Asking the Dirty Projectors‘ main songwriter Dave Longstreth to explain his music is an exercise in futility. For the duration of their career, they’ve consistently challenged songwriting conventions, whether through the deconstructed art-pop of 2009’s Bitte Orca or by trying to recreate Black Flag’s album Damaged, without hearing it for fifteen years, as they did on 2007’s Rise Above. On their latest album Swing Lo Magellan, Longstreth presents the group’s simplest songwriting to date. Songs like “Just From Chevron” and “Impregnable Question” have a newfound intimacy, relying less on tempo shifts and odd time signatures in favor of laid-back melodies and straightforward word play. That’s not to say that they’ve totally ditched their Dirty Projector-ness entirely. Lead single “Gun Has No Trigger,” as well as opener “Offspring Are Blank,” are rife with shifting guitar solos, funky rhythms, and the beautiful coo-ing of vocalists Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle. These are the things that Dirty Projectors’ fans have come to love, but this time around, it’s much more personal.
Hive spoke with Longstreth in late May about recording Swing Lo Magellan, his theories about the afterlife and why this latest effort is like “a smooth, rounded rock.”
I read that Swing Lo Magellan was recorded in a “weird house.” Why was this house weird? Was it haunted?
I don’t think it was haunted, no. It was built by bootleggers about a 100 years ago.
Like alcohol bootleggers?
Like alcohol bootleggers, yeah.
So it was a log cabin? Or brick?
No, it’s made out of wood. It’s got a frame. It’s about the size of a house that would have been built about a 100 years ago. The interesting thing about the record isn’t really about the house that it was recorded in.
“I always turn around and look at what I’m doing and try to do the exact opposite of that. I’ve spent a good several albums for Dirty Projectors just obsessed with colors and textures and ideas about orchestration and trying to do things in that area that have never been done. Or never been done in that context before.”
What is the interesting thing about the record?
What do you think it is?
On this first track, “Offspring Are Blank,”is that a reference to the idea that babies don’t really know anything when they are born?
Am I way off?
No, that’s interesting. I never really thought about it like that. I can see that. Yeah, I was thinking of it as a generational-type songs, like “The Kids Are Alright” or something. But this one is a little different. It’s sorta like “the offspring are blank.”
There’s a lot of talk on the record about birth and death. Was there a lot of thinking about birth and death this time around?
I guess so, yeah. Something about like when you’re out on tour a lot … I don’t know, it gets in your brain, the realization that death is always pretty close. I guess I was kinda obsessed with that stuff.
Watch the video for “Gun Has No Trigger” here:
I’ve never been out on tour. Why would being on tour let death seep into your thoughts?
Just because it’s such an intense experience because you’re moving pretty quickly. You’re constantly doing things and there’s never a moment of downtime. It’s constant adrenaline; it’s really, really exciting.
Some bands aren’t that into touring as they move into their 30s.
Touring is wild. There’s nothing like it. It’s more like … you know, Xerxes about to take a Greek city or something. The whole thing is just a folly and you’re about to die, that kinda thing. I don’t know.
Do you have any specific theories about the afterlife?
So you think about death but not necessarily what happens after you die.
I think you’re just dead. Dust.
I read that you wrote 40 tracks for Swing Lo. Are they whittled down or do you piece them together to make these 12?
I just got obsessed with the idea of a song. What a song could be, what a song could do, what a song could mean. When we finished touring on Bitte Orca, I just got into it, writing one song after another. Exploding enthusiasm for that. I didn’t really have an LP idea in mind. I just wanted to get into a flow. I figured I could open some sort of window and that could happen and then I was just writing all this music that felt amazing to have access to. I just did it for awhile until the window closed I guess. It was about 70 songs, and then at that point, it was like “okay, let’s share ‘em with the band and we’ll start to figure out which ones we’re going to make recordings of.” No, it’s not really a whittling down or a distillation in that way. This album is really about that first moment, that first thought. These 12 songs kinda go together. They belong to each other in some way. But I don’t know if it represents the crème of the crop or anything. These songs feel like they have something to do with this particular moment in time and that’s why they’re on this album.
Your music over the years doesn’t adhere to songwriting conventions that you hear in rock songs. But this record does feel like a seamless experience from start to finish.
That’s cool. I always turn around and look at what I’m doing and try to do the exact opposite of that. I’ve spent a good several albums for Dirty Projectors just obsessed with colors and textures and ideas about orchestration and trying to do things in that area that have never been done. Or never been done in that context before. I’m proud of all that stuff and with this album I wanted to do something totally different from that. For me, it seems like it’s the most daring thing that I can do as a writer that I am – to not really give a shit about all that color and orchestration and just focus on the song itself as this object, like a stone that you can hold in your hand … smooth, rounded rock. And that’s what these songs are. They’re using the simplest tools to say the simplest truths. At the end of that, there’s still something so idiosyncratic and personal about it.
“Impregnable Question” seems like one of the more smoother stones. It’s simple in its message.
That one, I sang those vocals about 10 minutes after I wrote the lyrics and that’s the only time I’ve ever sung that song. This album is about that fragility. Purposeful imperfection. The impress of the moment, you know?
Swing Lo Magellan is out July 10 on Domino Records.