Local Artist Spotlight: Dave Depper

Photo by Carlos Cruz

Every week, KEXP features a new local artist with an interview and suggested tracks for where to start. This week, we’re featuring Portland songwriter Dave Depper, who plays Bumbershoot this Sunday at 5:30 PM on the KEXP stage.

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You might have heard Dave Depper‘s playing and not even known it. The Portland musician’s resume is a veritable “who’s who” of Northwest indie rock with some notable regional acts peppered in. Menomena, Fruit Bats, Laura Gibson, Mirah, and on and on. Most recently he’s joined Death Cab For Cutie on guitar as a full-time member. Throughout all these different projects he’s jumped between, Depper has maintained a diverse and compelling body of solo work, ranging from instrumental suites to full-on covering a Paul McCartney record from start to finish. He’s one of the region’s best-kept secrets, building up his peers while also steadily creating immersive work of his own. Earlier this year he released Emotional Freedom Technique, his first solo record featuring all original songs with a more “conventional pop structure.” We caught up with Depper about his new album, working with such a vast array of musicians, and what to expect from his upcoming Bumbershoot set.

You’ve built up a pretty great reputation as being one of the go-to musicians for musicians in the Pacific Northwest and beyond, jumping in with bands to fill out their live sets and playing on their records. How did you land in this role of a sort-of utility player who works with bands in this way?

Well, the extremely short version of this is that I played in a ton of different bands in Portland from about 2003-2011. During that time, I had a super flexible day job that allowed me to work from the road. Partially because of this, I was able to go on many tours that didn’t really pay but led to me meeting like-minded folks all over the world. I love collaboration and have never been shy about letting people know that I was available and wanting to work with them!

Prior to Emotional Freedom Technique, you’ve done some pretty interesting solo efforts. One of which was The Ram Project, which saw you covering Paul McCartney’s Ram in full. What made you want to tackle that project in particular? As a songwriter and musician yourself, were there any lessons you took away from working with McCartney’s material so closely?

At that time, which was early 2010, I’d already been part of the process of recording several albums, with various bands, in professional recording studios. I was keen to find out if I was capable of recording an album on my own at home, using a very small amount of recording equipment that I’d recently purchased. I had the gear and the motivation, but I was lacking material of my own. The solution? Record somebody else’s album from start to finish, of course!

I was on a bit of a solo McCartney kick and figured that Ram would be a great project for this, as it has a range of songs with a built-in recording learning curve. I could start with a simple song like “Heart of the Country”, move on to something a bit trickier, like “Eat At Home”, and conclude with the more epically complicated tracks, like “Long Haired Lady” and “Back Seat Of My Car.”

I took away many lessons from the record — I improved as a recordist, instrumentalist, and singer. I progressed from being utterly hopeless on the drums to mildly competent. And it was my first experience with putting out anything with my name on it!

You also put out Utrecht Suite in 2015, which you recorded while on tour and limited yourself to only using a guitar with a loop pedal and no overdubs. Do you like to challenge yourself with exercises like this with music? It sounds like were also left with almost six hours of material at the end of the tour — how did you pare it down to the six tracks that made up the eventual release?

I’m the kind of person who over-complicates even the simplest decisions and often find myself utterly paralyzed by the vast ocean of choices available to me as a musician and a songwriter. I find that I work best when operating within a set of self-imposed limitations, so I try to set some ground rules from the outset — the more draconian the better.

The Utrecht Suite tracks are drawn from a larger pool of material that I recorded across Europe that same month. Paring down Utrecht was fairly easy, as I just picked songs that I’d recorded on a night in the town of Utrecht, the Netherlands! The remainder of the tracks will be coming out on a much larger release early next year, provisionally entitled Europa.

In some ways, Emotional Freedom Technique feels like your first “conventional” release. What made now feel like the right time to share some of your original, pop-structured songs? Is there a larger theme or narrative to the record that you were hoping to convey through the music?

Yeah, in many ways this does feel like my first true solo record or at least my first attempt at expressing the full range of my interest in pop music writing and production.

Why now? Well, it just kind of turned out that way! I started working on this record around five years ago and was relentlessly interrupted by coming and going on tour, causing the record to lay dormant for months at a time. I finally had a few months off early last year and committed to just wrapping the darn thing up, finally. And then it didn’t make sense to release it, schedule-wise, until earlier this year.

There is a definite lyrical narrative to the record, for sure. It didn’t immediately present itself — in fact, it took a couple of years of working on the record before I realized it — but it’s definitely an honest look at a 3-4 year period of my recent life where I found myself simply unable to fully emotionally connect with or commit to anything, where I was having endless long distance relationships that came to nothing, where I couldn’t bring myself to fall in love, and where despite being around more people than I ever had been in my life I’d never been more lonely. Once I had stumbled upon that cheery subject, the record more or less came together.

You’re now a full-time member of Death Cab for Cutie — how has being in that band changed or helped inform how you approach your own music?

I’d venture that joining Death Cab has had a fairly negligible effect on my solo material, musically speaking. Much of Emotional Freedom Technique was already recorded and certainly written by the time I got the call-up. And even if that hadn’t had been the case, I believe that Death Cab always has and hopefully will continue to do what it does very well and I have zero desire to compete with them in any way, musically. And if I come up with any particularly Death Cabby ideas, well, I’ll probably share them with the band instead of using them in my own work!

I will say, though, that as I neared the finish line on Emotional Freedom Technique, that I was particularly inspired by Ben Gibbard’s long career of unflinching emotional vulnerability in his lyrics. I’ve always been afraid to share that side of myself in my own music. Playing Ben’s songs and watching him express these personal things to strangers, night after night, has been a powerful encouragement for me to do the same.

For those who’ve never seen one of your solo sets, what can people expect from your performance at Bumbershoot?

Well, not to spoil anything, but we’re gonna play Emotional Freedom Technique in full! I have a wonderfully talented band who have truly brought these bedroom-recorded solo jams to life. I will be playing a Fender Stratocaster and bantering awkwardly.

 

 

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