Toby Leaman (L) and Zach Miller (R) of Dr. Dog in West Hurley, New York. [Photography by Nina Westervelt. View more photos of Dr. Dog on Nina’s blog.]
In the alley behind Cedar Street Courtyard in Austin, Texas during last month’s South By Southwest Festival, we sat for a few minutes with Dr. Dog’s Toby Leaman and Zach Miller, discussing the process of recording their new album Shame, Shame. The band traveled to Dreamland Studio, in Hurley, New York and adapted to working with a producer.
Dr. Dog is unique in that the arrangements of their songs emerge in the studio through careful part writing (and revising). While songwriters Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken may bring completed songs to the band, the songs take on a life of their own in the studio, with members refining parts until an agreed-upon “feel” is reached.
In the interview that follows, Leaman and Miller elucidate these studio tactics. The album Shame, Shame is out on Anti- Records on April 6th.
Shame, Shame was recorded at Dreamland in upstate New York. What’s the studio like?
Toby: It’s beautiful. It’s an old church and it’s converted into a recording studio, and then there’s a rectory attached with a bunch of offices and a kitchen. There’s another building, I don’t even know what you’d call it – a parsonage? – where we stayed just at the bottom of the hill from the studio. It was August, so it was hot. But the studio itself was great; the guy who runs it is a drummer, he played with…
Zach: Peter Gabriel.
Toby: Yeah, he’s a real super-duper drummer, and he’s got tons of percussion [instruments] everywhere. And this studio is great: pianos, organs, and all these cool pedals. It’s a little weird because they hadn’t used the tape machine in a long time, so it was a learning curve with that. I mean we use [tape machines] all the time but we weren’t running the board or anything, that wasn’t part of the deal. We weren’t doing anything but playing.
And Rob Schnapf produced the album?
Toby: Yeah, Rob co-produced it. We did about a month of work there, ended up with pretty much just the basic tracks: drums, bass, some guitar, organ, and then the lead vocals. And then we took it back to Philly and touched it up. We did pretty much all the harmonies in Philly at our place.
Zach: They had some [problems] in New York. The tape machine went down for a while. So we were going back from Pro Tools to tape. Fortunately, they were able to make a basic mix onto tape so we could get an idea and work from that. And then we still had all of the tracks on the computer, so actually it worked out in the end.
In terms of songwriting, did you have the songs ready, or do you work them out in the studio?
Toby: Well there are varying degrees of “ready.” All of them had basic structures. I mean the structure gets changed when you bring it to the whole band. For this record Scott and I took whatever songs we thought we wanted to record and made demos of them. Scott’s were a little more involved, full band kind of stuff. And most of mine were just piano or guitar, recorded on a four track. So everybody had heard the songs and we went through them as a band and picked about 15, 16 or 17 songs we wanted to work on, and started from there. The bulk of the writing is done so far as the song itself, what you would call the actual song. 99% of the time the lyrics are completely done, the melody, verse, chorus. Then what’s up for grabs is usually the structure, and then the entire feel.
Arrangements get changed when the entire band gets involved?
Toby: Yeah we have no idea a lot of times, especially on my songs, because they are usually super-sparse, super-stripped down. I’ll have a general idea of what I want the feel to be, but you never know. You just get in and whatever starts working you build off of that. We tried to do a lot live, which we had never tried to do before, and it wasn’t great. We didn’t do it with any real success because we had never worked like that before. We had always been a band where whoever’s in the studio is writing the part of whoever’s playing it. Say it’s me and Zach in the studio and Zach’s doing his keyboard line or piano line, he and I would be writing it together, and if I were doing my bass, he and I would be writing that together. That’s just the way our band works.
So the songs grow organically, part by part, rather than coming in with a finished product?
Zach: Right, a lot of the times the writing and the recording for us is not a separate process, and that’s some of the difficulty we had working specifically with [a producer], for whatever reason. But we were used to writing a part, recording it, not necessarily in any final way, and then working from that, maybe recording it over. But [a producer] wanted to say, “What are the parts? Okay, lets record it.” And we just don’t have that much of a sacred notion going into the recording process. We’ll record a guitar part and be like, “Eh, maybe that’s not the guitar part.” We’re kind of ambivalent about what parts were actually going to be there. It’s constantly a recycling process. Like there’ll be maybe three or four separate piano attempts in a song, or bass parts, or drum parts. And it all sort of cycles on the same tape.
Toby: It’s overdubbed over and over, and everybody’s got their say and it just sort of rolls and rolls. Once you realize [that you’ve found the parts], then a lot of times you’ll just redo that part. Part of our process as a live band, and especially as a recording band, is real strict part writing, where nobody’s playing on top of [each other]. If there isn’t a need for two things, we’re not just gonna have it because there’s a guy in the band who isn’t doing anything [in the song].
Zach: It grew out of recording ourselves, without the luxury of a big studio or an organ. [We only had] four tracks, so we had to be real economical and smart about what we did record. Which is a little contradictory to what I said before, but like I said we don’t have that sacred notion [of recording]. [We’re willing to do] a whole rhythm track, bounce it down and if it’s not right, just start over again.
If songwriting and recording is this on-going process, how do you know when a song is finished?
Toby: You just have a feeling. We’ve been doing it so long. Compared to the amount of effort and real complications that went into making this record, comparatively, Fate was a piece of cake. We had been in our studio, we had already made a couple records there, it was just the five of us, we knew exactly what we were doing, the album took only about a month. But once you do it enough you know, it’s like, “Do we need anything here? Should we put in the tambourine? Should we put in the acoustic guitar? Should we put in the piano?” And usually everyone agrees. We’re very fortunate that there’s very rare occasion where somebody’s straight up opposed. All of our ears sort of gravitate to the same thing, so it’s not that hard for us to agree on what is good about the song and what is bad. Everyone has that idea that it’s for the benefit of the song.