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But by the early 2000s, like many dues-paying urban artists, he was ready to move on. “New York was just getting more and more expensive. Most of the places I’d been playing had closed,” he says, ignoring the loud rings of his nearby antique rotary dial phone. “There was less and less of a reason for me to be there. At first I had my heart set on City Island in the Bronx, but some friends turned me onto Catskill, which is much cheaper. It seemed like somewhere that I’d be able to get a place to live where I could build stuff and make sounds and not bother anybody. So I moved here in 2006.” Since the move, however, Dewan’s industrious work schedule hasn’t relented in the slightest. Last year, he released his third song-based disc, Words of Wisdom (Eschatone), appeared at Scotland’s esteemed Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and recorded a live album with the Liverpool Cathedral Bell Ringers, Ringing at the Speed of Prayer (Innova Records); December saw the release of a third Dewanatron set, Semi Automatic (Independent).
As part of his concentration on obscure historical music, one long-held area of interest has been the political songs of bygone elections. Dewan collected a number of these esoteric curios, such as “Jimmy Carter Says Yes,” an absurdly amusing nugget that attained cult popularity via its inclusion on the compilation Beat of the Traps (Carnage Press), and performed the tunes on Manhattan cable TV. So does he think there were any good songs to come out of the recent presidential election? “Oh yeah, there were definitely a few,” he says. “There’s one about McCain, a country song by John Rich called ‘Raisin’ McCain,’ which is pretty entertaining. But by far my favorite is a song by a rapper in Texas called Mr. Luke [‘New Obama Song’], which uses the melody of ‘Hail to the Chief’ and a sample of the Reverend Wright shouting, ‘Obama!’ It’s really crazy.” Without missing a beat, Dewan next goes into stitch-inducing, off-the-cuff performances of both songs, the lyrics delivered verbatim from memory.
“Brian does a billion things, and all of them are really interesting,” says Leon Dewan, who lives in New Rochelle and has been collaborating with his upstate cousin since spring 2002. “Brainstorming with him, and making the instruments, is always really delightful because he comes up with such great ideas.”
Recently, many of Brian Dewan’s ideas have been expressed through yet another medium: filmstrips. Using colorful maker pens, he draws images he uses for adaptations of fairy tales and original narratives such as Civic Pride and Obey Signals, which mock the stiff public-service strips once shown in grade schools. Using a vintage projector, he screens the works at galleries, accompanying them with recordings of specially composed music and narrating them in a detached, surreally authoritative voice; he even vocally re-creates the once familiar “boop” tone that signals an advance to the following frame. “A little while back I actually did a special show for a large corporation, which hired me to make a strip as, I guess, a sort of hip promotional project,” says Dewan. “Some of the executives I showed it to asked me if I’d ever worked in PowerPoint, and I told them I’d never heard of it, which was true at the time, I hadn’t. At first they thought I was kidding, but when they found out I wasn’t they laughed and laughed. They just couldn’t believe it.” In a decidedly postmodern move, several of these works have been compiled onto a new DVD, Focus: The Collected Filmstrips of Brian Dewan (2008, Bright Red Rocket Video).