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Published: 2018/02/20
by Matt Inman

Talking Bullfighting with Dr. Dog’s Eric Slick

Can you talk about the differences between helming your own project like Palisades or Bullfighter and working within the confines of other songwriters and other bandmates with Dr. Dog?

Well, the initial difference is that with my own stuff I have complete control over the outcome. With Dr. Dog, the process is a lot more democratic. Like, I’ll start playing a drum beat and everyone looks at me and is like, “Cool,” or “That’s beat’s terrible.” There’s just way more of a community-based [approach], like, “We can all agree on this.”

With my own music, it’s kind of whatever I wanna do. I try to wear my influences on my sleeve a lot. Like with Palisades, I’d been listening to a lot of things like Brian Eno and Flaming Lips and things that I can’t really get away with [in Dr. Dog]. Like, if I brought in a song from Palisades to Dr. Dog, they might be like, “That’s insane. We can never put that on the record.” And then as far as Bullfighter goes, the influences are really avant-garde, like atonal, 20th-century string music, with more operatic vocals on top. So it’s not exactly toe-tapping pop music, but it’s really cool that I get to live this double life as a solo artist and then I can fulfill this duty as “drummer guy in a band.” They are totally different. Drums are my main instrument, and it’s the thing that I understand the best, but my solo work is a place where I can explore all these unknowns, like, “What’s it like to play guitar now? Is it going to be a mess when I’m up here playing guitar?” And maybe that’s really exciting, you know what I mean? Like, sometimes for me, the journey is the destination—or whatever.

How was it getting back into the studio with the rest of the band? Did it feel like there was a different approach at all after everyone was re-energized?

Absolutely. When we got back together, we knew that there would be things that would change. We started working with this producer named Gus Seyffert, and it was our first time working with a producer in like eight years. It’s actually my first time with the band working with a producer so I knew right off the bat things were going to be different. For us, we have our way of working where we go in and it’s like, “Okay, Toby plays this bass line, Eric plays this drum part, Zach plays…” Everyone has their role. But with Gus, it was more abstract. It was like, “Okay, on this song, Eric’s going to play harpsichord.” Or like, “Zack’s gonna play tambourine.” It’s like everybody had a different role, and it was really liberating to walk into a situation and be like, “Okay, I’m not like stuck in my position in this band.” I think just that slight amount of liberation makes everybody feel curious and a little bit more experimental.

I’ve heard the story of you meeting the band is a unique one. Could you talk about that?

Well, the first time I met Dr. Dog was actually at an FYE. Remember the FYE chain? Dr. Dog was playing at an FYE in like 2007, and I had to been a fan of theirs around Philly—they were still a relatively unknown band. And I remember going up to them and making them sign my dictionary. I used to carry this really heavy-ass dictionary all around Philadelphia.

…Why?

Because I was reading this Aldous Huxley book and it had all these old words in it that I didn’t know. And this was like, you know, pre-iPhone, before you could be like, “Siri, what does surreptitious mean?” So I had this dictionary, and I went up to the guys and I was like, “Hey, will you guys sign my dictionary?” And they all just cracked up. They picked random pages and signed it. I hope I still have it somewhere. So that’s the real story.

Then I ran into them at a festival called Jam on the River. At the time, I was kind of like the young Padawan of Joe Russo from The Duo. He took me under his wing and was like my mentor. He invited me out to the show, and Dr. Dog was playing right before Bustle In Your Hedgerow, so I was just hanging out and they were like, “Hey, you’re the dictionary guy! What’s up?” And the friendship blossomed from there. Then we had an extensive hang at Bonnaroo that same year, ‘cause I was down there playing…I was playing belly dance music on the Solar Stage. Laughs.] And those guys literally were parked right next to me in the camping area, so I was camped right next to them.

There was a belly dancer there?

Yeah, it was called Gypsy Hands Belly Dance Ensemble, and me and my friend Yanni were playing. I had a little hand drum and he had a little acoustic guitar. At like 9AM—people are all hungover walking to the Solar Stage, doing yoga, and we would play belly-dance music. So that’s when the Dr. Dog guys and I first formed our friendship, and then eventually they asked me to join the band a couple years later. It was all a very natural, organic process getting to know those guys.

Can you talk a bit more about how your relationship with Joe Russo started and evolved?

I started playing with Dave Dreiwitz. Dave had come to see me play a couple times in New York, ‘cause I guess we had some mutual friends, and he was like, “I want you to play drums in my bass and drums duo.” So I played a show with Dave, and then by proxy that led me to start playing with the Ween guys. So Dave and Mickey [Melchiondo, a.k.a. Dean Ween] and Aaron [Freeman, a.k.a. Gene Ween] were backing up this dude named Chris Harford [in Band of Changes]. Joe still plays with Chris a lot, with that whole scene of Dave Dreiwitz and Scott Metzger. So I started playing with Band of Changes whenever Joe Russo couldn’t. Joe was first call, and I was second call. And whenever Claude [Coleman, Jr.] was around, too, Claude would do it. Claude is probably the longest running out of all of us. So Joe had heard about me through there, and then Chris Harford opened up for The Duo at the Recher Theatre in Maryland. That’s when Joe and I realized that we were separated at birth.

I’ll never forget it—I had this bright yellow drum set, and on the kick drum, I had all my drum logos. It was like being at a Guitar Center. I was all logo-ed out. I was like 18 years old, you have to imagine, so I had no idea what I was doing. And Joe literally came downstairs with a screwdriver and chipped away at all of the logos with a screwdriver. He was like, “Logos are dumb. Don’t put logos on your drums.” And I remember one time, I was fine tuning this snare drum and he was like, “Tuning is dumb. You just have to be good. Don’t worry about tuning yet, learn how to hit a drum.” And I’d be like, “Oh, okay, cool.” And then I would watch him completely wipe the floor, like, so insane. He’d be so good.

Are you guys still good friends, and do you find time to play together?

We actually had this full circle moment this last year at Newport Folk, when the promoter asked me to play one of the late-night shows. Again, I’m still pretty new at the solo thing, and then it was like, “Hey, do you wanna play a song at Newport Folk?” Laughs.] I was like, “What?” I had a panic attack. But then I felt a lot better, because I realized that the backing band was Joe and Scott and this guy Josh Kaufman and Sam Cohen [Alone & Together]. So I was like, “Oh, this is gonna be great.” It was really cool to go through all the motions with Joe—I used to open up for him and then we would like play shows together on double drums, and now he’s playing my song. It was really cool, very brotherly. I looked over at him during the song and he was killing it. I’m like, “Aw man, this is so cool.”

It was funny, because I still occasionally deal with stage fright when it comes to the solo stuff, and I walked up to the mic and I’d completely forgot to plug in my guitar. Laughs.] I started playing and then I was like, “Oh wait.” It was kinda like one of those dream moments where your pants have just flown off and, like, you peed all over yourself, and there’s a bunch of people watching. That’s kind of what it felt like. But then I look around onstage and I’m like, “Aw these are all my friends. These are all the people that I came up playing music with.” And that felt very familial. It was a very surreal moment.

2018 should be a busy year for Dr. Dog. Will there be time for more solo work or studio work with other artists?

I mean, there’s so much stuff going on. I just played on the new Rayland Baxter record. My girlfriend Natalie Prass is producing my next solo record, so we just started like demoing stuff out, and I have no idea how it’s going to be. We don’t have a label or anything, but we just started writing and working on all this stuff together. And then whenever I can play with Natalie I play drums with her, too, so that’s going to be going on. I also started a podcast called The Strange America Radio Half-Hour where I just play super weird songs and babble on and on about them. So yeah, I mean, the thing that’s great about Dr. Dog is that we’ll do a lot of two weeks on, two weeks off touring, so whenever I have a free moment I’m in the home studio working on stuff.

Do you and Natalie write together as well?

Yeah, we started writing some songs together. It’s funny, she has a real vision for where I should be headed, musically. I think my inclination when I go sit down to write is [to be] very dark and brooding and somber or wistful. She’s like, “You’re such a happy guy, you should start writing some happy songs.” I’m like, “You’re…you’re right. I should.” Laughs.] So that’s where we’ve been at lately. We’ve been writing some songs together, and it’s really cool. It gives me some much needed perspective on things that I’m working on. Again, I’m still so new to this.

We’ve got about seven songs done for the new solo record. And then I’m sure at the beginning of next year, Dr. Dog will be like, “Time to make another one.” It’s always a constant flurry of activity. It’s funny, we were talking about Joe Russo, and he’s totally the same way. I know he just finished up a solo record and then he’s like, you know, playing Red Rocks the next day. I feel like a lot of my sensibilities I’ve probably learned from Joe. Like, sleep, wake up, make coffee, play show, you know? It’s really fun.

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