A Check-up with Dr. Dog
(Interview from 3/8/13)
Asking Scott McMicken of Dr. Dog a question is like tossing a kite into a tornado of thoughts. Answers turn to rants, memories generate musical epiphanies, and rather than simply skimming the surface Scott decides to dive right in. Skinny-dipping through the truth with words soaked in a sincerity that’s both candid and clever.
This poetic perspective is interwoven into everything Scott says and sings, and it’s what elevates Dr. Dog’s songs from simply enjoyable to emotionally enlightening. Whenever your band begins to call up comparisons to The Beatles you know you’re doing something right, and although Dr. Dog isn’t nearly as big, they still share the same eclectic style and superb songwriting abilities as the fab four.
Their music is a raw and rambunctious mix of lushly layered harmonies and pulsing rock-driven instrumentation that is both infectiously catchy and cleverly composed. AKcreative caught up with Scott before his show at The Boulder Theater to chat about the innocent inception of his band name, touring with My Morning Jacket, and how a couple of ‘dudes washing dishes’ turned into Dr. Dog.
AKcreative: Where did the name Dr. Dog come from?
Scott: Well there’s no really grand reveal to that one. As I remember it Toby and I were 18 and we had been playing together since we were in eighth grade. Then I moved away my senior year of high school and after that moved right back. During that whole year apart I knew it was a disaster. I knew I was going to get back as soon as I got out of high school and my family moved away. We just held on tight to this thought we had of making music and knew that we would do it someday. So when I did come back I had all these songs and all these recordings from my house and he had the same. It had this extra pre-tense about it because we’d been apart and now we were back together. Here are our songs and there was a lot of focus in this weird insular world kind of way so we literally had a conversation like what’s our band name? I suggested Dr. Wing, he said what about Dr. Dog and I was like ‘ok cool’, that was it. There’s nothing too cool or exciting about it.
From the start it just felt right and I fully understand some people not liking it. I think if I were to look at it objectively as if I just came upon this band called Dr. Dog I don’t know that it would immediately resonate with me. It is kind of loaded in some pretty corny ways, but within our own little world it has always felt perfect.
My Morning Jacket is a classic example. When I first heard of them was probably after their second album At Dawn had come out and right when I met my girlfriend at the time she gave me this tape that had At Dawn on one side and Tennessee Fire on the other by this band My Morning Jacket. I still remember my first impression of that band name was so soft and almost ‘emo’ or something and I didn’t like it. But as soon as the music found a place inside me the name then took on its own color and life. It builds its own meaning once you understand what it really is a title for.
As a fan of My Morning Jacket how was it to suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly tour with them in 2004?
It was very unexpected. I mean touring in itself was an unexpected thing at that point in time. Just doing it as a band was something awesome and totally out of left field, like a dream come true. It did a lot for our band for sure. First and foremost it structured our band from the inside. We had been having a lot of people associated with the band and the identity of the band back then was a loose cast of characters. With a tour on the table it forced people to be like is this something I really do or not. Some people fell away and others really rose up, that’s what gave us our first solid line-up. That was really influential and we road that line-up out for five or six more years. Toby and I were both in a lot of bands just because that was the deal at the time you know, you’d start bands out of a joke with your buddies. We had played a lot of shows at crappy bars in the Philly area, but Dr. Dog had played so rarely live and they got us acclimated with that. It was entry point into playing every night and already having been a big fan of theirs then seeing them live every night, witnessing what they bring to the live show and how much they give every night along with getting to know them as people and realizing that these idols of ours were very relatable people. There just dudes like us, they’re totally reasonable, they truly care about what they do, don’t take themselves too seriously and all these things that were real positive affirmations in the course that we were trying to set out for ourselves. So we couldn’t have asked to tour with a better more influential group then them. They just laid it out unconsciously and their actions speak much louder than any words would.
I’m pretty sure you were touring with My Morning Jacket around the time of your album Toothbrush, which was the demo that got handed to Jim James and sparked your sudden success.
That band has influenced us on so many levels and at the time we didn’t have any albums, we just had tons of recordings and there was never the notion that an album was necessary. We weren’t functioning with any sort of expectation; we were just doing our thing. So when My Morning Jacket was coming to town on tour that same girlfriend of mine who had turned me on to them in the first place was like you should throw a bunch of your Dr. Dog songs onto a CD and we’ll bring it since she knew them and has seen them play at a tiny bar when they performed to 20 or 30 people. She had put them up in her house and stuff when they were really coming up so she was friendly with them and anticipated hanging out. So we did and took hours of cassettes over to her dad’s house because he had a way of digitally converting them. We put ten or so songs on a couple CDs, decorated them all up and everything just as something to pass on and of course dong that lead to the tour and many more things. It all came about just to throw a mix-tape together for Jim James and it ended up being I guess our first album.
We did the tour and were playing a bunch of songs, none of which were on Toothbrush. We had a whole new set of songs that we hadn’t recorded and Toothbrush was kind of a four-track album that wasn’t so reflective of our band. We came home from that tour and they had already asked us to go on another leg a couple months later so in preparation for that we took the money we made from our first tour and bought a nicer microphone and some studio monitors. Hooked it up to the same eight-track we always had and recorded our new music as a way to have something else for sale while we were on tour and also something that would be a little more like our live show.
Even with the making of that album My Morning Jacket was a catalyst for the intentions behind Easy Beat. When we went back out on tour with Toothbrush and Easy Beat for sell, still making them ourselves, that just ended up leading so many other things. It lead to us getting an article in The New York Times, it lead to our manager finding out about us who’s still our manager to this day and who has helped us out immensely. As soon as he got involved he was like ‘I’m going to get you to South by Southwest and we’ll try to get you a booking agent’. We didn’t have a record deal of any sort whatsoever so he started connecting us to that, pretty much getting the gears going and all of that was a direct result of My Morning Jacket.
Is there anything about those early experiences with them and the hardships of striving to succeed as an artist that you try to keep alive in your current music?
That’s hard to say because I don’t think we have yet to experience a point of distraction. For whatever reason, which I’m highly thankful for, we just kind of still work in the same way we always have. You apply yourself in an ever-shifting context. So far we haven’t really had to stop and prioritize things to say what we’re about or what we’re supposed to be doing. It must have something to do with the type of dudes we are because we don’t really buy into any sort of myth that we’re trying to propel. There’s no bigger picture other than the simple motivations of any given day and the desires you put into writing a song and playing a song. I think our ability to stay focused on the thing that got us here in the first place has only been enhanced. We’ve come this far while we shied away from a lot of aspects of certain career choices we gravitated towards others and all of those things in an almost intangible way have instilled values that were there at the beginning but not yet defined because they didn’t need to be. We were just dudes washing dishes and enjoying this side of life musically. I think that as time goes by and this structure starts to build around the band as this business or something like that, all the efforts that have gone into that have specifically been there to foster that initial idea. We never stepped outside of the boundaries of what we were comfortable with and the more you do that over time the more you start understanding yourself, what drives you, and what works for you so that as those decisions come up they become easier to make.
For us a lot of it does come down to specific sort of boring things like what’s your process like and since we have always recorded ourselves and still very much enjoy that there’s kind of an internal logic that you just respond to with that. We’re never like what’s our next move or where do we go from here?
Exactly, you wouldn’t want to constrain or cage your creativity in any way. Yet you still need some sort of structure, like the banks of a river, which will result naturally from your actions and give them a specific place to pour into without limiting anything too much.
That’s a nice way to put it.
In that sense, what was it like making Be The Void and reverting back to your old style of self-sufficient at home recording as opposed to big name producers and professional studios?
That’s a great question because it lays out exactly what I was just trying to describe. Because this is one of those instances involving things we’ve done enough of as a band to gain more self-knowledge. To put it quickly Shame, Shame was our first record with ANTI Records, which was a much bigger label then what we’d been working with, Park The Van, which was started by our friend. We kind of grew and developed with that label, but then we stepped into this very well established label and they obviously had more of a mechanism or system for how to do things and more money.
At that point I feel like we were definitely unable to expand the banks of that river on our own. We had just been floating in that river for too long and it was time. We’ve taught ourselves a lot and gone from radio check mics and cassette tapes to a 24-track studio with pre-amps and compressors. We’ve slowly acclimated ourselves to all these ways of working, did that for a while and it felt like we hit a ceiling there. So the natural idea as well as what Anti could bring to our table made us like lets find someone to work with and step outside of our comfort zone. That’s what we did for Shame, Shame and in many ways it was cool and did exactly what I hoped it would through shedding a different light on the process and offering new ideas. Most importantly it showed us what we weren’t willing to step into or get involved with. So we ended up kind of backing away from that and finishing Shame, Shame on our own. As soon as we finished that album our drummer left and that’s right when Eric Slick and Dimitri Manos joined. That’s been a new era for the band and they’ve really solidified the essence of what the band was.
If there was ever a point in the history of the band that we strayed or got wishy-washy and unsure about where we were or what we were doing it was right around Shame, Shame. The completion of that album and those two dudes joining put things right back on course. Then we got to tour with them for the whole cycle of that record and get them kind of in the groove feeling the changes that were coming as a result of this new input. So by the time we came to Be The Void they were already well-worn and in the band. Everyone’s enthusiasm was at a maximum and we said to ourselves ‘ OK we don’t need to work with any producer or go to any other studio, we’ve got so much new stuff on the table. Then there was this guy Ben Allen who is a producer down in Atlanta and he was actually pursuing us. He’s cut his teeth in the hip-hop world and done some interesting stuff with Animal Collective so he’s clearly this really well versed and extremely experimental open-minded sort of producer. So even though we already said we weren’t going to work with anyone else I thought that we might as well give this dude a shot. We went down for about a week making no real commitment other than just going down there, hanging out, recording and seeing how it felt. He was pushing us and knowing everyone in the band as I do it was interesting to see the effect he had, in a very graceful way.
With his presence somehow it just seemed to make people set aside stuff and challenge themselves more. For three or four months before we were about to head down to Atlanta in the back of my mind every night as I lay there going to bed I’m thinking ‘I don’t know if we should do this’. That seems very promising and that could very well make for an awesome album but I think that right now we just need to focus on ourselves because we have so much within our selves and together we’re just full of ideas and energy.
It felt kind of negative to walk away from it, but the reasons were not because it was sort of stressful doing it that way there was just so much inside of ourselves. The point in all this is the recognition and affirmation of that thing that I always felt when we were just starting. We’ll do this on our own and we’ll do it with a lot of joy and excitement. In many ways making that decision was both a renewal and a reminder of something that immediately tied me back to the earliest days. The way we talked about doing Be The Void, very overtly, was to have one foot in the past and another in the future of our band. We felt that connection to the freedom and the experimentation of our early days. Combining that with all the experience we’ve gained as musicians and this newly captured excitement about playing live shows with a more dynamic and powerful sound. If you want to capture that good feel and essence of a live performance you do have to allow for more sonic fidelity. The process and sort of design going into that record was, not too sound overly romantic, but that the world our band inhabits doesn’t exist, it’s with in these walls.
All we’re accountable for is this very moment and it is very important that within this moment we all feel 100% comfortable and totally in control. It’s not just this romantic idea, there’s strategy, and when we went into the studio we got rid of a lot of crap, we made it feel new, recorded hours of music in there, and by the time we went to do that album it felt like a new place. The basic question was what do we do and what’s the next step for our band, not commercially or in some sort of objective way. In essence it’s funny how you can go through all these complicated shifts only to arrive at this necessity to make the same exact decision you’ve made over and over and over again. Yet it feels like a new decision because the world around it has changed.
There’s this sort of spectrum that Toby and I have always liked to understand Dr. Dog in, on one end there’s this really fundamental musical chops and a respect for the tradition of music. Not feeling the need to think of your self as an artist creating some break from the historical narrative of music or whatever, and on the other end is complete abstraction and the notion within music that there are realms that really have nothing to do with anything else and they kind of create their own logic. The band was formed on that idea. If you look at it one-way Toby and I are basically one dude at this point and although there are differences, they come together to create.
How has the addition of Eric Slick and Dimitri Manos influenced Dr. Dog?
That was the well-balanced meal we were looking for. Eric and Dimitri joining really re-affirmed and actually enhanced the two primary pillars that we were built on. Expanding the experimentation and abstraction of what is essentially psychedelic music for lack of a better word. Music that just evokes some sort of imagery or feeling that transcends the sum of its parts.
Is there anything you’d like to tell your fans?
Stay tuned because we’re going to keep coming out with new stuff. We just put out an EP (The Dr. Dog Fall Sampler), we’re going to put out another collection of older material later in the year, and then get started on our next record, which I’m really excited about. Be The Void was our first album with Eric and Dimitri and by the end it really showed me how the collaborative efforts of the band are at an all-time high. I think I rely more on everyone in the band than I ever have before.
When you’ve got the full force of a band behind you I think it expands your imagination for melody, phrasing and things like that, which become more and more compelling. The next album will be one inch closer to our live show.
Dr. Dog is currently touring across the country in support of their most recent album Live at a Flamingo Hotel. For ticket info click here and for a taste of their truly unforgettable live show watch their most recent music video for “Heart it Races”.