Danny Denial might have just made the record of the summer, but don’t expect to hear it blasting from any barbecues.
The multitalented Seattle artist is no stranger to exploring pitch-black feelings creeping to the surface like ink in the water. As one of the vocalists for the goth/industrial shoegaze band Dark Smith and through their own genre-non-conforming solo work, loneliness, anxiety, depression, and the societal pressure of trying to simply exist as a queer-identifying person frequently crops up in their work.
Their third solo album, titled fuck danny denial from a variety of perspectives, is a stunning exploration into the complex personality of one of Seattle’s most creatively restless artists. A famous Dead Kennedys song is repurposed into a statement of emotional exhaustion, a London airport gate is the scene of a tortuous breakdown.
The closest thing fuck danny denial has to an upbeat pop song is opener “Mercer summit block party/Brand new skirt,” with the glimmering synth sample carrying the song’s first suite and Danny harmonizing with themselves in the chorus of its second. But even getting carried away in the moment of the now-defunct block party and feeling a brand new skirt against their skin are tempered by the creeping feeling of, What if this beauty I’m feeling is just temporary? Throughout the album, a host of collaborators help Denial flesh out the longing, the stasis of retrograde, the pills, the self-doubt, the desire to make their inner flower girl -- tossing petals at the wedding -- to last.
What happens when it’s time for the existentialist to make their exit? What happens when the person who just wants to be desired makes it to a status where that fantasy comes true? What happens when our depressed protagonist runs out of drugs to distract them from their pain? What happens when you don’t want to go home, but you don’t want to stay either?
Happy endings don’t come easy on fuck danny denial, but the grit required to pick yourself back up after getting knocked down over and over again -- by fluctuating mental health, circumstances, by systemic marginalization and oppression, by your own thoughts screaming at you -- courses throughout the album.
In the end, does Danny make it out okay? They’re still standing, which constitutes most of the fight.
"The album as a whole was made at a point when I thought I was growing out of anger and exploring my own psyche in extremes, which made the entire project completely introspective. Less about the world and my place in it like my other works. But in a lot of ways, looking back at it now I can see that it charts a total loss of identity. I lost my anger and my focus and my sense of self, and went down a spiral of ego, confusion and acceptance. I made a post online recently about reclaiming my voice in the midst of this current fight against police brutality and black death, one that I'm fighting actively and daily, and I've been reframing a lot of my thoughts on this album as someone who was beaten into a state of complacency and numbness as a black person in America for many years.
For this reason, the first songs are my least favorites and the last songs are some of my favorite songs I've done." -- Danny Denial
Below, read Denial's thoughts on each track on the album.
Danny Denial: The order of this tracklist really does track this breakdown I was having chronologically from start to finish. These first two songs were written when I felt "happy" and "loved" in a way that is proven to be empty. Listening to these is really dysphoric now, because even in the happier lyrics you can feel the confusion and hesitance. It's about misplaced emotions in a heightened need for community and acceptance for someone who's lived with a lifetime of alienation. I wrote this song after Mercer Summer Block Party in 2018 (the very last one) because it was the first time I felt like a "part" of the music community after 4 years of playing in it. At the time, I thought I was going to be writing an entire record like this ... I'm really glad I didn't.
KEXP: Do you have any memories that stand out from Mercer Summit Block Party 2018 as you were finally validated as a member of Seattle's music community?
It's funny because I wasn't even playing that day, it was just an energy that was felt and shared all day long while moving from stage to stage. It truly felt like the first time I was really a "part" of my own community. And then it (the festival) never happened again, which is quite symbolic of this whole project.
"Mercer summit" sets up the doubt and longing that followed almost immediately. It comes from a combination of distrust, disillusionment, and residual imposter syndrome. I consciously wanted to experiment with some new sounds, with beats and electronics, and it helped that I was quite honestly losing my artistic intention at the time. I even left Seattle and recorded these first few songs with Jamie McArdle and Bibz in New York, and doing them outside of my city gave me the confidence to veer a little off the beaten path.
What do you think it was about recording somewhere other than Seattle that made you feel confident to experiment a little?
I was terrified of experimenting with beats and electronics and I had a hard time finding the right producers for it in Seattle, so as soon as I started looking outside of my own turf, New York immediately called out to me. It felt like, once I got there, anything was fair game. There was no beat or synth or sample that was too cringey or too on the nose, even if it was, and I could stop fixating on how my peers in Seattle would perceive it. I credit the entire first half of the record to the reckless abandon I found in New York.
This is where the ego and superego go to battle a bit. It's both feeling dejected, rejected and underlooked, but refusing to buckle. I'm grateful I wrote this song during this period, because it's a remembrance of self and of worth.
I loved the track DoNormaal because it brought a levity and breeziness to this part of the record I REALLY needed. Her verse is probably my favorite of the entire record. It's also my first beat I made/cut up myself, I chopped up sounds of Courtney Love breathing and screaming and polished it with Bibz in New York. When we finished, the first thing he said was, "Is this … listenable? Would people like this?" And that made me love it.
This is a beat that Raven (Rave Holly) made for me and the only track I didn't write from acoustic guitar. I was desperately searching for some kind of anchor and I can really hear it in the lyrics, and even the samples which are from Gregg Araki's Totally Fucked Up. He's a legendary queer filmmaker and I'm endlessly inspired by (and sampling) him.
You mention retrograde in "Scorpio Eyes," do you have strong feelings about astrology one way or the other? What's your sign (or if you don't want to answer a question that specific, what is your sign's element)? If you are big on astrology, what is its function for how you live your life?
I am a Scorpio through and through, and I was getting really deep into astrology during this yearlong spiraling identity crisis. This was the winter where I attributed everything that happened to me, good or bad, to "Scorpio Season," because it became this blanket to wrap around the gaping holes in my own self-perception. I will always love my sign and identify as a true Scorpio, but at the end of the day, I think as people and artists we're so much more complex than monolithic symbols and signs.
This one was the hardest to pull off sonically and the one that took the most revisions/additions/tweaks. It just felt impossible to get it right. I think my vision of this song was just too maximalist and admittedly I was out of my breadth. The interesting thing was I recorded it in New York with a beat and then took it to Seattle to add live drums by Nozomi from my band Dark Smith that kick in at the bridge. It's definitely a turning point that moves away from the sonic rabbit holes and starts to find focus.
Being as though you have both Dark Smith and your solo work, do you write specifically for a certain project or do you sort it out after you've written the song? How did the songwriting process for fuck danny denial come about?
The songwriting processes for my two projects are very different. For Dark Smith, it's always a meeting of the minds. Ashe typically starts with a guitar part that I'll pair with lyrics and/or a melody, and once in a while I'll come up with chord progressions and Ashe will build it. And Lia and Nozomi write the rhythm section through practices.
But for Danny Denial songs, it's essentially me writing lyrics in my journal and thumbing through the guitar all alone to create acoustic demos I later build upon with producers and collaborators. I have acoustic demos of each song on this record, aside from "Scorpio eyes" since that started with a beat.
The lyric on "Conditioner" that really grabs me is, "There's always an afterparty after all the afterparties," but the song feels like the after-afterparty at 4:30 am where everybody's a little worn out, some people might be coked out, and a bunch of folks seem depressed in the small hours of the morning. Do you catch yourself having dark thoughts at these very late get-togethers?
I did, at a very specific point in my life. It was a double-edged sword, because there was this unfulfilled ever-rejected ugly teenager in me that was living out some fantasy where everyone, finally, wants me around and I'm "accepted" now. But committing to that role to the bitter end wears you down, and I found myself pushing my own limits. At the end of the day, I learned that I'll really always be a natural introvert and that's fine. I can't be, to quote the [Lil] Peep doc, everybody's everything.
This track is where the chorus of voices come to play. It's also where I start to reject the part of me that's trying to change and rearrange myself to "work" and all these feelings are brimming to a place that feels more familiar but chaotic. I loved bringing in some sax (by Cherise from Slow Elk) which adds such a weight and bite through the end, especially over the synth (by Natasha from Razor Clam).
There seems to be a sexual element inside of "CCCHOKEMEEE," does that come from the inner dialogue as well? What is it about that particular sensation that people find pleasure in?
I feel like that line is mostly an allegory for the performative exchange of energies, in this case, sexual energies and not sex in itself. I think there's a lot of that in Seattle because we're all so polite and passive and struggle with directedness. This song is essentially where the point where all that implodes on itself.
I would say this was where I hit a rock bottom, somewhere around when I was coming back from my mini-tour in the UK in November and missed my flight and was told I needed $1,200 to get another one. So I camped out at Heathrow in hysterics for almost 48 hours and wrote a few songs, this one I liked the most.
It does literally point out the circumstantial comedy of my being stranded in a foreign country, but it was more so a culmination and reflection of everything I had been going through since the summer festivals. I also think this is where I started "finding" my voice again and harnessing my anger to fight through the static.
This is when I think I just snapped. As conflicting feelings I have about this record, these latter songs are really when I figured out how to use my voice most impactfully. I realized I don't need to be "happier" or "chiller" or "poppier" or more palatable for anyone, I can just be fucking angry and that anger resonates with other people. I don't think I've had more of a direct response from other people about a single song than I got with this one. I'm really proud of it, and thankful for all the bands who helped signal boost.
From an outsider's perspective, Seattle's LGBTQ+ community seems -- like most cultures in the city -- white-dominated. Do you feel marginalized as a queer-identifying person of color here? How do you cope with that?
I definitely do, and it's hard because at first I felt like I was inferior as an artist on my own merits, and I had to work through a lot of my own impostor syndrome to become confident in what I'm doing. And, at this point, I resent that people seem to mostly talk about me through the lens of blackness and queerness.
I want to be talked about because I'm good at what I do and to be on playlists that aren't just #BlackLivesMatter mixes and I'm no longer thankful to be the token. I shouldn't have to be. Personally, right now, what fulfills me is hearing from OTHER black and queer people online that my music is speaking to them directly. That's what helps me remember I'm doing this for something greater than other people's performative wokeness.
This one is my undisputed favorite. This is where I'd landed at the end of this tailspin -- feeling chewed up and spit back out by months of self-exploration and self-doubt, and finally alone with myself. It's a dark one but it's honest and unflinching.
I wanted to tie it around to one of my favorite songs "Dead Like Me" and having one of my local heroes Eva from the Black Tones sing that line to bookend the chorus felt pitch-perfect. If I were to make another concept record, I think it would actually sound a lot more like this song.
You and Eva are close friends and frequent collaborators on different projects [like the great Pacific Northwest music video show Video Bebop]. How did you and Eva meet? What is it about your friendship that inspires collaboration and vice versa?
I love Eva so much! I first met her at the Columbia City Theater's open mics in 2016 and then saw The Black Tones play at Werewolf Vacation that week and I was instantly a megafan. She's become one of my best friends and muses and we work together so seamlessly. I wanted her to feature on "Totally fucked up" because in four years, we've yet to record a song together and I knew having her singing that refrain from "Dead Like Me" would cement this song as my favorite, and it did.
I have mixed feelings on ending the album on "You don't want me." It was the last song I wrote, at the start of 2019, and it felt like the definitive end to this story. It could be read as a defeat, but I read it as a declaration of picking yourself up and forging a new path.
At the end of the day, what I've learned as an artist is that the only thing I know I have is my honesty and I think we live in a time where people need authenticity. Black kids and queer kids and kids battling mental illness need less virtue signaling and pandering and they need to know they aren't alone in how they feel.
At the end of the day, that's why I want to stand by this record as conflicted as a I am. Objectively, I'll let people form their own thoughts on it and I'll be honest about my struggles with it. But we're all learning and growing and evolving as people and as artists and as activists, and I think looking back I'm a better person for forging through it.
In advance of the Seattle-based multidisciplinary artist's new solo album dropping next year, Denial offers this dark and heady single featuring DoNormaal.
KEXP spoke with Danny Denial, Michael Renney, and Noah Kappertz of the film Kill Me to Death about music, mental health, and the laborious process of making a feature film.