Darwin Deez Interview
As we walk into Darwin Deez’s dressing room before his headline show at the Rainbow Courtyard, Darwin is celebrating a retro-video game victory by extravagantly dancing and freestyle rapping over the 8-bit game music. This would not come as a surprise to anyone that had seen any of Darwin’s dance-routine filled gigs before or his quirky music videos. However, as soon as we sit down to begin the interview, the dancing/rapping Darwin is replaced by a massively contrasting, serious character. Don’t be fooled by the jangly pop vibes and whimsical persona: Darwin Deez is serious about music. We discussed his fascination with sound engineering, his linguistic approach to writing as well as the plight of the self-indulgent guitar solo.
You spent two and a half years recording Double Down, were you itching to get on the road and play the songs?
Darwin Deez: I was ready to get out and play, and just do something else. I don’t have much self-control, it goes along with the sort of child creator/artist thing. So I don’t set up very good routines or habits for myself. Like I don’t go see my friends, I don’t do many super wholesome activities (apart from walking 2 hours every day), so it’s nice to have a structure imposed on my life.
What is the motivation behind your DIY approach, it must have been tempting – following your success – to go big on the third album with a plush studio and all the trimmings?
I think that was sort of the temptation on the second album, but after the second record – which didn’t sell as much as the first one – it was kind of like ‘okay let’s pull it back together’. Like on Songs for Imaginative People (2nd album) I moved and rented this whole house, and in theory was going to record drums in it. But in practice, it’s far too much work to record good drums. Like guitar is easy, just stick a mic in front of it. To record vocals, just stick a mic in front of it. To record drums, you need a serious room, you need to treat the room, you need to have a real drummer (I’m not a great drummer), you need really good drums that are in shape, you need a lot of mics and a way to use them all at once (which I don’t have). I mean I spent one day in a real studio for this album, but apart from that it was just a self-project.
Did you notice a difference in the quality?
To be honest I was really curious to see how much better it would sound. It takes a really long time to be able to compare different microphones and have a shootout between which sounds better. There are just so many variables: The pre-amp, the lead, and various things in your signal chain. But I mean the vocal mic that I used to record most of the album cost me $600 and the one I used in the studio for ‘Lover’ and ‘The Other Side’ cost me $10,000 and it’s crazy cause it’s not that big of a difference. I guess I’m just a real hobbyist with this technical, engineering side – so having these two samples from different recording settings was really interesting.
Was there a general lyrical theme for the album?
Well, I fell out with a friend over the last year, which was really hard for me to deal with. Cause he was not the kind of person who you could just sit down with and talk about how you just had a falling out. He was more like ‘no it’s fine, I’m not mad at you’ and then not return your calls. Like my dad is a therapist, so he works with people talking to them all day. So whenever we had family issues, we’d sit down and like talk it out. And a lot of other people don’t get that same experience. So I guess that experience kind of came out a lot in ‘Time Machine’ and ‘Bag of Tricks’.
You use a lot of analogies, and put situations in the context of something else (eg astronomy, building a hotel).
Yeah, well it’s only on a certain level of specificity that you get nouns that are rich enough to really stimulate the imagination. You also need action verbs, but those are a lot more general – you don’t necessarily need complicated verbs like ‘divination’ or something to stimulate people. My antennae are always up for nouns that are just the right amount of specific, and weirdly specific but yet familiar, so that they would fit into a song. Say when you first start writing songs and you go about writing things like ‘If only I could say what I really wanna say to you’… ‘there’s something about the way you are’. And it feels like you’re being very poetic as a writer cause you’re not just saying ‘you’re really fit’, but actually it’s not poetic to anyone else because it’s very vague.
You seem quite mathematically linguistic when it comes to writing your lyrics, you have a lot of tongue twisters, alliteration and odd rhymes.
I think it’s mainly efficiency, in terms of like you don’t have a lot of space to put words into a song. You have like 18 lines in a song, and of them, loads of those are repeated as a chorus, so you don’t really have a lot to get a picture a lot, so you have to do a lot with a little. So it’s a fun challenge.
Have you never been tempted to write a 25 minute ballad where you can just say everything?
Well, I mean the closest I’ve come to that is Chelsea’s Hotel where I was just like ‘I’m not gonna worry about creating any repetition from verse to verse, I’m just going to free-form it’ which gave me like 16 lines to work with. But I don’t think I could go that much wilder than that in a song form.
Who would be in your dream band, dead or alive?
I dunno, for me it’s more about personalities. Rick James, John Lennon, Paul Mccartney, maybe the drummer from Toto, the guitar player from Toto. Tim (Darwin’s drummer) on like auxiliary percussion [*Tim expresses a distinct lack of interest in the position*]. Just because he wouldn’t want to do it, but he would be in it, against his own wishes. He’d be like ‘I’m not having a good time’ and I’d be like ‘that’s good’.
The guitar solo was something that crept into your live shows when touring the second album, and has come into the recordings a lot more. Is that just because your musical preference has warmed to it or just because you couldn’t do it before?
I just got this bug at some point after the first record where I was just like ‘I MUST be able to shred!’ I wanted it so badly, so urgently. And I had all day, every day to work on it. The only thing I had to do, apart from that, was write the second record. There was this really amazing high point, where I left New York, living in this house – and all I have to do is write this second record. I saw some John Mayer videos and was like ‘I have to be able to do that’, so just went straight in for it. Turns out EVERY F***ING thing is in 1st or 5th position pentatonic, it’s crazy. Guitar players get so much mileage out of that scale.
Why do you think the self-indulgent guitar solo has kind of faded from music recently?
It’s not really part of indie so much. I don’t think people really like it that much, I think you have to be a guitar player to really like it. Like, I hated blues for so long, because it’s the exact same chords every song – there’s a major blues and a minor blues – and it’s so monotonous I hated it. And I never enjoyed long solos, but once you start to fully explore an instrument then you can get in to other people playing that instrument. But yeah I don’t think music really needs it, it’s just for the players.