Positively charged

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am


Dan Deacon is showing me upstairs in his Baltimore house, a two-storey brownstone in the city's arts district that he shares with six others, including his artist girlfriend Stefani. As we make our way into the upstairs lounge, the 30-year-old picks his way past boxes and bags. He removes a box from a sofa so that we can sit down to discuss how it is that he has become one of the best loved and outlandish electronic music producers around today.

'I feel like I'm not as DIY as I used to be, because I'm just not,' says Deacon, who's expressive with his hands in the way of a conductor, and wears a black T-shirt, black jeans, and filthy high-top street sneakers. In 2007, with the release of his brilliantly whacked-out, ADD-riddled album Spiderman of the Rings, Deacon went from relative obscurity as an experimental musician to a music website Pitchfork-anointed hero for the alternative dance scene.

Since the success of Spiderman of the Rings, Deacon has had to shed some of the DIY ethos that got him started, but in a way it still defines him. 'I feel like everything I do is still steeped in it,' he says. 'When I wasn't touring so much or having such demand, it was easy for me to silk-screen my own shirts and make my own CDs, but now ultimately I need to remember that I'm a musician and an artist, I don't make craft.'

Pitchfork is largely responsible for bringing Deacon to the world's attention: the website included Spiderman of the Rings in its influential best new music section and ranked the album 24th among its top 50 albums of 2007. That same year, Deacon played the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, a concert captured in its full manic glory on a YouTube video, which shows hundreds of sweatily euphoric dance fans pushing in on Deacon as he leads them in a sing-along and then turns the beats-per-minute up to crazy. Also featuring prominently in that video is a banana strapped to an iPod - and all of this glorious madness will be part of the package Deacon will bring to Hong Kong's XXX Gallery on January 21.

Following Spiderman of the Rings, Deacon, who studied composition at a music conservatory in New York state and also plays the trombone and the tuba, released another Pitchfork-praised album, 2009's Bromst. Not just a musician, in his shows Deacon acts as a ringmaster, inciting the crowd into dance-offs, human whirlpools, and mass high-fives. 'It started organically when I realised that the more I engaged the audience, the more it was interesting for me.' He first got the idea of audience participation during a raging performance in New York in 2004 when the power suddenly cut out. He didn't want to lose momentum, so he cleared a space in the middle of the dance floor and started a game. When the power came back on, he realised the focus of the room had changed completely. 'It just had an impact on me and I was ... thinking about space and how to recontextualise space and how to utilise the audience as one of the elements of performance,' he says. Now he always performs among the crowd.

This approach to art as performance has led Deacon to the biggest project of his life: composing the soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola's new film Twixt. The director of The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now had heard Deacon talking about the importance of live performance in an interview on National Public Radio.

'I was just talking a lot about how with everything that's mass produced and digital and copied, there're few unique things,' Deacon says, 'and music has the benefit of being both mass produced and a unique performance, because it both exists in the recording and in the live format. So the more you exploit the uniqueness of a live performance, the more of an impact you have on your audience.'

That idea resonated with Coppola who invited Deacon to his Napa Valley vineyard to discuss how film could be adapted for live performance and toured like a show, playing in one place, in one city, for one night. 'He liked the idea and now we're doing that some time [this year]. We're going to be touring the film live where he's going to be on a computer re-editing a film as it goes and [calling up] the scenes and deciding which scenes go where while I do the same with the music. So every performance of the film will be a different version of the film.'

Twixt represents a step sideways for DIY Deacon, who is most well known as an absurdist composer-producer. (He once told a TV interviewer that he tries to make music that he imagines a bunch of 'really cool six-year-olds' would come up with if they got together. Disappointingly, he disavows that statement today, asking: 'Do you agree with everything you said eight years ago?').

Despite the big budget and Ford Coppola's Oscar cachet, Deacon feels comfortable in the unfamiliar environment. 'At first I was really worried that it was going to be like a machine, but it's very similar to working with other people in the DIY community,' he says. [Ford Coppola] has a vision, he wants to execute it, he wants to see how it gets done, and he wants to work with people that can bring something to the table.'

Indeed, anyone familiar with Deacon knows that what he brings to the table is especially delicious - and what he serves up in Hong Kong is bound to awaken the giddy six-year-olds in all of us. Feast well.

Dan Deacon Live in Hong Kong, Jan 21, 10pm, XXX Gallery, B/F, 212 Wing Lok Street, Sheung Wan. Ticket prices to be announced. Inquiries: xxxgalleryhk@gmail.com