Ripping Up The Script: The Dodos' Meric Long on Their New Album Certainty Waves

Interviews
10/24/2018
Eleanor Dumouchel
photo by Andy De Santis

In 2008, The Dodos made waves with their sophomore release Visiter. The album solidified the San Francisco duo’s sound as a rhythmically ambitious, vaguely trippy, offhandedly pensive rock band, thanks to Logan Kroeber’s focused polyrhythmic drumming and guitarist/songwriter Meric Long’s hypnotic (oft-acoustic) picking style. Ten years, four albums, and two seismic life events later – including the passing of Long’s father and the birth of his first child – the duo decided to rip up the scripts for how they made earlier albums while getting down and dirty with electric guitars and octave pedals in the process. KEXP talked with Long about how self-imposed expectations can get in the way of “the parts of making a record that are fun, crazy and actually alive.” This approach translates beautifully into the music, which is sonically unburdened by gimmicks that would otherwise define a band’s ‘sound.’ Instead, up-tempo, cresting songs like “SW3” and the danceable polyrhythms on “Dial Tone” constitute a headfirst ramble that lands the listener in new peripheries of indie rock. Check out the interview below with Meric Long on the group’s radical approach to songwriting on Certainty Waves.

The Dodos play Tractor Tavern this Thursday, Oct. 25, with Prism Tats. Doors open at 8 p.m.

 

KEXP: You guys decided to do a hometown self-tribute concert to your acclaimed 2008 album. What was it like to revisit your past creative impulses and how did that influence the making of this record?

Meric Long: Part of the thing for me [while making Certainty Waves] was trying to take out a lot of the weight. Making a record, period, but also, “we’re coming back to this,” those sorts of thoughts were creeping up, and I wanted to sort of push back against that and try and create an environment. There were a lot of repeated phrases that came up in the course of creating this record that were sort of mantras, like “it doesn’t matter”... that was sort of the deal. Like, this is not a big deal, this record doesn’t have to happen. We could try making this record, and if it feels dumb or just static or whatever, then we don’t have to finish it. There was no pressure to do a record. I think in the past with this band, and in other places in our lives, we had put too much weight on things and it dragged down the process of making a record. We’ve done records in the past with full live takes, and getting the right take and, “we gotta do well” or “this is it!”... it’s always just extra stuff that’s not needed and infringes on the parts of making a record that are fun and crazy and actually alive.

I noticed a lot of rudimentary two-note changes that reminded me of some Sonic Youth songs... very rudimentary but also free.

It’s funny you said “two notes” because I’m not counting the notes, you know [laughter]. It’s not like, “oh it’s only two notes!” It’s just whatever it is. But you know, we’re doing this tour now, and we’re playing the songs live for the first time. We didn’t play these songs before the record was made because the songs were made in studio. We’re kind of figuring out what these songs are now. So there are moments where it’s like, “oh this melody is two notes.” There are just little things that happen after the fact.

I thought a lot of the lyrics were really poignant, and I want to say that it’s free, but then when the heavy moments hit, it’s very effective. So lines like “though I share my gift, the trouble is I don’t know what it is” [from “Center Of”] just slayed me. I just love that you’re going there and addressing what you’re doing—you’re dedicating a huge part of your life to this, and you’re putting your gift out there, and there are people on the receiving end, and you’re like, “I don’t really know what it is.” So how does that gel with what you’re saying about taking the weight out of grand statements or theses?

Yeah, I really appreciate you pointing that out. Yeah, it does gel. I was talking about this with Logan, we were driving up to San Diego. We were actually talking about the lyrics on one of the songs. And it was a moment when we were trying to figure out what song was going to be the single, and we kind of disagreed. He proposed a song, but I was like, I don’t really have a connection to that song personally and he was surprised because he thought those were the most meaningful lyrics. The point is, we were talking about this, and in relation to taking the weight out, I don’t really trust myself in terms of knowing.... when I feel confident about something that usually means that something sucks. Like even in a conversation with people, like when I’m in a moment of “I’ve got this, I’m fucking smart, listen to how witty I am...” When I get into that headspace that’s usually when I get caught with my pants down. Or if I have moments where things connect or if I say something that’s actually worthwhile is when I’m not thinking about it. So sort of taking the weight out of the process and tricking myself into not thinking about stuff... that’s the goal.

Have you tried to engineer those circumstances?

Yeah, totally. To try to circumvent the brain chitter chatter is part of, you know, creating. There’s a craft part, you know? There’s a part of creating where you hone your craft, you work on it and there is a lot of brain involved in that. And especially in the lyrics too, you know. But I think from a generative standpoint of where it comes from or the moment it comes, for me I think it’s best to create an atmosphere where there’s less brain involved. I hope that makes sense.

That’s really awesome advice to other creative people or other musicians. It’s touchy too because some people don’t like to be told that they’re overthinking.

We’re not robots in terms of moments being created, but the only thing that, over doing this for a while, that has given me some sort of help in understanding myself, is [that] there’s times of the day when that happens more than not. All of the compositional moments for me happened between the hours of, like, ten [pm] and two in the morning. I know if I work during those hours the chances of something cool happening are way higher.

 

Your guitar playing is rather unconventional would you say or how does it fit in to your approach?

I don’t know if I’m unconventional. I didn’t take lessons.

Right, that’s what I mean...you’re self-taught.

Yeah, self-taught. I don’t think I use proper technique, but I don’t know what that is. I would probably benefit from knowing some things for sure. But one of the pre-conditions that was put on this record before it was made was kind of, “OK, we can use whatever sounds we want.” Like, if it sounds good, it’s goin’ in. But the original first nug [laughter] or nugget of the song has to be generated from either a drum kit or the guitar. Because we are a drum/guitar duo and that is a part of our identity in the past, that’s the limitation so it doesn’t veer off completely in terms of sound, and there’s some semblance of the original set-up. But, in doing that, there were a lot of strange guitar tones that I tried to insert.... there were some big moments in knob-twiddling during this record as in, like, “oh that’s an awesome tone,” and that [approach] would take a big role across the record. And having the time to do that, that was something I hadn’t done in the past. [In the past] we kind of would go to a studio, set up a bunch of amps, get a decent tone, and that would be the tone across the whole entire record. The goal was to get more of an accurate representation of the guitar amp, and this [album] was more like, it doesn’t even have to sound like a guitar. Plus, I was doing all the guitar tracks after the fact. We went into a proper studio, recorded basic drums and guitar, and we took that material to my studio at home, and then I would just chop it up and like take a piece of a drum beat and play over it for hours, and then find something like a totally different guitar tone, different melody. That was new.

That sounds fun.

It was so much fun! I totally recommend that way of making a record. It’s almost like a sampling kind of approach. The idea was, it’s still us, because it was still us in a room playing together. The hope is that the energy is intact, it’s preserved, but that can become something completely different. Whatever sounds cool. It can end up somewhere completely different.

So a lot of the weird crazy sounds that we’re hearing like on the song “SW3,” there’s this crazy drone, this like Doppler effect-y drone—is that a guitar?

Yeah. I think that that was because it’s been a little while, yeah I think, no, that was a guitar through a couple of octave pedals and then layered a bunch... and then I just reversed it.

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