No looking back for Dope Body

Reggie McCafferty

“Lifers don’t really choose to become lifers, they just become them,” Dope Body’s Andrew Laumann explains. “You only realize you’re a lifer once you’re too far down the road of being one. I think that was the thing we all realized, that we’ve put too much into this and lived too hard of a life to really know how to go back from it.”

After nearly a year-long hiatus, the Baltimore quintet is getting ready to release their third LP. The album, aptly titled Lifer, marks the band’s renewed dedication to making music. With the break, they were able to reassess their commitments, realizing that they had no option but move forward with the band. “I’m this far down the fucking line with this band, I can’t just let it go now,” Laumann says. “I can’t just let it wither away. If it’s going to die, I want it to die a violent death.”

With Lifer, Dope Body moves ever closer to capturing the intensity of their live performance. While the album will almost certainly draw all the familiar 90’s alt rock comparisons, it possesses a depth that was lacking in the band’s earlier material. There’s a newfound emphasis on structure and pacing, their sound managing an impressive level of coherence as it moves between grunge, post punk, noise and electronica.

I recently caught up with vocalist Andrew Laumann to talk about the bands evolving sound, his work as a visual artist and the struggles of being in a touring band in 2014. 

Lifer seems to have a much liver feel to it than the past couple records you guys have done. What did you do differently this time from the production end of things?

We’re not really a studio record band we’ve noticed with the past records. We were never really happy with the results, but mainly because of over reactive producers who kind of presented the studio as a candy shop rather than the place to kind of understand who we are as a live band. A lot of producers didn’t ever really know what we were about live.

So with this record we didn’t do any overdubs aside from a few vocals here and there. We played the record three or four times a day in the studio for four days and then picked the best takes from the sessions. It’s definitely not as a raw and energetic as a live show, but we wanted to make the record sound like we could do it live, because the other records always sounded so different live. It has a little more of that energy and the fuckups, but its kind of nice in that way. So that was kind of the aim of this record production wise.

How about from a songwriting perspective? Were there things that you were trying to change up from the previous material?

It’s hard to say if we consciously did anything differently. When the last record was put out, our new bass player had joined the band two weeks before we were going to record. We taught him all the songs in like two days, he jumped on tour with us and then we came home and recorded the album right away. Then we basically went on tour for a year after that. So we didn’t’ really write too much new material at the time.

We kind of work in the clutch moment, when we know we have to write songs. It’s not hard for us to write, it’s hard for us to write and play a song more than once or twice. Usually we’ll write something, do it in the studio for a couple hours then it’ll just sit there never to be heard again. Things just kind of happen. This album is definitely a stronger songwriting-based record. I think we were concentrating on being a little less goofy this time around.

The songs seem to have more of a structure to them than anything before.

Yeah the other songs were kind of like Frankenstein-sandwiched together. We’d take three parts that were different but sandwich them together somehow. That was kind of our writing practice for a while.

Lifer is a little more straightforward, classic rock, rock n’ roll but still noisy. I think we were just reacting creatively without thinking about how it sounded for a long time. Then when we wouldn’t want to play half the album after writing it, it would be frustrating. So we kind of just make songs that we liked to play a little bit more now.

Some of the other stuff we’ve written over the past six months has been a lot different from the record, either a lot heavier or a lot more electronic based. I don’t think we’ll ever really pigeonhole ourselves as a sound, I think every record sort of has its own sound.

What sorts of bills do you guys typically play?

I try to keep the booking pretty heavily on experimental or hip-hop and there are some rock n’ roll bands that we’re friends with. I just don’t like to get pulled into the whole nineties revival bullshit aesthetic that people try to pitch and pull bands with. Besides I’m not going to have fun going to a room full of teenage, early 20’s boys in hoodies standing around in a circle looking at us. I want people to dance, I want people to have fun and that usually means that you have to play different kinds of bills, whether people understand it or not.

In Baltimore we’re kind of spoiled because there’s such an eclectic scene with different types of bands and people will come out to it. In most other cities that’s not necessarily the case, people usually just leave for the bands they don’t like and come in for the thing they do want to see. And there’s just a lack of actual bands anymore. We’ve played so many shows where the DJ got paid more than us and we drove there a couple hundred miles in a van full of gear and four dudes. I think people care less about live music in general so it’s kind of frustrating as someone who is portraying a dying art in that way.

Do you feel like that sort of disinterest in live music extends abroad as well, or is more of just an American thing? 

It’s definitely mostly an American thing because electronic music has been huge over in Europe for such a long time. Maybe we’re spoiled because we’re an American band and people put forth a little more effort to come and see us. But it’ll be our first show in some middle of nowhere town in Germany and there will be more people there than our Pittsburgh shows and we’ve been playing Pittsburgh for so many years. Americans really are spoiled with music. Everyone only wants to pay $5 and there’s no way to support it.

We’re all growing adults, we’ve been doing this since our early 20’s and now we’re 27, 28. You do that for so many years and you give up so much of your financial security, all of our relationships have deteriorated, with girlfriends or friends. There are so many things that you take for granted when you don’t dedicate your life to some sort of traveling circus like we do. And it’s just frustrating to see… not that we think we’re going to make it, or make it our job… I don’t know I guess you can’t expect anything, but it’s just frustrating.

But if its something you care about, then all the sacrifices must be worth it in a way?

That’s kind of like the concept of the album Lifer. Lifers don’t really choose to become lifers, they just become them. You only realize you’re a lifer once you’re too far down the road of being one. I think that was the thing we all realized, that we’ve put too much into this and lived too hard of a life to really know how to go back from it.

There’s also the fact that we’re maybe doubtful of it’s future and it’s kind of a double meaning in that way because maybe we’re not lifers. I don’t know if we’ll be doing this forever, I don’t know how long it can sustain itself. We’re all getting older, we’ve all been friends since high school. It’s only a matter of time for boys of our age, especially at this time in our lives, to not get along anymore.

You guys toured for about a year straight and gone all over the world. Are the tours that you’re booking DIY tours?

Not always. They’d probably be more fun if they were a little more DIY. They kind of became more club based and that got pretty stale because a lot of our fans and friends that we’d want to play with don’t go to clubs. I don’t want to be in a club, I don’t really go to clubs to see bands in Baltimore even. Most of the shows I want to go see are in DIY spaces.

I think that’s a problem as you get to a certain point with a record company and a booking agent and guarantees. Also the fact that you’re traveling and you have to make a certain amount of money. So you don’t get to play these kinds of places and instead you’re in a city that you might usually have a pretty good crowd at and you’re at some bar and no one really wants to play $12 to get in and then pay $5 for a beer. Of course not. So you’re still struggling the same way that you were with DIY tours but you’re just not playing DIY tours anymore.

Every tour is a struggle. We lose money every tour. I think there’s the perception that we make money because we’re on a label, we’ve toured a bunch but it’s completely a labor of love. We each personally lose hundreds of dollars if not thousands of dollars on a tour, just out of going to Europe even just a US tour. We all have to pitch in when the band doesn’t make the money. It’s like a job you have to pay to go to.

Why do you guys choose to work with booking agents and labels then if it’s means you can’t play the shows you want and it’s still not financially viable at the end of the day?

Money. It has to pay for itself. None of us have trust funds, when we were touring for a year as soon as we’d come back we’d go right to work as long as our jobs were letting us do that. Gas is expensive, renting a van is expensive, feeding four people… You can do a DIY tour once a year as a vacation but if you’re a working band and you have people who expect you to keep going on tour and doing all these things you have to figure out some way to make it pay for itself.

Every time you make a record you’re in debt to the label, you’re in debt to your booking agents, once you’re in a band at a certain level it’s not just the four of you anymore, it’s the fifteen of you. All these people who are counting on what we do and expecting all these other things out of us, and there’s no material support for it. If the label wants a video they don’t give us money for it. We have to do it, we have to do everything for it. Everything has to be done for us and that has to be paid for either by us or by shows. And like I said it’s increasingly difficult to make that happen with the fact that people don’t really like to see live music as much and would rather go to a DJ night. Or just the fact that people can exist on the internet and not necessarily have to be a participant in real life to be a participant in an underground scene.

But it seems like the labels are just digging a hole for you. If the labels aren’t helping you make more money than you would otherwise, then what is the benefit of working with them?

They front the money. They front the money, they print the records, they know all the PR people that put it out. Drag City is very chill as far as labels go, but we’re just not a priority for them in the way that Ty Segull or Bill Callahan or somebody is even though we’re one of like ten touring bands they have on their roster. I don’t fault them for that, they totally are just doing business that is smart for them and that’s why they’ve stayed a DIY-sort of label for the past 25 years. I trust them, they are only looking out for themselves, and I think that at a certain point we have to as well.

We took a break for a while to reassess what we were actually doing. You tour for years and you’re still just broke, broke, broke, broke, broke. It’s really hard to pay your bills. Your girlfriend leaves you because you’re not home half the year. You spend too much time together and you don’t talk anymore. I think that’s just the frustrations of the modern band.

Do you feel like there is a financially viable model of doing a band on a smaller scale without being part of a more mainstream circuit?

Yeah just don’t do it all the time. There’s no way to tour all the time and not go broke unless you have a lot of fans who come out to your shows. It’s pretty hard for a band from the East Coast to tour to the West Coast. After Chicago you’re basically making 8 to 10 hour drives for maybe $150 or $200 guarantees which doesn’t even pay for the gas, let alone food, with no place to stay, and it’s just a job. People don’t see it like a job, but it’s totally a job. You get to play your music and rock out but that doesn’t mean it always works out. The more you do it, the more you scrutinize your own art.

I think a certain amount of media support or hype kind of helps that to an extent. But it really depends on the town, I’ve seen a couple of bigger name Pitchfork bands come through Baltimore and there are only 10 people at their shows. But I don’t know what allows a band to be successful enough to continue on to the level that the media, or fans or labels expect them to.

It’s only getting harder. Everyone’s wages are low, even the people coming out to the show. Most labels only start because someone either has a trust fund or is a drug dealer and most great bands only last 3 to 5 years in my opinion. There are only so many years you can really do it without it either imploding or exploding. But I still love playing, I still get off on it more than I can get off on anything else, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t extenuating factors that kind of make it harder to do it.

What do you do outside the band? I read somewhere that you’re a visual artist as well?

I kind of do a little bit of everything. I’ve been involved in making films, I just started making my own films but I’m mainly a painter and sculptor. I didn’t go to art school, I’m not trained in anything I’ve just kind of picked up things along the way and have been lucky enough to associate with other people who are higher up in the art world and have given me opportunities.

I keep myself pretty busy outside of playing in a band. My main focus really is being an artist. I’m not a musician; this is my first band and it’s more of a performance extension of my art than anything else. I don’t’ really consider myself a musician at all; I just happen to be on stage.

Do you direct the music videos that Dope Body makes?

I’ve been collaborating with a filmmaker named Theo Anthony to create a bunch of pseudo-mockumentary/ documentary kind of things with people I grew up with and they’re all based around the idea of being a lifer. We have one done for “Repo Man” and I think that’ll premier next week. We’re working on another one when he gets back from Africa in December. I take on all the art direction for Dope Body because I’m probably the most fickle about it and I have the most experience in it. I really wouldn’t trust anyone else doing it. That’s my role outside of being the front man, to take care of all the visual art, all the flyers, all the t-shirts, all that stuff.

Does it feel like there’s a strong music community in Baltimore right now?

Not as much anymore mainly because a lot of the warehouse scene has stopped having shows due to the media blowing up the spot. For us, there are only three places to play in Baltimore and we’ve kind of played them out. They aren’t very fun to play as it is unfortunately.

I think the warehouse scene worked because there was a big support from the Maryland Institute College of Art of kids who wanted to go to shows, who wanted to go crazy. Your band could play every weekend at the Copy Cat and there would be 200 people going nuts for you even though you just started. I think that gave a lot of bands confidence and gave a lot of bands a reputation on a national scale where people were writing about this crazy phenomenon that was happening in Baltimore.

There are still new bands coming out but they’re not really from the same cloth that was happening before. I don’t really go to that many shows in Baltimore these days, I think mainly just because I toured so much and saw so many shows that I was kind of over going to shows. When you tour half the year you see enough bands and sometimes there are other things in life to do than going to shows.

You guys have a reputation for having pretty intense live performances. Ideally what sort of crowd reaction are you looking for?

I mean I like to be surprised. Surprisingly enough we get a lot of circle pits at our shows which I think is funny because I don’t see our music being that hardcore. But I’d rather people just move around or if they want to dance or mosh and punch each other, as long as they’re doing something. I think that there are too many people just standing there or sitting on their phones that it’s a little lackluster. People are more concerned with getting a picture of the band than they are to actually watch it. During our performance I want to disrupt that and make it so people can’t really do that, so that you if you want to be in the crowd and watch you have to watch because someone might fly into your face, or I might fly into your face without even looking. I just want people to interact I don’t really care how they do it.

I feel like the band and the stage is the platform for me to do whatever the fuck I want. I scratch myself, I slap myself, I really let the crazy go out on stage and I hope that helps the crowd feel like they can let go because I’m letting go. I’m taking the role of the freak, I’m the weird guy dancing alone on the stage, so hopefully it’ll be a little bit easier for them to have a good time and not be so self-conscious.

You guys are going to go on tour again after the record comes out. What are your feelings as you get ready for that? Are you looking forward to being on the road again or anxious about leaving home?

A little bit of both. I’m excited to play more than once and then not play for a month. I’m worried about other things, just out of it working, or us working together. I’m willing to try it. I’m this far down the fucking line with this band, I can’t just let it go now. I can’t just let it wither away. If it’s going to die, I want it to die a violent death. I don’t want it to fade away. If we’re going to go out, I want to go out on our peak. I don’t want to stop when we’re old, dead and no one cares anymore.

The last US tour we did in September of 2013 did not go very well and it kind of made us reassess what our priorities were. We’re a much more popular band in Europe than we are in the States by far and if it was our way we would just tour there, but it’s not up to us. Everyone requires us to tour the US if we want to tour anywhere else, so that’s what we have to do.

We’ll see how these next tours go. Everything depends on our creativity together and how we get along. With that said I love playing shows. This band can’t exist without each of us. So I think there’s a certain specialness there and that’s why the shows are good because we’re all kind of fighting each other. When I’m screaming at the guitar player it’s because I’m pissed, I take all those feelings and put it out there on the stage. And maybe things are more frustrating now because we haven’t had the chance to all do that more. When you kind of play a lot on tour you get out a lot of that shit you’ve had pent up for a while. You can slam your guitar around or scream or just exhaust yourself to the point where you can’t be upset about the things you’re upset about. So I think this next tour will tell how we feel about it.

Dope Body’s Lifer is out October 21 on Drag City.

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