Concert preview: Dan Deacon steps out of the dark

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From the March 6, 2014 edition

Dan Deacon’s last two studio albums are undeniably bleak affairs, awash in post-apocalyptic language that reads like a disaster relief coordinator’s initial notes in the wake of some great tragedy.

“Skyline burnt down,” he intoned on 2012’s America. “No crops/Dust clouds.”

In a late February phone interview, however, the electronic musician indicated the songs he’s started sketching out for his next album — some of which he’ll audition when he swings by Rumba Cafe for a concert on Tuesday, March 11 — sound somehow unburdened, hinting at the comparatively carefree material he composed in his earlier years.

“I feel very differently going into this record than I did going into [2009’s] Bromst and I did going into America,” said Deacon, 32, from his home in Baltimore. “With those there was a pressure like, ‘Oh my god, I have to make this follow-up record, and I have to make it my magnum opus!’ Now I feel more like I did coming into [2007’s] Spiderman of the Rings, where it was like, ‘I’m going to make this record because I think it’s going to be fun.’ My only concern right now is making a record I think is awesome.”

The musician described his mindstate on his last couple of albums as “pissed off,” and elements of America, in particular, were inspired by the shady politicians and corporations he viewed as nebulous, power-hungry villains. While this viewpoint hasn’t changed — “It’s not like I’m thrilled with the way things have gone, especially with the NSA leaks and the media ambivalence,” he said — there’s a growing sense his new record’s lyrical content, which is only now starting to take shape, will reflect a more hopeful outlook.

“The darkest lyrics ... [on past albums] talk about how I wish the world would end,” Deacon said. “And I don’t feel that way anymore, so maybe it will be more optimistic.”

A large part of this psychological shift can be attributed to the musician’s latest career venture. In August 2012 he released the Dan Deacon smartphone app for Android and iOS, a free download that, in the simplest possible terms, allows the user’s phone screen to function as a light show during concerts. In recent months he’s started licensing the application, and the additional income generated has taken some pressure off his other creative endeavors.

“I remember seeing [Dischord Records co-founder] Ian MacKaye speak, and he said he did everything he could to make sure his music never became his job, which used to confuse the shit out of me,” Deacon said. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about? I’ve set up my whole life so that I can make music my job.’ It wasn’t until I [launched the app] … that I realized it was because then the music doesn’t have the added burden where it’s like, ‘Am I going to be able to buy groceries based on whether this song is good or not?’

“It’s not like I didn’t have fun making Bromst or America, but there was also a pressure I attached to those. Now I feel like I’m making music for the same reason I originally made it, which is because it was what I needed to do in order to not go insane.”

Somewhat surprisingly, many of Deacon’s newer compositions are rooted in the ongoing EDM boom. Though admittedly not a fan of the genre, the musician said he’s been attempting to compose the types of warped electronic tunes he’d like to hear on the dance floor, returning his focus to the computer after a long flirtation with more acoustic-based instruments.

“I’ve been making this record with it in mind as a return to my early style,” he said, citing a lingering case of “grass-is-greener disease” (“When I’m touring solo I’m always like, ‘God, I wish I had a giant ensemble,’ and then when I’m with a giant ensemble I’m like, ‘Man, I really miss playing solo’”). “There’s no way to recapture a previous style, because I’m not that same person anymore, but I’m getting really into writing music for … more of a dance club environment again.”

At least that’s where Deacon’s focus is lingering for the moment, anyway. By the time he formally starts putting these tracks to tape — likely sometime this year — it’s possible the music could have taken on a strikingly different form.

“I’m sure if we were to talk six months from now I’d say, ‘It’s a record exclusively for saxophone, and every song is 10 hours long,’” he said, and laughed. “I’m mainly just thinking of the songs as live pieces for now, and what makes or doesn’t make the record is going to be very much decided on the editing room floor, if that makes any sense.”

Prior to entering the studio, Deacon will spend early spring road-testing the material for some of his largest non-festival audiences to date. In addition to this Columbus stop, where he’ll be throwing down in Rumba’s comparatively cozy confines, he was tapped to open for Arcade Fire on the Canadian rockers’ forthcoming arena tour — a high-profile gig that will require one unexpected investment.

"I actually just remembered this is the formal-wear tour,” Deacon said. “So I guess I'll be getting some nice shirts soon."

Shawn Brackbill photo