Exclusive Q&A: The Do’s Olivia Merilahti Talks Music, French Advice, and Food Theory

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How do you you pronounce The Do? The English say “The Do,” as in Scooby Doo. The Finnish say “The Du,” translated as, “The Dying.” Olivia Merilahti, lead singer of The Do, clears up the confusion by referencing The Sound of Music: “the scene where she teaches the kids, ‘Doe a deer a female deer'” — it’s pronounced like the music note.

The Do are not a Gothic death-metal band, as the Finnish imagined. They are a duo that infiltrated the French music charts last year, becoming the first French band to hit number one with an album sung in English. This is not to imply that they are Lady Boy and Lady GaGa Pt. II — they are decidedly indie.

“Thanks to the Internet, the boundaries are broken and the French have become less shy about singing English,” explains Merilahti, who says recent French bands have adopted a “fuck the labels, and fuck the rules” mentality. The French labels attempted to persuade The Do to sing in French; Merilahti said, “No way! That’s my art, I’m not going to change,” and then she and her co-songwriter, Dan Levy, wrote A Mouthful, their number one album. Merilahti later adds, “We have to cope with the fact that we’re not virtuosos, we’re not very, very high skilled, but we manage to get some kind of sound out of our instruments.”

And by some “some sound,” specifically in the case of the single “Playground Hustle,” she means Levy rocking the Scottish flute, while she imitates “the voice of eight-year-old boys and girls” over the clicking and clacking of Mediterranean bells and a drum-line beat. Their combination of pop sensibility with soundtrack composition quirk comes from their different musical backgrounds — “[Dan’s] been into jazz and classic music, and I’ve been more into the song side. When we met, he didn’t know anything about pop music or the pop scene, and I was curious about jazz. I discovered Thelonious Monk, he discovered Bjork.”

The Do, “On My Shoulders”

Having first met recording the music for the French film L’Empire Des Loups, Merilahti and Levy have worked together ever since, currently on their first US tour. Together, they are meticulous workers who avoid the celebrity life. “We don’t go out much. We like to party sometimes, but we’re so scared to waste time . . . we have this efficiency policy.” The two-day hangover, according to Merilahti, “has to be a really chosen moment.” Levy needs to be in the studio to write songs, while Merilahti needs to be “in the middle of the woods for a time,” only to return to the busy city. She brings the pop influence, he adds in the eclectic instrumentation, as he had during his days scoring films.

Levy and Merilahti are complementary. It’s like the White Stripes — without the incestuous confusion. It’s like The Ting Tings — only not annoying.

“The cars are too big, everything is huge; the proportions are so different than everything in Europe. It’s all human size — you feel tiny. I guess that’s the way you should feel as a human on Earth,” says Merilahti. Her impression of the States is one of humility — the number one band in France can still feel small. And now that The Do has visited us, it is only fair that we visit them in their homeland. We ask what is a crucial French word or phrase to know. Merilahti responds, “Putain! That’s a terrible word…that means fuck! It means prostitute, but everyone says it for ‘fuck.'”

Besides philosophizing about the big US of A and teaching us French, she explains her theory on food, too. Why are the French charts more embracing than the US charts in regards to indie music? She says, “This time the audience really chose and not the record label. [The audience] is not only there for the easy stuff. The whole thing is what TV gives you, what food you eat, the way you live, what you read . . . I usually think about it as the food you eat.” Levy’s parents own a restaurant, and all three of their children are artists. “People who don’t eat well, they’re gonna listen to crap music,” she laughs, “I don’t know, I could be completely wrong.”

If all it takes is a scrumptious meal to produce a band like The Do, we’ll try anything.

Check out The Do’s MySpace here. They are playing New York’s Hiro Ballroom on October 3.

“Playground Hustle” live