Dave Depper: 5 Records That Changed My Life
Musician’s musician Dave Depper is likely best known as the guitartist for Death Cab for Cutie, but, on June 9, he’s out with his solo debut, Emotional Freedom Technique.
Containing odes to Prince and digital dalliances (“Communication”) and ruminations on music and love (“Your Voice on the Radio”), the clean, minimal record is a blast of summer air. Check it out on Friday and, in the meantime, peruse some records that changed Depper’s life.
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Talking Heads, Remain in Light
There was a period of a few years during my childhood when my uncle was the coolest person on the planet. Every few months he’d decide that there was an album I needed to hear, so he’d dub a cassette off of his record collection and pass it off to me during a family visit. I heard a lot of things for the first time this way (The Cars’ Heartbeat City and Phil Collins’ Face Value, for instance) but nothing prepared me for the day he slipped me a ninety-minute cassette with Remain in Light on side A (backed on side B by its relentlessly funky sequel, Speaking in Tongues).
To this day, the opening thirty seconds of “Born Under Punches” immediately transport me back to being nine or ten years old, listening to this dubbed cassette with growing awe and concern creeping across my face. I’d simply never heard any music that resembled anything like this. Every single aspect of it was foreign to me. I found it exciting, and I found it disturbing, as if the very ground were shifting under my feet.
What was wrong with these drums? Are those guitars? They sure don’t sound like guitars. Why aren’t there choruses? What kind of instrument is possibly playing that solo? And most importantly, why is the scary man singing that way? I’m confident that the half-spoken, half caterwauled rants of David Byrne’s jungle preacher-cum-government man will go down in history as his finest recorded performance.
The rest of the album, of course, takes the dark template laid down by “Born Under Punches” and runs with it, plumbing even more frenetic grooves (“The Great Curve”), emotional touchtones (“Once in a Lifetime”), and a meditation on terrorism that proves chillingly prescient (“Listening Wind”). This album shattered my perception of what is possible in pop music, and to this day each listen feels like the first.
David Bowie, Sound and Vision (boxed set)
My fanatical love of David Bowie is well-documented, and it begins here. I’m still not sure why my parents picked this up for me during Christmas 1990, but I am sure glad they did. At that point, I don’t know if I’d ever even heard the man’s name before, and all of a sudden, my chubby ten-year-old fingers held three entire cassettes containing some creatively deranged compiler’s (Bowie himself?) interpretation of his entire oeuvre.
In retrospect, it was a pretty bizarre way to get into Bowie. First of all, by plucking two or three tracks from each album, it was a whiplash-inducing sortie through the frenetic twists and turns that made up Bowie’s stylistic dalliances in the ’70s. And beyond that, it’s one of those boxed sets that tries to straddle the line of appealing to both neophytes and collectors, and as such includes a bunch of hits alongside deep cuts and rarities.
Ergo, my exposure to many of Bowie’s most beloved tracks came in the form of alternate versions, be they demos (a charmingly nervous reading of “Space Oddity”), live recordings (the included live version of “Station to Station” is so rip-roaring that when I finally heard the original studio recording, it felt disappointingly polite, although I’d later come to adore its nuances and patient build) or the German-language version of one of the most iconic tracks in popular music (“Helden” was the only form I heard “Heroes” in for many years; to this day I still find myself lip-syncing, “Dann sind wir Helden!” along with the chorus).
Listening back to the set today, it’s charmingly flawed. In attempting to simultaneously please the obsessives as well as lure in new fans who’d otherwise simply pick up a greatest hits collection, it probably falls short on both counts. But I’m grateful that its twisted curation of Bowie’s catalog convinced an elastic young mind that “Red Sails” and “Black Country Rock” stood as equals next to “Ziggy Stardust” and “Rebel Rebel.”
Aphex Twin, I Care Because You Do
Like any good impressionable teen in the mid ’90s, I found myself swept up in the unfortunately named Electronica craze. My best friend and I would pull into the high school parking lot blasting The Chemical Brothers’ “Block Rocking Beats.” I dutifully bought The Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land the day it came out at midnight. If any girls had been willing to make out with me around then, I would have put on Underworld’s Second Toughest in the Infants to help set the mood (alas: no takers).
These were records full of exciting sounds and relentless energy. But as ethereal and transcendent as they could be, at the end of the day it was music that was easily traceable to human beings playing synthesizers.
Aphex Twin seemed to be something else entirely. I’d never (and to this day, still haven’t) heard sounds like this. Obviously, some manner of electronic contraption was creating them, but what was it, exactly? Was it…alive? These were alien, disturbing noises, pulsing with life, impossibly mournful one moment, deeply funky the next, and sounding like a possessed jackhammer the next.
Richard D. James has gone on to produce consistently incredible music ever since (and he’s definitely on a roll these days since reappearing with the incredible Syro), but few albums have expanded my personal interpretation of what’s possible with regard to the manipulation of sound as I Care Because You Do. Twenty-two years after its release, I’m still trying to solve its sonic Rubik’s Cube.
Fela Kuti, Coffin for Head of State
As an early twentysomething, my taste in music was beginning to crystalize, and I felt like a well-rounded listener with myriad interests and preferences. But in retrospect, at this point, I was still incredibly closed-minded, and I’m fairly certain that at this point in my personal development I still equated “World Music” with Paul Simon’s impossibly boring Graceland and the droning raga records of Ravi Shankar, which I’d detest whenever my mother would put them on (both opinions have since been revised).
That all changed when I was killing time before a Jon Spencer Blues Explosion show in Portland and I wandered over to the record store across the street.
My ears were greeted with a pleasing cacophony of sounds: the funkiest rhythm section I’d ever heard, seeming airlifted from a faraway James Brown show only to underpin a charmingly off-key, blown-out keyboard solo on…what is that keyboard, anyway? And the singing, the singing. What language is this? I kept on picking up bits of English, but it wasn’t any form of English I’d heard before. And that voice, turning on a dime from contemptuously humorous, to velvety and sensitive, to boiling rage and indignation, often within the same verse.
This kicked off an immediate obsession with Fela Ransome Kuti, and I eagerly gobbled up his approximately ten million classic 1970s era releases. Listening to Fela changed my perception of what non-Western music could be, and served as an important bridge to discovering so much more incredible African music, whose dark, insistent pulses inform a small part of everything I do. When I later learned that Talking Heads were listening to Fela obsessively during the recording of Remain in Light, well, a lot of things made sense all of a sudden.
At the time of Homogenic’s release, I had the good fortune of being a sixteen-year-old working the counter at a record store. I still remember my coworker asking if she could put on the new Björk record, and I’m sure I rolled my eyes and reluctantly acquiesced. Björk’s voice irritated me, and I felt her music videos were too cutesy by half. I was into Britpop and Pink Floyd, and by God, I was fine with that. Björk was too weird.
And then “Hunter” began its alien march across the speakers. My ears immediately perked up (I’m realizing, incidentally, that a through-line of all of the records mentioned here is the presence of new, unfamiliar sonic textures). Sure, that was a drum machine, but much like the work of Aphex Twin, it somehow seemed alive, skittering across the sonic landscape like a rock skipping across the mirrored surface of a glacial Icelandic pool.
The warm synths beckoned me further inside, and there was Björk herself, cooing to me in that same volcanic purr that had heretofore turned me off. I’d barely had a moment to recover from “Hunter” when “Joga” delivered the knockout blow: the lushest string section I’d ever heard, playing defiantly angular figures against what seemed like samples of magma flows magically recorded at the Earth’s core, coated Björk’s impassioned descriptions of an EMO-TION-AL… LANDSCAPE. It was nothing short of musical onomatopoeia.
That was it; I was done, checking my inhibitions at the doors, I plunged wholeheartedly into Björk’s wonderful, alien world. I spun Homogenic endlessly. I went back and listened to Debut and Post and they all of a sudden made sense. Björk, of course, went on to make reams of incredible music (in fact, Vespertine even managed to top Homogenic for me), but nothing will ever supplant the thrill of discovery and astonishment I felt upon my first, fascinated listens to Homogenic.
(Photo credit: Jaclyn Campanaro)
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