The Dodos' Meric Long on Searching for Bigfoot, Living in Oblivion, and the End of the Dodos

The Dodos' Meric Long on Searching for Bigfoot, Living in Oblivion, and the End of the Dodos

The Dodos have always been a band I've appreciated, and they have a new album out tomorrow, Grizzly Peak. I hopped on Zoom with frontman Meric Long as his native Bay Area had just experienced a touch of rare rain, so we almost immediately started talking about the drought, climate change, mental health—you know, lighthearted fare. We also talked about his arthritis and what it means for the future of the Dodos, as well as his reflections on the band's popularity in general. It was a good chat.

Do you feel like the drought has affected your day-to-day life?

Definitely. I've lived here most of my life, and growing up we wouldn't take showers—we'd fill up a bucket and use that to save water. Those things aren't new to me, but I don't know if it's my age or what, but there's a new level of awareness. My perspective on where I live has totally changed. California is not what it's used to be because of the drought and the fires. We have fire season now! School gets cancelled, you can't go outside because of the air. Last year, there was a day where the sun didn't come out. It was nighttime all day because the smoke was so bad. It was the most apocalyptic thing I've ever seen. It's changed my understanding of what the Bay Area is.

Does any of this have an affect on your mental health?

A lot of my humor and attitude has always had a bit of impending doom. It's what I bring to the table, even on early Dodos records. Now there's a certainty. It's like when you're a kid and you find out the sun will explode, but it's so far in the future that it doesn't enter your psyche. Every once in a while you'll think of it and be like, "Holy shit." All this stuff brings that more to the forefront. So there's this hyperawareness of the impermanence of everything, but the flipside is that there's a willingness to let go of things, too.

I can get really bummed out about how things are going, but there's also a realization that everything is precious, and nothing is precious too. Dedicating time to things that have some sort of meaning seems more pertinent—making music, learning an instrument, something that seemed questionable in terms of practicality or economic implications. Nothing matters whatsoever, so we might as well fill our time.

What else have you and your family engaged in over the last year and a half to get through this waking nightmare we're trapped in?

There were a bunch of things I found myself doing that I maybe wouldn't have otherwise. I got into flying kites with my daughter. The day the sun didn't come out, I started building stuff. Carpentry saved me. Even if it's menial, just give me some wood to cut and something to build and it'll help me a lot.

Tell me about the circumstances surrounding this new record.

I got the idea for this record pre-pandemic, but I already had a sense of things potentially being the end in terms of the Dodos. We'd done a record cycle in 2019, and every time I start a new record I ask myself, "Would anybody care? Do I care?" I was a little bit at the end of my rope in terms of answering that question.

My wife is from the countryside in Spain, and I was visiting and trying to answer this question of what to do next. I was writing songs on guitar and getting pretty hyped on the acoustic guitar and just trying to write songs like I used to. Arthritis has started to kick in, so I was like, "I'm not gonna be able to do this forever. Is there anything I want to do with this project?" While answering that, I realized I never figured out a bunch of things I wanted to do from the beginning of the band.

It all coalesced in this moment where I was in the middle of nowhere, hearing the guitar the way I heard it again when I started the band, and I realized I wanted to go back in and make the most Dodos-y record I could make. I was really fired up about it. "Every regret about this band I've ever had I'm gonna address!" It's nothing profound, but for me it felt like I found something to latch myself onto.

You mentioned the onset of arthritis. When did you realize you were dealing with it, and what has it meant for your life in general?

My style of guitar playing, particularly on the fingerpicked acoustic, has been my thing. It's a huge part of my identity. Even when I was in high school, when I would play an acoustic guitar someone would pay attention to me, and I felt a surge of worth and confidence that I didn't have elsewhere in life. When I developed my style—which isn't unique to me, but feels like my own—I would start playing coffee shop-type venues and people gleaned onto it.

When the pain started, I realized I wasn't going to be able to do it forever—and this is the thing that makes me feel special! [Laughs] Losing that part of my playing's not gone yet, and I'm rehearsing for shows with the style still, but it's not gonna be there forever, so I need to find something else to wrap myself around.

The person who worked the most on this record with me is Beau Sorenson, who engineered it. He likened it to hunting for Bigfoot. I was explaining to him that I wanted the guitar to do this thing, but I needed all this separation and record this instrumentation in a way that presents the way I hear it, and he said, "Oh! You're looking for Bigfoot. It doesn't exist. Under the laws of physics you can't really do that." Over the years he's sent me Bigfoot memes and paraphernalia too. As a subculture, Bigfoot is huge. But being in search of something that doesn't exist is a worthy endeavor, too.

Tell me about what the "end" of the Dodos means for you. If this really is the final record, what is your future?

I'm engineering and producing records a lot more now, working at a couple of studios in Oakland. That's where my attention is. I know I'll continue to make records, but sitting in a room and listening to others play has been so incredible. It gives me all of the things about making a record that I love without having to do the work. [Laughs] I'm in the honeymoon phase of doing that, so I have to be careful to not be like, "This is the greatest thing ever and I'm never gonna make music again."

But it's like learning a new language for me—opening my mind up to things. It's about approaching things from a wider and less specific angle. A less physical angle, too. Everything about the Dodos is so physical. It'll be nice to be detached from that and just listening. I don't know what that will lead to creatively, but it's good.

I'm like a kid in a candy score discovering that everyone has their version of what I have. I have this trick on the guitar I've been riding on the coattails of for 15 years [Laughs], and everyone has their own signature approach, too. It's the unique thing about every single session player and musician I record. I'm astounded by everyone. I'm really impressed by humans these days.

I've heard you mention imagining if there's an audience for your music. Why is that a concern?

I've been more concerned about it in the past. I don't want to psychoanalyze myself, but it's probably some sort of coping mechanism. [Laughs] In our earlier years, I was very concerned about finding an audience, and once we did, I was like, "How do we keep them?" When your band finds a following, all of the sudden, what people want becomes a concern.

This record was the first time I felt the most detached from that concern, which also comes with getting older and getting further away from the peak of our popularity. Your priorities change. I really didn't care if anyone heard this record because it was saving me. Even if I never released it, I had to do it.

The type of music we play, our expectations have had to change. And when that happens, you ask yourself if it's still worth doing—and when you decide that it is, it's clearly not for monetary reasons. I don't have ambitions to grow our fanbase, and that played into how the record was written.

But I can project that there are some Dodos fans that latch on to the same things that I do. Even if it's just two or three people that like this record, it could mean something to them. I'm pretty reserved, and I'm not good at expressing positivity. I'm not gonna say "Thank you!" on Twitter. But the best way for me to show my gratitude is to make something that's gonna make the hardcore fans stoked.

The Dodos were one of the final crops of indie rock bands that achieved a level of immediate success based off the music alone. It doesn't really happen that often anymore. What stood out from those early days of overnight success?

I have a tendency to harp on the past and focus on regrets, but I can speak to the climate of what that felt like and the headspace it put me in. It was really exciting, and it was also uncomfortable—but I didn't realize how uncomfortable it was.

But it was also something we were working towards. We were touring incessantly and play to two people and the sound guy in Athens, Georgia. And a lot of times the sound guy was stoked! "That was really cool, do you need a place to stay?" That was all we needed to keep doing this, which was insane in retrospect, but it's cute and beautiful too. "Hey, the sound guy likes us, let's book another tour!"

When we went from that to playing the main stage at Pitchfork Festival, it was crazy. It felt like we had to keep it up, but there were so many things about that that was uncomfortable. If I could go back, I would not elect myself as somebody to hold that spotlight. It's not in my character, I don't feel comfortable in that space, and that's taken me a long time to realize. I really just wanted to make the acoustic guitar sound like a drum kit—that's all I wanted.

So when we got popular, it derailed that goal. It gave us a lot of amazing opportunities and memories, and we did our best at progressing as a band and keeping ourselves interested, but keeping our popularity going was always a factor, and it's something I have no interest in engaging with anymore.

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Jamie Larson