Polar Opposites

A Conversation with David Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors

by Greg Nissan

Illustration by Michelle Lin

published April 27, 2013


David Longstreth’s songs don’t explain him; they imitate him. The creative force and leader of The Dirty Projectors, Longstreth has founded a career on a stubbornly quirky approach. He formed the band in 2000 as a solo project while he was a freshman at Yale, but he dropped out soon, recording so much in his dorm room that he barely attended classes. It’s still very much his project, but he’s got a full band now— an astonishingly tight rhythm section and two more singers, Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle. In 2007, two years before Bitte Orca solidified the band’s sound and landed them in indie rock’s critical elite, they released Rise Above, an attempt to recreate Black Flag’s hardcore classic Damaged entirely from memory. Longstreth hadn’t listened to the album in 15 years. For anyone who’s heard Longstreth scratch a riff out of his left-handed Fender, or even sing in his warm wobble, this odd task seems easily intelligible. His music is a site of conflict: prickly guitar lines spar, personal lyrics wander into abstraction, and each song enters a sort of time machine, making pit stops in every decade to gather a few choice elements (a thin ‘60s snare drum, an ‘80s West African guitar chime, a Destiny’s Child drum thump). When he speaks, he offers few concrete answers, but explores his music from multiple angles in a way that mirrors the songs he’s describing. He is a notorious control freak, famous for 12 hour practices, and he handles every aspect of songwriting, mixing, and production. 

This conflict might be why the band is so pleasurable to listen to— Longstreth’s songs are collages with the stitches on display. He once told the New York Times that he keeps the Bible with him on tour for the stories and obsessively listens to Lil’ Wayne’s mixtapes, from which he draws inspiration. It’s not hard to believe. Critics heralded Swing Lo Magellan, the band’s latest album, as their most concise, but it still swims in and out of styles: stuttering electronic drums find Broadway melodies on the anguished “About to Die.” The golden age of ‘70s folk-rock breathes through the title track, while “Gun Has No Trigger” could score a James Bond movie if they ever decide to shoot one in Williamsburg. Concise, perhaps, for Longstreth, but the album is a study in multiplicity— how many ways can he write a song? I spoke with Longstreth over the phone in late March about his erratic production style, the relationship between the band in the studio and the band on the stage, and how the group has changed since Bitte Orca. I expected him to clarify some of his music’s enigma, but instead he seemed an extension of the counterpoints in play. 

The College Hill Independent: I’m fascinated by the production on [Swing Lo Magellan]. There are elements that feel distinctly modern, very studio-manipulated, and others such as the drum tracking that feel like a sort of ‘60s style when stereo recording was still not fully developed. It seems like a collage of production styles. How do you draw from such different sources to create cohesion in your band’s sound?

David Longstreth: One of the models for the album, or maybe not a model but an album I really love, is Revolver by the Beatles. One thing I love about that record is that every song on it is so different, it’s almost like every song from the album is one track from a whole other album. Every one of those numbers opens into a sound world all its own. I wrote so many songs going into Swing Lo Magellan, and we recorded in kind of a relentless but low key way for a pretty long period of time. There was a real wide spectrum of sounds and feel, and so one of the craziest things about cutting all the songs down, figuring out which twelve would be the ones on the record, was seeing how that came together. It was weird, since every song seems so different from the production standpoint. I really wanted the album to capture something that felt like where we were in our actual performances as opposed to something with a lot of digital recording. You usually try to get some sort of objective capture that you can digitally manipulate later on. This album was kind of like, fuck that. Make decisions as soon as possible— what the sound of the drums would be like, how many mics are we gonna use, compress on the way in. That kind of stuff. A lot of the sounds are from the ‘70s and ‘60s because those are my favorite [producers], Glynn Johns, Jeff Emerick. You know.


Longstreth is aware of the relationship between sound and space. Even his digital elements seem to predict their life beyond the computer. The sounds will bounce off the walls in an actual room, charting the space. He builds a unique sonic architecture through his production, however, one contrary to many popular production trends in rock music. Many producers attempt to situate the sound in a cohesive setting, in which the sounds feel as if they’re coming from the same place, with a few elements that come and go. Longstreth’s peculiarities surface in the way he opposes spaces in his song, fighting cohesion. For example, Swing Lo Magellan’s “Just From Chevron”: the song begins with a twitchy guitar line (signature Longstreth) fully panned to the right and an echoing, repeated clap on the left. There’s little reverb on the guitar, so it feels as if it comes from a small room, and an exaggerated amount on the claps, which sets them in a cavernous environment. Immediately there is a sense that they can’t exist in the same place, that there is a wall between them. When the lacquered vocals enter on the left, the guitar migrates to the middle, and now we feel three spaces— two cathedral-like expanses of claps and vocals, separated by a guitar in the middle that feels plucked from a bedroom. I envision a stage split into three parts, a different scene in each. The middle is brightly lit, the others are dim.


Indy: I find it interesting that you brought up the Beatles in relation to the production when you talk about how you wanted to capture the band as you are now live, because by Revolver the band had transformed very much into a studio band, playing few shows and exploring what can’t be done live. I’m curious how your experience playing live informs your songwriting or the production, and what has your experience been playing this album live?

DL: That’s a big one, because my normal answer that remains true is that Bitte Orca is the album I made where I wanted to capture what it felt like to be on stage, us playing. I wanted that record to feel like an emblem of the live band, whereas Swing Lo Magellan is a different beast. It’s more like I put those songs on [the record] because those are things I was thinking about, things my mind wandered to, and it was a definite challenge to figure out how to play some of those songs live. Like “See What She’s Seeing,” a lot of those effects we created, or I created, in the computer. Giving them to a player and making them something physical was part of the challenge— how the fuck are we gonna do that? That being said, playing the album live is amazing because it’s a more personal record. It’s more open-hearted, and so to play music that’s a little bit less guarded, it feels like a real communication between the band and the audience and between us on stage. It’s been cool.


“We don’t see eye to eye/ but I need you/ and you’re always on my mind” he croons on “Impregnable Question.” Even in what might be his most straightforward song to date— a burning, lo-fi slice of ‘70s AM radio— Longstreth stresses disagreement. It’s a conflict not only referenced, but enacted throughout the album. The album’s opening lyrics: “There was a single one, then there were ten. Ten made a hundred, a hundred million.” Longstreth’s voice wobbles into song with abstraction, a litany of numbers beyond image. In the chorus, however, he screeches above fuzzed-out guitars, “He was made to love her. She was made to love him.” The insight in his words is more in the system of voices he creates— the various registers— than in any one line. It’s in the way he forces abstraction and image to look back at each other. Just as his guitar parts progress through counter-rhythms, counter melodies, his lyrics move dialectically, opposing what came before to flesh out a world of voices from several mouths. Coffman and Dekle, whose airy, sugar-throated vocals serve as a foil to Longstreth’s, offer even more depth of register. Pitchfork’s laudatory review of the newest album called them the Greek chorus to his narrator. The Dirty Projectors always sounds like, well, the Dirty Projectors, and it’s because Longstreth knows how to plant a foot on his influences— Neil Young, Beyonce, Richard Wagner, John Coltrane, to name a few he’s referenced— and push off, beyond them.


Indy: I remember an interview with Pitchfork, sometime after Bitte Orca, you described the album title as two words that just sounded nice together. Your lyrics always feel tied to the rhythms of your guitar lines and the music in general. How much of this sonic quality that dictates meaning is present in your lyrics now?

DL: I think with Bitte Orca that was definitely true about the sounds of the words, totally abstract for the most part. Some lyrics were about something, but the way I put words on Bitte was about sound. I would say on Swing Lo I did it pretty differently. I got really excited with the possibility of lyrics. I was so overwhelmed with the color of music, about an exploration I hadn’t really given much thought to.


At this point in the interview, as I tried to penetrate this vague affection for the color of music with another question, a crackling voice interrupted the line. “Sorry guys, I gotta jump in here. That’s it for the interview today. Thanks so much. Dave, I’m gonna call you back with the next interview in just a few minutes.” It was Longstreth’s PR guy, who’d put me in touch with him. It was only a ten-minute interview, and on hearing the last of him, I couldn’t help but imagine Longstreth sitting at a desk, propped on his elbows, taking phone calls from 20-year-olds for hours on end. He didn’t seem unengaged, only overloaded. He’s the type to find his most insightful moments after hashing it out with himself, positing things he can discard in order to refine his ideas.

The final track on SLM, the acoustic crawl “Irresponsible Tune,” features only Longstreth’s voice. But he has two voices, actually, and though they’re staggered they sing the same words, the same melodies. One arrives a half-second after the first, on the other side of the recording. Even in agreement, there are multiple Longstreths. The song ends with an earnest imperative: “Sing all day.” Three gentle strums follow, each wide enough for a breath. “Record and play.” Three more strums, breathing now. “Drums and bass.” Three strums, ringing out at the same lazy pace. “And a guitaaaaaar” Longstreth stretches out in an airy undulation, as if the word is infinite. The final stanza: “Will there be peace in the world? Or will violence always own the truth? There’s a bird singing at my window, and it’s singing an irresponsible tune.” He repeats twice more: “An irresponsible tune.” At the heart of his music— self-antagonizing, self-devouring— is this simple need to investigate two oppositions, to pit them against each other and watch the show. Longstreth sits in the middle of the poles, of his various influences and styles, of his many incarnations, and he’s always chirping something beautiful. 

GREG NISSAN B’15 bit the orca.