Though there was no ceremony to mark the occasion, Dirty Projectors became a proper Brooklyn band a little more than three years ago. Prior to that, the name had stood for whatever music David Longstreth was making, wherever he happened to be, with whoever was at arm’s length. He was a bit of a drifter, living in New Haven, where he dropped out of Yale and then returned, as well as in Providence and Portland, Oregon. But as his ideas began to crystallize for what would be the band’s fifth album, he had settled back in New York. “There’s just a culture of getting things done here,” Longstreth says. “Those other places have their benefits, but there’s definitely a sense that nothing is so important that it can’t be put off until tomorrow. You get to a certain point where that drives you crazy.”
Longstreth took up residence in a falling-down brownstone on Halsey Street in Bed-Stuy. It had a leaky roof, a basement prone to flooding, and eight roommates, not counting the unofficial girlfriends, boyfriends, and assorted couch surfers who often tipped the sleepover population well into double digits. This was the Crazy House of Rock; inhabitants included members of Vampire Weekend, Phosphorescent, Ra Ra Riot, and the Castanets. But as messy and chaotic as it sometimes was, nobody ever confused Halsey Street with The Real World. Longstreth was on a mission. He had recruited a new guitar player and singer from California, Amber Coffman, who also happened to be his girlfriend, and he set about teaching her the complicated new songs he had written for an album to be called Rise Above.
The interminable rehearsals, conducted at the house, struck some roommates as inhumane, not to mention annoying, but Coffman remembers them as the good old days. “I never worked so hard on anything in my life,” she says. “It was totally inspiring.”
What Longstreth, now 27, had in mind was a song-by-song tribute to Black Flag’s punk-rock classic Damaged, an album he had revered as a kid but had not actually heard in more than a decade. His goal was to re-create not the sound but the sensation of the album, the mark it had left on him. He also intended it to be his “New York album,” he told the indie-music website of record, Pitchfork. “Angular, austere, obsessed with authenticity, like New York bands supposedly are.”
If you detect a subtle jab with that word “supposedly,” you may be onto something. Longstreth didn’t make Rise Above to fit in. He made it to stand out.
Rise Above is what might be called an “acquired taste” or a “difficult work”; it mixes brittle, crashing shards of guitar and drums with light, fluttering vocals. But many critics, including the staff at Pitchfork, adored it precisely because of its difficulty, and so did a passionate group of fans who were hungry for something different and were enraptured by Longstreth’s fervid imagination. Admirers went so far as to compare him to Prince and David Byrne, classic outliers with the singular power to draw the mainstream toward them.
Dirty Projectors hit the road, as Longstreth whipped his band into a virtuosic live act. After years of fluctuating lineups, he solidified a group that includes a rhythm section of drummer Brian Mcomber, who has the guileless disposition of actor Michael Cera and still works part-time as a biology researcher, and bassist Nat Baldwin, an experimental songwriter in his own right who likes to drink beer and talk sports. Longstreth signed up another female singer from California, the hypertalented Angel Deradoorian, who also plays guitar and keyboards, and just before starting work on the follow-up to Rise Above, he added yet a third, Haley Dekle.
For the new album, Longstreth once again wrote and arranged all the songs. But this time he did it with this specific group of collaborators in mind, incorporating their gifts, particularly Coffman’s and Deradoorian’s powerful, contrasting voices, into his vision. He named it Bitte Orca, melding the German word for please with a carnivorous whale, because, well, he liked how it sounds and he doesn’t need a better reason than that. The album was released in June to ecstatic reviews, as critics celebrated songs much more outgoing and comprehensible than Longstreth had written before. The austerity and angularity of the tracks on Rise Above are softened with sweeter melodies and a nuanced blend of musical genres. There are strains of folk, hip-hop, classical, jazz, African pop. The first single, “Stillness Is the Move,” with a funky syncopated rhythm and a leaping, acrobatic melody sung by Coffman, is, as some critics noted, what it might sound like if Nigerian guitar legend King Sunny Ade played on a Mariah Carey song, a collision of unlikely musical forms into a serendipitous new idea. The hook—made up of Coffman’s bright, sopranic bursts—is one that any music producer would love to play with.