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Q&A: Dirty Projectors' David Longstreth Lashes Out at Critics

'I wanted to take very simple tools and simple rules and make something that felt true, but also personal'

The Dirty Projectors
Jason Frank Rothenberg
June 29, 2012 5:50 PM ET

Dirty Projectors' sixth studio album, Swing Lo Magellan (due out July 10th), is the group's warmest, most inviting record yet. Though previous Dirty Projectors releases have extended musical and lyrical themes over the course of entire albums, composer and frontman David Longstreth kept things simple this time, choosing to emphasize discrete songs with a looser, more natural sound.

Rolling Stone caught up with Longstreth at a boutique hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He had already done six interviews that day, and he seemed bored and impatient as he slumped back in his chair and hid his eyes behind reflective shades. At one point, the singer lashed out at Rolling Stone's two-star review of Swing Lo Magellan track "Gun Has No Trigger": "Rolling Stone is a total bozo magazine at this point....That [critic] is just dumb."

Despite his abrasive and dismissive tone, Longstreth was often thoughtful in discussing his creative process, and he displayed a disarming vulnerability at times. This conversation has been edited down from a longer transcript.

You've said that Swing Lo Magellan is a record focused on songwriting. How is that different from what you were doing on previous Dirty Projectors albums? Was there something you wanted to get away from, to challenge yourself?
It seemed like the newest thing to try would be to put a world into just a song, and just do it again and again and again and again.

I know you wrote a lot of songs for this record. What was it about these particular 12 songs that seemed like an album to you?
They just started to run together as a pack. It wasn't a particularly rational rubric, but they seemed to sit together nicely. I like a lot of the other ones. We'll figure out how some of them will come out, too.

You wrote the record by yourself in a cabin in upstate New York. Did your bandmates have much input along the way?
Writing is a pretty solitary thing for me. I would come down here, Amber [Coffman] would come up with me, and we would do that, or sometimes I'd just be totally by myself. When the songs were done, Nat [Baldwin] and Brian [McOmber] came up and we recorded the rhythm tracks just all together. And then Amber and Haley [Dekle] came up and we did the vocals and guitars and stuff like that.

Did you intend for this record to have a more relaxed feeling to it?
Not really. I had wanted to make something that felt like experience, and the songs themselves – I just wanted to take, like, very simple tools and simple rules and make something that felt true, but also, just personal.

What were some of the simple rules?
Not rules that had language attached to it, but musical things. Everything is very quantized right now, and everything is very digitally corrected and, I don't know, it's hard to listen to that music. Unless it's explicitly about air brushing, or something. I don't want a digital canyon between you and whatever kind of object you might be perceiving.

Did you feel like the records you had made in the past were too tight?
I like the sound of [2005's] The Getty Address, and to me, the digital nature of it is part of what it's all about. I haven't listened to [2007's] Rise Above in a long time. But I don't know, I think those albums were, like – these are sort of strange ideas, they're sort of unique ideas, and I wanted to make sure they were being communicated clearly. Going back to it, they're a little scrubbed. I hope that this album and [2009's] Bitte Orca make a nice sort of complement to each other, and I don't even mean in terms of our own discography, but to the music that's around.

When I heard Swing Lo Magellan for the first time, I was a little surprised that it seemed to have a lot of continuity with what you were doing on Bitte Orca. Was there a temptation to react against that record?
Well, I don't know, I think it is sort of a bounce against it. It's not really about surfaces and fabrics, and the intimation of large ideas and a large space. It's very personal.

Were you surprised at all by how successful Bitte Orca became? It certainly introduced you to a larger audience.
Prior to that, the band's trajectory was a very gradual growth, and Bitte was very sharp in terms of the jump. But I don't know, we'd been touring pretty much nonstop. You don't really notice those things when you're in the middle of them. When I started doing this like, yeah, 10 years ago, it was a strange idea to take a kind of compositional scope or something and apply it to a Todd P universe. It was a weird idea.

I think bands like Grizzly Bear and St. Vincent are in a similar zone, and are very careful, nuanced musicians. Do you feel more of a sense of community now, than when you started?
I don't know. I get the sense…I don't know.

Are there people that you think of as being peers? The way you put it before, it sounded like you felt like a bit of a misfit. Do you feel that way at all now?
Yeah. I do. I don't know…I do.

From what I've read, "Gun Has No Trigger" is apparently your favorite song that you've written. Is that true?
I don't know what to say. I'm being a little standoffish, but my context is that Rolling Stone is a total bozo magazine at this point. I'm doing all this press stuff, and I do plenty of interviews with whatever, but then seeing the "Gun Has No Trigger" review, and it's like – really? It's some bozo desperately trying to anticipate what the actual cultural arbiters are going to say, and trying to posit that as the narrative that gets generated. But it's just dumb. That person is just dumb.

Well, I am curious about "Gun Has No Trigger" and why you wanted to highlight it.
Well, it's empty. The speakers are empty. The song is about this idea of a society that's just devoted to making images of itself, and spends all day doing that. That's what I do. I wondered what a real image of dissent would be, and whether that's even a conceivable alternative or possibility. That's what that song is to me.

Do you think anyone has really picked up on what you were trying to say?
The French did, I think. They were fucking on it. And the smart British people did. No one in the United States.

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Song Stories

“Stillness Is the Move”

Dirty Projectors | 2009

A Wim Wenders film and a rapper inspired the Dirty Projectors duo David Longstreth and Amber Coffmanto write "sort of a love song." "We rented the movie Wings of Desire from Dave's brother's recommendation, and he had me go through it and just write down some things that I found interesting, and they made it into the song," Coffman said. As for the hip-hop connection, Longstreth explained, "The beat is based on T-Pain. We commissioned a radio mix of the song by the guy who mixes all of Timbaland's records, but the mix we made sounded way better, so we didn't use it."

More Song Stories entries »
 
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