Interview: Amber Coffman (of Dirty Projectors)

on July 09, 2012, 12:01am

 Interview: Amber Coffman (of Dirty Projectors)

Since 2002, the Dirty Projectors have been Dave Longstreth’s vehicle to deliver his unique arrangements and songwriting. For the project’s first five years, a rotating cast of players — including members of Wolf Colonel, Dear Nora, and Yume Bitsu — was used to help create Longstreth’s vision. With the development of his Rise Above project in 2007, one where Longstreth attempted to recreate Black Flag’s Damaged from memory, Longstreth and the Dirty Projectors began to work with more semi-permanent members, one of whom is Amber Coffman.

A guitarist and vocalist, Coffman was on tour with her band Sleeping People when she first met Dave Longstreth. Knowing Longstreth’s tendency to work with an assortment of musicians and always wanting to work with him herself, Coffman eventually moved to Brooklyn, joined the Dirty Projectors, and recorded Rise Above. Outside her guitar work, however, Coffman’s voice is often heard in many of the band’s tracks, especially on their latest LP, Swing Lo Magellan, where she sings lead on “The Sophisticates”. And when she’s not singing or strumming alongside Longstreth, she’s assisting in other projects. To date, she’s worked with the likes of David Byrne, the Roots, Diplo, and Rusko.

Consequence of Sound caught up with Coffman while she and the band were in New York City. Discussing the new album, Coffman talks about Longstreth’s desire to break down his songwriting and not over-think the songs. We also touch upon the Rise Above project, how she came to join the Dirty Projectors, crossing into the world of electronic music, and if she’ll be contributing to future songwriting.

According to your press, “Swing Lo Magellan does what no Dirty Projectors album has done before: It’s about songs.” What is that supposed to mean?

I think what Dave [Longstreth, guitarist/vocalist] meant by that is that it’s less about composition and all the things that layer over a song than it is about just the song itself. It sounds really vague, or too simple, or something, but I think that it means exactly that. He was just trying not to over-think things and just write songs.

So, just stripping things down to the bare bones?

In some cases, yeah.

The last time I saw you perform was in support of Bitte Orca, opening for Broken Social Scene, and I just remember a lot more chaos during that time. The first single that comes off this album, “Gun Has No Trigger”, certainly isn’t that chaotic. It has a sound that is bigger than the sum of its parts, and a good part of that is the harmonies. Dirty Projectors seem to understand that the voice is an instrument and not necessarily just something to convey words.

Yeah, I think you can do a lot with voices, definitely. I think the songs all start with a melody and skeletal components. That one, I’m not sure if that one had those harmonies laid down initially before the melody over it or if it was the other way around. I think it kind of just depends with each song.

You definitely stress the vocals more so than most bands, as far as an instrument. It’s not like Cocteau Twins in the sense of glossolalia, but just a playfulness with the voices.

Yeah.

This album is said to be the result of an informal working style, described as a collection of moments. Was the band more involved in writing and composing this album?

No.

How did “The Socialites” come about? That’s you doing a solo. How did that happen?

I sang a song on the last album, too. It was the kind of thing where we wanted to figure out a song where I would sing it, and we couldn’t really figure out which one it was going to be for a while. There was another version of “The Socialites” that’s completely different, and Dave was singing it, and he decided he wanted to put it over a beat and try to have me sing it. So, we sort of re-worked it a little bit, added some things, and just really liked it.

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I heard your performance on KEXP. It was really nice.

Oh, cool. Thanks.

So, if you’re singing solo tracks on a couple of these albums, do you think that’s opening the door for you to maybe write your own song for the album?

For the album? I don’t know. Maybe if I were to write a song that really fit with the band or something, that could be possible, but it’s not really a goal or anything. I like to write my own songs just in general, whether they’re in Dirty Projectors or not.

You were in a band, Sleeping People, when you met Dave, right? What did he say to you after you met that led you to leave that band, move to New York, and join his band?

[laughs] Well, I had been a fan of his music for a few years, actually, when I met him. We were both on tour. We were at South By Southwest. I was actually the one who was like, “I would love to be involved with this. If you ever need a singer or something…” You know. He used to put a different band together every album, so it seemed pretty likely…or it seemed like a possibility that I could potentially work with him. So, we just started e-mailing and decided to do a tour together in 2006, and that just really clicked. He didn’t say anything. I didn’t know that I was going to move to New York and join the band full-time when I went on the first tour or when I came out to go on the first tour. And then within the practice period before that tour for Rise Above in 2006, it was just kind of clear that this was a good fit.

So, what was it like working on Rise Above? It’s my understanding that you weren’t allowed, or he [Dave] didn’t let anybody listen to the original material [Black Flag’s Damaged], right? You were just interpreting it from what you could remember?

Well, Dave wrote and interpreted it. We didn’t write the songs with him. He had heard it… He used to love that album, Damaged. But he hadn’t heard it in a really long time, so he decided to try to recreate it before listening to it.

That’s amazing. Simply amazing.

(laughs)

Angel is on hiatus, but the other night when I saw you on Fallon, there was you and Haley Dekle and a third vocalist, Jenn Wasner from Wye Oak, right?

Yeah.

You’re touring with Wye Oak this summer, so is it safe to assume that she’s going to be onstage with the Projectors as well?

Umm… no… but we may have another person in store.

I can hear you smiling, so you probably don’t want to reveal who it is, do you?

Maybe not quite yet, but very soon, very soon.

Regarding Mount Wittenberg Orca… I’m a little confused. Was the inception of that album after the Stereogum.com concert? Because I also hear it told that it was based on a hike you had, and you saw a pod of whales in the ocean.

Yeah, I think that was part of the inspiration for the lyrics and storyline. It was written about two weeks before we performed it with Björk, so it all happened really fast. And then we recorded it a year later.

So, what’s this movie Hi Custodian?

(laughs) It’s like a collection of music videos with a bunch of loosely connected threads. We took about six… or several days out in southern California in April and filmed these videos. It’s a bunch of different images, really strong images that Dave dreamed up. I’m not sure how much I should really say about it right now. It’s gonna be out soon.

The music in it is all Dirty Projectors music, right?

It’s all pretty much from the new album and maybe a couple of B-sides worked in there as well.

Regarding the trailer video, how many takes did it take to do that pattycake? You couldn’t have done that in one take.

(laughs) We did that pattern earlier in the day in different characters, as different characters. That one, it actually didn’t take that long. It was actually pretty fast. We shot a lot of different scenes that day. I think that was the day Haley and I had six or seven different wardrobe changes, and that was towards the end of the day. I think that was the second-to-last wardrobe change for us, so we shot that scene really quickly, actually. Took about a half hour or something.

I was watching it and waiting for a mess up, just a hand to mess up.

(laughs) Yeah, right. I’m sure there were plenty of those.

You’ve collaborated previously, both in Dirty Projectors and out, with David Byrne and The Roots, but more recently you’ve been collaborating with electronic artists like Rusko and Major Lazer. What’s that like? I mean, that’s a whole new world, isn’t it? The dubstep world and…

Yeah, it is. It’s a totally different world from what I’m used to. It’s super fun. Diplo is a really cool guy. He works really hard. He’s really smart. He’s just fun to work with and hang out with. And it’s fun to kind of dip into that world a little bit and then come back to my corner.

Do you see more collaborations with electronic and experimental DJs in the future?

Perhaps. Maybe, maybe. I don’t know. Whatever comes up that I feel like I’m into and I like and that I have time to do. I’m into doing it, but not necessarily a goal.

Sounds good. Leaving the door open.

Yeah, yeah.

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