Opinions about Dirty Projectors couldn't be more divided. At a recent NPR Music listening party, audience members gave the band's new album, Swing Lo Magellan, both very high marks and very low marks. It was a genuine split decision.
Intrigued, weekends on All Things Considered spoke with Dirty Projectors bandleader Dave Longstreth to figure out why. One thing became clear pretty quickly: Longstreth and Dirty Projectors take a lot of risks.
"One of the ideas with Dirty Projectors is just to look a little bit more widely and see if there's a through-line between, you know, the music of Hildegard [von Bingen] and the music of The Beach Boys," Longstreth tells NPR's Guy Raz.
Longstreth says he became familiar with von Bingen's 12th-century choral scores while studying music at Yale University.
"I guess you could say I was classically trained," he says. "I studied music at Yale, but I actually didn't really enjoy my time at Yale a whole lot, and I left for a while."
Longstreth left to go on tour and immerse himself in Brooklyn's experimental music scene. Eventually, he'd move to Portland, Ore.
He says his music comes from a hundred different places. If it's not the churches of medieval England or California's sunny beaches, then it's the mixing consoles of London in the 1960s.
"I love the kind of unsupervised stereo mixes of Beatles albums and things like that that were made in the '60s," he says. "It's this wonderful feeling of, like, simultaneous double mono, you know what I mean? It's a really, really primitive idea of stereo, but I love it."
Longstreth says the essence of Dirty Projectors isn't the odd musical juxtapositions, but rather a commitment to the process of songwriting.
"I think the hardest thing is to do a simple thing when it comes to songwriting — to say something that feels true or is true to you in the simplest language that you can," he says. "A lot of earlier Dirty Projectors records expended a great deal of energy doing the opposite of that. This album is more about the songs."
In the full version of this segment, NPR Music's Bob Boilen weighs in on what makes Dirty Projectors' music so difficult — and how understanding the band's influences can make it more accessible. Click the audio link on this page to hear more.