Dirty Projectors' Amber Coffman on the Band's Search for Simplicity

Categories: Interview

dirty-projectors-swing-lo-feature.jpg
Dirty Projectors, with Amber Coffman at lower left
See also: Dirty Projectors' Swing Lo Magellan: A First Listen

Try as a journalist might, the Dirty Projectors' Amber Coffman cannot be talked into overthrowing her bandleader, Dave Longstreth. This isn't the worst thing, seeing as Brooklyn's reigning art-rockers -- the band Coffman sums up as "Dave's baby" -- just released the best album of their lifetime, Swing Lo Magellan. (Dirty Projectors perform this Friday, July 27, at the Fox Theater.) But so many of the album's great moments belong to Coffman that it's tempting to cut her a side deal. After all, she was the lead singer on "Stillness Is the Move," Dirty Projectors' breakout hit (if there's such a thing in alt-rock anymore). Abrasive, abrupt, tempo-switching Brooklyn bands don't just get covered by Beyoncé's sister for no reason.

Coffman giggles nervously. "Is it ['Stillness'] the best-known song? I don't know. That's a tough question."

It's kind of a mean question too, so this interviewer apologizes. "[The song's success] was a little bit of a surprise," Coffman says. "I grew up on that stuff and really wanted to make a song like that. Mariah Carey ... her first album was my first CD ever, when I was 7."

If Dirty Projectors have any genre lines left to cross, they're dwindling. One surprise influence would be interesting to hear bleeding through their unique mix, though: Nashville.

Coffman says, "I really like '70s country: Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline." And Longstreth himself praised Eric Church's trucker threnody "Homeboy" in a recent Pitchfork interview. Considering the band's fearlessness (they rewrote a whole Black Flag album as Afropop-tinged prog) or the melodic repercussions of "Stillness," a country effort doesn't sound impossible.

Bitte Orca, the Projectors' last album, was still pretty thorny for one of Time's year-end finishers, but Magellan is about four times sweeter, with Princely piano ballads ("Impregnable Question"), ear-rallying horns ("Unto Caesar"), and glitchy call-and-response gospel ("See What She Seeing") coloring the mix. That last one barely stays glued to some kind of programmed percussion that sounds like two turntables locked in a match of table tennis.

"Dave has some really unconventional ways of making beats sometimes," says Coffman, "where he'll just be hitting the back of a guitar one time and using it as a sample." That unconventionality is probably what won over fans like David Byrne, Bjork, and the Roots, all of whom have since collaborated with Dirty Projectors.

"It's great to see such accomplished older musicians that you really respect being still really interested in what's going on, interested in what people are doing," she beams. "It sets a good example for younger musicians to have these figures who are really paying attention and are excited and interested, who aren't jaded or in their bubble. It's easy to just be in your bubble if you want to be, once you're successful and have everything you need and don't really have a reason to try. That's the thing about [Byrne and Bjork], they're really interested in making art that matters to people and makes sense within the culture. It's like an exchange, and you can't really do that if you just turn a cheek to what's going on out there. Both of those people are icons and they're also so mellow."

On the Roots, to whose 2010 How I Got Over she contributed vocals, Coffman says: "They're so busy it's crazy. They're doing so much all the time but they're really these music nerds and they really care. They came and guested at one of our shows in New York a few years ago -- Byrne was there, too, actually, and sang with us. It was unforgettable. The Roots are just unbelievably humble, real cool dudes. They can play any kind of music."

"Any kind of music" is probably the common thread among the Projectors' circle of friends, not that it's ever easy to describe even one kind of music they may be exploring at a given moment. Longstreth's songwriting process ("he usually just starts with a guitar and a melody") in no way prepares someone for the indescribability within. When asked if they refer to songs as "the R&B one," etc. in the studio, Coffman shakes her head."Not really, we don't talk about it like that. We just have like, little names for the songs, whether they end up being the names or not." The first rule of Dirty Projectors is you don't attempt to describe the sound of Dirty Projectors.

What Coffman concedes, after lots of trial-and-error in free associating about styles, is that on Magellan, "Dave got really into groove and simplifying things this time, definitely," and that it's "darker," which shocks this listener. What about the love songs? "I need you and I want you in my life" is one of the album's most prominent refrains.

"I wasn't really talking about lyrical content," Coffman explains. "The textures and the harmonies and the themes of the music feel darker. Calmer I think, that's a good way to describe it. It's a little calmer, but it gets a little wild."

One of the few tracks that does in fact sound darker is the single "Gun Has No Trigger," a ghostly, guitar-less hymn of a track that's all steady hip-hop beat and Longstreth's twisted sermonizing over a layered Greek chorus of female vocals. It's the band's trademark, simplified. Coffman however is mum on whether the song's violent imagery sparked somewhat of a new political direction for Longstreth's words. "I think when you write lyrics, no matter what your lyrics are about, it always feels lame to talk about what they mean," she sighs.

See also: Dirty Projectors' Swing Lo Magellan: A First Listen

Dirty Projectors perform Friday, July 27, at the Fox Theater. 8 p.m., $25; www.thefoxoakland.com.

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Fox Theater - Oakland

1807 Telegraph, Oakland, CA

Category: Music

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