Dan Deacon's on the phone, slightly frantic, as we wander the grounds of the Los Angeles Natural History Museum with his manager, in search of a place to shoot. We only get snippets of the conversation as he paces around, though he's doling out what sounds like tech support when we finally settle on a spot next to a big, grandiose fountain in the middle of a large rose garden. It would be easy to forget that you were in Los Angeles, were it not in the shadow of the nearby USC football stadium. He finishes his conversation and explains, apologetically, that there was some last-minute emergency with his app, which he had recently begun licensing out.
Some big-name artist is having some last-minute issues, so, naturally, it was necessary to get the musician himself on the phone, with the sun rapidly setting over the museum's dome. As we ready the shot, Deacon leans against a park bench, hands in the pockets of a green hoodie worn over a brighter green T-shirt, bearing a smiling woman's headshot. He wears wire-rim glasses and a wild beard on his rosy face. "My name's Dan Deacon," he says, by way of introduction, as we start the interview, "and I guess I write music and perform it." He's a successful touring musician with a devoted fan base, sure, but Dan Deacon is no rock star.
We'd discussed meeting Deacon in his Baltimore studio as we began putting together the shoot schedule for the Engadget Show music episode, but the web video stars aligned, with all involved parties converging on Southern California on the same day. The indie-electronic musician had descended upon the City of Angels to play First Fridays, a once-a-month event that finds Deacon playing the halls of the 90-year-old museum alongside Brooklyn noise-rockers, Japanther. In an hour, he'll play to a beer-fueled room of indie rock fans surrounded by dioramas of taxidermied wild animals taken straight from the pages of a 1950s children's book.
Deacon's performance tonight is a bit of a throwback to earlier days, before he amassed an ensemble of musicians and began playing onstage above his audience, rather than in it. "This will be the first solo show [in a while]," he explains, "and it's kind of more in line with what I came up doing: solo on the floor; immersive, loud sets." The minimalist configuration of those early days was born of necessity, when Deacon found himself a recently graduated classically trained musician with no access to the tools he'd been taught on. "It's a pretty quick transition," says Deacon. "You graduate and you realize that there's no way you're going to get an orchestra or skilled group of people to play your music."
Instruments, too, were difficult to come by, forcing Deacon to trade in the piano for the less unwieldy world of electronics, something he could actually cart along with him to those early basement shows. It's a transition that served him well after several critically acclaimed albums, and according to Deacon, it was a particularly difficult jump to make. But too much of the showmanship has disappeared after generations of button-pushers. "I didn't want to be another laptop performer," says the musician. "I think what's very important to music is for the audience to see what's happening. You don't need to know anything about music to see, like, when a drummer strikes a drum. You know what's happening. You see a movement, and then a sound is created. With electronic music, there's too much mystery to the point where it's uninteresting. There needs to be something that people need to see."
The desire for showmanship manifested itself in hardware and pedals, physical tools that required more active manipulation than clicking a trackpad on a laptop. There's a chain of effects for all the world to see -- pitch shift, phase modulation, an oscillator that manipulates vocals, plus a keyboard with vocoder and a computer with backing tracks and light triggers. "I started getting into hardware and effects pedals and oscillators because there was a physicality to the sound," he explains. "I needed something to do with them, and I don't play the guitar, and I don't really play the keyboard, and a piano would be kind of absurd. So I thought, 'my voice.' I'd use my voice as the wave that would get processed through the equipment."
For added impact, he embedded himself in the crowd, removing the theatrical barrier of the stage for music generated deep within the pulsating, sweaty throngs. But while 2009's Bromst saw Deacon eschewing his trademark approach for 14-person ensembles playing parts written for human musicians, more recent touring has found him scaling back yet again. "It was a learning experience because we went from, like, one person to, like, 14 people, and it was a logistical nightmare," says Deacon. "I learned a lot on that tour. Now it's a four-person band, and it's a much more reasonable group. We cannot go insane at the pace of 15 Wile E. Coyotes chasing one nonexistent Road Runner." For tonight, it's just the one coyote, with a table littered with tangled wires and stop boxes, commanding a room of museum-goers to perform dance-offs around him.
Last summer, Deacon incorporated smartphones into his multimedia performance -- or, rather, harnessed the handsets that showgoers were already, somewhat distractingly making a part of his show. "I'm sort of a weird, dystopian optimist, but I like to think that's what's going to happen," says Deacon. "It will make people more social, and there will be apps that have more game elements to them than just, like, playing a f****** game, but interacting in a capacity where the phones can communicate with each other in a room, in a group. And when you go to a concert, [you can] be an element of it, rather than just posting on Twitter, 'This band sucks.' At least you can hold up your phone and have something happen that wouldn't otherwise be able to have happen."
Deacon designed the app along with four friends, in hopes of creating something that uses the traditionally isolating smartphone technologies to bring an audience together as a group. It's something that has the added bonus of only working at Dan Deacon shows. The technology, he explains, is similar to an old modem, emitting a sound to help devices communicate. "We send out a calibration tone that the app then decodes and knows what it's doing. It takes that information that says, 'OK, we're triggering this pre-programed light show,' or, 'We're going to display this information at this rate.'"
And while there's something to be said for developing an app that only works at your own live shows, it ultimately proved too much for just one artist. The group began entertaining offers and started white-labeling it out to interested parties -- and, it turns out, cramming a bit of impromptu phone support into Deacon's busy schedule. "We started looking into it, and it seemed like there were a lot of other corporate interests that were going down a similar path," says Deacon. "We [wanted to keep the] app made by artists for live performance, and thought it would be a good thing to branch out and have [it] be something that could exist on all levels. We've talked about making it open source, and I think we still have aspirations to do that, but we want to make sure that the technology doesn't get co-opted by the Gargamel corporations before we can really fully develop it, and it gets locked down."
"So no Smurfs were harmed in the making of the app?" I ask, the sun almost completely down and the park police demanding we evacuate the premises over their on-car PA. "We don't want any Smurfs harmed," answers Deacon with a slight smile. "Being fellow Smurfs, we don't want to get turned into gold."
Video originally appeared in The Engadget Show episode 43.