Rewind through the Dirty Projectors’ catalog and you’ll likely understand why some have relegated their music as the prime currency of indie pretension. Since 2003 David Longstreth and whomever he’s assembled for his band have confounded listeners with his absurdist blend of highly technical form and inventive pop tropes. Whether it is operas about Zen and Don Henley, convoluted classical jams, or algebraic interpretations of Black Flag albums, his resume is hit or miss, but not without presenting a very singular and prodigious vision. Ever since early echoes of his latest work, Bitte Orca, leaked to unknowing ears though, he and his band have been living a charmed life, collaborating with David Byrne and Björk to having the masses declare Bitte Orca the record of the year.
It’s all for good reason as the album is a prismatic burst of pop wonderment, finding a balance between the textural complexity of Longstreth’s time-shifting, caterwauled guitar playing and the fresh gloss brought from the rest of the band, namely sugary ecstatic harmonies of Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian. Longstreth’s latest puzzler weaves everything from West African arpeggios to orchestral bows into a radio-ready template. While it’s still technically stunning music, the sultry thump of “Stillness is the Move” and the tribal joy of “Remade Horizon” simplify things into a new language both universal and continuously challenging.
I recently had the chance to talk with Longstreth on how he’s handling his rapidly rising profile and the rigors of wrangling together his wildly divergent whims.
It’s likely you’ve already started to assemble a number of fans who have jumped on board after hearing this record. Your past work has often been described as musically challenging or impenetrable and thus became an acquired taste for some and unapproachable for many. With Bitte Orca, did you set out with this in your conscious and decide from the beginning to make a record with less complexity?
David Longstreth: It wasn’t really. It was more just about making something that resonated on the level of an album, where every individual song was self-contained.
In a lot of ways, though, due to the number of different elements you fused to make Bitte Orca, this is perhaps one of you more experimental records—it’s just coated in such a pop gloss that it may be hard to see that. Was this a difficult album to make, one of your more ambitious undertakings?
DL: I guess every record is hard to make in some way. This one was definitely hard.
I’m really interested in how you begin each new album. They seem to be pretty conceptually heavy and extremely different from one to the next, so do you start with an arch for a project and begin from there or do the songs come first?
DL: I guess it happens different ways every time. Getty Address was just a weird story I made up and I had a ton of music that sort of fit with it so I put them together. Rise Above definitely came from that one idea of trying to rewrite the album. But I don’t know, sometimes it just a matter of writing a bunch of songs and seeing which ones stick. That’s how it was with this album.
Was this more a band effort than in the past? Was it hard for you to give up a modicum of control of your songs over to the other band members?
DL: Not really, that was part of the idea from the beginning. So overall it felt kind of good.
I read where you recently said that you thought technical proficiency is seen as post-punk taboo. Can you elaborate?
DL: Punk music established this dogma that in some way musicianship and authentic expression are posed. I don’t think that they are.
Do you often find that the formalism that you learned in school gets in the way of your creative process, or does it help in your songwriting?
DL: I think more the latter. It’s all kind of fluid. It’s all part of the same thing so it really doesn’t make a difference.
I do think that your guitar playing is something that is informed by a punk spirit and a strict understanding of music theory and school-taught formalism, so I’m very interested to know who most inspires this part of the music.
DL: Everybody approaches the guitar in a different way. There are all sorts of figures in music that have inspired me to play how I do. It’s also cool just to think about music as groups of intervals that you can put together or add and subtract. Like how you can approach the guitar like a piano.
On the last three albums, it sounds like string arrangements have become a major focal point of your compositions, and on Bitte Orca they tend to blend perfectly into the more “pop” songs, “Stillness Is the Move” is a good example, which reminds me quite a bit of Björk’s Homogenic especially. Now that you’re working and collaborating with her, do you find it intimidating to work and compose with an obvious influence?
DL: It is intimidating, but more than that it was humbling. It was really a learning experience to work with someone who is that much in control and that powerful. Just by being in a room with her we all learned from hanging out and singing with her. We were very grateful.
Are you planning on making a studio recording of the collaboration between the two of you?
DL: I think maybe so. We’ll think about it.
You’ve often talked about how attached you are to Brooklyn’s do-it-yourself culture of loft shows and making music and art for music an art’s sake, but now you’re sharing stages with Björk and David Byrne, and this album is very capable of making fans of people who wouldn’t normally be fans of your music. Do you think it will be hard to adapt to that, or do you feel you can manage remaining a challenging band on your own terms?
DL: Yeah. I don’t know. I guess time will tell about that kind of thing.
What’s on the horizon for Dirty Projectors?
DL: It’s hard when you’re on tour, but I’m definitely having thoughts of future things. There’s a lot of stuff in my head that I’m half-working on, stuff that I’m psyched to start working on. For now though, I’ll just have to wait it out.