Many of us can link a certain album to pivotal moments in our lives. Whether it’s the first record you bought with your own money, the chord you first learnt to play on guitar, the song that soundtracked your first kiss, the album that got you those awkward and painful pubescent years or the one that set off light bulbs in your brain and inspired you to take a big leap of faith into the unknown – music is often the catalyst for change in our lives and can even help shape who we become.
In this series, Music Feeds asks artists to reflect on their relationship with music and share with us stories about the effect music has had on their lives.
Here are their love letters to records that forever changed their lives.
Bus Vipers’ Daniel Ahern: Dirty Projectors – ‘Bitte Orca’
I often look to the vastness of David Longstreth’s aka Dirty Projectors’ discography to inspire and challenge me. My new EP Federal Highway is in part a pseudo-horror story set in Canberra, and I took cues from Longstreth who has a track-record of organising his albums around a single idea. His 2007 album Rise Above is a recreation of the Black Flag album Damaged where Dave opts for polyrhythmic electric guitar parts, explosive shards of noise, and multi-part harmonies. The Getty Address is a “glitch opera” where Longstreth tells a story of a teenage Don Henley (the lead singer of The Eagles) wandering through a futuristic dreamscape. New Attitude outlines the courtship of two sheep who wish to fall asleep, and Mount Wittenberg Orca is written from the perspective of former bandmate Amber Coffman singing to a pod of whales whose habitat has been destroyed. More recently, this year’s self-titled LP Dirty Projectors documents Longstreth’s stages of grief following his breakup with Amber Coffman, set to a backdrop of bone dry drum machines and Tyondai Braxton’s modular synthesis.
But Longstreth’s work is not just cerebral, it almost always strives to be immediate. This is a hard balance to strike and I have also attempted to do so (with less precision) on my new EP. On Bitte Orca Longstreth simply wished to create an emblem of the live band that had been touring with him since 2006 and had become integral to the Dirty Projectors brand. It blends complex African guitar styles, stand-out vocal structures with RnB and orchestral flourishes and led to Longstreth collaborating with Bjork and David Byrne. He understands that there is something undeniable about a singing voice and that a group of voices singing together is even more compelling.
While Beach Boys are the go-to vocal harmonies reference, Dirty Projectors’ off-kilter harmonies are much less about warm, round tones and more about linearity and angularity. Bitte Orca exudes a kindness and generosity which is embodied by the use of hocketing, where a single vocal/guitar melodic line is broken into different and shared across multiple band members. The analogue to hocketing in the world is conversation – one person says something and the other person reacts to it. In ‘Temecula Sunrise’ that conversation turns to the sprawling sub-divisions of Temecula, an area that transformed from a farmstead town in the 1990s to relative density in the 2000s when its size increased over tenfold. Longstreth contemplates an artistic kid moving into one of those subdivided spaces in fifty years time, once Temecula has become a strange and completely utopian fantasy. In my EP I attempt to highlight the dystopian aspects of an ostensibly benign town, and Longstreth’s surreal embellishments in ‘Useful Chamber’, ‘About to Die’, and ‘I Will Truck’ are good examples of how this can be done tastefully.
As I sat in my Canberra dorm room looking to fill time, I tried to take cues from David and create something of value, despite being young and also restricted with equipment and recording space and I wrote music for an imagined band, “Bus Vipers” that I would form when I left Canberra. From the start of Dirty Projectors in 2003, David wrote music as if for a large band, even though he was writing by himself in a college dorm room. Longstreth is playful with auditory space on his recordings, for instance on Bitte Orca’s ‘Flourescent Half-Dome’ close, dead drums and voices are juxtaposed with chamber instruments and organs that sound utterly massive. Four years earlier, Longstreth tried the same technique in Getty Address where a laptop-recorded reverby choir sits around sparse, electronic drums, as well as on album Dirty Projectors where the shrieking distorted guitar on ‘Up in Hudson’ is contrasted with tight, sampled percussion. While the idea of a ‘Florescent Half Dome’ may refer to the alluring concepts that can lead musicians and artists like myself down a creative rabbit hole – Longstreth is aware that when executing his music live the goalposts shift to creating incredibly physical, visceral and passionate intensity, something that Dirty Projectors undeniably succeed in on stage but I have only witnessed on YouTube (the 2012 Pitchfork Festival performance is awesome, pls tour Australia soon).
The use of anonymous narrators in Bitte Orca and earlier albums does not mean that Longstreth is shy about confronting the present moment, as Swing Lo Magellan demonstrates. While many songwriters seek comfort in a falsely remembered past, post-2012 Longstreth is clear eyed and personal, singing on ‘Impregnable Question’, “We don’t see eye to eye, but I need you, and you’re always on my mind”, only to then sample and flip this line on Dirty Projectors and refer to his relationship of six years as “some stupid shit”. The closest comparison to this directness on Bitte Orca is ‘Two Doves’ where Angel Deradoorian sings the couplet, “your two eyes are like two doves, but our bed is like a failure”. In a similar vein, I try to “play with a straight bat” on Federal Highway, my first single ‘CSIRO Weeds’ clearly referring to the times when I felt like I was living in the worst place in Australia (which to be fair was not all the time).
Longstreth has told the media that he does not set out to make his records concept albums, and is “as surprised as anyone that they turn out to be that way”. His body of work demonstrates that in an age where you can do whatever you want with release structures, there’s nothing more anachronistic about an album than there is about a song, and there is nothing wrong with making music for yourself and to discuss what it means to your audience later, if ever. In an industry where artists are expected to be sausage machines – where the perceived environment is release regularly or perish – I am in constant awe of Longstreth’s fearlessness and skill as a songwriter and bandleader, and find his music to be a constant source of beauty and motivation.
Bus Vipers debut EP ‘Federal Highway’ is out September 8th. He will be playing a headline show at Sydney’s Golden Age Cinema Bar on Saturday, September 16th.