Dan Deacon on new album Mystic Familiar

We chat to Dan Deacon about gaming, self-care, and the interplay of humanity and nature that can be found on his fifth album, Mystic Familiar

Feature by Lewis Wade | 28 Jan 2020
  • Dan Deacon

Dan Deacon has been defying classification in his work for over ten years now. “I have no idea what my music sounds like to other people,” he admits, sipping coffee out of an old syrup jug. “I listened to the 'All New Indie' Spotify playlist my music got put on and thought 'I don't think any of this sounds anything like my music', it's more electronic so I went to the electronic playlist and was 100% wrong. My stuff sounds nothing like what people call electronic now. I don't know where my music fits.”

After a foray into composing for TV, film and ballet, Deacon is returning with his fifth album, Mystic Familiar. It's his first album built around a singular concept, that of the folkloric 'familiar', a sort of nebulous, spiritual presence that can influence/assist. “I like playing table-top games and I'm friends with some game designers who make D&D-style games. One of them said they're adding an element to a game using a 'mystic familiar' and the phrase just resonated with me.”

Despite the chaos and density that is typical of Deacon's music, Mystic Familiar has a calming cohesion that comes as a result of a home recording process that was occasionally “frantic”, but never rushed. “It was supposed to be out ages ago... but I thought of it like fruit, it had to stay on the vine as long as it needed to. If I picked it early it would've been a mistake.” The lyrics frequently deal with relaxation, closed eyes being a recurring motif, stemming from Deacon's lifestyle changes.

“I was trying to deal with self-care and solidifying the foundation of my mental health. I was meditating a lot. I used to feel that anxiety and depression were these horrible things to build walls around, but I started realising that if I embrace them and see that they serve a purpose, then they'll be easier to interact with. So I was thinking of them as familiars, almost like a council of emotions in robes and cloaks.” Here Deacon goes off on a tangent about “horrible 90s TV show” Herman's Head. “But I do think that personifying something makes it easier to relate to.”

Across the album Deacon either becomes or imagines himself as a mountain (“it was originally about me being a cat in the rain”), the ocean, the sky etc. The interplay of humanity and nature, and its mundane/transcendant qualities often crops up in his work. “I used to have this horrible practice of looking at a painting, then imagining my consciousness trapped in that painting, and I'd think: 'Well, that's hell! Good thing I just created a whole eternity of hell for myself.'

"But then I started thinking about it with trees and nature. What would it be like to be a rock? We always give nature this stoicism, but I love the idea of a sarcastic, asshole tree. Maybe a Riddler-style quality? Not really there to help you or hurt you, 'cause that's basically what trees are already.

"We think: 'Ah, the majestic beauty of nature'," Deacon says in a faux-regal voice, "but what if that tree's just a sarcastic prick? I'm trying to write, looking out the window at the birds in the trees and imagining them thinking: 'Look at this fucking idiot! What does this animal even do? He just sits there, he doesn't do anything!' or is it more like: 'Ah, look at that soft, round man, what a majestic sight that is.' And it's all ridiculous, but if I am going to apply these human characteristics it shouldn't just be 'I am God in the form of leaves and feathers and I will show you the peaceful way'.”

Deacon is often described as a primarily live musician, his kaleidoscopic compositions more able to come to life when they're being directly and intently experienced. This, along with the changing landscape of how we consume music, brings certain expectations: “All music at this point is furniture music (unless you're watching it be performed live). Most of the time music is on to 'colour the air' while driving or in a coffee shop. Music is furniture. And I love furniture. A house without little chairs or carpets or decorations is extremely uncomfortable.”

And the furniture provided by Deacon is unpredictable, absurd and transcendant. Perhaps a Pop-Art Escher, or a Boschian hellscape populated by Disney characters. “I write dense, energetic music which is not really the fashion of the day, but I can't think: 'Not everyone is listening closely to the music, maybe they are washing dishes or reading emails'," he says in a Kermit-voiced external-internal monologue. "It's really out of my hands now.” So, if you want a taste of anthropomorphic meditation via processed electronics, keep your ears peeled come the end of January. 

Mystic Familiar is released on 31 Jan via Domino
Dan Deacon plays Classic Grand, Glasgow, 1 Feb