Arty Brooklyn rockers The Dirty Projectors’ new album Swing Low Magellan was born in a rotting shell.
“Amber and I were tooling around upstate New York looking for a place to rent out,” leader David Longstreth recounts at the end of a long day of Tokyo promo. “Because when you get back from a tour, New York isn’t the most relaxing place to land.”
Longstreth and singer Amber Coffman were seeking a songwriting refuge after touring their 2010 Bjork collaboration Mount Wittenberg Orca. “Then we found this place built by bootleggers a hundred years ago,” he continues. “Our nearest neighbor, this guy Gary who is on the cover of the album, said the house was vacant for decades, just this rotting shell, but the clothes were still folded neatly in the drawers. People must have left in a hurry.”
Over the course of a year, Longstreth created scores of songs, a dozen of which made the cut. “There was just a remarkable stillness about it that was appealing,” he says about the house. “Also there’s something about sitting in an unfinished room that feels good for songwriting.”
Swing Low Magellan—Longstreth tacked the name of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan onto the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”—is infused with a sense of calm. The title track is only one of several in which Longstreth sings in his reedy but supple voice against a background of unadorned acoustic guitars and simple, folky atmospheres.
Still, Longstreth insists the house and rural location played little role in defining the compositions. “The songs are more about what’s going on in my mind, and representing the experiences of the previous couple years of life,” he says. “The house was just an empty vessel.”
“A lot of the album is about intuitions and instincts, and what to do with those things in a world that’s completely mapped,” he adds about the reference to Magellan, the first explorer to circle the globe. “The hymn seems to find some sort of redemption in the acceptance of death. If you think about total mapping, total circumscription as a form of death, eventually it all makes sense.”
In addition to spiritual preoccupations there are also topical ones. Longstreth says the first single “Gun has No Trigger” takes up societal issues. “The production takes its inspiration from early 80s hip-hop, and its concerns like Run DMC’s are basically social,” he explains. “The song is about what to do with the spectacle of protest in a world where dissent is urgently necessary but difficult to perform.”
Longstreth’s signature fusion of indie rock with classical and electronic flourishes remains in evidence on tracks including the intricate opener “Offspring Are Blank.”
Growing up the son of a classical music connoisseur, it’s natural for classical influences to seep into Longstreth’s music. “A lot of the time people think of music history as starting in 1955, but I grew up being in touch with the European art music tradition,” he says.
“A self-conscious synthesis of classical and contemporary sounds like ELO,” he adds using ’70s group Electric Light Orchestra as an emblem of art-rock pomposity, “but I love the colors and vocabulary of that music.”
Longstreth doesn’t shy away from artistic ambition. “There’s a hierarchy between entertainment and art,” he says. “There are musicians who are practitioners of a trade, and that’s a beautiful thing. There’s a deep knowledge and tradition there. But beyond musicians you have artists who conceive of themselves as using the elements of this trade to say certain things about the culture from a privileged remove.”
He says working with Bjork on Mount Wittenberg Orca provided a lesson in how to match artistic ambition with popular music forms. “I learned to trust my instincts entirely,” he states. “As amazingly intelligent and wildly imaginative as her songs are, she’s just fiercely in touch with her instincts, and that’s the biggest thing I took from her.”
- The Dirty Projectors tour Japan this fall including club dates in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka as well as an as-yet-to-be announced festival appearance
- O-East, Oct 9 (listing)