MIKE COYKENDALL opens his bag, pulls out a journal, and sets it on the table. On each page are handwritten lyrics, or ideas for lyrics.
"I always have something like this in the works," he says. "For example, if you had told me you were going to be late, I would have opened this up and I would have sat here and looked at a blank page for a little while. And then I might have heard one line in my head, and I'd write that down, and then I'd start thinking of a song—the rhythm, or the delivery of the words."
Since 1982, Coykendall (pronounced "Kirk-in-doll") has filled maybe 100 of these notebooks, and most of the songs he's written began as ideas in these books. "Every so often, I'll grab a stack of the more recent ones, plug in the four-track, put on the headphones, get my guitar, piece through it like this," he says, flipping through the pages, "and wing it."
It's possible that Coykendall is better known as a producer and sideman, having worked on records by She and Him, Bright Eyes, Blitzen Trapper, and others. But he's always been armed with a stack of notebooks of his own material, and the past few years of him "winging it" in front of the tape recorder resulted in the sprawling, adventurous Chasing Away the Dots. It's being released as both a single and a double album: The single-disc vinyl release—an abridged version that was "a financial decision"—is a condensation of the 25-track double disc, which is available only as a digital download. In both cases, the record's scope is both expansive and acutely tight. Each song plays with a different genre in miniature: Anglophile psychedelia, West Coast country-rock, garage-gutter blues, post-apocalyptic hush-folk.
It's the type of rock record that rarely gets made anymore, where each track is an experimental roll of the dice. Taken on individual terms, the songs work wonderfully, but it's to Coykendall's credit that Dots hangs together with such cohesion and coherence—it's the work of a master craftsman who's been a careful student of what made classic records so classic. Dots is both catchy and willfully weird, the type of skewed pop that record collectors salivate over.
"I've been in my mid-40s since I started making this record," says Coykendall, whose father passed away during Dots' recording period. "And there are things you start thinking about around that time a little bit, and I have an interesting angle on that: I'm still doing all the things I was doing when I was 25—I haven't stopped. I've evolved and changed, but I still kind of have the same life I had then. And I feel lucky to have this connection to youth, but also I know time is limited, so it's dealing with a little bit of that kind of stuff."
In the meantime, Coykendall took his cue from another album that used the kitchen sink approach. "I actually at one point was going to try to make it a secret companion to the White Album, where it had 30 tracks, and I would pick the track of mine that most reminded me of 'Rocky Raccoon,' and tried to sequence it that way. That was really hard—to get my record to work using their template. So I gave up on that and made mine a 25-song double disc. Unfortunately, I'm not quite as good as the Beatles. I'm trying! There's only one of me, and I have to be George Martin, too."