Dirty Projectors: A Polarizing Sound At The Fringes Of Pop

Jul 14, 2012
Originally published on July 14, 2012 4:21 pm

Opinions about Dirty Projectors couldn't be more divided. At a recent NPR Music listening party, audience members gave the band's new album, Swing Lo Magellan, both very high marks and very low marks. It was a genuine split decision.

Intrigued, weekends on All Things Considered spoke with Dirty Projectors bandleader Dave Longstreth to figure out why. One thing became clear pretty quickly: Longstreth and Dirty Projectors take a lot of risks.

"One of the ideas with Dirty Projectors is just to look a little bit more widely and see if there's a through-line between, you know, the music of Hildegard [von Bingen] and the music of The Beach Boys," Longstreth tells NPR's Guy Raz.

Longstreth says he became familiar with von Bingen's 12th-century choral scores while studying music at Yale University.

"I guess you could say I was classically trained," he says. "I studied music at Yale, but I actually didn't really enjoy my time at Yale a whole lot, and I left for a while."

Longstreth left to go on tour and immerse himself in Brooklyn's experimental music scene. Eventually, he'd move to Portland, Ore.

He says his music comes from a hundred different places. If it's not the churches of medieval England or California's sunny beaches, then it's the mixing consoles of London in the 1960s.

"I love the kind of unsupervised stereo mixes of Beatles albums and things like that that were made in the '60s," he says. "It's this wonderful feeling of, like, simultaneous double mono, you know what I mean? It's a really, really primitive idea of stereo, but I love it."

Longstreth says the essence of Dirty Projectors isn't the odd musical juxtapositions, but rather a commitment to the process of songwriting.

"I think the hardest thing is to do a simple thing when it comes to songwriting — to say something that feels true or is true to you in the simplest language that you can," he says. "A lot of earlier Dirty Projectors records expended a great deal of energy doing the opposite of that. This album is more about the songs."

In the full version of this segment, NPR Music's Bob Boilen weighs in on what makes Dirty Projectors' music so difficult — and how understanding the band's influences can make it more accessible. Click the audio link on this page to hear more.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.


RAZ: This is a band called Dirty Projectors. It's a track from their new album, "Swing Lo Magellan." Now, the band's been considered one of the most innovative acts in indie rock in the past few years, known for its soaring choral and orchestral arrangements. But try to explain the sound of Dirty Projectors, and it gets a little complicated. So I asked the band's founder, Dave Longstreth.

It's really hard to describe your sound, so let me see if you can sort of put your finger on it. How...

DAVE LONGSTRETH: Oh, don't make me do it.


DIRTY PROJECTORS: (Singing) Where would I ever be without you? How could I hope to seize the tablet of values and redact it...

LONGSTRETH: One of the ideas with Dirty Projectors is just to look a little bit more widely, and see if there's a through-line between, you know, the music of Hildegard...


LONGSTRETH: ...and the music of the Beach Boys.


RAZ: From a 12th century choral composer, to the sweet harmonies of the 1960s - we'll examine that through-line in a moment. But first, let's look at where the band came from. Dirty Projectors started as a dorm room experiment of Dave Longstreth while he was a freshman at Yale.

LONGSTRETH: I guess you could say I was classically trained because I studied music at Yale. But I actually didn't really enjoy my time at Yale a whole lot, and I left for a while.

RAZ: He left to go on tour, and to immerse himself in the experimental music scene in Brooklyn. And eventually, he'd move to Portland, Oregon, to focus on honing the Dirty Projectors' sound. And it all came together with the 2009 album "Bitte Orca."


RAZ: That album landed on critics' best-of lists that year, and the Billboard charts. Dirty Projectors have just released their follow-up album, "Swing Lo Magellan," and NPR Music's Bob Boilen calls it one of his favorite albums of the year so far.


PROJECTORS: (Singing) There is an answer. I haven't found it. But I will keep dancing till I do, ooh, ooh, ooh, oh.

RAZ: Now, here's the thing. Dirty Projectors is not easy listening. It takes concentration. The band asks a lot of its listeners. So I asked Bob to help us unpack this album a bit - a topic he wrote about on his blog this past week.

BOB BOILEN, BYLINE: If, in music, what you want is a challenge, this is a brilliant record. It's like, when I listen to the early Talking Heads records, and people listen to another David - David Byrne - singing, they said: This guy's weird; it's off-kilter; it - you know - it barely makes sense. And yet, it became enormously popular. But it didn't become enormously popular until you put a dance groove to it. And I think with Dirty Projectors, their rhythms change every 15 seconds. It's like watching a movie cut. You know, that's difficult for people.


PROJECTORS: (Singing) Mornings I wake up hung over...

BOILEN: I think of music as head music, heart music, hip music and feet music - music that's thoughtful, music that is of the heart, music that makes you sexual if you're going around the hip area, music that makes you dance if you go in the feet area. This music is all up in the head, and a little bit of heart.


PROJECTORS: (Singing) Lonely unforgotten in the frozen world...

RAZ: Talk to me about the song "Offspring Are Blank," the first track on the record.

BOILEN: What a weird, weird song. And it's really indicative of the sort of music they do, which is that there's about three or four or five different songs within the song. And if you just - if you start it, it starts like a doo-wop song.


RAZ: It's weird.

BOILEN: It's weird, but it also sounds...

RAZ: You have to hear it. You have to listen to it, right? You're forced to listen to it.

BOILEN: Yeah. Absolutely.


BOILEN: But right there - I feel like, all of a sudden, there's where the heart is in this music, I think.


RAZ: You turned on this song for the first time, and you immediately thought, this is doo-wop. That's what you thought?

BOILEN: I heard the spirit of doo-wop.


UNIDENTIFIED BAND: (Singing) I am yours, my love...

BOILEN: Doo-wop swings more than Dirty Projectors swing, and I wish Dirty Projectors would swing a little more. Again, head and heart in Dirty Projectors, a little less hip and feet. I'm just saying, when I listen to it, that's what I felt.


BOILEN: There's nothing more direct than when beautiful singers sing. And I think that's the part of Dirty Projectors' music, that anyone who may find this music difficult - because it is; it shifts, it turns, it makes right-hand turns - but the voice is the thread that can hold it together.

RAZ: That's NPR Music's Bob Boilen, talking about "Swing Lo Magellan," the new album from the Dirty Projectors. You can hear a few tracks at our website, nprmusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.