Dan Deacon's electronic compositions are one part schizzed-out electronica, one part experimental kid's music, one part digital psychedelia and all parts fun and glittery and jubilant and free — a celebration of sounds that will make you smile and cringe, sometimes all in the same song.
The composer/performance artist is among a group of underground Baltimore acts whose music has been tagged as "future shock." This could be referencing sociologist/futurologist Alvin Toffler's book about a condition suffered by people unable to deal with the accelerated rate of change (future shock) or jazz pianist Herbie Hancock's 35th album, in which he abandoned tradition in favor of turntable scratching and spacey funk (Future Shock). Deacon's music could certainly trigger the "shattering stress and disorientation" experienced by the people described in Toffler's book, and the break-dancing robots from Future Shock's "Rockit!" video would probably get down to Deacon's music. Either way, his music certainly is futuristic and, to some, probably a bit shocking.
"I like doing a show where there are only six people and two of them get it and the other four are just, like, flabbergasted that it's happening," Deacon says during a Sunday afternoon phone interview. "My favorite is when a show ends and a guy'll come up to me, and be like, 'Man, I really didn't like that, but that was awesome!'"
A typical live show finds Deacon off the stage and in the middle of the dance floor, fiddling with a tabletop of assorted electronics and a small jerry-rigged light board, "which is just a fire waiting to happen." But unlike the hunched-over-their-equipment electronic artists, Deacon makes every effort to engage his audiences in a way that's been likened to performance art and modern-day vaudeville.
He sings, tells stories, and loses his shit to his own music so wildly and infectiously that everyone surrounding him is forced to join in or be left standing foolishly, tediously, still. He admits that his shows are getting more and more intense, and the crowds that normally push in around him are dancing more aggressively, a heaving whirlwind of fist-pumping people with Deacon at its center "holding on for dear life."
The 25-year-old has recently been the subject of a great deal of hype. Pitchfork has mentioned him no less than 13 times this year and given his new album, Spiderman of the Rings, a glowing review; his showmanship was noticed and remarked upon in a New York Times article about DIY show spaces; and The Village Voice recently chimed in with its own rather encouraging assessment of one of his performances.
Despite the publicity, Deacon's still a struggling musician who pinches pennies whenever possible, even if it means taking calls from the press over the weekend when his minutes are free. The Baltimore warehouse called Wham City, where he's lived and hosted innumerable art, performance and live-music shows for the past few years — and which inspired the name of his artists collective — seems to have run its course. "We just got evicted from our performance/living space, so we're in the process of finding new homes and opening up a new, more legal venue rather than our completely illegal one."
At least he's still able to record music. Since 2003, Deacon has put out more than a handful of CDs on the independent micro-label, Standard Oil. But those recordings didn't feature the vocal-based music he's done during live performances. With his latest disc, Spiderman of the Rings, he aimed to change that.
"Spiderman was the first album that was predominantly vocal-heavy," Deacon says. "So it was a very, very different process of going in and taking what I was doing live and putting it in the studio setting."
Live, he douses his singing with lots of effects, but in the studio he discovered that too much processing made the vocals sound overly rigid. "Even though it's electronic music," he says, "I still wanted it to have a human element to it."
Overall, the one thing he hopes that people understand about his music is that it's coming from a genuine place. He says it's easy to be a "one-man joke band" but more difficult to unite the contradictory notions of earnestness and humor. "I just hope that people take it as sincere and not a joke," he says. "Sincerity is an insanely important aspect to what I do."