By: Ryan Mannix
It’s fall tour time again and, for a certain segment of the jam scene, things are starting to feel a bit familiar; relentless driving, late nights, packing mid-sized clubs -- some are even expanding to bigger theaters in new parts of the country.
These “new” bands (yeah, some have been around close to ten years) are blowing the minds of newcomers and seasoned vets alike, with their progressive takes on composition and improvisation. Think Aqueous, Spafford, Mungion and a host of others.
But I'd argue that Dopapod has been as musically innovative as any of these -- as has seen the corresponding growth in their fanbase as a result.
Each member of the band brings their own unparalleled musicianship, creativity, and style. Their uncanny chemistry allows their jamming to be conversational and organic, but their theoretical approach lets them create arrangements and themes to ceaselessly explore. Exploring this tightrope between simple and complex allows them to write (and improvise) some the most unique and inventive music around.
But this fall, there is a little extra weight to Dopapod’s tour -- they announced a few months back that they would be taking 2018 off. Reactions were mixed, with some people even incorrectly equating “break” with “break-up”, but most everybody was caught off-guard by the announcement.
After seven years of non-stop touring, the band was starting to make real strides, drawing larger crowds at festivals, and more dedicated followers at the clubs and online. "Why now?" seemed to be the question on everybody’s lips. I dove in deep with keyboardist Eli Winderman about touring, self-care, and life beyond Dopapod.
TV: What are you most excited about for with Megagem?
EW: Well, it’s the first vinyl we’ve ever made, I’m really happy with how it turned out. The whole process was really fun and fulfilling and rewarding. We just set up all our own gear in this barn and we were basically on our own -- it wasn't like the usual atmosphere of paying by the hour. It was much more chill and relaxed.
We started every day with improvisation, and we recorded everything and filmed everything. We got some really cool stuff out of that. I think it's how we’ll do it from now on.
We always invested back into the band, so we invested in a sound console, and cables, and mics, and at any time we can record an album anywhere. If we wanted to, we could go into the woods and record an album. Anytime we have power, we're good to go.
For this record, we would just wake up, make breakfast, exercise. I did a lot of yoga, and we were way up in the mountains. Overall, it was a really fun experience. We were out there for 8-9 days and we got a whole other album that is pretty much ready to go.
Are any of the improvisations going to be released?
One of them on the new one is “Buster Brown”. We listened back and were like, "this is pretty cool", so we just named it -- it's a guitar feature so we named it after our guitarist Rob’s cat, who had just passed away around that time.
So you've got some strings on this album... it seems like the production for each album seems to get more intense and defined, is that fair to say?
I’ve always fantasized about that because I’ve always been into ELO, Yes, The Beatles and Radiohead -- bands who use strings. It creates so much more atmosphere and emotion. It just makes the sound very full and rich.
I basically just hit up this guy I met through a friend -- Michael Ronstadt, who actually is Linda Rondstat's nephew... maybe I don't know (laughs). He’s related to her somehow. So, I sent him the tracks and he wrote out charts, and I went to Cincinnati, where he's from and he had these orchestra musicians there and they had the charts, and it was great!
How did you decide to break up the two albums?
I knew we wanted to make a vinyl -- our fans were always like "make vinyl". You can only really fit 40 minutes of music, and we have way more than that, so it was about trying to fit the stuff that went well together.
It was a process for sure and really hard, but we got to save some stuff, so it was all about how it flowed.
Are you excited to play with the Motet?
Absolutely. We’ve always been huge fans of them. We’ve always been talking about doing tours together, but it’s never happened.
It’s always great to team up with bands when you really enjoy their music, and also I really like those guys... hanging with them and talking about life. I think it will be a cool show. It’s kind of a Venn diagram where we overlap in a lot of ways, but we're also very different.
The prospect of you and Joey Porter playing together is exciting to me, and I know a bunch of others who feel the same.
Oh yeah, I think we’re going to try and do collaborations most nights. Like, I love Joey’s playing and everybody in that band. Their new singer is a really old friend of ours from way back in the day and I'm really excited he has that gig now.
Will you guys be opening or switching off?
Mostly switching off. Like in the northeast they’ll open, and in the Midwest, we’ll open. It's pretty evenly split.
When you do these one set shows, and then stop and do some two setters, does it change your approach?
Not really, unless its a 45-minute festival set. If we have an hour and a half, we are all really about the jamming and improv. We love it. We aren't gonna change too much, but it will just be less music.
In two set shows, the second set is more jam-heavy. For the one set, we will build into it and its a little more structured, and 3-4 songs in we'll have it open up. We do whatever we want. Our main prerogative is to have as much fun as possible at all times.
Have you guys been working on any new techniques with improv?
We are always talking about it, and we've been around for a while and have a couple tricks... not tricks, but techniques. We basically just try to listen to everyone else first, and not focus on yourself. Otherwise, you end up playing on top of everybody and its less of a conversation, so we try and keep as much interaction as we can.
We just try to have fun and smile and have a good time. I think that's what at the end of the day, the fans get the most enjoyment out of: watching the band have fun.
You and Rob switch off a lot as the “lead” melodic voice. When it's all improvised, how do you approach those jams -- like when do you stand out or play rhythm?
It doesn't really change that much, but it might be kind of based on who took the last one and then we switch it up. There are definitely some shows where Rob ends up leading more than me, or vice versa, and there are all these factors like, "who's more well rested?" and "who didn't eat a bunch of bullshit today?" It’s a lot of different factors that go into the variations between shows.
I remember a few years back at Bottom Lounge, Chuck took the lead on “Give it a Name” in the intro, and it kind of developed into an Allman Brothers type jam. That was the highlight of my night.
Yeah, were all about just experimenting and trying new things -- we really think the jam scene is all about that. It’s what people thrive on, and what really resonates with us and everyone else, when bands go out and take chances. And sometimes you miss it and just laugh it off, but sometimes you know, you take chances and do something different and it's the highlight.
How’s it been having Fro back in the band... not just the music, but band dynamics?
It’s great. He's really a crucial member of this band, having him around, he's always trying to push things and try new stuff.
These moments where you're thinking... I don't know if this is a good idea, this is a big show, he's like "no, fuck it, let's do it" (laughs). He's always had that attitude -- he also has so much energy and he never gives up. He's a major part of the chemistry of the band. Especially, for the writing environment. He's really the glue for all our ideas, He tries it once or twice and it happens.
I know you write a lot of the material, do you write all the parts?
Yeah. I’ll do a demo. I don't write it down or anything... just send them a recording, then everybody learns their part and puts their own embellishments on it. Over time it turns, and it becomes its own thing.
How do you write the setlist?
I’ll put up a post on our Facebook group, Dopafam, a fan made message board, and a bunch of people will write what they want, and we’ll look at it and be like... that's interesting.
We’ll also look at our set from the last time we were in town or the most recent festival near there, and we try and switch it up. We have like 60-70 songs to choose from so we try and switch it up as much as possible. And sometimes we do repeat, and that's cool because people will be like, "I saw them do this last time and it was so different!”
We really do whatever we want. We don't really care. I mean... we care! we care! We just don’t let it restrict us.
Do you guys stray from your setlist a lot?
We always do. We kind of just do a song list and kind of get to some of them. Sometimes it works out -- it's one of those other things. We might think we're gonna segue from this to this and go back to this, but then it's forced and doesn't flow right, It's kind of a gamble and sometimes things happen on their own.
It’s kind of like a basketball team being in a band. Some nights everybody has their eyes open, and they're making awesome passes, and they're aware, and its way more effective, but all it takes is one person to be in a bad mood, ya know? It’s a living breathing organism.
What’s the hardest part about the road?
There’s a lot of things, honestly. I didn't know how hard it was when I was younger.
First of all, I was way younger and kinda crazy. The older I get, I start to feel it more... the lack of sleep, the bad food, it affects everything.
Being away from home then coming back home, and every one of your friends works a job, nobody is around. You go from always being around other people and having an agenda, a non-stop thing like you're in the army. Then you go from that, and you’re home, and it’s completely different lives. There's like a dip where you don't feel good, but you can work through that a bit with yoga, exercise, and meditation, which really helps a lot on the road, too.
Like if you exercise, and meditate, and eat right every day, and don't over-drink every night, it helps, but once you do one of those things, the older I get, I just feel it. And it just takes time to get past that.
Is the entire band into that stuff like meditation?
Well, Fro is, and he got me into it. He actually did this, and we both did this ten-day, silent meditation retreat, called the Vipassana. He did it first after he originally split ways with the band, and I was talking to him a year later, and he was like, "it really changed my life".
He thought I would get a lot out of it, but it was the most intense thing I’d ever done. It was the first time I didn't hear any music, except in my head, for ten days... not talking to anyone. You have to eat the food they have there which is all vegetarian and vegan, and you get a lot of sleep, and you're in nature, It’s like a boot camp for the mind.
I did that and it was really helpful, and since then I’ve gotten really into yoga. It’s my saving grace, I try to do it every day. Chuck is into yoga, and he does a lot of hiking and camping. We try and get Rob into it, we just got him exercising more, kinda (laughs). Over time he's been doing it more, we are all getting more aware of taking the right kind of stuff like vitamins and fish oils, and all that stuff.
Why is it important for you guys to take a break now?
I think we just found ourselves feeling really burnt out on this last tour, just a few moments where we were burnt out on life. So we just kind of zoomed out and looked at it like we haven't really had a real break at all.
There have been a few months where we like won’t tour in January and February, but in that time off you're not really on break because there are a million things to be done to prepare for a tour. Part of this whole thing was that we saw this TED Talk about a guy who had a design firm, and every seven years he closes it and everyone goes and works on their own projects for a year, and it has this amazing effect on everyone. They all come back with new ideas, and inspiration and a craving to be out there again.
That’s the goal. It’s not that we have any beef, or hate each other. We don't hate each other -- we love each other, it’s like we’re brothers! We all just wanted a break from being on the road all the time, and explore what’s out there so we can grow as people, and come back to it even stronger.
Do you and the other guys have any plans for the break?
I’ve signed up for this yoga class right around the corner from my house, and every morning you have a private instructor. It's like you're on you're own journey and they teach you the whole flow, but you have to add to it every time, and then you can do it on your own.
I’m gonna write every day, that’s a goal, even if it’s a stupid song. The idea is if you throw a bunch at the wall, some of it will stick, and that's how the process works. I'm just excited to have a lot of time to just work on that.
I also have this side project called Octave Cat with the bassist from Lotus, Jesse Miller, and we're gonna do a bunch of shows with that. I think Rob and I will be doing a bunch of shows together. I’m gonna try and do a weekly residency in Philly, so I’m getting that together and that will be a place, where the goal is to create a community.
There is an awesome scene here, but not really a place where there's like a Tuesday night thing, where everyone can come and hang. There are so many musicians, and that's kind of my goal, to develop a strong sense of community here, so when we do tour again, I’ll have a strong sense of friends and family to come back to.
I think a lot of this for everyone is staying busy and playing as much as you can, and with as many different people as you can. I think another thing is, we are all kind of scared. You know this has been our income for seven years.
Part of the overall goal is we can come back and play a little bit less, but make the shows more special, so we aren't constantly on the road. Part of that is developing all our lives where we have other income so we don't have to constantly tour.
I see more and more, the artists I respect the most, are out there with multiple projects. The ones that are all in on one all the time kind of go crazy, and I kind of was heading down that path.
It's really scary to do this. What are we going to do? What if this is the end of the band? But because it is scary there is even more reason to do it. You have to take a risk to gain a reward and grow, and as much as touring was becoming uncomfortable... it was our comfort zone. It was all set up for us, just show up here this day and everything is taken care of. We just needed some time to recharge.
What will you miss most taking the year off?
I’ll miss being a part of such a tight-knit unit of people. I’m actually reading this book called “Tribe” now, it’s about people that are in the army and go to war and are a part of something larger than themselves. They come back and tend to have a sense of emptiness.
I'm definitely gonna miss being around my best friends every day. And just playing all this music we’ve worked on this whole time, it’s a huge part of my life and I’m gonna miss that a lot. Playing really fun shows for a fan base. It’s so amazing that we’re able to do that!
I feel like we’re super lucky to have experienced that in any form. I feel like this will allow us to do this much further into the future than if we didn't do it. If we just kept touring at this pace, we would completely burn out, and I think now we’ll come back stronger than ever.
Any other bands people should check out while you're off the road?
Yeah, it’s really cool to be apart of a scene that has so many bands being accepted by an audience. Like, Turkuaz are our brothers, and they’re doing great, Aqueous is doing great and we love those guys. Pigeons we toured with, and they're doing great -- super happy for them.
There’s that band Mungion, and they’re great. Anyone I’m forgetting, I’m sorry! It’s really cool to be a part of the jam scene, its the only scene where people are genuinely into people taking risks and having fun, and its a really, really cool scene to be apart of... just like the lineage of it.
To see where its come from, from The Grateful Dead to Phish, to electronic jam. Now, it's not even like counterculture anymore.
Anything else you want to mention to Dopapod fans?
Yeah, we have this thing, which I don’t think a lot of people really know about, but you can stream or download any one of our shows. We have so many shows on there, and we’ll be adding much more from our back catalog over the break.
We just did a post on our page asking people about their first show, and we’re gonna slowly add all of those to the service. It's pretty cool, it’s Spotify for Dopapod called Podify.
Also, we have our New Year's Show in Boston, which will be a really nice way to put things on pause. And just really looking forward to seeing everybody. We’re hitting a lot of places (sorry to West Coast fans and Florida people). Pretty much going to all of our spots, and we really look forward to blowing up this tour, because its gonna be a minute before we’ll see them again.