ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Dr. Dog

Dr. Dog caught my attention a couple years ago with the release of We All Belong. Jay, our illustrious intern, was a fan and dropped the advance on my desk one afternoon. Before I knew it, I was tracking down every Dr. Dog release I could find, and I was zooming down I-40 to catch their show in Memphis.Dr. Dog caught my attention a couple years ago with the release of We All Belong. Jay, our illustrious intern, was a fan and dropped the advance on my desk one afternoon. Before I knew it, I was tracking down every Dr. Dog release I could find, and I was zooming down I-40 to catch their show in Memphis.

I ran into a grade school friend at the show, and can’t forget standing in front of her friend, and overhearing this guy dismiss Dr. Dog while he spilled a little Pabst down the back of my leg. And ever since, I’ve found that most folks either love Dr. Dog or remain apathetic. But as they say, you can’t please everyone-especially ever-snarky indie music journalists-and yet, people can’t seem to get enough of their throwback harmonies, straightforward rhyming patterns and catchy, down-home simplicity. Live, they’re just getting better. They blew the crowd away at SXSW this year. Their crowds appear to be getting larger and those who’ve followed the band for years become more rabid fans with time. Like it, or not, Dr. Dog has made an impression, and if they keep up their marathon work ethic, they won’t be fading into obscurity anytime soon.

On Fate, one finds Dr. Dog distilling another powerful batch of songs. Fans won’t be displeased and it’ll convert some of those indifferent folks to the fold. Toby Leaman, who shares co-writing duties with Scott McMicken, took some time out of his day to answer some questions for American Songwriter.

I saw you play before Tapes ‘n Tapes at SXSW this year, and you had everyone going bonkers. Jeffrey Lewis was there, and he was into it. As a band you sounded tighter than I have ever heard you before. How has working in the studio again affected your live performance, or vice versa?
Well, we’ve always looked at the studio and the live show as two different animals. There is no hope of duplicating one in the context of the other. That said, we are indeed affected. Whenever we come off of touring, that is as good as we’ve ever been at playing our instruments. And whenever come out of the studio we’re as good as we get at writing parts. I will say that the part writing in the studio definitely determines how long it takes for us to be competent and comfortable live. We’ve never dumbed down a part in the studio because it may be difficult to sing and play at the same time. Also there are things in the studio that would take army of octopuses to play live. What we try to do live is find the things that are essential to the song and then junk the rest of it. For some songs it is easier than others, and for a few it’s seemingly impossible. Those are the ones that stay home. So far as sounding tighter, we’re just a better band than we were, been playing the songs longer, I guess.

Were any changes made in the studio for Fate?
The initial idea for this record was to record it somewhere else. We thought that if we recorded in our studio where we recorded We All Belong it would end up just sounding like a continuation of that album. We tried putting together a new studio with our buddy in his barn, but it didn’t work. We then decided to stay at our studio and bring in someone to help make the record, which is something we’ve never done before. He ended up getting very ill and couldn’t be a part of it. Then we considered going to someone else’s studio, which was terrifying and horrifying. In the end we wound up on our own in our own old studio. We spiced it up a bit. Added an upright piano and ditched the baby grand. Got some compressors and new mics and a water cooler. Then we just pounded it out all day, every day for two months, working in shifts and burning the candle at both ends.

Were these songs stockpiled away, and polished, or worked on specifically for this album?
Scott and I are always writing if we’re home. The rule of thumb is to split the records right through the guts, half his songs and half mine. Because of this and because we like to keep our albums short, and because he and I have been writing songs together for 15 years, we have a glut of songs. A plethora. Huddled masses-some very old and dusty and some whose balls haven’t yet dropped. Fate, like all our albums, is a mix between the two. We came into the album with about 30 songs considered and then just started chopping away. He and I have carte blanche to say what ever we want about the other’s songs. Usually, if one of us is unsure about the quality of the song, the other can tell right away if it’s worth its salt. When we decided to call the record Fate and tried to tie the songs in thematically, it really made the song selection much easier.

After We All Belong, was the writing experience any different this time?
Every time we do an album we find something new and exciting to work off of. And every time we finish an album we think, “Shit, I wish I would have known that was going to happen when we started this song,” thinking that we could have done whatever it was a little better because it just kind of snuck up on you and you started messing with it before you knew what it was. So then when you write the next song. Maybe that little tidbit is in your mind. So far as the actual writing process nothing has ever changed for me. I stick with the tried and true, Tuesday at three in the morning finding something to hold onto. If the song works on acoustic guitar or piano with you singing real quiet, it’s probably going work in whatever arrangement the band can come up with.

“Army of Ancients” contains a lot of fable/literary allusions. Tell me about writing that one.
That song is about complacency. When a person or a culture stops caring and their mind shuts off. This leaves people very open to making awful decisions. When other people think and act for you, you become a breeding ground for the most base and carnal afflictions-vanity, greed, laziness. These are the themes of Aesop, folklore and parables. When I wrote this I tried to recall all the fables and bible stories I could remember that dealt with these vices, and then I tried to make them rhyme.

What’s the story behind “The Rabbit, The Bat, and The Reindeer?” Where did the idea for this particular song come from?
It’s Scott’s song, though I can say it is about a year inside a crumbling relationship. The rabbit, the bat, and the reindeer are holidays-Easter, Halloween, and Christmas. A lot of the songs have lyrics setting two scenes or ideas against each other, with one nullifying the other, a kind of call-and-response, like in “From” or in “The Ark” or “The Rabbit, The Bat, and The Reindeer.”

How does this tie in to the over-all theme of the album?
The idea of pushing two separate agendas within a song is a way of showing cause and effect. If you set up a scenario in the verse, one of two things can happen in the chorus: You can ride that mood out and try to come up with a more precise and interesting way to say the same thing, or you can change the feeling to touch on the possibilities of whatever scenario you’ve created. Maybe it turns out good, maybe it turns out bad, or maybe it just toes the line. The beauty of using fate as the theme for an album is that it doesn’t really matter what happens within a song. As long as something happens, you can chalk it up to fate.

How do you whittle away, if you will, at some of the broader themes with your lyrics?
It seems that we’ve always written about broader themes. I don’t think I’m very good at writing anecdotally. I guess when you’re younger and less secure in your writing it’s easier to write broadly. It’s like a mask where you can pretend you’re every man and the only things that affect you are the things that affect everyone. The human condition is very different than that girl in your ethics class. For me, that’s what I came up with, and that’s where I feel strongest and most comfortable. Also, these broader themes consume me; they keep me up at night. The same shitty question you’ve been asking yourself since the nightmares started, “Why?” Fortunately, these questions will never be resolved. They can always be returned to. It’s like unraveling a ball of yarn while someone keeps knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting…

A.A. Bondy played before you at SXSW too, what do you think of him and his songwriting?
Bondy is the real deal. He’s a good man with a family. He and his wife live up in the burned out district in the fabled Catskills with Rip van Winkle, Garth Hudson and the remnants of Noyes’ whacked-out commune. He is a talent and his writing is very unaffected, without pretense. His voice is his own.

You have some incredible label mates, have toured with some super folks, and will tour with Wye Oak in the fall, so who is on your wish list of folks you want to tour/play with?
Tom Waits, Ween, Neil Yong, Beck, Joanna Newsome.

Do you get to write on the road?
Almost never. I wrote the verse to what I thought was going be my best song on the album in a stall in Missouri. It didn’t make it on this one-maybe the next. But writing on the road is definitely the exception.

What does the band do to relax while out on the road (putt-putt, movies, billiards, etc)?
The entire van listens to Howard Stern. He’s on six hours a day in a continuous loop, which is great for driving. In the van, we’ve got NY Times crosswords, Scrabble, and we just got into Boggle. On days off we try to get outside for a hike or to throw around the baseball. On very rare, but much anticipated occasions, we play paintball.

What other creative outlets do the fellas of Dr. Dog participate in when not touring or recording?
Scott is always doing something creative. He records other bands at the studio or paints. I just bought a house with my wife last year. I built a brick patio and some raised beds, put in a downstairs bathroom, and now I’m building a bathmat made of moss, so when you step out of the shower you’ll be standing on a bed of moss. Juston works on his bike and is a pretty badass carpenter. Frank is in the process of walking the entire city, street by street, methodically planning his route using what seems to be a near scale map of the city in his bedroom. The last time I saw Zach, he was trying to learn Crepuscule with Nellie on his roommate’s piano. Incidentally, Zach’s roommate is Brendan Cooney, the guy we work with for the string and horn arrangements on the albums.

Are you seeing new faces at all your shows? Feel like your picking up new fans?
Yes, and yes. Before we would play a city two or three times before people started showing up, now we might play a city we’ve never been to and there’ll already be some fans there. It’s a good feeling, indeed.

What’s been your favorite venue over the past year?
We’ve always liked Schubas in Chicago. Philly has a newer place called Johnny Brenda’s that’s pretty decent. I like the 400 Bar in Minneapolis. I will say singing the national anthem at the Phillies game was my clear choice for a favorite. It’s their year this year. Once Howard gets back on track they’re gonna be unbeatable. J-roll’s healthy again. Victorino and Burrel are swinging the bat good this year. Greg Dobbs is becoming a pinch hitter for the ages. And of course 2008 NL MVP Chase Utley is leading the league in homers and RBIs not to mention a .320 BA and a certain Gold Glove. So far as pitching goes of course we don’t need to worry about Moyer, he’s a workhorse and the lineup always puts up good numbers behind him. Cole Hamels is a pitching machine, getting eight innings deep into every game he plays. Unfortunately, there’s that cocksure, wife-beating butt-hole of wannabe ace, Myers, but he’ll burn himself out. He’ll be in Reading by August. Lidge is the real deal and making yesterday’s golden boy Billy Wagner look like soft toss. Gordon is a little shaky but I’ll think he’ll get it together. Of course, I think this season will once and for all put to rest the debate of picking Charlie Manuel over Larry Bowa as manager back in the doldrums. And not to be forgotten, the greatest mascot of all time, the Phanatic, is a perennial favorite at the ballpark. He continues to wow crowds and frustrate the opposition with his unforgettable antics.

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