Dan Deacon: Learning to Relax

Music Features Dan Deacon

It’s Friday the 13th when I speak with Dan Deacon, and we wax on the obligatory subject of superstitions, the electronic songwriter comfortable to proclaim our safety from the stop on the calendar. “I believe in a realm beyond science, or at least beyond what science can yet explain,” he admits. The chat is characterized by long answers to long questions, with Deacon confident enough with his own thoughts to trust his spontaneous replies. He’s on point, but at ease.

On his fourth album, Gliss Riffer, he titles one of the standouts “Learning to Relax,” and it seems like it might be a tough concept for the energetic performer, for the hyper interviewee whose art has always felt like it could burst at the seams with ideas. The concept of relaxation, of leisure, was stumbled upon, an indirect result of his self-induced solitary recording for the first time since his debut mass-released LP, Spiderman of the Rings.

“Making a record by myself, all of a sudden all of these new challenges emerged,” Deacon says. “I was the only ears in the room. I started thinking ‘well, I like these songs, but do I only like them because I can hear every stage of their existence?’ I kept thinking if these were like pictures of my kids, where if I showed them to people, would they be like ‘these are great kids’ or would they be like ‘yeah, everyone’s got kids, leave me alone.”

“Learning to Relax” ended up being the song that took Deacon the most time, a song that held up the album’s progress. “I started with it and I ended with it,” he says. And though Deacon calls the album the “most fun” he’s ever had creating, he also desperately wanted to complete it.

“I saw this interview with Bill Murray,” Deacon recalls, “and he was talking about his approach to acting. And he said ‘you’re best at what you do when you are very relaxed. The more relaxed you are, the better you are at what you are doing.’ And this completely blew my fucking head off. I was so stress-motivated. Like a lot of people, I used deadlines as motivation. When something had to be done is when it was done.”

Deacon laughs loudly when he exclaims, “And what a terrible way to live!”

“My idea of relaxing was wasting time, and just having my brain be full of whatever was on the screen of my phone or my computer,” he says. “Then I realized, I’m never relaxed, and I’m never bored. And those two things are very important to the creative process. If you’re never bored, you are never letting your mind wander. If your mind never wanders, you will never get lost in thought. And if you never get lost in thought, you’re never going to think things that you wouldn’t have thought otherwise.”

The idea that Deacon experienced self-doubt is almost laughable when you consider his track record. Going into Gliss Riffer, he has released three consecutive acclaimed albums, including 2009’s Bromst and 2012’s America. Deacon notes that the commercial rewards from his work are minimal, that he doesn’t own a house or a car, though he does own a school bus. An application that was first used as part of his performances has gone on to earn, but not for him, as he is no longer a part of the company that developed it.

“I’m more interested in what technology is going to do to create not just new works of art, but entirely new fields of art,” he says, “entirely new types of art that we don’t even have a name for now. Technology has always influenced artistic forms and in the last 150 years, we have so many new art forms. Photography. Film. The recording arts. And they all completely change how we interact as a society and they came about because of new technology. What are the new art forms that we are on the cusp of? What was there before poetry that led to poetry? What are we about to do that in 200 years will be as beloved as music or film but will be neither?”

Deacon thinks that smartphones could pave the way for this. He admits they are an annoyance that distract at concerts, but only because of how we currently use them. His app, which incorporates flashing lights into his performances, might not be an artistic breakthrough, but it could be a step towards it. “It couldn’t have existed 15 years ago,” he says, “and I like thinking about things that don’t exist now, but could exist with current or future technology. What is the music that is not music? What is the listening experience that is not linear? What can you only experience in groups?”

And while the degree of commercial success has been limited and relative, one simply needs to view his coveted opening slot for Arcade Fire on their national tour as an indication of the esteem he is held in.

“I was pretty nervous at first,” Deacon says about the arena tour, “and mostly because I remember being 15 and going to a show and thinking ‘ugh, why are these other bands even here?’ If I went to see Die Hard and they showed me The Jungle Book, I’d be fuckin’ pissed. But it made me think that I had to give it more than 100 percent.”

Deacon’s goal with the opening sets, “not to be tolerated, but be remembered,” was a success in part because, he says, “their audience was up for it.” And it was long-time friend Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, who pointed out to him “‘a lot of people here, this is their first concert. They are coming to see Arcade Fire, their favorite band, at this place where I’ve seen hockey games before, and you are gonna be the first performer they ever see, doing all this crazy shit.’ I was like ‘that’s pretty cool.’”

The exposure of the tour, coupled with the timing for Gliss Riffer, makes Deacon very aware that this album holds more potential to be heard in a big way than his previous efforts.

“That’s why you do an opening act tour,” Deacon says. “Even when I did a tour opening for Animal Collective, there were people there saying ‘how have I never heard of you before, that’s crazy.’ And I’d be like ‘that IS crazy.’ When you work in the industry, you can’t really wrap your head around that. But then you find out they heard about Animal Collective from a friend, and it makes more sense.”

Deacon knows that the exposure gained by opening for Animal Collective and for Arcade Fire are apples and oranges, and though relaxation is his mantra right now, that doesn’t mean he has lost any degree of awareness for what this album could mean.

“At some point in your career, you realize that all this can go away, and consequences become attached,” Deacon says. “I remember seeing Ian MacKaye speak in Baltimore and him saying he did everything in his power to make sure that his music wasn’t his career, that it wasn’t his sole source of income, that it remained his passion.

“At first, I was like ‘are you crazy? That’s everyone’s dream, to live off their craft.’ But when he got more into it, it made more sense, to never want to associate the music you create with paying your bills or your rent. Luckily, he has the privilege of running a very successful label. But that really resonated with me.

“But, yeah, now that I have more to lose, it is easier to question my art. And each new choice raised four new choices. So, likewise, if you focus on that too much, it becomes a burden, it becomes a nightmare, it becomes a thing of anxiety and stress. I think that’s what anxiety and stress are. Things that should be viewed with anticipation or excitement instead are viewed with dread or fear. I think that’s what I was doing a lot.”

Deacon laughs again, as he does often, knowing the whole album hinged on his getting past these worries and anxieties, that he needed to learn to relax.

“Luckily I saw that Bill Murray clip,” he says, “or I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

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