Dave Longstreth tucks his chin-length hair behind his ears and takes his seat in the pristine, minimalist room at the Wythe Hotel. Behind him, the massive factory windows reveal the more industrial views of Williamsburg, coated in the bright haze of a May heat wave. Cargo boats slowly move along the East River, cars silently zoom along FDR in the distance; a noisy world at a remove.
There’s something paradoxical about the Dirty Projectors frontman. At once a knowledgeable, accomplished musician, aware of his position and influence on the musical sphere his band occupies after the success of their last album, Bitte Orca, he still exudes a boyish naïveté. He wants to connect simply and directly with his listener (something that is increasingly rare in the digital age). Whether that listener is an interviewer or fan is insignificant to Longstreth. His approach is consistent in both his everyday language, and in the twelve stark tracks that comprise his band’s new album, Swing Lo Magellan. Lyrics like “I saw my frame / In a pool of light / All drowned in doubt and shame / I knew that I had lost my sight,” for instance, are uncomplicated, but close out the title track hauntingly.
On a bright spring day in this bright Brooklyn hotel room, we sat down with Longstreth to discuss Dirty Projectors’ pride in reinvention, the beauty of wabi-sabi in recording, and the simple purity that defines Swing Lo Magellan.
You say that Swing Lo Magellan is about songs and songwriting. How have you evolved as a songwriter?
A lot of the albums the Dirty Projectors have made have been about these sonic tapestries. It’s about a brilliant surface, like an idea about an arrangement or something; two vocals singing opposite each other to create this composite line that sounds like nothing else. Or a way that two guitars will interlock. Or these sort of albums that are organized around an essential idea, like a narrative about Amber in a pot of whales, as in the case of [their album with Bjork] Mount Wittenburg Orca, or me as a teenage Don Henley traveling through some fantasia post-apocalyptic American dreamscape, or something. This album isn’t really motivated by an album-length idea. That’s not where it comes from. It’s just about the song itself. The song as a singular unit.
Do you feel like there is a call back to a standard, verse/chorus song structure?
Well, all of Bitte Orca except for “Useful Chamber” has that structure more or less. I mean it’s about finding something new in simplicity. Trying to do something that feels unique and idiosyncratic to what Dirty Projectors is, using the commonest tools, the simplest ingredients.
Do you think that contemporary music has gotten away from that?
Do you think they have?
I kind of do. But I think that if you’re trying to make a common structure new, you have to consider the fact that it’s not a new structure but that you’re doing it at a time when it is kind of unfamiliar.
That was something that I think was in the air when I was writing these songs. It felt sort of polemic to have a discrete thought.
Can we talk about the recording process? Why go to a weird house in Delaware? How did that affect the songwriting process?
I think I was motivated to do that. I thought about my freshman year at college, I hated college, I didn’t fit in very well. I spent so much time alone. And what I did all the time alone was just write songs and record them constantly. I think that’s really when I started to figure out a personal language. And so I wanted to do something like that now, use it as a little microcosm that can happen and just go crazy in terms of growing all these different petri dishes.
Was it difficult to be alone in the winter there?
It wasn’t really. I’m good at it.
You talked about how this recording process is a little bit more loose, more accidental. What parts of the album do you think are the most beautiful and accidental?
I love the idea of wabi-sabi. To me that’s the beautiful potential of the recording. It captures something that happened once. A lot of my favorite recordings, from Neil Young to the great Electric Miles albums, they’re about capturing something that happened once. A lot of the vocals on this album, it’s the very first time that that part was sung. You can go back and re-record it and make it into something more even, more consistent, something that’s a little bit more comfortable. I can sit back and be a little bit more comfortable about the idea that thousands of people are going to hear this, and we did that in some cases, like “Dance For You,” where I was kind of mumbling the song, I didn’t know how it went yet. But it felt truer of the moment to do that. “Impregnable Question,” I’ve only sung that song that one time.
That’s a bit risky, don’t you think?
It feels that way. In the context of digital music, when you can go back and make everything perfect, to not do that feels like a weird choice.
You talked about this album being a bit spooky and macabre, but the sound is so uplifting.
Spin was writing their Halloween issue. They were spinning it as they needed to. No, I’m kind of joking. You know, we made a lot of recordings, and so the ones that are on the album were kind of running as a pack, so I let them just run all the way to the finish line with that.
How did you choose the songs in the end?
I didn’t, they chose themselves. Those twelve ran together. It wasn’t really a rational selection process. There are other great ones that I fucking love that I’m so glad we still have in the bank. We’ll put them out next year or something. It’s amazing to have this log of material.
You guys have collaborated with artists across the spectrum. From Bjork to David Byrne to Solange. How do you think your music interacts with a variety of genres?
Genre is an anachronistic idea in 2012. For me it’s always felt that way. It’s very self-evident at this point, thankfully, in the culture that there’s a thousand through lines that connect. It’s just a musical web, and maybe Dirty Projectors makes different kinds of connections between those worlds.
Are there any artists that you want to collaborate with in the future?
At the moment not particularly. This album is really about not collaborating. Though I tend to do one thing and then turn around and do the exact opposite. And in a sense, after collaborating really deeply with Bjork and writing the songs with David and playing the show with Solange, and playing with the Roots and everything—which are amazing life-broadening things to happen; David Byrne and Bjork are people I have been listening to for half my life—I feel like this record is very open-hearted, but it’s just about our little camp.
Did you write all the songs yourself?
Yeah, Amber [Coffman] and I work a little bit with one another. Like If I get stuck in a little corner. And she’s awesome at choruses. She’s good at helping me cut out three notes and making it clean. And then the song that she sang on the album, “The Socialites,” we wrote the bridge for together as well.
How does this album affect the identity of the band?
Every album is different with Dirty Projectors. This is the new one.