Led by progenitor Dave Longstreth, the project has maintained a relatively amorphous lineup since its inception in the early 2000s. Though individual personnel has changed since Bitte Orca, the band formation has become absolute, as vocalist and core member Amber Coffman explains. “Some of us are [somewhat permanent] in the band, it’s been like that for a while. That’s sort of what Dave was going for. If you declare that, it’s like saying the day you get married you don’t want to be married anymore. Like it would feel like a bit of a trap,” Coffman ponders. “The outfit is pretty much the same. Six people – three girls, three guys. Standard rock band lineup for the most part, drums, bass, two guitars, keyboards.”
At its core, Swing Lo Magellan showcases a reverence for pure American folk while providing distinctive contemporary flourishes. “I don’t necessarily think of it in terms of ‘American’, some it is typically American and some of it isn’t. It’s sort of in my subconscious, I really don’t think about it that much,” Coffman muses. “I think Dave is a huge fan of Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and a lot of classic music. He’s always respected good, simple songs.”
The Socialites, one of the album’s many highlights, features a lead vocal take from Coffman, exemplifying her increasing prominence in Dirty Projectors output. Still, she can’t foresee where the trend will lead in terms of future productions. “I guess it all depends on what Dave wants to do. “We’ll have to see what happens. It’s something that has happened naturally, whenever I help write anything. It’s never really planned, If there’s a need for it and it seems like the thing to do, then we do it. Dave’s an incredible songwriter, and he has a really specific vision for Dirty Projectors,” she says.
Coffman is speaking the day after appearing on Letterman, where Dirty Projectors performed the joyously morbid About To Die. Does Coffman see it as a positive song? “I think so, I think it’s a fun song.” Does she think Longstreth is trying to convince himself not to fear death? “I dunno, Dave might have been trying to convince me not to fear it,” she laughs.
One of the signature aspects of the Dirty Projectors’ sound are the remarkable feats performed by Longstreth and Coffman, providing counter-intuitive tonal leaps. It’s a unique style, one which Coffman has become accustomed to over time. “Not always. Sometimes we try something that’s a little tricky. The longer I understand that style of music, the less it seems like a puzzle. It can just come out and feel pretty natural. I think it’s just repeating it over and over again until you know it. I don’t know if there are tricks. Maybe there are little tricks that happen in there. I’m able to hear separate parts easier than when I first joined the band.”
As well as having a standout year with Dirty Projectors and Swing Lo Magellan, Coffman lent her considerable vocals to a fairly disparate outlet with the Major Lazer track Get Free. “Those guys had me sing on a track a few years ago, a Rusko song [Hold On]. It was actually written by Sia, she’s Australian isn’t she?” Coffman queries correctly. “Then I think everyone was really happy with it. Then later on Diplo sent me the backing track of what became Get Free and I put some ideas down and they really liked it. Then we got together and finished it.” Could we ever hear Coffman front a dancefloor banger in a way Sia did with Flo Rida? “Sure, why not,” she laughs.
Dirty Projectors also produced a highlight on the stunning Red Hot compilation Dark Was The Night with the David Byrne collaboration Knotty Pine. Byrne, of course, went on to record a full-length album with St Vincent, released at the start of 2012. The question is raised as to whether there was any discussion between Dirty Projectors and the Talking Heads frontman in regards to further collaborative efforts. “Not to my knowledge. All that communication would have been between the two Daves, so I don’t know what they talked about,” Coffman states.
Last in Australia in early 2010, Coffman is eager to return and sample our signature caffeinated beverage. “So excited. It’s so beautiful and we had a really good time last time. It’s so far away, so it’s a blessing to be able to go do something like that. I’m going to order lots of flat whites,” Coffman excitedly forecasts.
BY LACHLAN KANONIUK