Dan Deacon could be forgiven for wanting nothing more out of life than to party his brains out. After all, if he’s proven anything over the past decade, it’s that he’s pretty good at having a great time.
That will be confirmed by anyone who’s been lucky enough to see the Baltimore-spawned electronica renegade in action. Famously, Deacon doesn’t just plug in the synths and play—he puts on the kind of show that inevitably veers into spectacle territory. Highlights on any given night can include impromptu dance contests, circle pits, tag-team relays, and, most awesomely, “the gauntlet”, wherein fans join raised hands to make a row of church steeples, their fellow concertgoers passing underneath and then joining the end of the line once they are through.
Just as Deacon looks like he’s having fun when he’s on-stage orchestrating mass insanity, he’s in a great position career-wise. Thanks to a string of excellent, hard-banging releases, including 2007’s much-lauded Spiderman of the Rings, he’s now a major draw across the continent. Not content to restrict himself to microchip-powered technology, he’s spent the past couple of years establishing himself as a breakout classical composer, his success perhaps best measured by the fact that he recently played Carnegie Hall.
Winningly, all these very different sides of him come together on his ambitious new album, America.
Given all that he’s got going on, the 31-year-old should be living life large and carefree. Instead, America finds him ruminating on where his country is going and what the hell is wrong with it, the answer being “plenty”. Reached on a tour bus headed toward Phoenix, the engaging and thoughtful artist suggests that he’s not interested in being someone who fiddles while Rome burns to the ground around him.
“I still like to party,” Deacon says with a laugh. “The thing that you have to do, though, is find a balance. I think what happens is that, as you get older, your mental balance shifts. I’m sure that everyone looks back at themselves 10 years ago and goes, ‘I can’t believe that I used to think that way.’ That’s just what happens, except maybe with some musicians or actors, who are almost required to maintain a stillness in their life—they have to be the same as when they were first discovered because people will have a negative reaction.”
The way Deacon sees it, he owes it to himself and his audience to evolve.
“I think so many people look at me and wonder, ‘How the hell did he make it?’ ” he says. “So I feel like I’ve got the luxury to morph. The changes that I’ve made have been met very positively, even though I was very nervous about it all. I’m sure there were people who were like, ‘What? This guy had a song called “Red Penis”, and now he’s got an album called America? That ridiculous.’ ”
A half-hour chat with Deacon doesn’t just dwell on music. Mention that it seems crazy that Mitt Romney is ahead of Barack Obama in the polls—especially considering what happened the last time a Republican was in the White House—and he’s quick to dissect what’s going on.
“The whole thing needs to be neck and neck so that ratings are up,” he argues. “When was the last time there was an actual blowout race? It has to be a nail-biter down to the finish line so that people are constantly watching. It’s too huge of a media event, so the media does everything that it can to make sure that they go right down to the wire. It’s enraging.”
While enraged might be too strong a word, Deacon definitely has serious problems with where America is at as a society today. The U.S.—and, let’s face it, Canada—has become a country of excess, consuming oil, power, food, natural resources, and pretty much anything else you can think of at an unsustainable rate. Whether it’s making flat-screen TVs, the latest Apple product, or brand-name clothes, the rest of the world toils for minimum wages so that we can maintain a standard of living out of whack with almost everywhere else on the planet.
“We live in a culture and a society where there seems to be endless amounts of whatever it is that we want…if you’re lucky to live in privileged worlds that are North America or Europe,” Deacon says. “But at the same time, you start to reach a threshold where you realize endless abundance is not everything.”
With that, the musician sums up what he’s done with America. The record is meant to be a journey, kicking off with the star-spangled banger “Guilford Avenue Bridge”. From there, Deacon can’t be accused of going soft; the techno-punk riot “Lots” would make perfect soundtrack music for window-smashing on Wall Street.
Reflecting his conviction that it’s time to scale back the excess, things eventually downshift, sonically speaking. “Crash Jam”, which starts out as a strobe-lit nightmare, quickly shape-shifts into a robotic choral pop jam. As the album progresses, a small army of classical musicians joins the party on such instruments as cello, bassoon, French horn, viola, and violin.
America ends with a four-part, 20-minute suite, with sections titled “USA I: Is a Monster”, “USA II: The Great American Desert”, “USA III: Rail”, and “USA IV: Manifest”. The most important track on the record, Deacon suggests, is “USA III: Rail”, in which the synths drop out and classical strings take over.
“Sonically, the ear fatigues, and the magic eventually gets lost,” he says, referring to the wave of electronic music that’s currently ruling pop. “There’s a plateau effect. That’s why I wanted to work more with acoustic instruments on this record. There’s a limitation as to how many layers can compete at the same time before everything becomes just noise.”
More than ever, of course, we’re bombarded with noise, whether it’s on television, on the radio, in stores, or through iPod earbuds. After a good decade of going full-bore, Deacon can’t be blamed for jumping on a soapbox to argue that it’s time to dial things back, even if most of North America is too busy rushing out to buy the new iPad mini to take notice.
Dan Deacon plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Friday (October 26).