Writer of the Week: Darwin Deez

Be careful when you listen to the music of Darwin Deez; you may not be able to get it out of your head for the next 48 hours. The North Carolina native with the impressively strange haircut knows how to craft a hook; he’s also been known to bust a move, OK Go style. We talked to the “Constellations” singer about guitars, songwriting, and Aerosmith.

You prefer four strings on your guitar to six. How come?

Well, many reasons. I was mainly imitating my favorite band at the time, Animal Collective. I had heard they used alternate tunings and low tunings to achieve a unique sound. It had also been about seven years since I’d played guitar and I am a very impatient person, so rather than impose the full 6-string learning curve on my brain and hands, I went easy on it.

At the time I was also very inspired to do some autodidactic ear-training on chord progressions and the three-string setup (now four) made it super easy to play and track and catalog triads and progressions of major and minor triads. With diligence I was able to translate any pop song into a series of roman numerals representing the chords. I tuned it randomly at first and it stuck when I started writing songs that I liked. So for a while I didn’t know what key anything was in and to this day, I don’t know which keys my songs are in off hand. Andrew [bassist/guitarist in our live band] has that kind of brain and knows them all though.

Describe your stage show.

Our stage show is four people playing the songs on Darwin Deez in a different order, interspersed with synchronized OK Go-style dance breaks to one-minute pop mashups. But it’s way cool and fun.

You’ve spent most of the past year touring around the world. Do you find it easier to write on the road, or at home?

It was easy composing hip-hop on the road this summer. And fun. But still no luck writing any guitar music on the road. Trying to write that kind of music is pretty scary for me though. High stakes ‘n that. So any distraction is welcome and touring is full of apropos distractions, such as the radio, the guys being funny, little games, pretty girls, and Lawrence Wright on Fresh Air talking about Paul Haggis talking about Scientology and using the word “apropos” apropos of it.

Who are your major lyrical influences?

My major lyrical influences on the self-titled debut are two local singer/songwriter/bandleaders from NYC: Bell and Wakey!Wakey!. Also inspirations: Travis Morrison from The Dismemberment Plan (I’m a huge fan and he made it look easy to be creative) and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cuite (he made it look easy to be sincere). As far as “influences” goes, i.e., the people whose lyric ideas I stole and got away with, we’re talking mostly about Bell and Wakey!Wakey!.

Your song “Deep Sea Divers” is so darn catchy. Do you remember writing it?

Yes, I remember. I wrote “deep sea diving” in my spiral notebook and circled it and drew lines to related ideas around it, such as “scuba mask,” and “bubbles.” It was one of those songs that “came right out.” I haven’t written a song with that diagram-based notation since.

You’ve played at the Sidewalk Cafe in NYC. Do you consider yourself part of the Antifolk scene?

I’m friends with the Antifolk scene people. My music is not Antifolk though. I don’t think I have anything in common with Jeff Lewis, musically, but we’re friendly.

What’s a song on Darwin Deez you really want people to hear, and why?

I really want people to hear “Bad Day” because I think it’s pleasing and addictive and well-recorded and mixed. I’m proud of it.

What’s a lyric you’re particularly proud of on the album?

“Hovering alarm clock is my satellite,” from “Bed Space.” That line was a rewrite and I think it’s a really strong and original image. A strong image is one that readily appears to the mind’s eye. But usually images (in songs), in order to be strong, have to been somewhat cliched. You see that a lot in country music. So I’m doubly proud of that one.

Are there any words you love, or hate?

I like words that are familiar yet not common parlance, such as “firearms.” These are the kind of words I’m trying to sneak into my songs all the time. Very rich with associations and fresh for poetic usage.

How do you typically write songs? Words first, or melody?

Darwin Deez was written melody first. Verse melody and first line of the first verse written simultaneously in a lot of cases. Melody then applied to the other lines in the verses. Lately I’m writing words first for the first time in my life. I wrote my first songs when I was 11, and spent my teens making lots of instrumental electronic music, and I’ve always bent words to music. Until this last summer.

Do you find yourself revising a lot, or do you like to write automatically?

I like to revise I guess. Like, I do it a lot and I really enjoy that part of it. It’s part of why I fancy a future in songwriting/producing. Easier to chisel than to create for me.

Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?

I think a lot of contemporary Country songs are well-written and underrated. Lots of good images and original topics. For instance, I heard a new country song on FM radio in Tennessee yesterday and instantly fell in love with it. Don’t know who it’s by but it must be called “Roll With It.” It employs one of the very “Country” approaches to writing, which is to sing with passion about something extremely quotidian, such as, going for a drive with your wife of many years. And somehow squeezing the emotion and relatablility out of it in a way that I’d call a big success.

And I think the Aerosmith hits are underrated. Recently in the van, we were making fun of them for being so similar (“Crazy,” “Cryin’,” and “Amazing”) but I actually think it’s quite a feat to tailor-make them to such a specific order and yet have them all stand alone and be different enough for people’s ears. It’s really hard to give people something they like musically, let alone give it to them again a second and third time without repeating yourself. Because people spot that shit. The titles are similar and the vibe is classic Aerosmith so that’s very similar but the songs each shine in their own way.