When San Francisco indie-folk act The Dodos played Alive After Five in 2008, they were beguiled by the diverse crowd cheering them on. Amid the flurry of tambourine-toed drum thumping and percussive guitar-plucking, an elderly couple locked in a straight-backed embrace waltzed back and forth in front of the stage. A few feet away, a man in a tie-dyed T-shirt swayed to the beat, his long gray ponytail swinging dangerously near a cluster of tight-jeaned teens and scampering wet-haired kids. For a band that got its start playing for cross-armed 20-somethings in San Francisco dives, Alive After Five turned out to be an oddly refreshing experience.
"It ended up being really fun, but it was strange," remembered drummer Logan Kroeber. "We hadn't played many festivals at that point, and it was strange to be responsible for the entertainment for a very family oriented crowd ... I remember there were a lot of older, hippie people dancing in the front ... It was a pretty unique experience, being matched with a crowd that wasn't necessarily your own."
The Dodos, originally called Dodobird, started off as the solo project of lead singer Meric Long. In 2005, Long picked up Kroeber on drums and the duo began gigging around San Francisco, making a name for themselves with their high-energy live shows and unique blend of African Ewe-influenced drumming and rhythmic acoustic guitar. Since their last stop in Boise, The Dodos have expanded their brood to include Keaton Snyder as a permanent member on vibraphone and have also broadened their fan base considerably.
The band spent most of 2008 touring across the United States and Europe promoting their second full-length album, Visiter, with bands like Les Savy Fav and Thee Oh Sees. Visiter's raw, pulsing energy and catchy songwriting caught the attention of many critics, ranking third, behind Fleet Foxes and Vampire Weekend, on Under The Radar's Best Albums of 2008 list. The song "Fools"--with its urgent, snapping drums and echoey harmonies--was even used in a TV ad for the lime-infused Miller Chill beer.
With such a thick cloud of buzz swirling around them, expectations were high when The Dodos migrated to Seattle to record their new album Time to Die with indie music icon Phil Ek (Built to Spill, Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses). Kroeber said Ek influenced the new album pretty heavily in terms of the production.
"It's hard for me to know what the songs would've sounded like working with another person. Some people have complained that some of the rawness is gone of the recording and that's to be expected with a Phil Ek production."
In place of that rawness, which marked both Visiter and 2006's Beware the Maniacs, the songs on Time to Die hum with a fuzzy warmth. Long's vocals are rich, bordering on creamy at moments, and framed by sometimes twinkling, sometimes percussive acoustic guitar and echoing vibraphone. Kroeber's pulsing, jangly drumming is still prominent, but it is much less frenzied and insistent than on the band's previous two recordings. In Kroeber's opinion (and he's not joking when he says) there's one word that sums up the quality Ek imparted on the recording: sweetness.
"I think that his production choices add--this is a term I always use and have used ever since I heard the mixes of the album--a sweetness. When we listened to the record for the first time, there was a really sweet thing, an easy, sweet thing going through it all," said Kroeber.
Part of the sweetness, no doubt, comes from Snyder's melodic vibraphone playing. Though The Dodos occasionally incorporated vibes into their live set while touring on Visiter, after the tour ended, Long was insistent that the instrument become a mainstay in the band. After purchasing an easily transportable vibraphone with a pickup system, Long and Kroeber set out to find someone to play the instrument. Long floated the idea past his neighbor, who works at the Conservatory of Music in San Francisco, and was soon paired up with Snyder, a conservatory dropout who was two weeks away from moving to Los Angeles.
"[The vibraphone] really fills out our sound," said Kroeber. "Meric really likes having it there because it creates a richer bed over which to sing. Instead of just bare guitar and drums, there's a bigger harmonic thing going on so it's not just his voice over guitar; it's more filled in."
All of this rich, full sweetness--combined with ample, colorful confetti on the record's cover and in the video for the single "Fables"--seems slightly at odds with the album's macabre title. But Time to Die, Kroeber insists, is meant to be taken in more of a celebratory manner.
"All the album artwork came from photos Meric shot on a trip to Switzerland for this festival that they have out there with lots and lots of confetti," said Kroeber. "I think it's a beautiful photo as it is, but with the album title, I think that it sends more of the message that we want to send--not of a morbid thing, but more of a celebratory, re-birthing type of thing."
And though The Dodos have done a lot of growing--in both popularity and band size--since the last time they swung through Boise, they're still excited to return to the strange town where waltzing couples and gray-haired hippies alike know how to get down to their unique sound.