Dan Deacon is not particularly happy with the current state of politics in this country. The upcoming presidential election doesn’t offer him much hope for the nation.
“Don’t get me wrong—I want Obama to win,” Deacon says. But, he says of the two choices, “It’s the difference of, do you want to get hit in the face with a bat or run over by a truck?”
While he may have trouble mustering optimism for the country’s political future, there is plenty about America that Deacon does love. That’s evident from his gorgeous new record, America. The album is at turns fierce and pretty, a meandering symphony that employs both electronic and acoustic instrumentation.
It’s very much a political album, especially the second half, simply called “USA,” which is made up of four parts that kick off with “USA I: Is a Monster.” But there’s not much in the way of propaganda or sloganeering; no causes are advanced. Instead, Deacon sets moods that shift back and forth from despair to hope.
“I didn’t want the political nature to be overt, because I don’t respond to that,” he says. “I want it to be subtle.”
There are plenty of things that tick Deacon off and if you get him going, he’ll get overt, talking about how America exploits the rest of the world and how all Americans are complicit in this, including him. He’s frustrated with apathy. “You can’t just sit back and be like, ‘Man, I hope they stop fracking,’ and then sit back and crank your AC,” he says. “They’re not evil mad scientists. It’s more like, we can make all this money because people like it to be way hotter inside their house in the winter than it needs to be and be freezing cold inside in the summer.”
But he also sees positive things about the country.
“The hopeful things I see are Occupy [Wall Street],” he says. “And the student protest movement. The people speaking out against negative environmental policies. People becoming aware of their economic dominator role.”
While political grievances certainly emerge in America, physical landscape also plays a large part. He has called “USA III: Rail” the “cornerstone” of the album. It’s recorded with acoustic instruments and was inspired by a train trip Deacon took from Seattle to New York in 2006. He wasn’t as famous or financially secure as he is now, but he needed to get home for Christmas and wasn’t up for a grueling bus trip. So he splurged and bought a train ticket.
“It definitely changed my relationship to the country,” he says. “It was a beautiful trip.”
It remains a pivotal experience. He describes it in cinematic terms, the landscape rolling by him outside his window. “You don’t see your path in front of you,” he says. “The choices aren’t yours. They’re much more like a film. You’re winding around curves you don’t anticipate. There’s no billboards, there’s no houses, no factories. It’s just mountains and fields. And not even farming fields, just open fields and meadows. It’s all covered in snow and it lasts for days. You have that constant pulse. With rail it has that constant drive.”
Composing for musicians is something that Deacon finds fun and liberating, watching the musicians take his work to places he didn’t expect.
“When I’m writing for an acoustic instrument, there are limitations,” he says. “That’s what makes writing for an acoustic instrument challenging and fun. It’s the rules that are placed on it that make it fun. You could write a piece for a cello, but you’re never going to get the same bowing twice.
Those imperfections are what make it interesting.”
He credits the musicians—especially violinist Victor Ruch, the cellist Mia Barcia-Colombo, and drummer Dennis Bowen—for taking his work to new places. He wrote “Rail” for acoustic instruments and built the whole album around it.
“There was no better title for that song than ‘Rail,’” he says. “I thought about calling the whole album ‘Rail.’”
If there’s one thing that defines Deacon’s America—both the album and his perception of the country—it’s movement, a relentless progression toward something. Whether it’s doom or freedom that we’re moving toward, we’ll find out soon enough.