Martin Dosh

Martin Dosh has found his widest audience as part of Andrew Bird's band, but the Minnesota musician's own work is just as worthy of attention. In May 2008, Dosh released his fourth solo disc, Wolves And Wishes, which follows his now-familiar but certainly not stale method of building up soundscapes through a careful rearrangement of live improvisation with his collaborators—including Bird, Happy Apple saxophonist Michael Lewis, and guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker, who also plays in Bird's live band. The A.V. Club sat down with Dosh in advance of the CD release.

The A.V. Club: In the past, your albums have been roughly autobiographical—not necessarily diaries, but responses to the things going on in your life. Was that also the case with this one?

Martin Dosh: In the sense that it's sort of a marker for myself to look back at a time and see what I was thinking and what I was doing. I would say it's somewhat autobiographical, but I didn't even really think about this, because this is the first record I've ever done that doesn't have any vocal samples in it. That wasn't a conscious decision. It was just one of those things where I finished it up and was like, "Oh, wait a minute." It's probably an unconscious decision to not make it so specifically "me," to make it a little more universal.

AVC: There are a couple of songs with vocals on Wolves, but there aren't any words, you're just sort of using the human voice as an instrument.

MD: That's one of the things I struggle with the most, my own voice and how to make it work in the context of music. It's not that I don't have anything to say, but if I think about the words ahead of time, they just don't come out. I do like the sound of vocals. I just feel like the music says whatever I want to say in a better way than I could try to translate into words.

AVC: You began as a drummer, and in the past, your songwriting has usually begun with the beat as the initial inspiration. Is that still the case?

MD: For sure. Andrew Bird said an interesting thing [when he first heard the record]. He said, "This record is like, the beats are the hooks—it's not the melodies, it's the beats."

AVC: You've toured more extensively than ever in the last year or so. Did that affect your songwriting process?

MD: Absolutely. It's not something I'm really conscious of, but I'm sure being gone so much totally influenced the way this thing sounds. Being gone from my family and missing my son and my wife and stepson, it's just this weird panicky feeling. The tour we did when Bird's record [Armchair Apocrypha] came out, it was really intense. I was gone for South By Southwest, went to Europe for three and half weeks, home for 10 days, out for a month, home for seven days, out for three and half more weeks. By the end of that stretch, it was almost too much, y'know? The rest of the year, it wasn't as intense, but still, there was no period of time longer than three weeks that I was home. So I never really got to settle down. Maybe [Wolves] is sort of an attempt to calm myself. It's not really for me to figure out that kind of insight, but I'm sure that has something to do with the way it sounds.

AVC: The last record was so studio-intensive that you said in our last interview, "There are like 11 guests on there, but if you compared all the hours that I spent on this [by myself] with all the hours that people came over to do stuff, it would literally be 99 to 1." With you being gone so often as you made Wolves, it seems you wouldn't have had the same amount of time to—

MD: Absolutely, I didn't. It's hard to say how much less time I spent on it, because some of these tunes are, like on The Lost Take, bits and pieces of things I've been working on for a long time. Maybe three or four tunes on the new one were begun well over two years ago, and then most of the other stuff, I did when I was home between Bird stuff starting in August, and then on and off through December.

AVC: You've been working with Andrew Bird now for more than two years.

MD: I think we started in summer of '05. It's going great. I was just in Chicago, tracking drums on six or seven tunes. He and Jeremy Ylvisaker were in Nashville. I think Bird was there for two weeks and Jeremy was there for a week, tracking all the violins and guitars. I guess his record is going to be more acoustic-based, or acoustic guitar, anyway. The violin stays—he's got a lot of [songs] with cool distorted stuff. It's pastoral, very upfront, and totally cool, way different from the last one. Working with Andrew is awesome, especially when Jeremy is there. Jeremy's the idea king. It's easier for me to come up with ideas if someone else gives me a starting point. A lot of times, Bird is just like, "Let's throw some stuff at the wall and see what sticks." Jeremy will have a specific idea and be like, "Why don't you try this?" I'll try it, and that's it.

AVC: The three of you have very different creative approaches.

MD: Absolutely. Andrew is really such a visionary, but he's very prolific with the amount of songs he's working on, and has going around in his head, at all times. He's always whistling or sitting on the bus with his guitar, humming a new song or trying out a melody over different chord progressions. He's always got stuff cooking. With me, recording and writing is sort the same thing—I'll make a short loop, try a few different melodies on top of it, and then stumble upon something. It's sort of backward. I don't know Jeremy's process as well; Jeremy definitely conceives of stuff before he plays it too. He's an amazing guitar player.

AVC: Do you think your different approaches are related to your chosen instruments? With Andrew, especially his whistling, he can do it anywhere, whereas you need a bank of equipment.

MD: Exactly, that's right. I do get little melodies from time to time, but my retention factor is not as profound, I think, as Bird's. It just kind of hits me and then if I don't record it, it'll be gone. One reason I'm always compulsively recording everything is just to make sure I don't miss that one thing.

AVC: Wolves And Wishes and The Lost Take brought in a lot of guest musicians, including Bird and Bonnie "Prince" Billy.

MD: I want to expand. I'm unable to play instruments like violin and guitar—I play a little bit of guitar, not enough to come up with cool ideas, I think. I just want to have other textures in the music—I don't want it to just be all keyboards, xylophones, and drums. It can be really cool that way, but right now I want to hear those other textures. The violin is awesome, and obviously there are other avenues I could explore by sampling other things. There's so much I like about sampling other people that are reacting to my music. So I have my basic track [with] drums, melody, keyboards, and Jeremy comes over and says, "What should I play?" I'm just, "Eh, try a couple things." And we'll do a few passes through, improv-style, and listen back, find the good stuff, chop it up, move it around.

AVC: It's interesting that you don't sample from other sources, you actually create new pieces of music from scratch, then arrange them later.

MD: It's just the logical extension of what I've always done. I used to just sample all my own four-track cassettes, which I have hundreds of, but I'd sort of found all the good stuff I could by the end of [2004's] Pure Trash. I know there's actually other good stuff in there that I could re-do. It's sort of the idea of being a DJ and going through record stores and trying to find the right beat or whatever, it's just the same thing. Instead of being in a record store, I'm in my basement with a hundred cassettes, trying to find the one that's the right thing for the tune. The same aesthetic is involved with everything, because I'm overseeing the whole thing. That's the one constant, that I'm the one making the choices.

AVC: Your music really seems to come together in the editing process.

MD: That's sort of the songwriting part, the sculpting part. Andrew Bird, specifically, sort of does that ahead of time. He'll figure out the form [of a song] and work on it, whereas I'm trying to sculpt the form down from something that's too much. Editing is, in a lot of ways, the most important thing.

AVC: The ability to trade parts of songs back and forth through the Internet must have revolutionized the way your music is created.

MD: Absolutely. It's especially easy for me with this particular modus operandi, simply because it is sifting through the improvisations of someone else. There's not any pressure to get the right take—"Don't screw up the changes," or whatever. "Just do what you want and leave it to me to decide what fits."

AVC: When you're creating music in the studio, do you worry about making something too complex to play live later?

MD: You know, I don't, because I found that simply because of the way I write, there's always a way to arrange it. Especially now, because I have Mike in the band. The new stuff, the level of complexity compared to older stuff is probably times five or 10. It's a lot harder to do, but now that I have Mike there, it's really fun trying to figure out how to fit all the loops and pieces together.