The Dodos’ sound is tough to categorize. Folk? Sorta. Rock? Kinda. Psychedelic? In parts. But Meric Long, lead singer and acoustic-guitar virtuoso noticed a different word constantly reemerge when he and bandmate/drummer Logan Kroeber were recording their new album, No Color: “Thrashy.”
Long had “this image of smashing someone over the head with a hammer,” referring to the dramatic and aggressive approach he and Kroeber take towards their instruments; restraint becomes only a sparingly used part of their arsenal.
It’s easy to confuse the San Francisco duo for a more traditional four- or five-piece band. The breadth and depth of The Dodos’ sound, sometimes further accentuated by Long’s looping, haunting vocals support his realization long ago that “Holy shit, this sounds big.”
But “big” wasn’t always a term associated with the band. For years they played to scarce crowds, with only a couple echoing, hollow claps cascading around bare brick walls after a song concluded. Long hated that sound, so he rendered it completely meaningless with one decision: He and Kroeber wouldn’t stop playing. Ever. They’d transfer from one song to another seamlessly, as if the entire set was one gigantic track.
That aspect of The Dodos’ performances bleeds into their records. One track blends into the next without a noticeable hitch or departure. For example, the last second of No Color’s “Black Night” actually resides in the track for “Going Under.” If you remove the gap between songs, you can hardly tell the song shifted.
Part of the songs’ dichotomy—simultaneously tranquil and manic, amiable and contentious—arose when Long started using two separate microphones, a technique he’s relatively certain he created out of necessity. “I can’t remember where it came from,” he says. “I don’t think I ripped it off anybody; I usually remember when I ripped things off of people.”
Long feels the system adds to the two-fold nature of the songs and the feelings within. “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.”
To understand and hear those differences, take the track “Fools” off their 2008 album Visiter. During the verses, Long sings in a mildly subdued manner, more like a traditional singer/songwriter in a café. But behind those vocals, especially towards the end of the line “We’re tired and we’re crazed in the mind,” you hear the “bloody” yelps, representing the insanity.
Meanwhile Kroeber’s polyrhythmic drumming shifts from drumstick clicks to an all-out war on his instrument. He wails like he wants to destroy it, then transitions back to the subtle clicking. Couple that with Long’s invigorated acoustic guitar, and the songs move forward like two people driving to the same destination but in completely different vehicles.
Sometimes at concerts, Kroeber takes the spotlight, performing minutes-long solos that impart a pulse-pounding vibration. Long sits to the side, patiently waiting. Kroeber’s arms blur into figure-eights, and no one around ever stops moving, even if it’s the simple tap-tap-tap of a single toe.
Kroeber and Long’s frenetic use of acoustic instruments, which are commonly used by musicians with a softer palette, evokes an excessively caffeinated feeling, especially on No Color. The previous record Time To Die focused on sweeter, quieter melodic arrangements. But the forceful nature of No Color led to Long and Kroeber rediscovering the rabid voice of Visiter; Neko Case’s sugary-yet-powerful background vocals add to the energy.
And as their fan base has grown, there’s no longer a need to strip the performances of those awkward between-song gaps. But The Dodos’ frenzied and flowing sound continues, even as polite claps have been replaced by emphatic applause. “Thank God!” Long says.