George Dalphin’s parallel reality
Inside Headphoneboy’s head
By Tyler Jackson
George Dalphin is an underground Renaissance Man, a writer, musician, filmmaker, philosopher, and visual artist whose output is as prolific as it is obscure.
The 28-year-old Portlander produces and releases his work under an umbrella entity called Man-Like Machines. The bulk of his output, both complete and incomplete, is available on man-likemachines.com, a Web site that, like Dalphin’s oeuvre, is vast, heavily stylized, and in a state of barely contained disorder.
An overview of just one of Dalphin’s areas of endeavor, writing, gives you a sense of how prolific he is. He has written two screenplays of his own and six with Man-Like Machines co-founder Joseph Foster. Dalphin’s 750-page debut novel, Thirsty and Drowning, is available for purchase through the self-publishing site lulu.com. He has five other novels in the works, but is currently focused on finishing The Subtle Physics, a book he said could be considered either completely autobiographical or not autobiographical at all, as it’s set in a “parallel reality.”
That’s fitting, as all of Dalphin’s work suggests a reality quite different than the one most of us perceive — thank God. His maximalist writings are jam-packed with vivid and distressed self-reflections and philosophies; his paintings and drawings tend to be unsettling, representing human life in a raw, unrefined way; his huge catalog of music, which he produces under the name Headphoneboy, is dark, weird, and not infrequently horrifying.
In addition to nine albums of mash-up mixes of other artists’ songs (or “Pluralist-emergent songbreeding,” as Dalphin calls it), many of which span multiple discs, he has recorded, produced and released eight albums of original material. The original albums are lengthy collections of trip hop, industrial, drum and bass, down tempo and flat-out bizarre electronic music created using the audio-editing software Sound Forge. Most of the collections are well over an hour long and balance beat-heavy material with dreamlike soundscapes. Many songs feature Dalphin’s pained and stifled singing voice, which is reminiscent of Scott Walker’s on albums like Tilt and The Drift.
Dalphin does not toil in obscurity by choice. He said he wants his work to reach more people. The majority of the traffic to man-likemachines.com comes from readers of an online mash-up forum where he regularly posts his mixes. “That’s like 45 people in Amsterdam or North Carolina, or wherever,” he said.
Dalphin hand-makes all of his CD-Rs, complete with elaborate ink-jet artwork, a process that requires a considerable amount of money, effort and time, all of which he’d prefer to spend making the music, instead. “I would say that there’s certainly this weird, secret pride in being that hidden artist,” said Dalphin. “But at the same time, I would love to be in a situation where some factory is producing my CD-Rs en masse.”
Dalphin has an almost militant anti-copyright attitude toward his work and all works of art. It’s common to see lines like “Fuck Copyright 2007” or “All Rights Innate” on his releases and Web site. Though he relishes the idea of making a living from his art, Dalphin believes information should always be free.
“The idea that 30 seconds of sound can be copyrighted, or that a sentence or an image can be copyrighted, just seems very unnatural to me,” he said. “It’s not how people want to work.”
Dalphin’s work is guided by the three concepts in the tagline on Man-Like Machines’ site: “Art, Enlightenment, The Future.” Each of these concepts rely upon, and are embedded in, each other, he said. Regardless of the fact art is the only one that also takes tangible form, Dalphin insists they are equally important.
Enlightenment, he said, is the imperative to know one’s self and act accordingly. “We are at a crucial point where evolution has everything to do with what humans think,” he’s written. Regarding the future, he wrote, “The inexorable nature of Humanity’s progress at this point cannot be ignored. Things are changing, and with a little forethought and wisdom, it will be the best thing that ever happened to us.”
Dalphin’s parents were college professors who moved the family around the country quite a bit during his childhood. He was born in Indiana, spent time in Vermont and Maryland, and eventually settled back in the Hoosier State. After a few weeks of fifth grade, he was bumped up two grades to seventh. For his junior and senior years of high school, he attended the Indiana Academy, a boarding school in Muncie for gifted teenagers. It was around this time that Dalphin began painting on a regular basis. At the age of 15, he enrolled at Indiana University. By the following year, he’d already had numerous solo exhibitions of his work.
Dalphin earned a degree in studio art and painting from IU, then returned to Indiana Academy to work as a live-in residence counselor. That job lasted two-and-a-half years, until the day he was spotted by students purchasing a “tobacco” pipe from a local head shop. School officials caught wind of the purchase and took swift action. “The administration had a big issue with it because they didn’t want to defend me to parents,” Dalphin recalled.
The academy couldn’t fire him — he’d done nothing illegal and had not violated the school’s code of conduct — so, instead, they gave him a choice: resign or be transferred to a new position as a graphic designer at Ball State University, which operates the academy. The position provided the same salary as his counseling job, but required more work and offered fewer benefits, like meals and a room. He decided to quit. “I was very resentful,” he said.
Shortly after that incident, Dalphin received $10,000 in inheritance money from a deceased great aunt. Finding himself suddenly and unexpectedly unemployed and moneyed, he decided that after years of dabbling in music, he’d write and record full-time.
The first Headphoneboy album, The Great Masturbator, was made in 2003. On top of the looped, trip-hop drum samples and walls of synthesizers typical of industrial electronica, the debut has a hallucinatory ambiance filled with creepy vocal samples. It sounds like a nightmare, the anticipation of the apocalypse, and Dalphin’s lyrics suit the darkness of the music. “After the chaos, I achieve my form / Beautiful face and a single horn,” he croons on “Creation Epic.” “I tear it from my skull in self-disgust / I can still see, through the hole, my neighbors repulsed.”
During this period, Dalphin moved from Indiana to his sister’s basement in Cape Elizabeth. He continued to work on music and develop film ideas for a year, then moved back to Indiana with the intention of producing his first feature film, but that project fell through. After another year in Indiana, he moved to Portland, where he’s been ever since.
As Dalphin acknowledged in his debut album’s title, the early Headphoneboy albums can seem masturbatory — indulgent exercises produced solely for his own enjoyment. But by his third release, an album-length maxi-single for the song “Elsewhere,” Dalphin began to appreciate the value of restraint. The result was a more cohesive and listenable collection. He still made full use of his palette of eerie sounds, but in a less fragmented, more focused way. His approach on subsequent Headphoneboy releases — particularly his trilogy, Act One, Act Two and Act Three — is similarly unified.
The most recent Headphoneboy album, You’re Dead, sounds like his best work yet. The songs rely less upon familiar drum loops and acidic synthesizers, and the singing is clearer and layered. The new textures create a sound that resembles, of all things, pop music. Though the album is apparently still incomplete, it suggests a slight, yet welcome, departure from the hellish shadow cast by the music that preceded it. [Click to hear “It Is the Future,” from You’re Dead.]
Last month, Dalphin completed production on his first film, I Was Jesus and Dracula, a 45-narrative about a group of adolescents who happen upon an ostensibly crazy vagrant. The main character, played by Dalphin’s nephew, meets the man in a grocery store parking lot, whereupon he tells the boy that earlier in his life he was both Jesus and Dracula. The following day, the boy and his friends skip school and meet the man again. Eventually, a violent altercation erupts between the man and one of the kids, and the truth of the man’s claims is revealed. It’s scheduled to premiere at the St. Lawrence Arts & Community Center on April 19.
Ever busy, Dalphin also recently completed a series of Sharpie drawings, ending a long hiatus from producing large-scale artwork. One piece from the series, titled “Save Often,” pictures the silhouette of a woman shot with arrows overlooking an ancient city hundreds of feet below, its citizens scrambling in chaos. Dalphin is looking for a venue to display the work. It would be his first show since he was 16.
Dalphin’s most admirable trait as an artist is his perseverance, his refusal to allow traditional methods of creation and distribution to discourage him from producing as much varied and interesting work as possible. Although his methods have brought him little exposure and less money, he remains ambitious and sustains himself as an artist in the ways that truly matter. (To pay the bills, Dalphin recently landed a marketing job for a local hardware company; this followed years of temp work.)
The idea may seem daunting to some, but Dalphin takes comfort in the fact there are always a dozen or so major projects he can delve into at any time. “They’re such different processes,” he said of his various pursuits “I can hardly imagine only choosing one.”