Baltimore electronic-pop musician Dan Deacon is an explorer on stage.
That much is obvious from his band and the concert set lists supporting his latest album, "America."
"We try to do the bulk of the set as the new record," Deacon, 31, explained in a phone interview. "But we always like to keep one third of the set old material, like from the previous records, and then keep one third of the set unreleased material that isn't on any record - sort of experiment there and try out new ideas."
"America" offers an adventurous blend of electronic instrumentation and live percussion augmented by traditional instruments mixed in along the way. There's the instrumental "Guilford Avenue Bridge," an aggressive soundscape complete with big, dance-friendly beats. There's "Pretty Boy," an instrumental that pursues a more lush, melodic and relaxed sound. The four-part suite that closes the album, "USA," has moments that hint at classical music, buzzing electronic dance music and an intoxicating mix of tribal rhythms that melt into robotic synth-pop - all woven into a composition that's as expansive and ever-shifting as the American landscape that helped inspire the album.
Deacon has been touring with his producer, Chester Endersby Gwazda (joining him on electronics), and two drummers, so songs like these take on a different feel in concert.
For Deacon, who in 2009 toured with a larger ensemble, this is exactly the direction he wanted to pursue in his shows in support of "America."
"It's much more enjoyable to play with this number of people," Deacon said. "We can actually improvise and play along to tracks and freely at the same time. It's just a much more cohesive unit."
The pair of drummers especially make the current shows different than earlier live performances.
"The drummers are Kevin O'Meara and Jeremy Hyman, two drummers that I trust very much," Deacon said. "I love their playing style, and they've learned the parts in and out and now can internalize them as their own and add their own flourishes. It adds a newness every night, whereas before, when I was playing to tracks, it was the same every single night. Not that it grew monotonous, but it's such a different experience playing with humans."
The one thing that Deacon hasn't changed is the participatory dimension of his shows, as he strives to create an interactive vibe where fans - sometimes by the hundreds or more - join together in doing coordinated movements and dances, eliminating the traditional barrier between the artist and the concert audience.
The audience, Deacon said, is as essential a part of his show as the music itself.
He took audience involvement in a new direction on his fall headlining tour. At those shows Deacon started using an app that enabled the audience's smartphones to create a synchronized light show. During his dates this spring with Animal Collective, he asked fans to experiment with the app and create their own light shows. Those fan-created light shows get used at shows.
That sort of evolutionary, forward-thinking attitude has characterized Deacon's music and extends to his studio work.
Deacon began self-releasing albums in 2003 when he was still a student majoring in composition at Purchase College, State University of New York. His early records showed his interest in unconventional styles. "Meetle Mice" and "Silly Hat vs Eagle Hat" - both released in 2003 - were made up largely of instrumental sound collages. He followed those albums with a series of records made up of sine wave compositions.
But it wasn't until 2007 that Deacon began to gain notice in indie music circles. That's when he released his first widely distributed album, "Spiderman of the Rings." It was followed by "Bromst" in 2009, a critically acclaimed CD that solidified Deacon's status as one of indie rock's most adventurous and creative new artists.
While "America," the follow-up to "Bromst," shares some common traits with Deacon's earlier work, it takes Deacon into new territory as well, particularly with the song "True Thrush," which has a tuneful, organic feel, and with the "USA" suite. For the third part of that composition, "Rail," Deacon employed upwards of a dozen musicians to create the orchestral elements.
The move toward using more guest musicians and traditional instruments is an avenue Deacon said he'd like to explore further.
"It's a huge difference," Deacon said. "I'm looking forward to not just working exclusively on the computer for the next record. I think it's going to be really nice."
Deacon said he can definitely hear a progression in his music, as well as elements that tie his most recent albums together.
"I think if you hear all three records linearly, 'Spiderman of the Rings,' 'Bromst' and into "America,' you can hear where the ideas grew and evolved from," he said. "But I do think they all have their own, like you said, character and quality to their sound. There are different levels of density in their approaches, especially when it comes to the percussion and the vocals."
Another side of music Deacon wants to pursue further is classical. Over the past couple of years, he's done several projects with the percussion quartet, So Percussion.
"That's a side I've always wanted to do," Deacon said. "I went to school for composition, and I sort of stumbled into pop music. ... But always in the back of my head was this, 'I want to get back into art music,' or whatever you want to call chamber music or new music or whatever. And eventually opportunities started to arise."
Editor's note: Parts of the following originally ran in a Michael Deeds column in the March 17 Idaho Statesman:
- Delicate Steve - 7 p.m. March 22, Main Stage.
Treefort festival director Eric Gilbert first met New Jersey-based Delicate Steve in 2010 while on tour with his own band, Finn Riggins. Delicate Steve - fronted by guitar whiz Steve Marion - was unknown at the time, "but we loved everything about them," Gilbert told the Statesman a year later. "Super nice kids. Super talented. Playing fun, unique, complex yet poppy, high-energy instrumental music."
Delicate Steve has increased its profile substantially since then - and not just because of a classic press release about the band penned by Chuck Klosterman.
- Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings - 8:30 p.m. March 22, Main Stage.
Everyone needs to see this set. Fifty-six-year-old soul singer Sharon Jones (pictured above) and her funky band have crossed over on the festival circuit and appeal to all ages.
This should be one of the standouts of Treefort - a performance that transcends specific music preferences and just appeals to people's bones. Curious about the band's '60s-laced sound? Check out the song "100 Days, 100 Nights" on YouTube.
- K.Flay - 12:30 a.m. March 23 (Saturday night), Reef. Rapper K.Flay was a smash at the inaugural Treefort - and I missed her set. While covering the festival, I wrote on my blog, "If one more person asks me if I saw rapper K.Flay ... I'm going to scream." She'll perform as part of a lineup at Reef that also includes outstanding, eccentric man and band Forrest Day earlier at 10 p.m.
- Built To Spill - 10 p.m. March 22-24, El Korah Shrine. Even if you're not a fan, it's impossible to deny the fun of Idaho's indie-rock group headlining three nights at this all-ages venue. Built To Spill will crank sets of "Ultimate Alternative Wavers" (March 22), career-spanning originals (March 23) and covers (March 24). It's an opportunity to see what type of chemistry new bassist Jason Albertini and drummer Steve Gere bring.
- Youth Lagoon, Dan Deacon, 7 p.m., 8:30 p.m., March 24, Main Stage.
Boise's Youth Lagoon recently beefed up its live sound with additional members, which should make the group's spacey new album, "Wondrous Bughouse," translate on stage. Electronic musician and composer Dan Deacon - Sunday's headliner now that Animal Collective has cancelled - is known for a visceral show that often emphasizes audience involvement.