“I wouldn’t really describe myself as a singer-songwriter. I’m more of a business, man,” says David Longstreth. “I’m joking. Sorry.” But even in jest, Longstreth’s nod to the famous Jay-Z verse speaks of his ambition. As the Dirty Projectors’ frontman, he’s orchestrated a glitch opera starring himself as Don Henley (The Getty Address) and a BeyoncÃ©-inspired prog-rock album that reintroduced the term “hocketing” — a ping-ponging vocal technique originating from medieval times — into the indie conversation (Bitte Orca).
However, while secluded in upstate New York to write sixth studio effort Swing Lo Magellan, Longstreth pondered more elemental matters: his relationship with vocalist Amber Coffman and how this co-existed with an increasingly image-conscious society. With vocalist Angel Deradoorian on hiatus, the result was an effort that further streamlined the now-quintet’s intricate, R&B-leaning approach to foreground Longstreth’s concise and compassionate musings. The music — set to the band’s voices, hand claps and a sparse tangle of guitars — mirrors the lyrical intimacy.
eMusic’s Christina Lee spoke with Longstreth about the making of Swing Lo Magellan, the supposed duties of musicians, Ghostbusters, and why, in Longstreth’s words, “a half-finished room is a great place to write music.”
What’s the story behind the album cover art?
It was a day last winter, where this guy Gary was in the driveway of the house where we were recording the album. Amber and I went out to just kind of see what’s up, how he’s doing and what was going on. My brother, coincidentally, was upstate at the house with us that weekend — taking pictures of us engaged in cool-looking stuff like singing vocals into fancy microphones, playing the guitars and fiddling with amps — and he just happened to snap this incidental shot of Amber and I talking to this man. I missed it at the time, but I happened across the photograph months later.
What made you decide to rent that house in Delaware County in particular?
It was just a feeling when we found it. The house was built by bootleggers about 100 years ago, but then there were some local rumors about the feds coming up and busting all these bootlegger farms. Everybody got word and left in the middle of the night, and this house was pretty much left abandoned for much of the 20th century. It was brought in the mid ’80s by some downtown couple who thought they were gonna make it their country dream home. But they never finished it — they moved to northern New Jersey. So it’s a half-finished, half-abandoned home, a half-old bootlegger place with weird ’80s, ’90s Home Depot furnishing. Aspects of it were never finished. The seams between the floor and the walls in the dining room, for example, is just duct tape. But it turns out, a half-finished room is a great place to write music.
We did a lot of festival touring for Bitte Orca in 2010. When you’re flying in and flying out of places all over the world, it tends to leave you with all little chunks of time to where you don’t have anything planned but you can’t really get into any kind of rhythm at home. So Amber and I went on a couple of drives to upstate New York for trips, and we went through the Phonecias, Ashokens, Shandakens and Woodstock. All of those places are so cheesy, but we like Delaware County.
In your interview with SPIN, you mentioned that it felt inappropriate to make music as exuberant as that of Bitte Orca. Why did you feel that way?
Well, it’s a very different cultural moment than the summer of 2008 was. It felt like a different time than the beginning of a new decade. I don’t know if it’s good or bad but you know, you can look around and probably fill in some of the spaces I’m leaving for you.
Well, I was wondering if there was a particular news headline or event that struck you.
Yeah, you could imagine. Think about the summer of 2008 to the summer of 2012. Think about the world. I think that [Swing Lo Magellan] is a very personal record, but it’s a very timely record as well. It’s one that I think responds to this moment in the culture.
Mount Wittenberg Orca was made in collaboration with Housing Works [a New York-based non-profit benefiting impoverished, HIV-positive patients]. What are some other causes or societal issues you think deserve more attention?
There’s probably billions of worthy causes, but this is an album. The song “Irresponsible Tune” is a question about a society that basically expends its labor just making images of itself. We’re organized around a society of images where on a daily basis, we all have to sit around and make aesthetic decisions — how to represent this or that thing that we did, with a photo of a friend that we took, or what we liked the most. It’s super interesting, and that’s what I do as a musician as a songwriter — just sitting around, making images of myself and what I see. Sometimes that feel like a very strange way to spend one’s life at a time like this.
It looks like the font featured in the “Gun Has No Trigger” music video is the same as used on the Getty Address cover art.
No, that’s not true. The Getty Address font is one that I made up. It’s an imaginary font, just an abstraction of the Roman alphabet. You can read that font, or you can learn how to read it, but those are real characters — just really fucked-up ones. The “Gun Has No Trigger” karaoke video features Sumerian, which is inscribed with a stylus onto a clay tablet by the ancient Akkadians. I think it’s the first non-pictographic script in the world. I’ve always just loved that script — it’s beautiful — but it’s pretty playful to have a karaoke video in the ancient Akkadian [language] It’s really just a joke and a play on the idea as Dirty Projectors, as an idea of exploiting the creative potential of bad translation, misunderstanding. The title of the song can’t even be translated into the world’s oldest language.
What was on your mind when you wrote “The Socialities” and that line, “Who knows what my spirit is worth in cold hard cash?”
I have no idea. I don’t know what was on my mind. I was thinking about that moment in Ghostbusters when Louis is being chased by a Terror Dog and he ends up pinned to the glass of that incredibly fancy restaurant on Central Park West. He’s pressing his face up against the glass and looking at these diners out of insane desperation, and they’re momentarily disturbed. But then, when he gets mauled by the dog and pulled into the bushes out of sight, they immediately go back to their meet-up.
So wait, was that actually it?
No, no, no.
Can that now be the official explanation?
I just gave it to you!