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article imageDan Deacon dances to his own tune Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Nov 15, 2012 in Entertainment
Musician Dan Deacon contemplates his homeland on America, a bold album that combines hard-edged dance beats and gorgeous symphonic soundscapes. It's a timely work from a thoughtful artist who gladly puts actions behind his convictions.
Deacon released his first album, Spiderman of the Rings (Carpark) in 2007. A sunny work filled with dance thumpers like "Woody Woodpecker" (which samples the cartoon character's distinctive laugh), Deacon's work made avant-garde turn two years later, with the release of Bromst. In 2011, Deacon turned his talents to film, composing the score for Francis Ford Coppola's horror film Twixt with Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov. That year also saw him premiere two new orchestral works with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. As Pitchfork's Jess Harvell astutely observes, "Deacon's whole career is a testament to swirling highbrow and lowbrow together until it sounds the way a neon spin-art painting looks."
Such varied creative experiences add to the rich dynamism of America (Domino), an album that boldly integrates classical and electronic sounds into an inspired listening experience. Released this past autumn, the work explores the composer's mixed feelings about his homeland, blending wonder, awe, and hard questions around its future, all while embracing lush orchestral sounds that recall the work of Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
While the first half of the album finds Deacon tackling his own sense of apathy (the rallying cry of "one choice to make" on "Lots" seemed particularly omniscient this past autumn), the second half is a sprawling four movement suite that takes as its theme the United States in past, present, and possible future tenses. It is not a blatantly political work, but rather, a meditation on one person's place -as artist, environmentalist, humanist, individual and collective society member -within the divided, partisan landscape of America 2012.
The music "came about through travel and geography, especially cross-country tours, looking out the window and camping in state parks, mesmerized by this country and feeling happy -but also thinking about getting into cities, and seeing strip malls and suburbs and corporate shops everywhere, and how the two things are intertwined. Our culture exists within these landscapes. I can't separate them, but as an American, I can't pretend I'm external from it. I am a part of the problem; how do I reduce my role... my impact?"
A supporter of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Deacon is living his convictions, and is currently touring America in a van fuelled by cooking oil. Things are, Deacon notes, getting a bit Mad Max-esque in the battle over vanishing resources. "People are starting to commodify oil in the way other petrol-based products are (commodified)," he notes, "so it's harder to get. Before, we used to throw it way, and now they're selling it; we have a hard time salvaging and scavenging for it... people find a way to exploit the flaws of the system and that's what proves it."
Surely that exploitation theory is just as applicable to music?
"Yes," he says quickly, though he acknowledges the advances in technology have made it easier for music fans to discover new sounds, if harder for record labels, whose desire to classify everything by genre is being rendered obsolete by a generation of music fans who move freely between sounds. These are fans who've never had the experience of noodling in record shops or flipping the dial on a radio.
"I remember going to a record store as a kid, and buying CDs not knowing what they were," he recalls. "I'd buy lots of records that sucked, and it was hard to expand and branch out and find new stuff … but nowadays people can so easily experiment without any consequence, they can delete it, get something new. Genre is a lot less important to an audience. It's about sounds, not labels."
The defiance of labels gels with Deacon at a deep level. He's consciously turned away making easily classifiable work (though America touches on EDM, avant garde, modern classical, and trance) and from big-name recognition, though he's known for his celebratory live concerts that embrace (and espouse) spontaneity, interaction, and uninhibited collective expression. As NPR so accurately puts it, "Deacon serves as ringleader for a ludicrously overdriven orgy of sound." Concert-goers enjoy dance contests in the middle of the concert hall floor as Deacon performs amidst the legions, later choreographing dance moves that any and everyone can get down with.
 It sort of evolved organically   the 31 year-old Deacon says of his live shows.  When I first start...
"It sort of evolved organically," the 31 year-old Deacon says of his live shows. "When I first started, my whole goal was to get people to dance by the end of the set -which was a success -though it took me a while to figure out how to get people to feel comfortable, and to lose their inhibitions in a place that was very uncomfortable, like an empty room."
Shawn Brackbill
The instinct, he says, was to make his audience feel that "we're all on the same page, at the same level." It's an ethos that extends past his live events, and into technological innovation. Deacon's smartphone app, as described at iTunes, synchronizes all the phones in the room, turning you and the rest of the audience into the light show and sound system for the concert! This is all done WITHOUT THE USE OF ANY WIFI OR DATA! This revolutionary effect creates a stunning and unique environment. For the first time, having your phone out at a concert is not a jerk move.
The idea for his app began through his performance at the Ecstatic Music Festival in 2011, where he collaborated with Brooklyn-based quartet So Percussion. Deacon wrote a piece that featured the audience as performers, "giving them pages with musical instructions based on time. I kept thinking, 'What can a group of people do... what will they have on their person? There's no rehearsal, but most people have cell phones, so let's utilize that, let's call each other, make feedback with them, call people in the room and put it on speakerphone!'"
Deacon was very pleased with the result, particularly the creative possibilities. "There was this large, spacious sound coming from all directions, and I thought, if you could unify these phones you'd have a stereo, depending on the number of phones. The majority of people have phones, a growing majority have smartphones, there are huge screens on them, the audience has a big light and speaker... if you could tap into that, you could create these musical environments that have never existed before. I got really excited and …hashed it out, and made it a reality."
The beauty of using the app is that the experience "doesn't always have to be exactly the same. I think apps really open up that non-linear, non-consistent form that music hasn't quite been able to have before."
So, between the interactivity of live shows and the dizzying, joyous beats, whither politics? Deacon is a musician, artist, composer, ringmaster of sorts and technological innovator - but just before this year's election, he was also a voting activist, and penned a thoughtful piece in SPIN magazine made all the more powerful because of his formerly-trenchant non-voting stance. Does he think he might be influencing fans to become more politically engaged?
"I used to not give a shit about (voting), I thought it was pointless and a farce," he says. "I no longer feel that way. I don't know how much people take away, but I'd feel like a jackass not talking about it."
But isn't talking politics to your audience kind of uncool? Deacon sighs. Even in the independent music scene, he notes, "people are worried about not looking cool. I've never looked cool so it's not an issue for me."
That doesn't mean Deacon isn't deeply frustrated by what he sees as blatant hypocrisy in 21st century arts activism.
"It just doesn't make any sense," he says, more than a hint of frustration coloring his usually-soft voice. "If you look at generations prior, look at the Dadaists and their reaction to the war... and it's hard to think of the Vietnam War in the 60s and 70s without thinking of the music that accompanied it, and the protests around it. The most famous musician in all of history, John Lennon, risked being deported because of his political outspokenness. Now, you've got fucking Bono pretending to give a shit about anything, flying around the world in jets and (touring with) 200 trucks and buying carbon credits... like, suck a dick!"
"We've been designed to be apathetic, and we've designed to be apprehensive about speaking our political views or expressing any actual meaning in our art, because it's become so commodified. And commodities have to be so apolitical, because (companies) are trying to appeal to all demographics at once. But that's not what art is! Art shouldn't be treated the same way as a cereal box or a car."
For all his idealism, Deacon is perfectly aware he's part of a larger system. "I'd be a hypocrite if I said the machine hasn't helped me," he says, adding with a laugh, "I'm talking to you!"
America is Dan Deacon s third album. It showcases the artist s ability to fuse dance and electronic ...
America is Dan Deacon's third album. It showcases the artist's ability to fuse dance and electronic music with orchestral sounds, while simultaneously questioning the past, present, and future of its titular subject matter.
Deacon's found ways of working within the machine while holding on to his convictions. He's donating his fees from this week's shows in New York to ongoing hurricane relief efforts. "I thought it would be best to inform my fans so that if they were also feeling conflicted about raging and partying while all this shit is so fucked," he writes on his website, "that at least they would know that their ticket was going to help aid in the recovery." It's a strong symbol from an artist who deeply believes music should have more meaning, even if that means occasionally means not banging people over the head with issues.
"No one wants to be preached to," he notes. "There needs to be a balance between what you're talking about and what you're trying to convey. I'd rather try to raise a question than pose an answer, though music right now is so geared toward distraction and escapism -not that there's anything wrong with that -but I've been making it for a while now, and I wanted to add some sort of other depth to it."
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