Back in August of last year I sat down with Dolphin Pal for an interview before their show later that night. The interview was originally supposed to appear in a friend’s zine.
On a predictably humid summer day in Allston, I met up with the band Dolphin Pal. The five piece was on the road from New York and getting ready to play their Boston stop of their tour in a few hours. They would be one of three bands on the night’s bill to help christen an Allston basement that hadn’t been played before.
Formerly known as Tim Lok Chan, the band started while attending Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. Their first release in 2016, was a pair of songs “Thick Skin” and “Kind, Dandy.” June of this year the group put out their first full length project, “Slight Exhale,” their first release under the name Dolphin Pal.
The album’s seven tracks, feature tight vocal harmonies, mathy guitar riffs and a unique sound that’s hard not to want to keep replaying. In the credits of “Slight Exhale” most of the members are seen making multiple instrumental contributions to bring the whole project together, ranging from banjo to toy piano.
Our conversation took place in a house adjacent to the basement they would later play in.
You guys are on the road right now with Modern Vices. If I’m not mistaken the first time you played with them was in 2015 at Stables. Was that when you first met?
Mike Stein: Alex (the singer of Modern Vices) used to go to Skidmore. He was only there our freshmen year and Modern Vices got signed to Autumn Tone records in 2014. That's the same label as Twin Peaks, and Alex decided to leave school for that reason. When he was at Skidmore, the first musical thing I did was try to be at Beatlemore* and Alex, Lucas, and some other people in my grade and I were making a band for it. When he dropped out we always stayed in touch and Modern Vices would come visit us and hang with us when they came to Skidmore. Did we play anywhere else with Modern Vices besides Skidmore?
Full Band: Chicago.
Ethan Carpene: Which is where they're based out of.
MS: We played in Chicago with them two years ago with Spooky Action Space Captain which was sick.
For folks who don’t know, can you explain what Stables is, and tell us a little bit about the Skidmore music scene?
Jason Block: RIP Stables.
Oh is it gone?
MS: I think we played the last Stables party actually.
JB: They started renting to kids at the navy academy. Which was definitely a good decision on their part.
EC: Up until that point it was customary that the renters at Stables would throw huge parties, and a lot of those parties would typically have live music. Sometimes the parties were even based around the music. It was just a good place to hang out on weekends.
MS: It was like the staple- I wouldn't have said DIY venue at the time but it was like the staple Skidmore DIY venue. I'm sure touring bands were coming there and I wasn't as aware of it. Maybe before we were there even. It's sad that it's not still running as a venue. There are other houses now though.
What are some of the other houses?
EC: The Laundromat.
Ryan Accardi: There's one on Catherine Street that's still kind of happening.
Jack Mullin: There's a place on East ave…
MS: I guess the takeaway is that with these venues it all depends on the people coming in. The people who decided to have off campus houses, they can sort of opt in to be a part of that. I realized that for a lot of people who are moving off campus their sophomore or junior year they're just learning about DIY and how that’s a responsibility, and something they learn how to take on overtime. It's something you can't know unless you have experience doing it.
In 2016 you released two tracks “Thick Skin” and “Fine, Dandy.” Were those both written and recorded while you were all still at Skidmore?
EC: So those we wrote 2015 and recorded it at the end of 2015.
MS: Yeah and put it out the end of 2016.
MS: That was right when [Jack] joined the band cause [he] ended up played Fender rhodes on it.
JM: Oh yeah.
RA: I wasn't in the band at that point.
Since then what was the process for writing the new release?
RA: A lot of it was music we were already doing at the end of the 2016-2017 year. A couple of the songs we started recording after the end of that year, but a lot of it was laid down during senior week** and a little bit before that.
JB: All of the drum tracks were spring semester 2017.
JM: We kind of just split it up. Mike and I did this travel seminar to Bali, and when we got back it was a new semester and we were like “Oh, we should probably start recording.”
MS: I would describe that as… We were like “We have to just put this out.” We were just playing these songs for our entire senior year, the year of 2017 at Skidmore, and we were like “We have to do this before we leave.” Now that we have enough we're probably going to record some more songs when we get back to New York.
Since you felt like it was something you just kind of had to put out, how did that influence the order of the tracks? Did you just kind of pick the best ones or did you feel that a flow naturally came out of how you wrote them?
EC: I was about to say that those were just all of the songs that we had, but we'd actually recorded three others that we didn't end up putting on the record. As far as the order went, it was basically just sonically how we thought the songs should go. By no means was there any intention of order when writing.
MS: We kind of always knew “The Hows” was going to be last though.
EC: Yeah. So there were some parameters.
JM: It was a compilation of the songs we were playing and rehearsing and we recorded nine, maybe even ten? And just honed it down to the six plus the other one.
What prompted the band name change to go with the release?
EC: We just sort of felt like it was time to part with the old name. Within the Skidmore community, everyone knew we were named after our friend, Wilbert.
JB: Our friend Wilbert, his full name is Willbert Tim Lok Chan or Tim Lok Wilbert Chan. But he goes by Wilbert. Mike I guess knew first that his full name was Tim Lok Chan and was like “Oh that'd be a sick band name.”
JM: Yeah, I don't think it made sense any longer to keep it.
MS: I feel like part of it too was we felt like we had a fresh opportunity with our first album to actually choose a name. We settled on it because we were submitting for battle of the bands and they were like “What's your name? What's your name?” and we were freaking out like “We gotta have a name.”
EC: I even remember us being like “We can just do this and change it. It's just like a battle of the bands.” And then it never got changed. This was just a good opportunity to start fresh.
Why Dolphin Pal?
RA: I... I don't know. What really is a name?
MS: Honestly, for months Ethan and I were just bouncing names off of each other and we were all running them by each other. We had many iterations. We were gonna be Noser for like three months-
MS: We were gonna be Handstand for a while.
EC: What else? There were others.
EC: Superslug, Timlok, one word.
MS: Tim Lok, two words.
JM: Tim Lok, three words.
RA: It happened really fast. With every other name, the name was proposed and we sat around and iterated for a certain amount of time. This one it was like, Dolphin Pal became our name as soon as it was proposed.
EC: It just was. There was no... I don't know.
JB: I got added to a conference call with Mike and Ethan and they were like “Listen, listen, listen. Dolphin Pal.”
MS: I felt like a big reason that we wanted it was because the other names had more of a connotation with certain communities or with other bands. We didn't wanna avoid it, but we felt like the other names were trying to be part of something. I don't know.
JM: This kind of just is its own thing.
You have a handful of collaborators that helped out on the album. Can you talk about the folks you worked with and how the collabs came together?
RA: We can talk about Eric first.
MS: Alright, Eric is a really good friend of mine. We went to music camp together and always kept in touch.
EC: He plays trombone on “The Hows” and “Shrunk”
MS: He tracked trombone on like four or five of the songs and only two of them got released. We've always just been in tune, our creative relationship has always been really good. We'd always heard trombone on the songs and we were tracking in Boston and we were like “We need to get Eric in here and see what he can do.”
JB: It was actually in this house.
MS: It wasn't even a defined sort of “Can you play this?” It was like-
EC: “Here is this track, just do whatever.” He's great at interpreting sound and emotion.
JM: Another similar situation was with Molly Germer. I sort of knew her work from Alex G.
JB: She’s the violin player.
JM: She's played on recordings of his. I think I ran into her at a show in Brooklyn. I was with Jacob Schwartz (DJ Silky Smooth) a friend, and collaborator. We were just going to a show and I guess he just hinted to me “Oh this might be a show where Alex G is headlining.” But it was a secret, like unannounced. So we just got a chance to just see them with only a handful of people there. We got to meet her and we talked about vintage films for a little and that got the ball rolling, we were like “Oh wouldn't it be great to have her play on 'Shrunk'.” Just hearing her as an instrumentalist really captivated us. It was sort of a similar situation where we had a few written parts but then we let her go with it when we were recording.
EC: Also, with the trombone on certain tracks we just always heard violin too. It's almost fiddle-esque on the track. The track has banjo on it in the studio version and it sort of helped it lean a little bit towards a certain idea or vibe.
EC: Oh, Louise Sullivan.
RA: A good friend of ours.
MS: Who was in the band at some point. We've had like six other vocalists in the band at various times and Louise was there most of the time. We knew we wanted to have her voice on the record in some places (“Those Hands,” Shrunk” and “The Hows”).
MS: Oh yeah and Inge is a friend of my housemate.
JB: Inge is the singer on “Goodbye Don't Cry.”
MS: She was just having a really musical day one day, she was staying at my house for a month, and I walked outside to play guitar and she was like “Wanna just jam a little bit?” And we started playing what that song is, just immediately. There was no discussion about it, it was weird in that way. So I was like “Oh we should record this.” So we just laid down some iPhone tracks and did three takes of it, and we never ended up recording it [in the studio] unfortunately. And I didn't think it would be on the album or anything, there wasn't that intention at all, but I just showed it to these guys and they were like “Damn, this is so sick.” and Ethan was like “Yeah, we should definitely use this on the album.”
JB: Also she’s a famous actress in South Africa right?
MS: Yeah, she's had many roles in cool films and has her own musical career, mostly based in Cape Town in South Africa.
EC: That song too, “Goodbye Don't Cry” is actually just a one minute and fifteen second segment of a fiveish minute take.
MS: One of the three takes.
JM: For post production we enlisted the help… We played this show with Peaer valentine's day 2017 and the drummer, we were using him as like a springboard, and bouncing ideas off of him and we were just talking to him about mastering the album and how it would be done. We were talking to him a lot about the post-production process and if we would just mix it ourselves or have somebody else do it. I mean we were definitely going to have someone else master it and we decided to have Eli Cruz mix on the album, which was really fun. He did some great work on it.
MS: Yeah, we recorded the album ourselves so Eli Cruz was definitely what made it sound more like an album. It was exciting getting it mastered.
And the album artwork was Drew MacDonald (of Vundabar)?
MS: Oh yeah, Drew. So I used to live in the same house as Grayson, and Vundabar ended up coming to Skidmore, they played at Falstaff's, the on-campus venue with us, and then we talked them into playing at Waterbury the next night. So we've hung out with Drew a few times and we've always loved his art. I think he just made an Instagram post and was like “Looking to do more album covers” and we were like “Yes.”
RA: That album cover has existed, or at the least the concept for that cover, has been around for almost as long as we've been recording the album. There were even early ones where it still said “Tim Lok Chan.”
MS: Yeah, like two years.
There's a good variety of instrument playing in the credits. What's your live lineup? How do you translate songs into live sets? Do you have any favorite tracks to play live?
JM: Some of the songs are verbatim, some of the songs we've played around with the arrangements a little bit. Like “Shrunk” we're not doing a banjo, we're using guitar and it's a lot slower.
JB: A lot of the songs are pretty much the same though.
JM: Yeah, “Those Hands” is pretty much the same.
EC: I would say that overall the sound is a little more stripped back than the album, just cause of the tracking of the studio album, but that being said, structurally a lot of the song are the same as they are on the album. Sound wise and the intent it's all there. So Mike plays guitar, Ryan plays keys and sings harmonies, Jason plays drums. Jacks plays the bass, and then I play guitar and sing.
RA: On the record though we all do a bunch of stuff.
JB: Mike played toy piano.
RA: In terms of favorites to play live, I think we're always pretty excited about the new stuff.
RA: I think that's pretty standard for pretty much any band. You're always excited to play the stuff that's most fresh. I know for tonight's show we spent the last few days practicing and spent a lot of time going through old songs, but most importantly kind of learning these new ones. Even when we would get tired rehearsing it was always the new ones that sound awesome. We're super excited about them.
EC: I've been loving the new “Shrunk” that we've been doing.
JB: I feel like there's certain parts of songs I look forward to more than full songs.
And you guys have played Boston a handful of times before right?
EC: Yeah, we love it.
JM: One, two, three, four times.
MS: We've played some of our best shows in Boston honestly. We played at The ER with Tiny Hazard and Strange Mangers, we played Great Scott with Peaer and Hyperlux. We played at Trixie's Palace with Peach Ring.
JS: And the first one I wasn't here for, but that was at Trap Door.
Is the Tim Lok Chan sticker in The ER from you or was that just a devoted fan?
MS: Might've been me.
EC: It was probably us yeah. There's another one, there's a mural and Guy Fieri is on the center of the mural, and right underneath him is a Tim Lok Chan sticker
JB: How many fucking stickers did you put around DA's at Skidmore? Cause I was in DA's and there's like 12 stickers.
MS: Well now that we've changed our name so it doesn't matter. We're excited to be on tour, we haven't all been in the same space for months.
MS: Yeah to give you a sense of how excited I am I literally cleaned out the basement on the other side of the house. Like there was a dead bird in the basement. I took a dead bird out of the basement, it was ridiculous. I did that because I'm so committed.
JB: Do you think the bird died in the basement or someone brought the dead bird into the basement?
EC: Who's to know? That's the real magic of it all.
*Beatlemore is a yearly event at Skidmore College where student bands perform covers of Beatles’ songs.
**A chunk of free time the week before graduation where mostly only seniors are left on campus.