Masterminded by David Longstreth, but backed by a group of truly talented musicians, including bass player Nat Baldwin, the Dirty Projectors new album, Swing Lo Magellan, shows a grownup, toned-down version of their gritty, meticulous melodies.
Written in a cabin tucked deep in New York’s dreamy Catskill Mountains, the album’s melodic undertones bring a sense of order to the band’s previously chaotic musicality. While Longstreth may be abandoning his typically inscrutable lyrics and tone, the Dirty Projector’s latest is still an explorative journey that carries the band’s signature sound.
Their new creative vision shows a mature progression from their previous work, with natural, accessible rhythms backing Longstreth’s notoriously bizarre vocals. Whether it was the harmony of location, or that he finally saw the value in locking down a group of talented musicians to call a band, Swing Lo Magellan seems to have a level of cohesiveness not previously valued by the Dirty Projectors. Their first album with a repeated lineup (the same musicians were involved for Bitte Orca), the group once known for their constantly shifting parade of players, seems to be getting some roots. As the band’s bass player, Nat Baldwin is a Dirty Projectors institution. We sat down with him to discuss the band’s shifting sound, and the story behind the group’s newfound cohesion.
What was the creative process like with this album? Seems to me like more of a collective vibe maybe with some of the melodies and stuff than some of the earlier stuff the band put out.
Not really, we rented this house all last year up the Catskills in New York, and Dave was up there pretty much alone for the first half of the year. Amber would spend some time with him up there, but as far as just musically, he was just making a bunch of demos and writing a bunch of songs.
Did he share some of the songs from up there?
He would send them to us in various states. Some of them were super raw or skeletal, maybe not even with a melody or something, but he would send songs in their various states, and we would check them out. Brian, the former drummer who played on the album and me spend a few weekends there in the late winter of last year, and went through some of the songs.
So is the creative process pretty much left in Dave’s hands?
The way it starts is from Dave, and then we would sort of see how things worked, and ultimately if we have ideas, of course we are going to throw them out and see if things work. What we think is of course important in the final result but ultimately its Dave making the decisions and driving it all melodically, compositionally.
What was different with this album then, I can hear it in the sound, but from your point of view, what’s changed?
It’s sill very much coming from Dave, but it was different in this way because he knew who he was writing parts for, as opposed to in the past maybe not knowing who the band would be or who he would get to record certain things. With this he knew who was going to be on the record, and the band was a much more set line up, and he knows what peoples strengths and weaknesses are. He knows me and Brian are pretty comfortable improvising or making up parts here or there, so he was able to leave room for that in certain instances. He knew where everything was going to go and how it was going to be executed by us.
Sounds like the set lineup in the band affects the music quite a bit. Do you think the maturity of this album could come from knowing who the players are?
Ya, I think so. I think that definitely affects it. I think Dave has also grown a lot as a songwriter. I think your right, that and just getting older, more mature experience, and the knowing who the band is and who he’s going to be writing for, I’m sure that makes a big difference.
Aside from the cohesiveness of the sound, there’s also the difference of the drum and bass on this record sounding a bit freer.
Yeah, even some of the more beat driven parts that are pretty strict, there is a looseness or fluidness about it. Some of those we were just kind of looping these repetitive figures over and over again. Its pretty fun, that kind of repetition, you go through many different phases of getting inside the grooves, at least from a rhythms section perspective. You play the same groove over and over again, and you go through a point of figuring it out and then maybe it gets boring if you have been playing it too long, so you figure out something else new about it once you get through that and have it come from a totally different perspective.
It was a really fun process putting it all together. We had those few weekends going over the songs, but there were so many songs. It was just me, Brian and Dave and we tried to do as many of them of as we could. We gave ourselves a month to do it, and that was kind of laying down the foundation before the girls came to sing, and Dave did his guitar stuff. Some of the songs I didn’t know what the melodies were even, but it was really fun.
Did you have much prep time with songs before recording?
We took about a month and tried to do two or three songs a day. Some of them we would be learning on the spot, so we would learn the song, practice it and record it all in an afternoon, and then eat dinner and do the same thing with the next one. It was pretty intense, but it was a beautiful place to be and do that for the month. It was in the middle of the woods, it was last August so it was really nice. We had the whole house, so we would have dinner breaks together. It was a fun experience. I have been on past recordings, but this was the most intense, extensive one for sure. It’s fun to finally place the songs live for people.
How does the album translate live? Is there more room for improvisation on stage as well?
Toronto was our second show of the tour. We are still trying to figure out how it all translates live, and there is something to be said about really duplicating what is on a record, and something to be said about putting a live version together that is different from [the] record. I think our live set has a good mixture of both. Some stuff is trying to be really true to the record, and some stuff is trying to be more loose and interpretive and lends itself more to improvisation and surprise in a live setting, which makes it fun for us, and also hopefully the audience. I think having a good mixture of both sort of creates this balance that when I go to shows I like to see.
Are you happy with the balance you guys have been striking on stage so far?
You know if you are seeing a band, and you really know the record well, and they play the whole record exactly like the record, even if I love it that would be…I don’t know, even if I love the record…there would be something impressive about it, but it would be impressive in a boring way. Just thinking of doing that every night, that’s not how I would want to do it. The other side is if you love somebody’s record, and you go see them play and they play everything totally different, all these new arrangements and its totally unfamiliar, there would be something exciting about that, but you would wish for that one song or some kind of familiarity. There’s a good mix of that in our live show hopefully.
Let’s talk about your solo stuff. Your work is a lot mellower than what the Dirty Projectors are putting out. Is that because you want something completely different?
I don’t set out to really make anything within a particular parameters, I sort of just make whatever comes out. That’s what I feel like is the most sincere way to create things, to not really have a defined plan and see what happens. The difference is definitely that there is a more minimalist approach, but then at the same time I do like just playing… maybe it is a subconscious thing. Travelling with tons of people in the band. Playing this music that is incredibly nuanced and dense and dynamic, and then when I get home and start writing songs, and when I go on tour I want to go alone. I do enjoy that it has become a totally different experience. So whether it is related in an indirect way, maybe so because it is so different.
Would you say what you’re putting out now is pretty much your signature sound?
I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I’m not all the sudden going to take a string quartet on tour anytime soon. I wouldn’t be motivated to do that, I like playing alone, stripped down minimal approach. It’s a fun challenge too because writing music on the bass there are a lot of parameters. It hasn’t been done that much or at least I don’t listen to many songwriting bass players.