The Baltimore noise legend explains how self-care helped him finish his long-in-the-making fifth album.
This article appears in AdHoc 30. To subscribe to our quarterly zine—and receive other AdHoc-related goodies—become a member.
There were many moments when Dan Deacon was writing and recording his latest album, Mystic Familiar, when the Baltimore electronic wizard nearly walked away from it entirely. Deacon was in a bad place, neglecting his mental health and spreading himself between various music projects, from scoring films, to collaborating with a symphony orchestra, to producing and co-writing 2018’s Riddles, by Ed Schrader’s Music Beat. Deacon would work on Mystic Familiar in fits and starts, and before he knew it, nearly five years had elapsed since his previous release, the celebrated Gliss Riffer. It was only when Deacon began to focus on himself—as a person, not just an artist—that things started to snap into place.
That pivot to self-care is reflected on his fifth studio album. In typical Deaconian fashion, it’s bursting with energy and technicolor sonic landscapes. Deacon has always made music that sounds like it’s physically trying to burst out from within a box, playing with tension and release and blasts of noise in ways that become only more nuanced with repeat listens. But what sets Mystic Familiar apart from its predecessors is its vulnerability and intimacy. Opener “Become a Mountain,” for example, features Deacon’s unaltered singing voice—a first for the artist—and he’s even singing in the first person: Tired in my flesh / Getting old now,” he sings, in a moment of striking openness. “I forget I’m still hungry / For the future / On this day before me / Will I seize it or scroll?
In conversation with AdHoc, Deacon admitted that he tends to procrastinate when it comes to writing lyrics. It wasn’t until he released “When I Was Done Dying” on Gliss Riffer that he began to put more stock in the messages he was embedding in his blaring, hyper-active compositions. On Mystic Familiar, Deacon has something to say, and as he tells it, it’s a minor miracle that he was able to distill his thoughts and put them on a record.
AdHoc: Mystic Familiar is the first Dan Deacon solo album you’ve released in five years. Why was now the right time for this record to come out?
Dan Deacon: It’s not that now was the best time—more that now was the earliest time I could’ve done it. I delayed the record several times because I didn’t feel like it was finished. We had a whole tour booked last year that I had to put on hold. There was so much doubt in the process: “What am I doing? I can’t even finish this.” But I’m really glad that I did.
It was hard to find time to work on it. I’m sure for journalists and people who write literature, it’s the same thing, where your hobby is also your job. That can be hard to grapple with mentally. So when I did have a break to write music, I had to remind myself that this is my favorite thing to do. I think about athletes a lot at this point in my life—[about] the rigorous practice schedule athletes have to keep up to be able to do it at all. If I didn’t have to practice hearing every day, I would probably lose it.
There was an interview I saw with a famous sportsman who was like, “Sometimes after a game, I’ll go for a run to clear my head.” And I’m like, “WHAT? You’ve been running for hours! How the fuck could you possibly go running after hours of rigorous running?” And I was like, “I know why. It’s because he has a separation between his craft and his hobby.” It made me think about things differently
Mystic Familiar feels like a more personal album than previous releases; more of the lyrical content seems to be coming from Dan Deacon, the individual.
I was listening a lot to Roedelius’ Selbstportraits and Wenn Der Südwind Weht while making this record. I was really into the idea that they were self-portraits, [though] I wasn’t really thinking of [the] record that way until I started writing the lyrics, which always is the last phase for me. Similar to what I was saying about athletes, I don’t practice singing every day; I only practice singing when I absolutely have to. Since I hadn’t been touring for a while, I hadn’t been singing, which affected writing lyrics. So getting those muscles back took a long time.
I never used to think about lyrics that much until “When I Was Done Dying” came out, and people started writing these really personal and at times profound letters about how that song resonated with them, or helped them process loss, or helped them not take their own life. My previous songs were about bees and stuff like that, but I came to a fuller understanding with this album that lyrics are vitally important. It’s pop music. In instrumental writing, I can get detailed and esoteric and put in little things only I’ll know about. I love that about writing computer music, and synths, and dense maximalist arrangements. But the lyrics need to be audible—they need to be understood.
I was writing for a while in a negative headspace. I couldn’t write around it and hope that it went away—that’s like standing in the rain and hoping that it will stop without dressing appropriately for the weather. I was treating my emotions the same way, and I was treating the reflection of those emotions in my work the same way. It wasn’t until I started externalizing the positivity I was trying to put forth… When I was saying it in my voice, it felt false, because I felt like shit. But imagining a friend there, or me listening to myself as a different person, made it much easier to express compassion, or to have non-judgmental thoughts. That’s where the theme of the [Mystical Familiar] came about—writing in this other voice, or other character, which is something I’d never really done.
Maybe it was because I was focusing on self-care. This period of my life had me trying to understand that I’m not only in a body, but also in a mind—and these things need maintenance and upkeep. I remember the first time I heard the phrase “self-compassion.” Someone was like, “What are some self-compassionate things you can say?” And I was like, “I have no idea.” It was like, I don’t know what self-compassion is, so let’s move on because this can’t happen. The same thing happened with meditating. As a concept, it was impossible for me. But as soon as I understood that it was okay to be bad at it, that made it easier to do. I was reading David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish in combination with that app Headspace, and I was like, “Okay, it’s okay to suck at this.”
I started thinking about it like music: Ten years ago, I didn’t know Ableton Live at all. I didn’t know how to input notes, make tracks, or add effects, but I didn’t punish myself for that. I knew that I was learning it. Now, I use it every single day, on every single project. There are a lot of things that enter into my life like that. But for some reason, the things that revolved around my well-being—like knowing how to properly exercise, or how to meditate, or how to practice self-compassion—I wasn’t allowed to be bad at.
So I accepted that I could suck at meditating, but if I practiced it incrementally every day, I’d slowly be a little bit better than sucking at it, and eventually, it would become second nature. That process was happening while writing the record and the lyrics. If you’re standing in a big puddle of green, and you want to get in a puddle of yellow, and you’re moving very slowly, it looks like you’re not changing at all; but once you have some distance, you can look back and see the changes. That happened during the making of this record. Things I had been stalling on for months or years just became like, “Let’s do it.”
I was stubborn on this record with wanting to produce it and mix it myself. I did the same with Gliss Riffer, and I’ll never do it again. No one has ever been like, “Oh! He did it all himself!” No one cares. I just wanted to produce for more bands and artists, and I kept thinking, why would anyone hire me to produce if they couldn’t hear what I’d produced on my own? For my mental health—and if I want to get a record out within a reasonable amount of time—collaboration is beautiful. I missed it and longed for it on this project.
I think that’s also why it felt like a very personal record. I was isolating myself. I would think about a band and be like, “You just show up and write the bass part, and that’s all you have to do? That’s fucking crazy!” If I could just roll up and write the bass part, and someone else was like, “Oh yeah? I’ve got lyrics,” and someone else was like, “Oh yeah? I’ve got some drum parts,” it would be incredible. But I don’t know if I have the capacity to collaborate that way. That’s why film scoring works for me—because it’s a collaboration with another artist, but not with another musician.
It sounds like changes in your mental state impacted your creativity. How do you think being creative helped impact your mental state?
I keep going back to the concept that music was my hobby—and then it became the foundation of my education, and then it became my career. I always thought that was the goal: for your art to be your job and to make a living doing it. I saw Ian Mackaye speak [about ten years ago], and one of the first things [he] said was that [he] made sure that the music of Minor Threat and Fugazi never was their job—that to add economic consequence to our artistic choices is something he never wanted to worry about. He never wanted his mortgage to not be paid because a song wasn’t right. It was this shattering moment, and one that I’m really glad that I had.
I’m the most passionate about writing music, so I can’t let it get clouded in capitalism. Of course, I like living inside and eating food and I like the comforts that my job brings. But it can’t just be that. When I don’t write recreationally, I’m miserable, so it’s something that I have to be mindful of whenever I haven’t written music in a couple of days. It’s something that helps to take me out of my thoughts, [though it can be] hard sometimes to do it, because every time I do something recreationally, my brain wants to steer it outside of being a hobby. It can just be me noodling on a synth, and then all of a sudden, I’m like, “Let’s get 25 trombone players on a mountain and a cello section.” It’s like cooking a simple meal, but as soon as the vegetables hit the pan, you’re like, “I’m going to open a chain of restaurants.”
So that’s what I’m focusing on right now: Writing things just for me. Writing things without recording it. Writing more music away from the computer. It’s weird because my computer is my workstation, but it’s also my number-one time-waster—maybe number-two, because that’s my phone. I think about what Beethoven’s life would’ve been like if he was sitting down to compose, and then popping out of the keyboard were these scrolls that were like, “Would ye like to get lunch?”
I just think hobbies are important. As I get older, I see more friends lose their hobbies, especially friends in the arts. They’ll be like, “Oh, I’ve taken up painting as a hobby.” And I’m like, “What about writing music? You used to enjoy that.” But all of this gets enveloped in capitalist consequence.
You hail from a generation of artists that has relied heavily on the Internet to connect with fans. The internet has also shaped the ways musicians package and distribute their art. Why did you release Mystic Familiar as an album, as opposed to a series of EPs or singles?
I’m a very album-focused listener. When I see a new release on Spotify and I see it’s a single, I get kinda bummed because I want to dive into a whole catalog. One of my favorite things about music [right now] is that I can listen to music all the time and anywhere. I’ve got a wireless speaker in my house, and I can listen to music when I’m cooking or when I’m cleaning. I like the idea of furniture music, where it’s there to make the room more comfortable. I also like to listen to durational music, where a piece is 20 minutes to three hours long, and I’m walking in and out of a room, and it’s still playing. A painting is perpetually hanging on the wall. It’s always beautiful on the wall, but I only get to appreciate it when I’m in the room. I listen to music in a similar way.
I think of an album as a collection of pieces that make up a larger whole. I wanted the record to flow that way. A band has a set timbral palette, and what makes them different song-to-song is the melodies and lyrics. I like to change the texture, song-to-song, and [so the cohesion comes through in] similarities in the songwriting or the form.
Maybe I’m writing in an antiquated format. I remember learning in school that Stravinsky started composing in 20-minute movements because that’s what would fit on the side of a record at the time. He’d keep buying classics, and things would cut off: One side would only have a few minutes, or there would be four-and-a-half sides. It destroyed the music: It would be as if you went to see an orchestra, and everyone stopped to turn the page at the same time. Stravinsky was the first to start writing with the medium in mind. I found that to be inspirational and wanted to think about the medium quite a bit.
For me, the way I interact with Spotify is I embrace the algorithm. I try not to think of any musical technology as insidious. Music has always been formed by the technology around it. At one point, trombones were cutting-edge technology. It’s the same thing with the organ and the piano—and in the 20th century, with electronic instruments and recording. Now we’re in this age where not only streaming, but [also] algorithmic learning and neural networks—all of it’s going to change music. That’s the whole point of music: It has to constantly change. If it didn’t, it would die out.