On July 21, my sister Anna and I had the awesome privilege of interviewing Dent May in Brooklyn. The three of us sat on that rock right above this in Grand Ferry Park and talked for about 20 minutes about a ton of things, like growing up in Mississippi, college towns, living once and Rihanna. I can easily say it’s one of the most fun interviews I’ve ever done, and please take the time to read it. Dent May is one of the most interesting people in music, always pushing the limit, and he also happens to be one of the nicest, so take the time to read it after the jump. That southern charm, y’all. Oh yeah, you can listen to the interview here.
Daniel G.: So I guess the easy to way to start this is, how’s tour right now?
Dent May: Good, but long. It’s been five weeks now and we have one more week, which isn’t the longest tour I’ve ever done. In 2009 I did two nine-week tours. But it’s really fun. Like I’m touring with my best friends in the world. We get along great. We haven’t really had any bad shows. There’s been a handful of shows that had small crowds but like really great overall. It just feels great to be doing it. I’m happy to have the new album out basically.
DG: Is your tour going to end up back in Mississippi?
DM: We have two shows, one in Oxford where we live and one in Jackson where we grew up, so both are going to be really fun. I can’t wait. I think my parents are going to come to the Jackson show. It’s going to be sweet.
DG: How much of an influence would you say being from Mississippi has on your music?
DM: It has a huge influence, but I can’t really fingerpoint really directly how it is. It’s a really easy place to live because people are very relaxed and like to have a good time, and rent’s cheap. I definitely think that like the social aspects of living in the south affect my music because I really want people to enjoy it. I don’t know if a lot of bands forget that people have to enjoy listening to music, even if it’s dark. People have to want to listen to it. I want my music to soundtrack parties, but I also want you to be able to throw on some headphones and get lost in the lyrics if you want to.
DG: What kind of town is Oxford like? Because I know it’s a college town. My high school actually sends kids there every once in a while, to Ole Miss, but they don’t last. They always come back after a year.
DM: I’m sure. It’s kind of a small town of about 30,000 or 40,000 people, so I can understand like if you came and you didn’t know anybody, it would be really hard to find what you were really looking for maybe. I don’t know. We have a great group of friends that are all in bands. I book shows at our house, Cats Purring Dude Ranch. We’ve had a lot of amazing bands. Grimes broke our floor. It was so huge. Frankie Rose and DIIV, the cops came so that was a bummer. We haven’t had a show since then, but I don’t know. I feel like we’re kind of building a community of not just artists, but people who are interested in creative pursuits, supporting creative pursuits and it feels good to be in a place that needs that, and not a place like New York where you almost feel crushed underneath the weight of its history sometimes.
DG: Was there already a core of musicians and people that like that sort of thing there and have you drawn more people in as times gone on?
DM: I feel like we just shifted the focus a little bit. There’s always been musicians. It’s also a big literary community. William Faulkner’s from Oxford. There’s a really great bookstore called Square Books. It’s really famous and I worked there for a long time. There was always so much going on, but none of the bands that I like are playing here. So I started touring myself and meeting these bands, and I was like, “Well yeah, I can set you up with a show in Oxford.” Basically, bands I met being like, “Do you know anything about getting a show in Mississippi?” And I’ll be like, “Well, I can figure it out.” And now it’s a big part of who I am, now that I did all that. I was hanging out with the band Real Estate and that’s how I met them, booking them a show in Mississippi. Then, we ended up touring together. They’re some of my best friends, and in October, we’re playing at the wedding reception for Martin, their singer. It’s just about making friends for me. Music is a community thing for me. So that’s why touring is fun.
Anna G.: How did you guys end up in Oxford then if you guys are from Jackson?
DM: It’s the pretty standard path that Jacksonians take: to Oxford for college. Most kids move away when they graduate, but increasingly, there’s a great community of people in their 20s that are doing things. There’s a lot of cool stuff there. There’s Fat Possum Records, there’s the bookstore, there’s the campus. There’s a new record store called End of All Music, which is incredible. I don’t know. We always talk about moving somewhere else, but we’re so there. We’re like kind of stuck there in a good way and in a bad way sometimes.
DG: You talked about going out when you meet bands and everything. Was that how you guys got on Paw Tracks? How did that come about?
DM: Well, that was actually because Animal Collective was recording in Oxford. There’s a real great recording studio called Sweet Tea, another one of the great things about Oxford that brings people through. They were recording there. I didn’t even know they were there and somebody was like, “Animal Collective is in town.” I was like, “Whoa, I’m a huge fan.” They just ended up at a party at our house. That was when my parties didn’t have shows. We’ve always been throwing a lot of parties. They came to one of them and we just hit it off and we hung out almost every night they were there it felt like. We kept in touch and they asked my to be on their label. I think that’s how it is for them. They just ask friends that they dig what they’re doing. It feels like being part of a little family, too. Just 100 percent creative freedom. Like 110 percent creative freedom. I just turned in the product.
DG: They’re not going to ask for anything except the record?
DM: They didn’t even listen to my album until it was out, I think. They were busy recording their own album. They don’t do anything like that.
DG: Where does the “Do Things” mantra come from?
DM: Well, there’s a song where the lyrics were “do things your own way.” I don’t know. I just wanted something simple. And also, I’m glad you said “mantra” because I thought a lot about mantras. I watched the George Harrison documentary that Martin Scorcese did and he was obsessed with the Hare Krishna culture and boiling things down to the essence of human existence. I really just want to confront questions that everyone has in their lives. So “Do Things.” Also, living in Oxford, you see a lot of people who aren’t doing much. It’s like a college town so there’s kids in school, but there’s so many people who get, “Oh, I’m going to work in a bar for the rest of my life,” which is totally cool, but it’s just like, stand up and chase your dreams. Don’t give up on your dreams that you had when you were younger, because it feels like so many people in our parents generation kind of just took jobs because they wanted to make a living and they didn’t do what they really wanted to. I definitely think you only live once — YOLO — so I think it’s really important to just go hard for what you believe in.
AG: Yeah, I mean that’s a really good feeling to have behind the record.
DM: Yeah, and I went through a really hard time after my ukulele album came out in 2009. I had no idea why I was making music. I felt pressure to record another album, but I didn’t feel inspired at all, so I was like, “Why am I going to make music?” I could die tomorrow, so if I do it, I have to say something. It’s something small, “Do Things.” Some people find the title very underwhelming. It’s totally fine, but others might feel inspired to be like, “Oh, maybe I won’t just get this shitty job. Instead, I’ll pick up guitar.”
DG: Were you ever worried about ending up in that post-college, college town cycle?
DM: I don’t know if you’ve heard the first album, but there’s a song called “College Town Boy.” There’s also a song called “Howard,” which is about an aging rocker that never made it. Everyone was always like, “Who’s ‘College Town Boy’ about?” because there’s obviously a million people like that in every college town, and I was like, “It’s about myself.” I was becoming that. At the time, I was just out of college, working in a bookstore, a very comfortable job, partying. And I just felt very unfulfilled, so, you know. I definitely had to do something to break the monotony.
AG: What was the jolt that you had to move on? Or was it more like a gradual…
DM: Do you mean from the ukulele? Or what inspired the newer album?
AG: Yeah, to move on to something new.
DM: Well, I went a year and a half without writing a single song. One thing that happened, and I’ll be honest, this is kind of dark, but a really good friend of mine passed away. It really makes you realize, “Yeah, I could die tomorrow.” I could have a car crash, someone could murder me, anything could happen. It really made me appreciate life, that life is precious. This guy Peyton was really close to us. I drove up to CMJ with him right before he died and he was my backbone for a lot of my musical pursuits. I’m afraid of dying and I want to make my mark while I can.
DG: When you guys are on tour right now — a little change of pace — what are you guys listening to in the van?
DM: It’s really funny. We only have radio in the van. Some of us throw on headphones and stuff, but we’re listening to pop radio all the time. It’s kind of awesome. There’s a lot of really horrible lyrics and bad repetitive melodies and weird production. But I love Rihanna and Beyonce and even these random songs, like theres that fun. song that’s huge right now. There’s that Gotye or whatever. At first I’m always like, “This is the cheesiest production.” But then I’m interested in things. Why do millions of people in the world like this? There’s a reason, and part of it’s because corporations are pumping tons of money into it, but there’s also other reasons. We’ve been listening to tons of pop radio. Like, I love Rihanna and Beyonce. They are two of my icons in my life right now. And otherwise, I love hip hop and R&B so much. I just feel like indie rock can get so stale with bands that sound like Joy Division over and over again. I’m like, “Push things forward a little bit.” I know album is not the most sonically inventive thing ever, but I’m at least trying to throw some elements together that maybe hasn’t been done before. I want to pursue the future of music and not the past.
DG: Have there been any towns where on the radio it’s just been totally different or just bizarre?
DM: I can’t really remember the towns where this happened, but in Washington, Bellingham, Wash., there was a great Indian station that was playing like Bollywood style music, but funky, kind of like newer. It was awesome. Randomly, we found that. You’ll find a random classic country station, which there was lot of that in the southwest. Bakersfield, Calif., is where Merle Haggard and Buck Owens are from, so I was like, “There’s got to be a classic country station here” and yeah, there was. It’s not always top 40 radio, but it’s a lot of that. There’s a lot of places where I’m like, “Is there no rap station?” I’m like, “Give me the rap music.
AG: I guess that could be true in some places.
DM: It is. There’s just tons of places that don’t have them. Weird.
DG: On headphones, what new albums or just albums?
DM: I just listened to the new Frank Ocean album today, and I love it. I think it’s amazing. His song “Thinkin’ Bout You” was really great and it really touched me. The production is really adventurous and you can tell he has fun making music. That’s what I like. I want people to hear my album and be like, “Wow, he really had fun making that.” Yeah, I’ll be a little heavy-handed sometimes and throw in some goofy sound effect I shouldn’t have, but that’s part of the magic of it.
DG: If you had to pick some touchstones for influencing your sound, where would you start?
DM: Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about ELO. I like how bombastic and Jeff Lynne, he’s like, “Yes, everything! Orchestras! Choirs! Synths! Whatever!” I kind of want to go in that direction where I’m just super indulgent. There’s a lot of minimalist bands out there, which I’m really into that and I really love minimalist visual art and the idea of that, but I just want to do everything at the same time. Why not? It’s 2012 and it’s really cheap to record your own music. So why not? I don’t know who I’m going to get to sing in a choir yet but why not set up a few mics and get 10 people to sing in front of them. I love ELO. I love R. Kelly a lot. That’s the same kind of thing where there’s just this lack of restraint that is totally freeing. I really like everything. I really truly want to combine every music that’s ever existed into the music of the future. I haven’t done it yet, but that’s kind of what I want to do. I’m accepting of everything.
DG: When people tell you they really like your music, does it ever come from surprising angles? One time, I went on a daytrip with my dad last summer and we listened to the ukulele album four times in the car and I sent Do Things to my friend’s mom on the Internet and she was just like, “This is amazing.”
DM: Cool! Send it to all your friends’ moms. The ukulele thing is kind of interesting because people are angry I don’t play it anymore. That’s a weird angle for me because I’m like, “Do you only listen to ukulele music?” I know they’re attached to the idea that I play ukulele. I was in Australia in like 2010 finishing up the ukulele tours and this guy comes to the show, an older guy who is obviously a ukulele aficionado. Our label guys over there, it was actually a female, he comes up to her and was like, “Hold out your hand.” She holds out her hand and slap! He slaps it and says, “Shame on your for not alerting the ukulele community of Australia about this tour. That was definitely a thing where I was like, “OK, I don’t want to be a part of it, the community.” It’s like the old cliché, “Never be a part of the club that would have me.” I don’t want to be part of a club. People expect me to play ukulele, I’m not going to do it. Sorry. It sucks because last night at Mercury Lounge someone was really disappointed I didn’t play ukulele. People still bring their ukuleles for me to sign and I’m like, “All right, pay a little more attention. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve played it.” And in a couple songs, he was just devastated I didn’t play “You Can’t Force A Dance Party.” I was just like, “That’s one of the ones we haven’t learned as a full band yet. I don’t know, I didn’t even think about that hard.” You know what I mean?
DG: Does that get weird at all?
DM: It’s a little disappointing, but on the other hand it’s empowering that just like I can do whatever I want and so I just have to brush it off. I wouldn’t say, “You’re being rude,” but I was just thinking, “You’re trying to make me feel bad right now. Just tell me you like the ukulele stuff, but don’t try to make me horrible because I didn’t play it tonight.”
AG: Life goes on. I wanted to ask about your dude ranch. What was the genesis of that? How did that…?
DM: I really started booking these shows for friends’ bands at venues, like Real Estate was one of the first ones I did. Then we moved into a house in the country where there was like a garage that was great for practicing and we had a handful of shows out there. That was called the Cats Purring Country Club and Teen Wing, the Teen Wing was the garage. We had a few shoes, but I was always like, “I want to have a great DIY space.” There was this I’d had my eye on for so long. It was vacant for two years and had a homeless guy squatting in it, graffiti all over the walls. I knew the landlord very well and had them drop the rent for us. It was so gross I had a hard time convincing people the move in. If you saw it now with furniture in it, you’d be like, “Who wouldn’t live here?” Because it’s huge, it’s really cool. The performance space is as big as Glasslands or some real venue. It’s great. Our PA, sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not good and the cops have started to discover us lately. It’s not something I’m going to do forever, but it’s a great way to help make Mississippi a better place and a great way to meet cool bands while I’m at it and make some friends.
DG: When you first started out touring and playing music out, did you really like playing in DIY spaces and wherever you could?
DM: Yeah, I didn’t do a ton of it, but I booked my own first tour and there was a lot of DIY spaces that kind of inspired me. I went to this space called the Spazzatorium in Greenville, N.C., that doesn’t exist anymore and it was just this space downtown they were renting and throwing illegal shows. I thought it was really cool and I went to Market Hotel shows back in the day in New York. I went to NYU for three semesters so I moved back to Mississippi in 2005 or something. There was always places. And reading about them online, like The Smell in LA, I was just like this is cool.
AG: I’ve seen you a couple of times in New York and I saw you in May with The Babies also, and we actually both saw you last summer with Real Estate. What’s it like coming back to New York? Are more people aware? Are more people coming out the shows?
DM: Yeah, I’m really curious as to how it goes tonight because last night’s crowd at Mercury Lounge was amazing. People were dancing a lot and singing along and clapping and stuff. So many of my New York shows early on was just people with their arms crossed silently judging me, which is obviously a stereotype of New York shows that there’s some truth to. It’s really cool that people come and have a good time because that’s what I want our music to do. It’s great coming back to our place and our shows get better every time. You see that our work is paying off.
AG: I think a couple times when I’ve seen you, I’ve brought friends that had never seen you before, and they were like, “eh,” but I was like, “You gotta go, it’s gonna be good.” They end up dancing and having a great time.
DM: Touring, you learn how that works. You just see. I played Boise to 10 people one time and I came back later and there were 80 people there. You’re like, “OK.” People are like, “Oh, I had a friend who told me you were good the last time you came.” You’re like, “Oh, so this is how it works.” I never get bummed when we play like Fargo, N.D., to like nobody. Hopefully, we come back and there’s three or four times as many people. Maybe not. If you can get that to happen most of the time, you’re making some progress.
DG: Just as a final random question, if you could book a tour with anyone, who would you tour with?
DM: Well, I would love to do a tour with all the Cats Purring bands in Mississippi. Like all my bandmates play in other bands like Dead Gaze and Grey Things, Flight. Bass Drum of Death is also a band that my roommate plays in and they’re really successful. I’ve always talked about doing that, like almost sort of a traveling carnival or something. I’d like to do a multiple stage, traveling festival at some point, like Cats Purring Presents or something. But otherwise, I would love to play with Rihanna or something crazy. Part of me is like, “Ah, who cares about who hears your music?” but then the other part of me wants to be accepted. I want Rihanna and Beyonce to hear my music one day. Seriously. I just want them to hear it. We’ll see what happens.
AG: You never know.
Again, listen to the interview here.