[Cover photo credit to Michael Weintrob]
On May 27th, 2022, Dopapod will release their seventh studio album, which is self-titled for a very specific reason. Their band name is a palindrome (a word that reads the same way backwards as forwards) and all their album titles so far have been palindromes, too. For their seventh album, they chose their own seven-lettered band name as their title to commemorate the event. Like every album made in and around the pandemic, it came with its difficulties to be overcome by Eli Winderman, Rob Compa, Chuck Jones, and Neal “Fro” Evans, but you would never know that from the finished product. It even comes with very special packaging devised for it by Luke Stratton, which renders the album a board game based around the band’s previous catalog. In fact, through the concept of a time machine, it renders the band’s entire back catalog a “concept catalog” involving time travel.
All of this plays into the new songs on the album with alarming consistency, since the songs pick up on the idea of a “singularity” which leads through “Black Holes” into time travel. This all fits with the “Symmetry defines Dopapod” approach they’ve always taken, and you’ll find even more cool corresponding elements in this conversation I had with Eli Winderman, the band’s keyboardist and vocalist, ahead of their album release next month and hitting the road touring with George Clinton this summer.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I know that the band had some time off right before the pandemic, then got halted from playing by the pandemic, but you have somehow turned this into a very productive period with a very detailed album, as well as videos, and the whole concept of the board game. What was it like during that time off? Did you find that helped you all reset as human beings?
Eli Winderman: Exactly, yes. We just toured way too hard for too long. We got to a point where we needed a break. Had we known that the pandemic was on the horizon, we might have done another year. But the inspiration behind it was a TED Talk where someone had a design company that shuts down every seven years for a full year sabbatical. In that time, experimental growth tended to happen leading to breakthroughs and developments. Seeing that talk made us think, “Let’s do that.”
We didn’t know if it was a good idea, but when we came back, we knew it was the best thing we had ever done. If we hadn’t done it, we probably wouldn’t be a band anymore. Right when we were about to start touring again, we were in the studio recording all this stuff. It was December 2019 through March 2020, and we had all the basics done. We just needed to do overdubs and mixing. Then we had to stop. Later, when we started working on the album again, we were a little scared about whether we should be getting together, but we decided to just do it.
HMS: Was it useful that the bones of the album were laid down before the disruption?
EW: Yes, but it has all taken a long time. The album has been done since late 2020, but then we had to ship it out to make the vinyl, which takes eight months. It made sense to wait.
HMS: I’ve seen images of the vinyl, and it looks so cool. Then there’s the packaging, which is a whole other creature and game.
EW: Luke Stratton did all the design work on this and went with a three-color pattern. Everything along the way, including the singles and different pieces of art have the same colors and the same theme. Luke was with the band from 2010 onwards as our light guy and sound guy. Over the pandemic, he started to make these D&D style maps and was putting them up on Patreon. That blew up and he recently started his own business but helped train our new guys.
HMS: When, in this whole process, did you get an inkling that the album could have a game component linked to the time machine idea?
EW: A lot of this stuff was a happy accident, but we started doing Zoom calls during the pandemic, and someone brought up this idea of doing a game on the inside of the album. From there, the ideas just expanded. What’s crazy, though, is that around 2013, we started to write songs about time travel, and every album has had different songs about that, for some reason. We had this idea to write about time travellers.
“Present Ghosts” was kind of the start of it, but we have a lot of songs where the lyrics are about time, being trapped in time, or time travel. Then, we also have a lot of songs where we say that life is just a game, and lyrics about games. We also have a lot of lyrics about being in the present moment, which is the opposite of traveling in time. If you’re in the present moment, it’s the perfect balance between the past and the future. That links in with palindromes and symmetry. This idea and the game turn our entire catalog into a concept catalog. It all just kind of came together.
HMS: Will the work you do in the future become part of this concept catalog too?
EW: I don’t know. I feel like we’re going through the portal now. Maybe we went back in time to inspire our past selves to write these songs. [Laughs] Maybe we went back in time from the future! I love that stuff. It’s fun to think about.
HMS: I just realized that you took your sabbatical after seven years, and this is your seventh album, too.
EW: Yes, and there are seven letters in Dopapod. That’s why we decided to self-title this album.
HMS: You’ve probably told this story a million times, but what happened that led to the name Dopapod?
EW: It’s not a great story, but the hardest thing is to come up with a band name. I was still in college and the band started off as a duo that I was trying to name. I took the word “dope” and spun it around on itself, so it was “dopepod”, then I changed the “e” to an “a” because of the word dopamine. So I had “dopapod”. Then about five hours later I realized it was a palindrome. Then the first album title had to be a palindrome, so we decided to make every album title a palindrome.
HMS: That’s so crazy and a great explanation! The “singularity” is something that’s being talked about in the song “Black Holes” and that seems to be the turning point that holds the two sides of time together. The song is so cool because it almost feels like a statement of intent from the band, or a core idea of identity.
EW: I didn’t really do it on purpose, but “all for all and one for all” was a reference to the idea that when we’re improvising, the best stuff happens when we’re all listening to each other at the same time. “All for one and one for all” is also what happens when you encounter a black hole and go through. It just becomes this one thing. There’s the line “You never fly until you learn to fall…into a black hole.”
HMS: I just realized that “all for one, and one for all” is a syntax palindrome. That may be why it sticks in the mind in culture. This song also has a cool video with a lot of live play. Is this footage from the recording studio?
EW: Yes. For the past couple albums, we set up GoPros in the studio the whole time, and it ended up being really distracting. This time, we thought we’d just record one or two songs on video. That was the one we chose to film, and we filmed “Think”, so there’s a little bit of footage of both songs. Out friend Curtis Peele, who previously did an animated video, just happened to be at the studio while we were there, and we asked him to film it.
HMS: You have quite the extreme keyboard set up in the video! I wasn’t expecting this spacepod like surrounding set up. Is that all your stuff?
EW: There’s extra stuff in there than what I usually have. I do travel with way too much and use way too much stuff life. I have way too many keyboards. But our drummer always tries to get me to add more keyboards. He wants me to expand at all times.
HMS: Do you take your keyboards on planes? I hear that’s really difficult.
EW: I don’t fly with my stuff because it’s all old. I have a Hammond Organ and I would never fly with it. If I was going to fly, I’d have to rent an organ. Pretty much the only thing I fly with is my Synth, my little Moog.
HMS: How do you all feel about particular shows? Do you think of each show as a separate moment in time, so you want each performance to be different from the others?
EW: Yes, we’re definitely into that. If we do a four-night run in a particular region, we will try not to have any repeats. We are a jam band, and every show is completely different. The goal is to listen to each other, find unique moments, and play off of each other. We try to connect with the songs together and we try to do it without even saying anything, but we have these talk-back mics that we use on stage every once in a while.
We approach that in the style of Phish and the Dead. I realized a long time ago that playing the same set every time is not for me. Some people are into crafting the perfect set, and that’s true for many of the biggest bands in the world. That way they know what the product will be every time. Because there’s so much improv in a jam band, not every performance is going to be amazing. I always compare it to basketball. An amazing team has some games where they aren’t making their shots, you can’t avoid it. Basketball is improv as well. But not being totally planned also allows the freedom for amazing things to happen. You have to have the risk to reach the special moments.
HMS: How do the related animated videos for “Building a Time Machine” work? There’s one that relates to the song “Think” and there’s one that relates to the song “Grow”. And a third that relates to the song “Black Holes”.
EW: They are by Tandem Media. Basically, the way that all came about is that we knew that we wanted some cool animated stuff, and we wondered if we should do some small animation elements for all the songs.
HMS: If you watch all the animations together, do they form a kind of feature or collage?
EW: Yes, the idea is that it will loop as a movie from start to finish. It won’t be the length of the album, but it loops.
HMS: I can hear sound relationships between the songs on the album that also reinforce the concept relationships. Some songs are more similar than others. “Black Holes”, “Think”, and “Grow” have close sound relationships. Some songs are a little more independent, like “Made a Design” and “Time Is Funny”. How much do you try to plan sound?
EW: Having all the extra time to work on this album allowed us not to feel rushed. We laid out a bunch of layers on things we ordinarily might not have. I try to get everyone involved in the writing. For the last song, “Time Is Funny”, Rob [Compa]wrote the whole thing. For “Made a Design”, Rob and I wrote that together. “Enough” is one where Rob wrote the whole thing, which I love. “Fannie” is one that we wrote as a group around a campfire. I don’t really think too much about sound. We just try to make as much material as we can and then cut a few things until the group of songs seem right.
For me, it goes “Think”, then “Building a Time Machine”, then you have the time machine, so you have to go through the “Black Hole”. Then, once you’re through the black hole, it’s like you’re traveling around. With “Velcro”, you’re almost in a 70s night club or something. We realized it was kind of telling a story. “Made a Design” is the part of the musical where the lead character is delivering their monolog, with the spotlight on them, and saying what they learned.
HMS: The lyrics are really specific on that one.
EW: Those lyrics were actually written a long time ago, when we were doing all the time-traveller concept stuff. There’s also “Happy Accident” was a jam that we did in the studio and liked. It was also a nod to Bob Ross who talks about a lot of this stuff with art, being a vehicle for a lot of emotional processing. It’s the idea of being in the present moment while you’re doing art.
04/20/2022 / Sony Hall / New York, NY
04/28/2022 / Elevation 27 / Virginia Beach, VA
04/28/2022 – 05/01/2022 / Some Kind Of Jam 16 / Kempton, PA
04/29/2022 / Luckinghole Creek Brewery / Goochland, VA
05/13/2022 – 05/14/2-22 / Hookahville / Newark, OH
05/27/2022 – 05/29/2022 / Summer Camp Music Festival / Chillicothe, IL
06/15/2022 / SummerStage in Central Park / New York, NY**
06/17/2022 Beardfest / Hammonton, NJ
06/18/2022 / College Street Music Hall / New Haven, CT**
06/19/2022 / The Palladium / Worcester, MA**
06/30/2022 / Salvage Station / Asheville, NC**
07/02/2022 / The Caverns / Pelham, TN**
08/11/2022 / Mesa Amphitheater / Phoenix, AZ**
08/17/2022 / YouTube Theater / Inglewood, CA**
08/19/2022 / Mountain Winery / Saratoga, CA**
08/20/2022 / Blue Lake Casino / Blue Lake, CA**
08/21/2022 / Charles Krug Winery / Napa, CA**
** supporting George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic