FROM PRECISION TO PASSION: Critically-adored and technically incredible, Dave Longstreth’s project THE DIRTY PROJECTORS have often caused divisions in even the best friends for their beautiful, intellectual music. Thomas Hannan talks to the man whose work has been sung by Bjork and covered by Solange Knowles to find out about his most personal ‘songwriterly’ album so far.
Here’s a theory I’m going to regret ever putting in print. But all music (yep, here we go) exists on a spectrum between passion and precision. You can build quite a following by being completely one thing or the other, but the best stuff sits in the middle, and the stuff at either end tends to piss a lot of people off. The lo-fi, off key mumblings of Daniel Johnston infuriate as many as they delight, and the same can be said of the prog-rock muscle flexing of The Mars Fucking Volta, for example.
People who have a problem with the Dirty Projectors seem to view them as residing too far along the precision side of the scale. As undeniably impressive as their musicality is, it’s placed front and centre all the time, leading many who tend to give this stuff a less sympathetic reading to conclude that leader Dave Longstreth’s music is too calculated to be mining any real emotion.
Swing Lo Magellan, Dirty Projectors’ wonderfully warm new album, finds them in a more forthcoming, convincingly emotive mood than ever before. A record brimming with life, it sounds almost thoroughly jubilant, despite some of the topics worked through on it being anything but.
“I don’t know that the album’s entirely about horror and fear, but it is about those things. It’s more about personal experience. Horror and fear among them, but also doubt, faith, love and responsibility. It’s a record about living. As wide a spectrum as these songs come from, they all seem to belong to each other.”
Unlike some previous, highly lauded Dirty Projectors projects, Swing Lo Magellan is not a concept record. The result of one of the most prolific periods of writing in Longstreth’s career – when I say I hear reports of between 40 and 70 songs being demoed for it, he confirms the exact number as being “seventeen hundred” – it’s referred to by its creator as a “songwriter album”.
“As opposed to an album like The Getty Address or Rise Above that’s organised around a central theme – be that a story in the case of Getty or an organising conceptual conceit in the shape of Rise Above – this one is just about the song as a universe unto itself. Sometimes I’ll write to a theme, and the songwriting is done when the concept is articulated. This was different. I felt like, well, I want to write another song! It was really about six months of writing songs before I thought, I’m cool.”
That six months was largely spent in the solitude of a remote house in upstate New York. From his talk of it, it sounds like the kind of place Bon Iver goes to when the even loneliness of being snowed in alone in a log cabin begins to feel a little crowded.
“The recordings are definitely imbued with a sense of that place. It’s just great to make music in the middle of nowhere, to get up in an attic and just bash for a while. It was such a great counterpoint to being on tour for two years when not only are you around the people in your band and your crew for 24 hours a day, but you’re always making new friends and interacting with audiences and things like that. Those are amazing experiences, but to come from that to basically solitude, it activates different parts of the brain.”
I put it to him that as well as being away from the people of Brooklyn, it must also be healthy to get out of its eternally burgeoning scene as well – especially when you’re trying to put your mind to making your own music.
“I never really feel a part of it. I feel grateful for the music you can see in Brooklyn, but I never really identify with the way the Brookyln scene gets characterised, particularly in the UK. My way of writing music is always just very weird and solitary. This is more of an introverted record. This is coming from us, as opposed to taking these strands of existing cultural conversations and binding them together in an extroverted way.”
Interesting that he notes how the record is coming from “us”, as Longstreth has long been a master of utilising other peoples’ voices to spin his yarns. Often the defining thing about a Dirty Projectors song, voices as unique as those of David Byrne and Bjork have been amongst the tools with which he’s crafted some of his best work.
“To me, the voice is the greatest instrument. It’s the most simple, but it’s the most versatile. I love colour and harmonies and counterpoint, changing one note in a chord and watching it become a different chord. There’s rarely a more dramatic way of showing that than with three female voices. You can go other places in another person’s voice; you can say things that you might not be able to say yourself.”
Yet Swing Lo Magellan also sees Longstreth saying things in his own voice that are more revealing and personal than perhaps ever before. Warm and inviting throughout, it’s with ‘Impregnable Question’ that it reaches a peak in terms of its ability to shine a light on Dave Longstreth the person as well as the musician. The line that sticks with you, delivered with a blunt but tangible beauty, is one of pure simplicity: “I love you, and I want you in my life”. It’s a lyric he seems scarcely able to believe he sung.
“That’s the only time I’ve sung that song. Returning to that moment night after night on tour, that’s definitely daunting. One thing that guided this whole writing and recording process was the idea of a moment, capturing a specific little piece of time as opposed to an objective rendering of a part. When I sang that song it was literally about 10 – 15 minutes after I’d written the lyrics. I was like, this is how I want things to go, this is the feeling, I’m going to fucking do this. This goes for a lot of the album; the performances might be less perfect, but that’s nice in an era when digital cleanliness is so easy and orthodox. It’s nice just to leave it fucking dirty.”
Longstreth clearly has a different concept of ‘fucking dirty’ to most of us (it really does sound just lovely), as Swing Lo Magellan lands pretty much bang in the middle of the passion-precision scale. It’s both surprising, and hugely gratifying, how much it suits them.