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Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth Explains How He Writes Songs: Gothamist


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In the late ’00s and early ’10s, the Dirty Projectors rose to the forefront of indie rock on the backs of three genre-defying, instant classic albums: the Black Flag dadaism of Rise Above, the classic rock stomp of Bitte Orca and the idiosyncratic romanticism of Swing Lo Magellan. Combining the anxious melodicism of David Byrne with modern hip-hop production textures, Dave Longstreth’s longtime solo project evolved during this period into a sprawling, jagged, unforgettable band whose complex harmonies were unrivaled in the rock world.

But around 2013, that lineup imploded just as Longstreth broke-up with bandmate and fellow songwriter Amber Coffman. Longstreth withdrew from public for several years, decamping from Greenpoint to LA, focusing on production work, and taking part in songwriter sessions with the likes of Kanye West (which resulted in the wonderful single “FourFiveSeconds”).

In the last two years though, Longstreth has revived the band with two twin albums, 2017’s electronic-based Dirty Projectors (which was a solo album in all but name) and this year’s much more buoyant and rhythmic Lamp Lit Prose. “This new record is about being in love,” he told Gothamist recently. “I think that that’s where a lot of the songs are coming from.”

Before the band plays at Elsewhere Monday night (with Lower Dens), we spoke to Longstreth about the genesis of the new records; about using autobiography as songwriting tool; about the brand new lineup of the band; about the toxic overload of the news cycle during the Trump era; and what he misses about living in NYC. “My hope is that there’s something eternal about the city,” he said. “Something that doesn’t change. And times that I’ll go back there and spend a week or two, more recently, I feel that’s the case.”

(Note: Longstreth declined to speak about his former collaborator West—”I’m burned out on thinking about Kanye”—but for those interested, he did note that one of the new songs slated for the perpetually delayed Yandhi features a sample from his friend Delicate Steve.)

When you are writing music, do you go into it with a set amount of ideas or themes or even lyrics that you want to focus on, or do you write and then you unconsciously, or later in the process, find what the songs are about? I think it’s more the latter than the former. I like to just write a lot of stuff, just throw a lot of stuff at the wall, and then it helps when you take a step back and you look at what has come out and you’re like, oh, there are some themes here. There’s some through-lines. That helps me at least figure out, ‘okay, what is this body of songs? What is this whole album about? It feels like it’s about this.’

You released two albums in less than two years. Were you working on them simultaneously, or were they very separate groups of songs? I guess the answer is a little bit of both. I was kind of stepping out from a whole bunch of music that I had started at a certain point. I was like hmm, there’s some songs that are kind of emotionally devastated sad songs, and then there are these songs that are sort of jubilant and celebratory and it would be cool to make it like…I’m trying to think of the word, all I can come up with is yin-yang. Like a one-two where you just are outlining a relationship spectrum.

On the one hand, there’s the sadness, the pain that can come out of that, the rebirth that can come out of that pain, but then also on the other side, just the infatuation, the meaning that can come out of good love. So I think about those as a pair, and a guiding light, or principle, pretty early on, before I had made the self-titled record. But then when I actually got to [what became] Lamp Lit Prose, it was more mapped out, so a lot of the music was written since the self-titled.

That’s interesting, because when I heard Lamp Lit Prose, I felt like the self-titled album made a lot more sense to me in that context. Seeing them as sister albums, two halves of the same circle. There were some mixed reviews of both albums, and I wonder whether you think people would have enjoyed them more if they had listened to them together, to see this whole picture instead of seeing one half of a journey on either end. That’s sort of how I was thinking of it when I was making it, sort of like the lows of the self-titled are a bit calibrated to the highs of Lamp Lit. I like the idea that music can take you to extreme places and these are all part of all of our experience, and weaving all of those together into a somewhat coherent story felt like a cool place to take the songwriting.

I’ve seen a lot of interpretations of both albums that made a lot of assumptions about the biographical elements of the lyrics, and who you were writing about. I’m wondering whether that’s something you get nervous about, or perhaps are hesitant about revealing too much? Or is it something that you calibrate specifically for those kinds of reactions? That’s an interesting question and it’s a long one.

Yeah, it might be. When you’re making anything, you gotta be willing to use your experience. Certain forms have more of an assumption of autobiography than others. You might write a screenplay that’s really closely based on your personal experience, and the fact that you’re casting actors and giving it characters might make it seem less personal. Autobiography, I guess, is just a format, it’s a trope that you can play with in songwriting. And I think when I was younger, it did make me really uncomfortable. I would be very mortified for someone to draw a line between some string of words that popped into my head as the best phrase that fit the character of one specific melody or something like that, and draw a line between that and any specific aspect of my own boring individual life.

But I guess, as I’ve been doing it for a little while, you recognize the power of it, and I also recognize how a lot of my favorite songwriters and a lot of my favorite songs did just that. You can lean into a sort of, if not autobiography, then persona. I think you have to be willing to take little atoms of your own personal experience, take a little slice of the most extreme emotion in your life, and then make a song out of that, live in that. That’s not who you are as a person, but it’s an element of human experience, and it might be one that a lot of people can relate to, because we all experience the same things, and so I think it’s a fascinating thing to play around with. And because of course, it’s not you.

At this point, the Dirty Projectors lineup has changed a lot over the years, and I think the only real consistent person besides yourself has been [bassist] Nat Baldwin. Are the Dirty Projectors just anything you’re working on, or is there something that differentiates the band from something that you might put out under your own name one day? I think it’s kind of always just been the music that I’ve been working on. I put out four records before I even put together any version of a band to tour around.

And I think I was reluctant to define even a specific instrumentation or lineup for a long time because I was like, my next record might be just a guira player and a quintet of french horns. So yeah, to me, there’s this body of songs that are Dirty Projectors songs and it’s a changing and changeable line.

How have these shows with the new band been, and how is it different than some of the older lineup dynamics? What has changed about how you approach playing live now? An interesting development for me putting together the band around the shows this year was to realize that actually, a group where four people are singing and we’ve got two guitars and a keyboard player and a bass, drums, aux percussion, that’s like an incredibly flexible format. That’s like, we can do the last two albums incredibly well and the older Dirty Projectors songs as well. It’s such a flexible group, and it felt like a super organic way of accepting the identity of the live band.

I think that maybe a difference with the shows now, like the residency tour for example that we’re doing, has been amazing because it feels like with this group, we’re able to take more risks. We’ve been doing different sets every night, and just switching things up on the fly. It feels like a freer approach, maybe a little bit looser than it’s been it the past. And it’s just really been super fun to play with this crew.

We’ve been actually rehearsing a ton, so we know a bunch of Rise Above, almost all of Swing Lo, all of Lamp Lit, and a bunch of the self-titled. And to string all those different songs together into a different continuum every night, it’s crazy. It’s cool.

It’s funny to have taken…it’s not funny, but I have taken some years away from the road, [to] just focus on producing and writing with other people. I have a different perspective on playing live now where I feel it’s less about the song and more about the connection. The connection with all of us on stage, with one another, and then also with the audience. And I feel strangely connected to the idea of a moment. Everyone is coming together in this room to share something and let’s make it specific, let’s make it individual to that night. We’re all so lucky to be in that situation, to be there together.

Do you ever work on new songs with the band or throw songs out to try to debut them live, anything like that? Or do you keep all the writing and recording separated for after the tour? Things are always recombining in different ways. With this group, I’d be really interested to basically record an album that’s just essentially what we’re playing live. So I think that that might be in the future a little bit.

You’ve been very politically outspoken, you played shows for Bernie in 2016 and certainly have a lot of songs that touch on political commentary and the environment. It seems like a natural part of your personality and interests. The last two years have been really difficult and dark and cynical— Whew, yeah.

And the sister albums have been done for a little while. Have you started writing new songs, and what do they reflect of this era? And how engaged are you in the news cycle and keeping up with what’s happening around the country? Well, I think lyrics are often the last thing that I’m working on. And so, most of the lyrics, certainly on Lamp Lit, were written after the election. I think that’s true. Time passes strangely in Los Angeles, there’s no seasons, so it’s really hard to keep any kind of track, so I don’t know that I’m the most reliable narrator about when any of this stuff happened. But I do know that “Feel It All”, the last song on Lamp Lit, is only just over a year old and it was the youngest music on the album.

Lamp Lit is largely a personal record, but I feel like that album is more about lower case P politics. It’s in there, but it’s [about] how we treat each other, starting with how to respond to such an onslaught of things that make us despair and fear and get angry and the rest of it, and how we can be in ourselves and with the people that we love and our families. So I don’t think that the emotional tone of Lamp Lit is unrelated to the hellscape that we inhabit currently.

As far as my engagement with the 24/7 news cycle, it’s probably just like everybody else, man. I go through periods where I’m absolutely glued to it and I can’t look away, and that comes from a number of places, like the idea of I need to be an informed citizen, so I need to try to keep up on all of this. I need to know what’s going on. That feels very vitally important.

And also, there’s this sort of thing that I think also happens to a lot of people where it is almost like…an addiction kind of thing, where it’s like we have to stay plugged in. I oscillate between that extreme and then the other, where I’m just like, “I need a break from this stuff and I can’t deal.”

When you’re feeling despondent, do you have things you do for self care? I guess so. I play the nylon strings guitar, the nylon acoustic. This little Requinto guitar that I got in Mexico City a few year ago that’s a little smaller than a normal guitar. I just really love playing it. And for me music is a lot of that. It’s a refuge. It’s an escape.

It’s so interesting. We’re this generation of networked brains and we’re figuring out what the rhythm of all that means. I go back—and this is not a coherent thought, I probably shouldn’t say it out loud—but I wonder if it’s inevitable that the circumstances of us negotiating a network hive mind happens in a context like this dystopia. Or whether it could be that the relationship of technology and the rise of totalitarianism and fascism around the world, they seem united. Did it have to be that way, I don’t know.

But, I guess in the last couple months it’s felt clear to me that to disconnect from the network…it feels better. It feels healthier. It feels more creative. I don’t know whether it’s irresponsible or not, you know? It’s not a terribly coherent thought.

I think I get you. If I’m not mistaken, you and I are sort of in a similar age range, we’re on the older end of millennials probably. Silverback millennial, that’s what it’s called.

And we’re the last generation where we can remember a time in our lives when we weren’t on the internet, we weren’t connected 24/7. I keep expecting there’s gonna be some sort of mainstream movement to get offline more. Maybe not to get off the internet completely, but to get off social media, to back away from that stuff as our generation gets older, just to keep ourselves from information overload. I know. I sort of think it’s happening. But then there’s an irony there.

Online is the place where movements coalesce. So you’re talking about a movement to log-off, there’s an irony there, but I know what you mean. Or this idea of, you see some movie from the ’40s where everyone in the room is smoking and it seems insane. It seems so toxic and insane. Will we regard some of the ways that we’re experimenting with bringing technology into our actual mind and lives? Will that strike us as similarly toxic or cancerous in the future? I don’t know.

Especially when we find out in 40 years that we all have cancer from all of our various devices. It’s really crazy. We really don’t know. The possibilities are endless.

Something I’ve been wondering about for years now: I saw you perform at the Met with the Calder Quartet back in 2013. It was a lovely gig, and you played a bunch of new songs and I always wondered what became of them. Did you ever record them? I’m really happy to be asked that question, and I don’t think anyone ever has. One of those songs became the bridge and outro of “I Feel Energy.” Another one of them was an early version of “You’re the One.” Another one of them became the chords of “Work Together” from the self-titled record. That was like the nucleus of these two records right here.

Ah! I just remember really loving the combination of your voice with the quartet. Oh, that’s super cool of you to say, man. Thank you. I’ve been writing new stuff recently and you always get reflective about things that you do and haven’t done correctly, or different stuff to try, and for me, one of the things that’s jumping out is how obsessively process-based I’ve been in the last couple of years. Were I not to have taken that music and submitted it, there are so many different mutations and deconstructions. What if I had just recorded what we played that day, you know? And put that out, and then been on to the next one. I don’t know, it’s an interesting question.

Was that period, post-Swing Lo, a real fork in the road for you and for that iteration of the band? Yeah, maybe. I guess writing is something for me that is always happening, and the different social circumstances and logistical circumstances of, is the touring group assembled currently? What are people’s plans?

That stuff always changes. It has impact on the kind of music that I write, and how often it comes out. Yeah, I guess I had written these songs, and I was really just not in the mood to be on tour, or to make another album, per se. Instead, I kept on tearing at those melodies and chord progressions and playing around with them.

But literally any time there’s a string quartet on those two albums, it’s from that era, and it’s recordings of, basically the music from that show.

Did you record those shows, or any of the songs in their older form? No, I didn’t record the shows. I think those sort of institutions, there’s a big origination fee that you always gotta pay, so we didn’t record it. I had a little recording, a rehearsal, in my voice memos. But with the Calder Quartet, we recorded those songs maybe a couple weeks later. Those recordings are the ones that are in the last two albums.

So you really have embraced a lot of modern production techniques then? Mixing this piece of music with that piece of music, cutting things up? Yeah. There’s generating, and there’s editing. And they’re two parts of it. There’s real power in the Burroughs cut-up idea, and two things next to each other might be trite or boring or just pretty basic, but then, if you cut it in half…you can arrive at something that feels emotionally surprising that way. Often [it’s] truer, because I guess cliches are offensive because they feel too simplistic.

But, for me, there’s always been a relationship between specifically the chamber music that I write, and the digital cut-up process. I don’t know why that is, but even going back to an album that I made a really long time ago, The Getty Address, it was really about these recordings of chamber music, and for me it’s arriving at a point of feeling true when I’m cutting it up and juxtaposing the natural space with digital silence, and creating loops out of it.

You don’t have a place in New York anymore, right? Yeah, I live in LA now.

What do you miss most, if anything, about the city? Do you have any traumatic subway flashbacks? I remember I saw a rat dragging a slice of pizza down a staircase. No, wait… [Laughs] Yeah. There’s a lot that I miss about New York, to be honest. Just the energy of the place is so unique, and so intoxicating. And the people who make up the city are special.

This all sounds super trite, but it’s in incredible place. Los Angeles has been great for me to build a studio and be able to focus pretty singly on making music. When I left, I felt that the Greenpoint that I knew was gone, you know? And when you get a little bit of distance from things, that’s the law of New York, that the neighborhoods are always in flux.

My hope—and I say this as a person who left so perhaps it may be just qualifying—but my hope is that there’s something eternal about the city. Something that doesn’t change. And times that I’ll go back there and spend a week or two, more recently, I feel that’s the case. Just the tenacity and inventiveness and intelligence of the people.




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