Music

Going Off: An Interview with the Dodos

Jane Jansen Seymour

The Dodos' Meric Long espouses on guitar holes, "super shy" singing, getting Neko Case to sing on half of his band's new album, and how he just wants the Dodo shows to "go off" ...


The Dodos

No Color

Label: Frenchkiss
US Release Date: 2011-03-15
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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.

 

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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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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