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Interview: Eli Winderman (Dopapod)

27 May 2022

Photo by Michael Weintraub

It’s hard to pigeonhole a band like Dopapod as they incorporate so many different sounds and styles in their music. While rooted in the jam band scene, the band’s seventh full-length studio album, Dopapod, bounces from progressive rock (“Think”) to disco-funk (“Velcro”) to late-night jams (“Fannie”) to melodic rock (“Black Holes”) to intergalactic explorations (“Happy Accident”).

Eli Winderman (keys, vocals) recently joined me a few days before Record Store Day to discuss the album, what it was like working on music during the COVID lockdown, not taking things too seriously, throwing random covers into sets and much, much more.

Does Dopapod get involved with Record Store Day, put out anything special?

ELI: We haven’t done anything like that. But, we should have done that with this album because the vinyl packaging is extra special.

What about personally? Do you buy vinyl? Are you the type of collector who will get in line at 4am in hopes of adding something to your collection?

ELI: I don’t do the line thing. I do love listening to vinyl and have a pretty good collection. It takes music to the next level to be able to hold it in your hand and see the art way bigger. It has some weight to it, it’s nice. I’m a big fan of vinyl. Our new album has this really cool green splatter design. It looks amazing.

The new Dopapod album does have extensive packaging, it’s very visual. And, there’s a board game that’s part of it as well.

ELI: Yeah, we made a board game. It’s actually really fun to play. It’s a dice game. It incorporates all of our past albums. Each space on the board game is a song from a past album. With each song, there’s mini competition games in there.

Did the game idea come out of COVID boredom or had you thought about doing this for a while?

ELI: I think it was kind of a subconscious thing, I’m sure. We were all very bored at the start of COVID. Our former light and sound guy, at the start of COVID, he started making maps for Dungeons and Dragons. He started a Patreon for that and it took off immediately. It blew up. He was already starting to make stuff like that I forget exactly how the idea came up to make a Dopapod board game but it was just over a Zoom call that we were like, “What if somebody opens up the vinyl and there’s a board game? Oh my God!” We started throwing ideas around and one thing led to another.

I do appreciate the resurgence of vinyl because, growing up, I loved looking at album art, reading liner notes, having the whole experience. It was way more than just hitting play. You don’t get that same experience listening to music on your phone.

ELI: I agree completely. It just invites the listener into this little world that you’re able to curate every detail, every part of the experience. That’s the part that’s really missing with streaming. The liner notes are this whole area where you can write whatever you want and format it in any way you want. I miss it. I think a lot of people are asking for CDs again because even with CDs you got liner notes and a lot of cars still have CD players. I think we’ll release the new album on CD. But, yeah, especially the older vinyl, liner notes were such a cool thing and it’s awesome that it’s coming back.

Though you haven’t done a special Record Store Day release yet, is there Dopapod stuff that is begging for a reissue or are there live shows that you might consider putting out?

ELI: It’s in the works that we want to some of our past album that never made it to vinyl. That’s always been in the works but we haven’t gotten to that yet. There are a few of our older albums that I’d like to turn into vinyl. We made those albums before the vinyl thing happened and the albums are over an hour long so it would be a triple or quadruple vinyl and the art for one of the albums is hard to find. I asked the artist if he still had it and he said, “It’s on a drive somewhere, I have to find it.” And then he found it and the file is corrupted. I think that was the hold up the last time we talked about doing putting an older album out on vinyl. It is really cool to have the real vinyl these days and we’re definitely going to try to do more of that in the future.

Dopapod is built around live shows and touring. You took a break in 2018, you come out of the break and just get back into touring when you’re put into a forced break because of COVID. How difficult was that for you?

ELI: The hiatus we took in 2018 was sort of a dress rehearsal for the pandemic because we were so used to touring non-stop. We went to school, then we met each other, then we started the band and we hit the road super hard. We played 150+ shows a year for the first seven years. I think we all got burned out on it and we were all like, “Let’s take this year off (2018), reset, refocus, come back.” We came back in 2019 with a limited schedule, we were like, “Let’s not go full in just yet, let’s ease into it, try to do less shows that are bigger.” That totally worked and it was awesome. And then in March 2020, we had this whole tour booked. It was like, “Back to the road, back to the full tour thing.” We all know what happened there. The pandemic was, in some ways, harder just because at least when we took 2018 off, we could still do other gigs, go to shows, go to sporting events. The pandemic was this whole new level of taking away things that we were used to having. It was hard, but I think that if we had known that the pandemic was coming, in 2018 we probably would have been like, “Yeah, let’s keep going for two more years. We’re fine.” We weren’t that burned out. It’s unfortunate it happened but I think we learned to not take things for granted quite as much. There was a bit of a silver lining there.

Having more time than you knew what to do with, were you productive during the lockdown?

ELI: Just knowing that nothing else was going on, I was getting in a lot more practice time and I got way more complex with it. “Alright, I got all my scales but what if I put all my scales in thirds and all my skills in fifths? And now, let’s do all the scales in this pattern.” I got very nitty gritty with a lot of that stuff.

And, I was able to write a lot of music. This album was actually already done, we finished it right when the pandemic hit. We still had to mix it, but, other than that, it was ready to go. A lot of this stuff is new to a lot of our fans but there’s a lot of stuff that isn’t brand new for us as a band. We have a lot of new, new stuff that we wrote during the pandemic and in the last six months. We’re really excited for this album but we’re really excited for the next album too. You just gotta keep going, keep making stuff. That’s the whole point of being able to be an artist. That’s the reason you do it, you just continue to push yourself and evolve. I feel like the fans that care, they see what you’re doing and they see if you stop, they see if you’re not doing anything new. So, I try to continue to work all the time and make stuff as much as I possibly can. I don’t like to force it. You can force it but when you feel like you want to do it, that’s the best time to just write as much as you can. I love that process. I love to be creating. It’s a rush. I’m addicted to creating and evolving. I feel like if I’m not evolving, I get this angsty feeling. “What am I doing? I need to transcribe a solo!”

Have you started going back out to shows? We’re not in a post-pandemic world but I’d call it more of a post-vaccine-availability world.

ELI: Yeah. I trust science. I got the vaccine. I got the booster. I got COVID and I was very lucky, I was okay. I feel like we’ve got to live our lives. It was a long time where we couldn’t do anything so I’m going to go do stuff now. I’ve been going to a bunch of shows. I went to John Mayer, that was awesome. I actually went to John Mayer on Friday and Tool on Sunday. It was the most interesting, opposite crowd situation ever. Both shows were so amazing.

Even though the new Dopapod album is just coming out, do you think you’ll follow it up quicker because you’ve already got songs ready for the next album or will you go through the whole promotional cycle for this one before you start recording?

ELI: It’s possible. I don’t think we’re in this massive rush at this exact moment but we have been talking about going into the studio soon, in the next couple of months and starting but not a huge rush. I just listened to this Red Hot Chili Peppers podcast and they write 50 songs every time they make an album. I was like, “50? Shit. I do like 20, 25 and then that cuts down to 10.” If we wrote 50, what could we make?

We’re a live band. I feel like we have good albums and we’re very proud of them but we’re definitely along the lines of Phish or the Grateful Dead where the songs are the vehicle for us to just express ourselves with the improv. That’s our main focus, to be in the present moment with each other, listening to each other, creating on the spot. For the fans, that’s why people want to come to multiple shows because you never know what you’re going to get. On any night, you can get a special version of this song or that song, for whatever reason. It might be that it just happened the way the jam unfolded and expanded. It’s almost like baseball cards, trying to collect these special moments from the shows. I think that’s how the jam band thing is. The average band has their set that they play. The screens and the lights are synchronized to this perfect thing that has been curated. That is more consistent and effective more often, but we love being on the tightrope and taking chances and taking risks. That’s what we love to do.

We’ll probably release a live album in the fall, that’s what I’m working on now, trying to pick the live tracks that we want to remix.

With social media, you can read instant reviews of shows and quickly discover if a band is sticking with a script by playing the same set list or telling the same stories between songs on every stop on the tour. You can’t get away with saying, “This is the first time we’ve ever played this song” for the same song as you go from city to city.

ELI: It’s a new world, it’s much more transparent now, especially for a band like ours because we put up every show on and Bandcamp the day after the show. If people aren’t at the show, they can still check it out and see what we played and even hear us playing those songs. You can’t repeat setlists too much because people get bored of what you’re doing. You have to keep people on their toes and keep trying new stuff and not be too safe. That’s what we try to do. We try not to take it super serious. Well, we do take what we do seriously, we prepare, we practice and we want to sound as good as possible. But, it’s not like we have to play the perfect show and feature all of these different songs because that’s what people want. We think about what we want to do, what is going to make us feel good and hopefully people feed off seeing us enjoying ourselves. It’s like when you watch a basketball team having fun. I love basketball and when you see a team that’s in the zone, they’re smiling and making cool passes and everyone’s aware, I feel like I get something from that.

The bands that don’t make mistakes, that don’t have fun on stage, you might as well just watch a recording on YouTube.

ELI: I agree. It’s cool when a band makes mistakes and can laugh about it. It’s like, “Okay, cool.” When you see a band make a mistake and the guy shoots a look over at the other guy, like, “What???” You’re like, “This is weird” and you want to leave immediately. But, when it’s people having fun together and there’s a mistake, it’s like, “No one is getting hurt from a mistake. It’s okay.”

Going back to basketball games, I’ve seen people miss shots, miss dunks and that’s part of the fun. The anticipation building and you’re wondering, “Is he going to do it this time?” And then he misses and you’re like, “Okay, I’ll keep watching to see if he tries again.”

ELI: You have way more respect for someone that is able to control their emotions to the point where they are embarrassed a little bit that they missed the dunk but they are like, “Eh, I missed a dunk. No big deal.” It feels much better to observe that from the outside, especially if you’re a big fan of a team. You get to know the different personalities.

No band has a great show every show, it’s inevitable you’re going to have an off night for whatever reason, but you can still try to remember to enjoy yourself. We’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos on this past tour because we were finally able to get a tour bus. It was the greatest thing ever. We would just sit on the bus and watch YouTube videos and go down rabbit holes of live music performances. We were watching a live Ween video from probably the early 2000s. I think it was from Stubbs and there was a 30-minute guitar solo and he’s just like shredding in front of thousands of people. It’s not a perfectly choreographed, rehearsed show. It’s this guy that’s just up there expressing himself and not caring what anyone thinks, not in a way where he’s like, “I don’t care if this sounds good or not” but just being free in front of a crowd. I think it’s really liberating for people to watch other people release themselves from expectations and just enjoy themselves in the moment. That’s all we have, the present moment with your friends. You never know when it’s all going to go away.

There’s a lot of bands that will throw a cover song into the set but they do it every show. It seems like you guys will cover anything and everything and try different covers all the time so it’s truly unexpected. Do you notice when you start to play a cover when the crowd catches on?

ELI: Yes! That exact thing just happened. We played a Phish after-party in New York City. A week or two ago, I had this idea. “We should do ‘Takin’ Care of Business’ but like techno/funky.” I just heard it in my head. “Working overtime / Work out.” I made the demo and thought, “This is going to be fun.” We started playing it at the show and I could see people thinking, “This is cool, what song is it?” And as soon as I sang the first couple of words, people were like going, “OH MY GOD!” They started singing along. I didn’t think people would know what it was so fast. I realized the guitar riff is the first thing you recognize. I understand what it’s like to be at a concert, even if you’re a fan of the band, when a band you like plays a song that you know that you’re not expecting, and they do it in their own way, it’s extra cool. I used to get frustrated at that. No matter how great original stuff you play, if you play a cover instead, that’s what everybody is going to love. But, now I’ve just accepted that’s the way it is.

You can tell someone’s age by whether or not they recognize a cover song. I’m betting most of your audience isn’t my age and may not know “Takin’ Care of Business”.

ELI: You’d be amazed. That’s why I thought it would be a cool idea because people know the song but they don’t really know the song. But, I learned, people know the song better than me. They knew all the words. I messed up a line and they all sang it.

When it comes to pulling off a perfect performance, I saw the Eagles recently and that was note-for-note perfection.

ELI: We love the Eagles. We went through a deep Eagles rabbit hole on the bus. We got really into them. The vocals are insane, the harmonies. Don Henley’s voice is incredible.

It’s interesting that bands like Primus, Fishbone, Infectious Grooves, Mr. Bungle are mentioned as influences in some of your press material as those bands, while some are still around, are considered ’90s bands.

ELI: Fishbone used to be one of the main bands. Chili Peppers used to open for them. Every band used to open for Fishbone. We’re doing a tour with George Clinton and Fishbone is on a bunch of the West Coast dates so we’re going to open for Fishbone, then Karl Denson Trio will play and then George Clinton. It’s such an honor, it’s crazy for us. We kind of fit in that lineup. The thing about us is that we’re multiple things at the same time. We can put on a show that’s on the funkier side but we also have some progressive rock elements, some techno, some country, bluegrass, reggae, it’s all over the place.

You play all sorts of venues, from clubs to theaters to festival stages to cruise ships. Do you have a favorite?

ELI: I love playing big rooms that have a lot of energy. But, you lose some of the clarity in the big rooms. That’s why you hear a lot of bands slow down because it sounds better tin a big room to play slow. Small rooms I don’t like when you have to set everything up on a tiny stage and there’s no room to do anything. What I love is the middle ground, when it’s a 1,000-person theater. It has the big feel but you get the clarity of the sound. And, I love playing outside. That solves all the problems. Big stage, no walls, so it’s crystal clear. America just has so many amazing scenes, venues, communities that really support bands like ours.

In the jam scene, how important is it to cultivate a following? How much time do you spend on that end of things?

ELI: Every time I’ve met any one of our fans, I’ve thought, “I can actually hang out with these people. They’re cool. They’re smart.” I think us, as people, we lean towards the nerdier side. We have a song that is called “Nerds” and the only words in it are “No words”. We do things like that that are strange, weird, funny. We like to have a sense of humor in our stuff. We take the music seriously but not ourselves. We’ve been touring since 2009 and we’ve built up a nice family around the band. Some people we don’t see as much as we used to because they have kids and other things going on. And there’s a whole new wave of people coming in. That’s just the way it is. You’re not going to have everybody there all the time but we have a pretty solid network all over the country and even all over the world. I met these guys in Portugal who are huge fans of ours and they have a band that took some of our riffs and rewrote them as their own. It’s so cool to me, it blew my mind. And they are so cool, we were hanging out with them for a while. I feel like what we do is really weird and it amazes me that there is that many people that care. We’re not the biggest band but it’s quality over quantity as this point. I’m really happy with where we’re at and feel very lucky.