Darwin Deez: Evolution of a pop star
He majors in geek chic, yet the indie-folker has just made the NME Cool List. He shows Gillian Orr his dance steps
Friday 05 November 2010
Darwin Deez is not your typical pop star. Firstly, there's his look. Tall, thin, and dressed in thrift-store threads, his head is crowned with a mass of brown curls that hang down over his ears and are pinned back by a headband across his forehead. The look is finished with a neat moustache.
Then there are his performances. He's known for his unselfconscious silly dances and synchronised routines with bandmates on stage. A self-confessed geek, his music videos are cartoonish and playful as opposed to brooding or provocative.
Finally, there's his manner. Spending time with the articulate 26-year-old is a treat. His positive outlook, spiritual vibe and gentle manner are undeniably contagious, and would surely have an effect on even the most cynical personality.
I meet him ahead of his gig at the Scala in London's King's Cross. Despite noisy soundchecks going on in the background and the general hustle and bustle that precedes a concert, he is relaxed and fun. "We can talk all night, baby" he jokes.
It has been quite a year for Deez (real name Darwin Smith). Having released his debut single, "Constellations", at the end of last year, he has since toured non-stop, playing just about every major festival around the world, ensuring that lo-fi hits like "Radar Detector" and "Up in the Clouds" were the soundtrack to many a summer. His debut, self-titled, album, released in May, might only have charted at No 61, but his catchy, uplifting music has won over a dedicated following and he recently made his first appearance on the cover of NME, having been voted number ten in the music magazine's annual cool list.
Born in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to a psychologist father and teacher mother, his musical journey began after he was given a guitar when he was 11 years old by his father.
"It's the same guitar I'll be using tonight," he beams. His parents were followers of the Indian mystic, Meher Baba. "They discovered him in the Seventies and they raised me and my sister with an awareness of him," Deez says, going on to explain that Baba's mission was "to awaken love in the hearts of humanity through love itself."
At 15, Deez went to a summer camp at a Baba centre with similarly raised kids. It had a profound effect on him. "By the end of the week I was just overflowing with this experience of peace and love and acceptance and it changed my life."
That's not to say that Deez is some happy-clappy hippie. Anyone who has listened to his music will know that a melancholy undercurrent runs through it. While it might sound upbeat, peppered with clever witticisms, its lugubrious lyrics are often delivered in a deadpan tone.
The source of this quiet sadness can be traced back to Deez's time at university, where he was hoping to major in psychology or philosophy and follow in his father's profession. As well as struggling to make friends and feeling desperately lonely, he also discovered Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, a tome that went against Baba's teachings, and therefore everything Deez held dear.
"Nietzsche believed that the feeling of brotherly love was not something that had spiritual value, it's actually a weakness that's dressed up in fancy clothes, the enemy of what is truly valuable in humanity. So I started considering that really seriously. I felt it was my intellectual responsibility after being comfortable with the Baba stuff for so many years. That was a big factor in my depression in the first year of college. I had to stop listening to sad music because it pulls you into this self-reinforcing down-cycle," he continues, "and I think that's part of why the album is quite upbeat.
"Sad music is also just really easy to make. There's lots of it out there and some of it's really good but you just remove the groove and make some Sigur Ros or something; some really slow, heroin music. I listened to this album by Frankie Sparo called My Red Scare a lot, and it's so beautiful and sad but I think part of cutting all that out of my musical diet ended up influencing me, made me write alternate stuff." He once said that he made "happy music for sad people." The song 'DNA', for example, has a jaunty, poppy beat but expresses the pain of a break-up: "And when we talk/ It's not the same/ but I already lost the gene for feeling pain/ So I won't cry/ I will just pretend/ I'm still the one and that we are in love again."
Deez ended up dropping out of college, much to the dismay of his parents, and moved to New York where he started playing open-mic nights in the East Village. He met his guitarist and drummer at the restaurant in which he worked as a waiter and they became his backing band. He recorded his entire album on his computer in his apartment.
Throughout his life, he has flirted with a number of musical genres. In his early teens it was the grunge of Weezer and Nirvana, then later a love of electronic music was ignited when he discovered the Chemical Brothers. He wanted to make drum'n'bass until, at 18, he decided that he missed guitars. He also tried out the anti-folk scene. "You say exactly what you mean and the poetry is that you're not writing poetry, you're just saying exactly what you need to say. I wrote seven of those songs and some of them were truthful thoughts that I had about society or the way interactions tend to unfold and what's cool or not cool and it was just so... dry. It just didn't work at all, not for me anyway."
Deez talks about the importance of allowing people to interpret art for themselves, "In philosophy you have to be too precise, whereas, when you're writing music and you're writing lyrics, ambiguity is in your favour. There's this guy, Wakey!Wakey!, who I discovered on the anti-folk scene, who really inspired me. He has a line in a song that goes: "You sat on your fences and you screamed 'no retreat'". I always liked that because it's a perfect contradiction. I've been trying to write one as good as that. Maybe I'll get one in on the next album."
His music is littered with references to constellations, stars, the stratosphere, outer space and satellites. With such colourful subject matter, it seems rather odd that he settled on calling his album Darwin Deez. At one point, he was going to name it "Songs for Imaginative People". "I thought that was ever-so-slightly pretentious. The music business is centred around a cult of personality. I figured no one's ever met me before so I'll just focus on that: here's this person called Darwin Deez and this is his music."
He's certainly a tricky one to pigeonhole. "They do it anyway. It's either Julian Casablancas or Napoleon Dynamite," he says, referring to the comparisons that people have made to the Strokes frontman's singing style and, rather incongruously, the nerdy film character with a perm and penchant for dancing. He says with a wry smile, "I guess Napoleon's slightly more annoying... because he's ugly."
His mind skips around at random and regularly goes off on bizarre tangents. One minute we're talking about his music being used in adverts (he doesn't really mind it) then all of a sudden he's confessing all of his thoughts about love and sex and how his bandmates have banned him from talking about girls in the van. He broke up with a girlfriend at the beginning of the year. "The whole reason I did it was because I wanted to be single, but I just like to have the things that people in relationships get to have, specifically cuddling in a bed with somebody. I like those things with the added newness of it."
With that, this entertaining individual is off to go and prepare for his gig, where he'll give a passion-filled performance, joyfully dancing around the stage. Listen to the songs, though and, you'll find a mass of contradictions – like in the man who wrote them.
Darwin Deez's single "Constellations" has been re-released. The album 'Darwin Deez' is out now (www.darwindeez.com)
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