"That's my shit!" shouts David Longstreth in the middle of his pad Thai lunch. He's just seen one of his lyrics misquoted in a review of Bitte Orca, the new album by his band Dirty Projectors. Rather than induce righteous anger, this gaffe makes him ecstatic. "The bloom of imagination that happens when things are mistranslated is a generative principle in the music I write," he says, raising his arms in a grandiose gesture befitting such a line.
Being lost in translation informs his seven-year-old band. "It started as an art project," Longstreth explains, a way to let off steam from his stifling musical studies at Yale. After finishing his degree, he moved to Brooklyn in 2005 and recorded a handful of albums with a rotating cast of players, only codifying his music into a real touring ensemble in 2007 -- the year Dirty Projectors realized their most overt mistranslation. Based on an old cassette tape Longstreth unearthed in his parents' house, Dirty Projectors' Rise Above recast Black Flag's hardcore screed Damaged into something for nimble string quartets, crooned female vocals, and Longstreth's incandescent West African-style guitar lines.
Watch: Dirty Projectors SXSW interview with John Norris
Longstreth says the group -- expanded to include drummer Brian Mcomber, bassist Nat Baldwin, guitarist Amber Coffman, multi-instrumentalist Angel Deradoorian, and singer Haley Dekle -- had no high-art ambitions this go-round. "I basically carved my musical language into a bedrock of blockbuster references: Timbaland, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles," he says. "Just unequivocally successful music that is pointless to like or dislike." Which right about now applies to his band too: garnering the "genius" tag from the New York Times, opening for TV on the Radio, and collaborating with Björk.
With its boxy drum-machine beats, needling Malian guitar lick, and Mariah Carey-as-extraterrestrial vocalizations, Bitte Orca's single, "Stillness Is the Move," sounds more like something M.I.A. would bump than the precious folk and brainy rhythmic experiments on Dirty Projectors' earlier records. Smoothing his prickly brown hair, Longstreth laughs at his grand scheme: "I tried to ask less of the songs in the hope that they could be bigger." There's no mistaking that ambition.