Dirty Projectors

Stasis vs. Movement

Mar 15, 2012 Issue #40 - In the Studio 2012 - Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, and Twin Shadow Photography by Tommy Kearns Bookmark and Share


Dirty Projectors frontman Dave Longstreth is slumped on a couch at a Lower Manhattan loft, having just completed a lengthy photo shoot for this magazine's cover story along with Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear and George Lewis Jr. of Twin Shadow. It's late, and he seems  emotionally spent. He's game to answer questions but is reticent when it comes to revealing firm details of his band's as-yet-untitled new album, slated for release in June.

"I feel like I'm two weeks away from not hedging away from your questions," he says. At the time of our interview, Dirty Projectors had nearly completed the follow-up to 2009's Bitte Orca, and were ready to head into the studio the next day to put the finishing touches on an album that has been gestating for over a year.

The album sessions commenced in early 2011, as Longstreth rented a house in Upstate New York to begin writing material. He settled in alone, to be joined eventually by the full band: bassist Nat Baldwin, vocalist and guitarist Amber Coffman, vocalist and keyboardist/guitarist Angel Deradoorian, drummer Brian McOmber, and vocalist Haley Dekle.

"We were constantly on tour from 2006 until 2010, and last year was all about getting off of the road and writing songs," explains Longstreth. "When I got off tour I didn't think I had any idea of what I wanted to do, and then after I just sat in a chair for a couple of days, I realized that I'd been stockpiling all these ideas of things I wanted to do, songs I wanted to write, different feelings to check out. I felt super inspired, so the first half of last year was just writing and recording every day. And then the second half of the year all of us in the band got together and recorded everything, and we recorded kind of in the same house we wrote everything in, so the whole thing has this, I don't know, internal coherence."

The band has always been difficult for listeners to pigeonhole. They have embraced a vast swath of stylesAfrican-tinged modalities, Byrds-esque three-part harmonies, knotty tangles of guitar dissonance, Velvet Underground-style bleary-eyed ballads, and off-kilter rhythmic patterns redolent of Talking Heads. Their 2005 record The Getty Address was an oblique concept album revolving around Don Henley, oil, and Mexico. They're also heavily in thrall to the '80s American indie underground, although their relationship is more spiritual than sonic. An unintelligible yet gorgeous recasting of Black Flag's Damaged on 2007's Rise Above LP wafted like a holy ghost in the ether.

Dirty Projectors also took part in the 10th anniversary show for Michael Azerrad's book Our Band Could Be Your Life, "a book that was massive for me as a kid," says Longstreth. The show featured modern bands covering songs from artists featured in the book, and Dirty Projectors performed a trio of Black Flag tunes at the show. "All off Damaged, a medley, one after another," recounts Longstreth with obvious glee.

Longstreth was even inspired to write a song following the show.

"There's a song called 'Buckle Up,' I wrote it after I got back here from doing that, and it's definitely got some of that stank on it, some of that Black Flag," he says.

Digging deeper into the Our Band Could Be Your Life subtext, the spirit of another band addressed in the book, K Records' twee progenitors Beat Happening, strongly influenced Longstreth at an early age, thanks in large part to his older brother, Jake Longstreth.

"My brother's five years older than me, and he went to school in Portland, OR, and I used to go out there and hang out with him," recalls Longstreth. "He played in a bunch of bands out there back in the '90s, bands like Dear Nora and like Yume Bitsu, and things like that, and the K Records ethos was very much in the air and part of the world that I got to know through him."

Longstreth originally conceived Dirty Projectors as a solo project while he was attending school at Yale, and he recalls those years with decided ambivalence.

"I really didn't like college," he says. "I was very antisocial in college. My first two years I spent most of my time by myself. It kind of sucked, but it was kind of awesome also. I'm not really the type of person who gets super lonely if people aren't around, and what I did was just make a shitload of music, and kind of figured out who I was as a songwriter."

He sees parallels from those days to the past year of songwriting, finding comfort in the ability to write songs on his own after years of relentless touring.

"After so much time on the road and just being around people 24 hours a day and just meeting people playing shows and everything, which is totally awesome, really the impetus behind going to the house is about solitude, a retreat from all that," explains Longstreth. "I felt like if I didn't do something like that the music probably wouldn't change very much, or there would be a diminishing return on my growth as a writer and our growth as a performing band. And that was a gamble that worked out, because being alone all the time was awesome."

Longstreth is clearly averse to playing up the now trite "making an album in a remote cabin in the woods" angle, and stresses that this is more akin to a songwriter finding the time and space to express himself, with an appropriate recording space serving a utilitarian function for the organic gestation of the album.

"We recorded like 50 songs," he says. "The attic of the house we were in sounded really great for drums, and it was really about the rhythm section playing live and being in a room together. It's not really about layering and orchestration and this sort of laborious overdubbing process and digital manipulation. It was just a couple musicians in a room kind of thing. So that was cool."

According to Longstreth, the record also captures the kinetic verve the band developed after years of touring, a powerfully visceral gut punch of an actas anyone who caught them on their Bitte Orca string of dates can attest to.

"It's very much a performed album," says Longstreth. "People don't really do that right now. It sounds like Brian playing the drums. It sounds like Nat playing the bass. It sounds like me playing the guitar. It sounds like us singing. There's not a shitload of overdubbing or editing or correcting. I got really into the idea of the recording being a moment as opposed to kind of a text. You listen to [Fleetwood Mac's] Rumours, and you're like, 'This is a text. This is perfect.' Or like [Michael Jackson's] Thriller, or something like that. Whereas you listen to something like [Fleetwood Mac's] Tusk and you're like, 'This is a weird moment.' Or the good Stones records from the early '70s. You're like, 'This feels like something that happened. It's not perfect but it has something.' That said, making these roots rock references, these aren't the touchstones stylistically that I was interested in or we were going for. I think it sounds like us."

Bitte Orca was the band's watershed moment. It was their first album for Domino, and the one that took them to another level commercially and critically, garnering spots on Late Show with David Letterman and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and headlining gigs that swelled as large as New York City's 3,000-capacity Terminal 5.

"I was definitely surprised," says Longstreth of the enthusiastic response to the record. "You know, I've been putting out records as Dirty Projectors for almost 10 years, touring in various iterations, and the band as it is now has been doing our thing since 2006, and it's always been sort of a gradual progression in people following us or listening to our music. On Bitte, it went up pretty steeply, that angle."

However, Longstreth seems impervious to the pressure of following up Bitte Orca.

"I wasn't super conscious of making This Year's Model or something like that," he says, referring to Elvis Costello's revered second album. "I think that one thing I was trying to do this time around was follow every idea through from its beginning to its end, and not try to be so much of a sculptor of an idea, where I'm trying to control every piece of it. Let the song just be what it wanted to be a little bit more."

Renowned for his grasp of ambitious concept records, Longstreth found a certain degree of liberation in breaking down the music into discrete songs this time around.

"One thing in the past is that I tended to think in terms of album ideas, LP length, and size of music, like whether it was a concept, like rewriting Damaged, or whether it was a story, like The Getty Address, that elapses over a record," he explains. "This time I was just interested in songs as a writer. Just the unit of a song. A beginning, a middle, an ending. A chorus and maybe a bridge, a verse that does a certain thing. I just wanted to do that, and again and again and again."

Following Bitte Orca, the band collaborated with Björk on Mount Wittenberg Orca, a mini LP that originated from a charity performance at NYC's Housing Works Bookstore Cafe. Memorably and rather irreverently referred to by Longstreth as Bitte Orca's "younger, hotter sister," the album is more elliptical and cryptic than Bitte, with Björk's melismatic coos imbuing a woozy, vertiginous quality onto the band's ascetic, bare-bones performance.

Embracing an album-style ethos instead of a song-based one, the record, according to Longstreth, served more as an extension of prior works than a harbinger of things to come.

"That is an album-length idea, even though it's short," he says. "You can't really take one song out of it. It was so awesome recording it and working with Björk, and we recorded that thing basically live, and that was the first time I'd been in a studio equipped enough where you could record a basic rhythm section and singing and have it all live and not have there be terrible bleed and all that. So that was really cool, and when we were done with it, our publicist was like, 'What's the MP3, what's the single?' And I love that song-based thinking, but on Wittenberg, you couldn't pull one thread out of the quilt. This one feels different, like each song is a unit unto itself."

Those units unto themselves remain mysteries as of now.

"It's like the light comes on in the kitchen and the mice scurry into the walls," laughs Longstreth when I press him for details on individual songs that will appear on the upcoming album. After a long pause, he's able to rattle off, seemingly reluctantly, a few of the titles. "Well, 'See What She's Seen,' it's just kind of a love song. I like it. 'Swing Low,' 'Magellan and You Against the Larger World,' 'The Socialites,' 'House of Education.' But, uh, they've got to be done 10 days from now. They're sliding into place, like little flakes of snow. When they hit the ground they either melt or start to accumulate. That's how we know what will be on the album."

As we're concluding our talk, after Longstreth jokingly asks me if I have any more questions he can avoid answering, he gives one of the more trenchant pieces of insight he's offered all evening, illustrating that he perhaps wasn't merely obfuscating for the sake of obfuscating. He genuinely seems unclear as to what the finished version of the album will sound like, given that his newfound recording aesthetic found him in largely uncharted territory.

"It's a little bit more Neil Young in spirit," he says. "It was us doing it ourselves, recording all the time with just our little tour family around us, and just set up in a little house and going down and getting a cup of tea, and going back up. And the mixing happens while we're recording, and we're still recording little things here and there as needed. It's a really amorphous process. So the idea of it finishing is hard to wrap my head around."



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