Virtual Session: Dirty Projectors

Dirty Projectors join Mac Wilson for a virtual session featuring tracks from their 2020 5EPs series. (MPR)

The 18 year history of Dirty Projectors -- one of indie rock's most distinct and complex outfits -- has seen the band go through a myriad of transitions. When David Longstreth, the brainchild of the project, first began producing under the moniker, he was using a four-track recorder and a desktop computer in his brother's basement.

From there, Dirty Projectors became an experimental baroque endeavor, with 10-to-15 minute movements involving woodwinds, analog synths, and intricate, almost Gregorian vocal arrangements. Then came the bands breakout record, Bitte Orca, a more pop-appreciative LP that uses polyrhythms and crisp guitar licks in tangent with stunning, R&B-styled melodies perfectly suited for Longstreth's co-writer and then-girlfriend, Amber Coffman.

This was the heyday of the Dirty Projectors; they were critical and commercial darlings.

But after the release of their follow-up record, Swing Lo Magellan, Coffman and Longstreth called it quits, and many of the band's rotating cast members also left the group to start their own avant-pop ensembles.

Longstreth was left to pick up the pieces. After several years away from the limelight, he returned with a slew of albums including a 2017 self-titled, 2018's Lamp Lit Prose, and a live album, 2019's Sing the Melody. These records mark a new period for the project; there's an emphasis on electronic tinkering and more straightforward story-telling.

With a new line-up installed, Longstreth has relinquished some control over the project. 2020 has seen the dawning of a new venture: five EPs that center the lead vocals of each member. Longstreth and veteran percussionist Mike Johnson will each have their own EPs, and new members Maia Friedman, Felicia Douglass, and Kristin Slipp will each have a chance to leave their mark on the discography of the Dirty Projectors.

Mac Wilson sat down with the band to discuss the series of EPs they are planning on releasing and how they are coming together as a band during the pandemic, plus and a three song set featuring past, present, and future tracks.


Mac Wilson: I have some special guests over the Internet today. I am chatting with Dirty Projectors: David, Maia, and Felicia, thank you for joining me today.

Felicia Douglass: Thanks.

David Longstreth: Good to be here.

Maia Friedman: Thanks for having me.

So, this is the point of the interview when I'm usually like, "Hey, so Dirty Projectors, they have a new record out right now." But actually, you are two fifths of the way through your release schedule for the year 2020 and perhaps beyond. So the format for the new music that you are releasing is a series of EPs where each member of the band takes lead vocals on a respective EP, and we've had two of them out so far. Windows Open featuring the voice of Maia and Flight Tower with the voice of Felicia. So how long has this plan been in the works? And I guess, to what extent was it disrupted by the ongoing pandemic crisis we've got?

Longstreth: It's hard to say how long the plan has been in the works. It kind of emerged organically out of the experience of putting the touring together for the Lamp Lit Prose record. I don't know if it's been disrupted by the pandemic, the touring we're going to do around it has been disrupted, but it's actually been kind of nice to have something to share in this period.

Friedman: I do feel like the energy and the momentum we get from putting things out into the world has been changed a bit from what it normally is. I agree it is nice to have things to share with the world right now.

So as you've got these EPs recorded, do you have everything basically recorded in the can and ready to go? Are you still tinkering with these songs virtually as these EPs are coming out?

Longstreth: They're pretty much done. At this point. It's pretty much locked. There are still things that I'm letting settle a little bit. But,for the most part, they're good. Videos we're still working on, which is a crazy process in the pandemic. And album art and things like that are still very much like things that we're working on. On a musical level. It's pretty together at this point.

David, a few minutes ago you were talking about Lamp Lit Prose. And that if I've got the chronology, right, that came out in the summer of 2018. And I remember, you played at Eau Claire that summer, and you were out in the woods doing the performance on stage. And you said something like, "Oh, yeah, the new record is out next week." So that's how I sort of put those together in my head. Let's go back to that summer of 2018, when you were playing in the woods. It seemed like a pop up performance like "Oh, yeah, go see Dirty Projectors playing out in the middle of the forest." Were you as sort of surprised by the setup of that as the rest of us seem to be or did you have a little bit of heads up?

Longstreth: I didn't know. I think that was all coming together pretty spontaneously, the festival that year, and I loved the spirit, the kind of improvisational spirit of the festival that year. I really enjoyed it and to play in the woods like that. It reminded me of early days playing shows, right when I was first starting out as Dirty Projectors. It was a wonderful show. So, so memorable.

So as you're thinking about the sort of the unusual and yet familiar setup of doing that, did that prepare you in any way for having to do an album cycle and working out arrangements and stuff over the internet? Even you and I are chatting right now, we're doing this over the internet rather than in person and we are all sort of adapting to it on the fly. So I guess, did that prepare you for that at any point?

Longstreth: Life is an improvisation. We're learning every day. It's cool that we're trying new stuff. I wouldn't draw a throughline between that specific show in the woods in Eau Claire, and this experience of rearranging the songs in quarantine, exactly. But maybe in that one thing that both of these situations require is a sense of the song as a plastic something that's changeable and adaptable to different circumstances. For me, that's like something that's an ideal for a song; that it can live in a number of different arrangements, it can live in a number of different styles, in different singers, voices and things like that. I love that.

So David, you are the most consistent long standing member of Dirty Projectors, and Maia and Felicia are relative newcomers into the fold as each of you have taken vocals over the course of an entire EP. And as this pandemic has come, do you feel like it's disrupted the momentum of basically being assimilated into the band? Or do you feel like you're able to connect with each other on a regular, consistent basis that has allowed you to stay sharp?

Douglass: I mean, it's definitely a bizarre year to release music, but I think it's actually been nice being an Internet Age. Since we're all stuck at home, and mostly like, isolated. It's nice that we can connect to listeners and fans for the first time, like receiving messages and kind words and hearing from people who are enjoying the different EPs. So it's not so bad. I think it's a nice way of connecting with people while we're all separate.

Friedman: I feel like we toured what felt like for two solid years with the band, the three new members, which is Felicia, Kristin, and I. And I feel like in that time we really formed and solidified as a close family. And so I don't feel like this is creating a break and that I still feel like we're all closer than ever. But it is definitely strange to be putting music out into the world in a time when you can't actually be physically engaged with it. I love to play shows and I love to tour. I feel in my body that's missing. It's like what's missing from this experience? Being able to play the music all together in one room? It really is a special kind of magic.

Douglass: It will be so nice when we can finally play together again. I think I'll be way too excited. And we'll just erupt with energy. I dream of the first time we can play again. It'll be really nice.

So we have three more EPs to look forward to. Do you plan to have them all out by the end of the year?

Longstreth: I think we're kind of like watching the wheels. In terms of like, releasing music with Domino, this is I think the sixth thing that Dirty Projectors has put out with Domino records. And for the first time, we're kind of jamming. It's improvising. We kind of talk at the beginning of the week and we say, oh, like what are we going to do this week. So in all honesty, I don't know how exactly, we're gonna play it out. I feel like it's an exciting dynamic. Working with Domino's is incredible, like, one of the coolest record labels, probably the coolest one out there. And normally, they have it down to a little bit of a science. It's very organized in terms of what should come out where, and they want to have a lot of that stuff locked in five or six months in the future. And so to be working this way with them now, where we're figuring things out the week of or two weeks, two weeks out, I think it's keeping us all on our toes. It's a new way of working and it's really exciting.

Well, Dirty Projectors: Maia, Felicia, David. Thank you for taking the time today. And we'll catch up real soon, like you said, we look forward to playing these songs live together and in the near future, and we look forward to whenever that may be.

Songs Performed

09:01 Lose Your Love
11:54 Overlord
14:41 On The Breeze
Songs 1 is from Dirty Projector's 2020 Flight Tower EP, Song 2 and 3 are from their 2020 Windows Open EP; Both are available on Domino Records.


Host - Sean McPherson
Technical Director - Eric Romani
Producer - Jesse Wiza
Transcript - Caleb Brennan

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