Dan Deacon rescues his hobby away from capitalism and gets out of the way of his own relaxation
Gothic Theatre | March 28
By Sarah Hagerman
Photo by Frank Hamilton
After completing 2015’s Gliss Riffer, Dan Deacon found himself with a full plate of commercial work and film scores. Although ever grateful that making music was his full-time job, “It was not filling the same role as when I’m writing music just for fun. When I lose sight of that, stress sets in and it’s easier to have periods of doubt. I have to remember that music and performing serve a multitude of roles in my life and, at the root, music was my hobby. I can’t ever let capitalism steal my hobby.”
Many people similarly struggle with the tyranny of productivity, the constant, nagging feeling they aren’t doing enough. Mystic Familiar, Deacon’s latest release, grew from that tension between anxiety-inducing, self-applied pressure and the deeper wisdom that comes from lovingly embracing one’s own imperfections. The Marquee spoke to Deacon on the phone from his home in Baltimore, Md., about how this tension became a creative springboard during the five-year writing and recording process for Mystic Familiar.
“When it became harder for me to justify the time [spent on this album]as a hobby, that’s when my anxiety revved back up,” Deacon recalled. “Now that it was the main project, I needed to find a way to channel these feelings. They really were a blockage. You can’t fight them or ignore them, it’s like fighting or ignoring the weather. I can’t go outside and ignore that it’s cold or that it’s raining, I have to prepare to go through it properly.”
Deacon took up meditation and found, in one of the paradoxes of the practice, that putting pressure on yourself to meditate perfectly was a hindrance to making it a habit: “Eventually, it just clicked that it was okay to be bad. If I did it a little bit every day, I would get better. If I missed a day, it was fine. It wasn’t a strict authoritarian code of meditation. But it was a great way to start the day and set intentions.”
Deacon also employed Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards in his writing process. Each card contains a purposefully obtuse prompt for inspiration. “Sometimes, if I agreed with the card, it would be an immediate spark,” he described. “But, if I didn’t agree with the card, I tried to respect it the same way I would a person and not just be like, ‘That’s dumb, what’s next?’ I would try to justify why it didn’t resonate with me.”
A theme that resonates throughout the album is the idea of the “familiar.” Often conceptualized as animal guides, such as a witch’s cat, familiars can be more broadly thought of as external embodiments of spiritual energy or emotional states. Deacon first heard an artist friend use the term and was immediately fascinated by the idea. “I was in the process of writing lyrics at this point and was playing with the idea of having these externalized voices speaking to me, either through a tree or various animals. That’s been in my music for a while, this idea of speaking through another entity. But that phrase [“mystic familiar”] really stuck with me, so I dove into it headfirst.”
Familiars presented themselves to Deacon in unexpected ways, and often in times of creative self-doubt. “Sat by a Tree” grew from a moment when a frustrated Deacon decided to take a break and try to clear his mind by meditating under a tree. But, instead of offering easy enlightenment, Deacon began to imagine the tree being annoyed with him.
“Most people think of nature as kind of stoic and godly but, if we’re going to put human traits on nature, we should use all of them. I loved the idea of a sarcastic, asshole tree or a jerk, lying lake. So, I’m sitting by this tree, just trying to force this meditation out, and it’s not working. I’m not letting it work. I don’t understand that I’m the roadblock. Eventually, the tree is like, ‘What do you want? What is going on? What would you even do if you could relax?’ I didn’t expect that to be the question to arise. I started thinking about that experience and tried to document that night and the thoughts I was having while I was confronting my inability to recognize that I was the hindrance to my own relaxation.”
These moments of humor and honesty abound on Mystic Familiar, a theme underscored by Deacon’s decision to use his own, unedited singing voice for the entire album. “That was the biggest challenge,” he explained. “Finalizing the lyrics and coming to terms with the imperfections of my voice, and using them as a musical character trait rather than trying to avoid them.”
Deacon occupies a unique space musically. His tunes are often infectiously danceable but he isn’t an electronic artist offering up an obvious untz. He approaches his songcraft as a composer (Mystic Familiar features a four-song suite, named after the ARP 2600 synth it was written on). Ever honoring his roots in Baltimore’s vibrant DIY scene, his music never loses that gritty, organic edge in the high-minded vibe. He creates dance music for other seekers humbled by the great mystery as we stumble up the mountain. His joyful shows reflect this, as he frequently puts the spotlight on the audience with various participatory elements.
“It’s nice to go out and have a good time but it’s important to remember that all of our actions have some sort of connection to other people,” Deacon said. “Music and art can play a role in reminding us of that interconnected dialogue. That’s why I do all the audience interactions. The audience to me is the focal point of the show. At most shows, the audience refers to themselves and the music as a singular, individual thing. With sports people say ‘we,’ with religion they say ‘we.’ ‘We believe this,’ ‘We won,’ or, ‘We lost,’ or, ‘We need a new coach.’ They don’t say, ‘We played our favorite songs.’ I like to think about the mindset of an audience and what can be done with a group of people. What happens spontaneously, in that particular instance. What can be done so that an audience starts thinking of it as ‘we’ and ‘us.’ I think that has a lasting effect on remembering your interconnectedness outside of the show.”
Gothic Theatre | March 28
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