One morning in the summer of 2007 the members of Dirty Projectors were in their tour van, watching Southern California pass by through the window. Another travel day in a blurry string of travel days. Every day another venue, another show. Unload the van. Reload the van. Another city. Another show.
As the van passed the city of Temecula, Dave Longstreth — the songwriter who started the Projectors while he was in college, and who has been the band’s one continuous member ever since — found himself transfixed by the stretches of new construction blooming on the city’s fringes: new subdivisions, new strip malls, new big box stores. Of course, this wasn’t Longstreth’s first exposure to exurban sprawl, but something about this particular sprawl, and how crudely it had been grafted onto the California desert, stuck with him.
Months later, Longstreth returned to the mental image of Temecula, imagining a future in which the houses and big box stores were abandoned, taken over by artists, and — like the abandoned urban warehouses of the 20th century — refashioned into cheap spaces for living and making work. “It was the feeling that the economic order that created these landscapes would change someday,” he told me recently. “And these architectural spaces would just sit there decomposing, gravestones of a prior vision of capitalism, ripe for reinvention.”
Soon after, when Longstreth started gathering ideas for the next Dirty Projectors album, Bitte Orca, he took those imaginary artists squatting in the sprawl and put them in a song, “Temecula Sunrise.” In the opening movement, he sings over intricate acoustic fingerpicking:
“I live in a new construction home / I live on the strip behind the dealership, yeah / I live in a greenhouse and I am getting wasted”
As the song progresses, it gets louder and more raucous: bright electric guitar; hard-driving drums; tight, jaunty bass; and — perhaps most importantly — near-constant interaction between Longstreth’s singing and backup vocals from Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Dekle. It sounds like something that might have been made in the house the lyrics describe, with people dropping in unannounced, layering new ideas into the song on the fly, playing loud in the basement. In part because it appears early in the album, I’ve always experienced it as a conceptual support beam for much of what follows. It has the effect of a question: Do you maybe want to come and join the party? Is it time?
“Definitely you can come and live with us / I know there’s a space for you in the basement, yeah / All you gotta do is help out with the chores and dishes / And I know you will”
Early in 2008, Longstreth, who had just signed with the storied independent label Domino, shared some bare-bones demos for Bitte Orca with drummer Brian McOmber. They set up McOmber’s kit in the living room of the group house in Brooklyn where Longstreth lived, then spent several days together laying down the album’s rhythmic DNA.
That summer Longstreth and Coffman flew to Portland. Thanks to Domino, the band had its first ever recording budget. Some friends were in the process of converting an old laundry building in Southeast Portland into an arts space. They let the band occupy the top floor for the summer, and it was soon filled with a recording setup typical of the era: a handful of microphones, an API lunchbox, and a desktop Mac.
For Longstreth, the days felt alive with possibility. “The windows looked out west on the city,” he recalled. “Every afternoon the whole place would fill with sunlight. It was a playground. We could climb the ladder up onto the roof and eat lunch there. We did a million takes of everything: chasing down every guitar line, every guitar tone. When I found a line I might do it on an acoustic 12-string, then a Stratocaster, then an overdriven Les Paul. And we rearranged things too, just trying out every possible structure.” He cut up and rearranged McOmber’s original drum takes, building new grooves for himself to play over. Coffman took lead vocals for one song; Deradoorian flew out for a week and did the same for another.
Bitte Orca has always been one of those albums that sends critics scrambling for elaborate strings of influences and reference points: rock meets R&B with a helping of African guitar, plus lyrics referencing Nietzsche, the Biblical Song of Solomon, and X and Y and Z. The impulse is understandable enough, but it risks making Bitte Orca sound like the musical equivalent of a too-clever term paper, when nothing could be further from the truth: as the years pass, and the fog of critical buzzwords fades, it gets easier to see the album as a document of intense emotional yearning.
Again and again, the songs return to a set of basic human questions. What do I want to do? Where can I do it best? What would it look like to get there? Asking these questions can feel thrilling one day, sobering the next. You can think you’ve settled on one answer — and then find that answer isn’t working for you. Maybe (see “Temecula Sunrise”) you should be uprooting your life and moving to a group house in the desert. Maybe (see “Fluorescent Half Dome”) it’s actually romantic love that’s more important:
“I’ll look for you, I will be searching the garden in the street / I will look into the eyes of everyone I meet”
Maybe (see “No Intention) you decide you want romantic love — but can’t find it, and have to decide what that means?
“In the margins of the freeway / I have sat alone and wondered / Where are you?”
“Stillness is the Move,” the album’s most well-known track, is, musically, a song in constant motion. There’s a propulsive live-drum backbeat at the bottom. There’s a darting, buzzy guitar line at the top. In between, there’s a staccato, percussive riff built from drum samples. The first time you listen, the most natural response is to bop along. But listen again and you start to realize it’s probably the world’s most danceable song about the possibility of settling down. Coffman sings, with rock-star conviction:
“Maybe I will get a job / Get a job as a waitress / Maybe waiting tables in a diner / In some remote diner down the highway”
Anything — love, life, the beginning of a new world — can happen (or not!) anywhere, anytime. It could happen today, so pay attention. This is what I hear when I put on Bitte Orca today.
At the end of the Portland summer, with recording mostly complete, Longstreth flew to New York with a bag full of hard drives. Each drive contained a Pro Tools session, and each session was stuffed with unmade decisions. (The acoustic? The Stratocaster? The overdriven Les Paul?) When he showed up at Nicolas Vernhes’s Rare Book Room studio for mixing, he was looking forward to winnowing things down.
“The first thing I discovered was that Nicolas didn’t have Pro Tools,” said Longstreth. “He had Logic. In 2008 there was no easy way to convert from one to the other.” Each individual track — each guitar line, each vocal — had to be exported individually, and the conversions processed slowly. “Nic urged me to make arrangement decisions myself, and to make them fast. To export all of the parts we recorded would have taken forever, and he didn’t want to work in sessions with 120 tracks.”
When I heard this, it made perfect sense. Like every Dirty Projectors release before it, Bitte Orca has a lot happening at once: overlapping polyrhythms, twisty melodies, and dense thickets of lyrical allusion. But the album also has directness and confidence over and above anything Longstreth had done before. It struck me that this technical hiccup may have helped: He was forced, by circumstance, to put forward exactly what made his songs work. Nothing else.
Not long after the mix done was done the band went back on the road, playing for increasingly large crowds as word of the new songs bounced around the still-active music blogosphere. Another day, another venue, another show. A week or two before the album came out, someone emailed Longstreth an mp3 of Solange Knowles covering “Stillness is the Move.” The next phase of his creative life was beginning, propelled forward in considerable part by a song about the powerful potential of staying still.
Over the following decade, the Dirty Projectors would shape-shift again more than once. Both Coffman and Deradoorian moved on from the band to other projects; today, when we hear Longstreth’s musical visions brought to life, there’s a different mix of voices in play alongside his. This can make revisiting Bitte Orca a poignant experience. If anything can happen, anything can change. In Bitte Orca (as in life) this truth is a source of pain, but also consolation. This is why — in addition to the sheer infectiousness of the music itself, which cannot be overlooked — the album has endured so successfully: measure by measure, line by line, song by song, it reminds us of everything we wanted, all the ways those wants were and weren’t realized, and, most of all, the joyful news that the journey isn’t yet over.
Peter C. Baker is a freelance writer in Evanston, Illinois. He has been published by the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and The Guardian.