Robert DeLong chats about being more intentional on his second album In the Cards, approaching dance from an indie/singer-songwriter perspective, his unique musical background, and predicts the future of electronic music.
How are you doing today?
Doing great. Just rocking out at the rehearsal studio.
I know you were supposed to be on that Charli XCX/Bleachers tour this month that ended up getting canceled, which must have been disappointing. Did that hang you out to dry a little bit there?
It was initially kind of disappointing, but it ended up working out great. We added a bunch of shows last minute, kind of some underplays. It will be good to be in New York for the album release. So actually in a way, maybe not a blessing in disguise, but it didn’t slow us down at all, which is good.
Cool, cool. Do you still do the live shows all by yourself?
Yeah, it’s just me up onstage. I travel with a crew. I have a video guy, a stage guy, my girlfriend does face painting, and I have a front house sound guy. But yeah, it’s still just me alone onstage with a bunch of gadgets.
That seems like it would be really chaotic when it’s just you up there by yourself like that. Is that something you thrive on, or are you just used to it by now?
Initially, it kind of just evolved into what it is, but I love it now. It’s fun. First of all, having total control is nice, because that means I can rehearse at my leisure and not have to worry about other people messing stuff up. The other side of it is it is fun, once you know how to do it, to jump around and thrive on the chaos, I suppose.
One thing I wanted to ask about is you went to college at Azusa, which is where I almost ended up. How did you like being there?
[laughs] Azusa was good. It was good training ground for me, I suppose. I learned a lot about music, music composition and all that kind of stuff. I got to play drums a lot, which I think was really good. I think most important is I met a bunch of people that I still work with today, making music together and whatnot.
It was a conservative Christian university, so there was all the trappings of that. I got to go to chapel three times a week. It was what it was. Honestly, I feel like some of those theology classes were interesting. It was good to get that coming out of high school.
How long were you there for?
No, I did it. I finished it in four years. I did the whole thing [laughs].
On both records there’s certainly some spiritual stuff, and you mention God a lot. Is that where that kind of comes from?
Yeah, I grew up in a conservative Evangelical household. Music for me always came out of the church initially. That was my interaction with music, was God music. Even as my life outlooks have shifted in a lot of ways, I think that’s still a language that I gravitate towards. In a lot of ways, I talk about things through those words and that vocabulary.
Most electronic music isn’t really known for the lyrics.
But one thing I really appreciate is how you, almost in the vein of like a singer-songwriter, explore deeper themes and stuff like that. What is it like to meld those two things together?
It’s weird, because there definitely is so little lyrical content in electronic dance music. A lot of the reason for that is the emphasis is on the dance experience for a lot of these tunes. People getting together for a few hours, zoning out and dancing.
For me, I came out of the world of listening to a lot of Pedro the Lion, Jeremy Enigk and whatever. Those are the kinds of things I’m interested in. So if I’m going to sing lyrics, I want it to be meaningful.
In a way, I feel like I’m appropriating dance styles as almost like a production vessel for songwriter songs. I don’t know. It’s fun for me. It’s definitely different. Sometimes I think people don’t know what to do with it [laughs].
The record is titled In the Cards, and that theme and this concept of tarot is sprinkled throughout the album. What attracted you to that that you wanted to write so much about it?
It kind of just fell in my lap. One of my roommates at the time had a deck of tarot cards. I was super fascinated with the artwork on them. There’s kind of this mythic quality to it. You’re looking at it and you see these very intentionally laid out symbols. They’re used to imply some sort of meaning, even without having any context for it.
Then the whole idea of getting a tarot spread into creating a story to understand something in your life or deal with something in your life. That’s kind of a cool subconscious process, the brain using symbols to deal with stuff.
I guess I used that as a muse for me. I thought it was an interesting thing. I think too the arbitrary nature of me shuffling a deck and randomly putting out these cards, and then like I said creating a story, you’re almost using these symbols arbitrarily and allowing the meaning to be created by the listener. To me, that was an interesting concept. Maybe it’s a little bit too highfalutin or whatever. Hopefully the songs are fun enough, even if it’s going over everybody’s head or if it’s too boring.
It was an interesting way to inspire creativity, and we used it a lot in the album artwork. My graphic designer dude ended up recreating the tarot deck with his own graphic icons. So it was a reimagining for the album artwork, which was really interesting.
One of the themes on the album seems to almost be like this free will versus predestination thing. Does that kind of tie in with that?
Yeah, I guess that’s the whole thing in a way, dealing with fate. Yeah, I suppose predestination is a way to think about it. If things are programmed, or if you do actually have some free will or if it’s just an illusion.
In the end, does that really even matter when you’re dealing with things? I don’t know. The intro of the album is like a general asking that question. I feel like each song explores it in a different way, through jealous relationships or religious hypocrisy or something.
You do call out various people on the album, like you were saying, whether it’s jealous lovers, religious hypocrites, politicians or self-appointed prophets, but then you say on the song “Sellin’ U Somethin” that even you are selling people something in a sense as well. Can you talk about what it was like writing about that?
Every song to me was a different story about something I wanted to tell. The song “Sellin’ U Somethin” is right there in the middle, where I kind of admit that no matter what the concept is or anything, in the end I’m selling you guys a product in a way. You’re buying music from me.
To me, that was a fun way to tie it all in together. Maybe it’s a little more tongue in cheek, remembering what is actually happening in the transaction [laughs].
One other song I wanted to ask about is the last song, “That’s What We Call Love,” which I thought was a really interesting song, especially lyrically. Can you talk about what you were going for there?
Yeah, that was a song I wrote completely on acoustic guitar, and then I did a string arrangement and orchestration for it, which was pretty fun. Lyrically, I always love songs where there’s a turn where the song can be about two different things.
The first verse you think it’s about a jealous lover or something, and then the second verse is almost like a country song. It adds a completely different meaning to the first verse about spirituality and questioning faith, and ties those things together.
I think it’s a vaguely cynical outlook [laughs]. Honestly, I listened to so much Dave Bazan and Pedro the Lion growing up. I feel like that one is in a way my ode to him, because it’s very much in the style of his songwriting.
This record is quite a bit different from your first album, Just Movement. What was it like growing in between those two albums? Were there things that you wanted to do specifically that you hadn’t done in the past?
Totally, yeah. Just Movement was something I wrote unintentionally over the course of six years. I was writing songs and collecting songs. I started playing shows and had to put together an album.
This album was definitely a lot more intentional from the outset. The first one kind of evolved into this rave-y, EDM sort of frenzy, which was fun. Especially at the time, it was great because it all came together organically without even really thinking about it.
But this time, there were specific things I wanted to do. I like having some big epic dance tracks, but I wanted to avoid having a repeat of myself in that way. I wanted to go back to my roots, doing more songwriter-y stuff and focusing more on the songs, even with cool production and a different injection of dance styles. So I guess that was the biggest thing for me.
I did want to explore more genres than just doing house-y stuff or whatever. There’s a lot of house-y stuff on this record, but there’s folk guitar over drum and bass. There’s a slow motion hipster R&B jam. There’s even some hip-hop based stuff. It spans a lot of stuff. To me, that’s fun. I feel like I’m a little bit too ADD to not be eclectic in my presentation, I suppose [laughs].
Did you have the live show more in mind while you were working on this record?
You know, I try not to think about it too much when I’m in the studio. It inevitably comes up, and there’s a few songs on the record that I performed live before I released them. Especially “In the Cards,” the first track, was really driven by the live version.
For the most part, I generally retroactively dissect the songs for live, and recreate and remix them for my live show. I try to keep the show out of the studio, because sometimes if you’re pandering too much to the live show, things can get pretty epic, pretty fast, because my live show is pretty epic [laughs].
You mentioned a little bit about incorporating different elements and instruments during the recording process. How much do you try and incorporate real instrumentation and balance that with the electronics and programming?
For the recordings and this record especially, I’d say five or six of those, maybe even more than that, have my real drum set on there. They have percussion, and obviously vocals and some guitar, and piano and strings or whatever. I used to record bands, folk artists especially. I love recording stuff and I love real sounds.
I love the hybrid of trying to find a way to bridge the gap between the sounds of analogue synths, with a software synth, with a recorded acoustic guitar and drums, and trying to find a way to tie those things together without having them sound detached from each other. I think it’s fun. There’s a whole wide world available to us now. Like I said, I’m too ADD to not put it all in there [laughs].
How much experimentation do you usually do when you’re messing around in the studio? Do tracks typically go through several iterations before you settle on the final one?
It totally depends on the track. Some tracks have evolved a lot from where they started out. They’ll have changed tempo. Every single sound will have been replaced. Half of the verse is different or something. Some tracks will be I wrote the song, and then I went back and just refined the production, and it was pretty linear. It just kind of depends on the track.
I find the ones that are really linear are usually the most palatable songs, but the ones where I go back and redesign a lot are the ones that have the most interesting stuff in them. There’s a back and forth that way.
With electronic and dance music so huge right now, how do you approach what you do so that’s it not a regurgitation of what other people have already been doing, and are able to make it its own thing?
I don’t know. Hopefully, the injection of all the indie-pop songwriting elements that I’ve snuck into my thing, and my specific sound palate that I like, I feel like those things help guide me away from being too generic with the whole thing.
Some of the things end up right in the center, but for the most part I feel like I can never release a track unless there’s something weird hidden in the background, something trippy in there. That’s just my thing.
There’s a little bit of hindsight now since “Long Way Down” was first released. Looking back on it now, what was it like seeing that song catch on the way that it did and end up all over the place?
It was exciting. It was cool. You never know, you never expect when you write a song, and record it and put it out, what it’s going to do or who’s going to like it. It was cool to see it build momentum and just continue to stay strong. It’s still being played on the radio and stuff, which is crazy. It’s been almost a year now.
I try not to pay too much attention to the hype, but I’ve definitely seen some things. I think the thing that’s the coolest about it is now as I’m playing shows, besides having more people there, the people that are there have actually dug into the music because of “Long Way Down.” They’ve learned the songs and are singing along and stuff, which is cool. I think that’s awesome.
As you mentioned, you grew up listening to indie-pop, the Tooth & Nail catalogue, Pedro the Lion and stuff like that, and you started out as a drummer. How did you end up transitioning from that into what you’re doing now?
It was kind of a slow process. I went to college at Azusa Pacific. Before that, I was playing in punk bands in high school, and then I was doing jazz and all that stuff. When I was in college, I met a bunch of people who I ended up playing in a bunch of bands with, so I was recording a lot of these bands. We had a makeshift studio, so because I had this studio I was always jamming and working on stuff on my own. All these songs amassed, and I wanted to figure out a way to perform them.
I’ve always been a computer nerd, so I just decided to try a one-man digital electronic performance. But at this time, the songs weren’t dance music-y or anything like that. I started to do it, and people were like, “Oh, this is really cool.” Simultaneously, this was when the whole dance music thing started, the dance awakening of Robert DeLong [laughs].
It started when my girlfriend brought me to a rave. I had always dismissed dance music until I saw it in its proper context. That was 2008 or 2009. It was pretty immediate after that. I started making that kind of music, and when I started performing it, the response was so positive I ended up slowly weaning out everything else I was doing and focusing on this. It just kind of happened, I guess.
Was there a learning curve when you were transitioning between the two, or were you able to do that pretty seamlessly?
I think there’s still a learning curve. I love dance music. I listen to electronic music all the time. I’ll go out to weird underground techno events and stuff. I love all that stuff. I still hear things a different way, because I’ve been a drummer and I grew up in a completely different music scene.
Even though I’m pretty ingrained in a lot of ways in the modern electronic scene, my approach is still a little bit of this Seattle rock dude. But, it’s cool. I think nowadays too the world is a lot more fluid. The separation between genres and different scenes is a lot more blurred than it ever has been because of Spotify, because of SoundCloud and all that.
Where do you think electronic dance music goes from here? Do you think it’s going to get even more mixed and mashed together?
I think at some point the whole mainstream success of this specific dance music thing, especially all the electro sounds that have permeated our mainstream pop radio for the last five or six years, that can only last so long. That will always oscillate back and forth.
I think electronic music makes a lot of sense because it’s so easy for a person with a laptop to get into working on it. You don’t have to have anything but a laptop. You don’t have to have a drum set. You don’t have to learn how to play guitar. It’s just you directly composing something, just you and your brain working on a computer, and not in real time. I think because of that electronic music isn’t going to disappear.
I think the coolest thing is seeing it evolve pretty quickly in a lot of different directions. It’s swallowing up other genres and regurgitating new hybrid genres and stuff, which I think is really cool. I think it’s happening super fast. I see it at festivals all the time. Besides, every rock band now has some sort of electronic tracks, or synths or something. There’s a lot more of, like, this is a weird three-piece band. Some of it’s electronic. Some of it’s banjo or something.
It’s cool to see how it’s all changing. Soon enough, there won’t be that strong delineation, like that’s electronic music and that’s rock music. I think those things are coming together in a lot of ways, so we’ll see what happens. Maybe we’ll all just give up and it’ll be fuzzy distorted guitars. It’ll be the ‘90s again.
The ‘80s have come around and become really popular again, so I’m assuming the ‘90s will catch on again, too.
Yeah, but it’s going to be weird. It’s going to be Atom and His package. His vision of the ‘90s or something [laughs].
So looking ahead, what’s coming up next for you? You have the tour starting up and the new album coming out pretty soon.
Yeah, once I hit the road in September we’re out for a bit doing this short run. We come back for a little while and then go back out again for a headlining tour in late October and November. Then we come back and I’ll do a bunch of radio Christmas promotional shows through December.
Basically, I’m just touring until I’m dead, I’m pretty sure. It’s going to be pretty much continuous, which is great. The goal is to get the record out there, and hopefully somebody likes it and we’ll keep touring. That’s what it’s all about.
Do you like life out on the road?
I love it, actually. I love seeing new places and meeting tons of people. We have friends all over America and the world now, which is cool. I love playing shows.
I think the only downside, of course, is sometimes you’re not getting any sleep and you have to spend a lot of time in airports, which nobody really likes airports. But that’s a small price to pay for being able to do such a cool, fun thing.