Steven Drozd (the Flaming Lips, Electric Würms) Talks Dirty Beaches’ Stateless

Dirty Beaches’ literally timeless music makes Mr. Drozd want to be under the influence of some things he used to love to be under the influence of.

On the occasion of the November 4th release of Deerhoof’s really excellent new album La Isla Bonita (which you can buy here), we invited the band’s drummer Greg Saunier to be guest editor of Talkhouse Music this week. Greg enlisted some Deerhoof fans to write about new albums for the Talkhouse and expertly edited the pieces too. It’s all great stuff. Thanks, Greg!
— the editors of Talkhouse Music

I sat down at my desktop and speakers to quickly listen to/scan the new Dirty Beaches record, thinking I could get the gist of it without having to get too involved, at least not right at that moment. I confess that I do that a lot. Don’t you? Expecting to be blown away in 15 seconds at the beginning of a song that you have no history with. I guess I’m still looking for that fix I got from “Got to Choose” by Kiss, or “The Song Remains the Same” by Zep or “Smothered in Hugs” by GbV or “Flim” by Aphex Twin or “Running Thoughts” by Deerhoof or “Round and Round” by Ariel Pink — the list goes on… That instant punch in the face, when you know that the sounds you are hearing right at that moment are changing your musical life forever.

But back to life now: I’ve been sort of a fan of Dirty Beaches since a few years ago, when I was going through one of my periods of being interested in new music again. This happens every so often. You can imagine what I’m talking about and I’m not proud to admit it. I’ll settle into a “There’s nothing new worth hearing anymore” phase that I’m comfortable with, but then I’ll hear something that jolts and jazzes me enough to realize that there are new and great things happening right now — and then, there must be other things happening as well. So, anyway, I was in one of those excited, searching phases when I heard a few new(ish) artists all at around the same time. (Thanks, Sirius XMU!) And that renewed my hope that I am still curious about new music, even though I’m getting older, in years, faster than I can really fathom.

From that early encounter with Dirty Beaches, I got an impression of someone loving Alan Vega/Suicide, ’50s rock & roll deep cuts, surf music, early-’90s neo-garage psych lo-fi and many other sorts of hipster touchstones. This is just my impression, I could be totally off the mark. The name Dirty Beaches really brought the whole package together for me. But to be honest, even though I dug it, I wanted it to be just a little more in its own world. Well, this new record is exactly that: its own world. In a radical departure from older Dirty Beaches, Alex Zhang Hungtai recorded Stateless with Italian composer Vittorio Demarin and David Lynch collaborator Dean Hurley. We don’t hear any singing, and there are no lyrics to help push us to any particular understanding of a message. It’s a moving, flowing, oscillating sound-world that seems to express that something has gone wrong and will continue to go wrong. And I wish I had more time in my day to listen to it non-stop, over and over again. I usually listen to new music nowadays, or any music, for that matter, when I’m driving. I have to say, listening to Stateless while driving around town, running errands, did not work for me. I was interrupted too many times. This record is to be most appreciated either sitting at home staring at the wall or on a road trip, where one can get into autopilot mode and just trip on the music — and even better if you’re not the one having to pay attention to the driving. And, at the risk of sounding clichéd, I wish I could hear this music while under the influence of some things I used to love to be under the influence of…

There are four songs on this album. The first, “Displaced,” reminds me a little bit of something off the second side of David Bowie’s Low. I make this comparison cautiously because I don’t want to put it in too much of a context, especially not an incorrect one. Besides, Low might be the last thing Dirty Beaches was thinking of. But, as unsettling as that first track is, it does have rhythm and a sense of change here and there. The second song, “Stateless” (my favorite), is 11:22 long. There is no obvious rhythm, no chord changes, just a very subtle repeating melody in C minor (one whole step from the saddest of all keys), that only reveals its different layers of sound as it’s coming to the end and things drop out ever so subtly. I can’t stop listening to it. I can’t discern what begins, changes and ends — it’s just a feeling for 11-plus minutes. I won’t begin to compare it to anything. It’s just beautiful.

“Pacific Ocean” feels less gloomy than the previous track and seems to float in an emotionless void. This, to me, is music that is difficult to create. To have that absence of familiar feeling but to express something very heavy at the same time. Maybe that doesn’t make sense and you’ll have to hear it for yourself. By the last track I feel like my attention span and my perception of what is acceptable for a “song” have been stretched out pretty far, but then “Time Washes Away Everything” takes the void to the extreme. If I had to relate it in some way, I’d think of Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, but this is just me trying again to find a way to connect it to something I’m familiar with. There is a minor key feeling about it, but there is no sense of rhythm or melody and it just falls apart — E V E R… S O… S L O W L Y. I did an experiment where I lay on the floor listening to the song and doing nothing else. At the end I really had no idea how much time had passed. For me, that’s a pretty awesome sensation and hard to come by, that disconnect from time. This music is not for everyone — what a silly thing to say — but it absolutely took hold of me.

I do realize that people are listening to long-players less and less. That’s just the way it is. And for an artist to release a long piece of music is more and more an exercise in futility, and a potentially pretentious statement. But sometimes we should just take a thing for what it is: someone just being themselves, doing what they want to do, to express and not care about anything but getting that feeling out. That’s my impression listening to Stateless and I’m thankful for it.

I want to meet this person who is Dirty Beaches. I want to make music with him somehow. Whether it’s playing a keyboard part or stacking vocal harmonies to send to them to mutate for their next experiment, or sending a shitty iPhone recording of my Indian Droner through a tape delay for them to sample, I’m into it. But I probably should just listen and love it from afar so as not to destroy the magic and mystery. I can’t wait to hear what happens next.

Steven Drozd is a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist for the Flaming Lips since 1991. He is also a vocalist and guitarist for the Electric Würms, a Lips offshoot. His children’s psychedelic pop record with Steve Burns, Stevensteven, will be released early 2015. Drozd started playing drums in his father’s polka band at age 10 and was playing piano in a honky-tonk band at age 18. He loves all music from the ’70s. He was born June 11, 1969, the same day that David Bowie’s Space Oddity was released. Just sayin’. You can find Steven on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and Flaming Lips’ website is here.