ALL AROUND us are influences. Everywhere we turn are inspirations and challenges that can affect our behaviour and thoughts. Are we ever truly free then if all these things affect us consciously and unconsciously?
Maybe that is not the point. We cannot escape the impact that our families, friends, society, culture, politics, etc, have on us, but we can choose to use, discard, and adapt what we pick up on the way to help us become the person we want to be.
New York based indie pop singer-songwriter Darwin Deez is an example of this and the influences that have shaped him have led him to become one of the most exciting and welcome new sounds in American indie right now.
Galway will get to experience this sound when Darwin makes his Galway debut with a show in the Róisín Dubh on Sunday November 7 at 9pm.
Darwin (real surname Smith ) was born in North Carolina into a family steeped in music and spirituality. His parents are followers of the Indian spiritual master and teacher Meher Baba and Darwin’s father is also a songwriter. From a young age, Darwin’s interest in music was actively encouraged and nurtured by his parents.
“My parents bought me my first guitar when I was 11 without me having to beg them for it or without knowing how much I wanted it,” Darwin tells me during our Tuesday morning interview. “When I was shopping for my first drum machine, they put me in touch with my cousin who knows about these things. It’s all musicians in our family.
“They bought me a really nice drum machine when I was 16 and they would sit in my room and listen to my drum’n’bass and long, moody, minimal pieces. They would be very positive about it and they are really happy now that everything is going well for me.”
Like his parents Darwin is also a follower of Meher Baba’s teachings, but it is largely a personal matter for the singer-songwriter.
“My dad writes songs about Meher Baba but I don’t as I don’t think people would relate to it,” he says, “but it’s definitely an important part of my life.”
While Darwin’s roots are in the Southern States, he has lived in New York for the past seven years and it was a trip to see his best friend Michelle Dorrance that convinced him The Big Apple was the place to be.
“I just fell in love with the city,” he says. “Michelle was living there and I visited her for a couple of weekends and had fun times there and from there I couldn’t wait to graduate, eventually transferring to college in New York.”
Encouraged by Michelle, Darwin continued to develop his music. By day he was working in a vegan restaurant and it was here he met Greg Richardson and Cole Smith, a drummer and guitarist respectively, who joined his band. With the line-up complete, Michelle (now on bass ) gave each of the members the ‘surname’ Deez. “It’s a nickname Michelle gave to me,” says Darwin, “ and we use it sort of like ‘comrade’”.
Darwin does not hesitate to praise Michelle Dorrance as a major influence. “She’s a really charismatic person,” he says. “She has been a supporter of my music and she played some of my first shows with me, when it was just the two of us. She has been a big fan of stuff I’d made even back when I was into techno and electronic music. It made it fun for me that someone understood what I did. That solidified our friendship. I love her loads.”
Darwin’s marvellous debut album Darwin Deez, released in April, showcases his melodic, catchy, quirky, and very danceable indie pop. Despite his time experimenting with electronics, Darwin Deez is largely a guitar driven album - albeit one with a difference. His clipped and clean guitar sound is the product of his unusual way of stringing and tuning the instrument.
“I lost interest in the guitar for a couple of years and lost a lot of my chops,” he says, “but I got back into it. It was very important rather than dealing with the frustration of having no chops that I would make things easier for myself.
“I thought I would tune things really low and take off strings and get more experimental. There are no E-strings on the guitar and the lower string is tuned lower than normal and the middle string is higher. I was listening to Animal Collective and their first album inspired me to find new sounds and make something more human and emotional.”
Darwin is not shy to acknowledge his influences and inspirations, whether on his music or his image. His image is quite distinctive, particularly his hairstyle. It’s sort of Hasidic Jew meets down at heel student indie kid.
“It’s just things I got from other hipsters over time,” he says. “The first time I saw someone wear a bandana was five years ago on this hipster girl and it looked so cool. The hairstyle came from a kid at Wesleyan College. I think he was referencing Hasidic Jews in some way and he wore Buddy Holly glasses. I felt he was a cool and interesting dude.”
Two of the best songs on Darwin Deez are ‘The City’ with its stop/start rhythms and ‘The Bomb Song’, which tells the tale of survivors in a bomb shelter after a nuclear fallout.
“The concept of doing a song about a disaster came from seeing a singer-songwriter called Wakey Wakey,” says Darwin. “He’s a Brooklyn guy I saw on the open mic scene and he has a song about a car crash. He’s a loud singer who bangs out the chords on his piano and his songs really stick in your head. I figured it was something I could adapt to myself.
“‘The City’ was very much inspired by Deerhoof’s Milkman which also has big stop/start chords. Deerhoof will continue to be a big influence on my next album. I’ve heard their new single and it’s unique and fresh.”
The best songs usually come from personal experience and the impossibly catchy and fun indie hit single ‘Radar Detector’ is one such song.
“That comes from my life experience,” says Darwin. “I lived the song. It was about a trip I took to California with a girl. We did fun stuff and got coffee and made a million stops and we were nearly in love. It was amazing. It’s a love song I guess.”
Darwin Deez has enjoyed glowing reviews from the critics the singer is being embraced by indie audiences. However he is already developing ideas for his next album and while Deerhoof may again exert a musical influence, Darwin’s approach to lyric writing promises to be rather individual.
“I have a new lyrical approach,” he says. “I want to try different textual and linguistic forms, same as a dictionary or instruction manual and empty them of their usual content and give them a pop music feel. I’ve just started to get that flowing. There may be fancy literary terms for this but they may not exist. I may also do a rap project.”
This interview began with Darwin talking about the influence of his parents and his album closes with a song which reveals the values they have instilled in their son.
‘Bad Day’ finds Darwin wishing all kinds of calamities on an enemy, but he ultimately does not want harm to come to the person: “Everyday ought to be a bad day for you, but I’m sorry if it ever is”.
“You don’t always realise the influences that have been filtered down to you through your parents,” he says. “My parent’s parenting was influenced by Meher Baba’s teachings and that song reflects the morals instilled in me by my parents.”
Support is from Rams’ Pocket Radio. Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and Zhivago.