The indie pop artist deals with his cultural inheritance in Oxford, Mississippi.
Oxford, Mississippi, is best known as a college town — one of the craziest in the country, according to a slew of annual lists. Ole Miss football is part of the dominant culture, and frat parties, tailgates and southern traditions account for most of the entertainment on weekends.
That's why it's surprising to find Dent May there. Oxford's history isn't unfriendly to less traditional artists like May, with Fat Possum Records headquartered there, and artists including Johnny Marr and Modest Mouse recording albums in town. Still, it's hardly seems a dream destination for a budding, experimental-leaning artist like May — though his accessible pop side could make sufficient background music for any Saturday tailgate. He'll bring that sound a little farther south to Gasa Gasa on Friday.
"I hated the South," says May, who's always lived in Mississippi barring a stint at NYU film school. "I wanted to escape. I've always avoided being called a Southern artist." But May gained some perspective and remains in Oxford, citing other "southern weirdos" like William Faulkner.
"One thing I've learned is there's cool stuff everywhere," he says. "There's still kind of a prejudice against the South [but] there's actually a really great creative community here in Oxford."
May has an obvious talent for finding that cool factor in unexpected places. His 2013 record Warm Blanket was recorded in seclusion at a (maybe) haunted house in St. Augustine, Florida. It sounds foreboding, but Warm Blanket is chiefly positive, evoking strongly the beach pop vibes of the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson. The influence is obvious and, at times, almost overwhelming, yet May's journey through pop's past rarely feels unnecessary. Just as soon as a song takes a turn toward flat-out imitation territory, May shows his unmistakably current experimental tendencies.
The juxtaposition makes sense in the context of May's record label, the Animal Collective-founded Paw Tracks. The members of the ever-evolving indie superband are formative figures for May. "The sense of freedom they have — they do whatever they want," he says. "So many artists want to pander to the press or listeners. I've learned to do the opposite." That meant dropping the ukulele once it garnered a 21st Century reputation as a twee instrument - a bold move for an artist once known as Dent May and His Magnificent Ukulele.
That subversive tendency is prominent on Warm Blanket. May says making music personal was a challenge for him at first. Warm Blanket shows he's gotten past those fears, as it explores his feelings of not belonging or being "born too late." Matched with irresistible grooves on Warm Blanket, it makes for a personal record that manages to have universal appeal, one that clarifies why an archetypical misfit like May wouldn't leave a place like Oxford.
"It's off the beaten path. It's easier because there's a lot of people that don't think we're cool, but it also makes me want to work harder." Location is less binding for May with the convenience of the Internet, which not only broadens the reach of his music but the scope of the art he consumes. "In a post-Internet world, everyone has access to everything in a sense," he says. "I kind of want to soak up all music."