Dr. Dog: From a Void to a Wild Race
Dr. Dog had a busy 2012. The Philadelphia-based kicked things off with the release of their seventh album Be the Void in February, toured for much of the year and capped thing off with the studio EP Wild Race this fall. For both of their studio sessions, Dr. Dog brought things in house, recording at their own Meth Beach Studio after scrapping another recording session with Atlanta named Ben Allen (Gnarls Barkley, Puff Daddy, Christina Aguilera). Around the release of Wild Race, band co-frontman Scott McMicken discussed the band’s busy year, band co-founder Toby Leaman’s distinct style and how they met their new leader in the Bonnaroo campgrounds.
Let’s start by talking about Dr. Dog’s new EP, which was released this fall. Were these songs from the Be the Void sessions or part of a separate project?
All those songs were recorded and mixed at the same time as all the rest of the stuff for Be the Void. When we finished mixing that record we had the twelve songs that we put on the record, plus those five [from the new EP] and two or three more as well. We had them all mixed but the final piece of the puzzle—the last stage of the recording process – was deciding what to put on the album. Everyone sat at my house and looked at this list of songs that we all had mixed and gotten to a point where we were happy with, and then it was a matter of choosing which ones would be on record and which weren’t. That proved to be kind of hard because everybody was invested in certain songs equally as much as other ones, so we just kind of decided right off that bat, “Whatever we do here, these songs will see the light of day.” So that made the process of cutting songs from the album—that in many cases people were really sad to see go—much easier, just by committing to releasing them.
Even upon turning in the record, we were laying the ground work for its accompanying EP whenever that made sense in the grand scheme of putting the record out timing wise. So they were all just recorded at exactly the same time and for that record. They don’t really have their own story outside of just the story of making that record. It’s just kind of leftover stuff that we were all kind of pumped on and now putting them together we’ve been able to enjoy. Even the smaller scale process of when you do take a cool collection of songs, until you really decide how they’re going to be released and what order they’re going to be in, and what’s it going to be called, and what’s it going to look like, you always just kind of hear them floating around in their own little orbit. You just kind of hear them as these individual things.
I actually just listened to the EP for the first time last night, in its order, and I think they work well as one body. They really emphasize one of the threads that I think is apparent on the record, but I think the EP hammers the point home. Because, which the exception of Toby’s song in the middle, I feel like the first two songs and the last two songs are a more direct statement about the kinds of tunes we were recording and the kinds of sounds we were looking for and the kind of performances we were doing. It all feels real dirty and live and rocking, you know? Like a live show. It so happened that those four songs in particular kind of capture that essence more than a lot of the other tunes on the record, which took [a] different direction. That whole pursuit, that sort of live sound that we’ve been going for was certainly prominent in everything we recorded for the record, but I feel like the EP really sends that message home, with the exception of Toby’s song in the middle.
The body serves as this nice point of contrast, because it’s more spacious. [It’s a] gentler, more textural, sonic range there with the drum machine going on and sort of hairpin dynamics. There’s not a lot of anticipation—it’s kind of just laying the parts where they belong. One of the goals was to include Toby’s space-age soul stuff that he likes so much. It’s that kind of soul-values, but in this more techno-color, modern approach to things. I think it is a nice straight-manner anchor in the middle of that EP. It cool, I feel like it’s got a lot of folks best playing on there, you know [Erik] Slick’s grooves and stuff are really prominent in that collection of tunes. I feel like it really shows a lot of what Slick has brought to the band.
A couple points leading off of what you just said. This EP does have a live feel, something you were going for an accomplished with your most recent record, too. Have you added any of these songs to the live repertoire yet, and if so, is it an interesting process re-learning them almost a year after you originally recorded them?
Yeah, it’s always interesting to see how a song is going to wind up feeling when you get it ready for the shows and stuff. It’s been different over all with this whole record, and certainly true for the songs on this EP. This time, we put this record together with essentially the same stuff we have available to us on a stage. Even on “Exit for Sale,” all those strings and all that stuff, that was actually just done by Zach [Miller] with his Melotone. So he has all his Melotone sound; even those kind of those weirder sounds are pretty much part of a bag that we have available for us on the stage.
We made this record to set some parameters and challenge ourselves. It wasn’t like: “This sucks. We keep making all these recordings and we can’t do it live.” It was more like the band is genuinely becoming more interest with how far we can go and how much we can do with the very basic live-show palate: a couple electric guitars, the keyboard sounds that Zach currently has available to him—the piano, the organ, the Melotone sounds—, the bass and fuzz bass, and Dmitri [Manos], really broadens the live palette for sure with the sheer amount of diversity and soundscapes he has available to him in the little world that he’s built for himself.
So yeah, it’s been interesting in that it’s been a lot easier, it’s been more direct. The mission becomes less of the practical things like “How do we even do this?” and more like “Okay, we know how to do this, how do we do it really well and get it to feel really strong?” So it’s been good. You know with every record, going through that step of learning stuff for live, you kind of go into the studio and you put songs together based on your most up to date aspirations in music. It’s really in the final step of learning them and taking them on the road that I feel you really start to live inside of those new ways of playing and those new ideas. It’s almost like way after you make the record do I feel like you become pretty competent in the values and ideas you’re exercising in making the record. I think it comes naturally and sets you up to begin your next record.
That being said, given that you have this set of songs from the EP that didn’t necessarily fit with the album conceptually, did you shy away from playing them live before the EP’s release?
We hadn’t really been playing them live; we’ve tried a couple of them. We’ve been more working on them in sound check and stuff, but it’s getting real close. Definitely now that the EP is out, it puts more enthusiasm, more of a reason to play them. We don’t like to play songs that people don’t know; we don’t do that very much. So we haven’t been really chomping at the bit to play them, plus on this tour we’ve been involved in going back and dusting off a lot of old ones. Because there’s always the old ones that you haven’t played in a long time and people are always asking to hear stuff that we could do if we took the time to run through them a couple of times. We’re getting real close. We’ve done “Wild Race” live and we’ve done “What a Fool.” We’ve never tried “Be The Void” or “Sun” or “Exit for Sale,” yet. But, they are getting really close.
You mentioned that you have been digging back into the back catalog recently. Since so many new members have come into the band since you’ve formed, I’m sure that some of these old songs are given a new twist.
Yeah totally, which is really cool for those of us who have been in the band for a really long time. Especially Slick, back there on the drums. I mean he’s the new leader in a lot of ways. His contribution is felt immensely. You feel it particularly in that older stuff, which you kind of took to be one way for so long. You know, it’s been great and I think it’s really solidified for him even more his role and his excitement about being a part of the band, to have been able to work on songs with us from the start. So it’s not just him always playing, or putting his flavor onto predetermined beats where he didn’t even have anything to do with the process of coming up with.
He’s a joy to work with as far as coming up with new stuff, but he’s definitely a breath of fresh air on some of the older things. He also, just because of the kind of guy he is and how grateful of a person he is and how gifted and talented as he is, enables things to work really fast. He pushes everybody and he
doesn’t realize it. It’s not a conscious thing. The reality is that when you say “Okay, let’s try this song we haven’t done in six years,” by the second time he’s going to have it down and nailed. If everybody else is kind of up to snuff, then it can really be just a couple run-throughs and then we’re back on track.
He has brought back a fast paced and immediate way to work into the band. That rules when you’re doing new stuff too, because it’s really exciting to jump into a song and commit to a version of it. As every musician always says, something happens there and it’s kind of hard to get back to the more you work on something. Especially when you’re looking for that feel and that live thing and that immediacy, it’s hard to maintain it take after take. So within there, and that sort of security of just knowing he’s going to kill it instantaneously, more or less, then everybody else realizes, “Well, I have to be able to do that too so that we can get this done fast.” Not just for efficiencies sake or cause we want get out of [there]. The quicker we get it done, the more promising the result in many cases. Especially with what we’ve been trying pursue through the last record, and what I most definitely see us pursuing through the next one.