An Interview With Koko Dozo Bringing A Little Madness And Lots Of Teamwork Into The Mix
An Interview With Koko Dozo: Bringing A Little Madness – And Lots Of Teamwork – Into The Mix
The rock and roll super group – a group made of musicians who are well-known for being in other groups, or, solo stars who band together into one entity, like the comic book heroes X-men or The Avengers – has a long history in rock music. The super group Blind Faith was comprised of guitar giant Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker from Cream, joined with Steve Winwood of Traffic. Clapton also joined with legendary Allman Brother Duane Allman and super drummer Jim Gordon to form Derek and the Dominoes, who recorded the classic rock album ‚Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.’
Oftentimes in jazz, musicians from different groups (who are great solo artists in their own right) will come together and create great music. However, this is not always the case. Groups made up of great performers – those used to working alone or being the „star” – can sometimes be less than the sum of their parts, as egos clash and the group becomes like a bad basketball team, where everyone wants to score and nobody wants to pass or play defense. Koko Dozo, however, is a dream team. Each member of the group, which includes Polarity/1, Rubio and Amy Douglas, is an equal contributor, with the entire group utilizing each member’s skills and talents. Once more, there are no egos clashing. Quite the opposite occurs, as the members provide support and encouragement for one another. On the group’s debut ‚Illegal Space Aliens,’ Koko Dozo shows that individual and group expression can meld into one, and – just like a good jazz band, baseball team or this year’s Boston Celtics – can result in something even greater than the sum of its parts.
[Mark Kirby] What kind of music was played in your homes when you were growing up?
[Polarity/1] I started off with my dad’s records. My earliest faves were Cab Calloway, Tito Rodriguez and other salsa music, Elvis, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Beatles and Led Zeppelin. Then there was the radio and television shows like American Bandstand, Soul Train and the Ed Sullivan Show.
[Rubio] My parents were fundamentalists and went through this period of being afraid of having any secular music in the house, so for a while we had nothing but this old 8-track with Pat Boone and Bob Dylan’s one Christian album. No, I’m not making this up. I used to stay up nights just surfing the dial on this crappy transistor radio I had and absorbing everything I could get my ears on.
[Amy Douglas] I come from a family that played instruments. Growing up, I was fortunate to have parents that liked music quite a bit. My dad was all about jazz – Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Brubeck, Duke, Bird and Diz, etc. – so I get my love of jazz from him and my grandparents. My mom was a huge fan of artists like Carol King, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Jim Croce and Elton John (still one of my personal heroes to this day). She was also a huge fan of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Temptations, Philly soul, and anything Gamble and Huff touched, from Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes to the Spinners and all in-between. She liked Black music in general. Also heavily on rotation in the house growing up was Aretha Franklin, who served as my initial influence into opening up my head and wailing away, and Stevie Wonder, who was one of my greatest influences of all.
[Mark Kirby] What incident or moment ignited your passion to perform or otherwise get into music?
[Polarity/1] When I was in high school I discovered Brazilian music, Appalachian folk, Eric Dolphy, 16th century Japanese court music, Bob Dylan and Mahavishnu Orchestra. My thing with Dylan got me to buy a guitar so I could express my rage over the inconveniences of life on earth. Within weeks I was writing clueless protest songs about important political issues I never bothered to read about.
[Rubio] I’ve had a passion for music as long as I can remember. I used to go nuts over it even as an infant apparently. I started taking lessons at age four. When I was 11, I formally made a decision to dedicate myself to music. I was classically trained on piano and organ as a kid. As a teenager, I started getting heavily into metal and prog rock and things like that.
[Amy Douglas] I think growing up as a child in the 1970s served as a constant source of inspiration and was a catalyst. From just listening constantly to my parents’ music, and then turning on the TV or radio, it seems like virtually EVERYTHING influenced me. But if I had to narrow it down to a few choice moments, I’d say playing Stevie Wonder’s „Songs in the Key of Life,” seeing Chaka Khan on Soul Train, seeing Bowie everywhere on TV, hearing all the Beatles’ albums, and most important, hearing Led Zeppelin, my favorite band of all time. Between the TV shows Soul Train, Midnight Special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, there was no shortage of good stuff to draw on. I think the combination of hearing all this stuff as a child was like a bomb going off. Certainly, I take almost all my visual cues from Donna Summer, P-Funk and Chaka.
[Mark Kirby] Describe your musical backgrounds. Did you study formally in school? Or take lessons?
[Polarity/1] When I was 14 I bought a plywood guitar with a book of tunes that had chord diagrams, and then I starting writing my own songs. A couple of years later I took a few lessons and learned how to play major and minor seventh chords so I could add some jazz and bossa nova flavor to my songs.
I spent a semester at Berklee School of Music in Boston, which was a weird move, being that I couldn’t functionally read music and my brain isn’t wired for formal learning. But I could write notation a little bit and tried to prove that I was Berklee-worthy by hot-dogging the homework projects – like scoring an arrangement of Monk’s „Epistrophy in 7/4,” which nobody could play. I was redeemed a few years ago when I notated a 7/4 thing for Pete McCann and Gregg Bendian to play on „Munton’s Revenge” on the Polarity/1 ‚Speechless’ album. They this website nailed it pretty quickly. What was good about the year at Berklee was that even though I couldn’t learn in a normal way, [with] what they were throwing at me, I was able to sort of „visualize” all these concepts like chord functions and voicings. It all came in handy much later on in unexpected ways when I would create quite complex things without „knowing how” and be taken seriously. In that sense I’ve had a very real musical training.
[Rubio] I had lessons up until I was 16, mostly classical music. When I was younger, we had a deal where I got free lessons in return for performing for Kawai, showcasing their instruments in malls and conventions. Because of that, I had some performance training as well. By my 17th birthday I was playing full-time with bands and earning my keep.
[Amy Douglas] I started doing music from age six onward. I first discovered I could sing when my elementary school teacher wrote my mom a letter saying, „Ask Amy to sing for you sometime.” My grandmother taught me piano initially, and from there I took lessons. From 6th grade on, I was one of those disgusting „Music Big Concert School” kids. I started learning music theory in junior high and I got a lot of credit from the state of New York, won the Louis Armstrong and Eubie Blake music scholarships and then went to study Jazz Theory and Composition at New York University. UUUUUUGH.
[Mark Kirby] What were some of your earliest musical experiences?
[Polarity/1] My earliest gigging experiences in high school were great antidotes for bad looks and bad conversation-starting skills. Music-making has been all good except for one rough period where I got a real-world lesson about where my strengths and weaknesses were. My songs started off in folk and rock. Then they got jazzy and funky. Then I wanted to bring elements of the late John Coltrane, Mingus and Mahavishnu. So I created a band with all jazz guys instead of folk-rockers which was most[ly] cool – except that I wasn’t that kind of player with that kind of training. Since my only interest in the guitar was for songwriting, I had no chops and couldn’t contribute much on the instrumentals the other guys were writing. And they needed a serious jazz/metal guitar player. So I got fired from my own band. It triggered a move into a radically different direction, where I had to start from scratch and discover what my own creative process was, make a commitment to it and then succeed on my own terms. And with that kind of focus, I found that there were a whole lot of different things that I did really well with my own vision and method and developed big chops with it.
[Rubio] It was rough from age 11 to 16 because I basically had to disappear into a hole and hibernate in order to switch from organ to piano, and didn’t perform live at all during that time. It was a definite case of withdrawal. My first few rock bands were rough, too. I was nicknamed „Wendel” because that was Gomer Pyle’s actual first name in the TV show. I’m sorry to say that at the time the name fit perfectly. I was more than a bit naive. I’m very grateful for those times, though, because I learned a lot very quickly.
[Amy Douglas] I played my first pro gig at age 12 and did my first pro session at 13. I told my parents I didn’t want to go to school anymore. From then onwards, it got darker. My first pro gig was at a supper club on Long Island. Between dishes of steak and shrimp, I sang a combination of jazz standards and disco classics. It was a blast.
[Mark Kirby] Describe your individual musical journeys from the first bands to Koko Dozo.
[Polarity/1] I started off writing songs until I hooked up with the SIM (Studio For Interrelated Media) department at Mass Art (Massachusetts College of Art) when I was discovering Cage, Xenakis, George Crumb, Joan LaBarbera, Steve Reich and others. I made a decision to not use melody, harmony or rhythm in any way that resembled songs or jazz. And since I was also a visual artist at that time, the art scene provided venues for this new direction. So my visual stuff, music and lyric-writing got re-channeled into performance art and composing for choreographers and experimental theater. I also formed a group called Vocal Repercussions that did totally improvised vocals-only performances, where abstract vocal sounds morphed into words, free-associated texts, rhythms and harmonies. Then I moved to NYC and got obsessed with groove. I studied African drumming, played in samba bands and had a hip-hop thing with rapper D.A.V. called Medicine Crew. Hip-hop was an easy transition because I was already into looping and collaging, but in an abstract mode, and my performance poetry worked in a rap format. I was always into groove since I was little – funk, salsa, African drumming, calypso, samba and reggae. A couple years later I got back into songwriting and all that stuff merged into songs and electronica when I became Polarity/1. And that led to film scoring and collaborating with Rubio on Audioplasm, which led to Koko Dozo. And recently I circled back to the art scene, scoring for Battery Dance Company and Quorum Ballet from Lisbon.
[Rubio] My very first band I was in was ruled with an iron fist by this absolute tyrant and it was a real wakeup call. Those were also very fun times, of course. After a couple years in my hometown of Winnipeg, Canada, I moved to Toronto for six years before coming to NYC in 1997. I’ve done just about every kind of gig you can think of in that time, both live and in the studio.
[Amy Douglas] I had been gigging steadily in my own bands, ranging from funk to rock. I was part of a group of downtown artists known as the „Homocorp” scene. I was [also] a part-time member of the Squeezebox Band – the same Squeezebox they recently released a film about at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival – and basically spent my 20s either gigging, doing sessions or hanging with drag queens and getting into trouble.
[Mark Kirby] How did the three of you meet and get together?
[Rubio] I had met Polar in 2003 through a mutual friend, a drummer called Curtis Watts, with whom we had a mutual interest in samba. We hit it off and started working together sporadically. In the fall of 2005 we decided to completely redesign Polar’s studio with my help and work on each other’s projects. That blossomed into us working together on some production stuff, mainly soundtracks for documentaries, and an instrumental collaboration called Audioplasm.
[Polarity/1] Rubio and I were working on the Heavy Meadow album at the same time he was working with Amy in her „Red Hot Mama” show. He suggested the three [of us] get together to see if we could come up with something interesting.
[Amy Douglas] I had a show called „Red Hot Mama,” which was a rock vaudeville show, and I had hired Rubio as the keyboardist, and we really hit it off. When the show folded, he introduced me to Polar, the two of them having done a project called Audioplasm. I am way happier in Koko Dozo than I’ve been in just about anything I’ve ever done. We got together on a super hot summer day in 2007 and realized we had a great capacity to make incredible music based on our collective musical passions and influences, which also include a group devotion to Brazilian music, Afrobeat, and Latin music, so we really had quite a stewpot brewin’ by the time we started to write songs.
[Mark Kirby] How did you arrive at the name Koko Dozo?
[Amy Douglas] At the risk of hurting myself by patting myself on the back, I have to take the credit for it. My ex-boyfriend had mentioned wanting to do an avant-garde project and he threw out Koko Dozo as a trial name. When we were thinking about names, I threw it out there, and the guys liked it. I think it’s fab. [My ex-boyfriend] did so little for me while we were together, [so] at least he gave the band a great name.
[Mark Kirby] What is the musical concept of the band?
[Amy Douglas] It’s a really huge one. First and foremost it’s to virtually force people to have to really listen to what we do, and to help audiences that have been pandered to and been reduced to some sort of lowest common denominator grow some brain cells back. The music is obviously a ton of fun, it puts you in the mood to do some serious dancing and there’s more than a healthy dose of silly swirling around in the mix. But really listen to the words and you’ll hear that we have some deep issues we’re struggling with and we do address them in our songs, ranging from our distrust of our government, to the polarization of culture in our home of New York City and a whole bunch of other things. Our musical concept is to shrink the globe as well; the internet has made the world a smaller place and we wanted to find a way to fuse cultures, languages, styles and influences together in a way that reeks of New York City life, but will appeal to an audience that is truly global.
[Rubio] Generally, Polar handles the arrangements and the drum and percussion elements. I come up with harmonic ideas, play most of the keyboard/bass-type things and mix the tracks. Amy is the voice of the project and handles melodies. Obviously, there is a lot of overlap. There is one song I arranged and produced („Boomchi”). Polar and I each do one lead vocal („Kokodozonomics” and „The Heart,” respectively). There are songs where Amy did the chord structure and played share our website keyboards. Polar is very avant-garde and always pushing the envelope. Amy is very melodic and tends to create things that are catchy and mass-appealing. I’m kind of in the middle.
[Polarity/1] We have an open source attitude about music. Between us, we’ve worked just about every genre category there is and we don’t feel any compulsion to restrict where we go. Each song has a strong identity of its own but they all sound like Koko Dozo. Conventional wisdom dictates that our way of working will guarantee that we’ll never find an audience. But we know that’s bullshit. The post-corporate online music business has made it okay for people to trust their intuitions about the music they discover. An amazing variety of people are responding. We’re reaching young electro heads, world-beaters, dance-clubbers, boomers, electronica geeks, and po-po-pomo gonzoid hairy-backed noiz gimps living in the basement of the basement on diets of sticky buns and penis butter and toe jam sandwiches. The parents and the kiddies like us too. And we write in different languages (English, spanish and Portuguese) which reaches out even further. Also we have this whole bargain-basement-space vibe that makes things really fun.
[Mark Kirby] What is the story behind the Sun Ra-esque (a new word!) dress and alien mythology?
[Polarity/1] Here’s the story: we came from outer space and landed on Earth to exploit its resources – and for other reasons that we’d rather not discuss. We’re from the low-rent part of the universe where you wear whatever is lying around in the alley on garbage pickup day. That, coincidentally, is the same galaxy where Sun Ra came from.
[Amy Douglas] Laughter Well…the word „alien” permeates much of what we do and we like to riff on the term. Alien, as we mean it internally, is the feeling of not being comfortable in one’s skin, feeling out of synch with the world around you, feeling like the constant outsider. And we decided to really play with the word, and we decided that a space age „alien” theme would suit us wackos pretty well! Besides, it gives me an excuse to wear wigs and glitter, which I feel I was born to do.
[Rubio] We really wanted to put the fun and craziness back in music. Too many projects take themselves too seriously these days, which is BEYOND ironic.
[Mark Kirby] Describe the writing, recording and producing process for this CD. Were you all in the same studio at the same time?
[Polarity/1] Since we work in my studio, I’m there for the whole process. Generally, I show Amy and Rubio a track that I think would work for Koko Dozo. It might be just a sketch, almost complete, or anything in between. I might have complete lyrics as well („Face On The Dancefloor,” „Kokodozonomics”) or just a rough idea for lyrics that Amy and I will collaborate on („Shine”). Or Amy and/or Rubio will take one of my tracks and turn it into a song („Second Time,” „The Heart”). Sometimes Amy has a song and I build a track around her chord changes, melody and vibe and help with the lyrics („Down”). Rubio and Amy wrote „Boomchi” together and Rubio produced that track.
Rubio is the guy with the engine-ear. He comes in when a track is pretty much laid out and starts tweaking things. Then he’ll add his keyboard solos, sometimes bass and the more harmonically dense keyboard stuff. I do keyboard parts that don’t require big chops. Then Amy comes in and we track vocals. Rubio and I finish the mixes with Rubio in the big chair. Joe Lambert masters everything at Trutone Studios. He’s done all the Polarity/1 stuff and Heavy Meadow too. Lately Amy has been playing some keyboard parts.
[Rubio] As far as recording, we were generally all there. I personally NEVER record final voices without someone else in the room to give me a sense of perspective. Polar did a lot of editing on his own but often that job fell to me as well. The mixes were generally done with Polar and me, and click more details we would send roughs to Amy for her input.
[Mark Kirby] What is your live show like? Is there a full band?
[Amy Douglas] It’s a full-on brigade of madness! We operate as a trio, currently using our tracks and the addition of live keys and guitar, bass and percussion.
[Rubio] I would love to have a live band, but right now circumstances and logistics just don’t allow it. The three of us do perform live, though. Polar plays electronic drums, guitar and hand percussion, I play keyboards live and we all sing. We use versions of the tracks that are customized for live shows, so what you hear on stage is not necessarily exactly what you’d hear on the studio version.
[Polarity/1] Our shows are fun for us, and I suppose audiences love to watch grown people making funny noises up there and bouncing around like homeless space mutants. Amy’s wigs and Rubio’s Viking helmet are worth the price of admission. And gazing at my psychedelic death-ray yarmulke is a life-affirming way to blow off shabbos.