Earlier this year, word came across the Atlantic to me in the States that Paris’ The Dø were working on a new album. When our France-based writer offered to review it, I definitely wanted to hear what her thoughts were on it since the first single, “Slippery Slope”, was a shocking, fresh single. In the months that followed, and imports since it wasn’t released stateside at the time, I kept telling people to that Both Ways Open Jaws was effectively follow up to Lykke Li‘s Youth Novels that everyone wanted, but never got (Wounded Rhymes sounded a little exhausted and not as invigorating). Both Ways Open Jaws hit iTunes in the States finally on November 15th, months after its release in France. The album has easily been towards the top of the list for 2011, surpassing any sort of sophomoric slump fears and surmounting their 2008, highly-acclaimed A Mouthful. The Dø is comprised of Dan Levy and Olivia Merilahti. Olivia was kind enough to take a moment out of their busy schedule to talk over the phone with us.
How was the show last night at Casino de Paris?
It was amazing and it’s always crazy to say. It feels like a wedding with friends, family, and everyone we know. We’ve toured a lot in France this year until now with this album. We’ve played many times in Paris. There haven’t been many occasions with that kind of venue. It’s special.
How’s the reception been to Both Ways Open Jaws as opposed to A Mouthful?
The reception for A Mouthful was totally crazy, and we didn’t expect any of what happened at the time. I’m really, really happy with all of the reviews and everything we’ve had for Both Ways Open Jaws because it’s a tricky step. I’m so happy for the release in the US and in the UK. We’ve had a lot of great reviews, and the shows have been sold out almost everywhere. It’s very positive.
I’ve heard a lot about the response to The Dø in France. How’s the response been in Finland?
In Finland, for the first one it was actually really good. We played there three times. In Finland, the release is only now or at the end of this month-the official one. That’s why it’s been a bit slow on that side.
So you and Dan met on L’Empire des Loups, so what led you both to start working on that film?
We just met because the director wanted us to work on a few songs. I’ve never worked on soundtracks before and that was my first experience. I really liked it, because it’s very enriching to work with images and a story that is already there. But then all the movies we worked on later are more low-key, but really wonderful and very inspiring.
But in the beginning, it was just a studio project. So we just worked on everything that came up and had a lot of fun doing that without really thinking of what was going to happen next.
Relatedly, have you ever thought about going back to film? Would there be a director you would like to work with if that ever came to be?
I think it would be great to have a director who requires our music for our music and for what we can do. To give us as much freedom as possible. Not someone who comes with a million references, and saying, ‘I want this, but a bit like this and this.’ Or when the directors have some references in their mind. It’s really difficult to suggest something original and to convince them of a new, fresh direction. That would be great.
I think we would still love composing for soundtracks, but maybe not in any condition.
So did you have a music background? Did it come from your family?
No, I have no musicians in my family at all. My mother listens to Mozart and The Beatles. They just wanted us to learn an instrument. We had the chance to have parents who gave us that opportunity. So I started with the cello, the piano, and then I started singing when I was a teenager. Then I played guitar. That was my background. I danced a lot.
Dan, his dad is a big jazz fan. So when Dan was 5, his dad used to play him free jazz records. So that was a good start for him! Dan always wanted to be a musician since he was really young. He started playing the saxophone when he was 9 or 10.
It sounds like from the sessions that there’s a lot of improvisation going on with the live concerts.
Of course, we still have a frame but it’s not totally free. But we really like to have some moments of impro, especially because we’re at five musicians on stage. We used to be three on the first tour and that wasn’t possible. I guess there was a lot of impro, but not really wished for-it was something that just happened by accident. Today we chose that and want to have that freedom live too, otherwise it gets too static. After a few months of touring the same versions, we could possibly change the arrangements again.
A couple musicians I’ve spoke with are trying to make their concerts more interesting, not as repetitive by coming up with a freshness on stage. Do you have any tips for them since you seem to be very good at that?
Tips? No [laughs]. We always start with a very simple basis. That’s how we make our music anyway, even in the studio. We always start with a very simple structure and a few elements. The song has to work, even just guitar and vocals, then you can do whatever you want around it. For us, it’s natural to go towards improv. I don’t feel we improvise so much, it’s just that we have room for a saxophone solo on “Slippery Slope” or a guitar solo on our cover of “Tightrope”, for example.
It’s just Dan and I in the studio when we record an album. He records me, and I record him. So at some point, we only really have the essence of the track. That’s what we record. That’s how it goes. And that’s what happened on this tour. Then when we had to find musicians, and suddenly we were all rehearsing with five musicians playing. We had so many options that we couldn’t resist using all the wonderful possibilities. But I’m not a crazy solo addict. I think sometimes solos can be too talkative. That’s why we always try to have the weirdest solo ever…like Dan’s solo on “Slippery Slope” than the Pigalle sessions is more between gypsy and free jazz instead of more solo. I don’t know. I’d rather see them as going really crazy in a pop song.
So you two recorded each other for this album?
That’s how we work. Dan records my vocals and the guitar, bass. And we start recording percussion and whatever we have at the studio that’s available. We record whatever comes to mind. If Dan wants to play saxophone, I’ll just call Dan and vice versa. Of course, Dan is more on the recording side. He records me more than I record him. That’s how it works. That’s how we’ve done it.
I read that you two are the best critics of each other. Was there any song on this album that you might have been nervous about presenting to him that turned out really well?
I think “Gonna Be Sick” was a track that I didn’t even want to play in front of Dan because I felt that it was just another song. That there’s nothing really special to that song. And he said, “Yeah, come on.” Then he loved it, and we recorded it and then he arranged it in one night. And it came out as it is now.
“Slippery Slope” was a really shocking single. Where did that song come from?
That was really a proper impro at the studio. I started doing the “Slippery, slippery, slippery, slippery…” and then I recorded some drums. I recorded some vocals on it, and we decided to have only vocals and the beat, the percussions, no harmony. And that was it. It’s just about the feeling of danger that we get sometimes. Anywhere, with a job, as musicians, or as anyone. The feeling of being trapped in a way.
You get that feeling, especially in the video.
Yeah, we were really happy with that video. It was with an American director, Noel Paul. I think it was the first video that I’m really, really proud of.
What are your plans for North America?
It’s being confirmed now. I can’t say for sure.
Since you’re from Finland, what’s your impression on the French music scene? When you see it, what comes to mind?
I think it’s changing, and it’s a good thing. Something really happened when our album was released and hit #1. I think everyone realized, especially the labels, production, and industry realized that the audience doesn’t give a damn if it’s good music. Whatever the language, it’s great. There are so many good bands now working on albums, and not necessarily the most famous ones. There’s a band called Concrete Knives, who was our warm-up for many gigs and yesterday too. They’re from Normandy, and they’re really amazing and very promising with the singing they have. They have a really amazing drive. And Dan is going to record their album in December.
So that’s the kind of good thing that is happening in France. It’s fresh. There’s room for fresh new music. Whereas there was a time when there was either variété française or…but I mean there’s realistic and very convenient in many aspects. I can’t sum it up in just one sentence, but I think it’s getting better because all the bands are really opened up through the internet. The young kids can listen to any music today. They can go on the internet and choose the music they listen to.
Both Ways Open Jaws is now available in the States via Six Degree Records.