A lot of great musicians immerse themselves in a world of sound, and in
Martin Dosh's case, that's true on more than one level. In the studio, the Twin Cities drummer and keyboardist, part of the loose-knit Anticon collective, creates intricate collages from looped and recombined audio. Not samples, but music composed by Dosh specifically for the purpose of being reworked later into his aural mosaic. His live setup resembles something NASA would use to control a Mars lander, with Dosh surrounded on all sides by banks of keyboards, effects pedals, samplers, a mixing board, and his drum set. Guests on Dosh's new The Lost Take include violin-wielding Chicagoan Andrew Bird (Dosh also doubles as Bird's backing drummer) as well as fellow Minnesotans including Tapes N' Tapes' Erik Appelwick, Happy Apple's Michael Lewis, and Sean McPherson of Heiruspecs. But the sensibility is pure Dosh: graceful, highly textured, warm, even meditative, but with an ever-present and constantly surprising rhythmic flow. The A.V. Club caught up with Dosh a couple of weeks before Lost Take's release.
The A.V. Club: You began as a drummer. Do you still approach music from that perspective, even though you've expanded into a broader scope?
Martin Dosh: I think drums will always be my primary instrument. I still feel the most comfortable behind a kit. As far as a songwriting, I definitely approach things from a rhythmic perspective. Most of my songs are built off of very short loops, with a rhythmic thing that gets it going. And then there's a melody in that rhythm, which then expands and creates a song. But drums, definitely, that's the primary thing. If a band doesn't have a good drummer, I can't listen to them, know what I mean?
AVC: You're basically self-taught.
MD: On drums anyway. My parents bought me a drum set when I was 15, and I saved up from my paper route and bought this really awesome stereo—it was really, really loud. I used to sit in the basement with two speakers on either side of my head and pop in Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Rush, and Yes. I'd crank it, and that's how I learned how to play.
AVC: It seems like being self-taught is a very important part of what you do now.
MD: I don't know what I'm doing. [Laughs.] If I go to the music store and find something that looks really cool, some weird old pedal, $40 for some compressor or sequencer, any little thing, I take it home and actually record myself learning how to use it. That's pretty much how I stumble across stuff, just by trying to document everything. It keeps it kind of fresh and playful.
AVC: You've been playing with Andrew Bird for about a year, and he's been in Minneapolis lately recording his new album with you. How's that going?
MD: It's a pretty intense working relationship, and really, really fun. For someone who's in his position [where] his last record [The Mysterious Production Of Eggs] really broke through and he's selling places out and his audience is ballooning—not that I knew him before that, but he seems so fearless and not afraid to just do what he feels like. Experimenting with doing looping live together has been really, really fun, and always very challenging. Playing with Andrew opened my eyes to how to interact with another musician in an environment where you have a static loop happening. He's making loops on his violin, so how do I respond to that? If I was just doing 2/4 beats with a singer-songwriter, I wouldn't be happy. He's really open to my own kind of weird experimentation stuff, making loops and banging on the Rhodes.
AVC: Given the style of music you play, people who haven't seen you might not realize that your live show has much more to it than just pressing a button to get some prerecorded loops.
MD: [Parts of some songs are] prerecorded, but I still have to nail it in order to be able to do drumming and Rhodes [piano] on top of it. If I mess that up, it's not cool, it's actually kind of harder to do in a way, because it's like that prerecorded sequence part has to be just right. It's only the first thing; there's like 15 other layers I have to play on top of it. Basically I have my studio on stage. The stuff I use to make all this in the studio is the same stuff that I have up on stage.
AVC: You were a creative writing major in college, and yet you make almost entirely instrumental music.
MD: There are vocals on the new record, and obviously it's not verse-chorus-verse things, but I'm just trying it out. Part of the problem with singing for me too is that I don't want to sing unless I have something to sing about. If it's something totally pointillistic and abstract and it works, that's cool.
AVC: Does performing instrumental music limit your appeal?
MD: In some sense it does. On some nights when I was on tour with Bird, I could tell the audience just didn't get it, didn't care. I think that with me sitting there behind a drum set and a Rhodes and a bunch of samplers, you have to buy into what I'm doing, or at least have some sort of curiosity about it. I definitely would like to connect to more people. Adding vocals could help that, but I also know that if I add more drums that helps, too. A lot of my friends say that what I do is sort of ego-less. There's no, "I am Dosh, and I am coming to stomp on your head and rock you." I wouldn't want to do that. But I love Zebulon Pike and Black Sabbath and that stuff. I want to figure out a way to make that massive volume overload like SunnO))) or Lightning Bolt, stuff like that. How do I translate what I'm doing into something that in-your-face and intense?
AVC: Lost Take feels like a record that was made largely while you were alone—not that it's a lonely record, but that you took the time in the studio by yourself to really craft all the elements in the music.
MD: Yeah, totally. There are like 11 guests on there, but if you compared all the hours that I spent on this [by myself] with all the hours that people came over to do stuff, it would literally be 99 to 1. Sitting there alone making sure it sounds right.
AVC: How much of a role do accidents play in your music?
MD: Accident is the biggest thing, man, that's it. When I'm composing 18-second things, something will just happen. Almost everything is stumbled across. Then once that initial thing is stumbled across, I ask myself, "Is this really good? Okay, I'm going to tape it." Almost every single thing I've ever done has begun with an accident or just trying something out, really knowing what I'm trying to do. Improvising, basically. And that's the thing about looping, too. It enables something that's like a random sound, like—let's say you crumple up a tin can and throw it on the ground, and you record that. Crunch, chunk, boom. You loop that into a five second loop, and randomness ceases to exist once you've heard it four times in a row.
AVC: Music as organized noise.
MD: That goes the same for a melody. If something sounds kind of fucked up the first time you hear it, four times later or eight times later it makes sense. You hear that on a lot of the new hip-hop stuff, and maybe some of the old hip-hop like Wu-Tang. That's what I like about looping—it sort of organizes chaos. I like chaos and I like organization, so how do you make them work together and make it exciting?
AVC: And yet, your sampled loops come from sounds made by musicians playing stuff specifically for your projects. You don't tend to use found sounds or samples from, say, an old movie or James Brown record. Any particular reason why not?
MD: I don't think so. I might venture into that. Initially I just had so many four-track tapes [of my own material] that once I sort of got into the looping thing and recording my own stuff, I wanted to mine everything [for] the feeling that was on them. I listened to a lot of tapes and a lot of it didn't sound great, [but I'd] find a really cool four-second break in something I played in 1995. I think if I ever open myself up to the whole world of sound that's out there, it's just too much. I prefer to go into the studio, record myself playing breaks on five different mics for a day, and take those sounds and chop them up.
AVC: A limitation that you have to impose to give yourself structure?
MD: Right. And to go try to find that 12-inch from 1972 [to sample]—I'm not trying to say anything bad about it, I absolutely love all that kind of stuff. I just can't operate like that. It's so much easier just to create it, just sit there with a microphone and [play drums] and make a loop out of that, or beatbox and send it to a distortion pedal and five seconds later you've got a beat. Or I could go down to Hymie's [a vintage record shop in south Minneapolis] and check in every week for a year and finally find that record I've been looking for. Maybe my son will get into that, I hope so, but I'm too old for it.
AVC: Sampling spoken-word recordings might give you another way to get lyrics into your music.
MD: Totally. When I was working on my first record I had my dad come in and read this really great Martin Luther King speech, though I never ended up using it. I actually did a record with my brother, who's a poli sci professor. He lived in Berkeley for a long time and did a lot of slam poetry out there, so we did a record where he did spoken word and I did the music. And I think that I would like to do something with Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez because that's who I'm named after, so it would be really cool to have a record with some [words by] those two guys. I think that, going into a project, I need to have some sort of theme, like "okay, I'm going to do a record about my name." My name is Martin Luther King Chavez Dosh, so I'd get a bunch of recordings of Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King, and it's going to be relevant.
AVC: That's your full name?
MD: My parents are hippies. [Laughs.] My brother's name is Paul Gandhi Joseph Dosh. I was told that Martin is for St. Martin, Luther is for Martin Luther, King is for Martin Luther King, Chavez is for Cesar Chavez. Four pretty heavy dudes. Kind of a lot to live up to.