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Nov 01, 2007 Dirty Projectors Bookmark and Share

Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth is a talkative guy off the record, but he clammed up as soon as the tape started rolling during this mid-September phone interview. Of course, it could just be that he’s tired of explaining his latest conceptual project, a song-by-song re-imagining of Black Flag’s 1981 punk classic, Damaged, that begs far more questions than it answers over its 10 incessantly unpredictable tracks. Titled Rise Above and pieced together from Longstreth’s memory of his adolescent favorite, it bares little resemblance to a conventional covers album, ditching the obstinate three-chord drive of the original for polyrhythmic electric guitar parts, explosive shards of noise, and multi-part harmonies. But like 2004’s The Getty Address (an album constructed partly out of Eagles’ lyrics to tell a fictionalized story about Don Henley) and 2006’s New Attitude EP (a song suite involving the courtship of two sheep who wish to fall asleep), Longstreth’s latest foray into experimental art-pop ultimately needs no conceptual conceit to pull you into its alternate universe. Once there, you might have trouble finding your way out.

Under the Radar: So where are you located tonight?

Dave Longstreth: We’re in Durham, North Carolina, tonight.

UTR: How is the tour going?

Longstreth: It’s great. We’re in the homestretch. We’re going to be in New York at the end of the week. It has kind of flown by.

UTR: Are these songs difficult to recreate live?

Longstreth: Well, if I were in the business of a strict recreation, they probably would be. I’m into reinvention. The songs are pretty different with shrinking it down to a four-piece, but some parts, I think, are better.

UTR: Better in what sense?

Longstreth: I like the sound of them more.

UTR: I see. So this record was inspired by Black Flag’s Damaged. Why did that record suggest itself?

Longstreth: I don’t know. It was just kind of there.

UTR: Had that been one of your favorite records as a kid?

Longstreth: It had…for a brief time. It was something that I was into for a few months. I think it affected me pretty deeply. And, actually, that’s usually the first question that people start with, for good reason. But I think that I was trying to help interviewers out, and it was an important album to me, but I think I kind of made up its significance also. Just because it was there.

UTR: But Rise Above is a song-by-song answer to that album?

Longstreth: In the sense that the original Damaged poses any questions.

UTR: What inspired you about that album that made you think it was worth replying to in some way?

Longstreth: Maybe I thought there was something ambiguous about some of the feelings, and I was trying to clarify or distort the feelings in a specific direction.

UTR: But you did imagine it as a song-by-song reply to it?

Longstreth: I’m a little bit curious about the emphasis of your question. Are you asking about the idea of a recreation or a reply or the idea of song-by-song replication?

UTR: Well…just the idea that each song on Rise Above has its counterpart on Damaged.

Longstreth: Right. It has its replica.

UTR: But you hadn’t listened to Damaged for quite awhile?

Longstreth: Yeah.

UTR: So you were just guided by your memory of what it sounded like?

Longstreth: Yeah.

UTR: Did the songs on Rise Above turn out the way you had originally envisioned them when you thought of the concept for this record?

Longstreth: Yeah, I think it does a pretty good job.

UTR: Have you gone back and listened to Damaged since you did Rise Above?

Longstreth: Oh yeah. Yeah.

UTR: Did anything about that surprise you?

Longstreth: It was very weird. I wouldn’t really know how to describe it. It was like a private psychedelia.

UTR: Do you find that when you go back and listen to a record that you haven’t listened to in awhile that it’s different than you remembered?

Longstreth: Yeah. Definitely. I think it must be like that for everybody.

UTR: Did you have specific creative or sonic ideas for how you wanted this record to sound before you started recording it?

Longstreth: Yeah. I wanted it to feel really live. Most of the albums that I’ve made have been me wearing a long white coat, sort of privately pouring fluids in beakers and watching their boiling temperatures and stuff like that. And the process of making those bedroom studio songs into something live is a process that I really have liked, and there was a mystery there about the discrepancy between the two versions of songs. I used to be very into different manifestations of the same material. Different versions of songs would really excite me. With Rise Above, I basically wanted to make the arrangements up for a live band, go on a tour with a live band playing these songs, and then record them very, very quickly. And that’s what happened, more or less.

UTR: So does this record more or less sound like a document of what it sounded like when you were touring these songs?

Longstreth: It does, yeah. That was last November. It was basically this band that I’ve got now with two fewer people, and now we’re all taking on the duties of everyone.

UTR: And that’s why the songs changed again?

Longstreth: Well, the songs changed again because we’ve all changed. Time has elapsed; experiences have accrued. A song is like anything. It grows, and blooms, and probably dies.

UTR: Is there any such thing as a definitive version of a song?

Longstreth: I would hope not.

UTR: Is it generally easy for you to communicate your vision to your band?

Longstreth: No [laughs]. It’s really hard work, but I love it.

UTR: Do they change your vision a lot?

Longstreth: Not so much. Not really. There are some things. Amber [Coffman] came up singing R&B music, and when she was a kid she did Star Search and stuff. But, yeah, the voice coach wanted her to sing some song, some smooth R&B number that she refused to do, and that was the end of that. But, anyway, she’ll have ideas for melismas and tags and tails and things like that. She’ll rework things a little bit.

UTR: Is it easy to turn over what had previously had been yours and watch people have at it and start moving things around?

Longstreth: Yeah, that doesn’t really happen. It’s not like that.

UTR: Was the process of making this record a lot more different than the one before it?

Longstreth: Yeah, a lot different. That one [New Attitude EP] was made essentially by myself. This one, when we got back from that tour in November, we had about two days of rest. And [with] Chris Taylor [of Grizzly Bear], who produced it with me, we turned this house I was living in in Bed-Stuy into a recording studio. And then we recorded the basic tracks in three days. The bass, the first three guitars, the drums, some of the percussion—we had a really short window to do it. And from there, I spent some time with the recordings and did the flute overdubs and string overdubs and the vocals and guitars and shit. It was very different. I learned so much from working with Chris Taylor. I can’t say enough glowing stuff about that guy. He’s really gifted and has amazing ears.

UTR: Seeing that the album was made in such a short period of time, did it feel like you were rushed?

Longstreth: No, it didn’t. It felt like it had more to do with a challenge or an expenditure of effort. It didn’t really have to do with time so much. It just happened in a very short amount of time.

UTR: Is your natural tendency to take more time?

Longstreth: I couldn’t really characterize myself in that way. I’ve done things really quickly and taken more time with other things. If anything, varied would be one word for it, and inconsistent would be another. If I’ve done one thing one way before, I’ll try to do the exact opposite thing the next.

UTR: Do you generally like to have a concept before you start writing a record? Not to say that this is a concept record or anything…

Longstreth: Why wouldn’t you say this is a concept record?

UTR: Well, I don’t know. I don’t think we’ve really had a good definition of what a concept record is. I tend to see a concept album as something where all the songs fit together and tell a story.

Longstreth: Right…I don’t know. It’s not something that I really set out to do, but I guess it has turned out a couple times now that there’s one idea sustained across the record. I think that happens. I think I gravitate towards it. I think a concept record…I think you were maybe avoiding the term because of the slightly derogatory nature of the term.

UTR: Yeah. It has become a cliché in some ways.

Longstreth: Right. It’s this very grandiose, overstuffed endeavor. It’s like a pop form. But whatever. I don’t think “concept album” is the right word…but it’s sort of a concept album [laughs]. I’m not setting out to do these as concept albums, and I’m as surprised as anyone that they turn out to be that way. They just happen to be that way.

UTR: So, it’s not like the idea comes first and the songs come after?

Longstreth: Well…in this case, the idea of remaking this album imperfectly in my head was the first idea. It’s kind of a shell that gives support or architecture to a bunch of sensual melodies. They need the support of some good, firm, hard-ass ideas.

UTR: Personally, I like the idea. I get tired of bands just giving us another set of songs. This allows you to say, “Oh, this idea is what inspired this.” Do you spend a lot of time bouncing around ideas of whole album concepts?

Longstreth: Uh…no.

UTR: Are you a fan of concept albums?

Longstreth: No. I like Sgt. Pepper’s. But this is where it gets ambiguous. Is Pet Sounds a concept record? Is [Beyonce’s] B’day a concept record? If you listen to B’day, all of the songs are meditations on the exact same thing. It’s the exact same bass drum sample throughout the whole album. All of the songs are sort of the same tempo. I’m into everything. But it’s cool when an album is unified.

UTR: So, overall, where do you see yourself going as a songwriter?

Longstreth: I have no idea.

UTR: Do you have a set of songs that you’re kicking around?

Longstreth: I might.

UTR: Overall, do you think you’re inspired by the same things as a songwriter as you were when you started writing songs?

Longstreth: Oh…weird question. I wouldn’t even know.



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January 10th 2011

It wouldn’t be too trite to suggest that this once-unknown destination may’ve been, all along, Bitte Orca. The seventh Dirty Projectors album is a culmination of the many varied, particular, peculiar strains of hipster musicology Longstreth has thus far explored. But just bigger, brighter, bolder. More confident and rich, more ridiculous and fun. It’s a grand, irrepressible pop record; one that can’t be —as so many prior DP LPs have been— ignored or overlooked. It’s, by far, one of 2009’s best records.
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