An audience with New York art rock collective Dirty Projectors
Dirty Projectors' seventh studio album is their most accessible to date, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for a little chaos
Don't expect Dirty Projectors to conform to any of the "types" of music you listen to. For this American band on the ascendant, there's no such thing as genre, and the possibilities in making music are endless.
"Anyone can do anything now," singer-guitarist David Longstreth says of the global music scene. "It seems like things have gotten a bit more democratic. There are fewer gatekeepers, for better or worse."
Even describing music as an "industry" or a "scene" is something of an effort for Longstreth. When he first started out a decade ago, he was sceptical about what constituted the music industry. "I was writing songs because I had to, and I released them because I wanted to."
It's a philosophy that has served Longstreth and his Brooklyn-based band well in the intervening 10 years, with Dirty Projectors' seven albums winning critical acclaim and their latest, Swing Lo Magellan from last year, making many influential critics' best-of-2012 lists. And as a live act, the band are also stronger than ever, making this perfect timing for their debut visit to Hong Kong on Saturday, when they will appear alongside fellow New York indie rockers Ra Ra Riot.
Dirty Projectors' sound has evolved over the past decade, taking in everything from powerful vocal harmonies, complicated rhythms and layered arrangements to American punk and African rhythms. Accordingly, the band have been described as everything from new wave and progressive rock to experimental rock and indie. But for Longstreth, it's not about boxes or categories. "Everybody sort of listens to everything," he says. "And in a world where everybody listens to everything, how is anybody going to make something that is just a country and western song or an R&B song? It all gets mixed up."
Perhaps this is why Dirty Projectors - also consisting of Amber Coffman (vocals, guitar), Haley Dekle (vocals), Nat Baldwin (bass) and Michael Johnson (drums) - are now winning the biggest plaudits of their career. In the flooded music market, bands must strive to be unique.
Dirty Projectors achieved their singularity by dispensing with categories and doing what they felt was right. "It's not a band that has a very specific aesthetic that it does incredibly well time and time again. I love those bands, but we are not that. There's an energy that comes out of that - of doing whatever you feel like," Longstreth says.
So is there method to their creative process? Is it just about writing as they go, and finding inspiration all around?
"Everything [we hear] is kind of awesome. You switch through the radio dial, or you are just in a gas station somewhere - everything is great," says Longstreth.
There is always something that they can borrow or do something weird with. "[We] aren't a band that take a narrow canon of influences and meticulously groom them into some sort of shape - it's a little more chaotic than that," he says.
But that's not to say Dirty Projectors don't have their heroes. Icelandic songstress Bjork and former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne are among them, and Longstreth says the band felt honoured to be able to work with both artists in the past few years. In 2010, Dirty Projectors released the digital EP, Mount Wittenberg Orca, with Bjork. (The physical release came the next year.) In 2009, they collaborated with Byrne on the song Knotty Pine, for the compilation Dark was the Night, produced by the Red Hot Organisation.
Longstreth says of such collaborations: "I am really curious about other musicians and artists."
Testament to their open and accepting, perhaps even musically promiscuous, attitude - where anything is possible and everything heard has something "awesome" to offer, as well as the fact this band refuse to be pigeon-holed - dubstep and electronic artists Rusko and Major Lazer are other big names they have worked with.
For Longstreth, "the idea is just to write songs", and that is certainly apparent on Swing Lo Magellan. Where previous albums were focused on a theme or had an overarching concept - Getty Address (2005) and Bitte Orca (2009) told stories; and Rise Above (2007) was an experimental project by Longstreth, in which he re-imagined an album by American punk band Black Flag from memory - the latest album "has been more about writing an individual song", Longstreth says.
"[It's about] putting an entire world into just the structure of a verse chorus, a bridge, a couple of verses and seeing how, maybe in that form, there's a whole world of possibilities. It's not about historical music [or what came before] … it's just music," he says.
And what music it is. Their seventh studio album comprises tracks selected from about 40 demos that were completed during the production process. Longstreth admits there's a lot of leftover material that may surface on future releases. Meanwhile, the listener will find strong beats and melodies, and diverse lyrics (sung mainly by Longstreth), with a veritable orchestra to boot: clarinet, flute, viola, cello, sax, trumpet - they are all in the mix in the album. Many critics say Dirty Projectors have produced their best album yet by doing away with some of the complexity and impenetrability they are associated with.
Plenty of tracks from the latest album are likely to be heard when they perform at Grappa's Cellar at the end of the month. There will also be numbers from their new EP, About to Die, comprising a collection of songs unified by themes of living and dying. And, says Longstreth, they will also be playing "stuff from Bitte Orca and a couple of older numbers".
Of their forthcoming visit, he adds: "We are very excited. We hear Hong Kong is more futuristic than Tokyo, [where we have been many times]. I have friends who spend a lot of time over in your part of the world, and they come home [to New York] and say 'Oh, it seems like such a regional, small city', which kind of cracks me up. I'm excited to see Hong Kong, to experience it."
And what can their fans expect in the future? "We are working on two different batches of things right now. One is super guitar-shreddy, and the other is just making beats - a lot of beats," says Longstreth. "Sometimes I start on opposite sides … and work my way to the middle and it turns out to be the same thing, or sometimes it ends up as two different things - so I don't really know right now."
Staying true to that chaos and complexity, then, Longstreth remains elusive. His open and adaptive attitude towards his craft seems refreshing and relaxed. Dirty Projectors accept and embrace what works for them, and are accepting, too, of what works for others. Nothing is ruled out - everything is a possibility or an opportunity.
While some artists may struggle with the suggestion that nothing in music seems "pure" anymore, it's an idea that fuels Dirty Projectors. With such a multifarious and mixed-up creative space in music today, it's not hard to see how confusion or complexity may arise.
Dirty Projectors may be a complex, unclassifiable band, but that certainly doesn't make them hard to like.
Dirty Projectors and Ra Ra Riot, Jan 29, 7.30pm, Grappa's Cellar, B/F Jardine House, 1 Connaught Place, Central, HK$320 (advance, from ticketflap.com HK$360 (door). Inquiries: 2521 2322