Photo: Chloe Aftel

Back to What We Really Were All Along: An Interview with the Dodos

Individ, the latest by this San Francisco duo, finds them coming back to the same place they started: two "total nerds just being excited" as a duo.

Since 2008’s critically acclaimed Visiter, the percussive indie rock act the Dodos have manifested themselves again and again in search of… well, themselves.

Artist: The Dodos

Album: Individ

Label: Polyvinyl

US Release Date: 2015-01-27

UK Release Date: import

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/d/dodos2015cd.jpg

Each new album seems to bring reinvention for the San Francisco duo, fueled by a mixture of controlled chaos and unexpected sideswipes. Most recently, the band lost friend and collaborator Christopher Reimer in early 2012, forcing Meric Long and Logan Kroeber to once again reevaluate their course and respond. Perhaps the most everlasting and singular quality of the Dodos is that they always respond with commitment to saying something meaningful. In this constant flow of change, the band feels much more aged than it is; it’s hard to believe that they have been together only a decade, considering the reaches to which they’ve ventured in exploring their sound.

We got Meric on the phone to discuss jumping from one album to another (their newest, Individ, was recorded right on the heels of 2013’s Carrier), the changes to his writing over the last few years, his recent marriage, and what it’s like to return to touring as a duo for the first time since 2006. Through the editing process, much of Meric’s charm had to be condensed; it bears noting that he is a funny, sweet dude and an engaging interviewee.

The mythology of Individ is really enormous: it’s incredible that you guys were talking about this album when you were doing interviews around Carrier.

The whole going from one record into the other, that part is totally true. The songs weren’t written at all before. It wasn’t, like, leftover material from Carrier or anything. We just finished Carrier and we were like, “Oh, we have all this time and I really want to get back in the studio and so let’s just go see what happens.” Basically, I wanted to know what it was like to do a record in a vacuum, where like there was no pressure from anyone (including ourselves) about what this record had to be, because the last thing we did hadn’t even gone through a record cycle yet.

Did diving in right after Carrier create a more improvisational environment for you guys? Were there more risks taken in recording Individ?

It didn’t feel risky at all; that was sort of the beauty of it. Because we had a whole record that was done that wasn’t even out yet, it provided this total safety net. There was nothing at stake. And I guess we probably ended up taking more risks because of that. We were just like “Oh, let’s try this!” and that did make it more improvisational, for sure.

There’s a lot of energy in Individ and I assume that’s just hitting wheels to the pavement. It must be liberating.

Yeah, for sure. I’m glad that you’re hearing the energy on the record, because it really felt that way when we made it. We finished Carrier and we had such a ball doing it, but it also felt like we were just starting to have fun. We reached a fever pitch of enthusiasm between me, Logan, and Ian and Jay Pellicci (who were working on the record). We were having a blast when we were doing [Individ] and it was very fast. It’s a total little window in time. It’s like man, that was rad, but we’ll never get that back. That was that moment. It was four little total nerds just being excited.

It must have been a nice relief coming from an album that was more or less a response to losing Chris, to keep pushing through to the other side.

For sure. It felt like a release, you know? There was a lot of weight — no pun intended — to the Carrier record, and it was important to us that we do that “correctly” and take care in everything for that record. And so, [Individ] was like the release of that, like, “Alright, let’s not worry about doing things right or whatever, let’s just have fun.”

It’s so interesting, because outside of being able to read an interview you do or get an album or catch you live, there’s very little update to the auteur. We don’t know what’s going on with you six out of seven days of the week.

Well, unless you’re a “good” band and you tweet and you stay in touch with your fans, but we’re terrible at that.

You’ve mentioned that before.

Yeah, every record cycle it just dawns on me, like I’m just watching. It’s just like cleaning your room or something, you know? You know you should do it, you know you’re gonna have to, or if you did your life would be better. But you just can’t bring yourself to do it. It’s funny, if I’ve mentioned it before, years have passed by and if it hasn’t changed now, it’s probably never going to change. I feel like this record cycle and kind of where we’re at in the band, we’ve really learned how to just be stubborn in the way that we are and just accept it. And if that’s our downfall, so be it. At least we stayed true to ourselves?

Your lyrics are so different from where they used to occupy, neither for better or for worse, but anything off Carrier or Individ could stand as poetry. There’s not so much literal structure. It used to be so much wordier, like “Fools”; there’s a lot there.

My attempt at rap, y’know? [Laughs] I appreciate that you noticed that, just only because I put a lot of work into it. Like, particularly on Carrier and this record, I put work in to make a leap in terms of my understanding lyrics and what I’m trying to say.

What was the biggest influence on that? Just kind of sick of being in one spot?

I think I got away with a lot of cynicism in my lyrics before, at least in the tone, so I didn’t feel commitment to the words. My wife is a poet and she’s really into words. She got me to write poetry, actually. I’d never written poetry before, I never even thought to — even though I write songs, words were an attachment to music. And we’d write poetry together and she really turned me on to just how words can stand on their own. And I started reading poetry and starting appreciating it on this level that you should. Like, it’s one of those things where I was totally late to the game.

When it came time to write the lyrics for Individ, I left a lot of places open. A lot of the lyrics I did in studio at the time, in the moment, which is something I never would do before because it would terrify me. So, for the lyrics for Individ, I would have a few specific themes — resilience, any sort of shadow or dark thing in my psyche that I tried to avoid, the fact that I feel super competitive and it bugs the shit out of me — I would bookmark it and just put that aside and when it comes time to being in the studio and being like “Agh, I don’t know what the fuck to write,” I just bring that back up. Sort of lay it there and then just write around it, you know? It was really about having a few blobs that I can call up to reference, in some way. And I feel like it works, because it’s sort of a way to trick your mind to not think, but to have something to think about — if that makes sense?

Totally. It’s almost like a meditation.

Yeah, having that sort of visual to help you get through an idea. You’re not describing what you see when you use a visual, you’re just using the visual to have something to write about.

Individ sleeve art by Victor Cayro

Speaking of visuals, I feel like the artwork for this album has probably the most complex themes out of any of your covers so far. This Sisyphean character right in the middle pushing a ball of light or he’s promethean and creating that — it’s very beautiful.

There’s been a lot of Sisyphus references. It’s funny, because that wasn’t intentional, but I’ve heard that a few times and I can totally see it.

What is the intended meaning?

Well, we had our friend Victor [Cayro] do the artwork and we gave him a bunch of ideas that correlated to a lot of themes in the record, just to see what he would come up with. There was “resilience” — that was a big theme for the record. The kind of resilience where you’re not trying hard and you’re not changing your ways to stay. It’s a very stubborn, very quiet, non-protesting resilience, but by the mere fact that you’re still existing, you’re sort of defying the odds or at least pissing somebody off. Like, on Easter Island, the big statues that are there — nobody knows why they’re there. Those things have been there forever and they’re resilient but like, they’re not trying hard, they’re just there. And you can’t move them.

There’s an audacity to their being.


You used to road test stuff and bring it into the studio and you switched that up for Carrier. Did you take songs out from Individ while you were out for Carrier, or is this upcoming tour going to be the unveiling?

It’s gonna be the unveiling for sure, but I’m really looking at this tour a little differently than I have in the past. Every time we do a tour for a new record, it’s always kind of like “Okay, we’re going on the road and we’re going to present the new record” and it’s like, “Here it is, the new record.” This next tour is going to be more like “Presenting: the band!” We haven’t toured as a duo since 2006, and now we’re kind of going back to how it started. And I feel like with that, we’re trying to make it into a little bit of a celebration of all the shit we’ve done. We’re gonna try and hit a lot of different points of our career.

That’s really cool, especially because I feel like you guys have such a definitive sound. Because of your background and Logan’s metal background, you two create this type of arrangement and rhythm and energy that is very authentically your own and is recognizable. When I was listening to “Goodbyes and Endings” and “Retriever” [off Individ], I was like “Woah, these are fuckin’ Dodos songs. These are 100% them.” And I guess it’s something that got defined for me with Visiter. I’m wondering, are you aware that people come to your music with an expectation of this sound that you kind of organically found?

[Laughs] Absolutely, man, and I feel like we’re giving into that. We’ve definitely tried to keep our heads on where we’re at and what we want to be doing, but I was writing the songs [for Individ and] I was kind of like, “You know what? Let’s play to our fans. Let’s give them what they want.” There’s definitely this certain thing, and it’s not in every song, but what you describe, I know exactly what you’re talking about, and it’s great. It’s awesome. We’re super lucky to have people that want that and expect that. And it’s fine to have those expectations.

In some ways, we’ve been writing the same song like, this whole time. That thing that you’re talking about, that maybe some of our more rabid fans expect, we’ve been chasing that this whole time. We’ve probably done it over and over again, but it still feels elusive, in some way. It’s like one of those things that the more you kind of spend time on something, the more you kind of realize how detailed it is. You realize all these different things about it that you probably wouldn’t have noticed if you just kind of like dabbled. So, I think that’s kind of the trip we’re on. We’re like, way down the rabbit hole, for better or for worse and we’re just like, stuck down there. And like, the only way out is to keep digging further, you know?

How has your marriage changed you?

[Sighs] Ah man, I mean… that’s a big question, because I honestly feel like I owe her a ton. Like, just in terms of being a positive influence artistically and as a person, it’s just crazy. I’m definitely indebted to her. In terms of just growing as a human, becoming an adult, being able to focus on shit, just having a partner in doing stuff — I didn’t have that at all, pretty much for most of the entire Dodos career. And so, for me, in terms of how it affects the band and how it affects myself artistically, I feel like I can get down to work. You realize what’s important, that’s really is what it is.

Within the nomenclature of Individ, I connected with a sense of becoming an individual after something that you believed in falls apart, a little bit. Maybe a nod to the fact you guys are a duo again and like you said, you haven’t been a duo since 2006.

We’ve always toured with other people and we’ve always kind of looked for something else to kind of fix us, you know? We’ve always kind of been like “Oh, this record will have the vibraphone!”, or like “This record will have 20 guitar parts! We’ll bring someone along and we’ll do all the guitar parts and it’ll be awesome and it’ll sound like a Thin Lizzy solo!” Now it’s just about turning back the scope. And we’re not touring as a duo by choice; it just kind of happened.

But it’s funny enough, it does ring true with the attitude of the record, of just turning the focus around and sort of accepting the way things are but at the same time appreciating what is there. Our attitude right now is like, “Okay, we have no one else, there’s gonna be no one else to fix this.” We’re not touring with anybody, so we can’t rely on someone else to make this song or this show fantastic. And we probably haven’t had that attitude for a really long time — since the beginning of the band. And it’s so weird, because we’ve been doing this shit for so long and you kinda come back to the thing that you did in the very beginning. Like, “Oh, that actually sounds kinda cool, we should do more of that!” and that’s kinda what happens. Coming back to it, it was really like hearing it with fresh ears. Having tried other things, it’s just like oh that sounds pretty good, it sounds exciting right now, so … it felt new. It didn’t feel like we were repeating the same thing, though I’m sure we basically were.