Doprah first appeared on the radar in early 2013, when then-Christchurch resident Stephen John Marr, previously known for indie rock, shoegaze outfit Ipswich, released single, Love That I Need, in collaboration with west Auckland vocalist and songwriter Indira Force. Student radio instantly got on board with their brand of psychedelic trip hop and the following year was a great one for the band. Doprah showcased their sound at the 2014 CMJ Music Festival in New York, finding plenty of interest in a trip cut short due to financial shortfalls. Billboard’s Next Big Sound column introduced them as one of the “fastest accelerating artist across all major social music sites during the previous week, statistically predicted to achieve future success.” Nice. In mid-February 2016, one chapter of their story thus far concluded with the digital and vinyl release of the debut Doprah album ‘Wasting’. Indi talked with Silke Hartung about the challenges of releasing an album with international expectations.
“I realised everyone was on holiday and not working. We’re going to release our album soon, we need to get our shit together!”
Doprah is Indi on vocals and synths, Stephen Marr (engineer, producer, vocals), Hunter Jackson on guitar, Symon Palmer on bass, drummer Ryan Chin and Matt Gunn as the band’s ‘everything man’ – meaning samplers, drums, percussion and voice manipulation.
The foundation for the band’s sound was set by Marr with their 2014 self-titled debut EP. With the band attuned to his vision, Dopra has since become more of a band where everybody can try out their own ideas. The more they played live, Indi says, the more of a feeling each got for the music they were creating.
“It used to be just Stephen, but we all contributed a lot to the album,” says Indi. “Now it’s almost like, ‘I can write something the way Stephen would write it.'”
Mostly though it is Marr and Indi coming up with the initial ideas. Being a songwrtiter/composer in her own right, she finds being in a band helpful to fill in for her own weak points in the process.
“Usually I’ve got the chord progression, I’ve got the vocals for it and the arrangement, but I’m not really sure about the drums. Ryan and Stephen are really good at collaborating on the drums now,” she smiles.
“There’s so much music with minimalist electronica with a crooning voice over it. It’s trending right now and it’s so boring! Stephen’s production is not what I’m hearing in all of that stuff. At the end of one of the songs, Subaeruginusa, I kept pushing him for the drums to be even more crazy. I wanted it to sound really randomised, I didn’t want anything to be the same in that particular part, and he wrote something intricate and dense, so delicious to listen to! I just want a sound that’s quantised but organic. Something that sounds like it was written by a human, programmed on a computer, if that makes sense. That is what most music is, but unfortunately I feel like computerised sound is so deeply ingrained now that everything sounds too clean.”
For parts of the recording they had drummer Ryan Chin play along to the electronic drums, combining human and machine sounds for a more organic result.
“A lot of people who have listened to it before the release have said that it’s very different from what they’ve heard that’s out at the moment. They seem so taken by surprise by it. It does things sonically that haven’t been done for a long time.”
Recorded between bedrooms and The Sitting Room in Lyttelton, ‘Wasting’ ticks boxes that place it well within the realm of trip hop, with its breakbeats and prominent bass lines, its shimmering samples and synths, its melancholic darkness – and with Indi’s voice emulating the range and vulnerability of Bjork or the Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser, more than the hypnotically seductive voices of Beth Gibbons or Alison Goldfrapp.
“The songs on the EP were actually meant to be songs on an album we were going to release, but we were told it would be wise to release an EP first. Stephen already had the idea in his mind that he was going to do an album – it was going to be called ‘Wasting’ – and that it was going to be half electronic and half live instruments.”
It’s really only been a few years together, but things have moved quickly for Doprah, especially in terms of their international aspirations. Playing at New York’s CMJ in late 2014 led to various international label discussions and nearly-signings in the following year. Delayed decisions built on other delays, and as the ‘band’ developed and it wasn’t just Marr writing things got more convoluted, complicated by the arrival of new songs.
“A lot of the songs are dark – not like we were ever a light bubbly band,” Indi cracks up. “The whole feeling of it has actually become quite dark because we ended up writing a lot during that waiting period and we were feeling… there was a lot of suspense and a lot of waiting for people to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a lot of things. It doesn’t even feel like a first album, because the first album would have been the songs we wrote in that first year.”
On one occasion the band was asked to write mainstream up-tempo radio hits. Indi turns from bubbly to slightly sarcastic in a beat, explaining they would have loved to oblige, but simply aren’t that kind of band that do radio hits. They’re not a pop band. They did try, though, she admits, laughing as she recalls.
“We did an experiment to at least try to write something of a certain tempo. One of those songs was Zi that came out as a b-side, but we’ve both not been feeling good about it. It was at a point where we just exhausted everything, we just wanted to release the album, and not write.”
Two songs from their self-titled 2014 EP appear on the album, though Indi stresses that the remixed songs didn’t end up on ‘Wasting’ for any reason other than the band wanting them on it – not, say, giving in to any kind of pressure from above. She says prefers albums that are unpredictable with different tones to the songs, and that’s what those older songs bring.
“We’re now in our early 20s, but I was 19 when I joined the band. We all grew a lot over the last few years and the album reflects that. I’m really attached to San Pedro. A lot of us weren’t sure about adding Stranger People, because it has already been quite overplayed here in NZ, but internationally not many people have heard the EP. It felt like the album needed the songs to embrace the eclectic nature of the songs and show a growth that happened. I also think they work really well with the overall tone. ”
Each band member ended up choosing a dozen out of 20 songs they had, sending the choices to their New York-based manager Michael (Mikey) Sherman.
“We could have easily argued about the track list for ever and ever, but this was an easy way to have a perfect balance of what everyone wants. I’m really pleased with it!”
Sherman, who owns This Charming Management, seems as much a well-connected friend and mentor as manager. He helped organise their CMJ trip, introducing them to numerous contacts while there, and is evidently prepared to take a punt with this quirky group from down under. Indi says that a lot of people working with them at the moment know the band don’t have the money to pay.
“They have the faith that we will do really well in the future so they are sticking with us, which I think is really amazing, and we’re so glad to have them on board. We don’t actually have a manager in NZ. We do a lot of those duties, which is not too bad because NZ is pretty small. Stephen is really great at organising tours, I do a lot of the interviews.”
Finishing the album clearly was a difficult process, with a lot of second guessing and revision.
“The biggest difficulty was that we weren’t where all the people that are interested in us were. A lot of those people were in the US, and we weren’t able to communicate with them on a daily basis about certain things – I think that was a really big problem, because there was a lot of interest in us after we did CMJ. We simply weren’t able to be there and be around and have those meetings.”
Skype meetings were had but it was difficult, leaving the band feeling isolated, any negotiations with overseas labels further complicated by the cost of taking a six-piece band out of NZ to the rest of the world.
“The live band is just such a strong part of what we do. We don’t want to compromise that, and refuse to do backing tracks. The hardest part was being told that maybe, possibly all these amazing things could happen for you, and then it not happening. Being let down repeatedly, and not because of our skill, or because of how great we are as band, but more about circumstantial things, really small things.”
“You know it’s not about whether or not you’re good, [but] it’s still a blow and everyone in the band reacts differently to that kind of rejection. You all have to navigate how everyone else is feeling. For me, when we receive that kind of feedback, I’ll just go, ‘Okay, we just have to work so hard that no one can refuse us and that we are so super awesome!’, but some of the others can be really down about it.
“The funny thing is, I realised that you don’t really necessarily need a label to validate whether or not you’re good.“
‘Wasting’ won’t be released on CD, only online and on vinyl, and once it’s out the plan is to head overseas. The scale of any album touring will somewhat rely on a pending Outward Sound grant application. Best case scenario, the band will tour the west coast of the States, as well as Europe and the UK.
“We saw our statistics on Spotify, and most of the people who are streaming our music are from the UK, which is interesting. Our kind of music seems to appeal to people in England most. We can do a DIY tour easily, so we’ll definitely do Australia, no matter what. It’s music, it shouldn’t be about the money, but unfortunately it is.”
The album will be distributed in the UK and US by Secretly Canadian, who look after a lot of labels including Jag Jaguwar.
“They’re great indie people who we’ve been talking to for a while. I want this to be big, because I just spent three years of my life with it. I did make that clear in my emails, that this is a lot of work. It’s been a very massive fight that we’ve had to do, and I’m really happy what we have here, the product, and we’ve got some amazing videos coming.”