Photo: Jim Leatherman
Dan Deacon Talks 'Mystic Familiar', Meditation & Befriending Val Kilmer
Experimental indie-electro artist Dan Deacon just released his fifth studio album, Mystic Familiar, on Jan. 31, a project in which he completely re-envisioned his creative process, stress management techniques and overall wellbeing. The result is both joyful and deep, as well as free-flowing and erratic, as it explores death, rebirth and mystic symbolism with an unflinching lightness.
Beloved for his eclectic sound, thoughtful yet distorted lyrics, trippy visuals and high-energy live shows, the "Meme Generator" artist has been a pillar of the Baltimore indie music scene for over a decade now—he put out his first full length in 2007, Spiderman Of The Rings. Mystic Familiar (out now via Rough Trade) is his first LP in five years, following 2015's Gliss Riffer.
As evident in our lively, in-depth conversation about the project, which you can read below, the space between the two albums was rich, filled with new projects including several scores/soundtracks and deep personal growth. We caught up with Deacon over the phone about a month before the ambitious new project dropped; read on to learn more about its themes, visuals and his new favorite ways to foster creativity.
Mystic Familiar is coming out soon. How are you feeling about sharing this project, which you've said is "like a diary"?
I'm excited about it. I finished the record in August and I've been working on it for years. So it's weird, it exists but it doesn't exist and not many people have heard it and I've never held a physical copy in my hand yet. So it's in this limbo period where I feel it's like when people know they're pregnant but they can't announce that they're pregnant yet, then they announce it but the kid isn't born yet. I'm very anxious in all aspects of life, but I'm anxious for it to come out.
You've mentioned that this was one of the longest times you've worked on one specific project and, in that period, you got into mindfulness and meditation, as well as Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies deck. I'm curious how mindfulness and the deck played a role in helping you create the music?
Well, I am really bad at time management. I think a lot of artists are self-managed, so that plays into a role of trying to figure out what to prioritize and how to take on projects. It's hard to turn down opportunities and projects. I got very into film scoring since my last record; I scored eight or nine films. It's something I've always wanted to get into, so I was like, "Oh, I can't say no." But I kept saying yes to these film scores and then I have less and less time to work on my own music.
So I would sneak in and steal time whenever I could to start writing the songs that would become Mystic Familiar, but then a month would go by and I'd get engrossed in a documentary. I would come back and listen to the tracks, my whole thought process would have changed. I guess the reason I think about it like a diary is I was going back and reading it with the eyes of a new perspective, again and again and again. It took four and a half years to finish, but I am glad it went that way. The film scores all informed the process, me realizing that I need to get better with time management.
I had to get serious about not wasting time. All the stress and anxiety of the pressure I was putting on myself with all the projects and deadlines, that's what got me into meditation. You can't enter into anything with a headspace of, "Oh, sh*t." You need to feel comfortable and able to do your best work and the more relaxed you are, the better you're going to be at it.
But I was really putting a lot of pressure on myself and it took a really long time for me to accept that I should get into meditation and mindfulness. I always thought meditation was something that I just couldn't do, that it was impossible—the pull-ups of thoughts. I didn't realize it was something that you could learn and that it's okay to be bad at it at first as you practice. I thought you had to have zero thoughts at all, rather than focusing on something like your breathing or a different thought or a mantra. Once it clicked, things started falling into place. This also coincided with me setting up a thing on my iPhone where I only had two hours maximum to use any of the apps and then it would lock me out.
"I needed to be bored in order to want to create—I realized all my boredom was getting sucked into the dopamine slot machine that is social media and scrolling."
Oh, you also use the Screen Time on iOS?
Yes. But I don't have the password. Only my partner has it, so I can't unlock it if I want to finish looking at Indonesian street food videos on Instagram. I would get into this stress hole and I needed to get out of my head. I had all these unhealthy coping mechanisms for stress by distracting myself, by going on Instagram or Twitter or just browsing news articles and garbage. It was just sort of, "Holy sh*t. I opened this to see what my friends were up to and now my whole f***ing day is gone and I've been staring at cooking videos. I can't even eat half the things that they're depicting."
Anyway, getting off my phone and setting limits that I couldn't cheat around really, really helped. That would make me bored and that is so important. I needed to be bored in order to want to create—I realized all my boredom was getting sucked into the dopamine slot machine that is social media and scrolling.
I think you can even hear that in some of the lyrics. I'd wake up and be like, "Well, what am I going to do today? Am I going to get something done or am I going to waste my whole day scrolling on my phone?" Oh, I didn't touch on the Oblique Strategy.
Oh yeah! Please do, I'm very intrigued.
So the cards played a good role 'cause my studio's in my house, so I would wake up and I immediately start thinking about the record. If I wasn't careful, my thoughts would immediately be rooted in anxiety rather than excitement and motivation. So I tried to wake up and either immediately meditate, make some breakfast or walk to the coffee shop up the street, 'cause the longer I stay in bed, the quicker it is for the day to turn into a series of stressful nightmares. Working from home and making my own schedule—my partner is a school teacher and I envy her set structure. I think that's why I like collaborating, because I have to deal with somebody else's time and I don't want to screw up their time.
I got so used to collaborating because of all the film scores and producing for other bands that when I went back and it was just me, it was hard. So I needed to make sure I was sticking to my schedule and actually going to be in the studio and, most importantly, when I was in there, I was in the proper headspace to work, that I wouldn't be so anxious.
There's a lyric in this—I was trying to transcend out of these feelings of stuck-ness, writer's block or anxiety and I realized I needed to relax to be able to do that. The Oblique Strategies really helped, having this deck of cards that offered different prompts that would set the intention for the next few hours in the studio. If I hit a roadblock again, I would draw another card. They were great. It was like having someone in the room that would suggest a direction to go.
Even if I disagreed with the card, it created a discourse in my head. It made this solo endeavor easier to navigate 'cause there is a lot of doubt being the only person in the room. The cards really felt like a much-needed guide to get through my own headspace—I must've gone through the deck five or six times. I don't know how many cards there are, but at least a hundred. It's so easy to get daunted, but the cards would kind of zoom me in on something 'cause zooming out can be the source of anxiety sometimes. If you just think about one thing at a time, it's easier than thinking about the pile.
Amen to that. Had you used the cards before or was this the first time using them this way?
This is my first time using them seriously and in-depth. I've had the deck for a few years, but I'd never really embraced it as a studio practice. And with this record, I'd say starting at the end of 2018, is when they became an integral part of the process for the first time.
I also want to talk specifically about some of the songs on the album. For "Sat By A Tree," you released it ahead of the album along with a bug-filled video. Can you talk a bit about this video and maybe what else we can expect visually from Mystic Familiar?
Those are all good questions. I've wanted to work with [L.A.-based animation studio] Encyclopedia Pictura for a while—the directors and producers of "Sat By A Tree." They sent over the concept and it immediately clicked. I really liked the idea of depicting decomposition and transitioning from one state of existence to the next in the way they did. It's something not often portrayed or really talked about. We're very obsessed as a species with what happens to us after we die, but we're very much not concerned with what happened to us before we were born. That really resonates with me.
I feel a lot of people have fear and anxiety about dying, but if I'm worried that I'm going to exist in an afterlife, did I have that same fear and anxiety in a pre-life state? In the video, we're mostly seeing the star laying in the forest and having this sort of peaceful transition while being decomposed by different insects and fungus. At the end, the video goes in and shows the spreading tree, so was that the prequel to the tree or is it about a partner's passing—what is the beginning, what is the end?
That's what I like thinking about in regards to existence. And the last verse in that song is about what would it be like once I die? And then I'm like, "Well, it can't be my concern. It's out of my control what I'm thought of, especially once I'm dead." I like working with those themes a lot and I feel the way they're captured visually is important. That record is also about trying to meditate by a tree, hoping that it would prop some peaceful or stoic thoughts, but instead it prompted these snarky, sarcastic responses from the tree. It was more, "Why do you think it's cool that you just sit here and expect something from me?" Of course there's going to be jerk trees, asshole mountains and idiot rivers, not everything is going to be beautiful and perfect. We forecast that onto it in the hopes that something has a grand scheme in nature.
The idea that there is no order and that everything is chaos is horrifying. But when you start thinking about, chaos theory is pretty beautiful and the fact that the chaos is the order and that there is no control and everything is an ecosystem of everything. It brings a smallness to existence that can either be terrifying or relieving. In this case, it was relieving and the ego death brought on by this conversation with the tree came to the question where they were, "Well, if you're asking me what you should do, what would you want to do if you were relaxed enough to understand this yourself?"
I think that's the one thing that is universal, the more time you spend in nature, it's a very peaceful place. Being in raw nature just feels cleansing. I think that's why we put that stoic bias upon it. I like the idea of a tree being a sarcastic asshole. I mean, most of the people I'm closest with are sarcastic assholes, so it was like getting advice from one of my close friends.
That's funny. Do you have a vision for the rest of the visuals?
There'll be another two videos. One is going to be a lyrics video for the first track, "Become A Mountain" and that's going to be made by the Spanish animation team called Rapapawn. We're just now in the stages of discussing what it's going to be. I do want that one to follow the lyrics pretty literally.
I was really happy with the way "When I Was Done Dying" video came out from my last record. We had a bunch of different animators each take a different section and Adult Swim curated who they would be. For this one, I think one animator and really honing in on the concept of the Mystic Familiar and the lyrics themselves a guide point, because with "Sat By A Tree" the lyrics were loosely used as an influence. And the story is just an external narrative, whereas for this next video I'd really like the lyrics to be a script to follow almost.
And then the video after that is going to be for "Fell Into The Ocean" and that's going to be directed by Ariel Fisher, she's got a pretty fun concept of, again, being stuck in a project and just stuck in doubt and anxiety and trying to seek external stimulus to help you get out of it. And, hopefully, we're going to make a deck of cards that go along with the lyrics of the song to try to get people into the headspace we think they are looking for.
I was also curious about the stories behind the four "Arp" songs on the album.
I really like dividing long songs up into movements. I went to school for classical composition and listened to a lot of 20th-century composers. What I love about Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, is how on the digital versions you can jump around and start in various spots as if they're their own songs. I guess the 21st century musician in me is like "you can't play a 14-minute long song on the radio or put on a playlist." I want people to discover my music however they can, I don't want to make it deliberately difficult. When I had a 12-minute song on my first record, iTunes would only let people buy it if they bought the whole record, which is so f***ed. I thought it lessened the reach that the song could have.
Something I've been doing lately is dividing up songs that are longer, especially if they have definitive movements. Also, Spotify is only paying me 0.004 cents for a song. So if I've got a 30-minute long song, I'd love to not make just 0.004 cents off it. Anyway, the main reason I wanted the four different tracks is I feel like they're four distinct movements. They could be listened to individually or as a whole or starting in the second half.
"Fell Into The Ocean" and "Arp" are both about cycles of life, both pre/post, during and then repeat and using either water or the seasons as an inspiration for that. For "Fell Into The Ocean," it's the water cycle, like being rain, you become the ocean, you go through the oceans, you evaporate, you become freshwater, you end up back in the clouds, you rain down again and again and again. With "Arp," it's about the seasons of life. So the young, youthful optimism in movement one, and then the mindset of you're not young anymore but you're not old yet.
And then the third and fourth movements—everyone lives like they're going to live forever until they realize they're not. That's the turning point in "Arp," at the beginning of the third movement there's an event that occurs where there's a huge shift in the music and in the mindset. Even though the lyrics and movements in one and two are repeated in the movements three and four, they're slightly changed in a way that's supposed to reflect that they're not the same person that they were when the song began, or when the character has gone through this cycle. And that's not supposed to be a bad thing. There's this negative connotation towards aging within American society. But if I was the same person now as I was when I was 18 it'd be horrible.
Yeah, same for me.
And to embrace it; there's this fear of aging and this fear of growing old. That's a theme I've played with for a while. Everyone loves mountains, but no one's like, "Oh, mountains are old, look at them!" And I think the whole American mindset is very much about the opposite ends of the poles, the middle tends to be forgotten.
I'm a mid-career artist and I've established myself, but I'm certainly not big at all. I'm still trying to live a middle-class lifestyle and not dip below that and to think about a career as an artist can be very daunting. To think, "Well have I set up a sustainable life for myself? Is this real? Is this possible to do in today's world?" You can also think the same thing about society, like, "Hold on, do we need to hit the entire brakes on our entire structure of our civilization? Do we need to radically stop using air travel and plastic? What the hell are we going to do?" I think our society or species is having an existential crisis of identity. So that's going to obviously reflect on people on an individual level.
It's easy to reflect on the past and it's easy to have anxiety about the future, but you have to be in the present and be excited about the future. If the future is not exciting, it's going to become the dystopia we fear. The only way that it won't be is to be actively try to make the world that we truly want to live in or leave behind.
That's why I write music that has themes about death or the apocalypse, but I try to write them in a positive framework where the music is energetic and uplifting. I'm trying to put people into a mindset that doesn't ignore the feelings of existential dread, but lets you process them in a way that is devoid of the fear and anxiety that they're normally coupled with.
I'm all about that. The dancefloor of the apocalypse. Seriously.
I'm glad, it's the first time I really talked about that piece, so it was hard to put it into thought.
When the album drops, you're kicking off a big, global tour. What are you most looking forward to with the trek?
Oh, that's a great question. There's a lot of these songs I've never played live. I haven't been on a full tour in years and that used to be my main thing. Now I'm yearning to get back on the road. I did a lot of writing while in transit, on a train or bus, or in a hotel room or at a friend's house I was staying at. It's just nice to be in a new environment and have that inform what you're working on and getting back together with people I haven't seen in years.
I love to travel. In the United States I traveled on an old school bus for the last 10 years. It's converted to run on vegetable oil whenever or waste oil whenever we can find it, although it becomes harder and harder to find. We completely gutted it and it's like an RV on the inside, there's nine beds and it's like a home away from home. I love touring on the bus, so I'm really looking forward to getting back on it. I'm also really excited about is getting a travel set of the game Settlers of Catan. There's a bunch of Catan Dorks going on this tour so I think we're going to play a lot of it.
How did you get into film scoring and what's that creative process working on a film score? I'm sure it's super different than working on your own project.
It's very different than working on my own project for sure. And the main thing is that the score has to exist within a completely new universe and the universe of the film, you have to come up with a sonic language with the director and it's really fun. I love to collaborate, I'm mostly a solo act, so it's nice to have other people contribute to the ideas. Normally, I don't have that sometimes I think about a band and I'm like, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. So you guys get in a room and then one of you is like, I've got a baseline then someone's like, cool. All right, goddammit." And then like, "It's not fair, it's not fair." So I could start a band I don't know why, that's probably because I'm a psychopath and I don't know how to start a band, but film scoring is similar whether I'm collaborating with non-musicians or sometimes people who don't know anything about music or even had to talk about it.
And it's kind of my favorite part is trying to come up 'cause music is such an individualized thing. So that even just talking about music, we both equally like we might be talking about completely different aspects of it. First time I ever scored a film was for a Francis Ford Coppola and that was years ago—
Wait, which film?
It was called "Twixt," but never came out in theaters [in the U.S.] It starred Val Kilmer, who is an amazing person. We became friends on the project, which was the best thing to come out of it. I stopped [scoring films] for a long time. I went back into touring super, super heavy and never had time for it or really pursued it. Then after Gliss Riffer, I was like, "I have to make a conscious effort to get into this."
And then Baltimore director Theo Anthony came to me and asked if I would be interested in working with him on his experimental documentary called "RAT FILM." I was super excited and we kind of built it from the ground up together, where I would send him music, not telling him where I thought it should go, and then he would place it where he thought it works best. That would start informing the musical language he was going for with the film and that sort of started steering how I would write other things. It was a lot of fun.
I scored a cycling documentary ["Time Trial"] after that and a couple of short films. The last film I scored is being played in festivals, it's about electric race cars, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio. They're all so different, some of them want the most experimental music I can come up with and some people want very, very straightforward music. The fun part is trying to do all of that. I'm not really a musical chameleon, I can't write in any style—just about anything I write is still going to sound like me.
For me it's really rewarding because I get to write in a completely different universe again and again. When I'm writing for my own albums I don't ever want to disenfranchise my fans and be like, "Hey, loser! This last record was all songs with lyrics, but this new one is just a piano playing just one note for 45 minutes." I think that would confuse people. So having another outlet for these other more esoteric, experimental or just different styles of music is really, really fun and lets me learn new software and collaborate with different players and musicians and just do things that take me out of my comfort zone.
Let's end on this question. Looking back when you were younger, were there any artists that you loved or looked up to that made you want to get into music yourself?
Oh, definitely. I mean, the Talking Heads were massively influential; the idea of a smart but fun band. The band Lightning Bolt was massively important to me too; seeing them live really blew my mind and showed me that performing could be whatever you want it to be. In the beginning of my career, I used to only play on the floor and now that I perform on the stage, I feel I do more in the audience than I used to. The whole point of my show now is very much about group participation and interaction, with the audience being the focus of the show.
They Might Be Giants were very influential in showing me that it's okay to be weird. That it's okay to be in the middle, you don't have to be completely avant-garde or completely pop. There can be a middle ground of weirdo pop music and some people will like it. I think that's where I'm at. I don't make the weirdest music in the world, but I certainly don't make the most normal music in the world and I like living in that tide pool of experimental and weird classical mixed with pop and quirky lounge music.
I don't think you really hear it in my music, but I really love [German composer Karlheinz] Stockhausen. I think Stockhausen really showed me that you can make really wild sounds and that it's okay to explore what sounds you haven't heard before. They got me excited about newness and making things that hadn't been heard before and trying to really dive into texture. It's so easy to talk about lyrics or melody or rhythm, but texture is really the root of what we're after I think as musicians.