By Michael Hamad
5:25 PM EDT, April 9, 2013
w/Delicate Steve, April 15, 8 p.m., $20-$23, Pearl Street Ballroom, 10 Pearl St., Northampton, (413) 584-7771, iheg.com.
Marrying art-song sensibilities, contemporary pop frameworks and angular, outside grooves, Brooklyn's Dirty Projectors are a musicologist's dream. Composer David Longstreth's songs sometimes work within conventional structures; elsewhere they struggle against them. The last two Dirty Projectors albums — 2009's Bitte Orca and Swing Lo Magellan, from last year — have established them at the forefront of cerebral indie rock. They'll perform at Pearl Street Ballroom in Northampton on April 15, with Delicate Steve opening.
Longstreth spoke to CT.com from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., about his approach to songwriting. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
With the last two records, the group has coalesced into a powerful, profound kind of band, seemingly without having to sacrifice your compositional voice.
Well I don't really like sacrifice. I don't really like compromise [laughs]. I like to have it both ways. To me what you're saying sounds like a compliment, and thank you. But sometimes it feels like people are prepared for a band's arc to go one way, which is kind of a striptease, a banality. And I'm not interested in doing that with Dirty Projectors. What I am interested in is indelible songwriting. I don't think honoring the conventions of a song — like a verse a chorus and a bridge — is in conflict with whatever is new that I or anybody else has to say. I think one of the beautiful things about a song is that it can make connections to any time, even the future. And so, Swing Lo Magellan is all about the songs, and writing songs that did what I talked about, and at the same time do what the Dirty Projectors does.
When a new Dirty Projectors record comes out, one of the things that excites me is to see what you are doing with harmony. Is the importance of strong melody and harmony lost on a lot of listeners?
I don't know. I was just walking down the street this morning, singing "Your Mother Should Know" by the Beatles. I was thinking about the Baby Boom, and I was thinking about how in the 1960s, there was a thing where the Baby Boomers were into their parents' music. You know, that whole dancehall revival. And then I was thinking about the melody of "Your Mother Should Know," and that it seems crazy to me: the leaps in that melody, and how long-form it is. It's not a two-bar phrase, it's not a four-bar phrase, it's like a 16-bar phrase, but I don't know, it's probably fucking weird. So I was thinking about that and wondering if punk music kind of lowered the ceiling of melodic invention in the musical language we're prepared to listen to. I don't know, there's other forms of invention that are maybe more at the forefront right now, but there's always room for a good melody.
The song "Just From Chevron" sets up a narrative frame, with the female vocals on the outside of it, like a Greek chorus or something. The frame of that song, and the way it kind of accumulates instruments along the way: Do you think about those things while you compose, or is it kind of internalized at this point?
You always just do what the song wants to do, and sometimes it takes a second to figure that out, and sometimes it's just abundantly clear from the get go. "Chevron" just kind of did itself, and I was like, "Is this right?" And I was like, "Yeah, I guess it is right."
The orchestration of the vocals and the instrumentals in that song: Is that something that comes out during the songwriting process, or do you have to come back to it and say, "This is how I'm going to set it up when I'm doing it for real?"
That gets back to the process of how I wrote all of those songs. The process was that I would go up to this house in upstate New York for three or four or five days at a stretch and just kind of marathon it, try and get as much out as I could, and just demo it. So a lot of the demos are finished songs, and I don't really remember a lot about decision making per se, but on the demo of that song it begins with a three-part harmony, and ends with a three-part harmony, and there's that voice in the middle, and I guess that is part of the idea.
Sometimes you record a demo and you fall so in love with it that rerecording is a process. Do you have this problem?
Sure, demos [are] always going to have a magic, an intangible, and for Swing Low, that's part of the aesthetic of the album: the imperfection of the moment, and really just the idea of life being captured. I'm not looking for an absolute document of the songs necessarily on that record, so once I figured that out about those demos, it made recording a lot easier. And recording the stuff with the band was an extension of that same process: Let's not make it be perfect, let's make it have a vibe.
When someone's writing a song, it's easy to worry that they are too plain, or too dirty, or something. I remember hearing a story about Eric Clapton playing on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," that they had to Beatle-ize his guitar playing.
They had to "wobble" it.
Yes. Did you have to "wobble" anything on the album at the end of the day?
I think it was already pretty wobbly [laughs].
Was there anything you had to clean up?
I wasn't sure how to mix the album, and mixing an album sucks, dealing with every element over and over again. And there's nothing like mixing that makes you fall out of love with the music you've lovingly written and recorded. But, we kind of gave it to a bunch of mixers, including some people who are famous and prominent and all that, to do a spec-mix, so we could choose how we were going to do it. At the end of the day, I didn't like any of them, and so basically I mixed it myself. You know, I knew what I wanted in terms of the "wobble" — where I wanted it and where I didn't want it.
Anything new planned for the future?
We're working on a couple things right now that I can't really talk about, but what we're basically doing this summer is a bit of touring and a whole lot of recording.
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