Dan Deacon on 'Rat Film' Score, Wild Aerosmith Mashup - Rolling Stone
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Dan Deacon on Music From Rats’ Brains, His Wild Aerosmith Mashup

Electronic composer behind ‘Rat Film’ score also discusses threats to Baltimore’s DIY scene after Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire

Baltimore composer and DIY party-starter Dan Deacon discusses scoring new doc 'Rat Film,' and how Aerosmith started him on his musical journey.

“Everywhere I go in the world, people are like, ‘Ohhhh, whoa, Baltimore. The Wire,'” Dan Deacon tells Rolling Stone from his house in Charm City. “I can’t imagine meeting someone from New York and being like, ‘Oh, New York? Friends. Seinfield. Preeeetty cool. How do you like it there?'” The 36-year-old electronic musician takes Baltimore’s reputation to heart, because while David Simon made the city a place people came to fear, Deacon made it a place people came to party.

Ever since Deacon’s 2007 breakout LP Spiderman of the Rings, his late-night raves in decrepit Baltimore lofts have become the stuff of underground legend. Deacon plays right on the floor, standing over a thicket of cables, a laptop illuminating his owlish glasses. Atmospheric as a Rothko, insane as Looney Tunes, his music is an improbably danceable cacophony of synths, MIDI samples and more strung together by slivers of pop and noise. These days, in addition to his regular haunts, he brings his inventive compositions to esteemed venues like Carnegie Hall and the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center. Plus a few unlikely ones, like Miley Cyrus’ Dead Petz Tour. 

Deacon’s career has mirrored the eccentric turns of his music. This year, he scored Rat Film, a cerebral indie documentary that traces Baltimore’s socioeconomic problems through its history of rat infestations. “I knew this film was going to be covering institutional racism and rampant, rampant – basically designed – poverty, but it wasn’t going to be sensationalized,” Deacon says. “That got me excited.” 

While his creative stature rises, Deacon remains deeply passionate about his home city, where he’s resided for 13 years. The first bit of money he ever made, he says, from Spiderman, went into renovating a derelict building near the center of the city to create a DIY space for artists to live and work. Last year, police evicted and closed the Bell Foundry after a city-wide crackdown following the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland that killed 36 people. Deacon was then invited to join Baltimore’s new special task force for such spaces, like the one he founded.

One of the first pieces of yours I heard was this feedback-laden collage of Aerosmith’s Permanent Vacation from around 2002. Why that album?
[Laughs] Aerosmith was my first favorite band. What I loved was, you hear “Dream On” and then you hear another song and it’s like, “Who is this new singer?” And Permanent Vacation really embodies that. This is going back 15 years. I was listening to Stockhausen, John Cage, heady noise music like Prurient. And then I’d go back and listen to Aerosmith’s “Rag Doll.”

I was thinking about how insane it was – the pageantry, the fanfare of their shows, the scarves. Then I thought, “What if there were hundreds of Aerosmiths – playing all of Aerosmith’s music?” I understand “permanent vacation” is a prison reference, but I loved the concept of all Aerosmith, all the time, forever. So I layered the guitars and staggered their references – like putting all the middle points in the same spot.

A lot of people wouldn’t even admit to owning that CD.
Most people didn’t get down with Aerosmith the same way I did. My parents listened to classic rock, but not them. So Aerosmith became mine in a way.

Have you ever been to an Aerosmith concert?
They was my first concert! I was in junior high and it was the Jones Beach Amphitheater. Collective Soul opened. My dad got the tickets for my birthday. I remember we rushed down to get there because we thought our tickets were for the other night [laughs]. I can’t really relate to my youth mindset and I don’t know why I made that track. But I still love the way that it ends on that vamping vocal harmonica jam. Where they end is where they’re no longer present in the piece.

You seem to be drawn to creating unreal textures from ordinary sources, like with Rat Film, where you used the sounds of rats in the score. Where did you get that idea?
I had a teacher in college, Joel Thome, who did a piece where he put different bugs on an overhead projector. As the bugs swooped around, the performers would change what they were playing based on the coordinates of [his or her] assigned bug. That always resonated with me. I kept thinking, “What do rats do?” I have three theremins. When you put them close enough to each other, they interact on their own. So we decided to make this triangle enclosure out of my theremins for the rats.

Where did you get the rats?
My friend who lived down the street had two pet rats. They were the stars. As the rat moved from one theremin to the next, one would get higher in pitch and the other would get lower in pitch and the third would have this really odd wavering sound. We converted most of that voltage to MIDI – this arcane language I love that I pray to God they update (it’s been in version 1.0 since the Seventies). I came up with the piano sections, but the rhythmic content is devised by rats. And if you hear a pop, those pops are a rat’s hippocampus being triggered.

How did you get sound out of a rat’s brain?
[Rat Film director] Theo Anthony gave me a long recording of rat brain impulses from using electrodes and different stimuli to track rats’ behaviors, dreams and responses. The recording was converted to sound, slowed way down, like 1,000 percent. Then, I slowed it down an additional 1,000 percent to get less of a purr and more of the tickitoo tickitoo rhythms. Some of the haunting, airy sounds are a combination of the two.

What’s your opinion of rats in general?
They’re chill little creatures. I’m sure if one were in my house right now, I’d be like, “That is a huge animal and it doesn’t have logic and it’s hungry!” But right now, I’m staring at a bunch of bees inside my house. I’ve had bees for the past four years now and I love them [laughs]. I don’t want to disturb them. They’re like my little pets. I don’t know. Both my parents were exterminators.

Did you ever go on any jobs with them as a kid?
Yeah, it was a small, two-person company they ran together called Deacon’s Professional Pest Management. They ran it out of the house. One of them was always on the phone talking to a customer saying things like, “A mouse can fit through any hole, even the size of a dime, the rat a quarter” [laughs]. My dad really cherished life and saw the absurd nature of life through his job. I remember going on jobs with him where he’d catch a squirrel or a raccoon – which, I believe, the state forces you to kill – and we would just go to the state parks and let them loose. It didn’t make any sense to kill this animal that hadn’t really done anything wrong. I often think about how we’re probably more a giant inconvenience for the rats than vice versa. The rats were probably like [mimics a rat voice], “This was a pretty chill, swampy marsh before someone brought all these rocks here and dried it out. What the hell is this?”

Rat Film uses the city’s rat infestation to touch on a number of the city’s deep-seated issues, from urban-planning failures to systemic racism. Are the rats symbolic of poverty in Baltimore?
I think Theo is trying to depict the opposite. I don’t think he is ever trying to use the rat as a metaphor for poverty or people. It’s easy to make that correlation because of the way history has trained us to. [Authorities] have done that for a very deliberate reason. It’s to dehumanize people.

That really comes across when present-day Baltimore is shown in warped Google Earth images. What did you want the score to reflect in those sections?
I wanted something that leaves you hanging, that never resolves. I thought about how there are so many details in Google Earth, but they’re all corrupted or odd and it’s moving at such an unnatural rate, so I thought a synthetic instrument like brass would work. Like, there’s no way those horns sound like real horns, just as there’s no way someone could see Google Earth and be like, “What a beautiful photograph. What camera did you take it with?”

Dan Deacon

The only actual song in the doc is Ed Schrader’s anthem “Rats,” which really hits home when you have a rodent problem.
[Laughs] Back then Ed lived with my girlfriend at the time in the Copycat [apartment building] and I lived in the unit across the hall. Ed would come in and drive me fucking crazy [laughs]. Anyway, I remember the first time he played [“Rats”] he used just a CD rack with contact mics. It had this really wild sound, because of all these different sheets of metal. He was just banging on them with scissors – like one half of a scissor in each hand. I remember thinking about those lyrics and he was like, “Yeah, I was just laying here on the floor and saw five rats going in and out of my kitchen and realized they’re probably crawling all over me when I’m sleeping.” And I was like, “Huh, I guess me too.”

After the Ghost Ship fire, Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh tapped you to serve on a new task force aimed at making DIY arts spaces safer. What’s been your experience so far?
On paper, [the task force] could have been amazing. I think it was a well-intentioned idea. But there was a lot more politics involved than concern [for safety] … if the city or fire department wants you out, you’re out. At one time, I thought I had a mind for politics. I tried to make the meetings as public as possible, and then eventually stopped getting emails about when they were.

I also don’t think DIY spaces are a topic for the press or for the boardroom. People who have never walked into a DIY space are now talking about the need to preserve them? What do they think they are trying to preserve?

What do you make of Under Armour’s multibillion-dollar real estate investment in downtown Baltimore that was announced this year?
Ever seen RoboCop? It’s like that scene where the seemingly well-meaning corporation wants to build a new city. Personally, I’m horrified of a “new Baltimore” and the insane compound city [Under Armour] is going to build. If it’s a success, then Baltimore will become like Portland and most of my friends won’t be able to afford to live here.

We’ve put all our chips in Under Armour – the largest sum of money the city has ever given to any project. But there’s still no infrastructure for it here; it’s all still post-industrial, so we’d need all new roads, street lights – those sort of things. That’s the part that shows the city’s true colors. I understand wanting to bring in new industry, new jobs – but the amount of attention this project gets in comparison to existing issues … I don’t have a problem with a company being large. But one company acting like it’s the only thing here? It’s a wealth duel that the people are going to lose.

In This Article: Dan Deacon


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