For Swing Lo Magellan, David Longstreth Simplifies. A little.
When things are very, very complicated, sometimes they flip over and get simple. That’s kind of how it is with David Longstreth of The Dirty Projectors. The songwriter and frontman of the now decade-old group has never shied away from formal rigor and experimentation. He recorded his second Dirty Projectors album with a chamber orchestra, while 2007’s Rise Above was a neo-folk interpretation – recorded from memory – of Black Flag’s hardcore punk classic Damaged. Finally, with 2009’s Bitte Orca, The Dirty Projectors exploded through the aesthetic pretensions and emerged as an earwormy pop band – one that happened to construct music of breathtaking formal complexity.
Swing Lo Magellan, out today, follows up the fireworks of Bitte Orca with songs, plain and relatively simple. Recorded in a farmhouse upstate, the twelve tracks still manage to escape rock conventions, but this time by kind of following them. Or at least by trying not so hard to not follow them, if you can follow that. It’s David at the most relaxed and confident that we’ve seen him, singing love songs with straightforward piano and guitar arrangements, like “Impregnable Question:” What is mine is yours in happiness and in strife/You’re my love and I want you in my life.
But there’s still plenty of rigorous arrangement and vocal contortion, from the string interlude in “Dance For You,” to the Bitte Orca-like acrobatic melodies of “The Socialites,” sung solo by Amber Coffman. So art rock fans, have no fear.
Over the phone, David tried to give a description of his new record and then went through the motions of railing against the state of rock music in 2012. But mostly he just waxed poetic about Lil Wayne.
Where are you right now?
I’m in New York City at a hotel.
Is this a weird question, but what are you wearing?
I’m wearing (laughs). Are you supposed to be here or something?
No, I just like a visual.
Blue trousers by a label called Life After Denim, I’m wearing a blue-and-white checked cotton shirt.
And I’m wearing some Desert Trek Clarks – the kind of shoes I’ve been wearing for half my life at this point.
If you’re staying in a hotel, does that mean that you’re not based in NY at the moment?
I just got back from a bunch of traveling. Sometimes it’s easier do these press days just bang em out, and the great thing about hotels is when you need food, it’s right there, if you need coffee, it’s right there, if you need a holding pen for people who are waiting, it’s right there. It’s convenient.
Off your new album, there’s a throat clearing before “Offspring” – was that because things were recorded on the fly?
Well, yeah, yeah. That particular throat clearing is an homage to Wayne, because I love my Lil Wayne.
It was a calculated move, you mean?
Naw, ma. I just do that. That’s just what I do.
What’s your fave Lil Wayne album?
Aw man…Da Drought 3. No Ceilings.
Nice. So how did Swing Lo Magellan compare with recording Bitte Orca?
Yeah, Bitte Orca was our first album for a major indie [label] and it was really about creating an emblem of the live band we’d become over the previous two to three years of touring.
It was almost a caricature of the band we were. Because to be a rock band in the late aughties is to be a cartoon, a caricature, something the culture has seen a great deal of.
By contrast, this record is new. It’s going somewhere different. It’s taking different kinds of risks. It’s trying to articulate something about this moment.
Does that mean you feel different about being in a band now?
Well, ya know. I started Dirty Projectors ten years ago, and I’ve gone through the world collecting my musicians – the people who are part of this music. Every album has had a different lineup.
So it’s not the kind of thing that’s terribly easy to brand, for better or worse. It allows me to incredibly flexible and responsive. To what feels like it’s happening in the culture.
I forgot your question.
You were saying that being a rock band is a caricature because it’s a response to the culture, and I was wondering if this new album meant you felt differently about your position as someone in a rock band.
Oh well, no no no. Not a response to the culture of rock. It’s an emblem of the band we’d become, touring…a personal, kind of like a self-portrait. With the accompanying self awareness that comes with drawing yourself.
I did throw in a little side thought that maybe one of the reasons why the album was so successful was that it was a wilful caricature. And to be a rock band in 2010-2012, think about it – they’re all kind of caricatures.
And with a band like, you know, Foo Fighters, or Black Keys, or even the White Stripes, are you getting at people who are pushing at boundaries, at the way we think about rock music? The great rock musicians were doing that. These guys are doing an historical re-enactment society. They’re a board of preservation of a certain set of aesthetic values.
That’s a cartoon, that’s a caricature.
Dirty Projectors has never really done that, which is why we’re called an art rock band.
Do you think that descriptor is fair enough?
There’s gotta be a handle for something.
Your song Just from Chevron mentions an oil spill, and you’ve done work benefiting marine protection areas. And of course there’s your last album title, Bitte Orca. Where does your interest in marine biology come from?
Oh. Um. I just I love nature. Wilderness is a pretty central part of the iconography of the band. Across a bunch of our albums, I love being in nature, I find it inspiring to be around.
Did you grow up close to nature?
I grew up in the woods. My parents were kind of organic farmers. The first ten years of their marriage was all about subsistence farming, with a goat, making their own cheese. And when my brother and I were born, my parents were prevailed upon to ‘Get a job!’ But I had a lot of formative experiences in nature.
What was your musical conversion moment?
I’ve always loved it. I can remember jumping up and down on a bed listening to Buddy Holly when I was four. When I was 12, my brother played the guitar. So he’d show me chords: “Come as you Are,” by Nirvana. Which was pretty cool.
Is your brother a musician as well?
He’s a visual artist.
What’s his name? I’ll look him up.
Who are you listening to lately?
Mostly just Wayne. No. Honestly, Wayne hasn’t been the same since he got out of jail. But you know, time inside changes a man.
This album is not really about being super into kraut rock and then throwing down that motoric beat over everything. I listen super widely, but it’s about a more direct connection between myself and music. Not really as much a meditation on styles.
What are you looking forward to in 2012?
Well, you know , it’s all just beginning for us, we’re gonna finish up a cut of a first video today and then we’ve got some more videos that I’m super psyched about. I’m psyched about tour, and it’s been too long since I’ve been on the dusty road.
Swing Lo Magellan is available for sale on iTunes.
Listen to “Gun Has No Trigger” from Swing Lo Magellan: