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The Electronic Future Shock Of Dan Deacon’s Spiderman of the Rings

On September 7, 2017

Dan Deacon hasn’t slept well in a while. For the last year, empty dump trucks barrel by his Baltimore home every morning. It’s a noisy event for an otherwise quiet street.

“Paintings fall off the wall, it just scares the shit out of us,” he says. “I don’t know why the route that they’re on is our block but hopefully whatever they’re working on ends.”

Over a decade ago, Deacon was residing in Wham City, the Baltimore art and performance space, where early morning sounds were a different kind of loud. Deacon, who moved to the city in 2004, would borrow friends’ computers to write and record his breakthrough album, Spiderman Of The Rings, released on Carpark Records in 2007. Opposed to his prior instrumental student work and sinewave drone recordings, which were self-released and written while Deacon was a student at SUNY Purchase, Spiderman Of The Rings was exuberant, giddy. It was the sonic equivalent of paint thrown at blank walls. From the sugar high jack-in-the-box opener “Wooody Wooodpecker” to the near 12-minute slow-building, twinkling “Wham City,” Deacon crafted an album of experimental electronic music that was just as much chaotic as it was soothing.

Shaped by his energetic performances, the album, which was lauded by the likes of Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, helped bridge the gap between underground dance music and pop. It was, and still is, a catalyst for an ecstatic release of energy.

“I thought music had a particular context and my context was a live environment in a party setting where people had fun,” Deacon says. “And not a club. It’s music that you would dance to but not in a dance club. A lot of dance music, for lack of a better term, is sexy. ‘Okie Dokie’ is not sexy.”

Now, 10 years later, Vinyl Me, Please is reissuing the album, along with the first vinyl pressing of Deacon’s musical score to the visual/sonic collaboration with video artist and friend Jimmy Joe Roche, Ultimate Reality.

Though many of the original Spiderman Of The Rings files have been lost to the electronic ether -- much of the album was created and recorded on borrowed computers, after all -- the process of sorting through a digital scrapbook of hard drives and audio files was like a treasure hunt for Deacon.

“I kept finding old folders of mine on these old computers,” Deacon says. “It was opening a junk drawer, a treasure trove of untouched documents of mine.”

VMP: What are your thoughts on anniversary reissues?

Dan Deacon: In an age where physical media is the least listened to format that music exists in, that it’s nice to acknowledge it. When I put this record out I didn’t really think about people ever hearing it without seeing me play a show. This record was the first record of mine that had any attention brought to it and I thought it would be something I would sell at the merch table, sort of the equivalent of the musical souvenir. Luckily for me, people listened to it. I have a lot in my career to thank for people who downloaded the record when it leaked. I didn’t even know you could leak records and someone told me it was a bad thing, but it ended up being the best thing.

It’s important to remember that these things have to exist to have any lasting effect. Maybe that’s because I like having stuff, books on shelves and trinkets. I like going somewhere and having a relic. I think records are that. When I look back on that period 10 years ago, and I think about how different the music scene was, how different music journalism was, how the merging of pop music and underground seemed like it was not even a thought. I don’t think people thought Pitchfork would be covering Jerry Seinfeld’s Netflix special 10 years from now. Stuff like that blows my mind. There seemed to be a lot of freedom and seeking back then.

Do you miss early internet culture?

I do. What I miss about it, and there’s some aspects of it still, but I miss the uncurated aspect of it. The way I used to book tours was going into someone’s Top 8 and keep clicking until I got to a venue in Kansas City and contacted them. I do miss how weird the internet was back then and how unhomogenized it was. I don’t miss it in “it was better than than it is now.”

I also thought the world was going to end in 2012 so that reinforced all these “nothing matters” thoughts.

What about Baltimore during that time? Was there anything that would’ve been different had you not been there at that time?

It 100 percent would not have happened at all. I didn’t have a computer at the time, so I wrote it on my roommate’s computer. I don't think I would’ve been living in a communal environment had I not moved to Baltimore. I moved to Baltimore because I could afford to live off of $200 a month. I didn’t have a mic so I borrowed a mic from a guy I didn’t really know. I borrowed the external hard drive to be able to store the information. I borrowed a laptop from another friend to record them. That’s also why there’s no masters or stems. The sessions are lost to time. None of the computers are mine, I don’t know where anything went. That’s why we couldn’t remaster it or do remixes, everything was lost. I didn't think about archiving it because I didn’t think anyone was going to listen to it. [Laughs] I didn’t write it knowing Carpark was going to put it out. I thought I was going to burn CDRs on tour and sell them at the merch table. That was a wonderful idea of how my life would be. I also thought the world was going to end in 2012 so that reinforced all these “nothing matters” thoughts.

I wrote most of the songs when I’d come home from tour and think about the shows and what was working with my old material, most of which has never been recorded and I don’t know where those songs are anymore. The shows in Baltimore were really intense. We mainly played at Wham City and they were very intense, lots of movement in the audience, a really wild, frenetic crowd. Looking back, a really dangerous thing. I look back on those times fondly, but I don’t think I would relive them. My life was really crazy and chaotic and unhealthy. I think I used music in that time period to get into a better headspace. I’m really grateful that it helped elevate me out of that mindset. I’m also grateful that the world didn’t end. I had a real nihilist mentality at that stage. I don't know if I look into the future with visions of optimism, but I’d like to, where before I don’t think I did.

Do you think you created a live space with the music or the music created a live space?

It was both. I like to think that most of my work is a communication with the audience and the audience is informing the performance just as much as the music is informing the reaction to it. The performance is informing the composition that goes into it. It’s an endless pouring of one vessel into the next.

At what point did you get a computer?

I got a computer to write Bromst after Spiderman Of The Rings, so probably 2008. I had a computer prior to this in 2002 and had it until about 2005 but it got smashed when a speaker fell on it when I was playing. I used to play with the computer live and a reason why I stopped is because it got smashed to bits and no one would lend me one to play live so I switched to an iPod.

And now iPods hardly exist anymore.

That’s a good point. [Laughs] I remember really wanting an iPod for the longest time. At first I did the Spiderman Of The Rings tour with CDs. I had all my backing tracks on a CD player. I had a CD book of fresh CDRs. If one skipped, I’d have to throw that one away and burn a new one. There’s a picture of a show at Silent Barn in New York during CMJ. It came out the day Spiderman Of The Rings was released. The crowd’s going fucking crazy and it looks like the most insane environment, but if you look closely at the photo, my friend Chester, who ended up producing several records with me, he’s carefully holding a CD player on a pillow in the middle of the pit. One of my favorite aspects of that photo is this zen master holding a CD player knowing it only has 8 seconds of shock buffer. I remember looking for CD players that cyclists and mountain bikers could use. You couldn’t go into Guitar Center and be like, “I need a CD player to throw into a mosh pit and it not stop.”

Do you ever look back on your music and think about “why is this important to me?”

I did that a lot in relation to this. I was hoping we could find the original Pro Tools sessions. I really wanted to remaster and remix the record. As I was looking, I went through the collection of beaten up, old laptops that maybe I had transferred them to and old hard drives that maybe they were on there. My ex girlfriend lent me her super old computer from that time period. She was like, “Did you record it on this? I think it was on the computer I had before this.” One thing I found was a folder of weird ads of a gigantic snake that would say “mortgage rates: best ever” and have state abbreviations all over the snake. They were all over Myspace.

Did you find anything else in that computer digging?

I found an original Reason, which is the software I used to write Spiderman Of The Rings and Ultimate Reality, file for “Pink Batman.” That's one of my favorite tracks on the record and I've never been able to perform it live because there's no music for it, it’s just an audio file. I did find that file and now I’m working on an arrangement for piano and strings. The one time it was performed was someone orchestrated it for an orchestra and did an incredible job.

Tell me a bit about releasing Ultimate Reality now.

I started working on the last movement of Ultimate Reality first. I had these two drummers that lived with me, or the floor above or below me. I kept thinking how fun it would be to have two drummers blast beating for minutes straight. Just to watch it. We were practicing it and Jimmy Joe Roche walked in and he was like, “What are you working on? I really want to make visuals for this.” This was earlier than Spiderman Of The Rings because we performed it at a festival in our house in 2006. Ultimate Reality existed in 2006, but I don't think we recorded it until after Spiderman Of The Rings.

We performed it at the first Whartscape, which is a festival that me and my friends organized. We did one tour in the United States of Ultimate Reality where we did a set of it and then I’d do a solo set afterwards of mostly Spiderman Of The Rings and some songs that would end up being Bromst. We brought it to the Roskilde Festival. It was the biggest show I’d ever done and it was a nightmare. Our backing tracks were on a DVD, they were sunk to the video and that was the only way to get it to work 100 percent. They didn't get either the DVD player or the cables that hooked up into their projector so we just had to jam. That was the last time we ever performed it. [Laughs] It had this tragic ending and then I switched gears and started working on Bromst.

And now people can own it.

I don’t know why we never released it as music. To me, it was always the score to this video piece. I liked it being only ingested with the visuals. We would’ve hosted it online, but YouTube looked like shit then. For a brief period of time Netflix hosted the DVD, this was when Netflix was all DVD-based. People would tell me “Oh my god, it’s on Netflix!” and I would say “Keep it and say it got lost in the mail and then Netflix will buy another copy.”

So when this [SMOTR reissue] came about, I was saying to my friend “All the sessions are gone, I can’t mix and master it” and he was saying “What about Ultimate Reality? It would be cool to have on vinyl. It’s a part of your catalogue that isn’t represented in a musical format.” it just clicked. It made sense: all those pieces were written at the same time. It’s the link between Spiderman Of The Rings and Bromst that brought me to these longform pieces.

What is the difference between listening to this in a solitary environment versus how you wrote it to be consumed?

I used to be really stubborn. I didn’t realize that everyone listens to music differently. I liked making music that couldn't get played in a coffee shop. If this came on at Walmart, people would be like, “What the fuck is this?” I loved that. If someone wants to wake up and sip some tea and listen to 14 minutes of blast beats, that’s great. Any context is amazing. I can't curate how other people listen to music, nor do I want to. In the past, I probably did and I think that’s why I didn’t record a lot of music like “Silence Like The Wind Overtakes Me” which I was going to put on Spiderman Of The Rings. Now I’m like I don’t want this to be recorded, I’d rather it be this piece that existed exclusively in my live show for that period of time. To me, Spiderman Of The Rings is my first full album. Anything that I self-released and wrote as a student seems like a study.

Profile Picture of Allie Volpe
Allie Volpe

Allie Volpe is a writer based in Philadelphia who shares a birthday with Beyonce. She enjoys sad music, desserts and long distance running.

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