On with the Show

January 25, 2008


For a brief moment in the late '90s, as the alternative-rock movement waned and the major labels turned toward "the next big thing," it seemed as if techno DJs such as Moby, the Aphex Twin and the Orb might become the "new rock stars," making a very different kind of music but delivering live shows every bit as exciting as anything in rock 'n' roll.

Alas, electronic dance music never really broke out of the underground, and the next wave of musicians weren't very good showmen: There simply isn't much excitement to be had in watching someone sitting in front of a lap top. But a new wave of electronic heroes is tossing that up once again, with Girl Talk, a k a Dan Gillis, performing with the energy of Iggy Pop, and Dan Deacon continuing a tradition of mind-bending psychedelic-rock shows that can be traced back through the Orb to Pink Floyd.

"The idea of creating 'a show' was both a natural expression of who I was and something that I strove for," Deacon says. "When I started seeing bands as a kid, the ones that put on a show were the ones I liked the most, and I think that made an impression.

"When I first started, I was playing spaces that had very limited resources. Sometimes there wouldn't be a PA, and I'd be running the sound through a bass amp, or there wouldn't be any lights, so I'd have to bring my own small lights. That meant I had to come up with a performance that fit within those limitations."

Indeed, Deacon made his first few tours traveling by Greyhound bus, carefully packing his allotted two suitcases to haul as much gear as he could while meeting the transit company's weight requirements.

"Now that the performances are growing, it's fun to see how those limitations have moved, but it's also daunting, because there are not so many avenues to explore. Ultimate Reality is the first time I'm touring with a full PA, our own huge projection screen and two full drum kits" -- not to mention the visual backdrop of the impressionistic film that gives the tour its name, directed by Deacon's friend, Jimmy Joe Roche, and newly available on DVD.

Leading members of Baltimore's Wham City collective of underground artists, Deacon and Roche have been friends since college in the early '90s, when Deacon studied electro-acoustic composition and computer music in the Conservatory of Music at the State University of New York at Purchase. With last year's "Spiderman of the Rings" album, Deacon delivered the underground blockbuster that cheeky title promised, and he nearly stole the show at last summer's Pitchfork Music Festival. But for Ultimate Reality, he's upped the ante.

The tour started with a long composition that seemed to cry out for a multimedia presentation. "The piece is focused around maximalism and intensity," Deacon says, "and I think the only way to perceive that is in the live setting, when you're in a completely dark room and the screen is massive and the two live drummers are blasting and the sound is coming out of two full PA systems. I was going for a hypnotic drone, but using non-drone elements. I think a lot of people associate drone music with long, sustained tones and very slow rhythms, and this is exactly the opposite: It's very fast, but that pulse sort of becomes a drone.

"The only way this was going to work was if there was live drums, and Kevin [O'Meare], who's in Video Hippos, and Jeremy [Hyman], who's in Pony Tail -- two close friends who are awesome drummers -- said they'd do it. We were just rehearsing at my house, with the drummers set up and all of my stuff spread out, when Jimmy came in and said, 'What the hell are you guys doing? I heard it all the way down the block!' I told him I'd written this long piece, and he said, 'I want to make the video for it!'

"So he got to work, and at some point he was like, 'It's going to be all Arnold Schwarzenegger footage,' " Deacon continues. "I was a little hesitant -- I thought it would be too campy, because the piece of music was very serious -- but when I saw the way he did it, it was very ... I don't want to say spiritual, but it was my no means jokey, and it was very full-on."

"Schwarzenegger I think stands for this whole kind of cultural American mythology that we grew up with," Roche says. "Me and Dan are 26, and we grew up with 'Conan the Barbarian' and 'Predator,' all these weird movies. As we became teenagers, his narrative grew with us -- the whole spectrum of destruction and conspiracy theories and control. The piece is about recontextualization -- taking this grand Schwarzenegger narrative and making it our own."

Roche and Deacon believe their Schwarzenegger images are protected by fair use, since the actor has crossed into politics as the governor of California. In any event, Roche says he believes "they've been transformed and manipulated enough" in the swirling psychedelic pastiche to forestall any legal threats.

Isn't this a bit ironic, I ask Deacon, given that he's railed against Greyhound's unauthorized use of his own image in magazine ads touting how easy it is to traverse America's musical underground via its buses? "That's a fair question, but I think it's very, very different," he says, laughing. "I know what we did is not proper and legal, but I think it's different than using something to advertise for some huge company."

As for whether electronic dance musicians may finally become the new rock stars, Deacon is taking it all in stride. "I try not to think about it, because things like that can drive you crazy, and getting more popular is a double-edged sword, because I don't want it to change the way I do my work.

"At times, I wish I could go back to playing small house shows. But at other times, I can't wait to play even larger spaces so I can have crazy lasers shooting all over the place. I guess I'm just very excited about where I am at this moment."