Interview: Dirty Projectors songwriter David Longstreth achieves discovery in seclusion

This interview appears in ALARM #40. Subscribe here to get your copy!

Dirty Projectors: Swing Lo Magellan (Domino, 7/10/12)

“Gun Has No Trigger”

Dirty Projectors: “Gun Has No Trigger”

Dave Longstreth has one hell of a view. Slumping his lanky frame in a plush leather chair, the Dirty Projectors front-man has been given a room in Brooklyn’s Wythe Hotel that has a massive floor-to-ceiling window, displaying the island of Manhattan in stunning panorama. The funny thing, as Longstreth points out, is that the accommodations are a bit superfluous. “I live just a couple blocks that way,” he notes.

Despite the junketed overkill of the meeting place, Longstreth can attest that time away from home can really clear one’s head for answers. Last year after touring behind his band’s breakthrough 2009 album Bitte Orca, Longstreth hid himself away, renting a house in upstate New York for the sole purpose of writing and recording new songs. Narrowed from more than 50 demos to 12 final tracks, the resultant Swing Lo Magellan is Longstreth’s attempt at concentrated songcraft. “This album, for me, is just about the songs,” he says, “this idea of a verse and a chorus and lyrics and melody.”

What prompted you to write and record the songs where you did?

We toured a ton on Bitte Orca, particularly in 2010, when we did a lot of festival runs and I’d wind up back in New York for an odd amount of time. And it’s not the most relaxing place to return to, so we started spending a little time upstate. It just seemed like a cool place.

How long did you stay?

About 10 months.

Was it difficult being alone for such a prolonged period of time? For some reason, I imagine you thriving in that type of environment.

I did in this situation, yeah. I think one of the [reasons] why I wanted to do it was [because] my freshman year of college, I didn’t really have — I hated college. I didn’t have many friends or people that I wanted to befriend, so I just spent a ton of time alone. And I wrote songs and recorded constantly. It was a moment when I really started to develop a personal approach to music, a personal language. So I wanted to do that again. I wanted to incubate a bit. I’d be up there for four or five days at a time, and I’d come back down, my friends would be here, and we’d go out. But it was amazing to just be able to dip all the way inside your mind and then come out.

So what’s the dynamic like when you get the rest of the band on board?

It’s different every time. Every batch of songs is its own character, so it’s new all the time. It’s funny when you start rehearsing things because different instruments need to be practiced in different ways. The singing requires a totally different act of practicing than the rhythm-section stuff. It’s a process.

A number of your past works center on a larger concept. Is that so for this album?

Well, an album like Rise Above is organized around this idea of rewriting from damaged memory. The Getty Address is like this weird narrative about a teenage Don Henley in a dreamscape post-apocalyptic America. And it was easy, for those, to think in album-length terms. Getting super into Dylan and, honestly, Lil’ Wayne made me start to think about a song being its own universe, and taking that entire world and putting it into one song and doing it again and again.

Why did you choose Swing Lo Magellan as the album title?

I like the idea of the album having a presiding spirit. I love John Wesley Harding by Bob Dylan, and I love how the spirit of John Wesley Harding abides in that collection of songs. One of the things that started to unify these songs was the feeling that maybe Ferdinand Magellan might be a figure that hangs over all of them, this idea of navigating something that can be mapped, or the idea of what it is to explore in a world that’s fully gridded.

What sticks out the most from your residency in the house?

Just writing music, recording all the time. It was a great time to obsess over songs, how they’re made and what they can mean, what you can do with a song. [The house] was kind of weird. It was built by bootleggers in the early part of the last century. It was kind of like this weird, ramshackle frame, and it’s in a part of the mountains where it’s so steep and rocky that people couldn’t really farm. The house is in this weird, little hollow, and apparently, up and down this little hollow, everybody was just a moonshiner, a bootlegger.

The local legend was that the house was abandoned in the middle of the night. And the house was like that for 30 or 40 years before this guy bought it and started fixing it up. But then he never really finished it. It turns out that an unfinished room is a great place to write songs, where there’s this idea that it’s not done yet.

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