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A Quietus Interview

A World Unto Itself: An Interview With Dirty Projectors
Chad Parkhill , July 12th, 2012 09:52

Dirty Projectors' sixth album, Swing Lo Magellan, marks a shift from the meticulous structures of their previous albums towards a more direct and heartfelt approach to songwriting. Chad Parkhill discussed this transition with lead Projector David Longstreth

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In the past, Dirty Projects have frequently been spoken of more in terms of their music's stylistic approach, rather than its content. For many critics, the most exciting thing about the group was not the melodies or their emotional weight, but the dazzling array of sounds and influences that songwriter and band leader David Longstreth could cram into each song.

There are many reasons why such an academic response to their music was warranted. Many Projectors albums have an explicitly stated concept—their 2005 album The Getty Address was described by the band as a glitch opera about Eagles drummer Don Henley. 2007's Rise Above, meanwhile, recast Black Flag's Damaged from memory, resulting in lush polyrhythmic pop. The band's deployment of such self-consciously high concepts has often encouraged an overtly intellectual, rather than emotional or physical, response in their listeners.

By contrast, the songs that comprise their newest album, Swing Lo Magellan, are in a completely different register. Although the band's trademark use of convoluted arrangements and unusual musical influences hasn't abated, this time those elements are placed in service of the songs, rather than being ends in themselves. The Quietus quizzed Longstreth about this latest move in a career marked by contrarianism.

The promotional material for Swing Lo Magellan talks about it as a highly personal album. People don't generally associate the words 'intimate' or 'personal' with Dirty Projectors albums - is it accurate to talk about this as a highly personal album, or is it playing with those musical tropes of intimacy and highly personal songwriting?

Dave Longstreth: If it were the latter, you'd have the wrong guy. You know, I like to do exactly the opposite of what I just did - and at the end of all of that Bitte Orca touring, it seemed like the most daring thing that I could possibly do is just to use the simplest tools and write something that felt irreducibly personal. To use the rules, and to say something true. And that's what this album is.

You mentioned following the rules, and it seems that a song like 'Impregnable Question' very much consciously draws on a musical heritage that encompasses the American folk tradition—those tropes of directness that were established in the 1960s and 1970s. There's hints of Simon and Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, that sort of thing going on in there—is that what you mean when you talk about following the rules?

DL: No, that's not the kind of rules that I mean. I just mean this edict not to fuck around: not to be obsessed with surfaces; not to be profligate in these kaleidoscopic textures; but to assess the content and substance. To be real. 

In terms of that edict to focus on what's real, it seems that it could not only apply to past Dirty Projectors work, but also to the American indie-rock scene in general, where there's been a lot of emphasis on modes of presentation. Is this return to authenticity not only about your own songs, or...

DL: You're narrating it as just like another kind of aesthetic play - the return to the evocation of a certain kind of authenticity. Maybe that's just your inclination as a thinker or something like that, but it's not necessarily mine. I think that in earlier Dirty Projectors records, yes, fucking A: I was obsessed with the different kind of effects you could get out of, like, doubling a clarinet in a chalumeau register with a fucking piccolo an octave above it, and that crazy texture, and how fucking Stravinsky knew how to do that. And, shit, how we might have a certain superficial similarity to something that Black Dice did ten years ago.

There's a definite depth about those questions, those musical questions. It's also true when you look around at American music. I like that you say from the indie-rock community, but I would say across the whole spectrum: from the Rhiannas and the Coldplays all the way across to the Woodsists and folks in that community. But the idea of having a discrete thought, weirdly, seems anachronistic. To finish a phrase, to utter a premeditated phrase, seems bizarre. Maybe it's the contrarian in me, but I wanted to do the opposite of all that.

So, in terms of achieving that, how did you go about that process? What does it mean, in more concrete terms, to avoid this fucking around in the surface and going into the depths?

DL: For me, it was not doing it again, and again, and again, and again, and again. Being on tour forever, on Bitte Orca, you'd look out the window and think about all of the songs you wanted to write. The great thing about going to this place we were in upstate was that there wasn't the time and separateness to do exactly that. So I got into a bit of a routine: I'd wake up and drink a couple pots of coffee, and just kinda go to it and write without imagining any end. Basically just write as many songs as possible, to try and open the window. The window turned out to stay open for about six months, and then I felt like I was kind of done, but I wrote about seventy songs.

That's quite a number. I have heard that there were a lot of songs composed for this record, and several of them have come out in various forms: Domino's Record Store Day release [Smugglers Way], for example, had a demo of a song ['You Against The Larger World'] that didn't make the cut for the album. Do you have plans for the vast majority of those songs, or is Swing Lo Magellan the definitive statement of what you're trying to get at?

DL: Not at all. I didn't write the songs with an album in mind, and there isn't this winnowing of the wheat from the chaff. I like the songs that are on this album, but I don't know if they're necessarily all of the best ones from this period. You know, I'll listen to Revolver, or I'll listen to John Wesley Harding or something - but when it comes to music that's being released now, I tend not to listen to albums, if I'm being honest. I would like to listen to albums, but I put them on and I don't. I do it once, maybe, and then I'll return to a song or two from a given record. I'm not really tempted to wax about what that means or whatever, but I wrote this with that spirit in mind. These songs don't exist in the LP context: they turned into just a beautiful LP, a gorgeous LP with six songs on each side, forty-two minutes; it feels very classic. But there are a lot of other numbers. I'm excited about them.

It seems that the album as an artform is at a crossroads. Lots of artists still release albums - nobody seems to have fully embraced the 'just release separate songs through iTunes' model - but at the same time most people don't sit down and listen to albums in their entirety. What are your thoughts about that?

DL: I don't know. It feels that there are larger questions about the way the internet is changing our unit of focus, I guess, but I don't know. I don't know about that. For me, it had the beneficial effect of realising that a song is a world unto itself: you can pack as much into a song as you can into a whole album.

Is this what you're trying to do with the songs you wrote during this period? Trying to create each song as a whole unit of expression?

DL: Yeah, definitely. Kind of as a world, as an idea. Less in terms of making it super-dense or something, because I've been in awe of this empty set of speakers: the less that's going on, the more thrilling is everything that's happening. 

I'm not sure we have much time left, so I'll finish up with a question - and it's probably one you're anticipating - about the personnel changes in Dirty Projectors. I understand Angel Deradoorian is currently “on hiatus” - is that something you can expand upon?

Sure. I mean, Dirty Projectors has had a different touring line-up for every album. With the last record, there was a move - largely from the press, I feel - to create a brand around the touring band. Being a musician, there's no distinction between what your work is and what your life is. It's a very porous, porous frame. Angel wants to write songs - she feels like a songwriter. She's got that desire in her, and she's got to figure out if that's a thirst she can quench. If you've got that, you've got to pursue it - it's gonna eat at you, then eat at the band, if you're not being honest about it.

The other thing is, it happened at a good moment: this album isn't about the idea of three-part female harmony in the way that Bitte Orca was. And when it comes to music … In the band we're very close, it's kinda like a family and we're all good friends, and on a personal level I believe in fairness, sharing, generosity, equality, those sort of things. But on a musical level, I'm very much a dictator: I write everything. So if Angel wants to see what she's got in her, she's got to test it. I'm in full support of her doing that.