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Dent May At The End Of The World

On August 15, 2017

When news broke in early July that a massive tract of the Larsen B ice shelf had finally cracked and dropped into the waters of the Weddell Sea, people were freaked out. For many, the break of the Delaware-sized slab of ice is another in a string of events indicating the earth is undeniably and irreversibly fucked, and us along with it. It’s been hailed as a harbinger of destruction, another nail in the coffin of a civilization careening toward self-annihilation. And yet, all I can picture when I think of that vast doomsday iceberg floating near Antarctica is Dent May, tap dancing and jiving on top of it to the sounds of his new record, crooning triumphantly, “I’m gonna live forever until I’m dead!”

That’s a line from a late track on his new record, Across The Multiverse, and it’s a phrase that captures the essence of May’s work: simple, hilarious and cutting. The Mississippi-raised multi-instrumentalist presents an auteur-like vision on his new album, a marriage of Hollywood’s immortality and new-age, tongue-in-cheek nihilism. It’s hard not to read it as a product of his new home, where I reach May over the phone: Los Angeles.

“I really enjoy the contrast of Los Angeles, where you have the beautiful landscape and disgusting strip malls side by side,” May says sincerely. “You have the crumbling facade of old Hollywood next to a Chipotle. I feel like L.A. is headquarters for the apocalypse in a weird way. I feel like I’m living in a sci-fi apocalyptic thriller when I walk down the street, and I just find it so inspiring.”

May doesn’t see his writing as an explicit result of his surroundings, though. I ask if geography impacts his music. “Yes, but to the extent that literally everything has a hand in it,” he remarks. “I’m an internet kid, and I very strongly believe that it doesn’t really matter where you are, because we’re all connected and we all have access to the same information if we’re curious enough.”

As May details his thoughts on the West Coast metropolis, it’s hard to decipher sincerity from irony, and that duality isn’t coincidental. It’s a founding principle of Across The Multiverse; many of the lyrics pull double- or triple-duty, playing with context and interpretation to distort and confuse, but also to better address the nature of things. Life isn’t black and white.

“There’s definitely an ambiguous quality to my lyrics on purpose,” May explains. “I find that the intersection of humor and pain is a very bittersweet place to be.” He mixes a cocktail of those two extremes, at once playful and grave. “‘Take Me To Heaven’ could be about dying, but it could be about sex,” he says. “There’s a lot of different things going on in my head, and I want to cover them all at the same time.”

Perhaps what’s more apparent is that for all its universality and ambition, May’s work is intensely personal and singular, from the dense perplexity of his fears and doubts to his ability to funnel those shades into an eclectic tumbler of ’60s psychedelic pop, mellow disco and Bowie-esque compositional imagination. He writes and records almost entirely on his own, and his L.A. bedroom served as the main studio for Across The Multiverse. Drums were recorded at a friend’s house, and after tweeting out a call for horn players, May connected with a musician in South Carolina who recorded horn parts and sent them back. The solitary approach is as pragmatic as it is idealistic.

“I do sort of have a romantic idea of making something by myself, but it’s also just so much cheaper to do everything myself at home,” he admits. It’s almost unbelievable that the lush, immersive world of Multiverse was created with a $200 microphone and cheap gear from Guitar Center. “I kind of feel a duty to make stuff the cheap way. I find it fun and challenging to use what I have at hand.” Back in Oxford, Mississippi, May and his friends occupied and ran a DIY venue called Cats Purring Dude Ranch, and he quickly rattles off a list of likeminded venues across the country. Doing things himself is where he came from. “I do kind of want to send the message that, ‘You can do this too.’ People always ask me, ‘How did you do this?’ and I’m like, ‘It’s really, really easy.’”

On an objective level, it’s remarkable that May has manipulated these technologies to create one of the most vivid and engaging records of the year. His fascination with modern tools runs deep. He says he’ll be first in line to get a computer chip implanted in his brain. If Elon Musk is heading out to Mars, May is game: “Let’s go. I wanna play a show on Mars.” Just like with death, May is determined to imagine the best in any situation. “I don’t wanna become the old curmudgeon. I wanna live in the present and the future, and go forward the best we can.”

Similarly, when he sings about modern romance on “Picture On A Screen,” it’s not in a tired, judgmental tone; it’s an earnest examination of contemporary affection. May is plainly fascinated with these topics, and the tangled new contexts of attraction. “It’s sort of about online dating, or even having a crush on someone and scrolling through their Instagram, but it’s also about a deeper connection to the internet, and almost being in love with the internet,” he remarks, querying whether our relationship with the internet is more intimate than our IRL partnerships.

Maybe never meeting our crushes is a boon to our habits; May thinks there’s “comfort and bliss in the idea that you might never meet eye-to-eye.” He doesn’t even really like talking on the phone. “I’m like, ‘Text me, why are you calling me?’” he laughs. “There’s something very comforting about our devices, which is disturbing, but also a reality of our existence, so I’m gonna find a way to celebrate it as well.”

In its’ own quixotic way, Across The Multiverse is a New Orleanian second line funeral for humanity. May references Les Blank’s documentary on social traditions in New Orleans, titled “Always For Pleasure.” “I love that phrase. [It’s] sort of about celebrating life and death, and the fact that we’re lucky to be able to experience pain, because that makes us human,” he says.

So, he’s throwing his records atop the pile of human achievement—a towering pile of space garbage to prove we existed and it meant something. “That’s ultimately why I write songs to begin with. If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, I’ve got four records under my belt,” he chuckles, breezy and zen even as he discusses his own death. “I’m gonna die one day, so I wanna record a record of my existence. That’s why I make music, straight up.”

Profile Picture of Luke Ottenhof
Luke Ottenhof

Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer and musician with eight toes. He likes pho, boutique tube amps and The Weakerthans.

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