Meric Long Talks Arthritis and Finding Hope in Impermanence

The Dodos guitarist on how his diagnosis influenced the creation of their new album.

The first childhood memory I have of playing music was on a ukulele that my cousin left with my family after visiting from “the islands.” That’s what my mother, a second  generation Chinese born in Tahiti, called her home. I was around 6, and I distinctly remember what it felt like looking down at the four strings, the feeling of confusion and curiosity, and eventually resolve, when I figured out how to repeat the same progression of notes if I moved my left hand up and down the bottom string. I also remember what it felt like when I broke that same string minutes later, its sudden snap like my mom’s corrective flick on my ear, followed by the horror that I wouldn’t be able to continue making the same tune.  

Nobody restrung that Ukulele, no one knew how to. Just like every kid learns the minute their favorite toy is taken away, I learned about impermanence. That anything you could ever want can also be taken away.  

Whether this was the event that did it or not, I have always tried a little too desperately to hold on to the things that come into my life. I write songs about impending doom, losing the thing or person you want to love; I have basically spent most of my life hovering in the holding pattern of waiting for the words, “It’s over.”  

For the last 12 years I, along with my bandmate Logan, have released seven records as the  Dodos, and each of those records could be understood as an attempt to outmaneuver those  words. We had our breakthrough record Visiter in 2008, which gave us an immediate fanbase/  We got to tour the world, play festivals, quit our day jobs, and look back in to the doubtful eyes of  our parents with spite, pride, and righteousness. It was a feeling that I never wanted to lose, and  it lodged itself deep in my creative psyche, so that no matter how I tried to outmaneuver it,  every moment in my career for the next 10 years would simply be a point in time in relation to  that one — a line drawn backwards that would always infer the question “Will it ever get better than that?”  

It was in August of 2019 when I was mulling around on some song ideas and thinking  about whether I should take another swing at a Dodos record that the beginnings of arthritis started to kick in. Playing guitar for me had always been a way forward — writing a new riff i  like solving a riddle, and with each riddle solved a little more space would open up in me. I had worked hard at finding my own way of playing, and though I was terribly insecure at singing, I felt uncharacteristically comfortable and confident with a guitar in my hands. It was the only way I knew how to get attention and I leaned on that to keep my self image afloat in what otherwise felt like a swamp of doubt and worthlessness. 

The signal of pain in my fingers was clear to me: This was something I wasn’t going to be able to do in the way I knew how for much longer. The cast of impermanence brought up questions of, what would I do, who would I be? There was some grieving, panic, but mostly it was time to get to work, see what my fingers could do before they gave in to debilitation. That sense of urgency gave way to a sort of manic drive, to answer all the questions, doubts, and regrets that had ever come up and been left unsettled during our career.  

My friend, and engineer extraordinaire, Beau Sorenson likened this process of working on the eight Dodos record to searching for Bigfoot — basically hunting for something that probably  doesn’t exist. As a bandm we’ve more or less been hunting after the same sound since 2006, with varying degrees of success.  

The thing about having a sound in your head is that it can remain elusive even when you think you’ve found it — either it changes just enough to seem out of reach, or you’ve changed  enough to where it seems more achievable. While working on this record, I felt like I was in a  fugue state of searching with little ties to my own past or that of the band. It didn’t matter what I  had done, if I failed or not; I knew exactly where I was going but I had no end point. It didn’t  matter if I would ever find it, just give me another unidentifiable piece of Sasquatch fur so that I  can keep pursuing, believing in where I was headed. And thought it inevitably came to an end  when the record was done, it was blissful and it protected me from the world.  

I work as a recording engineer now and sometimes when I work with a band in the studio, and granted that things aren’t going terribly wrong, I will hear from them something along the lines of “I think this is the best thing I’ve ever done.” No matter how objectively true that may or may not be, it is a powerful sentence. That feeling will at some point be lost, perhaps even as early as the next morning after some rest. But being there to witness, almost like a Bigfoot  sighting, gives me hope that impermanence, when shared, can be endless. 

(Photo Credit: Sheila Gim)

Meric Long is the frontman of the indie rock band The Dodos. Their latest album, Grizzly Peak, is out now on Polyvinyl.

(Photo Credit: Sheila Gim)