With their show at the Northside Festival being only the second time performing material from Time to Die, the Dodos' forthcoming album due out September 15 on Frenchkiss Records, the visceral energy that their live sets have become known for seemed re-focused on the complicated melodies, time structures and drum patterns. Frontman/guitarist Meric Long and drummer Logan Kroeber sat down to talk about whether or not that was actually a good idea, newcomer Keaton Snyder’s role on electric vibraphone, and how being hyped by Pitchfork can be like getting dumped on prom night. Sorta. Tickets for two upcoming NYC shows on October 13 & 14 go on sale tomorrow. You’d be smart to buy some.
The L Magazine: So, Time to Die. Does that title have any significance?
Meric Long: It wasn’t really a big deal. When it came time to think of names, it’s just one of those weird, catchphrase-y mantras that I say to myself before I do anything that I’m nervous about. It was the first one I got stuck on, so that was it.
The L: The last few times you guys played in New York, you played the single “Fables.” It’s ridiculously catchy, which lead me to think this would be a total pop record, but that’s not exactly the feel I got from the other new material you played at Studio B.
ML: The melodies may be more poppy, which was sort of an intention. It’s a little more straightforward—although, I don’t know, I don’t really want to say “straightforward”—but I had more time to write the songs. So I spent more time on the compositions; the songs are a bit more melodic, they have more parts.
The L: Would you say they’re more complex?
ML: Yeah, I think so. Maybe that’s just because they’re new, and they’re really hard to play right now. I was struggling at Studio B. The first time we played them, what was going through my head was, like, “Holy shit, we need to play these songs a lot. This is really hard." It gets to the point where it becomes muscle memory, and it’s fine, but it takes a while, you know? But for now, playing those songs, I’m totally concentrating on being able to play them instead of focusing on what’s happening with the band.
The L: Is that scary for you? Or do you just approach it as something you’ve got to do?
ML: It was scary at first, but I felt like the Studio B show was like, “Ok, we can do it. And it’s only going to get better from here.” And it’s good too, ‘cause it’s the complete opposite of how we were performing towards the end of our last tour. All the songs we were totally sick of, I could play them in my sleep. And now I’m concentrating so hard that I don’t think about all the stuff that my brain will just go to. I was starting to think about my laundry. It’s not a good thing.
The L: The vibraphone seems to play a big role on this record with Keaton joining in on the recording. Do you consider yourself a three-piece now?
ML: Totally. When we were playing with Joe, it didn’t feel like a three-piece, it was more like a two-piece with this other guy. I wanted to make sure that if we had a third person, he was more central to what was going on instead of just on the periphery. So we started rehearsing with Keaton about a month before we recorded. At the time, we were still figuring parts out—most of the songs were written—so it was more him coming in and adding stuff, but there was one song [“Troll Nacht”] where we were able to build the song around him, which was great. You can hear in the song he’s the timekeeper, and everything’s built around that. It gives me hope.
The L: Did you know him prior or did someone introduce you?
ML: We totally lucked out. I had gotten the instrument and we were like, “Ok, hopefully we’ll find someone to play it, but if not, we’ll just play it ourselves on the record.” But just when we started looking for somebody, I ran into my neighbor who’s the director at the Conservatory of Music in San Francisco and asked if he knew of anybody who played vibraphone professionally. The next day he wrote me, and was like, “I’ve got the perfect guy. This kid just dropped out, he’s 21, he has nothing to do” (laughs). It’s a weird instrument—not many people play it. He sorta fell into our lap.
The L: Are there any other oddball instruments that you guys pulled out for the recording?
ML: We had our friend Ana come play trumpet on one song, but that was it.
The L: A lot of press talked about how Visiter was written on the road. How did the writing process go down for this record?
ML: This was the opposite. We didn’t write anything on the road. We were totally spent on any inspiration. There were a couple songs, like “Fables,” that were lingering, a couple riffs that we had worked on, but when we got back from tour in January, it was like “sit down, hole up.” We didn’t have day jobs—just worked a lot on the writing.
The L: And that’s both you and Logan being holed up?
ML: The writing process for this record was less collaborative and more collaborative than on the last record. I did a lot of the writing outside of the studio, in my room. But some of the songs were based off of ideas that we had—like a drum beat that [Logan] had. So it was more collaborative in that the last record was like “song; then add beat.” And this was more about having those two influence each other.
The L: And you have a new producer. Phil Ek?
ML: Yeah, he’s great. But he’s also a fucking bastard (laughs).
The L: Is he kind of a control freak?
ML: No, no, he just has a certain swagger. He’s a rock star. But the greatest guy ever.
Logan Kroeber: We were told to make fun of him. We had a good time.
ML: We’re used to not having somebody slave-driving us, you know?
The L: So he really pushed you guys.
ML: Yeah, he did push us. He had a certain thing that we had to meet to, and we weren’t used to that so there was a big learning curve, but we walked away from it more knowledgeable about recording.
LK: The engineer on the last record [John Askew] was coming at it more from a musician’s perspective, like us, and more about helping us figure ourselves out. And Phil was more, “C’mon you wimps. Get it together.”
The L: I read how John thought about for a whole year between albums how to record the drums and wanting that big sound to come through. Do you think that came through again—the bigness of it? Is that even what you were going for this time?
LK: With Phil, I didn’t know what route he was going to take because I only knew him from his work with Built to Spill. And I was like, “We don’t really sound like that. What’s he going to do?” And his approach is different than John’s. When we were driving to the studio, we turned on the radio and KEXP was playing one of our songs on the last record. So we had a laugh and felt embarrassed about it, but we actually turned it up and were like, “Let’s listen.” We were so into the new record; let’s compare. I think John totally did a great job and he did spend a lot of time thinking about strategy, and Phil just took a different approach.
ML: We were talking about it after that, and when you listen to Visiter and the way John produced that, things come in left and right in different spaces. It makes it kind of a fun listen—you’re like, “Oh, wow, what’s that over there? And there’s a little bell over there.” And with Phil, it’s one big thing, almost like a monomix, a mountain of beefiness. It’s weird because it doesn’t necessarily sound louder and the drums aren’t as in your face, but they sound big.
The L: Did you feel comfortable giving your opinion to Phil?
ML: Well, the problem was—well, it wasn’t a problem—but the thing was the way he makes records, you’re putting a lot of faith into him because he’s recording in a way that you aren’t really going to know what it’s going to sound like until he works his magic on the mixing part. So a lot of it was like, “Well, you know, that doesn’t sound exactly… I want to say something, but I kinda have a feeling Phil knows what he’s doing.” And, in the end, we were like, “Ok, you’re totally who you are for a reason.”
The L: Now that you’ve had your breakthrough album, do you feel pressure with this one to live up to the hype?
ML: Well, Pitchfork kind of dumped us, soooo…
LK: They’re seeing other people.
ML: Prom night, dude. Left alone on prom night. When we started working on this record, I honestly felt like we were underdogs again, just in terms of measuring up to our own expectations. We had reached a point in touring where we had just spent anything inspiring. I felt sorta disappointed in what we had become in terms of musicians and performers. And when we started working on the album, everything was new. New instrument, new member—the possibilities seemed really positive. And because the making of this record—the making of any record—is really hard and involving, I’m honestly just really excited for whatever happens. We made this thing, we worked hard, I feel good about it. That's the important part, you know? I thought I would feel more pressure, but it’s kind of like what I was saying about performing now: I’m concentrating so hard on these new songs and just not fucking up that I don’t really have any time to think about anything else.
LK: We were touring all last year, and I don’t think we’ve given ourselves enough time to really think about it. But now that we’ve gotten to the point where the record is done, I wonder what fans who liked certain things about our old records will think about certain songs on the new one. But I feel good enough about what we’ve done, where’s it’s just like, “It doesn’t matter any more, I’m proud of what we did, I’m excited to play the songs.” People could hate it…
ML: If people hate it, I’m going to love to find out why they hate it. It’s like the seal’s been broken. We had a record that got out there, and people enjoyed it and people also knocked. And once you have that the first time—it’s like the first time you get rejected by somebody… on prom night—it can’t be that bad, you know?
The L: And you’re heading to Europe soon.
ML: We’re doing some dates in July. Some festivals.
The L: You guys seem to like festivals; you’re always playing them.
ML: Well, they pay the big bucks (laughs).
LK: It’s a totally different environment from clubs. It’s like, “Whatever it takes to bring the people in! We’ll get you a hotel, and here’s a bunch of food!” It’s more like a loose party.
The L: I’ve heard you say that you’re not sure if Europeans really get you. Are you nervous about playing over there with new material?
ML: I think it depends on the country. Like, France. France is great. Germany… I don’t know (laughs).
LK: I think maybe this will be a test to see if people in Europe like us and want to come see us. We played there for Visiter—I think they were curious to see what we were about, but now will they come back? I think it’s going to go well—I’m excited. It’s really round two, where in America, it’s round five.
The L: There has to be some inherent problems playing new material live before an album comes out or is even leaked.
ML: Yeah, it’s a stupid idea (laughs). Well, for us, we’re excited about the material and we need to practice so by the time the record does come out and we’re touring, it’s up to par to where we want it to be. But after Sasquatch, the first time we played the new stuff, I kinda gave us credit for doing it, but it was also kind of a stupid idea. After playing and then walking around and seeing all the bands—like, I saw Nine Inch Nails, and he was playing a bunch of new material, and I was like, “C’mon, play the hits!” I understand why people like familiarity.
The L: Did you feel disconnected from the crowd in these first two shows? Or is that just your perception of what people are thinking?
LK: At Sasquatch there were a few moments—there were some technical difficulties that made us sort of doubt everything. But I definitely felt like there were some pretty awesome moments where things connected. And definitely more so at Studio B on Sunday.
ML: Still, while we were playing it, I felt like we were presenting something, and people are like, “Hmm, I don’t know if I like this.” And I think it went over well, considering, but it wasn’t like some of our older shows where people know the songs and got excited, visually excited.
The L: Knowing how much you’ve toured this past year and talking about Pitchfork hype, I’m curious what your thoughts are on Wavves’ meltdown. He came out with an apology saying that he just didn’t expect all of this touring and success to be so hard, and I know you guys have just been through that.
LK: From what I read, there was the atmosphere of a sound check that sorta never ended. And that is a vibe onstage, where people are there, not far away from you, and they’re like, “C’mon! Play!” and you’re like, “I can’t start.” And if that drags on for 20 minutes, you feel like you’re in a prison. It’s not like there’s a curtain where you can be like, “The show is beginning now.” And you can’t be like, “Well, there’s feedback problems.”
ML: Dude, I cannot count the number of shows—especially at festivals—where we start, totally thinking it sounds like shit, just praying that the sound guy up there has it covered. Based on what we’re experiencing onstage, it’s totally not ready to go. But you know what? It’s better that we start now than let the chaos happen.
LK: My heart goes out to that guy. I know how that stuff might fuck with your brain. I know there’s a lot of people who just hated him from the beginning, just because it was like, “4-track recording, I can do better than that,” and so he was already a target for a lot of people. I think he’s ok—but my heart totally goes out to him. I could’ve gone insane when I first started this too.
ML: It could happen to any one of us, you know?