Meric Long spent a year in chicken heaven or hell, depending on your feelings about charred fowl flesh. For about a year the Dodos vocalist-guitarist-trombonist chopped, baked, and tended as many as 80 signature roasted chickens per night as a line cook at San Francisco foodie institution Zuni Cafe a day job so intense that plump, juicy birds haunted his dreams. "Whenever I start talking about the chickens, I can’t shut up," he says ruefully now. "It just it ruled my life for a year!"
But honestly, despite those incursions into his REM-scape, Long feels more kinship with his band’s namesake: the Dodo, that incredible, edible, yet now extinct white meat. "They were like chickens," he muses, sprawled sideways on a bench in Mission Creek Cafe on this warm California winter afternoon. The precision roasting of fowl seems far away on this fair day. "They were lonely, though."
"They wanted friends," drummer Logan Kroeber throws in. He’s still shaken and a bit stirred thanks to a too-close-to-personal-extinction-for-comfort encounter between his skateboarding self and a car blasting down a nearby alley.
"And that’s why they got killed off," Long continues. "They weren’t used to visitors, and the English came and were hungry and ate ’em."
Still, it takes a lot of sly chutzpah to adopt the moniker of the highly uncool, not-so-beautiful loser of the animal kingdom. And though they’d never say so explicitly, Long and Kroeber are hoping, humbly, to do the clumsy waddlers proud by adapting and maybe even flourishing. Exhibit one: the Dodos’ compelling second album, Visiter, scheduled to be released March 18 on Frenchkiss. Its 14 songs unfold in three rough parts, beginning with the toy piano invocations of road-weary, lovelorn musicians ("Red and Purple"), then rolling through noise-wracked folk drone ("Joe’s Waltz"), wry, Magnetic Fieldsstyle songcraft ("Winter"), and a ragtag country blues scented with the sun and sand of Led Zeppelin and West African drumming ("Paint the Rust"). A significant evolution from Long’s time as a solo acoustic act and from the Dodos’ self-released debut, Beware of the Maniacs (2006), Visiter is startlingly deep and likely to hold up under repeated plays, catching the listener on the tenterhooks of Long’s insinuating melodies.
So it’s funny, then, to think that Long first dubbed his solo folk act Dodobird because he felt like such a slow goer and has now firmly found his voice with Kroeber and the Dodos. "To be honest, I think back then I used to have a fear that I was kind of unintelligent, like I was really dumb but didn’t know it," Long says bashfully. "I don’t know if I should say it. But I think it had to do with partying too much when I was younger and completely fucking my brain. I also think there’s this plane of understanding that other people seem to be on and I’m still kind of out of the loop on."
As usual, Kroeber jumps into the conversation, to watch his bud’s back, because seriously, dude, in his opinion, Long is nothing like the dazed and confused kids he grew up with down south: "A lot of people can sort of deflect that with ‘You’re thinking too much, man! Keep it simple! Positive vibes!’ You know, that sort of brick-by-brick, build your weed cabin." Kroeber nods sagely. "I grew up in Santa Cruz it’s a historical place for weed-cabin building."
The Dodos found their endearingly clumsy footing far from the happy yet isoutf8g metaphorical grassy isles of yesteryear. After moving from his hometown of Lafayette, Long had been playing solo around town occasionally as Mix Tape with vocalist Brigid Dawson of the Ohsees when Kroeber’s cousin introduced the guitarist to the drummer two years ago. Kroeber started accompanying Long live on a few songs, on a single tom. "Even during those early shows," Kroeber recalls, "that girl Emily from Vervein was still, like, ‘It’s cool I like what you’re doing, the one drum thing. I’m all about it!’ Even with one drum, people were, like, ‘Keep going!’<0x2009>"
A particularly inspiring Animal Collective show roused Long to offer to pay Kroeber’s way to Portland, Ore., where the singer-songwriter was about to record Beware with engineer John Askew, who owns the Filmguerrero label. Their experience working with Askew was so fruitful that the two returned to Askew’s Type Foundry studio to make Visiter after spending 2006 on perpetual tour, getting tighter, writing songs together, and solidifying their identity as a band. For Visiter, the duo piled on an odd array of instruments stand-up bass, toy piano, and trombone while the producer carefully pieced the sounds together in the recording’s aural landscape. "John sits there and closes his eyes and imagines his record as a soundscape and places things geographically," Long says, standing suddenly and patting the air above him here and there. "I think it really helped with this situation, because with two people there’s a lot of sonic space to fill, so where he placed everything really made a huge difference. The drums take up so much sound space on the record."
Loneliness fills the spaces of the songs as well, as Visiter so often seems to revolve around the women who were just passing through Long’s life. "Jodi" and "Ashley" are, naturally, about two such suspects, while "Undeclared" eschews Kanye West collegiate themes to focus on an unrealized crush, and "Red and Purple" captures that "young lady" who fashioned elaborate gifts involving invisible ink that would greet Long at every club on tour. "It was pretty romantic shit," Long says a bit wistfully.
"I was definitely impressed," Kroeber agrees. "I didn’t really know this girl, but later I imagined she was one of those people who sew everything by hand, supermeticulous. It was some next-level spy shit."
As the talk turns to girls who have come and gone, the Dodos grow a mite melancholy, though not enough to throw in the towel and jump in a roasting pan. They recently underwent a minimedia storm in New York City, where they attempted to go uncensored for MTV.com while hungover and sleep deprived after partying with Long’s chef pals the previous night. Fortunately, these days the Dodos are relying on their survival instinct more often than not and seeking out swimming holes rather than new watering holes when on tour.
Not that the drink doesn’t have its uses. "It’s an artificial sort of cryostasis," Kroeber quips. "But as soon as you get done with the tour and go home, it crumbles. The second tour, when I came back, my girlfriend was, like, ‘What the fuck happened to you?’ But it does work! When you’re on the road it’s the one thing that keeps you going."
With Or, the Whale, Bodies of Water, and Willow Willow
Feb. 28, 9 p.m., $10$12
Cafe du Nord
2170 Market, SF