Dirty Projectors Get Weirder - And Bigger - With 'Swing Lo Magellan'
Indie-rock weirdos the Dirty Projectors had no problem creating an operatic concept album about Don Henley and post-9/11 America (2005's "The Getty Address") or a song-for-song reinterpretation of Black Flag's 1981 album "Damaged" (2007's "Rise Above"). For the Brooklyn-based experimental combo, the hard part came when forging a follow-up to 2009's "Bitte Orca," its pop album built on elliptical song structures and painstaking vocal harmonies.
An epochal album that even Jay-Z downloaded onto his iPod, "Bitte Orca" was the group's first release for Domino Records, made the top 10 lists of Time and Pitchfork, led to the band's first late-night TV performances and has sold 86,000 copies, more than four times "Rise Above" (18,000), according to Nielsen SoundScan. Jay-Z, whose sister-in-law Solange Knowles covered "Bitte Orca's" soaring first single, "Stillness Is the Move," recently tapped the band to appear at his inaugural Made in America festival in September.
With the quintessential "breakout album" and mainstream acknowledgement comes greater expectations, of course. When musical mastermind David Longstreth, who formed the group in 2003, ended a two-year stint on the road and started conceptualizing the band's new album, "Swing Lo Magellan," in upstate New York last year, he tuned out his previous achievements and obsessively studied the songwriting styles of his idols, ranging from Lil Wayne to Bob Dylan.
"All I wanted to do was make a song, record it and make the next song," says Longstreth, who produced "Swing Lo Magellan" and records alongside bassist Nat Baldwin, drummer Brian McOmber, singer Haley Dekle and vocalist/guitarist Amber Coffman. "I just got into this awesome flow where I was making five songs a week. That's how I psych myself into not creating some sort of really overthought brand and self-conscious follow-up."
Due July 10 on Domino, Swing Lo Magellan doesn't include a song as immediately moving as "Stillness Is the Move" -- its debut single, "Gun Has No Trigger," is a quirky collection of strained vocals and downbeats -- but the album coheres as a whole around sharp melodies and oddball arrangements. While the new set isn't quite as accessible as "Bitte Orca," the success of the Dirty Projectors' previous work has allowed for a more extensive rollout for the new release.
"We have so many more tools to work with this time around, in terms of videos and promotional appearances on TV and radio before the album's release," Domino director of marketing Peter Berard says. After performing June 19 on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," the band swung by KEXP Seattle for a live studio session on June 21. "Gun Has No Trigger" has been worked to alternative, triple A and college radio, and has already sold 2,000 downloads, according to SoundScan. Meanwhile, a video for the single, featuring silhouettes of the band members belting out the tune, was filmed in early April and released June 7, collecting some 70,000 YouTube views thus far. An esoteric deluxe vinyl package of Swing Lo Magellan has been built around the Akkadian cuneiform script featured on the "Gun Has No Trigger" single's artwork, with song lyrics etched onto the disc in the ancient language.
The band's biggest leap, however, is coming with its live show, which begins with an extensive North American trek that starts July 5 in Ottawa. After launching its "Bitte Orca" tour as openers for fellow Brooklynites TV on the Radio, the band is now headlining venues like Los Angeles' Wiltern and bringing along such support bands as buzzworthy indie-pop act Purity Ring (which uses the same Brooklyn-based management team, We Are Free).
On July 10, the Dirty Projectors will perform in New York's Prospect Park as part of the annual Celebrate Brooklyn! concert series, with NPR Music broadcasting the concert live. Three days later, the band closes the first night of the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, and a headlining tour of Europe is planned for the fall.
"Playing music for people every night . . . is one of the rarest and most privileged experiences you can probably have," says Longstreth, whose band put in countless hours perfecting the movements of Bitte Orca for its last tour, and has been preparing for this excursion since mid-spring.
Longstreth says the honing of his craft was partly inspired by working with David Byrne and Björk between the creation of "Bitte Orca" and "Swing Lo Magellan." In 2009, the Dirty Projectors recorded a track for the Red Hot Organization's "Dark Was the Night" compilation with the former Talking Heads frontman and collaborated with the Icelandic songstress on the "Mount Wittenberg Orca" charity EP the following year.
Byrne and Björk are "two people who broke all the rules-and made their own rules," Longstreth says. "Understanding the integrity they bring to the systems that they've created, and to their lives, is massive."