Last summer, rock ‘n’ roll six-piece Dr. Dog made a return to its Philadelphia home studio to record its seventh album, Be The Void (Anti-). In MAGNET #85 (order a copy here), we talked to the group’s founding members, co-songwriters and vocalists Scott McMicken (guitar) and Toby Leaman (bass) about that journey, and what it takes to bring a band with a formidable label deal and a professional touring setup back to its DIY roots. One thing that has remained consistent in Dr. Dog’s music across its evolving career is a juxtaposition of existential, occasionally desperate lyrical concerns with exuberant pop songs. In this extended interview, we delve into that dichotomy with Leaman and McMicken. Dr. Dog keyboardist Zach Miller will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.
“That Old Black Hole” (download):
MAGNET: When I first heard Be The Void, I immediately went back and listened to Easy Beat, since the sound of the drums—so raw and overblown—reminded me of it. I love that about it, and after Easy Beat, your albums made a progression away from that, toward not necessarily a clean sound, but definitely something more polished and refined.
McMicken: That’s awesome to hear just because, as difficult as it is to describe, we talked about it a lot. As the band progressed and all these changes occurred—playing better, bigger shows, learning a lot about musicianship and the things Dmitri and Eric have done to enhance these ideas—all that has really pushed things in to this brand new domain for us. At the same time, what has come about in the past couple years, this kind of return—not that it ever fully left—of general fearlessness and a kind of intuitive style of working that’s essentially less thought out and based more on the confidence of getting together a bunch of people who are aware of what’s going on and having fun. Which is very much all that went on in the early days. We had not much idea about performance, not much idea about “this is the identity of the band to be captured in the recording,” it was all just the general spirit to want to do it for the love of doing it. Of course, that’s pushed us out to being a touring band, and being a touring band has shaped things so much. In my mind, if there was a goal with this new album, it’s to kind of bridge the gap between everything we’ve gained over the years and everything the new members have brought to the table, mixed with the earlier days—just the heightened kind of spirit about things, the freedom to just trust the situation and not feel pressure and not feel stress.
A lot of songs on Shame Shame dealt with feeling out of place. Was that you reacting as songwriters to Dr. Dog becoming a more successful band?
Leaman: I don’t really know that it’s “a reaction to”; it’s just where our heads were. It was sort of a dark period mentally for the band, and then having a very disheartening experience recording it at first part. I think those sort of became the songs we were gravitating toward subconsciously. Those were the ones that were working probably because that’s the way we were feeling. So it all played out like that. I wouldn’t say it was a reaction to anything, other than just to say how you’re feeling today isn’t a direct reaction to everything else. It just is.
By comparison with Be The Void, there’s not any one thing I could point to and say, ‘This is what this album is about.’ There’s a lot of things the album is about. “These Days” echoes the themes on Shame Shame, but there’s also a lot of heartbreak, a lot of frustration, a lot of feeling unsatisfied …
Leaman: I feel like that’s a tone across everything we’ve ever recorded and will never go away because that’s partly why you write—to work through whatever you’re thinking of. A lot of times, a good way to get your head in the right spot is to work it out on paper and try to think about it real succinctly. You’re always going to be frustrated by something. And everybody’s always going to be frustrated by something—there’s always going to be a market for songs about frustration. But I definitely think this album is more of a collection of songs.
McMicken: This dude the other day, I was doing an interview, he asked why we ‘write pop songs for new hippies about dark themes and guilt.’ And I was like, “Woah, what the heck kind of question is that?” And then I started thinking about it, and it’s a perfect question. Every one of those things is so loaded, every aspect of that question. But what I wound up realizing about our band and what all this means to me and Toby has everything to do with that question. There’s these certain realities about your life, and things you go through. And life is this struggle in one way. There’s always this balance being sought, and at various points, you’re not always with it. But as long as you know that even when you’re not with it that you’re moving back toward it, no matter how close you get to those negative points or those imbalanced points, then you’re living well I feel like. You really are just upholding your end of the bargain and being a responsible human being. So what’s most important in writing about it and presenting it with your band is making it understood that there is another side to that coin, and that this is not the be-all end-all of all things, even though I’m taking this amount of time to focus on things. And even though I’m going to take this, play it in a band, and put it on an album, it has to be clear. That’s been an interesting part of the evolution of our band, when we first started I feel like we were very heavy handed about opposing that perspective in our songs with an excessively cartoonish, childlike aesthetic.
Leaman: That was always sort of the thing when we started this band, is that it was a form of escapism. We started this band, all being in a bunch of bands dealing with all the bullshit you are in little bands succeeding at various levels, or not succeeding, being frustrated, having people not into it or other people are pushing it too hard. So we started Dr. Dog like, “Let’s just grab whoever’s around and have a blast.” But as writers, we still gravitate to those things we think about the most, which are usually the most complicated things in your life. So yeah, to get away from that, thinking about the band being a real positive forces, like Scott said, we probably went a little over the top with the cartoonish approach and maybe the overly saccharine qualities. I still love that stuff but it’s we would not feel comfortable doing it now. The other paradoxical thing too about writing about your complications and frustrations is that when you’re writing that stuff, by the time you’re bringing a songs to a band, you’ve already go so much satisfaction out of the song … like when you write a song, you write a good line or a good melody, then you feel great. Whatever it was that was a hangup, you transform it into this awesome thing that you’re really proud of. And then you bring that to the band, and they’re psyched about it to. So it’s this awesome transformative thing, these things you’re struggling with become what you perceive as a triumph, something good.
That must also make it easier for you as a performer to revisit those songs once you’re emotionally completely past whatever circumstance inspired them.
McMicken: Totally! On a practical level, that’s super important, I think about that a lot when I look at other bands who maybe don’t do that as much, or don’t seem as interested. I think, ‘Crap, man, you have to go and you have to sing like that and you have to sing those songs and say those things night after night. Not only have you not built this thing that is your instant out in terms of understanding and assessing things honestly and realizing how small it really is … ’
Leaman: Now you have to revel in it.
McMicken: You have to present it as its rawest, most irrational point, over and over again.