Flight of the Dodos: An Interview with the Dodos
With prog-metal meeting West Africa, Meric Long and Logan Kroeber disguise a world of influences in their surprisingly complex sound.
The Dodos have all the trappings of an innocuous folk act: a fairly goofy name, lyrics about unrequited love, a toy piano. They're essentially a guitar-and-drum duo. However, don't be fooled by first impressions; there's something more complex at work here.
Despite their minimalist exterior, the Dodos perform fast-paced rhythms and old-school blues licks with surprising potency. Their songs on their new album Visiter inevitably display Meric Long's sentimental musings but are driven by the duo's tom-tom heavy drumming and rhythmic guitar playing. Their single "Fools" portends to be a ballad until Long's vocals drop and the group's raw underbelly exposes itself: breakneck phrasing which belies the traditional folk aesthetic.
The inspiration for this rare combination actually spans continents. Though not actually enrolled in the university, Long studied West African Ewe drumming with a professor at Cal Arts in Valencia, California. The experience evidently made an impact on the artist.
"West African music just opened up my ears to the space that occurs between rhythms, beats, etc.," Long explains via e-mail. "There's a way in which its various parts manage to stay simple when played by themselves but become mindbogglingly complicated when matched with another part. I try to incorporate this into my playing by keeping parts simple but filling in space that somehow might change the downbeat or at least make it more interesting."
Helping to fill in space and certainly make things more interesting is Dodo's drummer Logan Kroeber, who has previously dwelled in the more garish genre of prog-metal. And although Meric Long is the singer/songwriter of the duo, his compositions seem to revolve around Kroeber's drums. "I've always had drums/percussion in mind when I write songs," Long says, "especially the ones for this record. It's always at the forefront of my brain. After playing with Logan for a year, the drums had become a prominent force in our live set, and we wanted it to translate to record similarly." And it has. Visiter is riddled with ample percussion surrounding Long's infectious guitar strums.
It seems that Long has found an unlikely partner in Logan Kroeber, whose metal days included a heavy dose of double-bass and cymbal-laden beats. "We played some kind of death/thrash/punk combo that was a lot of fun," Kroeber describes his stint in metal group Entragian. "They are still going strong I believe, and hopefully one of these days I'll be able to catch them live in [San Francisco] with their new line up."
Kroeber hasn't been as entrenched in the West African music scene, at least "not the way Meric has". But, he explains, "Through playing with him I think the rigidity and accenting in that style has rubbed off on me a bit, so now I have this second hand, mutated influence instead of just ripping that stuff off."
While somehow maintaining the fast-paced style of his prog-metal days, Kroeber has abandoned his extensive drum kit with the Dodos, utilizing a more stripped down arsenal of percussive elements: "Three toms and a snare with a smattering of other percussion." This transition seems uncanny. What happened to the cymbals?
"I do miss cymbals but I don't miss relying on them," he explains. "Recently I've been looking for a very dry ride cymbal to add to my set up, kind of like Jaki Liebzeit's [of Can]."
Kroeber makes up for the absent cymbals in other, more creative, ways such as wearing a tambourine and other objects to his foot while pounding out drum beats. "After I figured out the tambourine foot, I tried to do the same with some sleigh bells. It included an elaborate little noose I would slip around my ankle to keep it attached but it still didn't work worth a damn. My new trick will probably be getting more conventional," he claims.
The Dodos manage to use their traditional influences while still keeping one foot in the pseudo-primitive universe of new school acts such as Animal Collective (a band to which the Dodos have been frequently compared). Long's vocals, specifically, have been compared to the sonically manipulated wails of Avey Tare and Panda Bear.
"It's a welcome comparison," says Long. "I like those guys. I'd attribute it to Paul Humphreys from OMD, he's probably the first guy I heard doing weird echoey vocal stuff, or even Philip Glass, though it's a little less articulate."
With song titles such as "Jodi", "Ashley", and "Undeclared", Long seems to dwell on the lack of intimacy that exists on the road. "Touring constantly can definitely put some weird constraints on trying to become seriously involved with anyone," he explains.
"At the time it felt heavy," Long speaks of the songwriting process. "I think when you spend a small amount of time getting to know someone, and a whole lot of time on the road daydreaming out the window, it's easy to idealize some shit that doesn't exist."
If leaving friends behind is a problem, giving up other careers certainly is not. Long looks at his former job as a line cook with indifference. "A lot of coffee and yelling," he describes the experience. "To be honest, I never took it too seriously, it's only food."
The hectic atmosphere of the kitchen, however, obviously left an impression. "Cooking in a busy kitchen sort of punctuated my tendency to need to be doing more than one thing at once, which is sort of how I approach performing music. If I'm not physically going at full capacity, I feel like anxious."
"Doing more than one thing at once" might aptly describe Long's fingerpicking guitar style. Citing traditional blues guitarists such as Mississippi John Hurt and John Fahey, Long's method of guitar playing is both intricate and slightly experimental. He further develops his sound by sometimes using alternate tunings that give the impression of a bassline.
Visiter has also seen the duo grow in more ways than one. The album was released on Frenchkiss Records, home of art punks Les Savy Fav and headed by that band's flamboyant frontman Tim Harrington. The elevation to a more prominent indie label has ushered in tours with freak folkers Akron/Family and the aforementioned labelmates Les Savy Fav.
It was "fun, influential," Long says of touring with Akron/Family and Les Savy Fav. "While sonically those two bands are very different, they both have an amazing ability to get people to let their guard/judgments down and just have a good time. It was a really good positive vibe to be around, which is what you need when you're on the road."
While on tour the Dodos have added a third member, Joe Hayner, to contribute those xylophone and toy piano flourishes. "Joe is the spice man. For now, he's sort of filling in the parts that are on the record but we can't play as a two-piece," Long says of the Hayner. "It's great having him onstage 'cause he sort of breaks it up a little bit. I feel like we can play longer sets, and there isn't as much of tendency to be constantly making noise between me and Logan."
It's unclear whether Hayner will be the last addition to the group, or if the expansion will continue. For the moment, the Dodos seem to be content, but as Kroeber says, "It could go anywhere."