Dan Deacon speaks in metaphor a lot so it’s no surprise that in a documentary about competitive dog grooming, he’s able to find similarity in the life of a musician.
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“My favorite scene in the film is when it’s the night before a competition and the dog groomers are all sitting around in a trailer, having some beers and eating food. It just reminded me of backstage at a festival,” he tells American Songwriter. “That scene really put me into that world quite a bit, being an outsider to it.”
The documentary he’s talking about is Well Groomed, currently streaming on HBO Max, about four women whose lives are dedicated to the hobby of snipping and shaping their dogs’ hair into creations most of us would not imagine. No stranger to making music for documentary film, Deacon has just released the Well Groomed soundtrack, following on from his own latest album, Mystic Familiar, which the Baltimore-based electronic musician put out earlier this year.
“It’s a whole different practice, scoring for film,” he says. “I come at it with a completely different approach, and I try to look at every score as a completely new, from-the-ground-up, universe of sound. Whereas my records are part of a continuum, where you can sort of hear the progression, from, you know, 2007 to the one that just came out this year.” Each new film requires working with a new director or producer, and with that, a new editing style that will depict the pacing of the film and so the music, too.
When Deacon is working on his own records, his music is the only element he needs to think about. It’s the main focal point for the duration of the album. “For a score, it’s one component of a large thing. And like when you’re cooking, you want all your ingredients to be the best possible quality. So I want the music to be as best as it can be, but I have to remember that at times it has to always leave room for dialogue. And it always has to accommodate sound design. It can never be too distracting that it takes you out of the film,” he says.
He continues the cooking analogy further. “It’s the eggs that hold things together and helps give the film volume, but if you add too many eggs, it’s like ‘why did you add so many eggs?’ With my own music, it’s just eggs. I want nothing but eggs. It’s a wonderful world of eggs!” he chuckles.
Learn this particular recipe required Deacon becoming inquisitive about the subject matter of dog grooming. “I started thinking about the footage, where you have these colorful dogs and all these bright, very vibrant, real [animals] but also synthetic [looks]. Everything about it was in this grey area of like, this is a living breathing animal, but a whole barnyard scene is painted on the side of it. This is crazy. So I wanted it to be acoustic sounds, but I wanted them to be processed in a synthetic fashion.”
He brought in string players to create an ensemble of mostly pitch percussion, including tuba vibraphones, a glockenspiel, piano and guitar, and discreetly mic’ed them up, in as many separate rooms as possible. Then he recorded them, Fluxus-style, giving different directions to follow. “Go in this direction, go that way, only play these notes, play all the notes, but these. Just as many simple, easy to improvise over concepts as possible,” he says.
Then he chopped it all up, to mimic the moving, breathing feeling of the animals on the screen. “The dogs are always constantly moving and breathing, and the medium is hair, so I just wanted to have this sort of hybrid feel,” he says.
That laid the palate, then Deacon moved on to the women at the center of the story, to set the tone. “For the songs themselves, once the ensemble was formed, what they were playing was definitely shaped more by the artistic drive in the women, their individual stories and then the collective experience of competitions.” The documentary takes a fun and light-hearted look at their dedication but it made Deacon, who’s known for playing unique shows steeped in audience participation, think further too.
“The film is about what it means to be competing, making art in front of an audience and being judged for your art, and then in the greater sense, to be judged, not only by your peers, who appreciate it, but by society at large, where some people are bewildered by it and don’t see it as cool,” he says. “Working in that mindset made me critique my own role as an artist who makes niche music that often people seem to be at odds with.”
For Deacon, this makes the world of dog grooming not as far outside of his experience as it initially seemed.
“It’s so similar to the way music is presented and judged. If you’re doing anything outside of what is considered, commonly, the most beautiful or the best technique, it’s going to be looked at in a different light.” How idiosyncratic musicians and passionate dog-groomers alike keep on doing that is perhaps the secret sauce that makes it all continue to work.