Darwin Deez – interview
Darwin Deez, the North Carolina-born New York indie-alternative-hipster resident interviewed by Henry Baroche for Louder Than War!
Darwin Deez is a musician who seems to be misunderstood, mislabelled more often than not. Being a self-identified hipster, as he is, might leave one open to suggestions that you’re not quite who you say you are. He is adamant, however, that he is not just another “trust fund kid”. He went to college, with support provided by his parents, then dropped out, leaving himself $11,000 in debt. His parents were less supportive of his decision to then pursue music, so his ensuing career has clearly stemmed from a strong-willed desire to do things his own way.
He is most famous for the fiendishly catchy 2010 release ‘Radar Detector’, which compares the love interest of the song to a device that enables the driver to detect any speed-monitoring law enforcers in the area. In the accompanying video, he is pictured in full hipster-mode, a heavy, waxy brown jacket dancing about his slim frame as he and his thick curls move with abandon about the screen. This is the Darwin Deez that I feel most people know, or would casually recognise. When I mention in conversation that I am to be interviewing him, they remark, “Oh yeah, he’s the Radar Detector guy?” They don’t mean he’s the guy that sells you that device that’ll keep your highway conscience clear.
Commenting on the song itself, during our intermittently-interrupted conversation as he drives from North Carolina to begin rehearsals in New York for his upcoming UK and European tour, he feels that “it’s weird having a hit – it fucks with you.” Having achieved interest and acclaim with a side of his music that he refers to throughout as “sugary pop”, he felt the pressure to continually consider “what is following up”, to repeat that golden formula and replicate the same level of success. He equally wished to show his new audience what else he could do – “Ok, you didn’t like that,” he remarks sardonically on reflection of his subsequent musical direction, “Where have you all gone?”
Preparing to step out in support of his fourth album, 10 Songs That Happened When You Left Me With My Stupid Heart, he strikes me as exhibiting an interesting amalgam of attitudes and ideas towards his art and his career. He has been active and successful within the industry for a decade or so, and the experience he has accrued during this time seems to have made him equally cautious and dismissive, equally devoid of naivety or narcissistic tendencies. At the start of our conversation, he is keen to stress that anyone will make up their mind about an individual within seconds of meeting or coming across them. “This interview,” he tells me, “is more about what you want to write. Impressions are almost instantaneous.”
This is a fair point, and one that suggests a reformed bitterness towards an industry that isn’t quite as magical as outsiders might perceive it to be. And as an artist who has self-acknowledged pretensions upon a level of mainstream pop success – “Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, in a way I’m trying to achieve a similar thing to them” – he is highly aware of either side of the coin that he flips with each foray into the musical unknown – is he failing at being mainstream or succeeding at being alternative?
I would personally conjecture that he was achieving success with the latter, as though he may not be a household name, what notoriety he has comes with a strong sense of idiosyncratic, well-crafted, intelligent art. One of his strongest songs, and plain evidence that he can achieve more than just “sugary pop”, is ‘Free (The Editorial Me)’, both in its grunge-tinged, careening sound and articulate lyrics. The Monty Python-esque video is clever and enjoyable, too. Take the second verse:
“I’ll be the first to dance
With every new circumstance
I smile out the scene I see
‘Cause I decide what it means to me
‘Cause I can”
Free (The Editorial Me):
This is a man and an artist who is not afraid to pull the compromises and follow his own artistic vision. He’s not afraid to dance either, as the wonderfully goofy, bright and positive part of his live set attests to, when he and his band will stall the gig, put on one of their favourite tunes, and bust out co-ordinated, cacophonous dances moves, to the delight of the audience. As an attendee states at one of their guerrilla-style gigs for the “House Show Tour” from earlier this year, “[I wouldn’t have imagined] the idea that these three really tall men are going to start totally grooving in the middle of the set.”
The “House Show Tour” itself, which you can see in a 30 minute video on Darwin Deez’s YouTube page, was devised as a way to positively fill the time between the album’s completion and its release date. Stating to his fans on Twitter that he and his band would come to their town, house even and play a show, all for $160, the ensuing series of gigs saw Deez and his band play everywhere from house parties to small town gatherings. A poignant moment of the video, where Darwin and band go from a sell-out show in Chicago to effectively being the opening act for a raffle and playing to four people, demonstrates the sheer unpredictability and fragility that often besets musicians, whether signed or independent. This is a side of the music industry that fans don’t often see, and it is very admirable of Deez to have taken on a move as bold as this, and to lay bare his exploits. His summary of the tour is similarly cavalier.
“It just happened. It was a really fun tour. The positivity was captured on film, as well as our reaction to the tough times. The highs are great, the lows are great. That [attitude] gave us something of an insurance policy.”
House Show Tour video:
How he is looking forward to bringing his touring experience to the UK?
“I like that the drives are short” he comments, “and I like the Indian food you get in the UK, and the curry chips from Chinese restaurants.” In terms of musical delectation, he keeps a close ear out for the likes of Foals, Everything Everything, believing the scene in the UK to be a “cut above”. So long as you don’t make him listen to Paul McCartney.
During the course of our conversation, we touch on one of the most popular and relevant bands of the moment, Bristol’s Idles. Deez actually uses the phrase “joy as an act of resistance” without any prior knowledge of the band nor the title of their current release. In the context of relating his previous experiences of touring Europe, when he and his entourage had to rush to the Belgium border to make their crossing back to America at a time when the continent was beset with terrorists attacks, he comes across as someone who is similarly ebullient and focused on a positive idea of liberalism as Idles’s Joe Talbot.
“I do like joy as an act of resistance,” he says, “I’m afraid of identity politics people. I love the word cunt, but I’m scared to get in trouble. I believe in sensitivity too, and I’m 100% present and will listen to your concerns, but I won’t stop what I’m doing in the face of your sensitivity. I have [in the past], but I didn’t like it. I have the word cunt in a song that was going to be on this record. It was a song for a friend of mine; she loves the word. But I felt it wasn’t worth offending. I’m not afraid of Nazis, but identitarians will ruin your career.”
Though the idea that he can both not be stopped from what he is doing and concede to the prudes in omitting profanity is a confusing notion, his commitment to authenticity and personal progression is palpable in his output. He enjoys Talbot’s lyric that I relate from Idles’s song ‘I’m Scum’: “This snowflake’s an avalanche.” “That’s really great,” he enthuses, “No snowflake, only an avalanche!”
It seems that he and his career are waiting for that avalanche, a deluge that will help him to break out in a bigger sense. He refers to himself as “an exploratory artist”, one capable of both “sugary and intelligent” and ultimately committed to climbing ever higher, rather than finding a pleasant spot and clinging on. Citing Malcom Gladwell, the Canadian journalist, author and staff writer at The New Yorker, he comments on how there is “no appreciation for the late bloomer.” “Genius is associated with the lightning strike,’ he opines, “but my experience has been experimentation since the age of 11. I find it extremely boring knowing exactly what to put down. I’m in it for the joy. It’s a lifelong thing. I haven’t succeeded yet, all the success I’ve had is just money to buy oil paints with. The only thing that satisfies you is total reflection from the zeitgeist, though that may never arrive.”
Interestingly, his greatest influence, or at least the person of whom he is in greatest admiration, is not a musician. She is the American wellness and self-enquiry author and speaker Byron Katie, whose depression and anger-alleviating practises are referred to simply as ‘The Work’. Our conversation does cover a series of musicians and bands he admires – Able Luna, Deerhoof, Alanis Morrissette, Grizzly Bear, St. Vincent – though none are given the same reverence as Katie.
Deez seems comfortable to exist within the music industry, as it is his passion for music that links him to it, but to ultimately remain distinct from and undefined by it. He is someone who is clearly very driven, whilst being stoic with regards to what he needs to do to overcome to achieve his goals, and whether they will ever come to fruition. A fame-addled, plastic Justin Bieber he is not.
10 Songs is an accomplished output, evidence of an artist who is comfortable both sticking to his own exploratory credentials and supplying his listener with what he feels they want and expect. In that sense, he is perhaps similar to the man I confused him with when taking on this interview; Dweezil Zappa is similarly balanced between playing the songs his audience crave and expect, the songs of his father, and doing something new that is entirely his own.
From 10 Songs, ‘The World’s Best Kisser’ and ‘Say It First’ feel in equal measure exploratory and conciliatory, featuring gloriously rich vocoding in the former and the eloquent assonance of “act like you’re actually attracted to me” in the latter. ‘Queen of Spades’ and ‘Getaway’ are driven and full of life. The overall sense is very much of that word – ‘life’. The songs have a certain intensity and urgency that encourage you to think beyond the pulse of your speakers. If Darwin Deez is an exploratory artist, then this is another confident hacking through the jungle of hipsterdom on his quest for musical Zen.
The World’s Best Kisser video:
Darwin Deez’s UK and European Tour begins in Holland, taking in France and Germany, before beginning in Gloucester for Underground Festival on 28th September, finishing at 02 Institute3 in Birmingham on 11th October. His new album, 10 Songs That Happened When You Left Me With My Stupid Heart, is out now on Lucky Records.
Henry Baroche writes for Louder Than war and his this is his author page.