Between the stage and the crowd

Dan Deacon on serendipity, collective mass, and Gliss Riffer.

By Geoff Nelson

Dan Deacon lost his hat. Or, more accurately, he found his hat. The second part, that’s the important part. On stage at Rough Trade in Williamsburg on a nothing Wednesday night, Deacon opened the sold out record release show for his latest LP, Gliss Riffer with the narrative arc of his head covering.

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Photo (and photo above) by Frank Hamilton. Cover photo of Dan Deacon fans at FYF Fest in 2014 by Matt Draper
Dan Deacon at MtyMX in 2010. Photo by Joe Perez

In fairness to Deacon, who occupies a visual space somewhere between street preacher and mad scientist, the story of How Dan Deacon Got His Hat Back is a good one. Taken from a hook on the side of his stage rig, Deacon’s hat disappeared at a gig at Baby’s Alright somewhere in mid-February. Weeks later, Deacon was walking around DUMBO, getting lunch with a guy from Domino Records when a complete stranger approached him with a salutary, “Good show a few weeks ago … Did you lose your hat?” Deacon was chagrined, intrigued. The stranger had been holding Deacon’s hat in her studio, which happened to be in the same building as Domino Records; she recognized the hat’s owner on sight.

“Thinking of all the variables that led to us walking in the same door in the same building at the same time,” Deacon later marveled. “It blew my fucking mind. It was the closest thing to tripping, you know what I mean?” Even hearing the story for a second time, it was, in a classical sense, almost unbelievable.

The crowd at Rough Trade delighted in the tale too, even as Deacon refused to place his hat, now found, on its usual hook, for fear its loss might repeat itself with a less serendipitous outcome. Deacon quipped to me later, “I’m good at losing things that go on my head – hair and hats.” He’s funny, gregarious, self-deprecating, a willful everyman – like Louis CK with a loop fetish.

Deacon can afford this type of magnanimity. Gliss Riffer, his second offering on Domino, cements his status as a reliable and bankable independent act, after more challenging if critically acclaimed LPs, America and Bromst. He’s done everything from opening for Arcade Fire for a slate of their Reflektor Tour dates to his recent national headlining tour. From the depths of the Baltimore party scene, Deacon has risen, methodically, with each release establishing his place in the cultural zeitgeist. Consider the irony, at least for a moment, of Deacon playing Barclays Center with Arcade Fire, after he intentionally eschewed Brooklyn after college. Gliss Riffer wouldn’t make the Billboard charts, but Deacon is now sufficiently distant from being known only as the guy who made festival audiences run in a circle.

What Deacon doesn’t mention to me in our conversation or to his assembled audience at Rough Trade, is the losing and finding of his hat told a truth deeper than he would admit: Dan Deacon is famous, if in a limited sort of a way. Serendipity is one thing; what Dan Deacon experienced with his hat was quite another. To write off the events as mere coincidence would be to accept that Deacon and this stranger were equals – she recognized him, and the opposite would have been impossible. And Deacon’s hat, as he tells his crowd at Rough Trade, was displayed in this stranger’s studio under the heading, “Dan Deacon’s Hat”. If getting recognized in public isn’t proof of a marginal version of fame, having your possessions beatified might be.

With the release of Gliss Riffer, Deacon’s most approachable LP to date, the hat story begins to clarify the cloudy, liminal space the artist in question occupies. He’s both a complete unknown and increasingly recognizable. Deacon doesn’t sound weighed down by his small-scale notoriety, comparing himself to a small restaurant that can change the menu often. “I exist in this pocket. I’m known to some people, but still largely unknown to most people. I’m larger than obscure but much smaller than known. You know what I mean? I make dance music that you don’t dance to in clubs, and I’m not indie rock, and I’m not EDM, so I exist in this weird middle in a lot of ways. It gives me a lot of opportunity to take risks and take chances and not have to worry about a career’s narrative arc.”

The implications are clear: He’s big enough to make a living with his art, big enough for the Universe to briefly narrow its focus on him on a street in DUMBO, but still irrelevant enough that his brand need not be static, irrelevant enough that he’s lucky to not need a brand at all. And yet Deacon has become a brand, whether he wants to be or not.

At the Rough Trade show, Deacon turns proselytizer for a moment. He instructs the crowd to hold their hands out as if there’s a mouth in the middle of their palm. The edict is something a joke, but the audience obeys anyhow, a few hundred hands reaching, palm-first toward the stage, invisible mouths in visible palms giving invisible orders. Such obedience doesn’t appear to unnerve Deacon, nor does it diminish a sense that the artist in question is one of the few committed democrats making music today: Everyone is supposed to have a good time, and, he expounds to me later, “a lot can happen when you blur the lines between concert and dance party.”

Deacon is big enough to make a living with his art, big enough for the Universe to briefly narrow its focus on him on a street in DUMBO, but still irrelevant enough that his brand need not be static, irrelevant enough that he’s lucky to not need a brand at all.

Dan Deacon at 285 Kent. Photo by Dylan Johnson
Photo by Frank Hamilton.

There is tension here in the space between marginal notoriety and committed performance democracy. Deacon is convinced this shouldn’t be entirely about him, and yet, none of this – the dance party that explodes in the middle of his shows, the instructions he gives from the stage that his audience follows dutifully – is possible without the artist himself. I kept coming back to the hat, the moment on the street where being Dan Deacon is so impossibly great and weird. When it comes to independent label musicians, Deacon is a man of the people, maybe even The Man of the People, a delicate hierarchy in his world of democratic leveling.

Perhaps some of this commitment to blending the audience experience into his performance comes from the solid middle-class provincialism of growing up in the Long Island suburb of West Babylon, a town tucked between the lip of the Southern State Parkway and the Atlantic Ocean. An hour’s drive from Manhattan and Brooklyn, Long Island’s suburbs are an intentional world apart. It’s hard to grow too big for your britches in certain parts of the South Shore, a disjointed suburban utopia where offering your kids the opportunities you didn’t have means keeping them from experiencing the wrong sort of people, places, and things. Robert Moses built the modern Island as a bastion of “White Flight”, the bridges on the Northern and Southern State Parkways with a low enough clearance to prevent buses full of people of color from New York City from reaching Long Island. The suburbs, of which Long Island represents something of an Original Gangster, purport to experience the world by retreating from it entirely. The same oxymoronic thinking grants the area a penchant for committed small government conservatism and enthusiastic support for institutions like the NYPD and the American military. This is the part of the world that birthed Billy Joel. The South Shore has not, historically speaking, been the great incubator of experimental ideas or music.

But even these restrictive social mores can be generative. “I see myself as someone who escaped a life of normalcy,” Deacon says. “I grew up on Long Island, I could very easily be studying some business shit that I didn’t want to when I just didn’t know what to do. Or I could be really into cars or something. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” He’s reluctant to completely indict the circumstances of his youth, but he recognizes the thin line that demarcated his way out: “I feel lucky to have been exposed to the things I was as a kid so I could see there’s another world out there. I feel like so much of the world likes what they like because of their limited exposure to other weird things. What would my life have been like if I didn’t hear Mr. Bungle and the Boredoms in junior high? Like, what would have happened? Would I have just thought Aerosmith was the awesomest band? Would have that have just stayed true? Do you know what I mean?”

Deacon says “Do you know what I mean?” a lot in our conversation. It is something of a rhetorical tick, Deacon checking in with you, seeing if you’re still with him, a pause that suggests it’s important that we do this – whatever this is – together.

I grew up on Long Island, I could very easily be studying some business shit that I didn’t want to when I just didn’t know what to do. Or I could be really into cars or something. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Photo by Dylan Johnson.
Dan Deacon chilling at Treefort Music Fest in 2013. Photo by John Yingling.

When I ask Deacon about the origins of his desire to intentionally include his crowds in the performance, he demurs a bit, “I think it evolved over time. I only started thinking about it in those terms recently.” What is abundantly clear is that Deacon thinks a lot about his performance, and performance in general. He only recently began performing from the stage, after years of putting his rig in the audience. “My philosophy of performance is that everyone in the room is a performer and the entire venue is the performance space. I like thinking about how a performer on a stage thinks about the audience as one group, like ‘Hello, New York!’ or like ‘How’s everybody doing?’, as one collective mass, but audience members don’t think of themselves that way; they’re individuals in a crowd.”

On the phone with me, Deacon’s putting into words what happened at Rough Trade a few nights earlier, where he opened the show as he often does with a dance circle. First inviting the audience to make a space in the middle of the room, two members of the crowd faced off in what can only be described as a somewhat hair-raising method of reducing group inhibitions. It worked. The Rough Trade crowd didn’t just come to see Dan Deacon play his songs, they came to participate in the Dan Deacon Experience. Unlike most cross-armed New York crowds, audience members are eager to join the circle.

Deacon later innovated the idea, dividing the crowd with a corridor of space down their middle, as he played “Meme Generator”. An audience member from each side of the audience faced their side of the room with the challenge of leading their half in a group interpretive dance. Whatever moves the individual in the middle made, their side of the audience followed. It was stupidly beautiful, arms reaching and waving in unison.

Other than the type of energy that can happen in the non-sanctioned spaces of Bushwick and Ridgewood, Brooklyn audiences don’t typically display ebullience of any legible sort. You can see Deacon working carefully, methodically, opening with his dance-off of two, moving to his dance-off of two halves of the crowd; the energy is contagious. Like radical politics, power goes from one to a few to all. Deacon aspires to something approaching group consciousness. On lead single from Gliss Riffer, “Feel The Lightning”, he opens the first verse singing, “I’m having visions, infinite visions/the same ones as you.” If there’s an ounce of megalomania in Deacon, it is completely diffuse, given away to everyone.

There are tensions here too. When you give the power of performance away, you allow your audiences to define you. Deacon is thoughtful when I ask him about whether he worries about the wrong sort of people buying into the Dan Deacon idea – the democratic performance theory is great but what about when the Bros inevitably show up to ruin everything?  “Anything that’s against mainstream culture, that could be popular but isn’t, there’s a reason that mass media only supports a few ideas, and few people, and a few styles. They need homogeny for it to work. There’s nothing less democratic than homogeny. It’s taking a few ideas and then making them work for everything. I’m not worried about people coming to the show and it not working or there being Bros, because the show is constantly shifting; the show controls itself. I also love the risk of failure. Every time the show fails, I learn from it. That’s the whole point of making something experimental. Once it doesn’t fail anymore, how do you change it so it can?”

I love the risk of failure. Every time the show fails, I learn from it. That’s the whole point of making something experimental. Once it doesn’t fail anymore, how do you change it so it can?

Photo by Frank Hamilton.
Dan Deacon fans at Redhook Park in 2010. Photo by Nic Daughtry.

Deacon won’t say this exactly, but he envisions himself with the limited power to provide an alternative to mainstream culture. If the Bros show up, and, unscientifically, there were a few at Rough Trade, far be it for Deacon to shut out those wandering souls compelled by his version of modern electronic music. Part of the failure with which Deacon flirts is this dance with popularity and commerce. He continues to emphasize process over outcomes, sardonically quipping, “If I knew the future, I’d be wealthy or something.”

I ask him if expanding the reach of his music is a goal or a trap. “I don’t know music or art should have expectations or goals. Any art that’s actually art and not a commodity is an expression of self, or concepts or ideas that you can’t express in words. I’m not a lecturer or essayist, so I write music to try to convey abstract thought. So worrying if it’s going to succeed or fail is only something I can worry about after the fact.” He feels the same way about the live performance, framing it in the nearly Kierkegaardian: “By the time the tour is done, I know what it should have been.” Dan Deacon is forever cast backwards into the future.

Deacon likely won’t read this. “I don’t read the write ups or I would go insane,” he says. It’s another one of those disjoints when you’re the leader of a democratic movement. His fans want proximity, at times he needs distance. At Rough Trade, a fan yelled out during the hat story, and Deacon, playing the role of the irascible teacher, burned, “How about we turn this back to a monologue?” He was kidding, sort of. Because if you’re Dan Deacon, you’re alone inside of the whole thing, a batshit performance that is also frequently your life, which is both exciting and isolating. Being the ringmaster is itself exhausting, even when you spend your time encouraging other people to join the circus.

Deacon closes Gliss Riffer with a joke for only him. The song, “Steely Blues” is a play on the Steely Dan song, “Deacon Blues”. When Deacon was first starting out, Googling “Dan Deacon” would take the searcher to the Steely Dan song, not the emerging artist from Baltimore’s post-industrial waste. He was briefly trapped in the Internet’s black hole, effectively unreachable from those who would seek to reach him. By 2015 Dan Deacon is now fully Google-able, no longer lost in the jet wash of a Steely Dan single from 1977. He can revel, for a moment, in this triumph: Deacon’s “Steely Blues” is the same length as “Deacon Blues”, both 7:36. For a moment, the consummate external artist is privately amused.

I ask him what people aren’t talking about on Gliss Riffer. “I feel like I’m not talking about how fun it was to produce a record. While I wrote the music, I only co-produced America and Bromst. There were other dudes in the room. The biggest undertaking for this was getting to the point where I trusted myself enough to share these songs with other people. It’s hard to know if you’re hearing the process or if you’re hearing the face value. You have to remember your audience only hears face value. You know what I mean?”

And this last time he says, “You know what I mean?” I realize I don’t, exactly. I can’t. Only Dan Deacon, the guy, knows exactly what it means to live inside Dan Deacon, the performer. Few artists think with as much depth and frequency about what is to be not them, what is it to see their shows, what it is to view themselves from afar, as Deacon. And yet, there is still the gap, that space, the gooey and irrevocable interstices between you and him. It’s the line between the stage and the crowd. If you’re looking for Dan Deacon, that’s where you’ll find him.

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