“Insular” is one way to describe Martin Dosh’s mesmerizing, loop-based performances. It means “like an island.” Dosh sits surrounded by a drum set, several keyboards, a slanted mixer and an array of pedals and processors: the maker trapped by choice within a circle of his own design. This image describes his music as well, its tech-enabled solipsism and its concentric patterns of development. Loop-based music, after all, is spun entirely of circles, circuits, wheels, boomerangs, hoops and gyres, even as master loopers like Dosh and his frequent collaborator Andrew Bird grow expert at disguising this fact.
In addition to being a prolific solo act, Dosh is an in-demand sideman and co-writer. Collaborators include Bird, Bon Iver, Bonnie Prince Billy, Glenn Kotche of Wilco and other names that glow. But it is not a typical sideman function that he fulfills. You hire Dosh for a customized circuit of that self-contained Dosh thing, a micro-composition that aligns and interfaces with yours while it retains its own stand-alone wholeness.
Collaboration among his type often comes off as jamming for the Aspie Age: negotiations between parallel solar systems, each responding in subtle and sympathetic ways to the energies and orbits of the other without ever crossing into each other’s dimensions. It is sample-based and technological, but also organic and dangerous. There is no central house clock in Dosh’s music, thus none of that fail-safe, snap-to-grid substructure that makes so much live electronica seem like little more than pressing “Play.”
The player plays it all, and he must approve the integrity and start- and stop-points of each performed loop as it is introduced. Anyone who has seen Dosh live a few times will come to recognize the unconscious shrug that he makes whenever a new loop is confirmed okay. But if it is off, even just a little, watch that castle crumble, baby. The first time that Dosh and Bird appeared on Letterman, performing Bird’s song “Plasticities,” they were one of very few acts ever granted a second take. The loops were out.
In the early ‘90s, Martin Dosh drummed in the Hudson Valley band Como Zoo, a groove-happy rock outfit of kids who had met as underagers at Simon’s Rock College and sort of figured out music together, with guitars, the way that kids will. The band pushed its talented and congenitally extroverted singer and lead guitarist Parker Ramsey to the front, but it was the quirks, hiccups, ripples and folds of Dosh’s self-invented funk drumming that most defined their sound. When the loops were in, that band could really take off.
Even then, Dosh (who was also Como Zoo’s lyricist) strained against the role of “just the drummer” and chased the sounds in his head with an insatiable passion. While Como Zoo gigged hard for years, taking up virtual residency at the Rhinecliff Hotel, at Cabaloosa in New Paltz, at Brady’s Publick House in Poughkeepsie, Dosh was playing, jamming, experimenting every other night of the week as well. He, the gymnastic bassist Rob Lovell and I hosted an open mic for a few years at the Gryphon in New Paltz, performing under the name Drunk Mother Haircut. Getting Rob and Martin to play pop songs was like trying to redirect the mighty Hudson. Primus was in the air then, as were Medeski, Martin & Wood, acid jazz and those first tentative handshakes of hip hop and jam. Dosh played rock and funk but listened to Coltrane.
In my version of the story, it will always be the acquisition of a Fender Rhodes that set Martin on the course to becoming Dosh – that and the influence of our own T. Xiques, another drummer (a master, in fact) who, like Martin, was and is not content with the limits of that identity. Self-quarantined with his Rhodes and his drum kit in an infamous musician’s house on Wurts Avenue in New Paltz, Martin used the electric piano to develop the melodic, harmonic and contrapuntal elements of the music in his head: ambient and textural, yes, but also possessed of a post-bop sense of “line” that is hardly typical of ambient music.
His friends had already heard the beginnings of a few of his signature early compositions before he left New Paltz – strapped for cash and wanting only to make music all the day – bound for his native Minneapolis and his parents’ home, vowing to return here as soon as he could afford to. Ha ha.
Milk Money is Dosh’s sixth solo album of the last decade, which is quite an output considering that he has spent most of that time touring the world with the tireless Andrew Bird and on his own. Its sound is unmistakable Dosh: warm, off-center grooves, block chords on fat analog synths, modal arpeggios, the pawing of soft mallets, quavering human voice samples and (much less than usual) that saturated, overdriven Rhodes blended in pattern-art that is euphonious, motile and weird.
Like each album before it, Milk Money breaks new ground as well. In the studio, Dosh has never strictly obeyed the rules that per force govern his live solo shows. But the accretive, recycling nature of loop-based music is his mode, the voice that he discovered through years of conversations with himself, and he sticks with it as his baseline style, not his only option. On Milk Money more than ever before, it is easy to hear Dosh’s compositions apart from the tools and technologies that he uses to produce them. It is the sound of a composer both mastering and transcending his own method.
The last track and centerpiece of Milk Money, the 25-minute “Legos (For Terry),” may be Dosh’s most patiently developed and conceptually wholesome composition to date. It’s a quiet, gripping work of lightly distressed, moody Minimalism that doesn’t even nod at groove until after the 15-minute mark. (One wonders if the “Terry” in the title might be the great Minimalist composer Terry Riley.) The musical elements seem fewer than usual, arrayed more spaciously, and there’s a new sense of strength and purpose in that. A listener new to Dosh won’t even imagine a man encircled by instruments and effects, improvising and layering in elective isolation. But I do.
Dosh with the Sweet Clementines & the Fasads, Tuesday, December 3, 8 p.m., $8 advance/$10 day of, BSP, 323 Wall Street, Kingston; tickets available at Outdated in Kingston, Jack’s Rhythms in New Paltz, Darkside Records in Poughkeepsie; https://bit.ly/HFUj5D, www.bspkingston.com.