Ok let’s just clear up this confusion right away. Darwin Deez is the name of a band from New York. But it is also the alter-ego of the band’s front-man and creator, Darwin Smith. He made a splash in 2009 with his self-produced/self-titled record. Featuring infectious pop jams like “Radar Detector” and “Constellations,” the album showcased Darwin’s talent for quirky but catchy-as-hell tunes. After a slight turn towards the angst with 2013’s Songs for Imaginative People, Deez has returned to form with the recently released Double Down.
Double Down shows real growth in almost all aspects. While Songs for Imaginative People was step up from the first record in terms of production, it also had a much edgier sound. Bizarre electronic glitch noises gave the album a unique tone, but the added grit was a bit at odds with Darwin’s pop sensibilities. Still, songs like “Alice” and “Redshift” illustrated Darwin was headed in the right direction. Double Down is a delightful mix of the boppy and emotional tracks we have come to expect from Darwin Deez, along with some new sounds. This added variety gives the listener more to dig into, and all with better production and guitar playing than we’ve heard from Darwin before.
We were able to steal a few minutes from Darwin’s day, and find out a little more about the man behind the Deez.
How did you get into playing music?
And you started right in on guitar.
Yeah when I was 11. My dad played guitar.
What, would you say, is your ultimate goal when you make music?
I was hanging out with some hipsters yesterday, and I met this guy. He plays with a group called High Functioning Flesh. I went to check his music out after sort of crashing his family’s thanksgiving, and there was a mission statement under one of his songs… I liked it, but maybe it’s also a bit pretentious… but it was something along the lines of “Our music is designed to shock people awake from the spectacle induced coma that society puts them under.” And that made me think about goals people can accomplish through music. Personally I think that music is first and foremost emotional. So my main goal is to help people process and manage their emotional state, and give them an emotional boost. That happiness is the sort of thing I like to get from music. So nothing really grand or political or cultural – although I would love that – but actually in the writing of it, I think a lot more about trying to bring some joy. Because life is dark, you know?
Do you find it hard to fight against the spectacle of society without becoming a spectacle yourself?
Actually, I was listening to High Functioning Flesh, and I was like “Shit.” My music definitely does keep people lulled in a sense. In the same way it makes me feel good, it kinda makes me want to shop. It kinda makes me want to ignore society’s malcontents. So, yeah, I do worry about that. You know, if you’re not raging against the machine, you’re sort of working for it. But I think primarily music is an emotional experience. People need to contact joy inside of themselves before they have the energy to go and do their life’s work, which may or may not be more directly cultural, or more directly working on changing society.
In 2013 you were quoted in an interview saying, “I think people’s feelings are really important and worth hearing and investigating in every case.” Would it be fair to say that’s a general thesis for your music?
I’m not sure because there’s no listening involved. To take people’s feelings seriously is to listen to them, and I’m not there. They’re listening to me. If in any way it involves them listening to their own feelings, that’s good. But I think to really take someone’s feelings seriously you have to sit there and actively listen to them. Rather than just broadcast musical ideas.
So a lot of your songs focus on these emotions and feelings and relationships, and many of them do so by utilizing an extended metaphor. Is approaching these issues through metaphor easier for you?
I’m trying to make songs with individuality. Trying to make songs with specificity, songs that are memorable. That’s just my way of doing that. The other way that you can do that is you can have lots of particular lines that stand out and grab you. I mean, I do that too, but I’m really striving for memorability. I mean as a songwriter, the words have different functions. It’s like a multi-stage rocket booster. The first stage rocket-blaster-job of lyrics is to get noticed, and the metaphors help in that sense. People can grab onto something that’s explicitly about DNA or the Doppler Effect, or a last cigarette, or something else that’s very concrete. There are other jobs that lyrics have to do, but I think the metaphors have to do with that first stage of rocket booster. Just getting into the listener’s face a little.
If you had to pick another art form to capture these ideas, what do you think you might lean towards?
Prose. I like prose. I like to read non-fiction. I think the last book I read was about American History. I just read the chapters from about the 1950’s to the present. It would just summarize little incidents, and I’d be like “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that. What was so interesting about that?” And then it would go into brief detail about it. I enjoyed reading that. I don’t have a very large attention span so…
So you just came out with a new music video for “The Mess She Made.” You’ve developed a pretty distinct image for yourself as the front man of this band, and you put that in the forefront of this and other music videos. Does that tie into the idea of trying to grab people and grab attention?
Yeah, basically. There’s so much indie music out there. And not only is there a lot of cool music happening now, but there’s five or six decades – even more than that- that’re just totally fascinating. I’m just trying to make myself into a sort of bookmark, so that you can remember where you were the last time you listened to anything that I did. “Oh yeah! Bookmark this guy.” I mean that used to be a way that I liked to dress when I was younger, before I had any success in music and I was seeking my commission in more active ways. I was a New York Hipster seeking self-expression and recognition. Now that I’m older I don’t really walk around like that much anymore. I have a much more conservative look that I rock in my daily life. Which is just a hat basically. But I do think hair is pretty useful for rock n’ roll purposes.
So correct me if I’m wrong, but on your first album you did everything yourself.
But now you’re playing with a band.
I am, but I still do everything by myself on the record.
As a drummer I’ve always been very impressed by your programed drum tracks. Even though the drum sounds aren’t necessarily natural, the grooves are really good. I’ve caught myself on Double Down going back and forth between what I think is live drums and programmed tracks.
Yeah, pretty amazing software these days, huh?
So it’s all programed?
Yeah. Live drums are just so complicated and expensive to do, and then you don’t even have as much control over how it ends up sounding in the end. You just get what you get based on the snare that was available, and the room and the console and the person. I ended up just saving the money and saving the sense of control. I liked how it sounded, so I decided just to stay. It’s like playing blackjack and you’re at 17. Better not take a hit. It’s kinda like that. I did give it a shot for a moment. I had one day in my studio messing around with the drums. On top of everything, you’ve really got to get a good player, and it just didn’t come together. So I just went and got really into the programed drummer in Logic, and did as much as I could in post-processing.
I know! It’s pretty great.
So I’ve seen in other interviews you’ve done that with a couple of songs off the new album, you looked to write based off of bass lines, rather than guitar riffs or melodies. Is that something you’ve been thinking about more – trying to push yourself to write in new ways? You have a niche pretty nicely carved out for yourself with your sound. Do you think that these new types of songwriting techniques could push the boundaries of that?
Yeah, it could have that effect I suppose. I guess it already has had that effect a little bit, I don’t know… I mainly do it to stay inspired. There’s so many moving parts to a song and you can really use any of them as a starting point. It’s a way to keep it interesting when there’s so much structurally to worry about, you know, verse-chorus, verse-chorus. You can take any part of that song and say “We’re going to make a song that definitely has this element going.” And then just build around that. It becomes a completely different experience based on that. So I mainly just do it to keep myself engaged in the process.
Well however he is doing it, it seems to be working. All gambling references aside, Double Down is the strongest start-to-finish album Darwin Deez has made yet. Darwin’s earnest lyrics combine with some stellar guitar licks for a more polished and complete product than anything that has come before. I just wish I could somehow get the guitar lick from “The Mess She Made” to follow me around wherever I go…
Darwin is finishing up his North American tour over the next couple weeks, so there’s still a chance to catch his energetic live show for some of you. In case you needed any more convincing, I’ve heard the whole band has choreographed dance breaks.
So I’ll see you there?