Music

Dan Deacon courts chaos in manic, media-rich shows

“That’s why I like seeing improvised music so much — you don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Dan Deacon of his band’s live shows.

Frank Hamilton

“That’s why I like seeing improvised music so much — you don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Dan Deacon of his band’s live shows.

At a Dan Deacon concert, anything is possible. The colorful Baltimore musician, who tours the country with his crew in a converted school bus, is known for uproarious live shows that encourage audience participation. Over the years, he has experimented with an array of whimsical techniques — from apps that turn the crowd’s phones into a mass synchronized light show, to goofball audience exercises that get everyone moving. Deacon’s charisma is undeniable, and his eccentric brand of electronic music is too upbeat to ignore. At a Deacon show, even a shy onlooker could find himself suddenly dancing in a conga line or doing the wave.

The typical rock setup, in which the crowd stands mostly still, gazing upward at the star onstage, is anathema to Deacon’s whole philosophy. “In my mind, there’s nothing more crazy than ‘stare at me onstage during my performance and clap when I’m done,’” Deacon says. “I think of the entire room as a performance space, and my role is a catalyst to start that performance, and to hand it to the audience. The audience becomes the focal point.”

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Deacon’s latest album, “Gliss Riffer” (released on Domino), is as smart and goofy as it is catchy, beginning with “Feel the Lightning,” the sing-along lead single. “I feel like it’s too weird to be pop music, but it’s too pop to be avant-garde or actually experimental, for people who like weird music,” Deacon says of his music, laughing. “I like living in the fringe: I make music that people dance to, but they wouldn’t be played at a dance club. They have song structures and lyrics, but they’re not normal pop songs.”

Deacon has a keen ear for pop, but he also has formal training in the outer reaches of experimental music, which he studied at SUNY Purchase. “When you study electronic music or computer music, you’re studying texture — the texture of sounds,” Deacon explains. “You’re trying to figure out a way to arrange these textures to sound interesting to you and to other people. I think about this a lot when I watch people who play guitar and sing, where the music isn’t about texture. It’s about melody and lyrics. My music has a different focus — it’s about the texture of the sound.”

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Visuals are important, too. For this tour, Deacon and his crew have mounted their most ambitious audiovisual shows yet. (Deacon plays Brighton Music Hall on Saturday, May 23.)


“In the old days, Dan would just roll up on a table and set up in the audience,” says Patrick McMinn, Deacon’s technical director. “Having a big production is kind of new to us.”

The current Deacon live setup uses an explosion of video feeds. “This is the first time we’ve incorporated video in a large scale,” McMinn says. Using a technique called projection mapping, McMinn can place video on a specific object onstage, or in the crowd. “We can map video to the skin of a drum head, for example,” McMinn says. “It makes the whole place look like it’s just erupting in video.”

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A complex network of computers communicates back and forth behind the scenes at Deacon’s concerts, powering the riot of lights and images. McMinn’s custom software, which controls the lights, allows him to “play” the lights like an instrument, transforming the room into a psychedelic swirl of color. “We’ve made all of this ourselves,” McMinn says. “There are more ‘pro’ ways to do it, but they’re expensive and kind of limiting.”

Audience participation, as always, is key to the Deacon live experience. “There’s a lot of potential energy in an audience,” Deacon says. “A performer onstage thinks of the audience as one group, as a collection of individuals. But an audience member doesn’t think of themself that way; they’re an individual in a crowd. I like to create situations in my performance where people start thinking about the relationship of themselves to other people in the room.”

True to the DIY spirit of Deacon and his Baltimore crew, the live setup is unique and homegrown. “It’s a beautiful, shambling duct-tape result we’ve come up with,” McMinn says. “There’s always the risk that everything will fall apart at a moment’s notice.”

Deacon thrives on unpredictability, and despite constant touring, each show is a completely new experience. “The only thing that makes the show truly experimental is that it can fail,” Deacon says. “I like the risk of failure that the show has. It might not work! It’s that risk. That’s why I like seeing improvised music so much — you don’t know what’s going to happen. You have an idea of the macrostructure — you have a basic idea — but you don’t know the microstructure, the details. That’s what makes me excited to do this again and again.”

DAN DEACON

With DJ Carbo

At: Brighton Music Hall,

May 23 at 6 p.m.

Tickets: $18.50. 800-745-3000, www.crossroadspresents.com/ brighton-music-hall

Geeta Dayal can be reached at theoriginalsoundtrack@gmail.com.
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