Dr. Dog

Philadelphia-based indie rockers Dr. Dog are known for bright, twangy, dance-inspiring instrumentals meshed seamlessly with heart-wrenchingly soulful vocals. They’ve earned a reputation for creating the kind of music that can make anyone want to pick up a tambourine and swoon over brilliant lyrics that address the broad range of human emotion. With the release of their latest album, Be the Void, this past February, a line-up change, and a reclaimed use of self-production, the band continues to blow fans away with consistent hits.

I recently had a chance to speak with Dr. Dog guitarist/vocalist Scott McMicken to discuss the band’s post-apocalyptic recording location, plans for the future, and new music recommendations.

Did you tour pretty extensively after the release of Be the Void?

Yeah, we did. We went out on tour for about 6 weeks right around the time it came out, from early February to early spring, then took a month off. Then, all through the late spring and summer we just traveled around a lot, doing festivals, kind of one-off trips. We busied ourselves all summer going out on the weekends, so it was a relatively easygoing summer getting to be home and playing. Now we’re kicking off another 6-week tour to wrap up the tour cycle for the new album.

And this is all coming after you added Dimitri Manos and Eric Slick to the lineup — you’re now touring and supporting the album that they were a part of recording. Do you you feel that performing live is solidifying their presence in the group and reinforcing their place?

Yeah, absolutely. As far as the transition of them into the band, it worked out well, in so far as they joined right after we finished Shame, Shame, the album before the last one. We toured that whole album with them in the band even though they weren’t a part of making it. It was really that year that solidified what they were bringing to the band and gave them time to settle in and evolve.

It also gave Eric time to find the balance between playing parts that were already written with slowly adding his own flavor and not just duplicating what we had been doing. We were all very big on him finding his own voice while also, of course, playing songs the way that they go. That tour gave him time to settle in and understand what we were already doing, as well as add to things based on his talents and abilities. The same is true for Dimitri. His role was so broad, so he had a good long time to sort of invent the instrument that he’s playing.

After all that touring, I think that we had plenty of time playing together to understand where things were, and then we recorded. It was awesome recording and working on songs from the start with those guys because then their ideas and their input was there on the ground floor. Going out and touring on those songs now is cool because, you know, it’s not some adapted thing. Eric does what Eric did, and Dimitri does what Dimitri did, and I think it’s been cool — another step in just getting in the groove with the new work.

I feel like you guys create such upbeat music — it’s playful and danceable, but you touch on deeper topics and talk about things like loneliness, distance, and walking on eggshells. Do you consciously try to balance the two or is that something that effortlessly manifests when you create your music?

I think it’s a very conscious thing. Writing songs and playing music encourages you to look closer at harder things because there’s a reward in doing so. You’re giving yourself the chance to sit down and think harder about what’s bothering you and what you might be struggling with, and if you do so in a way that’s honest and aesthetically pleasing to yourself, it always feels like you’ve made some progress. So it’s therapeutic, I guess.  

We do put a lot of effort into making the music reflect the brighter side if the lyrics don’t, and therefore the statement is balanced, mostly for our selves, I think. Even when the lyrics are trying to say something about those more difficult things, there’s always effort made, candidly, in the lyrics to also try to address that there’s another side to the coin — that you’re not necessarily trapped by something. You’re not giving in to this dark thing — you’re just being honest and willing to look at it.

Sometimes you can do that even with just cleverness, like you can have a song that just does nothing but dish out really dark ideas, but if there’s maybe a bit of cleverness or a sense of humor in the way it’s done, then that in and of itself represents the lightness and the playfulness that still ought to exist even when you’re down and out or whatever. But, yeah, long story short, that’s something that we’re very conscious of, and it’s something that you try to strike a balance with as a songwriter. You may be consumed with focusing on harder things in life, but you don’t want to feel as though you’re just creating more of that darkness — you’d rather give yourself a way out of it.

There is a time and a place for all things, and sometimes the balance isn’t necessary. A lot of the music I like isn’t always seeking that balance I talk about, but for this band, for sure, that is the case, and I think early on we were even more extreme about it. Everything had to be so bright, colorful, cartoonish, and energetic. We were almost overcompensating for the darkness that we felt existed in our motives behind songwriting, but over time I think that we’ve allowed that to breathe a little bit more. We can start to touch on different feels and flavors, and the arrangements and the way we play may be more in synch with the lyrics. It’s complex in a way, but yeah, it’s conscious move.

You produced Be the Void on your own. After using a producer for Shame, Shame, do you feel that, moving forward, you’ll continue the trend of self-production?

The way we did Be the Void is, in essence, the way we’ve done everything with the exception of Shame, Shame — that was a brief departure from our normal way of working. We have our own studio where we’ve always recorded on our own, but with Shame, Shame, we spent a month working with producer Rob Schnapf in a different studio. We didn’t end up completing the album in that way — we wound up working on what we did down there back in our studio for a couple of months. It was a mix of the way we normally work with the introduction of a little bit of something else as well.

With Be the Void, we began talking about that situation on account of the new members and also a new buddy of ours, Nathan Sabatino. He had moved to town from Tucson and is just a great friend, a great musician, and a great engineer. On account of all those factors, we just figured we had everything we needed to go into making the album in our own place without a producer.

I do think that for the next one we’ll continue down that route because I feel like we still have plenty of things to pursue. I feel like we can really just pick up where we left off with the last one. We have a lot more experimenting to do and a lot more pushing ourselves in different ways to do. But who knows? After that, maybe it’ll be time to shake things up, get out of our comfort zone, and let in foreign elements, go somewhere else, work with someone else. I’ll try not to say too much in advance, but it does seem like we will go about the next one the same way we did Be the Void.

What’s next for Dr. Dog? You’ve got your current tour, then are you taking a break or heading right back into the studio?

I think definitely, after this tour, the next thing we’ll be focusing on is making an album. I think what we’ll probably do — what we normally do — is decide when that’s going to be, and we’ll probably shoot to start around February or March. Once we decide when it’s going to start, we’ll give ourselves a couple of months for everybody do something, do some writing, make some demos at home, come up with a good pile of material.

Our studio’s this kind of factory place in Philly, and we’ve been there since 2005. It’s awesome, but it seems as though everyone agrees that it’d be nice to move out of the city and have the studio somewhere a little more rural, more secluded with more breathing room. We’re kind of just in the heart of this real post-apocalytic wasteland neighborhood where we’re not bothering anybody, which makes it cheap, but it’s not the most inspiring place to hang out when you’re in the studio. We’ve all just been thinking about getting something going on out in the woods somewhere, so we’ll spend a couple of months trying to find something to either rent or buy at the end of the year. That also gives us time to move all our gear over and set it up, so that’s going to be the next thing we focus on for sure. 

What are some bands you’re listening to now that you’d recommend to our readers?

The bulk of this tour that we’re on right now is with this band Cotton Jones. I’ve been such a big fan of theirs for a few years now. We’ve tried to tour together a few times, and it hadn’t worked out schedule-wise until now. They’re just so good. Another band that I never hesitate to spread the word on is a band from North Carolina called Floating Action. They’re for sure one of the best unsung heroes in modern music right now. I’ve been listening to this band Shovels and Rope a lot, as well as a songwriter called Pepi Ginsberg. Her new band is called Companion, and they’re shaping up into something really awesome. There’s also a band I recently started getting into called Foxygen, and they have a cool, weird world going on with their music. I think that’s a pretty good cross section of the newer stuff I’ve been listening to. 

Tickets to Dr. Dog’s performance at the Ford Theatre in Los Angeles on October 5th are still available.

Dr. Dog Tour Dates:

09/26 – Memphis, TN @ Hi-Tone
09/28 – Utopia, TX @ UTOPiAfest
09/29 – Fort Worth, TX @ Fort Worth Music Festival
10/01 – Tucson, AZ @ Rialto Theatre
10/02 – Flagstaff, AZ @ Orpheum Theatre
10/04 – Santa Ana, CA @ The Observatory
10/05 – Los Angeles, CA @ Ford Theatre
10/06 – San Diego, CA @ Fourth & B Concert Theatre
10/07 – Pioneertown, CA @ Pappy & Harriet’s
10/09 – Boulder, CO @ Boulder Theater
10/10 – Omaha, NE @ Slowdown

For more info, visit Dr. Dog’s website.