In Essential Albums, our favourite artists dig up a handful of records that they consider “Essential” by any definition. This week, electronic composer and professional good times-instigator Dan Deacon dishes on what's inspired him to be as weird as he wants to.
Baltimore-based electronic artist Dan Deacon is something of an oddity. He's a contemporary composer who hawks his wares in sweaty clubs. He's equally versed in computer music and analogue nerdery, and knows a thing or two about the sounds of '70s and '80s arena rock, too. He can turn novelty into compelling, complex music. And his talents for party-making are pretty well-evidenced. Musically, he's an orphan (to whom does he belong? Daft Punk? Terry Riley?) and he has few imitators.
His latest, Gliss Riffer is a step inside. He's focused more intently on lyrics. He's pared down the maximalism. Cut out a few BPMs. But that also doesn't mean he's tamed himself. There are still those Deacon-esque heights that are characteristically, deliciously bonkers.
For Essential Albums, Dan Deacon has some surprising picks that express how his approach has and hasn't changed and proves, as always, he's thinking carefully about every detail. I can only wonder how he might've answered differently had we caught him around 2007's Bromst or even 2009's Spiderman of the Rings.
We spoke with Dan from his living room in Baltimore about which albums inspired, were foundational to, or otherwise changed the way he makes music. (His cat had much to add).
Talking Heads, Remain In Light (1980)
Dan Deacon: The production on this record is really what the record is about. I think the fact that Eno wanted to call it the Talking Heads and Brian Eno makes a lot of sense. So much of the album is the arrangement. I feel like the orchestration is so important, and, in a studio setting, production is basically the orchestration. You’re really flushing out the songs.
I listen mainly for texture and rhythm. I mean, harmony and vocals are important as well, but what really draws me into a record are the new sounds it brings. This record is all based on chopped-up jams and every song is one chord, so it could really just be flushed out. Obviously, it needed to have good harmonic content to draw in a pop audience, but it’s the constantly shifting timbres and the intricate rhythms — the record’s unstoppable.
I feel like all of 21st Century music has Eno’s shadow on it. He completely revolutionized what electronic music could be, legitimized the recording arts as an art form in a lot of ways, and branched out both into the pop and experimental communities. It’s insane. There aren’t a lot of people who go across that spectrum.
Joanna Newsom, The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004)
And, in almost an opposite way, this record is timbrally restrained — it’s just her voice and harp. So it really forces you to fixate on the vocals because the textures are being illustrated in the lyrics.
You know, I never really thought about lyrics that way. Lyrics to me were always an afterthought, not something in the foreground. So when I was listening to this record a bunch, I kept thinking about how interesting it would be to write for a limited set of timbres, because as an electronic musician I work with basically anything. While you can tell the songs are written by the same person, very few of the same interuments sound to you from song to song. I just kept thinking about how different it would be to approach music the way she does and how the texture and the narrative really come out in the lyrics. It made me appreciate lyrics in a greater capacity. Everything is on the table.
There’s two kinds of music that I think are really engaging. Both of them force you to use your imagination, but one is abstract and one is narrative. Remain In Light is a very solid abstract album, musically, and Milk-Eyed Mender is a very vivid narrative. It’s almost like reading a book or being told a story. The lyrics come so naturally.
Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
Again, another record of limited texture, musically, but wild and masterful explorations of what one can do with the human voice in regards to the lyrics. As a composer you think about how every sound has pitch and amplitude and texture and duration, but the human voice is the only one that has an added layer, and it’s content. And that content colours everything around. I think that’s why the folk tradition could be so minimal, because it was the lyrics that were colouring and texturing everything.
Brian Eno, Before And After Science (1977)
I know we’ve already talked about Eno, but I can’t stop listening to Before and After Science. It’s an incredible record. I like it in particular because he’s about to transition. It was his last of the pop records. I think he’d already dived pretty heavily into the ambient music, but needed to get this record out, and I think you can hear it towards the later tracks. You can hear his drifting.
They Might Be Giants, Lincoln (1988)
I think this is a record that merges both worlds. I really love the lyrics on it. They’re beautiful. The allegories they’re going for are dead on. But also, texturally, it’s all over the place. It’s not just a rock record. It’s too weird to be pop music, but it’s not experimental enough to be experimental. And that’s something I can really relate to and get inspired by. I like that it exists in the middle and it’s aware of its middleness — not in a negative way — but it’s not like, “Ugh, this is too weird to be on the radio” or “this isn’t weird enough to be regarded by the art community.” It’s like: “this is what we make, and we’re gonna make it as best we can.” And I find that very inspiring.