There’s no grand theme behind the new Dirty Projectors album – it’s just a bunch of beautiful songs, Dave Longstreth tells JIM CARROLL
THIS TIME, IT was going to be different for Dave Longstreth. Previously, when the time came to write a new Dirty Projectors album, chief projectionist Longstreth usually had a theme or concept of one sort or another in mind to frame the muse.
This is the process which saw Longstreth produce 2005’s The Getty Address, an album based around notions of Don Henley and Aztec mysticism. Then, there was also 2007’s Rise Above, where the band “covered” Black Flag’s Damaged album from memory without actually consulting the source material.
Not this time around. The songs you will hear on new abum Swing Lo Megallan are just that: a bunch of songs which Longstreth developed and honed in an old house in upstate New York. No links, no pointy-headed concepts, no unifying themes.
Even so, Longstreth does try to find some way to link these songs. “In the past, there was often that kind of theme which dominated how the writing went. This time, there was a different kind of theme because I became obsessed with the idea of Lil Wayne and Bob Dylan and what you could do with words in the space of three minutes. It ended up about being more about the songs than some kind of overarching theme.”
Longstreth is adamant about those links between the rapper and the rock icon, though we suspect his tongue may be lodged in his cheek. “I see a lot of similarities there, don’t you? Plus, Lil Wayne did Bob Dylan’s part in the 25th anniversary part of We Are the World. Check it out on YouTube, Wayne brought an appropriate pathos to the line; it was good.”
Perhaps Longstreth went stir crazy in his gaff in the middle of nowhere after all. For him, the idea of getting it together in the countryside was simply a means to get away from the touring mindset he’d been in for so long.
“After so much touring in 2009 and 2010, it felt like an awesome contrast to be away by myself and work on new material. There were a lot of songs that I had stored away. I’d drafts and ideas which I had accumulated when I was travelling, but I was far from finished. I found that fetching up in this weird, isolated house with them was a good way to allow them to emerge and develop.”
Those on-the-road scraps and sketches proved to be the starting point for Swing Lo Megallan’s direction. “I’ve tried writing on the road and I had some OK results this time, I must admit. I did come up a lot of Garageband fragments when we were out there touring. I would have an idea, work it out on Garageband and file it away in a folder and not think about it anymore.
“It wasn’t this great plan or anything like that, but when we were done touring, I found the folder with a bunch of shit on it and dived in.”
The band know that there will be a lot more eyes on them this time out after the success of 2009’s Bitte Orca album. It was a tipping point for an act who’d been seen as more arty than pop up to that point. What Bitte Orca’s exuberent, dizzy songs with hooks of African hi-life guitars, r’n’b vocals, post-rock grooves and tribal incantations did was bring in an audience.
Did the breakout success of the previous album have any bearing on his mindset when he went to work? “We didn’t think too much about what happened the last time around, though I have to say, it’s tricky not to think about what happened. The new album is not organised around a specific theme so it’s a bit different.
“When you’re recording an album which is basically a reimagining of a Black Flag album, you’re done with the album once you’ve thought of all the songs.
“Or when you’re writing an album talking to some whales (the Mount Wittenberg Orca mini-album collaboration with Bjork from 2010), you’re done once the whales have continued on their migrations and the stories have been told.
“Here, though, I just wrote songs and kept on going and didn’t really stop at any stage to consider what the emerging whole was looking like. When I did stop, I found there were a bunch of songs which seemed to capture this unguarded feeling of truth which I was looking for. It was the spirit of Neil Young which we embraced, this interest in the recording as a moment that happens and never repeats itself.”
Old habits die hard, though, and Longstreth riffs on the album title as a possible sign to some of the ideas and concepts inside. “The album title captures it perfectly, I think. The album has this great feel of rhythm and groove and swing rather than some super compositional parts. Lo refers to this kind of blues the album has, not some 12 bar blues shit and more this downlow feeling. Magellan brings in this sense of discovery and exploration though I didn’t really even notice that it refered to the explorer, to be honest.”
That sense of discovery is something common to all Dirty Projectors’ work. Longstreth continues to believe fervently in the power of intution to lead his band to do the right thing with their music.
“People forget that music should be about emotion or spirit, and not technique. Dirty Projectors is not a conventional rock or buzz band, there’s a long history and I guess there’s been a lot of changes in terms of style and who has been there with me and all that.
“Too often in the past, we were probably seen as pursuing some sort of abstract idea of music. But I don’t think that I went about creating concept albums as such. I was more interested in creating a body of songs and a set of characters to work around because that made sense for me.
“But I realise now that you often don’t need that. This time, I just wanted to concentrate on beautiful songs which aren’t linked in any way. Creating those songs is what being a musician is all about.”
Swing Lo Magellan is out today