An interview with Robert DeLong
One of the things that I think is most impressive or striking about you is that you make really cool electronic music. A lot of electronic music doesn’t really focus on insightful lyrics, but I found that the concepts you go through and themes you have are very deep and thought-provoking. Do you set out to do that purposefully, or what is the thought process behind combining those two things?
Robert DeLong: I came from the world of lyric-driven music. I grew up in Seattle, and a lot of the bands I listened to when I was growing up were like David Bazan, Jeremy Enigk and even, to a lesser extent, Death Cab for Cutie and other stuff like that, where the focal point of the music is the lyric writing or the message that’s being delivered. So that’s sort of where I came from in regards to songwriting. So when I started doing electronic music, it was the way I wrote lyrics and the way I did it. I didn’t really realize at the time that it was something weird. I was just doing the thing I was doing, and later people were like, ‘That’s so crazy. Dance lyrics that aren’t just about drinking or doing drugs.’ Which, I mean, is what some of my lyrics are.
How did you get into music?
RD: My dad was a drummer, and that was how I first got into music. He taught me my first drum lesson at age 10. In high school I played in punk bands and did jazz and all that stuff. I realized when I was about 15 or 16 that I wanted to do music for life just because I loved it so much, and at the time, I was really starting to get into recording, and that was what led me down the path of making computer music and electronic music. It was more because I was a nerd and I liked the process of working on electronic music that I got into electronic music, as opposed to coming to electronic music and wanting to get into it. But it wasn’t until really after college — I studied music in college, audio engineering — it wasn’t until then that I started. … Really it was [Heidi Callaway, my friend], that took me to a rave, and it was the first time ever I had heard dance electronic music in a setting that made sense. Before that, I never quite understood why people liked electronic music. Immediately after that, I came home and started producing music and took a lot of the songs I had been writing to that point and I introduced dance music elements to it, and that’s what brought me up to where I am now.
Do you find you have a set songwriting process, like you’ll start out with a beat and add lyrics to it, or do you have lyrics and think a certain instrumental would sound cool with it, or every time is it different?
RD: Every time it’s a little different. The commonality is that pretty much all of my songwriting starts with the music. More often than not, it starts with the drums or the synths, like chords and something, and then from there, once I have a demo, I’ll write some lyrics over it. Oftentimes the track ends up using almost none of the demo elements. The electronic stuff gets replaced by different samples, or real drums or different synths or analog synths or keyboard. Everything pretty much starts in headphones on my computer, and that’s just because we have a lot of downtime when we’re traveling, and there’s not much else I can do productive besides make a cool little 16-bar loop that’s like, ‘This is cool,’ and then later, I’ll dig it up and make something out of it.
How would you describe your music?
RD: My go-to answer is always it’s indie-pop songwriter music meets electronic dance music with kind of a wild live show. But I mean, that’s a pretty reductive way to describe it. There’s so many different things, especially on this new album. It covers a lot of genre sound. It’s kind of eclectic on that side of the sonics, but it always sounds like me in the end, so with the songwriter component and the singer, it’s pretty specific.
With your album Just Movement and the new one In The Cards, both of them meld well together, like songs go from one to another and you want to listen from first song to all the way to the end, because they go like that, and there’s also consistent themes. So why do you set out to create these concept albums, or would you even consider them concept albums?
RD: I wouldn’t go as far as considering them concept albums, but maybe In The Cards is a little bit more song-focused than Just Movement was in the sense that the songs were very compact, kind of pop songs in that way. I grew up listening to some of my favorite albums, like Sgt. Pepper’s by The Beatles and Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd — albums that do that. The albums felt like an experience from start to finish, and I always enjoyed that. In the modern era, that becomes less and less important as people are listening for singles. They listen on Spotify and have their playlist of 40 different artists with one track from each of them. Which is partially why with this new album I wanted each song to stand on its own a little bit more but still try to connect them all. It’s inevitable that songs end up being connected because the things I’m writing about and the way I’m writing songs over a period of time, it’s always going to be more tightly knit. The weird thing is that Just Movement was written over five or six years, just because I had my whole lifetime to write that album. [In The Cards] was written in about 18 months.
How challenging do you find it is to create songs that you can just listen to one as a good single, but they still work cohesively together as a part of an album?
RD: For this album, I had a million demos and all of the songs that floated to the top worked together. It was natural, because they were all songs that were written in a pretty small amount of time given my previous writing process. As much as I do set out with intentions when making albums or writing a song, the things kind of naturally evolve. It’s almost like you don’t have control of what happens to the songs as they go. You have a concept, and then you follow the concept to the end and realize at some point that the actual message of the concept is different than you kind of originally thought it would be, which never bothers me. I like the organic evolution that happens in songwriting.
Would you say you prefer recording in the studio, or do you think that after you’ve recorded that music that touring is a better experience?
RD: I love touring, because touring in a way is always positive. Recording is fun, and it’s experimental. You get to try a lot more shit, but the thing with recording is it gets stressful at times. It takes so long to get something just right, whereas live it’s obviously a lot of work on the front end, but once you’re out there playing, it’s that direct connection with the fans and it’s always this heightened experience every time you play. You can’t really beat that. There’s nothing more interesting than being on stage and playing in front of a bunch of people, especially at a festival. There’s really nothing better than that feeling.
How would you describe you relationship with your fans?
RD: Early on I was surprised I had fans, because it’s something weird to think about. At this point, it’s cool. I’m just always happy to see the fact that the people love the music, that people drive from the middle of nowhere for three hours to see a show — that’s crazy. Or people tell me, ‘Man, I was going through a rough time and your album really helped me.’ It’s cool; it’s amazing. It’s good to know that something you put a lot of effort into is affecting people in a positive way.
Do you set out to make your music inspiring for people, or do you just put your thoughts into your art and if anyone gleans anything from it, that’s cool?
RD: It’s kind of both ways. I feel like I always try to write music that comes from a source that inspires me. If I have a lot of creative inspiration for a song or something. I feel like inevitably if I communicate that adequately when I write a song, that will communicate to the listener and hopefully it connects the loop together so they can feel some of those feelings I felt when working on the tune. I always think about the idea that creative inspiration doesn’t come from — it’s something that just happens, it’s not like someone has this innate power. It’s something that organically evolves.
What’s a funny or interesting backstory for one of your songs?
RD: Each song has it’s own little story. For instance, the song Don’t Wait Up. I wrote all the instrumental elements on an airplane from Australia back to the States, and once I got back to the States, it was about nine months later that I dug it up from a saved folder with a lot of junk when I was going to a writing session with this band, Youngblood Hawke. We started writing over it and immediately the song kind of came together in probably three hours. It all coalesced really simply. Then I went back with this guy Tim Pagnotta and by myself and kind of reproduced the whole thing. This is something I would discourage anybody from doing in their life, but maybe the most interesting story is with “Acid Rain.” I was at a festival — first time I ever flew out to a festival, it was like four or three years ago — and I got real drunk after the show. I played at 1 p.m. or something, and somebody gave me some acid at about midnight or so and then I got on an airplane at 4 a.m. It was not a positive experience necessarily, but then I went home and immediately wrote that song, not the lyrics but the instrumental bit about what I was thinking about. I went back and retrospectively wrote the lyrics about that experience.
What is the meaning behind the lyrics “I think it burns my sense of truth to hear me shouting at my youth” at the beginning of “Global Concepts,” one of your bigger songs?
RD: That was a mixed-up time of great change for me. I just moved from my college town of Azusa to downtown Los Angeles, or pretty close to it in Echo Park. I wrote that in a closet because I had no studio or any space to work yet. I recorded the whole thing all in one session in probably about four hours while I just staked out this closet. In a way I was dealing with that change and how I was changing a lot in that new environment. It was a real shithole, that place, so it was kind of thinking about my life, but then also, it was about being excited to be in a new city and then it was a bunch of other philosophical mumbo-jumbo that I had been pondering a lot and it all kind of stirred together and created “Global Concepts,” which has kind of been the reason I’ve been able to do anything. Like, the reason I got to go to Australia is because that song became a hit there.
So you would say that’s the song that got you to where you are now?
RD: I think it’s the song that first set my career in motion for sure. “Long Way Down” has obviously been a much bigger hit here in the States than any other song I’ve ever made.
What would you want your lasting impact to be, if you could choose one final thing?
RD: My only hope is that my music inspires other people to be creative, and that at some point in time, somebody can look back and say, ‘This guy’s unique form of whatever he did inspired me to make something that’s inspiring and cool.’ In the end, I think good art perpetuates good art. I think those things feed into each other, so hopefully if someone thinks my shit is good, they’ll make some good shit.