Dr. Dog Discusses New, Old Studio Sessions
By Blair Jackson
Dr. Dog is a Philadelphia-based psychadelic rock band featuring mixed acoustics, a bitchin’ rhythm piano, strong vocals and sweet, sweet harmonics. The founders of the band, Toby Leaman (bass) and Scott McMicken (lead guitar) have been playing and recording together since grade school. The band has a seriously independent track record, an energetic live show, and a huge national following.
As a fan of the Black Keys and Delta Spirit, it was only a matter of time before songs from Dr. Dog’s 2008 album “Fate” popped up on my Pandora station. I remember looking down at the screen of my phone, thinking, “Wow. What is this?” The album cover features a Bonnie and Clyde inspired scene that struck me, even as a thumbnail image, as a testament to stark mortality. The album offers a variety of sounds – with dark, gritty tracks like “The Beach” and mellow harmonies and a prancing beats in songs like “Uncovering the Old.”
In order to capture a sound that emulates their live performances, the band ventured outside of their home studio and joined forces with Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliot Smith) to record the 2010 album “Shame, Shame.” Working with a producer proved a challenge for the uber indie band, whose early albums touted a lo-fi production quality under the masterminding of the band members. (“Toothbrush” and “Easy Beat” were both recorded on a Tascam 388. That’s right boys and girls, cassette, not digital.) Though relinquishing creative control in the studio was a struggle, McMicken has said the experience taught the band a lot about engineering and production, and in the end the band mixed and mastered the studio sounds themselves.
The new album, which is strikingly different the DIY albums previously produced by the band, has received mixed reviews from critics. Some have called it “dated” while others have called it “classic.” But isn’t great pop music a little bit of both? Though the themes behind “Shame, Shame” are dark, the rhythm in this album is more powerful (thanks to the studio equipment) than in “Fate,” and though it’s not a full-out uplifting album, the general sense is “Life might get tough, but hey, it’s not so bad. It’s actually kind of beautiful.”
It’s difficult to categorize Dr. Dog into a musical genre. There are times that the pared down vocals and gospel harmonies echo Bright Eyes (“Station”), with whom they are currently sharing the stage. Others have compared them to The Beatles and The Beach Boys, but to me, they are of their own.
Q & A Session with Zach Miller (keyboards)
Q: I read on your website that after “Fate,” there was difficulty formulating a next step. Once you got in the studio and began recording, what did missing ingredient turn out to be?
A: There was always talk of the stylistic gap between our live show and our recordings and Shame was an attempt to bridge that. We never had success tracking live because we were working in our own studio, which wasn’t really set up with that approach in mind, and we always enjoyed overdubbing and the freedom that allowed.
Q: What was it like to put your music in someone else’s hands (Rob Schnapf’s hands to be exact)? In retrospect, how did it affect your sense of artistry and production?
A: There’s a lot we could get into when it comes to talking about our experience working with Rob — not that there are any hard feelings or anything — we were just coming from two completely different angles and it took us a long time to understand that. For example: the Dr. Dog M.O. would record drums, get a decent enough sound and E.Q. them wildly once they were tracked. Rob would spend much more time getting the drum sound, E.Q. everything before it went to tape and then that would be pretty much it until the song was mixed. After we started getting our first drum recordings we said we wanted to get our hands on the board and change the sound and they kept saying “but that IS the drum sound!”, meaning they had recorded the drums as they sounded in the room; we just wanted the drums as raw material for manipulation. They had a much more sacred attitude toward the sounds, it seemed. Ultimately it worked out, though and it ended up being a mix of our two approaches, but it was a very intense process, so much of it was talking about the nature and metaphysics of recording. We were trying to cook the album and they were trying to bake it.
Q: Now that you have a few years (7!? ) of touring under your belt, how is your live performance influencing the evolution of Dr. Dog in the studio?
A: This time we were much more successful getting some of the live sound on record, partly because we learned from the “Shame” experience, and because our new drummer Eric is so rock solid and can lay down a perfect and perfectly in time drum track in no time flat. I think this new batch of songs really is the best of both worlds. I don’t think we’ll ever truly record everything live just because there are so many possibilities in the overdubbing process.
Q: Has it become easier to spend so much time on the road? How have you worked to balance the personal and professional aspects of your life?
A: Boy, how timely is this question… My wife and I just had our first child in June and this will be my first real tour since he’s been around. We just left for tour this afternoon so I’m a little bit uncertain of how hard it’s going to be. It was tough to say goodbye to him after spending every day with him and then realizing I won’t see him for three weeks! Hopefully Skype will make things easier, but I already can’t wait to get back home to be with him.
Q:Tell me about “Be the Void”! Who’s producing it? What’s the vision?
A:Like I hinted at before, it’s a bit more live sounding; we recorded a ton of songs, more than we ever did before. We worked with long time good buddy and co conspirator Nathan Sabatino in our own studio and it was great. By far the easiest recording we’ve ever done.
Q: Also, I saw that you are releasing a 7″ for Black Friday. What songs will be on it? What kind of cool stuff can fans expect to see in addition to the record and music itself? (Art? Special memorabilia?)
A: We got a song on there called “Control Yourself” and one called “Warrior Man”, which were pressed on remnant vinyl — made from the leftover color pellets from other pressings — so every one will be a different color. There’s some really good ones in there.