David Longstreth, the driving force behind the fascinating and idiosyncratic indie band Dirty Projectors, recently sat down with us to talk about his bewitching new album, Swing Lo Magellan. The last time we checked in with Longstreth was five years ago, and since then he's become one of the most critically-acclaimed songwriters in the business, and Dirty Projectors' riveting live shows have become the stuff of jaw-dropping hipster-cred legend. DP's most recent LP, the endlessly interesting Bitte Orca, was released in 2009, and so fans are hotly anticipating the new one, which officially drops tomorrow. And you'll be able to hear much of it performed live for the first time in Prospect Park tomorrow night—it's not a free show, but tickets are still on sale. (Tonight's Music Hall of Williamsburg show is sold out, but you can stream it live on YouTube.
So can you tell me about the recording process for this, particularly where it was recorded? In the press release there was something about how the house was strange and you spent a year there "in isolation." Yeah, we recorded the album in the house about four hours that way, in Delaware County, a little bit above the Pepacton Reservoir, and you know, it's just a great place to hole up and focus on the things you focus on when you're writing songs. I don't know that it should take on a particular kind of romantic weight as part of the narrative of the album or something. You know, for me, that's not where the energy is. But we did that, yeah.
How is the house strange? Just the vibe. It was built by bootleggers like a hundred years ago or whatever and it was kind of too steep to farm and too rocky—and so they would make moonshine. And there was this little meadow out in front of where the house is, and on one side of it there was this old knotted apple orchard and on the other just a bunch of juniper trees. So I think what they did is just make applejack gin, probably sell it to some dude who brought it down here during Prohibition or whatever. But the local legend was that in the middle of the night everybody in that part of the world got worried that the feds were coming up from the big city so everyone just packed in a hurry and left—tableware still in the dining room table and all that—and apparently the house was empty for 30, 40 years and was bought by a downtown choreographer couple in the late '70s or early '80s. And they went up there to have their upstate utopia, but they never really finished it. So the house is just this weird thing that's hanging there, a mixture of like these old beams and repurposed planks from a hundred years ago and like '80s and '90s Home Depot furnishings. It's an interesting space to be in. In the dining room there's a seam between floor and the wall that is just a strip of duct tape. But it turns out that an unfinished room is kind of an amazing place to write songs.
How would you describe the narrative of the album? You know, one thing that I've often done under the Projectors is build an album from a central conceit. Maybe that's the idea of writing a Black Flag album from memory or telling a story about Amber singing to a pod of whales, as was the case on "Mount Wittenberg Orca." And so there are a lot of these kind of like long-form ideas. I got really obsessed, though, with just songwriting. And what a song is, what it could be, what it could mean. So for me, that's really one of the things that's most different about this record. I wrote all these songs without any idea of an LP in mind. But rather, with the idea of putting a world into every song.
And by the same token, you go on tour for two years for an album like "Bitte Orca" and you come away with the same feeling that connecting with people in that way, playing music for crowds like that, it's just one of the most special experiences that you can have. It's an incredible privilege and you want to be fully inside what you're giving, and if you're not, you can't. And I started to think that the best songs are just so much smarter than whatever bozo wrote them. And to the extent that it's been a goal for the music that I've made in the past to fuse these opposite ends of this spectrum that people describe as a duality between something this surreal and something this intellectual—and to fuse that into a single molten creation—it may be that the music fails more often than not, and the band is called forbidding and cerebral.
There are aspects of Bitte Orca—our last LP—that feel drunk on the possibility of ideas. And so in the end I think just the same thing—maybe I'd like some room to breathe, but these ideas are only as smart as me, and you know, I'm just a fucking bozo. I'm just a dumbass like everybody else, so these songs that I wrote for this period I've tried to surrender a little bit. I've tried to use just simple tools to say just simple things. Yeah, and the gamble, I guess, is to see whether there is something irreducibly like me, irreducibly personal about those at the end of the day.
Have you had enough space to look at the album as a whole and see any patterns emerging? I wasn't really thinking of an album per se, so I got super into writing songs and onto this Arthur Russell trip, which is "First Thought, Best Thought." Do something, follow it through to completion, not worry it to death and not really judge it, because what the fuck is the point, on to the next one. And so I was just writing a song, writing another one, another one, another one, and pretty soon there was this whole big pile of them, and yeah, and then starting to find connections between the different numbers is what led to eventually the album that we've got.
How did you settle on that for the name of the album, Swing Lo Magellan? We did record out in the woods, and nature is super important to me, and super important to my parents. I guess it's something they passed on to me. I love—and so does really everyone in my band, Amber too, especially—to be in nature. To be in the woods is a special thing. And also just the concept of wilderness as a necessary opposite in a kind of global dialectic. I want there to be wilderness where there are no humans in a world like this. So nature is super important. It's also super important to the kind of visual of the band—you know the iconography of the band so far. And that song—and actually quite a lot of songs that I've written in the last couple of years—are sort of about searching, in a way. And that song in particular...I guess you can ask a question about what the nature of that searching is in a world that's fully described, fully mapped and gridded, when we live in an archive of organized information.
Which comes first, the music or the lyrics? I interviewed Stephen Malkmus and said he makes up sounds and nonsense words while he's coming up with the music. What's your process like? It varies. I feel like the vowel sound is super important. You can't really violate the vowel sound—the first vowel sound that you have when you're making up a vocal melody. If you try to write words that deny those vowels, then you're fucked. You just have gobbledygook. So yeah, I guess generally, melody comes before lyrics. Sometimes there are certain phrases that just come out of nowhere in the melody and you can honor those and just build the entire song around that. That's a good way of doing it.
Do you find doing that you'll surprise yourselves with things that weren't conscious choices but end up having a depth that you didn't immediately realize? Yeah, totally, definitely. You don't really know sometimes what something's about at all, or you don't necessarily think it's about you and then two weeks after you've recorded it and mixed it and its on the album, it becomes embarrassingly clear what maybe it was about.
Did you have an experience like that with any of the songs on this? Yeah.
Can you give me an example? You know, a lot of them, I don't know.
Well "Gun Has No Trigger"—I associate that as kind of an older song. I think I saw you do that before. I don't think so. We've never played that live.
How have I heard it? Oh, that was released early. Uh huh.
When you think about that song now, what jumps out at you and where did that come from? I didn't really know. I knew the tone that I wanted, the lyrics to have and then...hold on, I want to show you something. This is a still from the video. Again, the video is kind of pretty intuitive, just kind of stumbling forward toward what felt right to make it, but I think that song is about living in a society in which we're all just making images of ourselves all day long.
We're living in this weird Warholian prophecy where we're all artists with these democratic tools and all we really do is aestheticize ourselves and our friends and the brunch that we ate this morning and narrate it constantly and pathetically. And in a society where a picture is how we narrate our history, the song asks what an image of dissent could really be, whether it's possible, and what it would look like. That's what that song means to me. And there's a circularity to the system that makes it an impenetrable veil, and to break through to some other kind of alternative seems increasingly impossible. That's insane. Short of suicide or violence or something. So I'm really psyched because we were just editing last night and finally figured out what that's about. But it's about...like the default Facebook profile pic. The blue background with the silhouette of the male and the female...we've got them both going in that one.
But that was not a conscious choice—that association? That was just a stumbling forward. But...fuck, I think I know that.
Do you participate in political activism in any way? Well, you feel like dissent is like an image of dissent. That's my problem. It's an image of dissent that basically validates the system that the dissenters are dissenting against. I don't know. Maybe that's circular, cynical, or something, but it just doesn't feel like...that feels like an old...an anachronistic approach.
Are you referring to Occupy Wall Street demonstrations? Yeah. But I don't know. Maybe I'm just an asshole. I'm not sure. We went down there. It's funny, Amber and I went down there with her dad. And we were there for like 5 minutes and we saw the drum circle, and then we were approached by a guy from the Huffington Post who wanted to interview her dad.
Is her dad like a public figure? Just a tourist. You can watch a video of Gil Coffman on the travel section of the Huffington Post being like, "I'm an old hippie from Austin, I think this is great." That's what it was. I dunno, I mean, what do you think? I think it's exciting, and I would love to give them my faith. I have a deeper feeling of futility of it. But maybe I'm just an asshole.