While having some dinner before the Rock City show on his Songs for Imaginative People tour, Darwin Deez had a chat with The Mic editor John Bell about his life of burning passions.
Hi Darwin. Firstly, congratulations on your new album. When you were writing it you moved from the busy life of NYC to North Carolina, a state renowned for singer/songwriters like James Taylor. Was the change in state necessary to your writing? How did it inspire you?
It made it a lot easier. It’s hard to work at home in New York; it’s hard to be at home in New York! In a way New York always feel to me kind of like a cage. You’re always in a high-stress environment, it’s never a relaxing environment outside your appartment. So knowing that my only task for the year was to make the album, I figured it would be a lot easier to do in North Carolina. also after living in NY for 8 years I was ready for a break, ready to go back to the state where I grew up.
Last time we spoke I think it’s fair to say you were enjoying the freedom of single life. Quite a few of the songs from the new album like ‘You Can’t Be My Girl’ and ‘Moonlit’ seem to focus on a specific someone. Is there that special muse, that special someone who you focussed on in regards to the new album?
It’s memories more than current events, but it’s different. It’s about different people; there were specific muses for specific songs, I mean ‘Chelsea’s Hotel’ is about Chelsea and ‘Alice’ is about Alice.
But with those songs, is it not a worry for you that they might know that it’s about them? Especially when they’re only a few tracks away from each other.
I wanted them to know it’s about them. The idea about writing a song for somebody was a kind of inspiration that I hadn’t tapped into for a long time. I think Alice is the second or third song that I wrote for the album, so I was looking for inspiration and I was just thinking about her and I thought it would be a nice gesture for. It’s a nice way to show that I cared for her. And it was also another approach to songwriting that I hadn’t done in a while.
I think what makes the album a success is your ability to keep your noisy-pop sound and yet introduce elements of different styles like the 80s pop ballad sound in ‘Moonlit’, not to mention all the classic rock guitar solos peppered throughout. Talk us through that. How did you decide what sound you wanted for the album? Or did it just come naturally by what you were listening to at the time?
The way it works is I’ll get into stuff and it will just come out in my music. So for instance I got really into Thin Lizzy, which was a big influence on the guitar playing I started doing. Another thing I was listening to a lot that year was Red Hot Chilli Peppers, I think that came out on tracks like ‘Good To Lose’. Also Frightened Rabbit, the lyrics were my favourite part of their second record and I was really inspired by the writing on that. That’s how it happens, you could say that it’s natural or intentional.
When I spoke to you after your first record you told me you were planning on doing a hip-hop album, which I only discovered a couple of months ago on your website. Where did you meet the guys from Das Racist and what was it like working with people like Kool AD?
I felt really lucky that he turned in a verse. Me and Victor lived in the same dorm at college, for the one year that I went there. I remember when we reconnected in NY. It was outside the ballery ballroom and they were playing and I was walking past him and he had like three girls around him, livin’ dat life. But he remembered me and we have a mutual respect for each other’s creativity, so that was cool. It was just so good that he submitted something for me because their first record Sit Down Man was like probably the biggest inspiration for making that rap album. He was one of my favourite rappers of 2011. I sent him the beat and he recorded over it, so it was all done over the internet.
I think perhaps in a way your band project isn’t so dissimilar from that style of hiphop in the sense that your lyrics are humorous and reflective as well. What’s your view of life at the moment. You say in the album it’s ‘a greenhouse gas’ but can you elaborate on what that means?
That line is not something I can elaborate on because it was meant to be mysterious but now that I’ve told you that it’ll just sound annoying, ha ha.
OK, well how do you see life at the moment? Are you happy?
At the moment I see my life as a struggle to shift out of a certain approach that I’ve always had that’s always worked for me, and now it’s no longer functional for me. It’s a desire-based approach to life. I’m really comfortable with burning passion, and I think that’s what’s got me a career in music- always wanting it and also my love for music has a passionate element to it that feels right and feels comfortable.
-It should be noted that at this point Darwin gets out a matchbook and lights one without looking at it-
But the things that I’ve started to want now are so totally bullshit that I can’t do anything with that desire. I’m consumed for a desire for something that’s bad for me, like if I know a girl’s bad for me, a girl who I want but don’t respect or value and I know she doesn’t add anything to my life, but I still wont stop thinking about this person. Im comfortable with a desire for something that’s bad for me and that itself becomes a burning passion because I become filled with desire to not want this person. But then you’re just grumpy. So there’s no way to go with that approach to life. So the way I look at it now is that it’s a challenge to shift out of that way and being more receptive and witnessing, open and receiving. That’s how I see my life right now.
So you have a conflict of passions…
Yeah. I want things that I know are bad for me but I want them a lot and I know that they’re bad for me.
What do you mean by that? Everything? Or girls in particular?
Girls, yeah. Specifically a girl. A lot of times I’ll write a song and it will come true for me in a way more than when I was writing. It happens a lot. It happened with ‘Radar detector’ and ‘You Can’t Be My Girl’.
You mean it finds more meaning once you’ve actually written it?
Yeah I’ll start living it more than I did the first time after writing the song. So I’m kind of like a psychic songwriter: I write stuff and it starts happening.
So what would you be happy with, say, a year from now?
Just creating a balance in my life. Not being alone but alsohaving enough solitude. When I lived in asholt for the last year I spent most of the year alone. I would not see anybody for like 4 days at a time, and then I got a sort of heavy sadness… not boo-hoo regular sadness but the colours started draining because I hadn’t seen my friends for days. It was a cool year but I wanna improve on that by striking a better balance.
How was SXSW? Dave Grohl gave the much-coveted SXSW Keynote address. How important is he to you as a musician? He played the stage you’re on tonight the same year I was born…
SXSW was in the middle of our US tour, it was a nice diversion from that routine, and good to be fully repaired for that strenuous festival where if you’re not in the groove of knowing where all your shit goes and how your song goes it can be way to chaotic. So I was able to embrace and enjoy it for the first couple of days then I just got overwhelmed with dust and cat-dander and fell ill and I was struggling to get through the second week. it’s really full on. I enjoyed seeing this band called Delicate Steve. I saw a bunch of bands with no drummers and I was really angry by that… the drummer is often the best thing about a live band. Dave Grohl… the first FF record was interesting. The second was interesting, but I never bought it. But in hindsight it had all the classics pop hits on it (‘My Hero’, ‘Everlong’, ‘Monkey Wrench’). Those are all time rock songs, and after that first record where he still had a foot in the experimentalism of Nirvana I think he just went ‘you know what, I’m me’ and he came out and wrote those amazing songs. I haven’t really dug anything he’s really written since though, and that was a long time ago. That’s my take on him.
So if the first album was followed with a hip-hop mix-tape, are you going to follow suit with this album? Be that more hip-hop or something different?
Yeah, I was planning to release a mix-tape. I’m not a hundred percent sure about it but I’m just trying to get together a more eclectic mixture of tracks that I dashed off for fun that I’d also like to share and would show a different side of me that I guess a lot of people don’t see. More experimental and free-form jams, all instrumental. I want to release it but the people close to me are like ‘why would you release it?’
Fuck what they say! The hip-hop mixtape was pretty low-key, why not just make this one like that too?
I probably will eventually.
Where did the four string sound come from? Was it just having to make do with 4 strings? Or was it a purposeful move?
There was definitely that element to my life back then, but I was also really into Animal Collective and I heard that they tuned low to get a different sound and texture. I remember that was interesting; this would have been around 2003. I was really enamoured by their first album and I was looking for a different sound. And also after not playing guitar for 5 years, I lost a lot of my left hand chops. So I had 3 strings originally, which made it a lot easier to get back on the horse, and I knew it would have a different sound and I wanted that. So after playing around on 3 strings I added another, and then I wrote a bunch of songs that I wanted to keep, so that’s how the 4 strings stuck.
A few months ago HMV, the UK’s largest music distributor, went into administration. Music these days is much more downloaded (both legally and illegally) than bought on CDs. How do you feel about that both in terms of a listener of music and a maker of music? Obviously that must be something you consider when you have a new album coming out.
It’s strange because for all of the other format changes there was always an increase in the quality of sound. So when we went to digital, it was strange for me that we were collectively going to go to something that was compressed and had less fidelity than a CD. I still listen to music on CDs a lot… I listened to tapes but my players kept braking so I just stopped listening to them. I was into cassettes during the time that mp3s became popular; I would download them and then make mix-tapes on cassettes for myself. So it’s a really complex shift: as far as CDs being obsolete, I guess it’s just the end of an era. They certainly did have a charm for me.
Songs for Imaginative People is available now from Lucky Number Records.
Stream it here.