This Saturday night, one of our longtime favorite local bands, The Dodos, is performing at The Chapel with the terrific local songwriter Dylan Shearer. In anticipation of the show, Logan Kroeber of The Dodos chatted with Dylan Shearer over e-mail to learn more about Shearer’s songwriting, his band, and the influences that inform his music. It’s a rich and fascinating conversation presented in its entirety below.
You can purchase advance tickets to this Saturday’s show on the The Chapel’s web site.
Logan Kroeber: Besides the actual songs themselves, one of the things I like most about your music is that you often speed up and slow down the tempo many times over the course of a song. It sounds so lovely and natural, I wonder if it’s intuitive for your band or if you had to instruct them to speed up after a certain lyric or what have you. Could you talk about that style and process a bit?
Dylan Shearer: Thank you Logan–I was only used to really playing by myself before I started playing with Petey and Noel. Perhaps this is why I am so fluid with tempo at times…I have tried to play my songs with others in the past and felt kind of like a jerk if I didn’t play straighter…Petey and Noel came in after I had already laid down guitar tracks in the studio so at first were forced to play along. When we first started playing, they intuitively jumped in and were able to adjust naturally.
Now that I realize this and am ready to tackle the next set of songs and work on them with the guys before we record, I am considering fluidity in tempo as part of the design instead of something I have to clean up for others to play with. When I write songs, the guitar and vocal melody come first. Because the vocal melody usually informs and shapes the songs rather than following a rhythmic trajectory, this leaves the rest of the instrumentation to it’s whimsy. I think this is perhaps more of an intuitive thing with the way the songs come out.
Logan, in listening to the Dodos, there is a very interesting collaborative sense between your drumming and the guitar playing. I am interested to know about how you guys go about putting songs together as well…how do your songs come to the table?
LK: We usually come from a place of tight syncopation between the guitar and drums, which is why I find your fluid approach so appealing. We can turn on a dime into different rhythms but this can evoke more of a hard angle than a natural ebb and flow. It’s super fun to play though. And, much like you, the vocal informs the shape of the song, but instead of the tempo rising and falling to match the words we have to tweak the beat sometimes so I’m not stepping on Meric’s words too much.
I wanted to ask about your bandmates, how did a guy who makes mellow, inward looking music like yourself end up with two guys from some of SF’s hardest rocking groups (Oh Sees, Comets on Fire) as your backing band? How familiar were you with their old bands?
DS: I basically recorded songs and gave them just to friends in the past…I recorded my first ‘released’ album by myself and just happened to give a copy to Tim Daly who ran Yik Yak. I knew him from Santa Cruz through shopping at Streetlight records when I was there going to school. We played some improv together a handful of times and I ran into him in SF when I moved there to go back to school. He emailed me and wanted to release it on LP which was a big surprise. He introduced me to the great Eric Bauer to record my next album Porchpuddles, which I played everything on except some drum tracks from Robbie Simon.
When I asked Eric to record garagearray, it was his idea to bring in Noel and Petey to back me up and it worked great. Since then they have been down to keep playing thankfully. I am an avid record collector and so yes I have all of both of their albums respectfully and like them very much. I didn’t know until somewhere in the middle of recording that they were in those bands, however…but I think it is a really great match. I’ve pretty much just lucked out in that department.
LK: I’d say so! Can’t wait to see the live incarnation.
Since you brought up your older albums, I wanted to ask why you so rarely harmonize with yourself? On most of your discography it’s just a double tracked main vocal, which certainly isn’t lacking anything, but, if I had a voice like yours, I don’t know if I could resist going into full choir mode. Have you experimented with that approach in the past?
DS: Looking forward to seeing you guys live as well.
No real solid reason really–a little shy about going all Mormon tabernacle on y’all–but…I will take that into consideration. I double up because I like the way it sounds. I am actually planning on putting down more complicated vocal arrangements on the next one though as well as trying to add back more arrangements with various instruments, etc.
In what direction do you see the sound of The Dodos going?
LK: We’ve just continued to push our songs into these intense, complex shapes while still trying to keep them melodically catchy and I don’t think we’re done moving in that direction. This is just speculation on my part as we haven’t worked on any new jams since wrapping up recording a few months ago, but I can see our songs turning into these sort of toppling over epics that are then punctuated by shorter almost funny little ditties in between just to balance out the madness.
In past interviews you’ve described yourself as a nostalgic person. Does that feeling extend to pop culture or is it just for personal events in your life? What mainstream music or other media makes you nostalgic these days?
DS: Sounds awesome–looking forward to hearing that.
I am nostalgic in many ways. I find myself preoccupied with painful existential quandaries on a daily basis which are sometimes related to my day-job…It is sort of difficult to explain but I feel haunted by the past…not in a bad way. Songs, photographs, smells, sometimes have a profound effect on me.
I am anchored by losses and passing time. Whenever I have the realization that a great deal of time has slipped away from me and that my life is reeling before me–maybe call it death anxiety? But it can be functionally transcendental at times when it helps me to see what is really important to me. Of course hearing certain songs can send shivers down my spine like nothing else, but these themes are constant in my songs. My main purpose of making music is more focused on recording than playing live and etc….
LK: Your day job is as a social worker, correct? I imagine the people you serve can be in some pretty difficult situations that might add to your anxious thoughts. Do their lives ever drift into your songs? And have there been any good success stories of people you work with improving their situations?
DS: Yeah, I am a Mental Health worker working with seniors in SF. There are a few songs indirectly about some of my folks, one song in particular about wanting desperately to die. My outlook in general did change quite a bit since I’ve been doing this work…I do witness much sadness and pain but also uplifting and true testament to resilience and human survival. I get to have some special relationships with some really amazing people on a daily basis.
It is funny that I do this for a living as I can be somewhat socially awkward and shy when it comes to forming other relationships, which can be difficult at times. There are some very concrete successes and some almost abstract successes, especially when it comes to helping some folks get off the street, and being able to support and help someone who is really in crisis.
LK: Sounds like you get the full spectrum of emotions out of your job, hopefully skewing towards the successes, abstract or not.
I was hoping you could wrap this up with some musical recommendations. In another interview you mentioned Michael Fennelly, who I never heard of before, and I really liked some of his stuff. Especially this demo/master version of “Dark Night”:
Have you got any records or bands that are inspiring you currently?
DS: They may be absurd recommendations but a friend turned me onto Starbuck’s “Moonlight Feels Right” and Alessi Brothers’ first album, Alessi, which are both super 70’s and addictive. Been loving Honeybus side projects, The Shoes reissues, Chico Buarque’s ‘Construção as well as Walter Franco, Beethoven, Todd Rundgren, Isley Bros, Jack Nitszche, Lucio Battisti, various Opera 78’s, the Stories, Shudder to Think, to name a few off the top….I love so much music in almost every imaginable genre and I find new stuff almost every day. Gotta love it. What about you Logan? any recommendations/stuff you’ve been hearing lately?
LK: That is a mighty list. I don’t know half of those, at least. I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz and metal. Coltrane’s From NYC to Stockholm ’62 is really great and blown out sounding. The intro to “Favorite Things” almost sounds like Sabbath to me. Also ballads by Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery and the like. Vhol’s self titled is awesome too. Amen Dunes. Slayer’s Seasons in the Abyss. Bill Evans’ Undercurrent. And on and on.
Thanks so much.