The Way Forward: Dan Deacon

Dan Deacon talks slowly finding peace in quarantine.

Being in or near water brings my mind to peace faster than anything else. Perhaps it’s because most of the places I go to be near water are also mostly desolate, and I can be alone. Still, I think the bodies of water themselves have a calming and centering quality. Going swimming, tubing, or hiking near water is something I’ve tried to do as often as possible while at home during COVID. Rivers and the ocean are my top jams. Their constant motion is a gentle reminder that nothing stays the same; everything is in motion, even if that motion is outside the limitations of my senses. I also try to go hiking around a reservoir just outside the city as often as I can find the time. One of my favorite parts about living in Baltimore is how quickly you can be in thick forests or tree-lined rivers. There is nothing as psychedelic as nature.

I think getting out into nature helped me break out of my pandemic depression. I was on tour for Mystic Familiar when everything came to a grinding halt. On March 13, while in LA, months of shows were canceled, and without delay we drove for five days straight to Baltimore during that early nerve-wracking period of total unknown fear that was just starting to grip the world. Once home, I fell into a depression for weeks. I lost all motivation to do anything besides binging nonsense like Tiger King, re-playing my childhood’s Doom 2, plodding around Hyrule in Breath of the Wild, and scrolling aimlessly on my phone. Hiking, and more generally being outdoors, really helped re-open my mind and remind me that time was passing despite the world feeling frozen in COVID.  

It was also around this time I started re-reading The Creative Habit by dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp. Her book really got me motivated to get myself back in a positive mental headspace. I started thinking about my studio practice in the same way an athlete has to think about their regimen. An athlete must go to the gym and practice their sport consistently, no matter their mood, the weather, whatever. I need to do the same thing. I began going into my studio every day no matter what, with the critical detail of not requiring results or a goal. I was going into the studio and composing or playing an instrument just to do it. I was not trying to write a song or score a scene. I was in there to keep the muscle memory of my mind sharp and bring it back to where it was before. Removing all the pressure, other than showing up, made it much easier to re-open my brain’s creative processes. 

This daily studio habit led to my revisiting the music I composed for Rebecca Stern’s HBO documentary Well Groomed. I was able to get back into the sessions because I was in a headspace where I could expand on the pieces that might only be in the film for 30 seconds and mix them for a soundtrack release. Fleshing them out and exploring them was really fun. 

Other than working on projects, exploring new things in music, and trying to go swimming, I spend my time playing chess online with friends, reading a few pages before my attention wanders off on me, meditating, and trying to keep some sort of schedule or routine. But the quest for a set schedule is my white whale, and it will be the end of me before I ever even come close to conquering it. 

I miss touring and performing a lot. It is a considerable part of my life, and being a touring musician is a significant part of my identity. I’m not sure when venues will re-open or how many of them will survive the horrible economy that feels like a deliberate mishandling so that wealth can be further consolidated. However, I know that music is older than history itself. Music, along with the human desire to gather together for the experience of music being created before them, has survived every pandemic, plague, and collapse. It is easy to get lost in the abyss of anxiety and fear of the pandemic, the coming economic fallout, and climate change. On the other side of that coin is the harder-to-dive-in-to but equally vast abyss of hope and motivation for positive change. In the same way that being in nature or being near water brings me comfort, knowing music/performance/gathering has outlasted all of time’s most significant challenges puts my mind in a place not only of peace but in a mentality for change.

I feel fortunate to have several films to score right now, collaborators I can work with remotely, and projects to work on. But I think the time most well-spent in my studio is the time I allot without any objective beyond just exploring. Just open time to wander and weed the weedy garden of my musical thoughts. Maybe some of these plants in my garden will grow into ideas worth sharing, but I try to not lose sight of the fact that I am gardening, not farming.

(Photo Credit: Phil Kilne)

Dan Deacon’s newest score, for the HBO dog-grooming documentary Well Groomed, follows the release of his fifth studio album Mystic Familiar and is the latest addition to his collaborative repertoire which includes soundtracks for films Rat Film, Time Trial, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Twixt, as well as works with the NYCBallet, LAPhil, and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Well Groomed immerses the viewer in the colorful and surreal subculture of competitive creative dog grooming, a world where prizes are awarded transforming dogs into flamboyant living art objects. The lighter tone and largely upbeat subject matter of the documentary offered Deacon an opportunity to compose with more playful tones and organic instrumentation not usually found in his work such as vibraphone, guitar, and piano. From Vangelis-inspired soundscape to Krautrock-influenced anthems, the Well Groomed soundtrack channels the ecstatic energy of Deacon’s legendary live shows more than any of his film work to date.

(Photo Credit: Phil Kilne)