Memory Motel: Parsing the Past Lives of Dots Will Echo
Digging beneath the duo's debut on Asthmatic Kitty
There's a new album due out July 24 on Sufjan Stevens' Asthmatic Kitty label - home to everyone from My Brightest Diamond to Julianna Barwick as well as Stevens' own projects - by a band that will more than likely be new to you. Dots Will Echo is the sound that occurs when New Jersey's Nick Berry (vocals, a panoply of instruments) and Kurt Biroc (drums) come together to toss folk, power-pop, psychedelia, indie rock, and avant-garde experimentalism into an aural blender. Drunk is the New Sober/Stupid is the New Dumb is their double-length debut for the label, and the first widely available album the duo has ever released.
But in fact, the Dots Will Echo story predates the album by a good stretch. For one thing, DWE has been bringing out micro-pressings of handmade limited-edition singles and EPs for several years. But there was another version of the band that predated the current formation - a trio led by Berry that released three albums between the mid ‘80s and the early ‘90s. The first DWE was more of a standard guitar-bass-drums band, purveying a sort of skewed power pop that came off like XTC covering Captain Beefheart, or vice versa. Their songs were fueled by Berry's signature sense of humor and enticingly off-kilter worldview, from the estrogen-versus-testosterone face-off of "She's a Girl" to the obsessive vidiot anthem "T-E-L-E-Vision."
The key to Dots Will Echo's aesthetic has always been the careful balance between beauty and chaos. Berry cites his love of Miles Davis's abstract jazz-rock masterpiece Bitches Brew as an example. "The only way to listen to that record is loud," he says, "and to me it sounds really beautiful...all these wonderful, exciting possibilities that to me always sound positive, all happening at once. It's like a truck knocks over a can of dayglo paint in the middle of the street, and maybe it's an accident and looks ugly or chaotic or deranged, but it can be really beautiful."
The band took a shot at taking their beautiful chaos from the underground to the mainstream with their second, self-titled album, released on High Street, the rock/pop label started by Windham Hill boss Will Ackerman. Unfortunately, the 1991 album didn't quite take the nation by storm, although Berry recalls, "We were on the Swedish rock charts, we were like number three in Sweden, we didn't find out about it until a month after we were off the charts." Ultimately, their time on High Street turned out to be short. "We were getting ready to make another record," Berry explains, "we had a manager lined up, but the music business started to take a downturn at that point."
Fast-forward five years: the band self-released the great (and memorably titled) Get Your Hands Off My Modem, You Weasel, but faded away not long afterwards. "Bob [Albanese, bassist/keyboardist] got more involved with his job," says Berry, "I eventually was just doing solo gigs." After a while, Berry found himself surrounded by some new faces, including Biroc. "For a handful of gigs," he relates, "Dots Will Echo was Kurt, my nephew Michael, and me." After a while, the band was whittled down to the duo we hear on Drunk/Stupid. "It was a little rough at first," remembers Berry. "I'm comfortable now, because Kurt and I are good friends, it's easy for us to work together, sometimes we have rehearsals were most of what we do is just talk and hardly play any songs. We'd be fine with bringing somebody else in as long as that balance isn't disrupted."
Contextualizing the new album, Berry says, "I wanted to make something that sounded more honest, and I had always been convinced I was a really good singer no matter how many times magnetic tape would prove me wrong. I thought instead of trying to improve things, I would accept them the way they were and try to work from that direction, to not polish my embarrassing moments [laughs]. I'd love to sing like James Taylor, but I can't. Neil Young was kind of an inspiration to me, because one day I said, "His voice sucks, and I like his records" so I tried to overcome my shame at the sound of my voice."
Regardless, Berry still pursued something timeless in his writing. "I was trying to find out what was the universality of something like ‘Auld Lang Syne' or ‘Amazing Grace,'" he explains, "no matter what you do to it, there's still an element of grandness to those melodies. I was sort of digging to get to the heart of that. How you dress it up is secondary." Also crucial to the new album is an element of immediacy. "You listen to older recordings and you get more of the feeling of being present when a band is playing," Berry says, "where so many recordings these days are created in the isolation of a hard drive, and it's a great sound but it's a very sterile sound, it doesn't sound like anything's about to go wrong. That's why people watch guys on a high wire -- because there's always a chance that something can go wrong, so there's a little excitement there. We tend to fall off the wire quite a bit [laughs], but I hope it gives it a vitality."
Musing on a tenacity that most would consider admirable after so many years of detours and derailments, Berry says, "I've had friends tell me they admired me for never giving up, but I don't even see it in those terms. I thought everybody should make art, but as Banksy said, now I'm not so sure. It was an act of love, and I loved what I did, and it satisfied something in me that I wasn't getting from other places, and I couldn't understand why other people didn't love it as well. But I realized that it's not something for me to decide, what other people find valuable in their lives, so I got over the hurt of it, and the fact that people didn't seem to need it in their lives the way I did. Writing songs and making music was just something I did, it was an end in itself. I still get emails from people all over the world telling me how much they love the earlier records, asking if we've put out any more new music; it's like, over 20 years now." Asked about what kind of audience Asthmatic Kitty might help to bring him, Berry says laughingly, "The kids of former Dots Will Echo fans. Somebody wrote me saying his son really likes it. Music for the ages!"
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