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When Dinowalrus released their debut % [editor’s note – that’s the name of the record, not a typo] in 2010, the band wasn’t met with the warmest welcome to the scene. Now, the three-piece dance-rock outfit from Brooklyn has organized their songwriting process, become comfortable with their gear, and released their follow-up Best Behavior. The latest record shows off the band’s talent for multitasking in the studio with synths, distortion and experimental techniques on their equipment, resulting in a custom brew of psychedelic acid-pop electronica in its most cohesive form.
But despite the talent, luck and success haven’t always followed suit for the band. Performer talks with guitarist Pete Feigenbaum about Dinowalrus’ development since the last record, the gear they depend on to get their signature sound, and Feigenbaum’s honest frustration with today’s indie music scene.
Dinowalrus’ first full length, %, was criticized for being a bit all over the place musically, and you had suggested it was because you were trying to place too many influences onto one album. What did you do differently to make the new album more cohesive?
Well, for one thing, it was a really different lineup. All of my old band mates quit, which is probably for the better. Also, it took a lot longer to write songs back then. Three years ago it would take us four months to track a song, and now it takes three weeks. Also, an important part of our band aesthetically is the way we deal in historical references in surprising ways. The first album was very eclectic because there were obviously a lot of styles that, musically, we had never tried before, so we felt that we had to explore them or else be forever curious. We took some flack for that eclecticism on our first album, so maybe we responded to that by honing in on a focus for our follow up. And since we covered so many different styles on the first album, we didn’t feel personally obligated to revisit things that didn’t work or were no longer interesting to us. We could feel comfortable crossing a lot of things off our list.
On songwriting: “Ever since we got Ableton last summer, I noticed my songwriting efficiency has gone through the roof, just because I’m able to organize my ideas, and I’m able to take riffs into larger arrangements really fast.”
What were the influences you decided to stick with?
There has always been this thread of dance music played by live bands in Brooklyn, most notably the dance-punk thing that happened around 2002 exemplified by Liars and The Rapture. We didn’t want to retread that, but we were interested in exploring new ways of playing dance or groove music with a live band, so we thought looking back to Baggy/Madchester [editor’s note – British dance scenes] would be an innovative way to do this. We made a conscious effort to sculpt our beats and synth tones to be in line with this overarching theme, on songs where it made sense. Our riffs will always come from an abstract and improvisational place, but I think it’s important for us to always have an overarching lodestone for where we want to be with riffs, stylistically.
What led to the reduction in time it took to track?
A lot of things: being fast in the studio to save money, knowing what we wanted to do, and just being comfortable with certain synth and guitar tones that we knew would work time and time again. And Ableton [music software]. Ever since we got Ableton last summer, I noticed my songwriting efficiency has gone through the roof, just because I’m able to organize my ideas, and I’m able to take riffs into larger arrangements really fast. So it’s a combination of that and just knowing what we were after, being able to find shortcuts and being really comfortable with our gear.
What type of equipment are you using?
The SR-16 drum machine has some pretty good sounds, especially for house-y congas, bongos and shakers. But now we’ll just throw all those SR-16 loops onto Max’s [drums] new SPD-S drum pad after we program them. Guitar is pretty straightforward. I have a Fender Cyclone II, which I’ve had for many years. It’s a late-’90s hybrid model that has a Mustang body, Stratocaster hardware, and Jaguar pickups. A lot of the Dinowalrus sound is in this cheap delay/echo pedal, the Ibanez DE-7. Our mainstay synth is the Roland Juno-60. Also Liam [synths] uses the SP-404 sampler now; that’s a recent upgrade. He runs the two synths, the sampler and an optical Theremin through a mini-mixer, and also plays bass on certain songs.
On creativity: “We’re following our own muse and aren’t really concerned with fitting in with any subculture that’s currently going on, so it makes solidarity hard to find.”
You guys are already working on a new record. Why did you decide to begin writing your next album before Best Behavior was even released?
Things have been really slow. We’re not getting show or tour opportunities, sad to say. We thought the best thing we could do now as far as morale goes was to write a new record, to just stay excited internally. Nationally the indie music scene is in bad shape. We have a great press campaign, but I don’t think we’ve ever been that buzzy or popular so these nice SPIN track posts and Pitchfork reviews we’ve been getting aren’t translating into shows or tours.
Part of why we’re writing this new record is because we didn’t want to get bogged down emotionally in anticipating success for Best Behavior that might not happen. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you can’t engineer your own success. Everybody I know who’s in a successful band is talented – but they’re not geniuses, either. They just got lucky as far as timing. That’s part of why I think we just have to keep writing and recording as much as we can afford to do, and hope that what we want to make and what the world wants to hear miraculously aligns.
How does this attitude about success affect the production of the next record?
I guess I have no real expectations for this third album. It’ll come out when it comes out, probably sometime in 2013, and we obviously think it’s the best thing we could have created at this time. My expectations have been lowered in a healthy way. I’m just not gonna get too caught mentally up in the industry side of things anymore. But being blissfully oblivious and detached from what’s going on around you isn’t good, either.
Then you don’t have a fire under your ass, and you don’t go out and hustle. But I’m also going to lower the bar for myself so not to be disappointed from here on out. This record [Best Behavior] ended up coming out with a pretty significant time and fewer resources behind it in terms of a budget for recording, manufacturing and press. I’m stoked that we found a UK label for it, but I had to spend a lot of my own money to make it happen. It’s real brutal. So all I can do moving forward is to lower my expectations and keep my day job.
With how you feel about the music industry, and the state of indie music in particular, will you continue writing music despite your frustration?
Oh, for sure. I feel more motivated and efficient than ever before on the writing and recording end of things. Unfortunately, Dinowalrus isn’t the type of band that could build a fanbase slowly and gradually by playing a circuit of bars and college towns over and over, and our music doesn’t really have a built-in underground network around it, like the hardcore scene does. If we are ever successful, it will be through the media, not from slogging through endless basement DIY tours. We’re following our own muse and aren’t really concerned with fitting in with any subculture that’s currently going on, so it makes solidarity hard to find. So right now, it makes the most sense to retreat and work on a new album even though it’s costing us money we already don’t have. It’s therapeutic. It’s really all we can do to move forward.
Photos by Stephen Reganato for Performer Magazine