"I’m Definitely a Dictator": Dirty Projectors Frontman David Longstreth on the Band's New Album

"I’m Definitely a Dictator": Dirty Projectors Frontman David Longstreth on the Band's New Album
Dirty Projectors
(Jason Frank Rothenberg)

It’s no surprise that the art world loves the band Dirty Projectors. They make complicated pop that can veer from African guitar noodling to Arthur Russell crooning, often in the same song; they’ve performed at ?the Whitney Museum with the equally offbeat Lucky Dragons; they once conceptually recast a Black Flag album through a damaged lens (with the end result sounding not much like those hardcore pioneers, to say the least). Over the past few years Dirty Projectors have collaborated with the likes of David Byrne and Björk and had a single covered by Solange Knowles. It’s been a ?new chapter for a challenging band. Scott Indrisek spoke with front man David Longstreth in advance of the band’s latest album, "Swing Lo Magellan," due out July 10.

Scott Indrisek: Where did the band record "Swing Lo Magellan"?

David Longstreth: We recorded it in Upstate New York. Sometimes it’s really hard to write songs in the city. I wanted the album to have a handmade feel, and that came out of the way we made music up there, which was constantly and informally.

There’s a lot of hand-clapping on the album.

It just kind of happened. There’s no overarching conceptual gambit there.

You’ve said that this is really an album of songs. Were you reacting against some of the previous albums being more conceptual or thematic?

I might have been. I find myself getting super deep in one mode of working, then wanting to flip around 180 degrees and do the opposite. Our earlier albums have told some sort of story, like "Mount Wittenberg Orca," the album we made with Björk, or "The Getty Address," which is a surreal story about Don Henley or an album like "Rise Above" that’s united by this idea of trying ?to rewrite another piece of music, Black Flag’s "Damaged," from memory. For this one there’s no overarching or unifying theme. The theme is just the songs themselves, trying to have each of them stand without any context of the others.

Bassist and backing vocalist Angel Deradoorian is on hiatus for this record.

It’s in the DNA of the band to be constantly shifting around, it would appear. Angel joined the band when she was 19, and she was in it for 4 years when we stopped touring on "Bitte Orca." She’s just got to find her voice, you know? It’s a good time for her to take a minute away, because this album is less about foregrounding ideas of arrangement and orchestral color out of the female voices than our previous albums. It’s much more about the tendons and the skeleton than it is about the plumage.

Is the songwriting process collaborative, or are you a benevolent dictator?

On a personal level, I’m a huge advocate of fairness, sharing, generosity, and kindness. But on the level of music, I’m definitely a dictator. I write everything. You really can’t write vocal counterpoint by committee.

Aside from “Stillness Is the Move,” have ?you made any other music videos?

I was in deep collaboration with an animator named James Sumner for an album-length animated movie of "The Getty Address," from 2006. Pieces of it are on YouTube. We’ve never released it commercially.

Is it something you’d want to do in the future, or is it not as important that the songs have a visual counterpoint?

That’s what pop music is — it’s the marriage of an image and a sound. It made sense for "The Getty Address," because the album is a story. I thought of it like an opera. I was obsessed with "Tristan and Isolde" and the Ring Cycle, that sort of shit. And I love this anachronistic idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total artwork.

We’re flying to L.A. to film some videos that I’m directing for "Swing Lo Magellan." I think the natural world is important to the imagery. The thing about Southern California is you can be in the mountains, you can be in the desert, you can be on the ocean, all relatively easily. When we filmed the “Stillness” video, it was the biggest pain in the ass. We were like, “Oh, we have to find a mountain around New York City.” There were weeks of people taking road trips to find a mountain that was wild enough. We ended ?up six hours north, in Vermont.

With a bunch of llamas. Probably no llamas this time.

You never know.

This article appears in the summer issue of Modern Painters magazine.