San Francisco Bay Guardian – Recording Season

“It’s one of those things you say in an interview and then regret two years later,” sighs Meric Long, vocalist and guitarist of San Francisco pop folk duo the Dodos, when asked about the influence of West African drumming on the group’s music, a factoid that saturates the blogosphere. “As a band, in our press, we get branded [with] that.”

The truth is, Long has never studied West African drumming intensively. Rather, he’d intended to write a paper about the history of pop music, beginning with West African drumming and plantation songs. “I was overly ambitious and retardedly naïve to think that I could write about the diaspora of black American music [all the way through] current pop music,” Long says, with a hint of abashment in his voice. Nonetheless, in the process of writing the paper, he became interested in learning more about West African drumming and met with a professor who “showed [him] some stuff.”

For Long, the experience was eye opening. “It completely transformed my sense of rhythm in terms of what is possible — I think rhythm is probably the most important thing in the band.”

This belief becomes obvious on the Dodos’ recently released No Color, its third LP for Frenchkiss Records. The opening track, “Black Night,” begins with booming thumps from the bass drum of Long’s bandmate, Logan Kroeber. Moments later, Long’s aggressive acoustic finger-picking marries with Kroeber’s controlled yet frenetic percussion. The two are able to maintain this electric energy and sense of connection throughout the entirety of the album.

To make No Color, Long and Kroeber booked as much time in the studio as they could afford — something they’d never done before. With more hours at their disposal, they were able to experiment — so much so that during recording, one of the Dodos’ Facebook status updates declared: “Things are sounding somewhere between horrible and amazing.”

Although Long and Kroeber went into the studio without a schema for the album, they did have one core objective. “We [wanted] to make something that was energetic, something that captured the heavier side of the band,” Long says. “In the past, I don’t think we’ve gotten the point across enough. So this time around we really wanted to make sure it had a certain sound quality.”

Last summer, Neko Case sang with Long at Lollapalooza, on the last night of a Dodos tour. Case provides backup vocals on more than half of No Color, although she was in the studio for only two days. “It was funny because [she arrived] after [we were] working on the record for a month — basically, a month of being locked in the studio with three other dudes,” Long recalls laughing. “It was, like, a total sausage fest. It had this energy of “no outsiders,” and then here comes Neko Case barging through the door. We didn’t know what to do with her energy, but it was great to sever that dude-ness.”

In Long’s experience, working with other musicians briefly is an all-or-nothing experience when it comes to capturing something great. Initially he was somewhat nervous and uncertain about the collaboration with Case. By the second day of recording, these fears were quelled, thanks to Case’s obvious dedication.

“It happened with her on the second night,” Long says, asked to pinpoint the moment he knew Case’s presence was a crucial part of No Color. “She really worked hard for us. When she was in the booth singing, laying over parts, she was pushing it. And to see that was amazing. Her voice is absolutely insane. It’s like this fucking monster that comes out of her.”

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian on March 29, 2011