People Said It Was Impossible: An Interview with Dosh
Loop-master Martin Dosh is releasing his latest full-length, Tommy, this week. PopMatters talks to Dosh and some of the album's contributors (including Andrew Bird) about his unique creative process and the benefits of collaboration with other artists
Two years ago, the percussion-looping, Rhodes-playing Martin Dosh posted a video on YouTube of himself and collaborator Mike Lewis playing live in his basement. They build up a song called “Capture the Flag” during this six-minute video, with Dosh laying down a flurry of drums, then looping them so that they continue while he turns his attention to the keyboard. Lewis, meanwhile, alternates between a series of instruments ranging from percussion, guitar to saxophone, like a magician pulling rabbits from a hat. The whole song is rigorously structured around a repeated beat, but that structure allows for almost infinite variation.
It also looks really, really hard to do. In fact, some viewers thought it was impossible. “I went back and read the comments,” said Dosh while taking a phone interview with PopMatters. “This is like a year after I put that up, to see what people said about it. There were a bunch of people who literally thought that there was no way it was possible that we did what we did in that video. They thought we were play-syncing to stuff that was already there.”
But impossible or not, Dosh has been apply his multi-tasking skills to his multi-rhythmed art for nearly a decade now. A piano player from childhood and a drummer from his mid-teens onward, Dosh played with half a dozen bands in Minneapolis as a young man, where he first started getting attention through his collaboration with Andrew Broder in Lateduster and Fog. In 2002, he released his first self-titled CD which was picked up a year later by anticon. records, which has released all four of his subsequent albums. Along the way his project has grown from a very personal, idiosyncratic one-man operation (his first EP Naoise was named after his then soon-to-arrive son and included samples of his wife repeating “It is not weird to have a baby.”), to a more fully-fleshed and collaborative endeavor. His latest album Tommy has more than a dozen additional musicians, with vocals from indie-folk star Andrew Bird, instruments and arrangements from Joanna Newsom collaborator Ryan Francesconi and support from long-time band members Mike Lewis and Jeremy Ylvisaker.
Dosh begins most of his pieces with short percussive loops, then builds and subtracts layers of other sounds on top of them. His process, he says, has not changed much since his first recordings, though he has more pedals for looping now, and some of them permit longer loops than in his earlier works. What has changed is the variety and complexity of the textures he can lay over these beats. Dosh has more collaborators involved in Tommy than with his past works, and the result is a denser – though not really heavier – lattice of sounds.
Dosh works initially through improvisation, usually on his drum/Rhodes set up. “I come up with the basic idea for a piece and sort of sculpt it, I get the drums down, chords, drone, whatever it might be,” he says. “When I get something I feel good about, I’ll invite someone that I know to come over to my house and record. And then generally the approach is just to have them improvise over what I have made, then go back in and cut and paste what they’ve done into something that I like.”
Dosh meets a lot of musicians while touring as the drummer for Andrew Bird’s band and that’s how his collaboration with Ryan Francesconi got started. Francesconi opened for Bird in Reno in the summer of 2008. “We were playing in a casino,” says Dosh, “which was a bit strange. Ryan came on and opened up the show, just playing guitar, not a lot of fancy pedals or anything. It was beautiful and amazing. I watched his set and was blown away.”
Francesconi had heard a little of Dosh’s music by this point and was also impressed. “My initial impression was that his music has no rules,” he explains, via email. “He is not inhibited to take risks with it and also has little preconception about what the result should be. I would hazard to say these traits make it good!”
Dosh and Francesconi kept in touch and, when he was ready, Dosh sent four rough pieces to Franscesoni. Although Francesconi’s sound was, at that time, primarily acoustic, he had some experience with electronic genres. “I worked for many years making electronic music as well, and when I did it was largely about blurring the line between acoustic organic sound and manipulated sound,” he says. “Given that, I had a good sense on providing material to him that I knew he could make something out of, as I used to work that way myself.”
“For someone that I met just recently, he really contributed a lot to the sound,” says Dosh. “It’s unusual because I’ve worked a lot with Jeremy Ylvisaker in Bird’s band but also in other bands in Minneapolis, and I think people who have heard my stuff would just assume that some of the stuff that Ryan did was Jeremy. They sort of have a similar droniness and the chords they’re playing the sound, it sounds similar.”
The process was also similar, based mostly on improvisation and wary of premeditation. “Martin didn't want me to over-think any part, so I just recorded my initial impressions themselves,” says Francesconi. “I would say almost all of it is first take, much of it improvised, though with a song form in mind. In the tunes that didn't yet have too much melodic material, I wanted to give Martin some options of emotional directions to go in. I feel that often emotion can be dictated by the right chord in the right place, so I added a few.”
Francesconi made a particularly strong impact on “Country X”, Dosh says. “That’s one tune that he essentially co-wrote, because what I sent him for that tune was just this like drum beat for the song, this old, distorted drum machine pattern with a simple chord progression going over it. He came back with this completely thought out thing where he played bass and guitar and accordion. And then I sort of took all that stuff and kind of moved things around and made a song out of it.”
Dosh worked with Francesconi long distance, but Andrew Bird contributed his parts – vocals for “Never Met” and “Number 41” – in a spare afternoon in New Orleans while on tour together. Dosh has been Bird’s drummer since 2006, though the two met when Bird’s manager was looking for an opening band for a Minneapolis show in 2005. “I was driving through a snow storm in Wisconsin when I first heard a Dosh record. I think it was Pure Trash,” Bird says by email. “His music has an emotional, human element that’s often absent in electronic music. He samples his wife and kids even his own childhood ("Fireball"). It wasn't until I did a show with him and saw him live that I realized what a unique drummer he is and started scheming to work with him.”
Dosh and Bird make very different kinds of music, though Bird says that he sees a commonality in philosophy, if not results. “We understand the appeal of creating one’s own self-contained musical universe and how risky it can be to share it with others,” he explains. “Otherwise we use very different processes. The looping is what brings us to common ground. It kind of allows composition, improvisation and performance to happen in the same instant.”
That kind of instantaneous creativity was on display on a rainy day in New Orleans, when Bird and Dosh holed up in a studio for a few hours. Dosh had given Bird the raw files for his upcoming album, hoping that he’d contribute some violin on one or two. Instead, Bird said he’d like to sing on the song “Never Met.” He had spent time listening to the song, but hadn’t written anything down before he came to the studio. “You can spend years refining a song and then someone can challenge you to come up with something on the spot, and the necessity and urgency can bring surprisingly good results,” says Bird.
“Never Met” went so well that Bird wanted to sing on another track, the one that would become “Number 41.” “That was written on a 20 minute walk around the uptown neighborhood of New Orleans,” Bird says. “All Martin told me was that it’s about Karl Meuller, the bass player from Soul Asylum, and his premature death. I think they came out really well and I stand by those lyrics as I would on any of my records. For a miserable rainy day in New Orleans, it was a satisfying day’s work.”
Dosh explains that the many different collaborators on his album allow him to work with sounds he can’t make himself. For instance, a self-confessed “terrible guitar player”, he enlisted not just Francesconi and Jeremy Ylvisaker, but also Paul Niehaus, the pedal steel player from Calexico. And perhaps it was enlisting guest singers that finally gave him the courage to sing himself on “Town Mouse.” “It’s like my last hang-up, singing in front of people,” he admits.
The result is a fascinating multi-layered mix of sounds that is hard to describe but easy to enjoy. “I did an interview with Wire a couple of years ago, and one of the questions was ‘How do you describe your sound?’” says Dosh. “I wrote down ‘polyrhythmic hyper-melodic drone’ which is kind of idiotic, but it sums it up. There’s a lot of percussion, a lot of subdivisions of time, the more you listen to it the more stuff pops up. There’s a lot of melody in it.”
There’s also a lot of Dosh in this music, not just his professional, musical aspirations but his personal life as well. Late in the album, on “Gare De Lyon”, you hear one of the album’s few spoken word samples, a male voice musing on addiction and recovery.
This is Tommy Cesario, one of Martin Dosh’s oldest friends, who died in January 2009. Cesario and Dosh met in high school, reconnected later, in New York City, when the two of them were both there, and moved back to Minneapolis at about the same time. A much-demanded sound man, Cesario ran the boards at Minneapolis’ First Avenue Club and toured with Dosh, Yo La Tengo and other bands.
“But it was just one of those things, too, where we would kind of not talk for a few months and then we would talk and go on tour,” Dosh says. “He went through a lot of really crazy stuff, about maybe six or seven years before he died, both of his parents died in a really short amount of time. His dad had cancer and passed away, and then his mom died suddenly. He sort of never recovered from that. He was just …not outwardly depressed, but he just had a really tough time reintegrating back into the world.”
Cesario died of alcohol related asphyxiation in 2009. “The whole album is about me just trying to process his death, because I feel obviously a large amount of guilt for not being able to reach him. It didn’t have to happen. It makes you sad and angry. But I just miss him and …I don’t know. I’ve had grandparents and relatives and uncles and aunts pass away, but I’ve never had a close friend that I’ve known like that.”
So, when the time came to finish the album, Dosh knew that he wanted to have Cesario’s voice on it. Helping Cesario’s sister sort through his friend’s belongings, Dosh searched through hard drives and tapes, looking for an audible memento. The recording on the album, made on a small handheld device, was the only one they could find.
In the recording, Cesario says, “Giving yourself up to basically yourself and therefore relying on yourself to change your life, your patterns, you know, your things, this does not include any sort of chemical addiction because one can’t just simply will that away, but when it comes to certain social behavior such as drinking in bars or drinking at all for that matter, you really have to get yourself to the point where you understand….what tomorrow brings.”
It’s a poignant coda to a complex and satisfying album, one that celebrates technical expertise alongside deep human feeling – often in overlapping, prime-numbered time signatures that only a drummer could love. Impossible? Clearly not. But damned close.