"Nothing Recalibrates Your Brain Like Life": An Interview with the Dodos
A new album freshly minted and already back at work on more material, Meric Long of the Dodos simply can't rest on his laurels. Instead, he sits down with PopMatters to break down his entire process, illuminating why his band is at the forefront of creative indie music.
Meric Long and Logan Kroeber are no strangers to making innovative music. For much of the last decade the duo has worked to create innovative indie-folk and pop, starting with 2006's Dodo Bird EP and full-length Beware of the Maniacs, and culminating in this year's new album Carrier. Though the band got its start primarily as a live entity, they've maintained the artistic freedom to push themselves in new directions. Thus, Carrier, recorded entirely in analog, manages to revel in a multi-textured landscape of not-quite-folk yet not-quite-pop, an often eerie sound-scape which merits repetitive listening simply to keep up.
Long took time to speak with PopMatters, in an expansive discussion which broke down their creative process while showcasing how much more ground there is musically for the Dodos yet to cover. Here, Long talks of his disinterest in the act of promotion, his need to continue writing at all costs (the band's already at work on Carrier's follow-up as we speak!), and why being a two-member band has allowed the band enough freedom artistically to thrive in what, to many, seems a hostile environment for musicians.
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The songs on Carrier -- particularly "Substance" -- immediately sound full and inviting, which can make it surprising you're only a two-piece band. Did you work with a wider range of contributors in the studio this time around or was it primarily the work of you and Logan [Kroeber]?
It was basically just the work of us. We did a lot of overdubbing, little tricks in the studio but nothing crazy. It was all analog. We did it all on tape, so we were pretty limited on what we could do. But we had two really good engineers, though this was the first time we've actually done all-analog recording. Usually we do part of the recording to tape and then dump it to the computer. We've always mixed on the computer. So this time, mixing without a computer, the process was a revelation for me.
Does working with just two members give you room to expand your personal creativity when crafting arrangements?
Absolutely. We went into the studio to record Carrier really prepared, but we returned to the studio this summer to record new songs, but went in not very well prepared, the idea being "we have the drums, we have the guitar, I have some melodies." But we're able to then switch gears quickly, something which with more people involved would be harder when making decisions on the fly, in the studio. It's mostly me [from an arrangement point], which makes it easier to say "okay, I want to add this" instead of having to double-check everybody.
With all the layering in your songs, fans must wonder: what's your writing process like? Do you build those layered melodies first or craft a lyric and build the full song around it?
It's different for each song. With this record there was a change in approach. Over the years I'd developed my habits for writing, ingrained over the last three or four albums, and I wanted to get out of that. In the past it'd been "get a guitar part down, then add a drum part and build it from there." That's great, it works, but I really wanted to come at a song from a totally different place, channel something different. So I would either write words first and then try to build a song around that, or I'd what might in the past have been used as an overdub, either a guitar line or some minor accompaniment part, and I'd use that to build the song around. It was nice not to always have the drums and guitar first, because it's really easy to just layer stuff on top of stuff and get lost in that.
It's interesting that you'd say that, because you've talked before about the Dodos being primarily a live band. Do you ever find it easier to flesh out these songs live in front of an audience, or is there some comfort in having the studio isolation?
That too was a different sort of thing on this record. I spent a lot of time to where we didn't have a chance to really … well, let me back up. When I said that we were a live band, I think that's changed over the years. That was where we were coming from starting out with our first few records. We had the live show down, so why not have the record replicate what's working live? It worked out well, but over time I wanted to be much more comfortable in a studio. In the past we tended to work with a producer who was engineering and producing at the same time, but this time we didn't. So the band had much more say in how it ended up sounding. That meant spending more time at home recording alone, working on parts, rather than just playing it live and then recording it, which is what we used to do.
I keep hearing how, with the Internet reigning supreme, critics don't matter as long as a band's fans unite behind the music. In the months leading up to the release of Carrier, what were you able to do to mobilize your fans and get them excited?
Well … [laughs] we're not very good at that. Once the record's finished, I am a horrible Twitter-er, first of all. I'm horrible at it. Essentially I'm just really bad at what you asked. One of the reasons it's hard to answer that question is that we're already working in the studio to record another record, and that's where my focus is. My focus is on getting as much stuff together as I can, whether working on videos or simply another record. Ultimately, I don't know how to sell stuff. I don't know how to be charming on the Internet. But if we just keep making stuff that I think is cool, it should then follow that our fans will be excited about that. If there's another record, that's just more stuff to absorb.
There's no real limit to how much you can release now, since you can do so digitally.
Yeah, I feel like there's some invisible force out there pushing bands to just release more content. And that's great, as long as the content is cool for people, that the artist is behind what's being created.
You were asked once in an interview who you'd love to work with as an artist, and you said Trent Reznor. Are you any closer to making that happen, and would a collaboration between the Dodos and Nine Inch Nails be mind-blowing enough to usher in the Apocalypse?
[laughs] I definitely don't think we're any closer to that happening. I don't know, I mean I sort of pulled that name out of a hat when asked that question, but after I said it I thought about it and it's hard to even daydream about what that would even sound like. I hope it would be more on the Apocalyptic side, that it would sound more like Nine Inch Nails than just another Dodos album.
It's been two years since you released No Color, and you've credited getting time away from music with giving you freedom from apprehension heading into your most recent release. What did you do to relieve that pressure as you crafted the material which would become Carrier?
Well, nothing can really recalibrate your brain like "life." Just shit happening, and life. It was an eventful, tough year for us personally, a lot of stuff in our private lives which happened. And getting some time away from music, getting settled down a little bit here in San Francisco, gave room for us to recover. When we finished recording No Color I was really feeling hungry for something, a new way of thinking about and of writing songs. I got more into poetry and words in general, trying to use language as a means to tap into the same place that music seems to take me. But mainly it's just life.
Is it sometimes important just to let the music speak for itself? You can spend forever crafting the song, but eventually you have to let it go.
I really believe that's the best line of defense. Speaking of apprehension for releases, this record was done in January and it didn't come out until August. That's a lot of time to apprehend. So the way I had to go about it was to just record another record and not worry about it.
That's what they used to do in the '60s -- they'd have one record ready to release while they worked on the next one or two.
I wasn't aware of that, but they're smart for doing that. It's good, man, because if you're a songwriter you should be writing songs.
You said you did more of the production yourself on this record. Did you still work at all with John Askew, as you'd done on past albums?
No, this record we worked in a new studio with new people. We'd always gone elsewhere to record but we reside in San Francisco and we decided to do it here. It was a totally new experience. We had Jay Pellicci and his brother Ian, which … well, the fucking Pellicci brothers, man, they were awesome! They work out of this studio here called Tiny Telephone, which is owned by John Vanderslice, and they specialize in analog recording. So it was really easy for us to make that kind of jump. The production was more collaborative, between us and them, but because we were working with them for the first time there were more decisions which we, by default, were more vocal in making. It's that there wasn't an expectation, since everything was new. But they were awesome to work with, and we worked with them again over the summer on the new material.
For all the talk about how mp3s have destroyed the industry, do you think the Dodos have benefited from the online spread of music with more of a global reach as a band?
I don't think we would have been able to continue without it. I think that we're able to do what we do because of it.
So is it more important to gain new fans in the first place rather than nickel-and-diming them about how they find or pay for music initially?
It's interesting, because we just toured China, and I experienced something pretty interesting that happened on several occasions. People would come up to me after a show, and they would give me money for a disc or an album they didn't want to buy. They'd already downloaded it. "Here's $20 for the record that I downloaded. I owe this to you." And it's awesome to see, but the way I see it if someone's really really stoked on what I'm doing, they're not just going to steal it. And if they do, I think in the end it's better that we still work on sort of an honor system and take a hopeful view. Give people the benefit of the doubt rather than saying "you didn't pay for that! I'm coming after you!" That just seems like a waste of energy.