Darwin Deez, O Pioneer
Published March 24, 2011
DARWIN DEEZ. PHOTO BY DEENAH VOLLMER
A few years ago, Darwin Deez stood onstage alone with his electric guitar at the Sidewalk Café’s open mic in New York, his tight mop of curls framing his face like a Hasid’s, his neck and torso long as a bean pole, and wearing a simple white v-neck t-shirt or a sweater worthy of the Cosby Show. He played to a modest crowd of seated beer drinkers, memorable more for how he looked than the songs he played.
Now Darwin sells out the Bowery Ballroom and plays with a full band who bust out choreographed dance numbers between songs to an audience of young super-fans who draw moustaches on their faces with Sharpies, wear headbands like he does, and sing and dance along to every one of his catchy indie-pop songs.
We caught up with Darwin on the circus of 6th Street in the thick of the South By Southwest music festival between his two gigs. His latest release is a memorable rap record composed almost exclusively of samples from Willy Wonka called “Wonky Beats,” which can be downloaded online for free.
DEENAH VOLLMER: Darwin, what are you doing at SXSW?
DARWIN DEEZ: Well, I’m here being overwhelmed by the onslaught of physical bodies and young urban professionals, I mean young bands. We’re going to play two showcases for Brooklyn Vegan and NME. We’re trying to tell people our band exists in America. That’s why we’re here.VOLLMER: You’ve gotten quite a bit of fame overseas. What’s taking America so long to get with the program?
DEEZ: America’s bigger. We were kind of waiting for a label to come around, and nobody really came around, so we ended up doing it with our British buddies. We started the campaign more recently.
VOLLMER: I saw your show at the Bowery Ballroom and was surprised to see lots of youngsters with fake moustaches and headbands. How do you feel about that?
DEEZ: It’s a funny surprise to see.
VOLLMER: How does it make you feel?
DEEZ: I don’t know how it makes me feel. Mad, sad, glad, or scared? My dad always says those are the basic ways that you can feel. I guess it makes me feel slightly mad and slightly glad.
VOLLMER: Why mad?
DEEZ: I feel like I want them to be themselves. I don’t want them to be me. And glad of course because it’s nice they’re so into it.
VOLLMER: I think teenagers typically try on a lot of styles until they find their own.
DEEZ: They will. I don’t want to be tried on. I want to be loved forever, I guess. It’s not a lasting love. That’s why it makes me mad.
VOLLMER: I love your dance routines. Do you choreograph them yourself?
DEEZ: I do. Mostly, I choreograph everything myself. I make the musical edits and choices myself.
VOLLMER: Where did you learn to dance?
DEEZ: The only dance I studied was tap. I did that for quite a few years. The other dances I made up on the social dance floor. I just love it. I love to dance to pop music.
VOLLMER: I love your new record of the Willy Wonka samples, “Wonky Beats.” How did that idea come about?
DEEZ: I don’t remember where that came from. It just popped into my head. I thought I should really do this. It was like a challenge. For me the projects that are interesting are challenges. I felt today was very much a challenge, because the conditions of playing here are rough. There’s very little time to set up and very little time to play, and less support from the audience because it’s more people who are more curious than die-hard fans who would be at our own shows. So everything is more challenging, the more challenging version of playing live, but I really took it as a fun thing today. I wasn’t looking forward to coming here at all for those reasons, but as soon as I got in the situation, I thought, “Okay, let’s try.” It ended up being really fun because I felt we did it well.
I love challenges. For me it’s all about that. Making Darwin Deez the record was a challenge. Wonky Beats was just another little challenge. Can I make a whole album that fits into this concept and can it be good? I’m an Aries. I’m a pioneer. I gotta be pioneering shit, or else I’m not interested.
VOLLMER: Your hair, too, is an accomplishment. What goes into making your hair what it is?
DEEZ: Water has a lot to do with it. The water is England is harder. There’s more chemicals there, so I like that. I like North Carolina water. New York water is obviously the best to drink. It’s the cleanest and most filtered, but it makes my hair a little too soft or something. The other water makes my hair feel like there’s crap in it and I like that.
VOLLMER: In New York, how do you compensate? Do you use product?
DEEZ: I don’t compensate, I just frown. I don’t use shampoo or conditioner ever, so I recommend that to people with curly hair.
VOLLMER: When’s the last time you shampooed?
DEEZ: It was probably within the last six months and the time before that was another six months ago.
VOLLMER: Do you brush or comb?
DEEZ: No, just let it drip dry.
VOLLMER: Do you ever get any dreadlocks?
DEEZ: I had some dredding going on when I was 18, just to see if anything would happen and it did. That wasn’t really great.
VOLLMER: You’re more careful now?
DEEZ: Yeah, I just keep it more under control.
VOLLMER: How does it feel to be in Austin?
DEEZ: I’ve been here a couple times, and I like it a lot. It’s particularly overwhelming here because everyone is so talented-looking and beautiful and young and musical. It’s like a overload. It’s like a big party.
VOLLMER: Are there any bands you look forward to seeing while you’re here?
DEEZ: I want to see The Strokes. That’s about it I guess. I’m not a super big fan of live music. The only live bands I ever really dug seriously were Deerhoof and Grizzly Bear. Grizzly Bear more recently isn’t doing the same thing they used to, but Deerhoof I still love. Deerhoof needs to make a greatest-hits record, they’re so electric.
VOLLMER: Why don’t you like seeing live music?
DEEZ: I don’t know. I just feel the sound quality is always less than you want it to be. I like to be alone. I’m an introvert. I like to just process music in my home. I just haven’t really encountered many live music experiences that really shook me.
VOLLMER: How do you translate those feelings into creating a live show of your own?
DEEZ: I basically just try to make it memorable and different. That’s where the dancing came from, trying to be different and memorable and fun and make an impression, make a connection.
VOLLMER: Is that something you feel most live performers lack?
DEEZ: I think a lot of indie bands are pretty forgettable live. I’d be wise not to name any names, but they are just so similar. If you have two guitars, bass, and drums, visually you’ve locked yourself into something that 99 percent of people already do. You have to fight against it if you want to be memorable. Some bands do fight against it in that way, but most of them don’t.