The Dodos sidestep extinction by embracing uncertainty 

click to enlarge Finding the balance between spontaneity and control, The Dodos redefine themselves. - CR ANDY-DESANTIS
  • CR Andy-DeSantis
  • Finding the balance between spontaneity and control, The Dodos redefine themselves.

Midlife crises aren’t necessarily recognizable in bands. There are no shared yearnings for sports cars, hair implants or trophy spouses. Nor is it easy to predict a band’s lifespan. The Postal Service called it quits after just one album; the Rolling Stones have been at it for the better part of six decades.

So far, San Francisco guitar ’n’ drums duo The Dodos have racked up 14 years together, during which time they’ve released seven albums. The most recent was last October’s Certainty Waves, which singer-guitarist Meric Long described as their “midlife crisis album.” As he sings above the sputtery drone of “Ono Fashion”: “To the fold I return, but it’s not as it was / Instruments as they were, but the sound’s not the same.”

And it’s not. While drummer Logan Kroeber was always The Dodos’ musical wild card — bashing out a frenetic mix of West African polyrhythms, experimental jazz, and rock ’n’ roll excess — Long provided a steadying counterbalance with his pretty, if somewhat woeful, vocals and jangly guitar accompaniment.

But all that has changed now. In 2015, the duo went on a three-year hiatus, during which Long spent time grieving the loss of his father and later celebrating the birth of his son.

“You spend the entire first half of your life building up these supposed skills,” says Long, “and then you kind of ask yourself, ‘Where is this actually getting me? Is this even actually helping me?’ I spent my early 20s really trying to be somebody. And now that I’m almost 40, it’s no longer just that one thing. Different things start to matter.”

The Dodos had, in fact, been going nonstop since the release of their 2008 breakthrough album Visiter, which the British music publication New Musical Express ranked alongside indie-folk icons Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver, praising the duo as “San Fran folkists who give the kiss of life to an ailing genre.” The Dodos’ profile rose further after a tour with Neko Case, who subsequently contributed guest vocals to their fourth album, No Color.

Relieved of the pressures and expectations of a full-time band, Long began toying with a pair of classic synthesizers he’d inherited from his dad. One was an ’80s Yamaha AX60, the kind of keyboard that comes with a user manual thick enough to double as a doorstop. The other was an almost embarrassingly intuitive Concertmate MG-1, a beginner’s model that Moog designed and manufactured for Radio Shack to sell under its Realistic brand.

After decades of playing guitar, the switch to analog keyboards enabled Long to reapproach music from a more naive perspective.

“I didn’t have a strong focus at the time,” says the musician. “It was more like, ‘If I can make anything — you know, if I can press a button and a sound will come out — I’ll be happy.’ So the bar was set kind of low in terms of songwriting. And it was freeing to subvert my own standard of songwriting, for better or worse. Because sometimes, when you try to have too much control over something, what you end up with kind of sucks.”

Much to his own surprise, Long ended up with enough material for a solo album, Barton’s Den, which he released last year under the name FAN. Meanwhile, the reunited duo recorded Certainty Waves, an album that also reflects Long’s more experimental mindset.

“It drove my bandmate nuts,” he admits, “because he wasn’t in the same place. He was used to writing songs the way we had in the past. And how I wanted to do it was to just throw stuff at the wall. And whatever stuck, stuck. And to not even think about it, which is why the record ended up the way it did. There’s not a lot of ‘song songs’ on there. I mean, to me they’re songs, but they weren’t like, ‘Okay, this is a song that was written from beginning to end, that has a chorus and a definitive hook.’”

Now, it’s just a matter of making them work onstage. “We put a lot of energy into updating our live show, to bring in a bunch of elements that we didn’t have before,” says Long. “I get really excited with new toys and new ideas, and I don’t know if everybody’s ready for that as much as I am.”

As for the future, all bets are currently off, as demonstrated by the band’s new single, “The Surface,” which was released back in March. “That one was me sitting down with a guitar for the purpose of writing a song, after two records trying to do the polar opposite. And I’m working on a new song right now — which will be coming out in the next month or so — that leans back toward that more uncertain approach. I think it’s just something that I’m working through. I’ll just have to find the right balance.”


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