Fast, Loose, and Live with Dr. Dog
It's ironic that Be the Void, the new album by Dr. Dog, begins with a song lamenting being "Lonesome." Ironic considering the band's steady rise: A couple of well-received albums on indie label Park the Van attracted fans and wooed critics throughout the 2000s, leading the band to a contract with Anti Records. With 2010's Shame, Shame, the band confidently stepped into the spotlight. "Lonesome"? More like "In High Demand."
It's been a curious journey, and lead singer and guitarist Scott McMicken, fresh out of the band's Philadelphia rehearsal space, is happy to discuss Dr. Dog's new album, new members, and how the project sprang from nondescript roots. When McMicken started out, Dr. Dog wasn't even a band — just McMicken and bassist/vocalist Toby Leaman "fooling around" by "putting sounds" on tape. Initially calling themselves Raccoon, they became Dr. Dog once it became apparent a "proper" band was needed to tour.
"When we started as a band, it was all about making recordings — not even albums, just recording," McMicken says of time spent experimenting with Leaman on an old eight-track recorder. "One of the things we really enjoyed about that, looking back, is that when you don't really even have a band, there is this really creative vibe. You can make it up as you go. The recording process was more about inventing the sound of the band. We did that enough to put out enough songs to go out and tour."
Some of these early recordings surfaced as Psychedelic Swamp in 2001, but it was with 2002's Toothbrush that the confluence of right place/right time/right chick story kicked in, as McMicken's now ex-girlfriend got close enough to My Morning Jacket's Jim James to pass along a copy of the record. James liked the quirky, self-produced album enough to invite Dr. Dog on two tours, endearing them to both jam-banders and indie scenesters.
More albums and years of relentless touring — cementing the band's live-party reputation, with extended, jagged guitar solos, spot-on harmonies, and thick black sunglasses on display every night — eventually attracted Anti Records. After Shame, Shame, the band's trajectory rocketed upward. But using an outside producer revealed a different side of Dr. Dog.
"For the first time, with Shame, Shame, we weren't just going into this very playful [recording] situation," McMicken says. "We love to tinker with the songwriting side or arrangement side — all of those things. We did, but it wasn't just us making the decisions . . . It felt different working with other people."
And though Shame, Shame worked fine, the band — guitarist Frank McElroy, keyboardist Zach Miller, drummer Eric Slick, and Tucson native and multi-instrumentalist Dimitri Manos — has returned to its carefree roots with Be the Void.
"When we began planning for the album, producers came up, and we even tried one out and thought for a minute we were going to [use him]. But at the end of the day, it all came down to that we're the most happy and confident in our own little world," McMicken says. "We used a producer [on Shame, Shame]. Even though it didn't go exactly the way we wanted it to, it offered a lot of lessons."
With Be the Void, the band decided the only approach to take was one like the old days, with experimentation and a laid-back mentality.
"Obviously, we can't go that far back, but we can't deny the fact that we've been a band so long . . . that people expect things from us. But it's a strong effort to try and work that way again," he says. "A lot has changed since the first album, but we're taking that attitude of working faster and being playful and reckless and not being so detail-oriented."
Other changes took place in the wake of Shame, Shame's release. Manos, who fronts Golden Boots and had toured in Dr. Dog previously, became a full-time member. His "encouraging abstraction" (and crazy homemade sound-effects machine) completes Dr. Dog's well-rounded sound. "He really helps with the almost imaginary side of a song and dynamic," McMicken says. And Slick, who performed with Adrian Belew and Project Object, has replaced drummer Juston Stens, bringing a heightened technicality to Dr. Dog.
"They really round the group out, first and foremost with their attitudes about the band. They both really love it. That carries a lot of weight, especially by contrast to working with someone who really didn't love it that much. You could always get stuff done, but there was a little bit of friction," McMicken says. "When you've got everybody fired up and comfortable in their roles and challenging themselves and doing things on their own and fully committed, that makes everyone stronger. We got two more dudes who are like that, and that made everyone better for sure."
The result is a loose album with a tight feel, juggling styles ranging from Velvet Underground-like drones to disco-y pop and country to straight-ahead rockers, with plenty of genre-bending in between. The most unexpected track is "Warrior Man," a '70s glam rocker with psychedelic overtones captured in '60s organ swirls, fuzzy guitars, and space-age sounds. The track actually began as a joke in the studio but morphed into a full-blown song, one McMicken didn't expect would make the album cut.
"But that was a good manifestation of what we built in making this album," he says. "It was something that was totally relevant [to] what we wanted it to do. It was playful and rewarding . . . It went from a joke to something we were actually jamming on to somebody writing more verses to actually recording it. That was a surprise. And then, when it was done, we still didn't think it was going to be on the album."
The album's feeling and subsequent song textures can be linked directly to live-in-the-studio recording, something new for Dr. Dog. Emulating the band's frenetic on-stage experience was the objective.
"What it comes down to is the desire to create something real, and it really doesn't matter at the end of the day if what you recorded is perfect," he says. "I think it's necessary to understand that your product is what happens when six people do their particular thing. Unless you're actually playing together, that can't really happen. It's what comes together in all of us. I think it's a romantic notion, but I think it's fundamental to who we are as a band."
Be the Void comes out Tuesday, February 7, and McMicken is eager to show it off with a lengthy tour that will begin days before the record's release.
"The way things are going these days, it's just the time to get the most out it. It's not just a concept; it's something I hope we can hold to as long as possible," he says. "We worked really fast and are extremely satisfied with the record. What we now need to do is go tour. Everything kind of leads to this. I've been in a band so long that's one of the things I enjoy — just seeing where it takes you."
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