Dent May Talks about His Latest Album, Songwriting, Sincerity, and the Future
Dent May and his music have been familiar to us for some time now. We've crossed paths with the talented songwriter and performer on different occasions, but with the 2017 release of his brilliant Across the Multiverse, we felt the time was right for a conversation with Dent, and he graciously obliged. Generous with his time and insights, Dent May covered diverse topics with us in detail, including the new album, songwriting, sources of inspiration, upcoming plans, and much more.
Bobby Weirdo: I’d love to talk about you being Southern, a Southern musician, and the legacy of Southern music.
Dent May: When I was living in Mississippi, it was always really important to me to make Mississippi a better place. You can see it at the bottom of every list: income, teen pregnancy, obesity…it’s one of the poorest states in America. Growing up there, there wasn’t that much going on in the way of touring bands coming through or visual artists doing interesting things, so my friends and I put a lot of effort into making things like that happen.
I lived at the Cats Purring Dude Ranch – a DIY venue – and we booked shows there. There was – and still is – a real interesting community, especially in Jackson where I grew up, and Oxford where I lived for ten years. There were great people who really wanted to show that world that we’re not just what you see in unsavory headlines. There’s a lot of civil rights history and inequality, but I’ve found that as a result of that, there are small pockets of progressive people that are passionate about trying to change things, and that’s the perspective that I come from. My parents were like that, and my sisters are like that.
But long story short, I was just craving living in a big city. Oxford is a town of 30,000 people, Jackson is the biggest city [in Mississippi] and it has like 200,000 people, and I felt like I needed a change of pace on a personal level. I didn’t come out to L.A. chasing dreams of any sort of success or anything like that – I just wanted to get a change of scenery, meet a bunch of new people, and thankfully, a ton of my Mississippi friends live out here now. I drove out here with four other Mississippi friends. My roommates are from Mississippi, and we have a crew of twenty Mississippians that are always hanging out. We go to parties, and it’s like, “Oh, Mississippi showed up!”
I love it [here], and I always did love it. I’ve been touring since around 2008, and coming through on tour, it always felt really good. I went to NYU for three semesters in 2003 and 2004, and I didn’t love going to film school at NYU, but I really loved New York. But there’s something about the sunshine, the backyards, the porches, and the palm trees that just attracted me [to L.A.].
I don’t drive a lot because I don’t have a real job, but I appreciate that [L.A.] is like a cluster of small towns or small cities. I don’t feel like I live in Santa Monica or Venice – I haven’t been there in six months, even though it’s nice to visit the ocean. It’s been really inspiring, and I don’t see myself moving anywhere else any time soon. I think if I moved back south it would be to New Orleans because my family’s there and I’m always interested in changing things up. So far, so good - I really love it here.
BW: Is Across the Multiverse your L.A. album, or do you think it would have come out as it is whether you were here or not?
DM: It’s a hybrid. I kind of wanted to make an L.A. album, but it isn’t necessarily that. I started writing some of the songs before I moved here. But I did record it here, and there’s a song called “90210” on it, so I guess in many ways it is.
Working on the album cover art with Robert Beatty, we were trying to do some sort of deep space-meets-L.A. thing with the palm trees, and I guess it’s an L.A. album, although I feel like the next one I do will be even more so. It’s hard to say with the Internet out there, because there are so many influences coming at me. Geography is one factor, but there’s so much more. And I travel a lot, and always visit home. I find inspiration wherever I can.
BW: You mentioned Robert Beatty. Did you know him from your days down south through his band?
DM: I met him when I played in Lexington, Kentucky for the first time. He DJ’d the show, I knew who he was, and I feel like we might have communicated on e-mail about our stuff. I’ve kept in touch with him, and have played in Lexington several times [since].
It’s been interesting to see his career unfold. He’s super talented, and his style hasn't really changed that much. That’s what’s cool - he’s just being himself, and getting all these huge gigs like Flaming Lips and Kesha. He deserves it, and I feel lucky that he did my album.
BW: Looking back at different eras of your career so far – starting with the early ukulele days, going into some of your later more dance-oriented material, and then your latest work, is there a common thread, story, or problem you’re working on from album to album, or do you just release each album and work with whatever is influencing you at the time?
DM: I think I’m just constantly trying to be me the best way that I can. I think that the newer music I’m making is more me. It incorporates all the different elements I like, and distills it into something I hope is unique and that people can hear and know it’s me. Maybe that was always the case, and I’m always chasing different whims and fancies based on random phases I’m going through as a listener, but my goal is to distill it to something that’s pure, simple, and me.
I think I was a little too self-conscious about needing an angle or gimmick during the ukulele-era so that people would notice me or write about me. So I concocted this whole Dent May and his Magnificent Ukulele persona, and as that was happening – and afterwards – the ukulele became this whole thing that’s in toilet paper ad jingles and really bad major label indie twee bands. As I was touring that album, I quickly realized it was not me. There are still people that come to my shows and are mad that I don’t play the ukulele. Granted, maybe I should bust it out once in a while, because why not? But I didn’t feel comfortable around that kind of close-mindedness from a certain corner of the music community that was fixated on the ukulele.
After that, it was like, “Oh, I like synthesizers,” and who doesn’t? And now I’m really into organic instruments like my piano here, and using real drums, but also synths and funky bass lines, and retro melodies and harmonies. A lot of my favorites artists over the years like ELO were maximalists. I have a problem where I can’t say no when I have a new idea for a song. I pile it all on, but I am trying to get more selective with the elements of the arrangement that I choose to include on the recording.
The process of making albums is a search or personal journey to find out who I am or how I interact with the world. And it’s not just me – but also the people I know, the places I go, the instruments that I have, and the websites I visit on the Internet. So it’s a fun exploration.
BW: Were you reading The Elegant Universe right before you recorded the latest album, or was that a while ago?
DM: The Multiverse idea definitely came from that book. I’m not a consistent or attentive reader, and I rarely read a whole book. I love short stories and poetry because of my attention span, which has been damaged by the Internet. The Elegant Universe is a cool book because it’s broken up into short chapters, so I actually read the whole thing.
I was reading a lot of stuff like that – a lot of articles on the Internet. There’s a subreddit called Futurology that has out-there articles about A.I., nerdy and outlandish science fiction-inspired ideas about what the future might hold. I don’t know how I feel about that one way or the other, but I’m always interested in that. It probably stems from an interest in science fiction like Philip K. Dick. I’m always trying to read stuff for ideas to write songs about.
BW: There’s an equation in the video for Across the Multiverse…
DM: Oh yeah! It was hanging up here, and I just gave that to Goodwill.
BW: What is that equation?
DM: We literally Googled “Multiverse equation,” so there’s a big equation that I think is real – we might have butchered it. The rest of it is gibberish. I took calculus once upon a time, so I was just using symbols.
BW: How did the Dent Maynia phenomenon spring up? Was that something that you started, or did it just pop up on the Internet?
DM: I think it just comes from me being stoned on Twitter. Years ago, I think I wrote something like “Jimmy Buffett has his Parrotheads, Lady Gaga has her Monsters, Justin Bieber has his Beliebers…who are Dent May fans?” People wrote “Dentists” or something! I always had the idea of naming an album Dent Maynia, which I think is really stupid, and I don’t think I’ll ever do that. But that led to me tweeting about Dent Mayniacs. People liked it/hated it. It’s definitely stupid, but hopefully stupid in a good way.
BW: Do you see yourself as an underground artist?
DM: I’ve always wanted to straddle that line between underground and mainstream. I’m not a mainstream artist; I’m not an experimental artist. I definitely consider myself a pop artist, but it’s a type of pop that is not popular. I just think of myself as a guy who makes music, tries to write songs to the best of my abilities, and has fun with it.
I guess most of my friends are considered something like indie musicians, but I don’t even know what that means anymore. Sometimes these days, an indie band might have a million dollar budget from a major label, and sometimes an album that gets millions of plays was made in someone’s bedroom for two hundred dollars. I definitely embrace that.
As you can see, I have just a few things here that I work with, though I have been slowly buying more gear. I’m a homemade, do-it-yourself guy. I can’t imagine spending five hundred to two thousand dollars a day in a crazy recording studio – it seems insane. I can see myself building a recording studio. I do mix my albums in a studio – I spend five days mixing the album with a real engineer because I don’t actually know what I’m doing, but I try not to define or think about where I fit in the grand scheme of things. I think I definitely fall between the cracks. I’m not underground enough for some people, and I’m not mainstream enough for other people. Some people will find their way to my music, and I don’t even know how or why.
BW: Do recordings you do here in this bedroom find their way onto your albums?
DM: It’s all done here except for the drums, which were done at my friend Pat’s in Pasadena, because I don’t know how to record drums and have enough microphones to do it. People would do some of the overdubs for violin or horns at their house and just send me the stems. But every vocal take you hear on the album was recorded in this room except for Frankie Cosmos’s, which was recorded in New York. This piano is the piano you hear on every song on the album, and here’s the acoustic guitar on the album.
I got a new microphone since the album, and I also got this Neve clone preamp, so I’m spending what little money I made on tour trying to improve my music before I spend it on fifteen-dollar cocktails at some shitty bar.
BW: Is your connection to the Paw Tracks label directly through Animal Collective?
DM: Yes, They recorded Merriweather Post Pavillion in Oxford, Mississippi, where I was living. That was in early 2008, I believe. They were around for a month or two. It’s a small town, and somehow they ended up at a party at my house. We hit it off, and they came to one of my shows, and we stayed in touch. I ended up going on tour with them in Europe on their tour bus. They asked me to be on Paw Tracks, and that was a pivotal moment – just realizing or deciding that I was able to be a touring musician and get my music to people outside Mississippi.
I had already talked with other labels and booked a tour, and was trying to do my thing. But meeting them was really cool, and also getting to pick their brains on how they were working on what turned out to be one of the greatest albums of all time. Being on tour with them on the Merriweather tour, their attitude of straddling that line between experimental and pop, their anything-goes attitude, and their pure joy of exploration really rubbed off on me. They’re extremely nice people with great attitudes, and I like nice people.
BW: Knowing all that, why aren’t your albums still released through Paw Tracks?
DM: I’ll tell you why – it doesn’t exist anymore. About three years passed, and I think the members of Animal Collective had lost interest in signing new bands to Paw Tracks. When that happened, it was already pretty much Carpark – the label I’m on currently - that was running Paw Tracks. So, essentially I’ve been on the same label for all four albums.
BW: You’re a fan of country music, and had the band Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City…
DM: I love songwriting, and you definitely hear some of the best songwriting of all time in classic country music. I just watched the Townes Van Zandt documentary, Be Here to Love Me, two nights ago. I come at it from a songwriting perspective and a Southern perspective. I love all the old ‘50s and ‘60s old school Grand Ole Opry stuff. When I was in college I went to the country music museum. I also came at it from the Gram Parsons, Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Byrds country stuff. As a result, [I got into] Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell, classic George Jones, and other country artists of that era. It’s still something I return to constantly.
The band Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City is named after an electronics store in Mississippi, and was definitely an attempt to be like a Flying Burrito Brothers style band. There are a couple demos that might be available on the Internet – I’m not sure if they’re still around. All my friends that know me from then ask me when I’m going to do a Maloney’s country album, but I’m in a place where I don’t want to do a country album, or an R&B album, or a funk album. I don’t believe in genres anymore; I want to incorporate those vibes into what I do now. But maybe one day I’ll do a full-on country album with pedal steel and banjo on every track.
We never played a show as the actual full band, but I definitely played some country shows. In fact, I think when I met Animal Collective I was doing a country show. I was wearing an American flag jacket and a cowboy hat. But as I said, I don’t really believe in genre in this post-Internet age. It’s all just one thing to me. People ask me how I describe my music, and I say, “I don’t describe it.”
BW: Reading reviews of your music - and just reviews in general - I wonder sometimes what people are looking for. Can’t music just be an expression of something?
DM: I do feel like a lot of music writers aren’t necessarily interested in songwriting, or even music. It’s more about culture, and where something fits into their preconceived notions about what is interesting or important to culture. And that’s an important and interesting thing to think about. I don’t think that songwriting craft gets enough love in general, but the people – the real humans who love music – know. It’s songs that live forever. It’s not an attitude or a fashion style, although those will always be historic aspects of our lives over the years.
I don’t necessarily know what people are looking for, but I always feel the song is what matters. I want to write songs where it could be just an acoustic guitar, you could put an orchestra behind it, a house beat behind it, and the song is going to be great no matter what. There are plenty of great artists that are more like sound explorers, and I’m all about that as well, but that’s not me. My whole goal is to write songs that somebody will care about when I’m dead.
BW: You studied film at NYU, and English Studies and Southern Studies at University of Mississippi, but didn’t study music.
DM: I did take piano and guitar lessons as a kid. I still don’t know how to read music, and I don’t remember any of the piano stuff I learned. I very quickly learned that I didn’t care about being a technically proficient musician as much as I did writing songs. Of course I regret not learning certain aspects of my instrument better. Like we were talking about [Béla] Bartók's Mikrokosmos – I’m still trying to relearn the piano because I don’t feel I know how to really play it. I just play chords and stuff like that.
BW: Was “Hello Cruel World” written to be the first song on the album? It has an introduction feel to it, and sets up Across the Multiverse as if it is a concept album.
DM: It was definitely written to be the first song on the album. I think all my albums – maybe with the exception of Do Things – have that. Warm Blanket has “Turn Up the Speakers” and The Good Feeling Music of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele has a song called “Welcome” that introduces the album. It’s kind of a retro ‘60s/’70s thing to do. There’s a Gilbert O’Sullivan album, Himself, and he has an intro and outro where he welcomes the listener, and then he says goodbye at the end. I just think that’s really awesome. “Hello Cruel World” is a different way of doing that, and it’s also a way of opening my live set. And it’s my attitude toward life – appreciating being here and trying the best we can.
BW: You’ve described yourself as a “legit fan” of New Kids on the Block.
DM: That was the first concert I ever saw, and I still have some memorabilia. My sisters were really into it. I had all the trading cards, I have pillowcases, and I had an amazing denim sleeping bag. My sisters and I waited outside a hotel where we heard they were staying, and crazy stuff like that.
BW: Who was your favorite member?
DM: I don’t remember – I think Joey. He was the youngest one, so I identified. I was like five, six – a little too young to know what I was listening to. I can’t say that their albums are great, but “Hangin’ Tough”…they’ve got some great tracks.
And I’m definitely interested in boy band culture. I was reading this crazy article about Lou Pearlman. I’m just interested in these weird, seedy, sordid tales of pop music history. And boy band stuff definitely falls in that category sometimes.
BW: What’s your take on irony and sincerity? I’ve read references to a Dent May as a character. Is there a Dent May character, and is there irony in what you do?
DM: I don’t feel like I’m playing a character at all, and I don’t even know what irony means anymore. In a literary sense, it’s cool if there’s situational irony, or an unexpected play on something in certain lyrics. But I feel like “ironic” ten years ago meant "I’m a hipster wearing a Hanson shirt because – wink wink, get it? – it’s Hanson, and I’m cool."
And whatever that is – whether it's irony or not – has nothing to do with me at all. I’m a sincere person, and I like things that other people think aren’t cool and aren’t in the canon of great art. But I think they’re great, they deserve attention, and they make me happy. New Kids on the Block fits in that category; it’s not a guilty pleasure. I think “Hangin’ Tough” and “The Right Stuff” are amazing songs. I was listening to Paula Abdul’s album Forever Your Girl. That was another album that my sisters like from that era, and that pop music is amazing.
The personality I show in my promo photos, music videos, and songwriting is just who I am. When I was in junior high and high school, I obsessively taped reruns of The Partridge Family on VHS from ABC Family Channel, and my parents thought I was the biggest weirdo of all time. That’s just who I am – I like these things. I have all this Princess Diana memorabilia stuff, and I don’t know why. It makes me happy to be surrounded by pictures of Princess Diana. But there’s definitely no sort of cool, detached irony with anything I ever do.
I do think that somebody might hear the arrangements in my music that are overstuffed and playful, and think that maybe I’m not being sincere, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I am a playful person, and think that most artists take themselves way too seriously. Ninety-nine percent of these kids want to be Radiohead, but humor is such a powerful tool in art. I mean, Shakespeare was pretty damn funny.
BW: Speaking of Princess Diana, I thought the idea for the “Picture on a Screen” video was so cool – relatively easy to do, and relatively inexpensive, and yet a good video.
DM: That just happened on a whim. I made the text in a karaoke creator program that I found online. My friend Ian did the photography. We threw in Crocs, weed, whiskey, and weird things lying around the room. We set the scene with a picture of Princess Diana, and did it. The next day we realized we mixed up “your” and “you’re” in the bridge, and I was so embarrassed. You can scroll down in the YouTube comments and someone wrote something like “The your/you’re thing is killing me”. But happy accidents are all part of the show – I’m going to pretend it was on purpose.
BW: Speaking of weed, does “I’ll be Stoned for Christmas” come from personal experience?
DM: Yes. Being home on Christmas is something a lot of people can identify with, but in Mississippi in particular, my friends and I have a tradition of throwing a party on Christmas night where our bands play, or we’ll DJ, or something like that. That happened last year and has been happening every year, so it’s a tradition of escaping family stuff on Christmas night. It's also balanced with feeling alienated and like you don’t belong here anymore. It’s all these complicated feelings.
But there was this one particular year...It was Christmas Day when Merriweather Post Pavillion leaked. Animal Collective never sent me the album, so I’d never heard it, but one of my friends had it. We were all fans, and it was just a coincidence that many of us had met them when they were recording. So we drove around in my friend's fifteen-passenger tour van, smoking hella blunts, listening to Merriweather Post Pavillion all the way through on Christmas night, and it was one of those amazing, life-changing experiences. Hopefully they’re not too mad that I listened to a leaked, probably low-quality rip of the album, but it was really cool, and that album is special to a lot of my friends.
BW: What are you planning on doing in 2018?
DM: I’m ready to make another album. That’s why I’m buying this gear and writing songs. I took a four-year break between Warm Blanket and this album, and I never want to do that again. So I think I’ll definitely record an album next year for release in 2019, and I will tour as much as I can next year as well. I’m working on a couple collaborations, and doing a lot of brainstorming about how I want to go about recording the next album. I have tons of partially-completed songs, so I’m going through those ideas, coming up with new ones, and just having fun imagining it.