Electronic musician Dan Deacon takes audience involvement much further than most artists, often setting up his gear in the middle of the crowd. He speaks to us about his equipment and the philosophy behind his wild live shows.
"I work with the audience, using them as compositional element,” explains Dan Deacon, who, on his recent European tour promoting the album America, performed on the dance floor among his fans instead of on the stage. "I try to re-contextualise the space and change where the audience is usually looking and facing. When I set up in the audience it instantly changes their mindset and draws people in closer to see what's going on. If I make a clearing in the centre to do different activities or theatre-style games, being on the floor aids in that and helps create this atmosphere of comfort and equality. So when I say, 'All right, let's do this,' they're not just like, 'What the hell's he talking about?'”
For most of us, the prospect of placing our carefully tuned equipment within arm's reach of an excited audience would be extremely worrying, but Dan is nothing if not unconventional, and seems to have few concerns about rogue fans sabotaging his show by cheekily tweaking controls. "That happens once every hundred shows,” he insists. "When it does I just give them a stern look and if they're inebriated beyond belief I get rid of them. Everyone at this point understands that if they are going to be in the front, they have some level of responsibility for making sure the table doesn't collapse or the lights don't fall over. There's a communal aspect to it.”
When touring in the USA, where he is a citizen, Dan uses an ex-school bus as a means of transporting his band and all of their equipment. In Europe, however, transatlantic transportation limitations mean that he has to work with a significantly pared-down setup. The only other band members with him are drummers Denny Bowen and Dave Jacober, each working with locally hired acoustic kits. Unlike Dan, the drummers are prominently positioned at the very front of the stage facing each other, with Dan's monitors between them so that the feed from his gear is output towards the audience together with the direct drum sound.
"I don't really write for guitar,” says Dan, explaining his thinking behind the drum-biased ensemble. "I only have two or three songs with guitar, and most of the bass parts are synths. Normally it's a pedal tone that's drifting and being modulated by a series of LFOs, so a live performance with a guitarist tends not to be all that engaging!
"When I add a performer to the mix I need them to add physicality, and percussion, in my mind, is one of the only instruments that you can see from afar and really get into and enjoy viscerally and primitively. When an arm moves it creates a sound, and you don't have to know anything about music to enjoy that. With guitar or bass the parts have to be specifically written for it to be a performance.”
Dan admits that he uses a pair of drummers partly because he likes the way two drummers look on stage, but goes on to point out that he also writes very drum-heavy music, and could easily tour with three. "Two is the smallest number of players needed to actually represent the drum parts. We originally did it with three, but it seemed to complicate matters because certain songs only really need two. So two seemed to make the most sense, performance-wise, setup-wise and economically.
"The difference between the kits is that one has one rack tom while the other has two, and one kit has a stand-mount tambourine and the other a wood block. We tend to use tambourine more than hi-hat or cymbals. I don't really write for cymbals very much. But we try to make sure all the drums are different sizes and choose them so they have distinct tones.”
Dan's musical contribution is the manipulation of various sound sources, including his own voice, the output from a [Wavetek] oscillator, the feed from the live drums and pre-mixed backing tracks bounced down onto an iPod. For these tasks, he uses an array of carefully chosen processors and effects, wired up so as to maximise their performance potential.
To the casual observer, the setup is a perplexing mass of boxes, wires and sticky tape, but Dan has spent years refining and amending the arrangement and knows it inside out.
"I have a little Behringer mixer,” he explains, "and the mic and oscillator go into that and then out of its effects send and into the vocal effects chain. A Digitech Whammy Pedal pitch-shifter starts the chain, and that goes into an Ibanez PM7 phase modulator. It's a real cheap stompbox but I really, really love it and get crazy sounds out of it. I used to use the Moogerfooger MF102 Ring Modulator but, although I love the sound of it, it's just too expensive to put in the mix as a road pedal, and it's not like I'm running other CV devices. Then the PM7 goes into an Eventide delay stompbox. Sometimes there's a ProCo RAT distortion on there too, but it depends if it decides to work or not. Then I have an Electrix Warp Factory vocoder that's just on its own channel, and also a Casio SK1 keyboard.
"A computer would get utterly destroyed live, so the iPod has bounce-downs of everything that was written in Ableton and Reason: the bass lines, organs — basically everything that I'm not doing live is on that. When it's a three-drummer song, we usually take out the parts that are less crucial or don't translate live and put them on the iPod, or just do a rearrangement, remove doublings and stuff like that.
"For the most part we accompany the song material that's on the iPod, but sometimes the focus is the drums and I do live processing of the tracks with my rig. The left channel has the tracks and the right channel has the click, so the drummers get both and, of course, it is just that mono [left] signal that we send out.”
Another important aspect of Dan's shows is lighting, so much so that he takes his own lights on tour rather than relying on those of the venues at which he's performing. Instead of using a dedicated lighting console, however, Dan controls his array in a relatively primitive fashion, using the individual on/off switches on a simple power strip. "I play those throughout the night,” says Dan, "turning different lights on and off and making patterns.”
Things are a little more complicated in the Stateside setup, where video projections are used in conjunction with lighting, but Dan insists that they do not detract from his interactive performances. "Very few of our videos have a narrative and we don't run them the whole time. The projections are mainly used as a lighting element to create patterns or textures on us. My video artist is Alan Resnick and I also work with Greg St Pierre. They either make all the content themselves or cull it from different people I work with, like Dan O'Brian, Alan Cordell or Jimmy Joe Roche.”
The output from the drum-kit microphones are the only signals that Dan has no control over, although he admits that he wishes he had when touring abroad, simply because the house engineers are not accustomed to his slightly unusual requirements.
"In the states we tour with an engineer,” Dan explains, "but in the UK we've been relying on the house crew. Most of the time it's good but it takes a while to get the mix where we want it because it's a very dense sound. I tend to treat all the drums, and most things, pretty evenly in terms of dynamics — I don't want one of the toms to be quieter or louder than the others, or the tambourine popping at all times.
"Also, the parts are very repetitious but when they change they tend to shift to an entirely different realm of the kit, so we sometimes find that the house guy has muted the toms on a section, thinking, 'They're not using these at all,' but they're supposed to come in at the forefront, so I'll be like, 'Where the fuck are the floor toms?' We've been running into that a little bit.
"But mainly we send all the drums as one group and just ask the engineers to compress and limit that. I want a live drum feel, that's why I have humans playing, but I don't really want them to sound like live drums, and I also don't want them to be truly electronic because I love acoustic drums and the sound that they give the people at the front. I'm usually positioned in front of the drums, either facing the crowd or with my back to them, depending on how wild the show was the last time I was in town, and there's just something beautiful about drums.
"It takes a lengthy soundcheck but eventually we get there. If we had the budget I'd bring someone over with our own gear, but nine times out of 10 the sound person wants it to sound as good as I do because that's their job. And a lot of sound guys get excited that we're different from a normal four-piece rock-band setup. They like having so many drums to work with, and enjoy not having to focus on my track because it is just a mono send. They seem to make sure that my signal is full-bandwidth going to the subs, and once we get that, as long as the drums are there, we're solid.”
Dan's Stateside leg of the America tour was a bigger production and included a sound engineer, extra musician and a more complex set of signal processing options. The fourth band member was Chester Gwazda, who produced Dan's latest album America, and its predecessor, Bromst. Chester was brought in to play synthesizer and provide additional signal processing, as Dan explains.
"That enabled us to do a lot more jamming, improvisation, drum processing and meshing together of songs, and for that I was actually up on stage and using a Teenage Engineering OP1 synth going into its own channel to jam on. Chester had a Novation Launchpad that controlled the samples that we put in there, and we used that for jamming when he wasn't playing a keyboard or synth.
"Typically we'd send out about eight channels to our sound guy so, for example, he'd get a separate bass, Chester feed, separate left-right backing, and so on. He'd then alter the mix from night to night to deal with the different room acoustics and how much bass got absorbed.”
Dan's current full live setup includes several processors that were not used during the European tour, including Big Briar and Moog CV modules from the Moogerfooger range, which, like a modular synth, can be patched together in countless configurations. Dan: "In the States I use more CV stuff, including a Moogerfooger Ring Modulator to process the voice. I use the Moogerfooger FreqBox as my oscillator and frequency tracker. I really like to send the drums through it: using the drums as a gate on the oscillator sounds awesome.
"I get a compressed and limited mix of the drums back from the FOH engineer, which goes into my mixer so I can re-route it through my effects chain. I send the drums into the FreqBox's audio in and whenever it gets a signal it makes a sound. I run the oscillator into Antares Vocal Producer to quantise it because I don't have a standalone CV quantiser. The oscillator is basically just a sweep, so when I am sweeping I can have scale and/or motion, or just octave jumps. It gives me more control when Chester is playing definitive chords, a progression or a scale. It means that it doesn't have to be just noise; it can be melodic.
"I've got a Moogerfooger CP251 acting like the modular brain of the FreqBox and I also use the Moogerfooger MF103 12-stage Phaser as another LFO output to control LFO, the CP251, and as a phaser. There's also a RAT distortion always in the mix.
"We use Reason as the source of all the soft synths and I tend to write all my stuff with Subtractor. Just about everything tends to fall in there. We use Ableton sort of like the brains, and that sends out the various monitor mixes to the drummers.”
Dan's wish is to be able to use his school-bus method of transport for future European tours, enabling him to replicate the more sophisticated Stateside ones. He reveals that he is currently working on the idea but insists that it still requires a lot of logistical finessing. For now, though, he has to make sacrifices, which means carrying absolutely no backup gear whatsoever.
"I can't really bring any,” he insists, "because I also bring my own lights, and the lights and the equipment are 23kg each, which is the maximum you can check in for a transatlantic flight. When I am flying economy I'm only allowed one bag and it tends to be about 14kg. The most I've had to pay was €2000 on overweight fees, and that was when I had backups for the pitch-shift pedal and power supplies.
"My European setup is similar to my early setups, which were small enough to travel with. I was travelling by coach or bus and anyone who has ever used that sort of transportation knows that they don't treat your luggage very carefully — they just throw the suitcases underneath. So on this tour I did it the same way I have for years: wrapped it in bubble wrap, put it in suitcases, crossed my fingers and hoped it would show up!”
Dan's gigs are certainly unusual, and definitely not what most Health & Safety-conscious venues are likely to welcome happily. Regulations are more easily met when a band is on stage, the audience is on the floor, and a bank of security stewards patrol the boundaries and ensure all the exits are policed, so Dan's team try to ensure that everyone involved is aware of what's going to happen well in advance.
"When we book venues we illustrate what we do by pointing them to YouTube clips that demonstrate the way the show works,” says Dan. "We ask the local promoters if the security is going to go crazy or be all right, and tell them that there can't be a barricade because it's right in the audience. Even if I am performing on the stage I am going to get into the audience at times. We may even exit and leave the venue and come in through a different set of doors, so we explain all this. A lot goes into the planning because I've done some shows where the venue management has said, 'No way, what are you talking about?' We've replied, 'Well, we told you in there,' and they've been like, 'Yeah, but we didn't think it was real!'”
Although it seems that not every venue quite understands what Dan's shows are about, the audiences tend to be much more in touch with what's going on. "Very few people go to see my performances knowing nothing about it or the music,” he insists. "The music is very celebratory and uplifting and the show carries that same sort of atmosphere and attitude. Most of the people are up for something weird and into the idea of experimenting.
"London tends to be one of the craziest places I play and the show at Scala was, if not the highlight, definitely one of my favourite shows I've done on the tour, including the US leg. It was just perfect. The audience were wild and crazy but they weren't sloppy. They weren't wasted out of their minds or anything like that. I don't like playing shows where people are wasted or fucked up on drugs. Since I play on that border between DJ culture and rock music, sometimes people show up like that, but it's always such a depressing scenario because I rely so heavily on the audience.
"If the audience isn't into it I have to get more into it to bring them in. That's the role of the front man in any band. If they're calm it throws me off because I feel the need to somehow make it crazy. The temperament of the audience also dictates the order of the set and what activities we do. If they are already riled up there's no need to do the things I do to get them dancing or moving, so I bypass those early activities and move right into a set of songs that are more challenging and not just immediately dancing-based.”
For Dan, involving the audience in his shows is important not only because it makes the performances more enjoyable and exciting for everyone, but also because it fits with his views on social interaction and how that should take place. Dan sums up why, for him, the audience really is everything.
"I want the audience to realise that they are both a member of a crowd and an individual at the same time, and when I do large group actions it is to highlight that mindset, because it's often lost or forgotten, especially in everyday life. People often think about their individual needs over the group's needs, or vice versa. Individuality and collectivism are only looked at exclusively and never simultaneously, and that tends to create a lot of social conflicts, poor social planning, and leads to greed and exploitation.
"In a concert environment, unless something is brought up to raise the questions about the audience they tend to think of themselves not as a group or unified mass but as just being in a room with a bunch of people. But from a performer's standpoint the show is the audience. You can see an amazing performance, but if the audience sucks, the show is going to suck. Conversely, you can see a band that may well be half-arsing it, but if the audience is amazing the show is amazing.”