The Dodos started as Dodo Bird, the solo project of San Francisco-based guitarist Meric Long. Drummer Logan Kroeber soon joined him, and in 2006, the duo put out its debut, Beware Of The Maniacs, which was followed up with Visiter in 2008. With its propulsive drumming and percussive guitars, Visiter was a critical and commercial success—and among the most energetic records of 2008. In the process of recording the new Time To Die, the duo added another member, vibraphonist Keaton Snyder. Prior to the band’s performance tonight at The Rock And Roll Hotel, The A.V. Club caught up with Long to talk about the development of The Dodos’ sound, West African pop, and sniffing producer Phil Ek’s butt.
The A.V. Club: There is a cute story about the title of Visiter, involving a little kid giving you the drawing that became the cover art and title. There probably isn’t a little kid behind the title of Time To Die, is there?
Meric Long: [Laughs.] Definitely no cute back-story. It’s kind of a phrase I say all the time, to myself or to friends, anytime I am going to perform or do something humiliating or stressful. For me, it’s a reference to commitment, to committing to what you are about to do. With the record we were feeling some pressure and expectations, but I feel like there were some things we wanted to do. Adding instrumentation. And we had to let go of [touring member Joe Haener] and our manager. All these weird changes. It just felt like we had to say, “Fuck it, let’s do this,” you know, and not worry about it, not be stifled with pressure or worry about if we’re doing the right thing.
AVC: Did being in the studio with Phil Ek (producer of The Shins, Fleet Foxes, and Built To Spill) alleviate or add to the pressure to produce?
ML: Working with Phil was a whole other level of pressure, which was really good, but it was kind of this thing we had to do to become a better band. I know the perception was that Visiter was received really well and it was, but by the time we had finished touring on that record I was super down on the band. We had played the songs so much and so many of the songs had relied on these weird little novelties, like a trash can, and I felt like it became this weird puppet show. So I wanted to start this record and work on the weak points of the band and take these things I felt bad about and just work on it. Phil was perfect for that because he’s kind of a slave driver. He’ll push you really hard and he wants things to be good in their most natural state. You can’t really cut corners with him. If you are going to sing this part, you have to sing it. There was definitely a learning curve. I feel like the first week was intense because Phil has this reputation and we’re this little shitty indie band coming in and we wanted to be of the same caliber. He wanted to make the record with us, so it’s not like we had to please him or prove anything, but still, when you work with someone new, there’s that butt-sniffing period where you’re checking each other out. That was the only pressure and once we got going it was really good.
AVC: The most obvious change on Time To Die is the much more melodic vocals. Why did you want to change your recognized style?
ML: Our older songs are really modal, they sit in these simple open chords and that’s part of the charm of them, but after playing them for so long I felt like I needed to hear more melody and hear more changes. I always feel like I am trying to improve myself and improve the band and I think that my voice had a weak point, just in singing and the focus on the vocals. It was more of a personal thing, just not being as proud of my performance and wanting to change that.
AVC: As someone who has studied West African drumming, what do you make of the rise in indie bands using African musical elements?
ML: The West African thing for us kind of sucks, because it was something I mentioned in our press sheet as one thing I studied and it was super influential in my understanding of rhythm, but that was it. I don’t think of The Dodos as a West African band. I feel like polyrhythm and different aspects have always been there. I don’t know how much of a trend there is, though. I don’t see it. I think that Vampire Weekend brings that West African pop thing with the guitar, but that not like there is a critical cultural understanding, it’s just this weird mish-mosh.