Dr. Dog Interview

Originally published: Clash

You might be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but when they have a doctorate against their name you might learn a thing or two yourself

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Philadelphia’s Dr. Dog have always been the bridesmaid and never the bride. Opening for bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, The Strokes, The Raconteurs, The Black Keys, and My Morning Jacket, their ten-year career thus far has seen them carry more than their fair share of bridal trains supporting some of the Noughties’ most revered bands. But as the spectacle of the ceremony begins, and all those watery eyes struggle to focus on the main attraction, the bridesmaids are left to take their pew and dream about their big day as an envious onlooker.

“Scott [McMicken, guitar/vocals] and I met when we were 13,” explains Toby Leaman, bass player and vocalist in Dr. Dog. “He and I are 30 now so it’s been a long time.” In a country where around 40 per cent of first marriages end in divorce, the pair’s relationship writing music together has lasted longer than the holiest of matrimonies. “It’s not exactly like a marriage,” he continues, “I mean, we fight and we work shit out, but a lot of the time as far as writing goes we can be critical of each other without being too offended or afraid.”

Sharing a love for the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Pavement, The Beatles, and REM as teenagers growing up in a city with a wealth of musical heritage and culture, the pair soon began working on their own musical endeavours. “We have been playing in bands together for what seems like forever,” explains Toby. “At any given time we would be playing in three bands at a time.”

Dr. Dog formed in 1999 as an offshoot of the pair’s earlier music projects. “So much of our time was spent in other bands with some kind of asshole or the direction of the music was not going as we wanted it. We really wanted a good idea of what the band was to be like: Dr. Dog was about making the most awesome band with people who were all like-minded and all inspired by the same sort of thing.”

With the addition of Zach Miller on keys, Ted Mark on drums and guitarist Doug O’Donnell, the five-piece worked within their financial means and built up a small fanbase in and around Philadelphia. Recorded on eight track, their self-recorded and self-released debut ‘The Psychedelic Swamp’ (2001) and follow-up, ‘Toothbrush’ (2002), delved with experimental expression into their fondness for Sixties psychedelic pop.

“The music scene in Philly is good, it’s always been its own sort of entity,” explains Toby. “But there are limited opportunities: there are no record companies here, no press, no money – none of the things that you need to get a band going. But all the bands here are doing it on their own terms and making the music that they wanted to make. People tend to be in a band a long time, where the band is really realised – it’s not just some flash in the pan idea you know.”

Touring with My Morning Jacket in 2004 saw the band being brought to a wider audience and the acclaim that they were due. The New York Times lauded the group’s third album ‘Easy Beat’ (2005), drawing comparisons with The Beatles, The Band and The Beach Boys. Signing to Park The Van Records, Dr. Dog toured heavily throughout 2006 with The Strokes, The Raconteurs and The Black Keys, returning home to begin work on their 2007 release, ‘We All Belong’.

Frank McElroy (guitar) and Eric Slick (drums) replaced O’Donnell and Mark later on in the set up, leaving the band as it stands today. With their sound more refined and steeped in Americana, 2008’s ‘Fate’ saw the band step away from their earlier lo-fi recorded sound to a more studio polished production, but the pop sensibilities and sentiment were still evident.

“The sound just gravitated towards the restrictions that we had and that was the best we could do with it,” explains Toby. “We weren’t trying to come up with an old sound, it was just a case of we didn’t have any money to invest in new equipment. Our sound is more defined by our limitations so we look at song writing in its more classical sense: there is no fat, no air, we just try and keep everything tight and make every single moment of the song work. Old pop and Motown songs work because they were short and got the job done. If I am writing a song I think there is no point in waiting around – just get to the point. It’s kind of a fascist pop.”

Their new album ‘Shame, Shame’ is released on ANTI- Records April 5th. Their sound is still drenched in the harmonies and melodies that lift corners of your mouth, however they are coloured with the doubt and confusion of a band still seeking the big time off the back of laborious tours away from home playing second fiddle to many other bands that are reaping the rewards of fame.

“We definitely enjoy touring and that’s sort of the paradox of this record,” explains Toby. “It’s not like a complaint, its just stuff you think about. There is not a day that goes by that we don’t realise how fortunate to be in the situation that we are. There is no intention for it to be a sombre record, just more reflective.”

Despite its lyrical worries and woes, ‘Shame, Shame’ is still a joyous and engaging pop record, and given the chance, you will fall in love with it from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer…

Where: Philadelphia
What: Classic pop rock soaked in lysergic harmony and melody
Unique Fact: They all own dogs and have nicknames beginning with the letter T. FYI: Toby’s nickname is ‘Tables’.
Get 3 Songs: ‘Stranger’, ‘Shadow People’, ‘Unbearable Why’

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