“Frenetic” accurately describes The Dodos. The duo transforms its songs into expansive pieces, which is quite a feat considering only two people create the sound. Paste caught up with guitarist Meric Long about the band’s new record, No Color (out yesterday, March 15), the difficult transition from touring to home-life and very long fingernails.
: Do interviews ever get kind of tiresome? It seems like you’d be answering the same questions over and over.
Long: Yeah, it can. Fortunately, for some reason, I’ve really been enjoying talking about this record. I feel like I have a lot of things to say because I’m excited about it.
: What are you excited about?
Long: I mean, we worked our asses off. I really am excited to have people hear it and see what they think, and we spent so much time on it that there’s a lot to say about it. For me, it’s like a validation that I spent all this time working on something. We worked in September and October, and since then, I’ve just been waiting and waiting and not doing anything. And whenever I’m depressed and feel useless, I go, “Oh yeah, I made this record a few months ago. I did something with my life!” And talking about it, it’s like it’s real.
: It sounds like No Color has a higher energy than Time To Die. Can you comment on that?
Long: I think you’re pretty valid in that. From my standpoint of the intention, Logan and I are a pretty energetic, heavy band with the way we approach the music; we approach it pretty aggressively. So in my mind, we play really energetic music.
: I’ve seen some labels applied to you guys like folk and psychedelic, but it can be hard to categorize a band with a few terms and they don’t always agree with them, so can you describe your music in your own terms?
Long: Yeah, I don’t have any labels. And once you say a label, it’s like, “Ugghh.” It sucks. But when we were making the record, we used certain words over and over to try and describe what we’re trying to get at. Like when we were working on a mix or whatever, we’d use the word “thrashy” a lot. “It needs to be more thrashy.” And an image I kept having was like taking a hammer to someone’s head. I don’t know if that describes the music very well, but at least in terms of the approach, Logan and I are both aggressively attacking our instruments, but our instruments aren’t exactly aggressive by nature.
The acoustic guitar, which is the main voice in the band next to the drums, it’s something that doesn’t scream “heavy,” but it’s more the approach. Approaching it as heavy as you can and then being kind of nullified by the sound of the instrument, if that makes sense.
: I read that you’ve been in some four- or five-piece bands but you weren’t too satisfied with it. What’s the main difference between being in a traditional four-piece band and having just you and Logan?
Long: For me, I can only speak for myself. But there’s a certain satisfaction that comes out of physically trying to do as much as possible, and playing the guitar the way I do and singing at the same time, working the looped vocals, it’s like an octopus. The stuff I’m playing on guitar could probably be played and sound better in a much easier way, but I’m working so hard to produce that sound. It’s totally selfish. It’s my physicality in the music, needing to feel like I’m part of the song. And it’s harder to do in a four-piece band.
But [not being satisfied with four-piece bands] is probably something I said years ago. Touring with a band like the New Pornographers and other larger bands, you start to appreciate more of what these bands do really well, how each instrument helps the sound. Having two guitars play the same line sounds amazing. I think before, in my naiveté, I wasn’t really thinking about it. I think I saw Collective Soul when I was 11-years-old, and it was like fucking six guitars on stage playing the same thing[laughs]. It was like “How can you just stand there, how can you enjoy yourself?” It’s not showboating or needing to feel important; I just feel like there has to be a reason or a purpose.
I wanted to start with a two-piece and then add things as they’re needed instead of having four people and then needing to find a space for everybody. I think I like having more space for less people.
: How’d you come up with the dual-microphone technique?
Long: I don’t remember, exactly. I stopped using it a while ago, but I think I’m gonna go back to it. But I can’t remember where it came from. I don’t think I ripped it off anybody; I usually remember when I ripped things off of people, but with those, I don’t remember a single thing, so I think it was an accident or something.
I think it came from the idea of wanting to use the voice of the instrument and put loops so there’s more atmosphere and be able to sing words over that. I think it’s a lot more complicated to that with one mic.
: How long did it take to get the hang of that?
Long: It wasn’t that long. The reason I’m going back to it now, it sort of created that dual-personality thing. One mic would have one sound, and the other would have a totally different sound. I could totally cut loose into one mic because it was more affected and bloody, and then when I wanted to be hurt, I’d sing into the other one. Just be able to split the difference between how I felt and moving to a different place.
I don’t know how long it took to do it, but I guess like anything, it’s all muscle memory. Once you play the same thing a million times, you don’t even think about it anymore.
: It’s pretty remarkable that you and Logan produce such a huge sound, almost like you were a five-piece band, but with just the two of you. Was that the intent, to produce the most sound you could out of you and him?
Long: Well, it wasn’t really an intent. But when we were rehearsing, it just happened that way. We realized we could sound really big. I think the first time we realized that is when I started using vocal loops, and we created these pastiche sounds that were just loop upon loop upon loop. It happened really fast—I’d create a loop really fast instead of letting four bars of music go by. So it just kind of created this monster, and I was like, “Holy shit. That was big.”
I think it also comes out of when we were first playing shows; we were playing to nobody. And we were playing a lot of shows to nobody. I had this thing where I hated hearing this clapping in between songs, like two people clapping, and it was really depressing [laughs]. So I’d be like, “We gotta just go from song-to-song so we don’t hear the emptiness of the room.”
: How’d you get over that, the initial playing to nobody?
Long: I dunno, dude. I’ve talked about this with Logan a bunch of times. We did a lot of touring to nobody, I think more-so than the average band. And I don’t know why, what kept us going. We both kept working, we both had pretty serious day jobs, and we were both touring and being in a band was our dream since we were young, and we didn’t really care. We just wanted to be like, “We’re doing it!”
We had a booker—our manager was more of a booker than a manager—and she was able to book these tours for us, and we were like, “We’re gonna go on tour, and it’s gonna be great!” And then we’d go and play to nobody. And there were definitely times when we’d be like, “Man, what the fuck are we doing?” But we just kind of put our blinders on and kept doing it and rationalizing it, in kind of naïve, boneheaded ways. Just being like “Well, we got free beers.” [laughs]
It was kind of retarded, to be honest. I think it was just two dudes who were ignorant and not wanting to look at reality. And it happened long enough that something finally happened, and we were both like, “Thank God!”
: What would you say was the big, breaking moment where you thought, “This could actually happen.”
Long: There was one moment I remember. We would play all these shows, we’d tour the whole year all across the States, we played to nobody—and the people that showed up liked it, and the sound guys liked it, so we knew we were doing something right, because the people that were there appreciated it. But at the same time, there was never an energy in the room, where we were seeing it happening.
It was towards the end of one of those tours, we played in Big Sur at one of the Folk Yeah! Festivals, and somehow Britt, who runs the festivals, he put us on at the very end as the last band. I forget who we played after. It was a small venue, but it was packed because of the festival. It was the last show on tour, and we were all warmed up. We weren’t expecting anything, but it went off and we were stoked and it was a great show. Right then and there, we had our first label interest from somebody. We thought, “Holy shit. It can happen.” It feels good, so yeah, I think that was our first moment.
: While we’re on the touring subject. We see bands all the time on stage having fun with tons of crowds, getting free drinks, but we don’t really hear about the negative stuff like you were talking about, so can you give me some more glimpses into negative aspects of touring?
Long: Well, I can give you a negative aspect of the aftermath of touring. I’d say when you tour constantly, like any job you have, it becomes a part of who you are. You develop habits from that job. And with touring, you constantly develop these habits that make it hard to be normal. It’s just a constant transition between touring life and settled life.
I just recently moved in with my girlfriend, and she’s not in a band, and she doesn’t tour, and she’s much more mellow than I am. I’m having to learn that I’m constantly needing to do something. I get home from touring, and it’s like I’m still on tour. There’s always the first few days where I crash out and just watch TV, some series on the internet, and I think, “Well, I deserve this.”
But you get back to normal life, and you don’t know how to operate. You’re used to being able to party every night. Your whole day leads up to a show, and then the show happens, and you either get drunk or you don’t or whatever. But it can be negative that way, having to adjust to normal life. Touring creates a certain mentality.
: So when you’re touring, you have to adopt a different personality, and then when you get home, you have to learn how to switch that off and try to operate like a person who has a nine-to-five job?
Long: Yeah, you don’t have to think for yourself a lot of the time when you’re on tour. You wake up, you need to get food, you drive to the next location, you do soundcheck, and then you do the show. And that routine takes up your entire day. It’s also exciting.
Maybe some other people don’t have this problem. I’ve talked to other people about that transition for a musician. I know it’s difficult for every touring musician, where they feel like they have to go out every night or something—but maybe that’s more of a personal problem. [laughs]. But you’re used to that event happening, and when that event doesn’t happen, it’s like “Am I really gonna hang out and then go to bed?” [laughs]. It makes you anxious. There’s a need to keep busy; I need to keep things exciting.
On a more general note, I know there’s a transition between touring and non-touring life. I know that’s difficult for other musicians. I’ve talked to other musicians about the partying aspect; if you’re a touring musician who parties, when you come home, it’s hard to turn that off.
: How do you fill that time during the day, when you’re not touring?
Long: Luckily, this is the longest time we haven’t toured. We finished in August. It’s been great and awesome that I have a routine now. I don’t have a day job, so I eat and relax, and do things to stimulate my brain, and play music and work on things that we normally wouldn’t work on.
There’s always things you want to do when you’re on the road, but you can’t. Like “I wish I could read a book or work on my guitar tone.” But now you have all that time. That’s pretty much what I do. I do things that make me a better person, so when I go out, I don’t collapse.
: Just out of curiosity, do you still have those long fingernails?
Long: Yeah, they’re longer than ever, actually.
: An inch, two inches?
Long: [laughs] You just gave me a really disgusting image. I dunno. Well actually, I have a measuring tape right here. [goes to measure] My middle fingernail, which, thanks to Trivial Pursuit, I just learned is the fastest-growing fingernail, it is currently a quarter-of-an-inch.
: How’d you decide to grow your fingernails? Purely for fingerpicking?
Long: Yeah, completely. Actually, it’s because I watch too much Twilight.
Actually, there was this guy named Paul, who I played a show with a long time ago, and he had his nails so, so long. And he was the first dude who showed me how to fingerpick and totally blew me away, and I fell in love with his guitar playing and I basically wanted to become him.