strangest places. Local electronic music artist Dan Deacon found his during a 23-day stretch this past March when he dove into that peculiarly American outer limit that is extensive bus travel. Great distances mean daylong journeys, and spending 24 hours on a bus inevitably leads to bizarre moments. Deacon entered this twilight zone when a bus driver, while driving, turned to the passengers and started telling everybody about being sexually molested.
“She started off saying that all TV shows with gay characters should have a warning before and after commercial breaks,” Deacon recalls. “And then she said flight schools should be banned in the Middle East, especially Iraq, so that we wouldn’t have another September 11. And then she starts bashing Bush.”
A compact, bespectacled young man with a scraggly beard and glasses who is fond of dressing in that mix-and-match thrift-store casual that says either “on my way to the methadone clinic” or “experimental musician,” Deacon’s eyes widen and face tightens into flabbergasted disbelief at the very memory. “And then she whips out the child molestation,” he says. “And it’s 5:30 in the morning.”
Deacon freely admits that punk rock inspired him to get on the bus. In fact, Deacon concedes that punk rock is primarily responsible for shaping his music and performance into what it is right now. And he’s never even listened to punk.
It all started with a dead car. On March 8, Deacon and local MC Height (Dan Keech) were traveling from Los Angeles to Oakland, about halfway through their 58-date tour, when Keech’s car broke down just outside Fresno. And Deacon was suddenly facing having to consider doing the last thing he wanted to do: cancel his tour and return to Baltimore. Not only is the road trip going great and he’s having the time of his life, but back in Baltimore his ex-girlfriend lives above him in the Copy Cat Building, her new boyfriend lives below him, and sound, well, travels between floors.
“I don’t have a driver’s license and Height’s like, ‘I need my car for work,’” Deacon says. “It’s dead-dead, we have to leave it there, and he doesn’t know how he’s going to survive [back in Baltimore]. So he’s going to fly home. I had started reading [Michael Azerrad’s] Our Band Could Be Your Life. I really owe it to Minutemen and Black Flag, bands I’ve never listened to, that kept me going, just reading how hard they put it down and toured. And I realized I just needed to finish this tour. So I bought a month-long Greyhound pass.”
For $420—pretty much all the profit he had made—Deacon muscled on. He had to take only what he could carry and abandon the rest: the CDs he was selling, records bought along the way, and most of his clothes and food. Deacon, who had slimmed massively down from 280 pounds only two years back, didn’t want to be tempted by McDonald’s on the road, so he bought all his meals prior to leaving: 58 cans of corn, 58 cans of beans, 58 servings of peanut butter, 58 rice cakes.
All he could carry was his gear in two suitcases. He had a duffel bag stuffed with spare wires, and for his two changes of clothes he made a bag out of pair of pants, taping up the legs. He had no Walkman, no radio, no book. Just his hand-written itinerary stuffed into his pocket outlining his stops over the next few weeks: Oakland; Portland and Forest Grove, Ore.; Olympia, Wa.; Missoula, Mont.; Denver; Kansas City, Mo.; Omaha, Neb.; St. Louis; Bloomington, Ind.; and Pittsburgh, April 1.
Deacon willingly thrust himself into a situation where he traveled solo entire days to perform at places he’d never been for people he’d never met. It was either going to be a miraculous success or a massive failure, but of those two, on which would you put money? Deacon himself didn’t like the odds.
“I thought it was going to be impossible,” he says. “How am I going to get from the bus station to the show? I don’t even have a cell phone.”
That month still clings to his brain. “I was sort of going insane before this, and it gave me a lot of time to sort some things out,” he says. “While it was shitty to be on the bus, it was still so awesome to be on tour. It made me really appreciate the opportunity I was given. It became this adventure that has formed what I do now.”
What Dan Deacon does is one of the most indescribable and odd smile-delivery systems in the experimental electronic underground. He performs with a table of electronic gear on a table, but Deacon isn’t a “huncher,” crouching over his gear ruining his posture. (“Electronic musicians love to hunch over their computers. I don’t know why they don’t get higher tables or some sort of music stand.”) His songs are wildly imaginative, wittily rhythmic, quasi-pop electronic ditties—and unabashedly electronic at that. All his sound sources are unapologetically and engagingly artificial, not corresponding to anything in the so-called natural sound palette of instruments. Waves clash and get squashed and shifted. Signals get torqued into pulses and flattened into bass belches. Noises fly out and garishly decorate the throbbing beats, which are but a self-conscious attitude just shy of superflossed hip-hop pop.
Most of Deacon’s songs have lyrics now—bizarre, stream-of-consciousness lyrics befitting an artist who names songs “Pizza Horse,” “Lions With Sharks Head,” “All Wet and No Boner,” and “Too Many Niggas Not Nuff Hoes”—and while singing he dances with an unbridled mirth typically confined to toddlers. (“I like to dance really hard. My friend Jackson [Nate Kukla] from Grand Buffet compared it to a dog stuck to a cactus.”) And when not singing and dancing, between songs Deacon can wander into seriocomic stories about, well, five Garfields trying to sell him their colored vinyl, a giant duck setting fire to carpets, or Tony Danza joining Aerosmith.
“I never thought I’d do this,” says the 23-year-old with a BA and (nearly) MFA in electro-acoustic composition from Purchase College. “I thought I’d go to school for composition, try to find a small ensemble, and make it in the composition world, I guess. But I had all these weird little ditties that I’d written in [programs] Fruity Loops or Sound Forge, some granular synth pieces I did, and these, I guess, pop songs.”
A self-professed funny fat kid growing up (“At least I’d like to think so, but maybe I was just the fat kid”) who played the trombone and tuba in band, the Long Island native moved to Baltimore 11 months ago with four Purchase classmates to establish a warehouse living/performance space/creative well, which they now have in the collective known as Wham City. Deacon, however, has had little time to devote to collective activities, save the musical interpretation of Beauty and the Beast Wham City staged earlier this year. Since landing in Baltimore he’s toured constantly, not even finding the time to complete his new album due later this summer. And he’s only been doing this for two years.
His first show was March 13, 2003, opening for Tracy and the Plastics at Purchase. He had never performed his less serious works, and it was a complete disaster. Delay pedal stopped working, he couldn’t use a video projector, nothing was functioning properly, and he kept a sine-wave-generating drone while trying to get everything to work before turning the power off and running offstage. “So my first six months of performing were that,” Deacon says. “Me setting up, my equipment breaking, me apologizing, and then leaving.”
He had burned two CDs for that first show, though—Silly Hat vs. Egale Hat and Meetle Mice—which ended up in the hands of OCDJ, a show host on the free-form WFMU radio station in East Orange, N.J., who helped Deacon get a opening slot at a Matmos show. Since, Deacon has put out six CDs on the micro independent Standard Oil and one on Comfort Stand, and his live show started evolving from a complete disaster into this wildly entertaining beast.
“I felt that instrumental electronic music was kind of esoteric and I wanted to avoid being esoteric in any way,” he says. “I wanted my music to lack any sort of pretension, which may be pretentious to say. But I wanted to make it as fun as possible but also not change my compositional style. So lyrics made it a lot easier to do that. And that’s when the show started taking shape. Adding lyrics, that meant less time to do gadget twiddling, and I didn’t want to stand there so I started dancing. And the audiences just loved it.”
Deacon pauses and asks if he’s digging himself into an artistic hole when admitting that he notices and responds to his audience’s response to him, admitting that he wants to keep those moments going and find new ways to engage it. But just asking the question aloud makes you wonder if any live musician who claims not to take note of positive responses is lying. The most immediately compelling vibe from Deacon is the utter absence of attitude. Though very sharp and just as obscure-music geeked out as any avant outsider—Deacon can converse about the joys of Devo, Raymond Scott, Conlon Nancarrow, and Charles Dodge with equal enthusiasm—he’s not ashamed to be silly.
“I think something can still be humorous while still being intelligent,” he says. “I was always into music not being too serious.”
And it was this humor well he tapped into on the bus, spending entire days alone and ending up someplace where he didn’t know anybody. “The bus really started to change how I did things,” he says. “My shows have never really been formal, but that’s when they became so much more informal. We’ve all been to those noise shows where there’s no real interaction between artist and audience. Most of them do one long piece and then it’s over. And even with rock bands, there’s banter, but it’s usually like, ‘This song is called . . . ’ And I found out it’s fun to be able to talk to the audience. So maybe because I was just so happy to see people and be talking to anybody, my only real time to communicate was when I was onstage. So I just started talking, and that’s when the show started taking this song-and-dance routine.”
He means that in the old-fashioned sense: Dan Deacon live is the most absurd vaudeville act you may ever see. For his stories, he taps into a short-lived stint as a comedian (“I did stand-up in New York for a while, when I was 17 with a friend, just when I started college, and the only reason I got out of it was because the clubs were just the most depressing places on Earth”), and they’ve become so popular he’s planning on releasing a CD’s worth of them as Storytime With Princess Danny later this year.
And it’s a reservoir of his own creative brain he may never have mined had he not wandered into the Bizarro-world of Greyhound bus touring, which ended up being better than he thought it ever would. He never missed a bus, never got left behind, didn’t lose anything, his entire transportation ended up costing only $14/day, only had to cancel two shows, and made money. Not too shabby for a guy carrying his clothes around in taped-up pants.
“The bus just made me look differently at the whole way I look at life,” Deacon says. “I’m really glad I did it. It was one of the weirdest experiences in my life. Every time I would call the venue, I would say, ‘The car died, I’m taking the bus, it’s a 24-hour bus ride, I’ll be there.’ And people would come pick me up. People are so generous and awesome. Even though I wasn’t getting any sleep, I was having the best time. It’s where the show really came together. And I’ll never do it again.”