[17 March 2011]
The formation of the Dodos was rather inauspicious: the group formed back in 2006 when multi-instrumentalist Meric Long was playing countless gigs around San Francisco as Dodobird. With an idea that drumming could play a more central role in the music, drummer Logan Kroeber was added to the mix and the Dodobird’s sound expanded to include percussion. When fans began referring to them as the Dodos, the band changed their name but not the focus. After touring with the New Pornographers last year, Long and Kroeber went into the studio to create the latest release, No Color, which also features Neko Case on vocals. Before heading out on tour again, Meric Long spoke to PopMatters about everything from how the band arrived at their signature sound to the logistics of finding a third tour member.
The Dodos’ music has been referred to as “percussion-driven” or “percussion-centric”. How do you like describe it and how did you arrive at this sound for the band?
“Percussion-centric” actually works—I’ve never actually heard that before. It’s just drums, guitars, and vocals, but there’s definitely a percussive focus or a percussion attack on the instruments. The origin of the band, in terms of what kind of sound we were going for, was first centered around the acoustic guitar and what it sounds like when you attack it really aggressively and finger pick it. There’s a certain quality that comes out of that instrument when you play it that way. The idea for the band was to showcase that and push that quality by amplifying it through other instruments.
How do you approach the songwriting process within this framework?
It depends on the song. Each record has been pretty different in terms of the way we’ve written it. Our first record [2006’s Beware of the Maniacs] was very much like a solo effort. I wrote the songs, and then we added drums after the songs were already done. Then the second record [2008’s Visiter] was a representation of what happened when we went on the road and played songs that weren’t really finished. We were touring and playing to nobody, a lot of empty clubs. But we kind of took advantage of that by playing whatever we wanted. And then for our third record [2009’s Time to Die] we had a lot more time to sit down and work on stuff. It was after touring incessantly for a really long time and being burnt out from the road. So that writing process was like, sit down and write a song then work on it—almost like homework. We never actually performed the songs live before recording them, so that was different. This time around [No Color] we went back to the way we did Visiter but we spent more time, allowing the songs to take shape.
We went on tour with the New Pornographers over the summer, and because it was a support slot we weren’t really playing to our fans. One of the reasons we did that tour was to have the time to work on new material, to perform it and practice it so by the time we got into the studio it would be somewhat rehearsed. But a lot of the songs came out of recording sessions that Logan and me did together back in San Francisco. I’d just get out my little digital Dictaphone, press record and we would play for two hours or whatever. Then I’d go and listen to it. That’s the first time I’ve ever done that. Now that I’m getting older, there are more holes in my brain so it’s completely necessary. I think every musician or songwriter has this problem where they’re like, “Oh I have this thing” or “I wrote this thing but I can’t remember it.” It happens to everybody. For some reason when you’re younger you think, “Oh it will come back, I can totally remember this.” That does not happen to me anymore—I have to record and write down everything. It was actually a really nice surprise, because there were a lot of songs that came out of that, songs that would have totally gotten lost if I hadn’t gone back and dug through the material. We went into the studio literally two days after we finished that tour and I wanted it to have a live feel.
We scheduled two months for recording, which is also something we’ve never done before. Putting together our records have never exceeded a month. Because we had two months, we knew that things were going to change. Basically, I wanted to come into the studio with as much of an open mind as possible as to what the recordings would end up being. That’s why we included the Magic Magic Orchestra, who recorded a whole string section on a bunch of the songs. We played a lot of instruments on the recordings and spent a lot of time just doing things we normally wouldn’t have done. The surprising thing I’ve been picking up on from doing these interviews with journalists is that people keep saying it’s very stripped down. I think it is stripped down in terms of what we ended up using was less than we actually put on there—we started taking things away from the mix once we started recording. But we went into it thinking we were going to put the whole kitchen sink in there.
What was the first instrument in your musical background?
Well, my mom put me in piano lessons when I was really young and I hated it. Then I played trombone in high school, both jazz and classical music. I didn’t particularly love that either. My brother started playing guitar, so I started playing his guitar when I was about 13. So that just kind of happened and I started playing in bands.
I had a little bit of a diversion playing in percussive ensembles. In college, I was trying to write a paper on the history of popular music. I naïvely and over-ambitiously thought that I could cover the span of West African music, coming over with the slaves and the Diaspora into the Caribbean and the jazz yadda, yadda, yadda up to U2. It was a horrible paper and I don’t know why I thought I could do that. But in the process of learning about all of this, I went and studied for a hot minute with this professor who was a drum master. It was really difficult music and the first thing I noticed is how it was based on a completely different system of rhythm than Western music along with other certain nerdy things. It freaked me out and changed my sense of rhythm and my sense of understanding about how rhythm works. I flipped out over it and I found out that I wanted to focus on rhythmic aspects of songs more than the melodic aspects. This sort of plays into my guitar playing as well.
At the same time I was starting to get into old country blues and people like Mississippi John Hurt and John Fahey who play fingerpick-style acoustic guitar. There’s definitely a connection historically but also between the way rhythm is played on acoustic guitar in those styles of music. For me it was like everything you need is there, you don’t need anything else. If you could just put your head into the sound hole of an acoustic guitar, you will hear everything you need. You will hear overtones that sound like a freakin’ choir or you will hear the attack of the strings that sound like heavy metal. Maybe it’s kind of naïve, but it’s what I nerded out on. I felt like something was happening—like I was getting an idea of something I wanted to focus on musically. Instead of just playing in a band and writing songs that sounded like Nirvana, I felt like I found something I wanted to try and get at.
It’s been pretty much the basis for this band. The thing with Logan, he came from a background of playing heavy music but he also was listening to a lot of John Fahey and a lot of the same type of acoustic music. We both got this idea and every record has been an attempt to do that. We stray from that sometimes and we listen to a lot of different types of music and a lot of our songs can be classified in different areas. But the heart of the goal of the band is to achieve that combination of what it would sound like if you put your head inside an acoustic guitar.
Your vocals add such a warm, human element on top of all the flamboyant instrumentalism. Have you always been a singer too?
Actually, I’m a pretty shy person when it comes to singing. Like when people are singing “Happy Birthday”, I’ll be like super shy. For some reason I can’t come in on the right key, it’s really weird. And karaoke is my worst nightmare. It’s gotten better through practice and performing, I just detach myself and sing. I don’t think of myself as a singer really, but I constantly have melodies going on in my head. And when I think of melodies I always think of “poppy” melodies. I naturally want to try and write pop hooks. This is just the direction I go. Some people may think more in terms of words or they want to rap and come up with some really cool rhythms with their vocals but with me, I never graduated from nursery rhymes. That’s just kind of there.
It’s not anything coupled with this idea I’ve been rambling about with the acoustic guitar and the percussion. Growing up I had older siblings who were playing a lot of 80s pop music, and a lot of those melodies have stuck with me. I know other people and Logan has commented on that—how a lot of my melodies are similar to ‘80s pop melodies. When we were recording this record there were a lot of references where we’d be saying how something reminds me of this band. It would be a band like Jellyfish, super poppy. It doesn’t sound like the Dodos at all, but there’s a certain element there that just comes from being a kid and absorbing everything around you.
On No Color you also have Neko Case singing with you on about half the tracks—how did this collaboration come about?
It just came up naturally in a conversation—it wasn’t an intense thing. We had toured with the New Pornographers for two months, so slowly and surely our comfort level around Neko Case grew where she’d come out to sing a few songs. At Lollapalooza, which was our last performance on that tour, she came out and sang on a bunch of songs. After the set we were saying goodbye and everyone was saying, “What are you doing?” “Want to come record?” “Yeah totally!” We were like, maybe that will happen and if it does, holy shit!
You’re known as a folk-indie duo with Logan Kroeber, who else played with you on No Color and will they be going on tour with you?
Nobody else that played on it is coming with us, but we’re supposed to have a third touring member with us that’s going to play electric guitar. So there will be two electric guitars and drums, which is quite new for us. But that’s because of the nature of the new record and a lot of the sounds we got while making it. We’ll be able to pull it off better with that type of set up. But we’re running into some issues with work visas and things like that, so as of today I’m not even sure what will happen. I hope we will be a trio by the time to go on tour.
Tell me about the scene in San Francisco and how it’s influenced your music.
I don’t really have a good grasp of what’s going on here. I’ve always been on the outskirts. There’s definitely a big garage thing going on here and I love it. There’s a lot of good bands playing, although I speak about this not as an expert because I haven’t spent much time here in the past three or four years. I’ve been coming in and out. But there seems to be a bunch of shows that people put together that have a big bill of three or four bands on them. People just put together, nothing super intense. It’s a good thing, all kind of mellow. I don’t know if that’s influenced our music so much. Although, there’s a little bit more of an edge to this new record that’s been from going and seeing some other shows.
In the past, we’ve had potential to be this showcase-type band where it was more about the performance of the songs. I feel like in the past year or so we’ve resorted back to having shows that just have a good energy, that “go off” for lack of a better term. That’s a term that Logan keeps saying, we need to have more shows that “go off”. Before we started doing this record we were playing bigger venues and there’s such a different dynamic when you play stages like that. Then we did a short stint of shows last fall in small rooms where the stage wasn’t high and there wasn’t such a separation from the crowd. We loved it, it was just so much fun. It was more about trying to create an enjoyable experience for everybody than performing a masterpiece. With this record it’s going to be more about that. This is definitely an influence of what’s going on in San Francisco and the protocol for really good shows here. We’re not the kind of band that people just go to watch anyway. We’re not the type where there’s a really big light show and people go and their jaws drop in amazement with what’s going on up on stage.
You’re headlining a very busy tour of multiple dates at SXSW and a long list of North American as well as European gigs. What are you looking forward to the most?
I’m really looking forward to SXSW, although when we got our schedule for it I kind of freaked out. It’s been three years since we’ve been there and it’s so intense. But I’m looking forward to that brainless feeling of “we must go on” and just going for it, as opposed to having things be more composed. I’m looking forward to that whole circus.