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After Breaking Up, Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth Is Making His Best Music Yet

Dave Longstreth’s beard is gnarled and unkempt, the mark of a man who has forgone Western civilization to find himself in a backwoods cabin. It’s a misery beard in the lineage of all great misery beards, worn by those who’ve lost something immense—think Al Gore after the 2000 presidential election, or Jack Shephard trying to get back to the island in Lost. Dave, I want to ask, was there ever a point when you looked at yourself in the mirror as you were making this album and thought, “Maybe I’m showing my hand?”

Ultimately, I do not ask about the beard. But the beard is not inessential to understanding Dirty Projectors, Longstreth’s first album as Dirty Projectors in five years, and first in over a decade without singer/guitarist Amber Coffman, who sang lead on some of their most recognizable songs, and offered indelible backing vocals on others. Longstreth and Coffman were romantically involved for much of Dirty Projectors’ ascent as indie rock darlings, before ending their relationship a few years ago. (Though the album was recorded with collaborators like Tyondai Braxton, Solange, and Swing Lo Magellan-era drummer Mike Johnson, the “band” is just down to Longstreth; the lineup changes are vague enough that their Wikipedia page hasn’t even updated.) 

Dirty Projectors is a breakup album, hence the beard, burrowing into the circumstances of this dissolution with a biographer’s unsparing eye. It’s also a stunning record, including some of the best music the band has ever made. The trademark obnoxiousness of Longstreth’s melodic sensibility—an obnoxiousness I and many others have found wonderfully appealing—is located within compositions more sumptuous and sprawling than previous works, while still finding room to get a little weird. It’s also the loneliest record they’ve ever made, both in sound, theme, and scene. 

Contrary to the arty obliqueness of previous records, the album offers personal details that are almost painful to hear. There are reconstructed arguments between the two, along with disclosures that sound like printed facts. On “Up in Hudson,” a gorgeous, unwinding song with the most transfixing drum patterns of the band’s discography, Longstreth coos about wanting to “slightly domesticate the truth / And write you ‘Stillness Is the Move.’” There are references to Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood and once-fashionable hang spot McCarren Park, as well as the aggravatingly trendy Ace Hotel, where Longstreth sings about staying during a separation. (Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon recently sang about staying there, too, which I suppose now makes it the default personal retreat for all depressed indie luminaries.)

Longstreth resists the idea that the lyrics are strictly diaristic, but it’s impossible not to read between the lines. Elsewhere, he’s happy to withhold explanation: Asked about the recurring references to God and spirituality on the album, and if he experienced a religious awakening, he says, “I was going through some shit,” and punctuates his answer with an affable nod. Throughout our conversation, this is a recurring affectation, along with a big, broad smile that flashes across his face whenever he takes a second to collect his thought before answering. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone cheerier when talking about an album that chronicles a failed relationship.

In the last few years, Longstreth started collaborating with stratospherically visible artists like Kanye West, Rihanna, and Solange, which went hand-in-hand with a move to Los Angeles. He hung out with Rick Rubin; he presumably gained access into rarefied industry circles a long way away from the Brooklyn avant-garde. It didn’t exactly make him famous, but it has given his music a new context as an indie power player who decided to lend his talents to a world with far different goals. This new association colored some antagonistic discussion from a few weeks ago, when Longstreth and Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold discussed whether indie music was becoming conceptually dry. (Not coincidentally, they cherry-picked their indie heyday as the last time the music was truly interesting.)

A few days after I met with Longstreth in Manhattan, it turned out he was going to be the secret guest at a Washington D.C. charity show thrown by the rock band Priests on the night of Donald Trump’s inauguration, which I attended. In a manner of speaking, Longstreth might’ve been the most famous musician there—certainly, he was the only one with Kanye’s number in his phone. While it wasn’t like he was an outsider or anything, he wasn’t quite a part of the punk-ish milieu. Even the new songs, with their hermetic emotional experience, were on a different wavelength than the political songs that filled the night.

But none of this is unwelcome, despite what you’d think was a fundamentally jarring experience of being forced away from familiar settings. A slow process of heartbreak can lead to an artistic breakthrough; a misery beard might hide a beaming smile. “My desire is to go forward,” Longstreth says. “That’s a harsh thing, but also there’s positivity in there.”

This new record is a breakup record, a genre with a rich tradition. While you were making it, did you become self-conscious at all about the idea of making a “breakup record”? 

I don’t think I was too conscious of it when I was initially starting to make the music, because I didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t necessarily think it was going to be a Dirty Projectors album; I thought that some of these songs I was just making to process my experience. As time went on, I was starting to play it for some people in a state of “I don’t know what I’m doing.” I was going out to Los Angeles a bunch to work with Kanye on some other things, and I dropped in on Rick Rubin a few times. The feedback from them made me feel like, “Well, this is the shit I’m doing, so maybe there’s something about this that would be cooler to share.”

At that point, I think it became like what you’re talking about. It does feel like a moment when—in the same way that our cultural institutions seem sort of ill-matched for the way the culture actually moves right now—there’s this level of confusion and dysfunction. I feel similarly about the notions of genre that have been largely functional and even helpful for most of the fifty years when the canon of pop music was being made. I don’t feel genre descriptors like “rock” or something like that really have much truck with the way people make music now. This idea of “breakup music,” that is a genre. That’s a genre that existed then and exists now. Y’know, the things I like about genre are the way it’ll set up expectations for “What are we going to be hearing?” and “What are we are feeling?” That’s what a genre is good for. And so it’s cool that it’s this genre—it lets people know, “Okay, you’re gonna weep.” You know?

This record doesn’t feature anybody who was traditionally associated with the band’s lineup. Were you in touch with any of them through the recording of this?

There’s been no two Dirty Projectors records that have had the same cast of characters every time. It’s always evolving, and this is a moment for a starker change. That’s always been the way I’ve thought of it from beginning to end. I want to be an amphibious vehicle that goes with me wherever I want to go. But yeah, I’ve played it for—everyone has heard it and everyone is supportive of what I’m doing. It was super helpful to play things for Nat [Baldwin]—he’s a super close friend, he’s been a collaborator for a long time and just getting his feedback and read on things was great. Working with Mike was great, and Olga [Bell]’s really interesting to play things for, too.

This is certainly the most directly you’ve ever written. Did you ever get nervous, and consider obfuscating the ideas?

The more songs I’ve written, the more I’ve grown interested in telling a story. When I first began, I had this list of opaque phrases where you can make of it what you want. I kind of was just writing shit, y’know? There were moments moving toward making it into a complete record to share with the public where I was like: “I wonder if I can?” Ultimately, I love that Arthur Russell thought of “First Thought, Best Thought.” It’s emotionally true. What music can do so well is tell the truth in a subjective way. So, I kind of let those things just stand.

Over the last few years, you’ve worked with Kanye, Solange, and Rihanna. A few years ago, Dirty Projectors were held up as a tentpole of “indie culture,” or at least a world that is wildly different from those artists. What did you take from their world?

You’re highlighting the difference between now and ’08 or ’09 or ’12. To me, the change that has happened highlights the best way the internet has changed things, which is it’s pointed out that these lines between genres and communities are artificial. Music is a big conversation. Music is a big beautiful chaotic community, in that way.

As far as working with Kanye and Solange, that was amazing. After Swing Lo Magellan, I needed a change. Getting to work in that capacity, writing for other people and working for other people as a writer and as a person who’s not representing it as the front person or whatever—it’s such a different perspective you can get. With those huge pop artists, you feel like how Kanye has an idea in mind. You can work on music and you might come up with something that’s cool, but if it’s not the idea, then try fucking with it some more. I had been in that camp as like anarchic and protean in the most awesome way. They’re just like, “You’re here because you do dope shit, now do whatever you want.”

The experience working with Solange was really, really special. I don’t know if she knows this, but she gave me a lot of confidence back in a moment when I kind of needed it. She made me feel real good about the way I made music, and I feel really really grateful to have been a part of them.

You were a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders. Did the election change the way you feel about making art or music going forward?

It’s a really personal record, y’know? It’s not really about the world. On a baseline level—the noise that your blood makes in the veins or whatever—I think that the album says, “Yes!” But it’s really sad, and there’s a lot of negativity on the album. I guess that’s how I feel now two days from the Trump thing. We have to find a way to continue with an inclusive vision of society and a progressive vision for our democracy. 

Do you and Amber still talk?

To be completely honest with you, we haven’t talked in a minute and I wish it weren’t that way.

I do just want to say that she’s a dear friend of mine and has been so important to me as a collaborator and everything. I think of all of this stuff as, “This is the moment it is right now.” As far as the future goes, I hope that we collaborate further; to me, the road is a long one.

To me, there are lyrics that are very self-critical. On “Keep Your Name,” it seems like you’re accusing yourself of wanting fame too much. Is that something you’ve mulled on?

I do think it’s important with the lyrics—it’s not a diary, it’s not a journal, even if it sometimes feels like it. It’s a kaleidoscope, and I think a lot of these lyrics are kind of dispatches from that moment of a relationship where you can’t tell the difference from the “I” and the “you” and so it’s all mixed up.

Maybe this relates to one of your earlier questions about how the cultural space called “indie rock”—an awkward misnomer in all kinds of ways—relates to more mainstream music. That little couplet that you’re citing, I guess I was thinking about that stuff. My favorite bands when I was like 18 were the Microphones and Fugazi, where there’s a premium on independence. In hindsight, it looks sort of stilted or performative, this opposition between being honest and being popular or something. There’s a premium on obscurity. And so what is the relationship to music and art and fame and what does truth have to do with that?

You can break it up: There’s music and fame, or art and fame. To a certain extent, art and fame are synergistic: Fame can buttress the message of art, and art can sort of legitimize fame. They’re both about storytelling, and fame can amplify the message of art in an amazing and important way. At the same time, I do still feel allegiant to Dischord and K Records in the sense of the suspicion that the official message is incomplete or false, as we head into a moment where history is going to be written by the people with the most likes. I think it’s important to remember that the truth is sometimes unpopular, and sometimes the truth can be vulnerable and sometimes the truth is going to be hidden.

I wanted to set up fame and truth oppositionally, because sometimes they are. When you think about art and truth, we get back to that thing that we were talking about before: I feel like what’s so good about music is telling the truth in a subjective way, which is a weird thing to do. In a moment of “fake news” and the erosion of the very concept of facts, it feels like a strange thing to be loyal to an emotional reality, but that’s also the best way to convey certain kinds of experiences.

A decade ago, it feels like the perception of Dirty Projectors was that it was a very intellectual band. Do you think this is the most honest you’ve ever been on record?

Yeah, I think you’re right. It does feel like I have more skin in the game. Not that the other records—I don’t totally agree with the way you’re characterizing the other stuff, because it’s always where I’ve been that’s going on with me, but this one is pretty direct.

On “Little Bubble,” you’re talking about the bubble in a relationship. Did you feel like the band was in any other bubbles?

It did feel like there was a lot wrapped up in that version of the band for me. It was a very small world. My desire is to go forward. That’s a harsh thing, but also there’s positivity in there. The little bubble encompasses this cultural idea as well. The fact that the illusion of liberal consensus has been shattered is productive. We’re going to be moving that if we have the fortitude to face that reality and respond to it.

I also noticed the Beats headphones in the video for “Little Bubble,” which I don’t know if I’ve ever noticed outside of a rap video.

With that one, I wanted to find a way to incorporate these technologies that are marketed as having the capacity to broaden our worldviews, but in the real world seem alienate us from each other. The video I wanted to make, that money was not around. So if we’re going to use product placement, what product placement could we use? I wanted to do it in a way that was consistent with the messaging, with the feeling? I took a private joy in that. Some of the Dirty Projectors fans seem a little bit salty about that, but it pointed to the impossibility of resolving the situation in a straightforward way. That said, they are good headphones. I didn’t think of it as like a hip-hop thing, but I like that it makes you see those images that way.

You’re also rapping a little on the album, or what to me sounds like rapping.

I don’t think I’m rapping. It’s like: I love it when Lil Wayne plays the guitar, because he’s like challenging himself, he’s doing something new, he’s pushing it and he’s pushing himself and his audience to an uncomfortable place, For me, obviously, I cannot rap, but it felt like the music kind of required it of me. It’s one of those things where the more takes you do, the goofier it sounds.

Indie has always been painted as very white. Working with black artists for a different market, did that make you reconsider your whiteness as a musician?

Yeah, in a word. I think so. Again, I love when music brings different communities together and exposes people to each other. It really gets at something like a dialogue and builds toward a more inclusive conception of community. Music’s ability to do that is very incredible. Going forward in this kind of Empire Strikes Back reality we’re heading into, I think that’s super important, and I’m grateful for it.