uddled in a seedy bunker full of ladders and rollerskates, I ask Dan Deacon about the first time he used THE INTERNET.
“My friend Tom had Compuserve back when it was text only. I don’t even know if you’d call it the Internet. It was like hooking your phone up to your computer. And we looked up all the other Tom Reynoldses in the United States and just started pranking them. We basically used it as a device for sophisticated prank phone calls.”
In 1953, the animator Chuck Jones created a cartoon called “Duck Amuck,” in which Daffy Duck is ruthlessly fucked with by the bodiless hand on the drawing board. Daffy goes to strum his awesome new guitar and the guitar is silent; he dumbly holds up a sign that says, “Sound, Please!” and is rewarded with a machine gun and a klaxon. Daffy is confused by black space falling on his head like a curtain. Daffy is confused by the ocean of white space spilling out in front of him. The hand re-imagines his body as a bladder with flippers, crow’s feet, a flower for a head, and a pole-like tail with a flag of a SCREW and a BALL painted on it. Daffy trudges on, acutely pissed. Turns out the animator is Bugs Bunny. Sophisticated pranks.
“Daffy Duck has been a hero for me my entire life,” Dan says. “He’s just fucking crazy. He’s totally incorrigible.” But “Duck Amuck” does as much for its medium as Magritte’s “The Treason of Images” or the steam engine does for theirs. “It’s so funny and amazing to me to watch these things a little later in life and realize that the jokes are so multi-layered and aimed at so many demographics—it’s just mind-blowing.”
Photo: Liz Colville
But blowing minds is both an intellectual and a visceral goal, and Deacon leans on the latter. He’s the friend whose presence alternately embarrasses and inspires you. When I ask him what it means to act your age, he says, “I think that's just something boring people say to feel better about themselves for being boring.” He bounds up, 25 going on 40 and 4 at the same time, chubby, slack-shouldered, with a cocked head and inquisitive eyes; when Dan Deacon says “Hi!” you can hear the exclamation point. “I feel like so much of contemporary music and arts is focused on shaking things up and being radical that I don’t know if I’d want to go in and revolutionize things in that way. More like what Bartók wanted to do by bringing in more folk elements, but the folk elements here would be pop and accessibility.”
Oh right! Dan Deacon also has a Master’s Degree in electro-acoustic composition. He is working on a large-scale symphony and saxophone quartets. And that’s part of what makes him so fascinating: he’s not a pop-art pedant abusing kids with his thesis and he’s not a high-culture rebel. He is a semi-regular guy who smiles like a baby, dresses like a slob, and found his sine wave generator in the dumpster. On youth: “Fuck with collection agencies at all times.” When I ask him about early rock ’n’ roll like the Coasters, I half-expect an answer about how humor has been squeezed out of art like pus, how what we all need now, desperately, is funny: funny voices, funny lyrics, more elaborately constructed fart-like noises. Instead, what appeals to Deacon—and a theme that runs through all the other art and music spewing out of Baltimore’s Wham City collective, for which he serves as a combo mascot, flag-bearer, and minister of information—is immediacy: “Imagine being at a house where someone just gets up and says ‘Hey, we’re the Coasters,’ and they just start—‘TAKE OUT THE PAPERS AND THE TRASH!’ It would just be so raw, so amazing.”
Onstage, Deacon is That Dude and has possibly perfected being That Dude. While his other records treaded in blistering half-songs of noisy electronics, Casitone drones, and drum machines bubbling like lotto balls, Spiderman of the Rings is anchored by party anthems of static-y synth-pop that owe equally to Devo, Little Richard, and Yellow Magic Orchestra. Seeing Deacon last week made my heart swollen. He sets up in the audience, right in front of the stage. As soon as he starts, the crowd collapses a decade of discovering their own bodies into about four seconds. After thirty, the floor is a river of moisture. After a minute, six people have died. I voided my bowels and am in the arms of a nurse, who is not a nurse but just some guy. Dan Deacon is heaving over his tiny table of pedals. There is a green flashing skull behind him. He named a song after it—“Trippy Green Skull”—and when he plays the song, the CD backing track cuts out right when he lunges for the verse he stole from Ludacris’s “What’s Your Fantasy?” Later, we all help Dan apologize to his brother Pat for when Dan stole his change jar as a kid, to buy comic books, and then we have a dance contest.
Photo: Liz Colville
I ask Dan Deacon whether the art is more important than the people. He misunderstands me—I’m thinking about how he might deal with the fact that he’s becoming more of a national artist while most of his friends are still relatively local. Could Dan Deacon exist without Wham City? Could a Dan Deacon show be a Dan Deacon show without people flailing like they’d swallowed lightning? “The art a person makes is a huge reflection of their personality,” he says, and I pause. Not because it’s a weird thing to say. If anything, it’s a tin answer.
But what does it mean for a guy who opens his album with samples of Woody Woodpecker laughter building to almost intolerable cacophony, a guy who never sings without processing his voice beyond recognition? “Most of my lyrics are phonetic, but I occasionally sneak in a reference to my life.” During dead moments, Dan Deacon lightly scratches his arm, one of those neurotic gestures that really productive people are full of, and if they didn’t indulge, they’d petrify or implode or uglier yet. Maybe, though, his arm itches.
“I’m sort of paranoid,” he says. It’s and arbitrary thing to say to someone you met an hour ago, but I indulge him just because.
“Oh, I dunno, everything.”
Dan Deacon advises me to masturbate while crying and to lie to strangers.
But that same part of him that sometimes veers into dark weirdness as background noise is also what pushes him to keep filling his time with art. When you get down to it, there is no why. Dan Deacon is a fountain of declarations.
“So, I say ‘The Dan Deacon School for the Talented and Gifted Fighting...what’s your mascot?”
“A lion with a shark’s head.”
“It’s awesome as fuck.”