Dirty Projectors :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

The unifying theme behind every Dirty Projectors release is the striking arrangement of sound. It’s music that’s built like a Picasso, assembled with a complex and peculiar vision of beauty. You could argue that its music reads as a sort of collage; a jittering, electronic drum beat splatters the canvas, a stringy, cloying guitar part ribbons down the left side of the frame. And those immaculately arranged voices: they boldly stream across the canvas, dangerous reds and rich marigolds dancing from a fastidious paintbrush. Even the name “Dirty Projectors” implies a sort of slapdash collage. Imagine the light streaming from an old 8mm film projector onto a blank wall, its image distorted and bent from the speckles of dirt splayed across the lense.

Dave Longstreth has always approached his music with a curatorial eye. It’s been nearly 17 years since he debuted Dirty Projectors and the vision has been sustained in metamorphism, each release using the last as a stepping stool into something new and unknown. Change did not go without notice. Collaborations with David Byrne and Björk materialized as worldwide recognition ballooned. And through line up changes, tumultuous interpersonal relationships, creative flux and its inherent uncertainty, Longstreth navigated this great American experiment into full fruition as one of the leading music groups of our time.

Presently, the use of collage has manifested into something greater than just one album, beyond the spastic, electrifying folk of Bitte Orca and Swing Lo Magellan, the warped, yet soulful Dirty Projectors, and the rejuvenated and energetic overflow of Lamp Lit Prose. When the band announced earlier this year that they would be releasing not one—or two, or three—but five EPs this year, each sung by a different band member, it seemed to reveal the most ambitious and earnest endeavor laid out by Dirty Projectors thus far: to fuse its communal individualities by means of annihilating ego. 

Windows Open, the first EP released in March of this year, was sung by Maia Friedman (formerly of BOBBY). Then Flight Tower arrived in June, led by Felicia Douglass (of Ava Luna). Super João, the third EP set for release on September 4 via Domino, is sung by Longstreth himself, and serves as a tribute to the late bossa nova legend João Gilberto. Performed on a nylon string guitar with just a few backing beats and production nuances, Super João is the most direct correlation to another artist the Dirty Projectors have ever reached since their madcap tribute to Black Flag with 2007’s Rise Above. But the parallel between Dirty Projectors and Gilberto is not as distant as you might think. 

On the eve of the release of their third EP this year, we caught up with Longstreth to discuss the mosaic aspect of the EPs, the intense beauty of harmony, the band’s current line up, and the mighty influence of the great João Gilberto. | c ruddell

AD: The idea of “first thought, best thought” has been a mantra through this release cycle. How do you apply that to your life outside of music?

Dave Longstreth: I think that I have a real analytical and deliberative part of my mind, and then I have this other side that needs a little chaos or spontaneity. It’s always a battle getting waged as to which one will carry the day. Maybe cooking. There’s this restaurant in Silver Lake that has a salmon bowl with crispy kale, sushi rice, some pickled radish, and diced up really thin omelet. The other day I decided that I was gonna make the salmon bowl. I just improvised and didn’t think too deliberately about it.

AD: The Projectors music has always felt lively and full of color, as is the case with the string of EP releases this year, but there’s also an earnestness to them, almost void of ego…

Dave Longstreth: It’s really just some songs. It’s about the song and the band. It’s not terribly deliberative (there’s that word again) in terms of meta-narrative or something like that. The themes are a little more modest. I think that was important in making them. 

AD: What is it about the current iteration of this band that speaks to your current state of mind?

Dave Longstreth: ‘Current state of mind’ is interesting. Of course, I didn’t imagine we’d be releasing these EPs into the world that we’re releasing them into. In a certain way, it’s been okay to have this strategic stockpile of songs to bring out. There have been various points where I’ve been like “What is releasing music in this moment when we can’t go out and tour it?” In that, these EPs are about introducing the new members of the band and rallying around that conception of Dirty Projectors, which there’s always tension around the fluid identity of the band. It’s ironic that in all that, we’re not touring as these things are coming out. Felicia said a cool thing about it, that “People need music in good times and in weird times.”

AD: 5 EPs this year… that’s a lot of new music. I imagine you’ve spent the last few years putting it all together.

Dave Longstreth: Music is weird. It’s like “When did I first make that melody?” Maybe it was seven years ago. It didn’t go anywhere at that point. It’s a mixture of things that were homeless for a while and brand new things. It all was able to coalesce because of this idea of making this mosaic portrait of the band at this moment. 

AD: Is that the central concept behind releasing 5 EPs—to create this mosaic of the band? Or was there something else driving the idea of 5?

Dave Longstreth: I think that’s one aspect of it. I’m bad at explaining this thought. It always falls apart when I try, but a lot of the time in making music, the goal is to annihilate genre—to combine different styles into a new thing. That’s like an espresso grade grind—it’s a very fine grind. Here, the grind is a rougher grade. Genres and styles are allowed to exist a little bit more in an unrefined, un-annihilated way. It’s a different way of inhabiting the breadth of music that inspires us. Yeah, this is a rougher grade. Maybe it’s like a pour over.

AD: When I think of choral arrangements in Dirty Projectors, I think of a cross between the 13th century and like… Destiny’s Child—and as always, the new music is really heavy on choral arrangements. How did you sharpen that muscle? Who hipped you to that stuff?

Dave Longstreth: Maybe Destiny’s Child. I love Hildegard. Harmony is so emotional. Those different notes, the quality of chords – major, minor, diminished, half diminished, augmented – all of those things are worlds. They’re so emotional. Then, you put one next to the other, and it becomes a constellation. Then you have a galaxy. I just love harmony. To put it in human voices makes it extra special.

AD: Super João is in part a tribute to the great Brazilian guitarist João Gilberto. Listening to these songs made me realize how much he’s been present in your music all along.

Dave Longstreth: I’m so happy to hear you say that. I take that as a big compliment. I grew up with his music in my house all the time. João is largely an interpreter. He’s a curator and singer of a lot of songs from Brazilian writers. I think that’s been pretty essential for me. Even just the nylon string guitar early on. When I write, I often am just writing on a little nylon string guitar. I feel like most things, when I write them, sound like João, and then I turn them into something else. Super João is letting João be João.

AD: There’s that quality to bossa nova where every accidental in a melody and every chord tension feels perfectly placed and full of purpose.

Dave Longstreth: Completely. The use of harmony in Brazilian music is crazy. It’s amazing. It’s sort of a strange mirror of American music in a way. Coming out of the blending of African culture and music from people who were forcibly brought to the new world with those European cultures in America that are largely Anglo-protestant. In Brazil, it’s more Portugese and Catholic. It’s these two different continents with different traditions combining in different but similar ways. In America, the blues came out of it, and in Brazil it’s in these different forms. I don’t know it as well as I want to, but it’s so deep.

AD: What in Gilberto’s discography are you particularly moved by?

Dave Longstreth: For one thing, YouTubes of João performing over the years in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There’s this show of him performing with Caetano in the ‘90s. João was this very shy and retiring performer. As intricate as these rhythms that he was playing on the guitar are, he even further alives them in performance by disjointing the vocal melody from what he’s doing with his hands like allowing himself to fall behind beat or rushing ahead. He often rushes ahead which is interesting. It feels sort of nervous, but the music is so laid back. It’s a really interesting world to inhabit.

AD: João was this sort of infamous purist when it came to engineering acoustics. Did any of that folklore play into your concept?

Dave Longstreth: Definitely not. I don’t think I would describe myself as a purist because the process of capturing sound, particularly in a digital context, is inherently creative. It’s not a documentary, but that said, recording some of these songs was a little bit different. I recorded all of them that ended up on the EP with Kyle Thomas, who makes music as King Tuff, on his reel-to-reel tape track. In contrast to the deeply cinematic and painstakingly wide digital world of the self-titled and Lamp Lit Prose and some of these EPs. This was a comparatively loose and organic process recording it with whole takes on the reel-to-reel. It was beautiful.

AD: It’s interesting how you use your voice as an instrument on this release, particularly on “Moon, If Ever,” the way you enunciate your “o” sounds. Almost like a samba flute.

Dave Longstreth: Singing is so weird because a melody is a sentence unto itself, and then you’re layering a poem on top of it. It’s like putting a melody on top of a melody. Trying to get the words to hug the same contours as the melody is I guess what singing is.

AD: This current group—there’s Maia and Felicia, of course from Bobby and Ava Luna, and Kristin and Mike have these serious chops. This is a great band.

Dave Longstreth: It’s an amazing group of people. They’re just incredible performers that I’m so lucky and grateful to have with me. They’re also just awesome hangs and people. A live band is a really special thing.

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