In the new video for "Born Too Late," Dent May rides a Ferris wheel and a Tilt-a-Whirl at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi and hangs out on a boat, drinking and waterskiing like a geeky Kenny Powers. The video closes with a flurry of fireworks in the night sky. It all seems very appropriate: The 27-year-old May is from Jackson and lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and his party-friendly songs hearken back to a purer era of pop music. "Born Too Late," like many of the songs on May's latest, Warm Blanket, weaves together disco, funk and '60s pop, with echoes of the Beach Boys, Harry Nilsson and Michael Jackson. We caught up with May last week in advance of his show Monday at Czar.
The Pitch: You're on Animal Collective's Paw Tracks label. Can you talk about how you got hooked up with those guys?
May: They recorded Merriweather Post Pavilion in Oxford, where I live. So they were around for over a month, and it's a small town, so I got to be friends with them. I met them at a party at my house, actually. I gave them a demo I'd done of songs on the ukulele.
How important do you think that association has been?
I'm sure it's been helpful for me to just have a label. I'd had little offers from labels before, but they [Paw Tracks] really set me up. Really the most important thing about it from my point of view has been knowing those guys personally and going on tour with them and observing how they don't give a fuck and always do whatever they want to do from a creative standpoint. I have friends on other labels that aren't that lucky.
When I saw you guys in April, you covered "Shakedown Street" by the Grateful Dead. How does that song tend to go over?
Yeah, covering the Dead is definitely polarizing. Some people, indie-rock-snob types, just don't like them and think they're lame and cheesy or whatever. Then there are Dead fans that think you're desecrating a sacred song. So it's weird. I love that song because I think it's probably the most fun, most poppy song the Dead ever did.
That cokey era of the Dead is not far off from the vibe on [2012 album] Do Things or Warm Blanket. Are you a big Dead fan?
I'm kind of a late-to-the-game Dead fan, but I like American Beauty and lots of those Dick's Picks albums from the '70s. Obviously we're not going to do some huge, long jam — but a song like "Shakedown" I think works well within our repertoire.
You're writing pop songs at a pretty high level, but in some ways it seems like music fans and critics don't value sharply crafted pop songs as much as they maybe used to.
I definitely think pop music and pop songwriting are a few rungs lower on the totem of cultural relevancy for some people these days. People don't value a great Madonna song as much as a great Neil Young song. And, you know, I might not either. That's something I think about a lot, too. But a great pop song is a beautiful thing. I think with critics, they're looking for cultural signifiers to put music in a context where they can tell their own predetermined narrative. And for that, pop tends to be an outlier. But I'm not trying to be a critical darling. I'm trying to connect with people.
You rented a house in Florida to record Warm Blanket and played all the instruments yourself?
Yeah, I had a few other people do some string and horn parts, but the rest was all by myself. I knew I wanted to rent an old house — I'm really into historic architecture. So I was looking at vacation rentals online, and it ended up working out perfectly — I found a beautiful, three-story Victorian house in Florida with a grand piano in it, and I drove all my gear down there and set up.
Were you concerned about what recording in an old place like that would sound like?
I pretty much tried to embrace the imperfect acoustics of the place. I've never been a big studio guy. For the piano I just kind of mic'd it the best I could.
Do you think you achieved a specific kind of mood on Warm Blanket by dint of being alone in a strange new place?
Yeah, I think the decision to record in a house by myself and not in a traditional studio maybe goes along with some romantic ideas I have about the process of creating music. I had kind of an anti-studio philosophy going in. For the next record, I think I want the band to play on it, but it was cool to have the freedom to let my mind wander and ideas flow while making an album.