Dirty Projectors, once the collegiate art project of bandleader Dave Longstreth, is now undeniably one of the biggest bands in Brooklyn. Their heady but ecstatic contortions have been rewarded with famous fans and sold-out crowds, getting bigger all the time. Three years after their breakthrough album Bitte Orca became the unlikely reintroduction of slick 90s R&B into the indie-rock aesthetic, they return with their latest work, Swing Lo Magellan. It’s a surprisingly warm record, with an ambition as basic as stringing together a well-crafted set of songs, designed for emotional response. That’s something most experimental bands with careers in ascendance have often given lip service to, the photo negative of a conventional rock band “going electronic.” But weighing streamlined pop tracks like “Gun Has No Trigger” or “Dance for You” against the provocative, but flailing Black Flag reconstructions on Rise Above or even the knotty, non-“Stillness is the Move” stretches of Bitte Orca, backs up Longstreth’s stated intent. While his band’s sound remains texturally rich, and refuses to ever become flatly conventional, they’ve now channeled their strengths towards work less calculated to impress. Somehow, the result is even more impressive.
In conversation, Longstreth touches on the making of the record, the methods he used, and the creative choices he made. But mostly he talked about the songs themselves, and the “album of songs” they make up—self-contained pieces that were the focal point of everything Dirty Projectors have been working towards for at least a solid year, and possibly their whole career.
The L Magazine: I’ve seen you say in other interviews, and listening to the songs this rings true, that Swing Lo Magellan is a more… straightforward record? Simple doesn’t seem like the right word. Direct?
Dave Longstreth: A little bit more open-hearted. A little less wrapped up in being obtuse. I think direct is probably the word. Because “vulnerable” implies sadsack kind of shit—it’s more personal, it’s more direct. I think it’s as much about ideas, but I think the singing is better and the songwriting is better, so it just does what music does, which is make you feel something.
Were you thinking of the last couple records as conceptual, formal experiments?
I started writing songs when I was 14, and I started calling things that I wrote Dirty Projectors in my first year of college. At first you are really just doing it for yourself, out of weird curiosity or need. This is definitely the kind of stuff you say in hindsight, as opposed to the way I was thinking of it at the time, but, when it started getting a little bit of an audience, maybe the impulse was to make things a little bit more armored. It’s hard to share a lot of yourself. The part that’s easiest to share is ideas, rather than feelings. The last few records have been pretty organized around a conceptual theme or a story; this time it’s about songs.
Just from the lyrics of this one, I was getting a lot of big, universal topics like life, death, procreation. Were you trying to boil it down to the big issues?
I think that happened just because I wrote so many damn songs and the ones that were about eating Vietnamese food in a strip mall on the edge of town really didn’t resonate as deeply as the ones thinking about death or fucking, or whatever.
“Dance For You” struck me as a classic pop thing, dancing as a metaphor for life. Reminded me of T-Rex, “Cosmic Dancer” and all that.
Yeah, man, love that T Rex shit. I don’t know, I just kind of wrote that song. I guess I was a little bit embarrassed. I think I spent a day trying to think of what else it could be than “Dance for You.” But that’s just what it is.
When it came out, you talked conspicuously about Bitte Orca being an album written for the full band, or for that incarnation of the band. Are you still writing in that mode, or is Swing Lo Magellan a bit different in the way that you did it?
This was a bit different. Bitte Orca definitely felt like just making a little momento of the touring band that we had become. Between 2006 and 2008, we were just on tour constantly. That record is making a cartoon of that band, taking the personalities that we are and represent on stage and just drawing a thick, black magic marker line around them. So Bryan’s drumming just became the heaviest, straightest, most flat-footed, precise thing. Amber’s voice is treated as some super righteous diva. That album is really about Dirty Projectors on stage.
This album comes from the songs. It comes from the questions that the songs asked. In a way it’s sort of like a new beginning. It comes from the music rather than the stage persona. What we’ve been doing for the past couple weeks is trying to figure out how to play these songs live.
Where did “Gun Has No Trigger” come in the course of writing the album?
I gave myself a deadline to stop writing on Amber Coffman’s birthday last year. Then I found this one little melody that I’d written at some point, and it was like, “Fuck, I’ve got to make a demo of this.” And that was “Gun Has No Trigger.” So it had to be one of the last two or three songs that I wrote for this one.
I doubt it’s what you had in mind, but that one sort of strikes me as if Dirty Projectors ever wrote a James Bond theme.
People have said that. It mystifies me a little bit.
I think the interesting thing about it, is that central image of “the gun has no trigger.” Despite the implied danger in the lyrics and the way that it sounds, it’s thwarted. The gun has no way to go off. What were you going for lyrically?
It’s so hokey, but I’ve been thinking so much about protest music. One of the photogenic aspects of the 60s is that there was shit going on in the world and you felt like the artists and the musicians of the day could respond to it in very direct, powerful, effective ways. I don’t know why at this moment, when by some accounts things are more fucked up than the problems of the 60s, we as a culture seem very uninterested in responding to it in our cultural products.
Do you have any theories?
I don’t know, same as everybody else. In such a globally connected world, the prospect of really drawing our behavior into alignment with our deepest beliefs or how we really believe things should be, it feels very impossible, short of, basically, you know, just killing yourself. (Laughs) I guess the song is sort of about that conundrum, making dissent that’s not either totally hypocritical or swept up into the machine that you are trying to critique. The gun has no trigger.
The female vocals have become so central to the band at this point, and I wonder how much of your songwriting for the band is you trying to fulfill a perfect idea of a song, and how much of it is worked out collectively as you’re in the studio?
It’s just what the song demands. There are a bunch of songs on the record where the ladies aren’t singing with me. With Bitte Orca I got very obsessed with harmony and felicity. I love the color of chords, and I love voices singing together. I will never get bored of the voice as an instrument. It’s ancient and terrific at the same time. It’s never going to go out of style, because it’s literally a human being. You can do anything with it. It’s infinite.
Are you writing specifically for personnel changes in the band? Would you have written the same record if say, Angel Deradoorian was participating this time?
Oh, I definitely would have written the same record. By the time she and I sort of started talking about her not being a part of it, all the songs were already written and all the demos had already been made.
When I was first doing Dirty Projectors, I would just put together different versions of the band based on what songs seemed to require. Again, Bitte Orca was the opposite of that, but this was more consistent with that original approach. Amber and Matt and Haley are like family and just the most amazing musicians there are. As a band I feel like we could do anything. We could do any weird shit that I can come up with.
Is there a possibility that Angel might come back for future recordings?
It’s possible, but you know Angel, she moved to LA. I think she wants to be a songwriter. She’s going to figure out what that’s all about, she’s going to write some tunes. I think that she’s probably on her own trip, but who knows what the future holds?
Did this record make you change as a singer? Do you think your delivery is different, or that the songs demanded that you become a different singer?
I think the singing is definitely different on this record. Actually, a lot of my vocal takes were the first time I sang the song. The singing is pretty unselfconscious because of it. “Impregnable Question,” that’s literally the first time I sang that song to double track.
I sort of developed this character singing Rise Above—scorned and scornful, anti-social, incredibly vulnerable, but incredibly spiteful at the same time. It’s the character that inhabits those Black Flag lyrics. I kind of made that character my singing voice for that album, and we toured that entire time, between Rise Above and Bitte Orca, so that was still the voice I was inhabiting for those songs too. I think these songs, being warmer and more direct, it did have me singing in a different way.
When you are going to be touring so heavily, how do you keep recordings that are so open and spontaneous from becoming a glassy-eyed, glossy version of that feeling under repetition?
It’s a good question. I don’t have an answer for you yet. I have to think it’ll just be in interacting as we play, interacting with the audience. I love that the record is this kind of fragile, hand-made thing. Like untreated wood. I think it’s ok that the songs will change. It’s in the spirit of them that they might.
What was your thinking in cutting bits of studio chatter back in to “Unto Caesar”?
It was like 4am, and it was the last day we had at the Rare Book Room, and we were all kind of delirious. That was just what was happening in the room when we were recording it. We realized that it really worked with the song, so we just kind of left it in.
For me, the album is really about this Wabi-sabi aesthetic. I love the idea of the recording as just capturing a moment that happens once and not again. It’s not a perfect record. It’s not a platonic rendering of a series of parts. I think when people are making purely digital music you can do that. So people will take everything out and tune everything and correct things. It actually feels weird not to do that when you’ve got those things at your disposal. But I love the idea of this album as this collection of little stones you are holding in your hands. They’re all weird, irregular, different colors.
Can you talk a bit about the percussion on the record? There are a lot of hand-claps, a lot of programmed beats. How do you think about percussion when you are writing?
I think the hand-claps are just a reflection of the recording method, which was recording all the time, constantly, and pretty informally. I would say, “We need a rhythm that feels like this,” and I would end up doing it in claps. That closeness ended up feeling really good. I was listening to a lot of early hip-hop, so this record is about round grooves, less about precision and more about a bounce. A swing.
Is that why you chose the title?
Everybody asks what the title means and why the title. “Swing lo,” “swanging lo.” There’s something about the redemption that comes out of death, that comes out of surrendering something, Then also, Magellan, this idea of discovery and exploration.
From Rise Above through Bitte Orca to now, you guys have become one of the biggest bands in Brooklyn. Starting where you did, do you think that your songwriting has changed to become more inclusive, or do you think that the listening audience has come around to what you are trying to do?
I don’t have a lot of insight about it. I think as a band we feel lucky to have people interested in what we are doing. I think after an album like Bitte Orca, it would have been hard to continue with the kind of little mental gymnastics that I made for myself. So I just got into songwriting and the possibilities of what you can do in three minutes and thirty seconds. That just opened the door for me to write a shitload of songs, and then just find the nice ones. •