Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth On Wonderful Rainbows, Being Vulnerable, And The Cowardice In Modern Music
Tomorrow, Dirty Projectors release their outstanding, prematurely beloved new LP Swing Lo Magellan. Tonight, the band performs a release show at Music Hall Of Williamsburg, and streams it live to YouTube at 10PM EST. And right now, we’re presenting the transcript of a conversation I had with principal Projector David Longstreth in Greenpoint a few weeks back. We talked about Swing Lo and its process and particulars of course, but it’s most triumphant moments are when we deviate from the press-junket parlance and go in on chillwave, Pharoah Sanders, Instagram, the beauty of modernism and the cowardice in modern music. Oh and also, we learn who Magellan is. Let’s go:
STEREOGUM: First of all, congratulations. Swing Lo Magellan is really awesome.
DAVID LONGSTRETH: Thank you.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting to pull back and take the longview on the arc of your work — how there’s a conceit and idiom and self-imposed constraints upon each release, and how that creates lots of angles and handles for discussion and context. This time it seems like you’ve somewhat liberated yourself from having any overarching conceit or idiom — and that has allowed you to get more real with yourself, and put that voice into your writing.
DAVID LONGSTRETH: Rad, cool — that was part of the idea.
STEREOGUM: But then that’s my question: Is that a sleight of hand? Like not having a conceit in itself became the conceit … sorta “For my next trick, I’m gonna get real,” in a way. Right?
DAVID LONGSTRETH: Haa. No, I don’t think so. I mean you know, you could look at it that way. I think [the album] is a stepping outside of those ideas of conceit. You know, you go on tour for a long-ass time for an album like Bitte Orca, and we play those songs all the time, and you start to feel like you really want to be engaged with what you’re playing. You almost want to have the same experience the audience is having of it. I feel the best song is so much smarter than whatever dumbass wrote them. And a lot of songs I’ve written have been sort of drunk on ideas, or really obsessively pursuing a picture in my head or something like that. And maybe I left a little room to breathe in those things. But I was really pushing that to the fore this time just kind of like surrendering.
STEREOGUM: I hear you drawing a distinction between the actual art and the creation — here, the songs and the songwriter. Your work’s often been pegged as very “cerebral,” that it’s “mind first” in some way. I’ve always felt the heart of your work, but this one really puts it forward. Where do you draw the lines between heart and mind, product and artist?
DAVID LONGSTRETH: I always feel that the conception of the band as you’re saying it — “mind first,” this sort of forbiddingly cerebral thing — that is certainly not my goal. The goal is to collapse these things that sometimes get set up as opposite sides of a duality. In the one sense this incredibly physical, visceral and passionate intensity, and on the other this kind of nugget of intellect, this driving will to do something new. And for me, the music is succeeding when it’s taking those things and collapsing them. And you know honestly that’s one of the things I’ve loved for half my life now about Björk’s music: At it’s best it seems capable of doing that. As diverse sonically as some of the previous albums have been, that’s aways been one thing that’s consistent across all of them.
As to whether the new album represents a break from that ideal, I don’t really know. I think that its aims are a little bit simpler. Maybe it’s this contrarian streak in me or whatever, but I like to look at what I’ve been doing and then turn around and do the exact opposite thing. For the last few records, to look at what I’ve been doing, I’ve been withdrawing to an even further and further vantage to get a stronger sense of what is the exact opposite thing. Like, is the opposite of North Brooklyn “South Brooklyn,” or is the opposite of North Brooklyn “South San Francisco,” you know, that kind of thing. And so you know, it seemed like the hardest thing — and also in a sense the most fulfilling thing — to try to do would be to use simple tools to write simple songs and see if in doing that I would still come up with something that still felt true to me in some kind of irreducible way.
STEREOGUM: So then thinking about where you were last, and trying to plot out your point in relation to that, let’s think about Mount Wittenberg Orca as the last point. You called that release “Bitte Orca‘s younger, hotter sister.” So where does Swing Lo Magellan fit on the family tree of Dirty Projectors albums?
DAVID LONGSTRETH: Oh, wow. I mean, it’s not “the bespectacled uncle”… I don’t know! It’s a new beginning. Maybe it’s the newborn kid; the unexpected youngest child.
STEREOGUM: Well, let’s hope the offspring aren’t blank.
DAVID LONGSTRETH: Right?
STEREOGUM: I had to.
DAVID LONGSTRETH: If Bitte Orca was about creating the emblem of the live band that we had become in the prior two or three years of really intensive touring, and then Wittenberg is the kind of redux of that, the compression of some aspects, this is more of a new position. It’s a new attitude. It feels like a very different moment in the culture that the album is responding to.
STEREOGUM: The arrangement ideas aren’t the focus, yet this album has tremendous dimension to it. It’s a brave work in that you are exposing various aspects of the way you think about things, in a public way, which in turn makes you very vulnerable. And some of these things are at the heart or your business, and your relationship with Amber, for instance.
DAVID LONGSTRETH: Well, if you were to interpret those songs in a one-to-one way.
STEREOGUM: Well, let’s take that love song.
DAVID LONGSTRETH: Which one?
STEREOGUM: “Impregnable Question.”
DAVID LONGSTRETH: Mmm hmm.
STEREOGUM: There’s that line, “We don’t see eye to eye, but I need you, and you’re always on my mind.” And I like that a lot because it represents something that’s counter to a posture I don’t really dig about the music culture at the moment. There’s a whole strain of people that seem to be running away from the hard truths of the present moment. People aren’t willing to accept that dimension to reality. In some of that throwback, chillwave stuff for instance, I hear a lot of people seeking comfort in a falsely remembered past. The past that they’re yearning for didn’t even really happen, they didn’t live through it. And that sort of cocoon is seductive, I suppose, but it doesn’t seem brave, nor owning the present.
DAVID LONGSTRETH: It doesn’t seem like a bold music.
STEREOGUM: Right, and taking that as a line across this record, I think this album really feels like it’s embracing various complexities of a lot of things — like, for that matter, love. Like, what is perfect love, what is love, and knowing that at times it is going to be imperfect and be a challenge but that we’re going to dig in and make it work, which is sort of like what we’re trying to do as a culture with life at the moment. What is it about the last couple of records, or about your life in this time, that’s made you step up and do that?
DAVID LONGSTRETH: It does put me in this vulnerable position. Well, I think I’ve been really great at exploring different colors and textures and arrangement ideas. Dirty Projectors has always been a band that’s been card carrying modernists in terms of pushing different kinds of abstraction to the fore and trying to take them to the center of the culture or something like that. I’ve been good at creating new textures and new fabrics, like vocal hocketing, or interlocking guitars, or suggesting new ideas for style … that’s what the band has really excelled at. I essentially like arrangement ideas. And in terms of looking at what I’ve done and trying to do the exact opposite, it seemed like what if I just didn’t give a shot about that, the fabrics and textures, and I was more engaged with like, a song, as like something you could hold in your hand like a smooth rock, and hold and look at from a number of angles, that had a weight to it and a definite dimension. That to me was kind of the ideal. I got obsessed with a song. What is it what can it do what can it be like. So that was a radical break for me. And at the same time yeah you look around at the culture broadly, and from the Coldplays and the Rihannas across the spectrum to the Woodsist stuff, Grimes, whatever… it’s all this kind veils and clouds and whatevers and nothings and silt, and my feeling about it is nuanced.
I remember in the middle of the last decade, the kind of shit, in college I got super into European art music, and how serious that was. And just like how, in general, in the Romantic era or in the height of Modernism, how these aesthetic questions were granted this heroic status. Like, “What to do with the picture plane? Can you expose the medium as…” you know, it’s incredible. And so that kind of furrowed brow shit, I was mesmerized by it. My brother is a painter, and to see some of the art that everybody was making in the like the middle of the decade 2003-2004-2005, a lot of it had this escapist, Utopian bent, just sort of like that played with the iconography with the ’70s new age stuff, and how simultaneously poignant it was, the idea of our parents in the ’70s longing for some sort of purer state, but in hindsight, reflecting on the sadness at their misguided attempts at transcendence. There are still bands now, like YACHT and Edward Sharpe, that still play with that stuff that feels like a holdover from the last decade. Or like Chris Johansson, and his paintings of rainbows and stuff like that. To a certain extent, I even think about Wonderful Rainbow, the Lightning Bolt album. When was that from?
STEREOGUM: 2004, I think?
DAVID LONGSTRETH: Yeah, maybe so. I was thinking maybe earlier, but yeah. [Editor's Note: Dave was right, it was 2003.] Oh and hey, I’m totally off script right now. This is cool!
DAVID LONGSTRETH: We’re going into into some weird territory, I hope it’ll yield something coherent. Thinking of that album, and thinking of this idea of calling your album Wonderful Rainbow, and having it be this incredibly textural, vibrant, intense music. It was really exciting to me at the time, like out of these weird RISD warehouses, there’s this idea of some kind of spiritual transcendence, that’s like taking an aesthetic shape. I wondered what was going to happen to that impulse. It reminds me of free jazz in the ’70s, you know that Pharoah Sanders album, it has a yodeler? There’s a song called “Colors” on the Pharaoh album called Karma. Like, [sings] “Bluuuueeeeeeee,” with this slow, smooth vibrato. It’s so funny. But yeah, the idea of a rainbow as an image of transcendence, and like, I feel the rainbow went into the sun flare, and that went into the Instragrammy sun flare of the chillwave thing and it was like, oh we don’t have the imagination, or the willpower, or the dream of actually affecting whatever change we might have sheepishly envisioned but then not committed to. That seems super-harsh, but that’s what that music seemed like a little bit to me. And it seemed almost anachronistic to have a discrete thought in terms of lyrics: they’re so impressionistic, that it’s just like, this can mean whatever you want it to mean to you, and I’m not going to commit to it having a specific meaning for me.
So the point of these new songs is not to lay the personal stuff of my life vulnerable, which I don’t know that it really does — I don’t think it does, because I’m not really interested in myself per se — but just that it do something that is not that. Just that it tries to express discrete ideas I have.
STEREOGUM: Tell me about the cuneiform tablet of values.
DAVID LONGSTRETH: I’ve always loved cuneiform, I’ve always loved the way it looks, I love that it’s the world’s oldest script. And the creative potential of bad translation, or misunderstanding or something, has always been at the core of the idea of “Dirty Projectors.” So the cuneiform is pretty playful, basically just a joke. But I love that there are phrases that came out that just can’t be rendered. Including the title of the song!
STEREOGUM: In “Dance For You,” that song is in essence, in its way, very spiritual, at least very existential.
DAVID LONGSTRETH: Right?
STEREOGUM: You’re looking for meaning, and using dance as a metaphor for that ontological search. That made me think more along the lines of Eastern philosophy: Like in Indian and yogic thought, the 5th Veda is entirely predicated upon art, and the idea that when devotees perform the goddess Shiva’s cosmic dance, it collapses the distinction between the dancer and the dance — they become one, creator and creation become unified. Was anything like that informing your take?
DAVID LONGSTRETH: Those words just happened! And then I was sort of embarrassed about them, actually, especially then when Beyoncé had a song called “Dance For You,” which was essentially like “This week was good so I’m gonna strip for you, baby.” And it’s a crappy song! If it was a good Beyoncé song it would be one thing. No, you know how it is, as much as we talk about this stuff now, I really don’t know why those lyrics were the lyrics. But I mean, what you’re saying, I’m pretty sure that’s what it seems to be about!
STEREOGUM: OK so, speaking of Instagram, let’s talk about that Swing Lo album cover. You saw our caption contest…
DAVID LONGSTRETH: Ha, yeah! I haven’t seen all of them yet. I can see why a lot of them got down voted — it’s a hard thing to do! Rob Carmichael, who is a graphic artist in Greenpoint who helped me with this and Bitte Orca, he and I were talking about captioning photos in a different context and he brought up the Cory Archangel’s take on the New Yorker cartoon caption contest. Have you seen this? Check out the blog — he posts those caption contest entries with the caption “What a misunderstanding!” … and then the next one, same deal. And on. And it just sorta compounds. I think you should give it to Cory Archangel.
STEREOGUM: Who’s that dude on the cover of the record? He’s Magellan?
DAVID LONGSTRETH: He’s Magellan, dude. No that guy was just like, walking around, sometimes there were hunters that came around. The house we did the record at has spent a lot of the last 15 years with no one living there. At one point it was used as a hunting lodge — hunting is a big thing up there. On opening weekend for hunting season they would open it up and rent out as a B&B for hunters, and then those hunters realized in subsequent years that it was totally empty so they could come up and post up on the porch and shoot deer from the porch. So people would kind of roll in. That’s just some guy that Amber and I were talking to.
STEREOGUM: Who took the photo?
DAVID LONGSTRETH: My brother.
STEREOGUM: So you have the Jay-Z Budweiser festival coming up, which is in its way its own co-sign. You already have had Byrne, Björk, others… So. Who’s the next big co-sign you’re teeing up? Who’s next on the list?
DAVID LONGSTRETH: Maybe Red Bull? Four Loko.
STEREOGUM: You gotta dream big.
DAVID LONGSTRETH: Right? You got to.