Philly Dog: Dr. Dog plays Aspen
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Toby Leaman says he can’t ever see himself living without a recording studio. When he first got together with Scott McMicken, back when the two were middle-school classmates in Chester County, Penn., the two formed the band Baseball, which was very much a studio project – a pair of 13-year-olds and a Roland TR-808 drum machine (“the quintessential early-’90s drum machine,” Leaman informed me). A couple of years later, the two would record on Leaman’s uncle’s 4-track, and whenever the teenagers earned money, it was promptly spent on microphones, instruments and other musical gear. When McMicken instructed Leaman to give up the guitar and keyboards, and focus on bass, it didn’t throw Leaman much; he could still twist knobs and try out recording techniques.
In 1999, Leaman and McMicken added a few more Philadelphia-area musicians to form Dr. Dog. And still they remained mostly a creature of the studio. As Leaman points out, they spent a lot of time recording – they released their debut album, “Psychedelic Swamp,” in 2001, and followed up the next year with “Toothbrush” – and little time playing in clubs.
Which might account for what Dr. Dog resembles, more than anything, the ultimate studio-only band: late-era Beatles, who retired from playing concerts in 1966, but went on to record “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “The Beatles” (aka “The White Album”), and “Abbey Road.” Like the Beatles, Dr. Dog didn’t concern themselves much with whether the songs they were recording could be replicated on stage. Mostly, they wanted to experiment with layers of cool sounds, odd recording techniques and adding strings, horns and whatever else the studio had to offer in the pursuit of crafted perfection.
“For years we’ve been trying to write pop songs – short, no fat, no air, cohesive, parts flowing into each other,” Leaman said as he and the rest of Dr. Dog – guitarist Frank McElroy, keyboardist Zach Miller, drummer Eric Slick, and McMicken, who plays guitar – drove across Ohio to a gig in Michigan, and eventually on to Aspen, where they play Monday, April 19 at Belly Up. “That’s how we try to record – make them pop, with a hook, a chorus, a verse that works on its own and doesn’t just lead up to a chorus.”
But despite the McCartney-esque Baroque feel of “The Way the Lazy Do,” or the Lennon-like echo of “Ain’t It Strange,” both from 2007’s “We All Belong,” Dr. Dog is not the Beatles. They didn’t make fortunes off straight-up rock ‘n’ roll classics like “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” So, like virtually every band that wants to put some coin in their pocket these days, Dr. Dog learned to hit the road. Fortunately, their early albums showed talent, and they were able to tour in good company: In 2004, they opened shows for My Morning Jacket; they have since been in bills with the Strokes, the Raconteurs, Wilco and the Black Keys. In addition to making appearances on television (“Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” “The Late Show with David Letterman”), they played at festivals like Coachella. This spring and summer, they are set to appear at a bunch of festivals including Bonnaroo, High Sierra and Mountain Jam, where bands are expected to play a full set of live music, not hand out a couple of quick, polished pop tunes and retire to the green room.
So Dr. Dog has come prepared to make a turn in the road. Last year, the quintet took a break from their own West Philly studio – basically a continuation of the studio Leaman and McMicken cobbled together as kids – where they had made all of their previous albums. At Dreamland, a Woodstock-area facility that had been converted from a big, old church, they created “Shame, Shame.” Not only did Dr. Dog relocate for the album, which was released April 6, but they also gave up some control of the studio as, for the first time, they worked with an outside producer – Rob Schnapf, who had previously worked with Beck, Elliott Smith and the Vines.
Much of the goal was to make music that could be recreated on-stage. “It’s sparser than the last two albums,” the 30-year-old Leaman said. Those albums “had string and horns, all kinds of implausible things that could not have happened live. Unless you’re an octopus. This, you could play all the parts live, if you wanted to.”
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On the lyric side, “Shame, Shame” is Dr. Dog’s mature record. Despite the mostly catchy, pop-like sound and structure, Leaman and McMicken, the band’s two writers, are facing themselves – witness the song, “Mirror, Mirror,” and the chorus, “Tell the mirror on the wall …/ There’s no reflection here at all.” Songs like “Jackie Wants a Black Eye,” “I Only Wear Blue” and “Shame, Shame” paint a melancholy mood of people now spending a good chunk of their time shuttling from one town to another.
“We’re all getting older,” Leaman said. “When you turn 30, you think, I’m not a kid anymore, but I’m still an idiot. You think about the stuff you’re missing out on, being on the road.”
“Shame, Shame” also has a lot of their home turf of West Philadelphia in it. “Shadow People,” written by McMicken, speaks about the late-night scene of clubs and underground parties that began to suck him in. Leaman said that the mythical Philadelphia hasn’t been a huge influence on Dr. Dog – for instance, their music has little reference to the Philly soul sound, exemplified by the O’Jays and Teddy Pendergrass, that is the city’s most significant musical contribution.
But Philadelphia is where they happen to live, and Leaman takes pride in the fact that Dr. Dog songs are taken from real life.
“I don’t know if it’s specifically about Philly. We didn’t sit down to write songs about Philly, but about the people we know, the places we live, the lives we lead,” Leaman said. “You write about what you know. It’s more reflecting on your own life – that’s where we’re good as songwriters. If you shy away from that in your writing, then you’re really not writing anything.”
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