The Long Cool Journey of Dr. Dog
With a new album and a show this week at Turner Hall, a band member reflects on its 15-year history.
Pennsylvania-based Dr. Dog made the jump to major indie label ANTI around 2010 but the group still hasn’t lost sight of the scrappy, do-it-yourself mentality that got them where they are today. On last year’s B-Room, the band decided to leave the traditional studio where they had recorded and build their own in an old defunct silversmith mill. There they channeled a soulful vibe, finding freedom in doing it very much DIY. Singer Toby Leaman says for the album they were “trying to get the point across with less fluff…Just a leaner arrangement in general.”
While the music’s rich harmonies have drawn comparisons to bands like The Beatles, Beach Boys and The Band, each new album has helped prove they’re not just honing the past, but instead a uniquely talented band that’s not afraid to probe for something original. Part of their versatility comes from the one-two punch of lead singers Leaman and Scott McMicken, who formed the idea of the band in the 8th grade in the late 90s.
Dr Dog’s fairly accessible sound has caught the attention of new fans young and old. For example, last year they were on kids show Yo Gabba Gabba! and included on vinyl in cases of Flying Dog beer. “You try to get everyone into what you’re doing,” says Leaman. “If kids are into it that’s great, if beer drinkers are into it that’s good too. It’s all good.”
Recently Released Video: Dr. Dog – “Distant Light”
We caught up with Leaman prior to the band’s Turner Hall Ballroom show Feb 5 to talk about B-Room, their soul music influence and getting to see other bands (and comedian Louis C.K.) on tour.
Oh yeah. They all change pretty drastically. There’s a song on there called “Too Weak to Ramble” on the record that’s just me and Scott, just two guitars and a voice. We do that one now with a full band. It sounds really good. “Long Way Down” has horns and stuff and we have to work our way around that song. We all knew that going into it. You’re never sure what’s going to stick live and what stuff you’ll play for a tour. But so far so good. Everything’s been working out alright.
Could you talk about the building where you recorded B-Room? Why did you feel it was the right spot to record?
We started last February and worked on it a month and a half before we started recording. It was a big open space. [The owner of the mill] was happy that the space was getting used for something good and being cleaned up a lot. It looks pretty tight and we always wanted to have our own studio. This one has plenty of room and has a b-room in it, so we have two working rooms that people can record in separately. You can live there if you have to. It’s the kind of the place you always want when you’re a little kid.
What was the biggest influence of the space on the sound?
We have a certain aesthetic that we’ve been chasing down for years and never get too much closer but a little bit closer when we make an album. So we’ve just been trying to get better at it. As far as going for a specific sound I think it’s the same sound we’ve always been going for, just a real sound that is raw and also warm and legit, doesn’t sound bloated or super compressed. An unmanipulated, lean sound.
Much has been mentioned about the Philly soul sound on the album. What attracts you to soul music?
We’ve been listening to that kind of music for years. That whole feel just came from playing together. We focused a lot more on playing together on this record. Everyone in the room, just the six of us playing all day. A lot of times when you’re doing that your parts became a little sparser, a little more nuanced, and everyone underplays just a little bit just to get the vibe right. It just happened to go in the soul realm. I like all the regional soul and there’s merit in all of it. Philly has it’s own quirks and jagged edges.
Back in 2010 recording live was a revelation. How is that working for you now?
Yeah, we’re still going off that idea, the idea of using the band as a median and not necessarily just the tricks that are in the studio. We’ve done that in the past and I love doing that but this is different for us; if you do the whole band as the process and not the individual tracks themselves it’s a way of looking at it.
How do you feel about touring with opener Saint Rich?
I’m looking forward to it. I haven’t met those guys yet. I’m curious to see what those guys are like live. It’s hard to get a sense of what a band is like live just looking at videos. I’m anxious to see the crowd reaction and what those guys bring. That’s always nice for me as a never go out when I’m not with the band, I’m at a club every night so when I’m home I sort of keep to myself. It’s cool when you see a band every night, you get the sense of what they’re actually trying to do.
Do you like being in that role of supporting bands, kind of like other bands were for you starting off?
Yeah it’s a great role to be in. It’s great to give them the opportunity. That’s sort of what makes this whole thing work being in bands. Everyone started as an opener at some point, almost everyone. You help out people when you can and people help you out when they can.
Jim James and My Morning Jacket helped the band early on.
Yeah, that was the first tour that we did and it helped a lot. We had never toured before and anytime you get an opportunity you should do it.
What song or songs from B-Room were especially surprisingly or revealing?
A lot of them were. That was kind of cool about it, that all of them seemed to be different things then we’ve done before. “The Truth” was really revealing. We didn’t know what the fuck we were doing with that one and as soon as we did it so obvious. “Too Weak to Ramble” was one of those where I just wanted to see if we could pull it off live with just two people and a few takes. We ended up using the second take. “Cuckoo” was a different one. It was going to be an acoustic song and I was messing around with it and then Zach and Frank were playing guitar and Erik played drums and we had something. So it went from an acoustic song to a seven minute jam that we edited down and reworked the melodies. That was a fun way to write. Normally you come in and everything’s laid out in front of you and it’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen. But especially with that song it ended up in a totally different place.
Any special recent Milwaukee memories?
Last time we were in Milwaukee at Turner Hall. There’s a great bookstore in walking distance from that. Louis C.K. was there the same night so we caught him before the show and that was really exciting. I don’t see a lot of stand-up comics. It’s always nice to do anything when you’re on the road.
Let’s talk a little bit about the band’s beginning. It started in 1999, correct?
Yeah. We were a pretty ragged outfit at that point. We were playing shows whether we had the gears for it or not.
This year marks roughly 15 years as a band.
Maybe you can get us a cake or something in Milwaukee.
Looking back on those 15 years, what’s your biggest takeaway?
Any time where you’re in a position of control (and) doing what you pretty much want to do, if you can set yourself up in a situation like that, that’s always good. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is. Sometimes you fail horribly at shows. But any situation when you’re in charge and the only people you have to answer is to yourself and a couple other guys, ninety-nine percent of the time it’s a great way to live.