Exclusive: Dan Deacon talks collapsing clubs and the end of his on-the-floor antics

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Known to eschew stages in favor of floors, sweet-faced Baltimore producer Dan Deacon regularly commands enormous crowds of sweat-drenched onlookers. Deacon, a former student of composition at the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College, uses crowds the way many would an instrument, dictating and inspiring the ways they interact. His bidding often includes dance-offs, human-tunnel formations, and trippy chorus chanting.

With the recently released Bromst, however, Deacon is challenging fans to buy into a wholly different experience. He’s kicked up an ensemble of 15 performers for a show that adds drums, strings, and percussion to his wacky soundboard and synths; in keeping with his past, the new songs are doped up with pitch-shifted vocals, unrelenting beats, and epilepsy-inducing electronics.

Earplug’s Ali Gitlow gave Deacon a ring during one of his group’s last rehearsals before loading up the veggie-powered bus, to talk about electronic music as performance, DIY venues, and which Baltimore band would win in a battle to the death.

Earplug: Where does the word “Bromst” come from?

Dan Deacon: It was the name of this factory in a children’s book I read when I was a kid — a weird environmental-hippie children’s book. The factory just made this dark, thick, viscous smoke. I thought it had a nice, deep, ominous tone.

EP: When you began performing your own stuff, did you make a conscious decision to interact with your audience, or did that emerge naturally?

DD: Electronic music is difficult to translate live. A lot of bands and performers struggle with it, and fall back on things like projections to engage the audience. I didn’t want to be someone standing behind a laptop, but I did need accompaniment. I started thinking about a way there could be a physicality to the sound; I wanted to (no pun intended) put everything on the table, so people could see what I was doing. When a drummer hits a drum with a drumstick, you see that, and you hear the sound. I realized that the voice is very important. I think the voice is an instrument that most people relate to, because most people have voices. But I wanted it to still be very synthetic, very electronic.

Most of the electronic acts I was playing with at the time weren’t really rhythmic, or dance music at all. So the goal was to take an audience that was completely not dancing and get them to dance; to try to turn an esoteric and sort of pretentious noise show into a dance party. As soon as there was an audience, I could use the audience as a compositional element. I started thinking of how to use the audience as an instrument, and as something that influences itself, like a feedback loop.

EP: To use the audience in that way requires a certain level of trust. Did you ever do a show where people were like, “I’m not going to listen to what he wants me to do”?

DD: I think there’s people at every show that are like that, but I think they’re in the minority, and they’re not enjoying the show as much. It’s like going to a food taste testing and not eating the food that you don’t already know.

EP: Do you ever get stage fright?

DD: No, but I’m sure I will on this tour. People ask “Ohhh, what was it like to play Coachella, or Roskilde?” or other large festivals, and I’m like, “I don’t know, I can’t see shit!” It’s so big that it doesn’t even make sense. I’m sure that it will happen at times on this tour, though, since I’m on and off the stage a lot more.

EP: So you won’t be on the floor all the time?

DD: The reason I started playing on the floor was that reason of communication — making it comfortable for the audience. But now it’s to the point where I can’t even face the audience. I have to stand with my table braced up against the stage and my back standing right in front of the table, so people don’t fall into it. That’s not really what this show is about. It’s not about squishing up to see what’s going on. I’m sure the show will morph quite a bit from the first date to the last date… Now that it’s under scrutiny, and every show will be critiqued, there’ll always be someone there watching it from an analytical perspective, which is fine. But the feedback loop of the Internet can be very daunting. I think it’s easiest for something to grow when it’s not being watched.

EP: With that said, how did you feel about the record being streamed for free on NPR’s website?

DD: I thought that was great. I was really excited. I remember being a kid before MP3s, before music was easy to find online, and a band I liked would put out a new CD — the only way I could hear it was if I bought it. If it sucked, I was out 15 bucks. That 15 bucks meant returning a lot of cans or mowing a lot of lawns. So I was pumped at the idea that people could hear the record for free, and that anyone would listen to it because it was on something like NPR. It was really flattering, and I was honored that they would host my ridiculous music for a month.

EP: Do you prefer DIY venues to the more traditional ones?

DD: Overall I would prefer a DIY venue, but I’d just prefer any venue that’s focused around the performance. There are a lot of DIY venues that are awesome, but there are a lot that are also terrible and just an excuse for parties and social gatherings. If you were to have a bell curve of venues, I’d say DIY venues and legit venues have the same exact bell curve of quality… Anyway, the DIY scene is insanely important. It’s a beautiful scene, and it’s obviously what creates the culture that gets seen elsewhere.

If I have to pick between a DIY space or a traditional venue, a lot of decisions go in. Could it be advertised so everyone could find out about it? Would there be good sound? Would it be at capacity? I don’t want it to be dangerous; I don’t want there to be too many people; I don’t want the floor to collapse, stuff like that. I’ve done a couple of DIY shows where the floor did collapse, and there have been big scares and electrical problems, no bathrooms, shit like that.

EP: What’s the craziest place you’ve ever done a show?

DD: Probably on this little tiny party boat in the UK. These kids were going to have a show in their house, but then they realized that if they just made the ticket price the equivalent of six more dollars, they could rent a boat. The show was just in this boat, and the dude who owned the boat, he was used to renting it out to families or wedding parties. He fucking hated it.

EP: If all the Baltimore bands that were on your Round Robin tour got into one giant death match, who would win, and why?

DD: Hold on, let me ask these guys… “Hey dudes, I’m doing an interview, and they asked if everyone involved in the Round Robin got in a giant death match, what band would win and kill all the other bands.” Probably Blood Baby, because Adam’s fuckin’ crazy. Everyone would team up and kill the Death Set first. Blood Baby or Ed Schrader, because I think Ed would be small enough to hide underneath a bunch of dead bodies and kill the actual last person remaining.

Photo: Josh Sisk