- Dance, soundscape or alternative rock? Robert DeLong does it all, and all by himself.
For some, the term “one-man band” conjures up musty images of street musicians with banged-up guitars, suitcase kick-drums and spit-stained harmonicas.
For Robert DeLong, it means nothing of the sort. The 33-year-old Seattle native surrounds himself with electronic gadgetry — a joystick controller, a Wii remote, Ableton Live software, digital keyboards and the obligatory live-looping station — all in service of upbeat electronic-pop music with not-so-upbeat lyrics. He’s been doing that, in fact, since moving to Los Angeles at the height of the rave era.
“The first real shows I did in L.A. were at this weird Silver Lake club called Los Globos,” he recalls. “This was around January of 2012, back when it was the kind of place you’d go if you wanted to get stabbed or buy ketamine. I had a residency there, where I played weekly for a month, and that’s how I got signed. So it was all worth it. Plus, no one got stabbed.”
The deal DeLong scored was with Glassnote Records, an indie label that was riding high on its success with Mumford & Sons. Just Movement, his debut album, was released a year later and climbed to No. 18 on the Billboard dance chart.
Since then, DeLong has crossed over into the alternative-rock world in a major way. His 2018 single “Favorite Color Is Blue” is a co-write with K.Flay, who also contributes vocals. Its accompanying video has racked up more than 2.5 million views.
“K.Flay has an endless supply of lyrics and melodies coming out of her brain, which is a talent I envy,” says DeLong. “I mean, there are some things that I can do fast these days, through practice, like production techniques that I can just blaze through. But I’m still very methodical when it comes to songwriting, which I’ve always found to be a strange and mysterious thing. Sometimes it takes me weeks to get it quite right.”
And it’s not for lack of practice. DeLong, who grew up in a conservative evangelical household, says he was 3 years old when he wrote his first song. “It was called ‘Dancing on the Moon,’ and it was really quite derivative. It was like a combination of a Michael Jackson song with some church hymn I’d heard.”
At the age of 10, DeLong’s father — an accountant with a love for prog-rock — began teaching him how to play drums, a skill that the young musician continued to hone in pop-punk bands throughout high school. After graduation, he landed a scholarship to attend Southern California’s Azusa Pacific University, a Christian college (motto: “God First”) where he studied performance and audio engineering, geeked out on science fiction, and played drums in a chamber-pop band called The Denouement.
To this day, DeLong’s onstage gear still includes timbales and a full drumkit, which gives him the opportunity to show off his skills as a percussionist. But the showiest part of his setup is the “infinite-beam laser harp,” a gimmicky audio-visual contraption that was first popularized by electronic pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre. Combining light sensors with an audio processor, it projects a spectrum of laser beams that each trigger their own notes when his hand passes over them.
Think of it as rave culture’s answer to the Theremin, an instrument that DeLong tends to avoid. “It’s really hard to hit the actual notes on a Theremin,” he says. “Anytime I’ve messed around with one, it sounds like you’re listening to a 6-year-old playing violin.”
What DeLong will be bringing along on this tour, for the first time ever, is a pair of live humans playing bass and drums.
“They play for about 60 percent of my set,” he says. “Up to this point, my show has always been just me doing a lot of live looping and using a lot of controllers. I’m still doing plenty of that during the set, but it’s nice to occasionally break away from all the toys and just, you know, party with the fans.”
And while DeLong won’t be abandoning ’80s influences like Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears anytime soon — “I even like ELP and that cheesy ’80s Yes stuff,” he confesses — he does expect, at some point, to indulge his more ambient musical inclinations.
“I listen to a lot of left-field techno and ambient soundscapes, and I think that already sneaks into the way I write music, or certainly the sounds that I make,” he says. “I won’t be making straight-up ambient or techno tracks as Robert DeLong. But, you know, I’ll have an alias soon enough, so that I can release all this music for nobody to listen to.”