Monday, June 22, 2009

dirty projectors interview

If you read the internets, you've no doubt already had the Dirty Projectors' new album, Bitte Orca, shoved down your throat. By which I mean, lovingly and deliciously shoved down your throat, as BO is a wondrous thing in 2009, something I never thought I'd admit for a work of theirs. In the past, DP mainman Dave Longstreth and his work struck me as too precious and precocious, over-thought and over-wrought. But within moments of "Cannibal Resource" I was converted. A metaphor excised from my Spin review perhaps put that transition best: "Like a pineapple, Longstreth’s prickly surface now belies the pop within: bright, tart, sweet, and gushing all at once." It helped that I spent plenty of time with the album down in the Caribbean. Anyhow, I had a chance to chat with Longstreth over a bowl of black rice as he mused about mis-translations, Coltrane's Meditations, Paper Rad, and Henry Rollins as mere mouthpiece for Greg Ginn's vision.

I moved to New York in 2005. I did finish my studies at Yale. I thought I was leaving for awhile because I hated it.

What did you hate about it?

I hated the attitude, I’m super into learning and stuff like that. Just the feeling of that at the school, is just kinda gross.

What does it emphasize instead?

Instead of a noble and clear pursuit of knowledge? The same shit that college anywhere is about, or academia. Specifically, I wanted to study painting and music together. You come up to a certain point where you can learn about the history and the technique, but you can’t really teach the thing itself.

It’s a giant metaphor.

Yeah, a giant metaphor. There’s this reverence for the way things were done that was just stiff and unnatural.

Do you study painting still?

I’m focused on music.

I think it’s funny your band name invokes this other medium and discipline.

Porn you mean.

Nonono. My girlfriend is a filmmaker and she goes “a dirty projector is my nemesis." Then there’s “DP” double penetration jokes too.

I didn’t think about that at the time.

What did it stem from?

I like the idea of it being an open phrase. I like the idea of a psychological projection, the idea of sharing or agreeing on a mutually blurred image. Also just the idea of this bloom of imagination that happens when things are translated poorly, mistranslated, um…which is something that I feel like is a generative principle in the music that I write.

Glitches and the like? I was thinking of this correspondence that takes part in Ulysses, where Bloom has this affair with a woman and the woman means to write “I do not like that word” but instead misspells it as “world.” It totally changes everything. It’s this amazing mistake.

Totally! What if she does mean ‘world’?

(mention getting a word from "Stillness is the Move" in the review wrong)

That’s my shit! I don’t know if you’re looking for it, but when it first occurred to me that one could try to re-imagine an album from memory (Rise Above) and I was thinking of Damaged, I was like…at first I was horrified of the idea but I went “That’s what I have to do.’ That was the most explicitly expository of a mode of dirty projection that I’ve done so far. The songs on this album that I wrote for the girls were coming from a similar place. Seeing if I could transpose a melody that I’ve written into this other instrument, if I could speak through them. That idea of taking one thing from one idiom and putting it in another.

Did you ever get feedback from Ginn or Rollins about Rise Above?

Rollins yes, but Ginn no. But to clarify, I'm completely uninterested in Rollins. Rollins is a figurehead; it’s Ginn’s vision. You know your shit, but it’s not about Rollins.

Ginn is the shredder visionary.

He was in some documentary recently, where they managed to interview him. And he was soooo stoney. He was on another plane. And it felt like this kind of…not to draw a Stephen Dedealus thing, but I would’ve loved to be there with him in that kind of moment, responding to it. Dead Oceans made an effort to get in touch with him, to get his approval, also from a pragmatic, copyright approach. He was just OUT. Not available. But when we played in Austin on the tour, I guess Rollins was doing “spoken word.”

AKA a stand-up routine.

AKA motivational speaking for dispossesed teenagers. Which is a mildly noble pursuit. The next day he’s in Waterloo just as my friend had pressed play on Rise Above. He was walking around, glancing up at the speakers amusedly. An interesting footnote is that apparently Rollins bought a whole bunch of Sun Ra and West African guitar music. Which I thought was hilarious.

“I suddenly need some Thomas Mapfumo…” But back to the girls and transposing your intent onto them, was there any correction on their part? Like, saying that a girl wouldn’t express something in such a way? As a man, I wonder if a woman would think like me?

No, I just wrote the songs. Haha. I was thinking about that, especially on “Two Doves.” It was really funny to write that.

That was even more of an originating idea for the album was the old truism that an indie rock band is only as good as its record collection. One thing that annoyed me about Rise Above in hindsight was how I had unwittingly played into that, pitting West African guitar music against Black Flag. It was a totally awesome thing I was thinking about, but I like the idea for the new album to be about taking the most blockbuster references. Basically carving my musical language into a bedrock of the most blockbuster references. Songs that are just unequivocally successful music, in terms of progeny that our culture has: Timbaland, Zeppelin, the Beatles. Music that it’s pointless to like or dislike and see if we could maintain that.

Bitte Orca is the German word for please and then the carnivorous whale. The song with that phrase, I feel like there was a meaning…the way it relates to the music is twofold: in the broad sense, there is something gentle and barbed in that combination of words. Something smooth and jagged. Sweet and sour. I love music like Coltrane in ’65, this kind of apex that is resolving apparent opposites, taking two things that are on opposite ends of a spectrum and showing them to be totally entwined. As Coltrane took the technical and the spiritual expression as totally one.

The end of his classic quartet or more with Rashied Ali and Alice Coltrane?

I was thinking of Meditations.

That's funny, as I always think of that particular record as having a true dichotomy between chaos and peace.

I guess in the past, I tried to do that with the music that I’ve written. Not only have it be on a level, but to have this corresponding idea frame, which I never really considered essential to the enjoyment of the music, but as another layer of it. With these songs, I tried to just ask less of the songs in the hope that they could be bigger.

You went through a lot of band members, did you not? Was it a personal thing or was it a difficulty in getting the vision properly transcribed?

Wanting to have it bend to the music. The way DP started was me writing the music because I write and I’ve always written music. It started as an art project. I didn’t think about it as a rock band or career, I just did it because I do it. It wasn’t until I was touring so much that it was time for me to simplify and codify this a little bit in January of ’07.

Was it hard to find the right personnel to carry it?

Yes and no. Our instincts were good. Looking back it feels very haphazard. It all made sense.

Was it pre-meditated to have a more feminine aspect to it?

I like music and art and literature for that matter that posits its own world. Wagner, William Blake, or Coltrane, or Ulysses, something that is an entire world. A balance of masculine and feminine. Kinda retarded but magazines ask artists to generate content for them so they don’t have to pay anyone. I ended up doing ten songs that fit the broadest and most inclusive aspects of “new jack swing.” The expressiveness of R&B to bear. Two things that appeal to me about that, that uniting of opposites and the masculine-feminine, rhythmic, melodic, bringing it all together. The way the band has formed totally makes sense.

What is startling about Bitte Orca is that the album has the feminine songs as the centerpiece.

This is the first album where I’m writing for this group of people, for Angel, Amber, Brian, me. The treatment of the girls as alternate embodiments of myself. The polyphony and hocketed stuff…That wasn’t a pre-ordained idea. I wanted it to be like a Beatles album, with everybody having their own tune. It’s just what felt natural (in terms of sequence). Which one is it? This one, it appeared in a certain form.

What about how the cover of Slaves’ Graves being re-iterated a second time?

Right! As I was writing the basic cassette versions of the melodies, I wanted that to be the cover, Amber and Angel enacting that emblem. I like the idea of revisiting an old idea in progressively greater detail..

When you read these spiritual tracts about going in a circle or what have you, there’s this sense of returning to the starting point, but one step up. A spiral more than a circle.

A cyclical idea of history. I love it. For sure.

What was the first African thing you got into?

There was that Eno essay about the migration of African musical something. He calls it something awesome, the transmigration of something. It starts with the Congo, gets into the slave trade, to the West Indies, down into Brazil, up into Spain. It’s this amazing historical map that he did. Just seeing how Fela was re-Africanizing James Brown just a few years after James Brown had gotten Africanized.

Or Ali Farka TourĂ© hearing the blues and folding that back in, to where western ears hear him as John Lee Hooker…

I can see where that’s coming from. Oh! Have you heard Group Doueh? That to me is that moment!

(Play him the new Sublime Frequencies release from Group Bombino and then quote his quote from The Believer about "contextualizing the international music/ American 'independent' music relationship (not just sanitation, domestication, and theft, but proper deconstruction, abstraction, and creative misreading)
I like that on SF stuff, you can hear rock’n’roll becoming Thai pop but mishearing it and vice versa.

Yeah, I can’t remember the exact context in writing that but yeah, it’s an awesome time to be making music, just to be involved in the whole thing. The trading of ideas and stuff like that is…I feel like it is a different model than the Graceland love and theft way. I feel like it’s a different sort of paradigm.

Do you get to engage with people outside of indie rock, outside of the states?

We might play some shows with Ali Farka TourĂ©’s son, which would be soo cool.

I’m one of those people that engages with the rhythm. I love to engage with language and trying to, particularly with poetry, examine from all possible angles, which can be a source of playfulness or airlessness. Earlier albums and earlier lyrics that I’ve written, I let that reign, this interest in language as a slippery thing. Less so with this album. I just wanted to be more direct. To me a way of getting at that was being less conscious of the things that we’re all singing. Just letting them. Not not editing exactly, but just doing it.

Can you tell me a bit about the lyrics for "Temecula Sunrise"?

This came out of this discussion I had with James about these Paper Rad kids camping out in these warehouses in Providence, these disused artifacts of this different social organization. We were thinking of these miles and miles of new construction subdivisions that blanket the landscape outside of every city in the US. On tour, you’re driving through them, before and after the city, these new construction zones. After the social impetus that makes these things pass, we were imagining what these buildings would be used for. We had these ecstatic artist kids just painting crazy murals and making funny Utopian art in a new construction home in Temecula, California.