Dosh's World

Electronic one-man band Martin Dosh steps out of the background and into the spotlight

In a booth at a neighborhood pub in south Minneapolis, a slumped and bearded Martin Dosh is staring into his beer, tapping his fingers on the table, and talking about a coming performance at the Walker Art Center. It's an evening devoted entirely to his music. The May 3 event has a title, "The World of Dosh," and he's effectively been asked by the museum to curate a tribute to himself, with special appearances by past and current collaborators like whistling indie-rock song-master Andrew Bird and underground hip-hop phenomenon Jel.

"Trying to map it all out is fucking with me," says Dosh, shaking his head. "I'll need a stage manager or something."

Probably he won't. Dosh's art is multitasking.

Cameron Wittig
Cameron Wittig
Cameron Wittig
Cameron Wittig

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Hear Dosh's music with free MP3 downloads, some of them only available digitally at Citypages.com in our REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK, which also includes videos and a wealth of photos.

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Onstage and in the studio he makes his music, often alone, in what can best be understood as a cockpit. In the center is a swiveling drummer's stool, and with a push from one foot, he can turn to face a drum set, his vintage electric piano, or a small table with a tangle of cables, effects machines, and a synthesizer.

The catalog of Dosh's stage and studio collaborations reads like a record-store clerk's year-end best list: Andrew Bird, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Wilco, My Morning Jacket, Tapes 'n Tapes, Devendra Banhart, Peanut Butter Wolf, Happy Apple, the Bad Plus, the Jayhawks, Atmosphere—it goes on and on.

"He's been this enigmatic, brilliant figure in the background," says Philip Bither, curator for performing arts at the Walker. "He's somewhere between the worlds of experimental music and pop." Bither lists the genres Dosh's music and collaborations have inhabited: contemporary classical, electronic, improvisational jazz, hip hop, and rock. "He's somebody who can find links between all of those styles and do something fresh and intelligent," says Bither, "and that's rare."

Slowly, Dosh has been stepping to the fore. His next full-length under the Dosh moniker, Wolves and Wishes, is his fourth, but there is a sense—as his recordings and his performances evolve into ever more accomplished and complex endeavors—that he is just beginning.

Dosh has established something of a command and control center in the tiny basement of the single-family home he shares with his wife, Erin, his nine-year-old stepson, and his four-year-old son in the Powderhorn neighborhood.

"Welcome to my practice space slash laundry room," he says, descending the narrow stairs to his basement. He steps into his cockpit, hemmed in on all sides by idle instruments, laundry piles, and other detritus of two constantly pulsing lives—family and work—in daily collision and collaboration.

He proposed to his wife with a song ("I Think I'm Getting Married"), he's put his kids in multiple songs, and there's even a song built over a recording of a younger Dosh singing a Cold War-era anti-nuclear song as a kid at the Montessori school near his home, which his kids attend and where Erin works.

He points at each of the cables, instruments, and machines and explains them with all the reassuring confidence of a professional pilot. When he's done, he might as well have just told you how to fly a 747.

"So basically, here's the way all of this works," he says. "I have three microphones plus this floater mic. The sampler goes into here. The keyboard goes into here. It all comes out from one channel in the back. This cable goes out through the distortion pedal and there are two more looping pedals down there...." And so on.

Dosh calls it his "rig." Looking at it is a bit like looking at a musician's brain divided into small pieces and laid out on a table. This piece is where the rhythm comes from. This one produces melody. And this one, arrangements.

"It was all so complicated-seeming at first," his wife says. The two fell in love as Dosh was building and learning his rig. "Then he showed me how to use his looping pedal."

To understand what Dosh does, you have to understand the looping pedal. It's essentially a foot-operated recording device: Click the pedal once and a red recording light comes on. It can record up to 18 seconds of whatever you plug into it—microphone, guitar, keyboard.

Click the pedal again, and whatever you recorded between the clicks begins playing in repetition, infinitely. Click once more and whatever you record will play in a loop alongside the first recording. Layer upon layer, the looping pedal allows a single musician to sound like six, a dozen, more.

In his basement, Dosh demonstrates. He clicks the pedal and records the tap-tap-tap of a drumstick on a hi-hat cymbal. He clicks the pedal again and the taps loop and become a sort of metronome. Next he swivels to his electric keyboard and adds a short and simple melody line—then another on top of that. He swivels again to his synthesizer and records a bass loop. Then he is back to the drums to add a lighter-than-air groove that feels something like late-'60s R&B. This song he has just invented has five parts. He sits straight and listens. Dosh's great gift is transforming what is essentially one long math problem—piecing together rhythms and melodies recorded one at a time—into simple songs rich with texture and melody.

"He and I have this big argument about girl music versus boy music," says Erin, who has done the artwork for three of Dosh's four full-length releases. "I tell him he's not making boy music because it evokes so much emotion, even without vocals. The melodies are perfect—like I already knew them somehow."

Dosh steps up from his rig and over to a computer in a corner of the basement. He shows off Erin's artwork on the cover of his new record. He hasn't laid hands on the final product yet: "I'm itching to see it," he says, wide eyed.

A photo of his son is propped up nearby. A Grateful Dead shirt, a relic of his youth, hangs on display. There are shelves of CDs and drawers full of recordings he's been making in one basement or another since he purchased his first four-track cassette recorder in 1996.

"I really like having my space here, but it's tricky," he says. "I can't make a super huge ruckus unless there is nobody in the house. Eventually, when we actually clean out the garage, we'll probably convert the garage into a studio."

For now, he makes the necessary adjustments. When he practices at night, with his stepson asleep in a room one floor up and his son asleep on the top floor, he wears headphones. When he needs drums, he cranks the volume from the drum microphones and what he plays softly with brushes "sounds like it's being played with giant sticks."

A visitor to the basement could be forgiven for assuming it was nothing more than a play fort constructed by a middle-aged dad with flagging ambitions. In fact, the space is the beating heart at the center of a universe of collaboration and experimentation called Dosh.

• • • • • 

AS A SMALL CHILD, Dosh told his father he wanted to be a singing carpenter when he grew up. He was one of those kids who showed an early reverence for music. Nothing unusual about that. The unusual part is that his parents paid attention. His mother, Millie, was once an aspiring nun who found her calling in early childhood psychology. Dosh was five when he told his mother he wanted to play piano. She responded that his hands were too small and asked if he could wait until he was six. He did. Fortuitously, his neighbors two doors down had a Baldwin baby grand piano. It was their daughter's, and when she joined a fundamentalist Christian church she forswore her musical pursuits as excessive and sinful. Her parents put the piano up for sale and asked $2,000.

Terry Dosh, Martin's father, was a monk at St. John's Abbey for 20 years; he'd been ordained a Catholic priest in 1957 only to leave the priesthood in favor of building a family with the woman he loved. When that baby grand went up for sale, Terry remembers, "I was out of a job and didn't have any money." So he asked his father for a long-term loan and got it.

Dosh started taking lessons. He'd ask his teacher to play the songs he was learning multiple times. Dosh would spend the rest of the time trying to get the song right. He could read the sheet music in front of him, but he was learning the songs by ear, repeating what he heard his teacher do.

When Dosh was 11 he became obsessed with FM radio. Every weekend when Casey Kasem aired the Top 40 singles, Dosh was armed with a pencil and paper. He copied down each song and tracked its movement up and down the charts for weeks. Other times he sat with the radio on and his finger ready to trigger the record button on his cassette recorder. "There was that one Billy Squier tune, 'Everybody Wants You,' it had the car starting at the beginning—vroom! —I just had to get that sound, so I sat and waited for it to come on."

When Dosh was 15, his parents bought him a used drum set. At 16 he enrolled in Simon's Rock School (an early college in Western Massachusetts affiliated with Bard) to study jazz and drumming.

It was an abrupt exit from home at a time when most kids still had at least two years of restless gestation. Dosh didn't stay at Simon's Rock, but he stayed out East, trailing the Dead for a stint, living out of his van, and auditing music classes at Bard in upstate New York. He started a band and called it Como Zoo. They made frequent trips to New York City, where Terry Dosh remembers people thinking it was Cuomo Zoo, after the then-mayor of New York Mario Cuomo.

Dosh was having fun, but he was floundering and he knew it. In 1997 he decided to come back to Minneapolis. He was in deep with student loans. His parents took him in rent-free and he accepted a job teaching music to kids aged three to six and driving a school bus for Lake Country School, the Montessori school his father had co-founded. As young boys, Martin and his younger brother Paul (who is now a professor of Latin American Studies at Macalester College) were students there.

The job allowed him time to focus on his musicianship. "I realized I needed to get my shit together," Dosh says. "I wasn't taking myself seriously enough." Between shifts at the school, while his father worked from a home office on the third floor, Dosh would practice his drums in the basement for hours at a time. He started studying once a week with the rigorous and enormously talented Dave King (Happy Apple, the Bad Plus). "It wasn't noise," Terry Dosh remembers, "it was purposeful sound."

Dosh was going out constantly, zeroing in on a scene of jazz and experimental musicians who played in bands and organized informal jam sessions. He wanted in. For a while there was a jam session every Friday night the Front. At the end of the night, the musicians onstage would invite people up from the crowd. "I would always want to play drums," Dosh remembers. "I'd get there at like 10:00 and wait around all night, and they would get me up there at like five minutes to 1:00. I'd play for five minutes and the lights would come on."

Eventually, he was invited to play percussion for a spell with the Sensational Joint Chiefs, a group of well-dressed white guys with a singular focus on the horn-drenched funk and soul of an era 40 years gone. Dosh was bent on innovation. "I'd bring hubcaps down there—all kinds of weird percussion stuff. And I'd just sit there and bang on things and throw things on the floor."

In the end, innovation won. Two members of the Joint Chiefs joined Dosh in a venture they called Cropduster, then Lateduster. The band was built symmetrically: two drummers, two guitarists, and two DJs on four turntables. Eventually a drummer and a DJ fell out and Dosh started with the multitasking—setting up a keyboard alongside his drums.

Andrew Broder was in Lateduster with Dosh. "Marty has a real—I don't want to say childlike, because it's not primitive—but he's always just had a real experimental sense." When Broder struck out on his own, forming the beloved Minneapolis experimental rock band Fog, he lured Dosh in for a bit, where he continued to expand his responsibilities. "You could really see him testing the waters to see how much he could do at one time. Then he got himself a looping pedal and the rest is history."

• • • • •

DOSH MADE HIS FIRST ALBUM without any thought to performing the compositions live, he says. He just hunkered down in another basement—this one in a house he was renting owned by Lake Country School—with his looping pedal and the rest of his early rig and started recording sounds into an uncomplicated home recording setup.

He put the record out with his own money and called it Dosh. Sometime between finishing the recording and holding his self-released record in his hands, he booked a solo show at the Dinkytowner, a sort of home-base club for Twin Cities experimental music. It was 2002; he had been playing drums for 15 years and piano on and off for 24. He had never been onstage alone. Jeremy Ylvisaker, who played with Dosh in Fog, remembers that first show. "It was like teaching yourself how to juggle in front of an audience," he says.

"If something goes wrong up there," Dosh says, "even now, it could be one of 25 things that has gone wrong. The troubleshooting is the hardest part."

There were no meltdowns at that first show. It worked. That doesn't mean nothing went wrong. Just nothing the audience noticed. "It took me probably 100 shows to learn how to troubleshoot the rig in the moment," Dosh says. There were clear bumps in that road. He remembers one show so fraught with technological snafus that he just recorded a loop of wildly distorted chaos and stormed offstage. "But that's not really me," he says. Andrew Broder points to less dramatic indicators that Dosh was having a hard time of it. "He'd just kind of mumble into the microphone between songs. He was in unfamiliar territory up there in the beginning."

Mostly, though, Dosh was getting it right. "When I first saw him alone onstage," his father remembers, "it was dazzling. He had all of these instruments around him. People were mesmerized." Terry Dosh calls his son's music "abstract jazz"—and he knows from jazz. As a high school student in the late '40s, he would go to all-ages jazz shows at the Flame in St. Paul. He'd buy a bottle of 7-Up for 45 cents and listen to George Sheering, Count Basie, and whoever else was passing through town. Terry watched the kids at his son's shows and he was proud. "It's an audience of young intellectuals," he posits. "His crowd always looks like they're thinking."

• • • • •

TODAY DOSH HAS THREE full-length records, with a fourth, Wolves and Wishes, coming out in May. Broder has played on each of those records, and he's watched Dosh grow.

"I've seen lots of people try the one-man-band thing. Technology has enabled a person to get onstage with just a laptop and a guitar—it's taking the bedroom to the stage. Marty doesn't approach his music in that insular, bedroomy way. And the level of mastery he has achieved with his system of composing," Broder says, "is totally unique."

It was that mastery that piqued the interest of Andrew Bird, who had heard Dosh's records but pegged him as something of an electronic musician, a guy up there with a laptop, cueing prerecorded samples. When Dosh opened for Bird at the Loring Pasta Bar in 2005, Bird, also something of a master of the looping pedal, walked over to Dosh's rig. "When he saw my setup he sort of said whoa and told me he was looking for somebody who could do drums and keyboards. Bird was touring alone at the time, building loops of his signature violin lines and other parts, then singing over them. Dosh joined Bird on tour later that year, and they've been collaborating live and in the studio ever since. "It's become my job," Dosh says, with a disbelieving smile.

"If I am going to play with another human being I want that person to have a distinct universe of his own," Bird says of his decision to partner with Dosh. "Both of our musical worlds—they are these two spheres that happen to synch up instead of me just completely absorbing him into my sphere. I still feel like we haven't scratched the surface of what we could do."

Onstage, both men are creating loops and then playing over them. The only thing more unlikely than one person making fluid, emotive music from a patchwork of pedals is two people doing it together. Dosh had to learn to juggle again, but this time in front of a much larger audience. Today when that play-fort cockpit comes out of the basement, thanks to Mr. Bird, it is reconstructed on festival stages in Europe, theaters in the U.S., and late-night television soundstages (Letterman, Conan) in New York City. Even on his own, Dosh is playing to a growing audience. He sells out large clubs as far away as San Francisco, and even the shows that don't fill up are indisputable successes.

On his last West Coast tour he played to 100 people in a room made for 600. But after the show, he says, "Everybody there lined up to talk to me. How is that a bad show? The very idea that you can travel somewhere else and have people pay money to see you and talk to you—amazing."

Often when people line up at the stage after a show, they are musicians with musician questions: "They'll come up to me and say, 'Man, how did you do that thing in that crazy time signature?' And I'll just say, 'I don't know. It just sounded really cool.'"

That's another area where Bird and Dosh square up nicely. "I don't like playing with academic musicians who want to talk about how this goes from one odd meter to some other odd meter," says Bird. "I don't really get a thrill off of knowing what I've just done—as long as it feels right. And Martin has an amazing feel."

• • • • •

DOSH IS STILL BUILDING his world. Most recently, he's recruited the multi-instrumentalist Mike Lewis, best known for his work in the frighteningly talented Minneapolis jazz combo Happy Apple, for his live shows. Onstage, Dosh does what he always does, and Lewis, a natural improvisation man, responds on bass, saxophone, clarinet, or a modified kid's synthesizer.

The two rarely practice. Instead, they just play their shows, trusting each other immensely. "It's pretty inspiring," says Lewis. "Sometimes we just look at each other like, holy shit!" Dosh is, to put it rather primitively, a man forever in search of that holy shit! moment. "If I ever get to the point where I'm not learning something new," Dosh says frequently, "I'll probably stop." He's nowhere near that place now.

"He just wants to do a good job and make something beautiful happen," Bird says. "Whatever it takes to get there."

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