Dan Deacon is to electronic music what Spencer Tunick is to nude portraits, which is to say a point of view that varies so drastically from the norm as to cause a stir. Thanks to an inherent feel for the absurd and a unique sense of humor, Deacon’s experimental music is way out there, orbiting the Earth on an asymmetrical bent. Featuring an explosion of semi-melodic, hyper-chaotic musical passages often anchored by a nonsensical spoken-sung chorus of gibberish, the music on Deacon’s 2007 full-length album Spiderman of the Rings is unlike anything you’ve heard of recent or vintage note. He is headlining The Canopy this Thursday evening.
Electronic music, as an umbrella term, has long been caged by a stereotype of dour, introspective music, thanks in no small part to practitioners both old (Brian Eno, Kraftwerk) and new (Autechre, Oval), who certainly have hidden any significant sense of festivity in their compositions. Even modern electronic artists who have strove to break away from the norm by interjecting a distinct, quirky personality into their art form — Aphex Twin, for example — pale in comparison to Deacon’s catchy compositions. The guy simply brings the party. Listening to Deacon’s bastard electronica causes one to imagine Devo molesting Daft Punk while the Silicon Teens watch.
As some 15,000 people found out at this summer’s Pitchfork Music Festival, Deacon is best enjoyed in a visual sense. That, in and of itself, is a contradiction for electronic musicians, who often coyly crouch rear stage behind their tiny MacBooks in a live setting. By comparison, Deacon in the flesh is a joyous street performer, standing at crowd level with no barrier between him and the audience, his bank of instruments (including a synthesizer, a delay pedal, a ring modulator, a vocoder and a sine wave generator) at his fingertips. Visually, Deacon is a pale-skinned, plump, bespectacled, balding man, part indie twee-pop nerd and 12-year-old comic book collector. He couples his musical ambitions with his own variation of stand-up monologues. That such a figure inspires a dance riot at each venue he enters is a testament to both his showmanship and his music’s utter lack of inhibitions.
How he got here is not a typical story. Schooled in the SUNY system (Purchase, New York) surrounded by equally talented and ambitious musicians (including Regina Spektor, Wooden Wand, Langhorne Slim and O’Death), Deacon was trained as a classical composer and earned a Masters in electro-acoustic composition. (According to an interview he did with Tiny Mix Tapes in the summer of 2007, his first show was a recital for a 17-piece mixed ensemble with electronics.) After completing his studies, Deacon, who unfortunately could not be reached for interview for this article, traveled south with a band of radical cohorts collectively known as “Wham City” to Baltimore, where they set up shop in a large warehouse and began slowly building an art collective. As he explained to Tiny Mix Tapes, “[After college] my friends and I were totally broke and didn’t want to move to a city where we would have to work all the fucking time just to pay rent and eat shitty food. . . . But we wanted to live in an urban setting. So we started doing research and Baltimore seemed the best place. It was cheap, dirty, not filled with people, still sort of close to our families and seemed like it had a lot of potential for a wicked art and music scene. We moved into this building called the Copycat, which in Baltimore is sort of a well-known building for insane things and people. We had no idea at the time. Anyway, our intention was to start a venue, have shows, live there, make art and have fun. It took about eight months before we stopped crying and getting drunk to make any progress, but slowly we started making a name for ourselves in the city.”
Over the past few years, Deacon has self-released several (free!) albums, but Spiderman of the Rings is his masterwork, a caustic party album for the John Cage set. When considering just what it is that makes Deacon’s (at times) obnoxious music so likeable, “Snake Mistakes” is a great place to start. The song begins with the unfurling of a long, melodic whip backed by a wobbly, warped My Life in the Bush of Ghosts bass line. Cue Deacon’s vocoder-enhanced lyrical entrance, which builds to a pulsing, percussive chorus about bees. The lyrics over the downright loveable a cappella bridge provide some insight into Deacon the humorist: “My dad is so cool / He is the coolest dad in dad school / He does not break any dad rules / He would pick you up if I asked him to.”
The instrumental “Pink Batman” follows, providing a taste of Deacon’s acoustic side. A simple, repetitive acoustic guitar figure begins the song, then is drowned in a happy harpsichord riff. Soon, a Casio melody soars over the top, creating ceiling space as a fourth layer of synthesized bliss joins in. To top off the mishmash of sounds, a mass of swirling organ flushes out the eardrums before the song decompresses back into its acoustic self.
“The Crystal Cat” (see video below) is the record’s anthem, it’s pulsating rhythm set afire by synthetic organ while Deacon “meows” over the top. Enter the fantastical lyrics: “I’m gonna get my bathing suit on / gonna get my base face on / gonna get my hat out of loan / gonna get my space face on. I’m gonna turn all snakes into bone / go wishing the stone / keep the crystal cat cold / gotta get to the throne.” Deacon manages to shift such silliness into his own oddly emotive theme song, often the high point of his live sets and a dance-floor filler for the sweaty masses in attendance.
The aptly named “Wham City” is the album’s centerpiece at nearly twelve minutes. Beginning with a pleasing play between warm organ and marimba, the song sets a mellow tone similar to the work of modern electronic peer B. Fleischmann. The music bubbles with rhythm over the bridge as a whiny Casio synth takes the lead. Halfway through, the song quits on itself. Flanged percussion leads the listener back into the fray, now more boisterous than ever as Deacon’s heavily-affected vocals serve as melody. More than nine minutes in we come full circle, with a familiar lyrical refrain that is repeated en route to an a cappella finish. If you want to be the cool kid, you’ll memorize this passage so you can sing along at the show:
“There is a mountain of snow, up past the big glen / We have a castle enclosed, there is a fountain / Out of the fountain flows gold, into a huge hand / That hand is held by a bear who had a sick band
Of ghosts and cats and pigs and bats / with brooms and bats and wigs and rats. And play big dogs like queens and kings / and everyone plays drums and sings
About big sharks
Oh ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma . . . ”
If that doesn’t pique your interest, then stay home on Thursday night and begin working on your alibi for why you missed the most interesting musical act to grace The Canopy’s stage in several years.
Dan Deacon is appearing at The Canopy on Thursday evening as part of the Pygmalion Music Festival, with a stacked, rockin’ lineup including Dark Meat (who kick ass in their own right), Monotonix (all the way from Tel Aviv, Israel; see our preview) and Urbana’s own Robots Counterfeiting Money. Show starts at 9:30 p.m. and tickets are $12 in advance.