Robert DeLong: Weird Tunes on a Wild Ride

[Originally published on Virgin.com, July 2013]

Virgin chatted with electronic wunderkind Robert DeLong before his set at Firefly Music Festival in Delaware, where an impending rain loomed, and the overcrowded press area led us to the backseat of a golf cart.

To someone unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe it?

I always say it’s something like indie songwriter-meets-electronic dance music styles, and then there’s a wild live show with lots of gadgets and stuff to go along with it.

Your single, ‘Global Concepts’, that’s an awesome song. What inspired you to write it?

I locked myself in a closet — I had just moved to a new apartment so I didn’t have a studio space set up — so I locked myself in the closet for about four hours one day, with a timbale, a microphone and my computer, and that’s the weird shit that came out. I don’t know, it’s just a weird tune; I wanted to write something kind of moombahton, which is like slower house, kind of a Latin influence. So yeah, that’s the weird shit that came out [laughs]. Lyrically I think it’s connected to a lot of stuff on the album.

And you released your first album, ‘Just Movement’,  only recently; can you tell us about your path to get here?

The record was something I’d written over four years, by myself, self-produced. But I guess everything got started with this project about two years ago, when I really started to focus on it. It was a year ago that I signed to Glassnote Records,  and I just finished the record. It was just a large collection of songs, and this last August we went into the studio and formalized it.

A year ago did you think you’d be here now, playing festivals?

No, I didn’t know anything! I mean it has been a lot of work and planning up to this point. It’s not like it happened overnight, even though I’m sure for most people it  shows up on their radar overnight.

The orange face paint – you always wear that onstage. Is there a story behind it?

A lot of my friends in LA were really into the electronic scene, and when they went out to shows, they’d have tribal-ish face paint and get dressed up and do their thing. So when I started playing shows, they started doing that, and it caught on and people got into it. My girlfriend started painting people’s faces at shows, and obviously I got my face painted, and it became the design for whatever reason.

Has living in Los Angeles influenced your songwriting?

Definitely. I’m writing all the time, and I think LA has been a huge influence. I grew up in Seattle, so I gleaned a lot of the Seattle songwriter and indie vibe. But living in LA was really when I was introduced to dance music and started getting into electronic music, by going to big festivals down there and by going out to clubs. So I think that, yeah, it’s been a huge influence on my music, and it’s kind of a feedback loop down there. As you get into the scenes, you start meeting a lot of people that are doing similar things, and you’re influenced by them. It’s a cool place for that.

Who are some other people you’ve been working with down there?

Mostly bands. Flinch and 12th Planet, and then indie bands like HOTT MT, Races, Capital Cities. It’s a cool scene. It’s eclectic, and at least in my experience, everyone’s pretty accepting, which is not what you would expect.

Have you played any particularly memorable shows?

Yeah, it’s been kind of a wild ride, playing these festivals that I either grew up hearing about or going to. Coachella and Sasquatch were some of the biggest moments for me, because obviously in LA and Seattle, those are the biggest festivals, and those also had really great crowds and really great response. Every show is great, every show is fun, and it’s always crazy playing and hearing people sing your lyrics along with you. It’s bizarre [laughs].

Has that happened more as the tour goes along?

Definitely more and more, and club shows especially, because those are the people who are coming out just to see you.

Finally, does anyone ever throw strange artist comparisons at you?

Yeah, all the time. It’s interesting because I’ll get everything from electronic artists, like, I don’t even know. People say pretty obvious things, like whatever’s popular in EDM. Everything from Tiesto to Diplo or something, but then “meets”, and somebody will say something really weird, like, “meets Modest Mouse”. I’m trying to think. I’ve definitely gotten some weird ones, but I’ll have to think about that more.

Ten Things We Learned at Firefly 2013

[Originally published on Virgin.com, July 2013]

1) We’re getting bored of rock headliners.

Electronic sets ruled the weekend, no doubt. Firefly offered a stellar array of rock headliners – The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Alabama Shakes, Red Hot Chili Peppers, to name a few – but the crowd’s energy fizzled only a couple hundred feet back from the stage for most of these artists. What gives? Blame the rest of the lineup, perhaps, which was otherwise saturated with alt-pop and dance acts.

2) Flowers and flag prints: put ‘em on!

True to America’s preconceived notions about music festivals, flower crowns were everywhere. And if there weren’t floral wreaths, there were headbands and other sorts of ornaments keeping hair out of faces. Wait, was that an American flag-printed bandana? Double-whammy, my friend. The stars and stripes were also eh-veh-ree-where this weekend. But the important question here is: is it blasphemous to let flag-printed shorts touch the ground?

3) Size matters.

In Firefly’s second year of existence, attendance doubled. Good news for Firefly, but inarguably bad news for everyone there. The bottleneck to get into the festival solicited some very uncouth traffic practices from guests, but that’s what happens when an otherwise hourlong drive turns into a six-hour standstill in the middle of nowhere (no offense, Dover). Unless you drove in the night before, you could forget about seeing any of the bands who played before dinnertime on the first day. That included The Neighbourhood, Twenty One Pilots, and Django Django. For shame.

4) Sick happens.

The Lumineers and Earl Sweatshirt were last minute no-shows due to illness, and Passion Pit ended their set early due to allergies. Building on Mumford & Sons’ sudden withdrawal from Bonnaroo the weekend before, well, there’s nothing to conclude other than the fact that musicians get sick. It happens. Hopefully you weren’t big fans!

5) Silent discos are even better in the woods.

One of the favorite in-between-set activities was, hands down, the Silent Disco. If you’ve never participated in one, you’re missing out on one of life’s silliest, most awkward and simultaneously joyous pleasures. Better yet is a silent disco in the woods. Four walls of trees, damp earth, eery strobes, and the echoes of half-assed lyrics to Icona Pop’s ‘I Love It’ bouncing off silently flailing bodies. What’s not to love about that?

6) EDM and real instruments make the best of friends.

A few bands brought a fresh edge to EDM at Firefly by incorporating live instruments into their set, and it was awesome. Instead of looping in the organic sounds as most electronic performers might, acts like Big Gigantic and Passion Pit used sax and live drums to complement what otherwise should have been a purely electronic set, giving their performances more texture and depth.

7) Unsettled ground is unsettling.

For reasons yet to be determined, the earth at Firefly was pretty weird. Wide swaths of dirt throughout the festival would bounce back – yes, bounce – under whomever walked through them, giving the sensation of at once being back in kindergarten gymnastics class and also plummeting to one’s death.

8) Have awesome lights, have awesome performance.

Even a stone-cold-sober Firefly attendee could attest to the impressiveness that was MGMT’s trippy LED animations, which should have minimized the amount of dancing because of their mesmerizing spell, but didn’t, because, well, it was MGMT playing. Zedd and Big Gigantic paired their deep basslines with bright pulses, and Foster The People’s minimalist but high-impact lighting dazzled in the final headlining slot. Entertaining and captivating all at once, it was.

9) Bro-stivals exist.

Okay, Red Room had a great time at Firefly, but it’s no secret that the festival is kind of a bro scene. Attendance draws upon the metropolitan areas of DC and Philadelphia, as well as nearby universities, and, sorry guys, but you’re all on the preppier side of life. This fact did not necessarily detract much from the infectious carefree feeling that comes standard with a sleepaway live music environment, but Firefly has a way to go before it becomes the boobs-out, high-five-everyone, love-everything celebration that is Bonnaroo or Coachella. But perhaps that’s not the point, and perhaps Firefly is meant to carve out a special bro niche in the festival market.

10) It’s okay to pretend it’s 2007.

At one point during Firefly, Red Room realized that an interesting number of the acts in the lineup became popular around 2007. Vampire Weekend, MGMT, Matt & Kim, Grizzly Bear, and Tom Petty (kidding). A particularly good year for music, maybe? Feel free to argue. In any case, these bands apparently harnessed some staying power, and the guests at Firefly seemed more than happy to relive the songs that made them popular in the first place.