Dirty Projectors: “I wish we had a radio station like triple j in our country”
Dirty Projector’s Dave Longstreth graciously overcame a birthday hangover to chat to ED SHARP-PAUL.
2012 was a big year for Dave Longstreth. With his band, Dirty Projectors, he made one of the best albums of the year in Swing Lo, Magellan. He also made his directorial debut with the surreal film clip mega-mix Hi Custodian and locked in another Australian tour with a trifecta of festival appearances at Sugar Mountain, MONA FOMA, and Sydney Festival. FL caught up with Longstreth on the phone from his Brooklyn “workstation” on the morning after his birthday – “It was pretty low-key but my brain is just a little slow today” – to chat about coffee snobbery, urban sprawl and the difficulty of playing Swing Lo, Magellan live.
I wanted to ask you about the cover image, It’s really touching – a warm and modest image. When you picked that image, were you thinking of the album’s themes? It seems to be quite an album about modest ambitions, with a sort of domestic comfort to it. Was that a conscious match, or just an image that you liked and wanted to use?
Maybe somewhere between the two options. That guy is Gary, and he’s the one neighbour we had up there, up in the woods. We rented a house [in the woods] where I wrote and recorded all those songs. Gary was the one guy who was kind of around, our neighbour who lived about a half mile up the road or so. My brother was up one day in the wintertime and he took a bunch of photos. At some later point we were just going through the photos of that day and we didn’t really remember that moment or taking that picture, but it just … I was actually hoping that there would be quite a different moment from inside the house, up in the attic where the drums were set up – I thought that was going to be a good image for the cover – but then that one had a real kind of warmth, and I think the palette really fits the song pretty well. I felt an affinity with it.
“I just write the music that I want to write”
Well I did too, for what it’s worth. I’ve heard you talk about colours in your work a lot. You don’t have full-blown synesthesia, but you do have visual associations when you make music. Is that a way you conceive of your music sometimes?
I guess so. Yeah, I guess you get a set of colours going or a set of images when you’re making a song, or you’re recording it, or you’re thinking about a specific arrangement for it. A song can be a lot of things. It can be a story, or it can just be a feeling or a mood or something.
That slides fairly neatly into Hi Custodian, which I wanted to ask you about. I thought it was a really interesting move, and a pretty confident move. Are you interested in pursuing that path a little further?
Definitely. It was a pretty amazing experience – making that movie, writing it, the whole process. I really kind of fell in love with it. Finding the production company, finding amazing collaborators in Bobbie Bukowski [director of photography] and Alan Lamsbert [production designer]. I feel really grateful for getting a chance to meet those guys and work with them. I just learned so much from doing it. Making the thing was just a real blast and I love how it came out. It’s definitely something I want to do again. I’ve got a couple ideas kind of rattling around in the noggin right now.
Are you thinking more accompaniment to your music, or something a little bit more narrative or stand-alone?
Maybe both. Maybe both.
One thing that particularly piqued my interest was some of the rubbish-tip scenes, and some of the suburban imagery. It reminded me of ‘Temecula Sunrise’, “the strip beyond the dealership” and all that ahistorical, edge-of-suburbia, banal imagery. Is that something you’re conscious of? It seems to pop up a little bit – is that something you kind of willfully engage with in your music and your imagery?
Yeah, it comes up. I think touring around the United States really drives home this sense of place. For me, I love the idea of wilderness. It’s important to me that there’s a wild space out there. It can feel amazing to be in those really new sub-divisions. My brother’s a painter and the things we’re talking about right now are big subjects in his work. He and I are very close. So yeah, I think it’s in my head a lot.
Are those environments you grew up in, you and your brother? Or is it just sort of more borne of observation
It’s not the kind of place we grew up. We grew up in a pretty rural place. When I was a kid my parents were into subsistence farming. I grew up on a bit of a farm. I’ve lived in a lot of different places over the years. I lived in Portland, Oregon for a while, and Providence, Rhode Island and New Haven, Connecticut. If you live in New York, everybody you know from everywhere is always here. I dunno, I feel home in New York.
I wanted to ask you about the human voice, because you seem to do more with it and explore its possibilities more than a lot of people. Has the human voice always effected you and been something you always wanted to explore? Is there anyone who really sparked your interest in that?
Yeah, I guess I always have been pretty interested in it. I just think that the sound of voices together is really incredible. It’ll always sound futuristic, but it always sounds ageless as well. It’s like the simplest way of presenting an idea – you just sing it. I do like to kind of push it to the limits as well. My own voice, and with the ladies in the band.
“I do like to kind of push it to the limits”
You’ve never been self-conscious about the fact that you like to sing at your limits, I take it.
Well, it doesn’t really matter if it creates self-consciousness or not. I guess I just have wanted to do it. I’ve wanted to do those things more than the self-consciousness has prevented me, I guess.
Good way to be. You mentioned you’ve lived in Oregon for a while. That’s as good a segue as any, because I wanted to ask you about your upcoming appearance in Portlandia. How did that come about?
Well, again, we were on tour. I’ve lived in Portland a bunch over the past 10 years, so for the me the kind of skewering of the show, the kind of satire that is the basis of the show seems very necessary, having lived there a bunch. And that’s where we recorded Bitte Orca, as well. Amber and I are huge fans of Saturday Night Live and we go whenever we can, to the show, to the taping. We’ve got to Fred [Armisen] a little bit over the years. He’s a fan of our music. I don’t know, the timing worked out. We were on tour in the States in the summer and summer is when they film. It was shot last summer, and I think it’s going to be the fifth episode this season.
I was curious about your emergence into the spotlight. You started your career in the shadows. Then you started to appear in clips, doing covers, appearing in a comedy show. Is this something you’re coming to terms with, or are these things where the opportunity arose and it just felt right?
I guess it’s not something I’ve been terribly conscious of, because I’ve been doing this for a long time and for me it’s just been a real natural evolution. It very closely mirrors my life. I just write the music that I want to write. I just do the things I’m interested in doing. I mean, I’m aware that more people are listening to the music than maybe ever have, and I think that’s very cool, but we’re not like, you know…
You’re not talking about brand consolidation. It’s just a progression.
This is the bit where you big us up and tell us what a great country you are – do you have any fond memories of your last Australian trip, for the Bitte Orca tour?
Oh man. We loved being in Australia so much in 2010. So many amazing memories of the shows, and the food was really incredible. The coffee is really, really good. We’re all just horrible, unreconstructed coffee snobs in our band. It’s funny, you go around Europe, and all the best coffee spots in Europe, there’s invariably an Aussie pulling the shots.
Yeah, I’ve heard this, and I can’t fathom it to save myself, but somehow good coffee just caught on here even though sometimes it can feel like we’re a cultural backwater…
Nah, I don’t think it is a cultural backwater, you guys are into cool shit. I like the radio station triple j a lot. I wish we had a radio station like that in our country. Our radio is much more redolent of cultural-backwaterism than you guys.
“I don’t think Australia is a cultural backwater, you guys are into cool shit”
Well, thank you. Are you grateful for the internet to provide an opportunity for you to be heard? Playlist radio ruled the roost once upon a time, and you guys might have had a really hard time getting heard.
I don’t know. I mean, you can give credit to the media if you want to. I don’t know whether if we were living in a different time period it would be a different thing. I don’t have any insight in that. I know the way I experience music now is through the internet, and I know that a lot of people came to experience our band for the first time through the internet. If we were in a different time where the internet didn’t happen, maybe in the ‘90s, we would’ve been fucked, or maybe we would’ve been like a buzz-band, you know, in the buzz-bin.
The process of building these elaborate studio constructions, then having to re-cast them for live performance. Is that a draining process, or is that something that excites you?
It depends on the song. Bitte Orca was an album that was made with it in mind, how we would play it live, what it would feel like playing on a stage. Swing Lo, you’re definitely right, it’s not. Swing Lo was just about what the songs’ themes suggest. It’s actually been really, really amazing playing these songs live and figuring out how to do it. Some of them make that leap more naturally than others, but I remember as I was finishing mixing ‘See What She’s Seeing’ just being like, “How the living fuck are we going to play this live?”. And then in the actually event, it’s come together really, really nicely. Playing with the band, even just doing it night after night for six months straight, I have to say I love playing with those guys and those ladies. It’s been great.
Dirty Projectors tour:
Friday, January 18 – Hobart, Australia – Mona Foma, Hobart
Saturday, January 19 – Melbourne, Australia – Sugar Mountain Festival, Melbourne
Monday, January 21 – Sydney, Australia – Opera House Concert Hall, Sydney