Dan Deacon On Talking To Trees, Brian Eno, Player Pianos And 'Mystic Familiar' The composer and electronic musician hit a wall while making his first solo album in five years. Finishing the record meant finding inspiration in everything from Brian Eno to a tree in his yard.
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Inside The Controlled Chaos Of Dan Deacon's 'Mystic Familiar'

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Inside The Controlled Chaos Of Dan Deacon's 'Mystic Familiar'

Inside The Controlled Chaos Of Dan Deacon's 'Mystic Familiar'

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There are some artists who just seem to have no limits on their creativity. Composer and musician Dan Deacon is one of those people. He's got a string of successful solo albums, though recently his work has been more collaborative - composing film scores, producing and working with the New York City Ballet and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. But while working on his latest solo album, "Mystic Familiar," Deacon hit a wall. ALL THINGS CONSIDERED producer Dave Blanchard visited Deacon at his home studio in Baltimore to hear how he pushed through.

DAVE BLANCHARD, BYLINE: Dan Deacon can't find the cable he needs.

DAN DEACON: I'm going to dive in here real quick.

BLANCHARD: He's also searching for an old music file on his computer.

DEACON: Date modified - we're going by date modified now.

BLANCHARD: Deacon is in his home studio, which is kind of like a mix between a toy store and a science lab for musicians. There are shelves of audio gadgets, multiple computers and monitors. Synthesizers are stacked on synthesizers with cables running between them all. It's a bit of a mess.

DEACON: I like how chaotic it is. And I like to think about chaos in the way that a forest is chaotic. Like, if you look at it and you zoom out, it looks very peaceful and - like, ah, look at all the trees. But if you get into it, like, there's piles of leaves. And you lift up the leaves, and there's endless life crawling around in the muck.

BLANCHARD: Chaos plays a part in Dan Deacon's music, too. His songs are densely arranged with layers upon layers of synths and drums jockeying to be heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN DEACON'S "BUMBLE BEE CROWN KING")

BLANCHARD: His concerts, famously, are no less frenetic. At a recent show, Deacon directed the crowd to actually dance their way out of the venue, not realizing it led onto a very busy street.

DEACON: And the audience just went across the street, blocked four lanes of traffic. Trains were stopped. Everyone's blaring on their horns.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN DEACON SONG, "ARP II: FLOAT AWAY")

BLANCHARD: For the past several projects, his collaborators have helped channel that chaos. But when he sat down to work on his first solo album in five years, he was alone.

DEACON: I would leave those collaborations and come into my studio solo. And I'd all of a sudden be like, where is the other voice to encourage me? - because that's how my inner monologue sounds (laughter).

BLANCHARD: It's Kermit?

DEACON: It's Kermit. Yeah, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN DEACON SONG, "ARP II: FLOAT AWAY")

BLANCHARD: Deacon often channels his inner voices in conversation. And a lot of the time, they're self-critical.

DEACON: You haven't put out a record in five years; finish this record. What's wrong with you? People keep asking you, when is your next album coming out? And I'm just like (vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN DEACON'S "WEEPING BIRCH")

BLANCHARD: He felt he needed to change the inner monologue.

DEACON: If you think about that's what you're doing to yourself inside your own head every day, you have to change that system.

BLANCHARD: Deacon used some traditional methods. He went to therapy, took up meditation. But he also went down some more unorthodox paths.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN DEACON'S "WEEPING BIRCH")

DEACON: This whole record was thinking about characters and different voices and the nuance and quirks they have.

BLANCHARD: He used his experience meditating to, in a way, replace those self-critical voices in his head. He would focus on nonhuman things which kind of developed their own characters. And that's captured in his new album's title - "Mystic Familiar."

DEACON: A familiar is a creature that you can communicate with in some sort of supernatural capacity. So like, Merlin's owl is a familiar. A witch's cat is a familiar.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN DEACON SONG, "SAT BY A TREE")

BLANCHARD: Deacon has a window in his home studio that looks out on a weeping birch. That tree is one of his familiars. One of the songs on the album is all about seeking guidance from a tree.

DEACON: I think I was, like, trying to ask the tree - like, what should I do? Like, tree, what should I do? And looking back, I can understand the tree was like - oh, my God, if I could get up and walk away from this guy, I would love to. And then, eventually, when I started, like, embracing what the tree would actually say, it was kind of just like - well, what would you do if you could relax enough to do it? And that lyric ended up, in some sort of way, on the song "Sat By A Tree."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAT BY A TREE")

DEACON: (Singing) Sat by a tree, it had captured my attention when it started asking me - what would you cast into existence if you contained the persistence to unwind?

BLANCHARD: Another collaborator Deacon summoned up to help him push through his writer's block - legendary producer Brian Eno - kind of.

DEACON: I think if I gave Brian Eno producer credits, I would get a cease and desist from Brian Eno's attorneys.

BLANCHARD: Eno, along with artist Peter Schmidt, designed a deck of cards meant to promote creativity.

DEACON: So you just draw one of these cards, and then you think about. And it says, don't be frightened of cliches. This one is great. And I was like - all right, yeah, thank you - 'cause my music is riddled in cliche and I needed the backup on that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FELL INTO THE OCEAN")

DEACON: (Singing) And I became an ocean. I became the sand, the sun, the waves.

BLANCHARD: Now, it wasn't just trees and imagined heroes who helped inspire Deacon in his work. There were a few real live human musicians. And he also used a player piano.

DEACON: Like, a self-playing piano.

BLANCHARD: His piano is controlled by a computer. And the first song on the album is made up of layer...

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)

BLANCHARD: ...After layer....

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)

BLANCHARD: ...After layer...

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)

BLANCHARD: ...All combined into one gargantuan piano army.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)

BLANCHARD: So one of the reasons that Deacon was using this player piano was that it could play things that he just couldn't. But it still had its limits.

DEACON: When I first started working the player piano, I would be frustrated by these imperfections because I was a maniac. And I was like - but it's a machine. It should be perfect.

BLANCHARD: Deacon mapped out the parts on his computer first. In the entirely digital version, the piano sounded a certain way.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPUTERIZED PIANO PLAYING)

DEACON: It's in direct time, and every note is exactly as loud as the last one - unless I tell the computer to change it.

BLANCHARD: But when he translated them to the player piano, it came out all wobbly.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)

DEACON: Do you hear how it, like, kind of, like, halts a little bit sometimes and, like, slows up and slows down and is getting a little louder and quieter?

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)

BLANCHARD: Over the course of making the album, he learned to accept that kind of imperfection.

DEACON: That's what makes the instrument beautiful. And everything has limitations, and everything has its quirks. And those quirks are what create character.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BECOME A MOUNTAIN")

DEACON: (Singing) Close your eyes and become a mountain.

BLANCHARD: In the end, acceptance - of his instruments' limits and his own - was what all of the meditation, the therapy, the weeping birch, the spirit of Brian Eno were pushing him toward. And acceptance wound up being a central theme of the album. Deacon compared finishing the record to making a feast for a big crowd.

DEACON: At some point - you know, you can hold dinner for a little bit. But at some point, it has to go out on the table. And I started thinking about it like that. And I started being OK with like - there's things that, like, in five years, I will be better at. But I'm not in five years. I am the me of now. And I need to make this record that reflects this now.

BLANCHARD: Because as much as the creation of "Mystic Familiar" was about embracing external characters - imagined, supernatural or otherwise - the act of finishing it was about embracing his own.

Dave Blanchard, NPR News, Baltimore.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN DEACON SONG, "BECOME A MOUNTAIN")

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