The Dodos (still) challenge each other

Post Author: Nina Corcoran

Even though this year marks The Dodos’ tenth anniversary as a band, they’ve managed to crawl along without ever grabbing the spotlight with a firm hand. Much like Mew, The Walkmen, or Joanna Newsom, the indie rock band’s fanbase is cultish but quiet. Fans covet each record and turn up for every show without writing extensive thinkpieces about the underlying message of their genius, although perhaps it’s because there are too many lines present in their music to even begin reading in-between them. The duo have never stopped pushing themselves. As The Dodos explain, it’s less about making headlines and more about getting people to drum on their steering wheels, to feel the true pulse of their heavy rhythms.

“We make music for musicians,” Logan Kroeber says over the phone, calling from his home in San Francisco. “Anyone who has a passing interest in our music should want to sit down with a guitar or drums and try to figure out what we’re doing. I want people to feel inspired to learn.” The 32-year-old drummer is talking with the type of enthusiasm that makes you smile. Sure enough, those who appreciate The Dodos for their melodic sensibility may be missing out on their songs’ hidden complexity. It’s what draws poignant guests vocalists to their records, like Brigid Dawson of Thee Oh Sees who worked at a café with singer-guitarist Meric Long before the two went on to play in a band together. As The Dodos point out, it’s not until you actually sit down and to learn the music that you realize how feverish both of their parts are.

Anyone who has a passing interest in our music should want to sit down with a guitar or drums and try to figure out what we’re doing. I want people to feel inspired to learn.

This isn’t the chatter of an inflated ego. The Dodos’ music hinges on tight syncopation between both players. Kroeber and Long write half of their songs to indulge in traditional verse-chorus interplay while the other half quite clearly dodge it. No matter the structure, the two musicians flip rhythms like a switch, picking up speed while incorporating rapid finger-plucking on guitar and West African Ewe drumming, a sophisticated layering of polyrhythms that carry Afro-Carribean influences. When written down, it’s a dizzying painting of staccato dots and handwritten notes. Fortunately, much of their material doesn’t get sheet music treatment. They’re too busy letting it come from the soul to jot it down.

Their newest LP, Individ, comes right on the heels of their last. Following a successful improvised song during their last day in the studio for 2013’s Carrier, Long took a chance and booked two more weeks of studio time to record new material. “I remember feeling that nervousness of, ‘Wow, we’re really going to go in blind on this one.’ The drum beat could be sketched out in the practice space, but feel is so important to us and Meric had a good feeling about it,” says Kroeber. Vocal layers, overdubs, and tempo changes were addressed in the moment. The core of Individ was decided upon entering the studio, but the real work lay in fine tuning. For these sessions, it was all about getting takes exactly right and feeling uncomfortable. “We would play all the way through and I’d go, ‘Was that it? Did I do it right? Did it feel okay?’” he says, laughing. “We get weird and technical and math-y. Polyrhythms are meant to be played with. To have an actual level of spontaneity that’s kept up high is so valuable.”

A blank notebook always comes with a fear of endless possibilities. Sometimes it’s extremely hard to alter your part if the beat comes from your gut. “It’s the way [a rhythm] shows up on your doorstep. It’s really hard to battle your internal guidance system, but Long challenging me has made me a much better drummer, being able to chop up those gut instincts.” With tight editing comes a tight sound, and tracks like “Precipitation” and “Goodbyes and Endings” benefit from it.

“Individ” is The Dodos’ made-up word to encompass perseverance, understated revenge, and a quiet resilience. “We Googled it one time and people were using it very limited, so maybe it has a real definition, but we’re pretending Meric made it up,” Kroeber says with a laugh.

At the time, Meric’s father was very ill and displayed the symptoms of someone in a weakened state. For months, he pushed on. “It had a pretty profound effect on Meric. There’s an element of that in our own career. We feel like we’re so focused on our music that we’re not good at being self-promoters. We aren’t social media mavens. We just do what we do: create something that’s fun and satisfying versus a spectacle that everyone has to hear.”

For those who miss the brilliant simplicity and child-like emotions of 2008’s Visiter, The Dodos’ new album will comfort. Both records come from immediate studio returns, spontaneous drum change-ups, and that weird acoustic guitar. “It’s got a stupid tuning—a low A—with a tone all its own, but it’s special. We haven’t used it since Visiter. We never change the tuning. Ever. It has one job to do.” It’s the throwback connection that makes “Darkness” sounds like “Ashley” and “Bastard” like “It’s That Time Again”. Without it, Individ would lose its charm.

In their early days, The Dodos saw a lot of synchronicity between the lyrics and drumming. Kroeber would let the emotions of the vocals guide him. Now his studio headphones only feed him the guitar and drums to keep his speed a hair above the rest.

“It’s milliseconds that create an inexplicable energy. There’s worlds of variation in that rushing or sluggishness, and as far as what I see when it comes to a song, I’ve got an active imagination. Every song Meric writes, I’ve got a set of colors I see for that song,” says Kroeber. Usually, their visions don’t match up . Once Kroeber was thinking of sculptures on a Greek island and Long was thinking of his home. “How could I know? It has nothing to do with the lyrics, just the way the song feels.”

‘Individ’ is The Dodos’ made-up word to encompass perseverance, understated revenge, and a quiet resilience.

After ten years of recording, The Dodos still turn to analog recording for their records. With an energy so tight, it’s key not just for tape saturation and fidelity aside, but listening. Everyone sits there starting at the ground during mixing. They can only use their ears to hear each song’s layers, not a computer program that breaks it into a visual format.

“A lot of analog purists have a hard time—which I am not—to put into words of why you love it,” says Kroeber. “There’s small sound issues that are unique to analog, some people like the process, some people want to produce something classic that is close to them, and I don’t fit into any one of those. It’s like there’s a ghost in the machine. Everyone’s pushing faders and knobs to get the sound you want, but you can’t recreate it. There’s an element of magic to it that’s crazy, an un-predictableness, but more often than not it adds an amazing level of richness.”

Ten years is a long time to be making music together, especially when you try to out-do yourself on each record. “It used to be kind of dizzying,” Kroeber says. “I’m surprised we can remember it all. We have 70 songs now, but I feel like I can call any up in my brain. It used to freak me out. I got scared I couldn’t keep track of this binary data: snare, tick, high hat, on, off.”

As with any band, the two feel blessed to get along well. Of course, they’ve wanted to strangle each other at points, too, but they got over that hump almost five years ago. “I feel thankful to have someone to play music with that challenges me, and he throws me curveballs every day,” says Kroeber. “I’ve gotten to be a better, more confident player. It’s made me feel like I can add something to anything, regardless of genre.”

Change is inevitable, and as an observer, Kroeber has seen it in Meric over the last 10 years. “When you catch that perfect storm of him being in a good mood cracking jokes, he has a real particular sense of humor you don’t find anywhere else. When I met him, he was much more of a bachelor and a partier. Now he’s married and very health-conscious. We are both a lot better people to be around, in that sense,” he laughs. “I’m probably the best person to judge and the worst. I’ve seen the person he was versus the person he was now. It’s like a big ball of gum or something. There’s all these traits that are stuck to it, rolling through time picking things up and dropping off other things. There’s stuff you may have forgotten about but it’s just stuck somewhere in the middle of that wad.” He pauses to question what he’s said and asks if it makes sense. It does. The analogy is complicated, colorful, and childlike—much like the Dodos’ music itself.