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Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010

Cementing the Dirty Projectors

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Dave Longstreth hadn’t intended for the Dirty Projectors to become a real band. He took on the name in 2002 to package what were essentially solo albums, which he recorded with a large, rotating cast of musicians. More than two dozen players recorded and toured with Longstreth in those early years—among them was Ezra Koenig, who played sax with the group before founding Vampire Weekend—but by last year the Dirty Projectors’ lineup had solidified, with most of the players who recorded 2007’s Rise Above returning for Bitte Orca, the most accessible album yet from the experimental rock band.

“This band is definitely Dirty Projectors,” Longstreth says of the current lineup, which pairs the guitarist with drummer Brian McOmber, bassist Nat Baldwin and Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle, a trio of angel-voiced singers and instrumentalists who form a distinct chorus. “With prior lineups, I would write a big batch of songs myself and want to take them out, play some shows with some people, so I’d always thought of Dirty Projectors as something of a collective, not as a band. I didn’t like the idea of making it something static, you know? I just tried to outfit the different songs the way they wanted to be orchestrated.”

That changed with Bitte Orca, the first Dirty Projectors album Longstreth wrote with set musicians in mind.

“Before, I wrote songs super-abstractly, feeling them out of nothing,” Longstreth says. “With Bitte Orca, I actively wanted to make music that was made by this group of people. I made some parts for Brian, considering the kind of drummer that Brian is; I created guitar parts that specifically interlock between Amber and I, and I wrote a song for Angel that specifically gets at the color of her aura.”

It was a piece written for Coffman that emerged as the album’s standout. With its slinky, contemporary R&B groove and African guitar tones, “Stillness Is the Move” built on already familiar Dirty Projectors influences, but Coffman’s sharp, resolute voice sold the song in a way Longstreth’s strained trills never could. With Coffman at the lead, it became an honest-to-god R&B song, so much so that it was covered last fall by honest-to-god R&B singer Solange Knowles—Beyoncé’s younger sister. A modest Internet hit, the cover became the most cited example of how indie-rock crossed genre boundaries last year.

“When I first started making music, people would be like, ‘This is so crazy, you’re combining folk music and orchestral arrangements and R&B beats,’” Longstreth recalls. “But now it’s a common thing. It’s really natural to do. I think that people who are making music now just listened to everything when they were a little younger. It’s very natural that what you love and what you listen to makes its way into what you write.”

That would explain why Dirty Projectors’ R&B accents suggest in particular Timbaland’s turn-of-the-century productions, which proliferated around the time Longstreth was in high school and college, when music tends to make its most lasting impression.

“I’ve been listening to this mixtape that a friend made me—well, it’s not even really a mixtape, because it’s five gigs—but it’s called Rap Singles, 1978-2005, and I’ve been really wrapped up in years ’96 to ’97 in the last week or so,” Longstreth says. “I’ve been listening to the early 2000s, too, and remembering all that stuff. That was a point where the production was just so advanced.”

Longstreth says he still follows rap and R&B music, albeit not with the same intensity he did when he was younger.

“It’s great to check in with it, because it evolves so quickly,” he says. “It can go through a good period and a bad period really fast. The late ’90s were a great period, the early and mid of the last decade were good. Some of it’s in a rut right now, with how quantized and tuned everything is, and that relentless hi-hat from post-crunk—it just doesn’t quite breathe very much. But I think it changes so fast. It’s even getting good again.”

Dirty Projectors headline the Pabst Theater on Saturday, Sept. 18, at 8 p.m. with openers Happy Birthday.