The legend of David Longstreth started to grow. Stories were told of how he slept in a crawl space, worked eighteen hours a day on his music, and survived on spaghetti. His behavior could be very unpredictable. “He just loved chaos,” says one collaborator. “He liked things being on the verge of collapse, to keep everybody thinking.” But to his fans, he stood for something important, the antidote to the mainstream takeover of alternative culture. They understood that his music wasn’t simply random or quixotic. It had integrity, logic, symmetry.
Longstreth toured relentlessly, performing at pizza places, parking lots, warehouses, dorm rooms. Many of his early converts were amateur musicians who composed their own private, oddball symphonies and glitch operas on four-track recorders and computers. They regarded him as a hero. “It was impossible not to notice just how into him people were,” says Rosen, who would later be one of Longstreth’s roommates in that house on Halsey Street. “You could tell he wasn’t quite like the rest of us. He was more focused. He just wanted things more. And he had this power to make other people want them, too.”
Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear met Longstreth about four years ago, in Hamilton, Ontario. Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors were sharing a bill. Longstreth had just a four-piece band at the time, the only current member other than him being Nat Baldwin on bass. Longstreth affected what Rossen describes as a “really schizophrenic Frank Zappa routine. He was wearing giant glasses, hair all over the place, extremely disheveled. There was a comic element to it, but he also had a very determined look about him. You could see how hard he was pushing himself.”
It’s a little hard to reconcile the Zappa-like Longstreth of four years ago with the way he presents himself now. (And not only because he hates Zappa: “I think that shit is so fucking nerdy,” he told The Onion’s A.V. Club. “It’s technical in this way that’s really not musical.”) What’s different about Longstreth is, well, everything. He’s neat, mild-mannered, and not as willing as he used to be to discuss with interviewers his own work in the context of Wagner’s and Coltrane’s, lest he comes off as an overbearing autodidact.
“It was impossible not to notice just how into David people were. He just wanted things more. And he had the power to make other people want them, too.”
The critical success of Bitte Orca has opened up huge opportunities: He got a chance earlier this year to perform with David Byrne and to write music for a benefit performance at Housing Works in Soho with Björk. Next year, the stage gets bigger: In February, he and the band will perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Grizzly Bear did the same with the orchestra last year), and then will be at Lincoln Center as part of the American Songbook series.
He and Dirty Projectors were back in New York last month, a brief stopover in between a European tour and a four-week spin around North America. The thing Longstreth was most excited to talk about was the recent improvement of their quality of life on the road. “Europe was all about food for me,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve eaten so well in my life.” He was equally excited that the next leg of the band’s tour would be their first in a fully equipped bus; Dirty Projectors are used to traveling in a van, and early last summer, the one they were in flipped over on a highway near Kalamazoo, Michigan. So the bus was going to be an especially welcome change.
After rehearsal at Mcomber’s apartment on the border of Bushwick, the full band convened for a late lunch at Diner, in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. If Dirty Projectors have suffered at the hands of their slave-driving leader, they hide their scars well. Everything, like the gig with Björk or the upcoming mini-tour of Brazil, was “awesome” or “amazing.” They discussed what to eat with purposefulness, as if everybody’s order were a communal concern, and compared their encyclopedic knowledge of other bands with the geeky zeal of ornithologists discussing rare birds. Disagreements were subjected to speed-Googling competitions. Is Sublime from Garden Grove, California, or did they just write a song about it? Go!
Slouching in the banquette, Longstreth said that as much as he’d like to get back to songwriting and planning the next album, “we sort of feel like there’s more touring to do behind this record.” It makes sense—the road is where bands like Dirty Projectors make their rent money. Even buoyed by appearances on Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, and NPR, Bitte Orca has sold just 43,500 copies, including legal downloads, substantially less than Merriweather Post Pavilion and Veckatimest, which are both well over 100,000. On a typical night on the road, the Projectors can make about $5,000 (which also has to cover travel and management expenses), and maybe double that for a special occasion. The longer they can stay on tour, the better they can live when back home, and the more resources they can devote to the making of their next album.