At the recent MLB All-Star Game in Anaheim, Torii Hunter claimed that he would act as host of the game, as the sole representative from the home-town Angels (Jared Weaver was a last minute add). He included hand-shaking and baby kissing as his duties. And, though no babies are seen at the Music Box in Hollywood, on this Monday night in July, I feel like I am hosting The Dodos opening slot for The New Pornographers. The venue neared capacity before their 9:45 start-time. Unfortunately, the crowd wasn’t filling up the floor space to see The Dodos. They expected only one opener and thought it was a reasonable time for The New Pornographers to start. In their defense, they are an older crowd, it’s Monday, and The Dodos tend to attract a few rabid fans who provide the energy to make the audience feel like something big is about to happen, like, say, a New Pornographers set.
Maybe it’s just the way I handle myself at shows or maybe it’s the fact that I hold some scraps of paper and pen in my hand, but people just assume I know what’s going on. And a half-dozen separate people ask me whether The New Pornographers would start soon. “The Dodos are on next,” I reply to disappointed faces, but I repeatedly assure them that the band’s good, I urge them to stay and check them out rather than go and smoke, and to my surprise, the majority actually do. One man, probably fifty-something with grey hair, asks me if I am a New Pornographers fan. I tell him that I am and he asks if Neko Case and Dan Bejar are expected tonight. He is clearly thrilled when I say that they are and we strike up a long conversation about the Pornos, about other bands I like, about Consequence of Sound, and, finally, about The Dodos. I explain to him about the rhythm of their music, how the guitar parts and percussion play with each other, and how at the core, Meric Long is just a great songwriter. He tells me he will let me know what he thinks after and the lights dim, with Long appearing alongside bandmates Logan Kroeber and Keaton Snyder. To my instant horror, Long is holding a motherfucking trombone. What the hell did I get these people into?
Let’s trace back to earlier in the evening…
“It’s cool to play for new people” Long says on the topic of The Dodos’ gig touring the entire country with The New Pornographers. It’s early. We’re sitting deep in the caverns of the venue. Long is shyly confident, the kind of person you can imagine boisterous when among his friends, but still reserved and professional when he is on the job. His mustache gives away his societal niche, and it is impossible to not note the Chuck Norris poster that hangs above him. “We’re different styles of music, but not so different that they’re gonna be like ‘who the fuck is that!?'”
These words come to mind as the first trombone notes ring out. To my surprise, they sound good. It’s only my speculation that the trombone is something new to incorporate into the show. Perhaps Long played horns in high school. Either way, the melody lasts two minutes and a drum beat kicks in and takes over the song while Long puts down the brass and picks up an acoustic guitar, clearly more comfortable and ready to kick the first song into gear. It’s “Fools”.
A year ago, I caught The Dodos at a free show in The Getty Museum, where they closed with “Fools”, punctuating a set that featured new material from an already leaked, yet to be released third studio effort, Time To Die. It’s an album they’re technically still touring behind. When I mention the Getty show to Long, he’s quick to recall it.
“That was a funny show,” Long says. “It was the first show we ever played after recording our record. And it was the first time we had ever played those songs live. The difference between that show and what we are trying to do with these shows is the opposite. We had written those songs, recorded them, and never performed them live.
“All of a sudden we were like, ‘Let’s play all these new songs.’ Now we are doing that, but before we record them, because I felt like that was a big mistake, we’re trying out new material for people who maybe don’t know our songs.” This new album is news to me, which Meric solidifies, saying “We go straight into the recording studio when this tour is over.”
Indeed, the band do seem more confident and assured with the pair of songs performed from Time To Die. Despite his concerns over the method they recorded the album, it’s an effort full of quality songs. “Fables” will assure them a legacy beyond their immediate success. While “Fools” is the song that most people are familiar with, partly because it was a beloved song when Visiter was enjoying time on Pitchfork’s Best New Music List, but also because they, like so many other bands in similar career points, signed off for the use of the song in a commercial for Miller Chill, which Long assures me still exists, though I have my doubts.
I also have my doubts about even approaching the topic, figuring the singer has to be sick of discussing the event. But when he talks “Fools”, it becomes clear that this was an important incident for the band, something that they are not afraid to wear as a badge (Long actually came upon a Miller Chill XL tee at a recent Toronto stop and says he even claims to like drinking the beer). Unfortunately for The Dodos, the independent music scene and all of its associated minor-genres of music run on a completely different logical sense than fans of any other musician, actor, artist or whatever. When bands like The Dodos sell a song to a commercial, issues like integrity (and maybe a little jealousy?) come in to play.
“A lot of bands during that time who were in the same vein or level or whatever, they were licensing out. But we were kind of picked out of that,” Long states pretty matter of factly, seemingly aware that it’s unfair to be judged by something so trivial but also accepting of it as simply a pitfall of the trade. “You know, a lot of people mention that when they talk about our band, and that’s kind of a bummer, but whatever, time will fucking take care of that.” This point, that a temporary commercial can somehow destroy a song for you, is ridiculous and ignores that a great song is a great song no matter what gets associated with it, which Long also touches upon by noting that if you can’t separate a shampoo from the song that plays in the shampoo commercial, you might need to examine your thought processes, adding, “It’s not like the beer commercial was a bunch of chicks in bikinis. I mean, it was a pretty harmless commercial…and it’s a tasty beer.” After a moment of consideration, he concludes, “and I don’t have to fucking work.”
Watching The Dodos perform, like many headliners and openers alike, it is easy to forget that often times they have to take other jobs to make an acceptable income. But, while The Dodos have reached the status of being professional musicians, they had to work incredibly hard for years and pitch Miller Chill to even attain it. Though they come from the San Francisco Bay Area, they were not born out of a scene and consider themselves sort of loners in the music world. While a community helps many bands maintain functionality when they might not be able to do so on their own, lacking such a scene provides a certain freedom. Long recalls his own local scene, of the thriving garage scene currently in SF: “When I first moved to San Francisco, Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom were getting real big and that whole freak folk scene, or whatever it is you want to tag it as…and I’m really shy and easily freak out, especially with other musicians, I get easily intimidated. So I’ve always been on the side…just trying to do something good that hopefully some people will be into.”
And though Long later adds that he did sort of crave a scene that would fit into what The Dodos do, their ability to remain on their own comes off in their songs. The two new numbers performed this night are unmistakably Dodos songs, but also not just retreading of previous work. “So Cold” is some of the more chaotic sounding music that the band has produced, but not is a way that’s unappealing, more just a groovy, psych-jam that features multiple drastic shifts and Long’s consistent ability to provide creative ways to present melodies that creep in to your consciousness . “Contain Yourself”, however, could be a first single. In this number, Long rapidly shift the vocal keys and the rapid-fire percussion creates an intense experience that is closely related to all the folk-pop you love dearly.
They are only two numbers of an entire album that is nearing its recording date, which will find Long continuing his search for his own voice. It is something that he seems to be more concerned about than you would expect, considering that most songs he has written stay true to a certain aesthetic, but not without some cost. When asked about his current listening habits, he reveals, “I’m not like actively trying to stay away from contemporary music, but I kind of do because I’m in the process of writing a record. You don’t want to be, but I am totally impressionable.” As Long continues on this topic, he blames himself for not “having a stronger will” and sense of who he is as a songwriter, but over the course of our session, I gather that while he might lack total confidence and might still be perfecting his voice as a writer, he is a lot stronger in this than he gives himself credit for.
In fact he is quite certain when asked what song best defines who The Dodos are, that “God”, the closing number from Visiter is the closest the band has come to their goal of what they want to sound like, something that he sees in terms of their long term success as a band. He refers to the new album sounding like some of their older tunes, saying, “There is a thing that we haven’t quite achieved yet…Logan and I. I think both of us have the same thing in our heads about what it should sound like and with each record we are kind of chipping away at it, but we still haven’t gotten it. We definitely have a ‘thing’ that we stick to, so our songs pretty much sound the same, but we are just trying to get to the core of whatever that thing is.”
When ”God” closes the set, multiple shouts of joy ring out in the audience. Clearly a few fans recognize this as their current peak, as well. It is their loosest number of the night, with the band completely warmed up only to have to leave the stage right after. But my older friend is loving every second of it, head bobbing to not only that song, but pretty much every song that the band can offer. As I go for my between set smoke, I make eyes and nod heads to the random people I had spoken with before the set. If they were not at least impressed, they were definitely not pissed, which is fine by me. On the smoking roof, I see Long rush by to embrace some friends who had made it to the show, still the young artist thrilled that friends care about his band or at least thrilled that friends care about him. He is clearly doing what he loves.
“I want to be able to do this for a lot longer and have a solid following of fans that are real and devoted,” Long digresses. “And be able to play shows and make a living, so I can support myself and look back at my career and be like ‘Cool, that didn’t just fizzle out.” I don’t know if he says this as an actual concern, because some of the buzz on the band did fade from the much-heralded Visiter to the still well-received, but not quite as hyped Time To Die. But regardless of what he is thinking about, he is sincere and continues with noting that failure could happen. “I’ve found out with this band that it is easier to make yourself known than it is to keep yourself in the limelight.”
Moments like this make Long flesh and blood and relating, as everyone faces the idea of failure in whatever avenue they pursue. When discussing the “core” of the sound they search for, I ask him what happens when they get there. “We won’t, don’t worry,” he responds with a laugh.
But, it will be fun to watch them try, because if their new album continues their progression in sound and they can continue to win over new fans with their up-beat and technically sound live shows, well then the limelight, the career stability, and the devoted fans will fall into place accordingly.
Photography by Jesse Bloch.