Trip and Jitter: the Electronic World of Dan Deacon

Violet- and orchid-colored LED banks shimmer across the room. Green and pink spots radiate out and back. A steady stream of beats and keyboards from other electronica luminaries rumbles out of the speakers. Let's dance! Or maybe just listen?

Onstage, Dan Deacon is busy tweaking his gear. Out on the floor, the audience is oddly antsy. To fight the waiting, one woman hangs on her boyfriend. Clumps of hipsters conviviate. Very strong drinks (a sponsorship deal?) flow for seven bucks a pop. Anticipation thickens. Impatience turns to pacing. Young men make solo air grooves. The LED black lights on stage go up, and sounds begin to burble and throb from the center-stage table full of bright pink and purple gear connected by cables green, yellow, orange, and every other color of the rainbow. After one song, to which everyone politely stands and listens, the crowd forms a circle and the dancing begins. What can only be described as a line dance follows. Crowd surfing is epidemic. Rather than random gyrations, these dances have prescribed moves and formations. This is no ordinary night at Rough Trade in Brooklyn: these people showed up knowing what to expect, and knowing their parts.

The next morning, Deacon and I are supposed to talk about his new record, Gliss Riffer. A follow-up to his most mature and intriguing opus so far, America (2012), Gliss Riffer is a more pop affair, definitely a lighter moodiness—but it also has a subtle dark side, Deacon's most accomplished lyrics yet, and a profusion of sounds (such as acoustic tabla) not present on its celebrated predecessor. When he's not available at the appointed time, I'm not surprised. Being an indie electronic maestro is harder than it looks. An hour and a half later, we finally connect.

"Sorry I missed your call," Deacon says, "I completely slept through my alarm. I normally don't do that, and I feel like a jackass."

Since the release of his Bromst, in 2009, electronic musician, composer, guitarist, tuba player, singer, and dance impresario Dan Deacon has been making some of the most challenging and danceable music in the electronic genre. Before Bromst, Deacon had already released 12 recording projects on such small labels as Standard Oil, Comfort Stand, Psych-O-Path, and Mistletone. Early on, he showed gifts for layering, playful humor, and creating irresistible dance music. But as Deacon has evolved, he's begun to integrate acoustic instruments, ever more intelligible lyrics, and his own singing (albeit through processors), while also composing contemporary classical pieces that have received positive reviews. He's proved that, despite the cold burbling and beats of machinery, he and his music have a soul. His art, clearly influenced by pioneers of electronica like cartoon music genius Raymond Scott and player piano composer Conlon Nancarrow, has become a blend of classical, experimental, psychedelia, and contemporary classical, all of it generated by computers and racks of effects, particularly software and hardware synthesizers. Some of Deacon's favorite tools, according to, include an Ibanez PM7 phase modulator, a Wavetek oscillator, a DigiTech Whammy pedal, a Casio keyboard, and a Behringer digital mixer. Also a master marketer, Deacon has an inviting DJ stage presence that has cultivated a hugely loyal following who arrive at his gigs fully expecting to be part of the show.


"Well, they are the act," he says. "You can't have a good show without a good audience. You can go see a band that's terrible, and if the audience is going wild, the show is great. Or, vice versa, if a band is giving their all and the audience is lackluster, the show tends to be lackluster."

A big, bearded bear of a guy, Deacon was raised in West Babylon, Long Island. He now lives in Baltimore, and is a known brainiac and a good talker.

Robert Baird: So there are two Deacons in one body?

Dan Deacon: It's almost like I have two separate practices. I have, like, a studio practice and a performance practice, and they both inform the other, but they are separate practices. They are like two sinewaves that are slightly out of phase, and sometimes they connect, but other times they are vastly separate.

If I think I'm gonna play it live, I'll probably add some drums, I'll think about tempo more, I'll think about density and how it comes out of the PA system. Are there any audience activities or participation that we can do during this song? If I'm not gonna play it live, it becomes much freer. I can do whatever I want with it, because I don't have to worry about where it's going to sit in regard to the context of a live set.

Baird: So, much like being an audiophile, composing electronic music is a solo pursuit, right? On Gliss Riffer, there are more vocals in your music than ever before. Is playing a live instrument on stage next?

Deacon: I keep thinking about the luxury of having band members—if you had someone who writes one part, and then you write the other part, and then one person puts it together, and then you record it. You play the same instruments every time. I feel like, in electronic music, it's assumed that your sound is gonna drastically change from record to record, track to track even. And I like that. Especially because electronic music is so much about texture. And I'm very drawn to texture-driven music. And there's something I envy about a band that can get a review that doesn't talk about how it's a negative thing that it sounds like their own work!!

Baird: Perhaps the biggest reason why a lot of electronic music is overlooked by those who care about sound—and want to listen rather than dance—is that much of it is flat and one-dimensional and compressed beyond description. In many cases, it's all about being LOUD to the detriment of everything else. As an electronic composer, what is your relationship with compression?

Deacon: When I first started, I was running everything to the red. I was letting the mixer maxing out be my compressor or limiter. And I liked that, but I also had no idea what I was doing.


You can't really have a record without dynamics. If you're working with electronics, you're sculpting sinewaves. You're flying in waves to make sinewaves not sound like other sinewaves. And you're trying to take pre-existing sounds and morph them, restructure them, and I think there are very few ways to do that better than with compression. You can really completely and radically alter a sound with a beautiful compressor. I can't imagine making music without compressors. They're just some of the best effects.

But you want to make sure you're not crushing your dynamic range. It's like having too much reverb or too much anything—it's too much. I think about effects as spices. I love a gram of salt, but I also like the chicken I'm putting it on. I still want to taste the chicken and know it's chicken. Then, sometimes, I don't. Sometimes I want to coat something in the effect—I want to hear the effect as much as I hear the sound. But everything has its place.

Baird: So in the loudness wars, you're on the side of more dynamics and less compression?

Deacon: Now I would be. The loudness wars . . . I think it changes. People have become more headphone listeners. I don't want to have to listen to an album at half volume or full blast. I want to listen where it's comfortable. And I want to hear everything still audible in any environment. I think that's what mastering is: you can still hear the record at any volume. I want to hear the loudest shit and the quietest shit, no matter where I am. But I still want there to be range. And that's hard. It's kind of like thinking like an oscillator. You have your macro tune, your large giant sweep from 20Hz to 20kHz, and you've got your micro tune that will just bring you an octave in either direction, and I want my listening experience to be the same way. I don't want to have to be exclusively in a pristine listening situation. People listen to their music coming out of laptop speakers. People listen to their stuff coming out of earbuds. Or really amazing headphones. And when I was mixing, I kept thinking, like, How do I listen to music? How do I see other people listening to music? and What is the role of music?

Baird: To delight? To enlighten? To remind you how may more records you need for your collection?

Deacon: What is the percentage of people who sit in a chair and put on a record, with balanced speakers, and listen to it the same way they would watch a movie or read a book? [laughter at both ends of the line] Okay, among non-audiophiles? It's very, very slim. You wanna make sure that, in your production, you're not pulling your audience out of the record by either being so loud or so quiet. Music is one art form that requires an imagination. So much of music is forcing you to imagine what it is. Sound is such an abstract thing. A lot of it depends on tone, and the tone is also being colored by the area in which it is being listened to, and the attitude and the atmosphere and the activity of the listener. And so you want to make sure that all of your production enhances that and doesn't cause any moments for the bubble to burst. It'd be like a giant red square in the middle of a film for a second. People would be like, What is that? Why is that there? I'm no longer in the zone!

Baird: You've written a number of classical compositions. Among the best known are: Ghostbuster Cook: Origin of the Riddler [performed by So Percussion at Merkin Hall, New York City, in 2011]; Fiddlenist Rim [performed by Ontario's Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, in 2011]; and Take a Deep Breath [performed by So Percussion and Matmos at Carnegie Hall in 2012]. Tell me about your relationship to classical music. Are there more works yet to be played?

Deacon: I feel like classical records across the board need to be compressed a little bit more, if only for when I'm not listening to them on my hi-fi in my library, but for when I'm listening to them in a car or on a plane. When it drops below pianissimo, I'm not hearing shit. I'm just hearing the rumble of the plane. So I feel like that could pull more from pop and rock production. The reason why some modern classical recordings are so awesome is because there's a nod to that. Records like [Philip Glass's] Glassworks is like the closest thing to a pop record as he could make. But there's still endless dynamics, and you can hear the textural shifts when the instruments go from like single forte to triple forte.

Dynamic becomes just as important as pitch content, because if the whole thing you are doing is trying to get an instrumental blend, you need to ensure your dynamic blends are accurate. And if you know you want this low, beautiful, brassy flute voice, then you can't have other woodwinds and brass whiling out on top of it, or it's just gonna get lost. But you can do that with electronic music. I can take that sample of an isolated flute, and I can raise it up so it's sitting there. With America, I wanted to do that. I wanted to take acoustic instruments and treat them as if they were electronics. But with Gliss Riffer I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to give space and room to breathe and a wide dynamic within these voices. I wanted to make sure a soft, fluttery sense on the song "Feel the Lightning" wouldn't get drowned out by a distorted other sense.


Baird: So what's the future of the classical composing side of your life?

Deacon: Actually, [classical composer] is what I went to school for [at the Conservatory of Music, SUNY Purchase], and that's what I thought I was going to do. I made computer music, like pop-based music, as a hobby, for fun. I started quickly realizing, as I was getting out of school, that I haven't been able to find any student players to play any of these pieces. How the hell am I gonna get anyone to play them ever? I have no money. Nor do I have an audience. People will watch us do this, but I can't pay you.

I like working with ensembles in classical environments, because there's an entirely different psychology to the audience. When you're playing something where movement isn't involved, where you don't expect that audience to dance or have some sort of physical reaction to the sound, you can do very different things with it. Playing Merkin or Carnegie, a whole new set of tools emerges, and other ones become inappropriate.

I had started working with live percussion in several collaborations, then the thing at Carnegie, and the orchestra up in Canada, and I just kept thinking: Music is gigantic. It's like an ocean. It's not like a lake, where I can swim from one side to another. I can't even swim from top to bottom, let alone from side to side. I'm really glad I'm not popular, because I'd be screwed. I'd have to write more music that sounds like the music that I'm currently making. I feel like I live in this shrinking middle class of musicians where I can experiment. I feel like a small restaurant that can change the menu regularly.

Baird: Tell me about the note on the new record that credits the "Coyote Point Best Western, San Mateo, CA" as being one of the places where additional recording took place.


Deacon: I started recording Gliss Riffer in June and July last year [2014], and I was going to mix in August. And all of a sudden [an opening slot] on the Arcade Fire tour came up, and it would have been insane not to do it. But I didn't want to lose the momentum of recording. I wanted to keep going. It would have taken me so long to refind a groove.

So every downtime and every moment that I could, I'd mix. But hotel rooms sound like crap. They're boxy. I was looking for practice spaces or studios just to rent for the day. And almost everywhere that we had a day off, I found them—like in Seattle or Los Angeles. But when we were in the middle of nowhere, I kind of had to work with hotels. This one Best Western had no parallel walls. You could tell it was almost like they built the room and then were like, "Oh shit, we forgot the bathroom."

I went in there, and it was pretty close to dead, which is what I like. I went down to the front desk, and I just asked for as many comforters as they would give me, and I got like two dozen pillows and tons of blankets. I put all the pillows in the corners as bass traps. Put all the comforters over the curtain rod for the shower. Took the mirror off the wall. Took the vent out of the ceiling and shoved towels up there. Put towels along the door and rammed it shut. Turned all the lights off to see if any light would get through, and it was pretty much air- and light-tight. And since the walls weren't parallel, it sounded decent. So I tracked a lot of the vocals in there that night for the track "Learning to Relax."

I loved The A-Team as a kid. I liked it when they went to a hardware store and then built a tank. I'm the least handy person on the planet, but I feel like, with enough duct tape and pillows, you can make anything.