Dr. Dog took its name from a Captain Beefheart song and that quirky songwriter’s surrealist humor has guided the group ever since. After spending years in the Philadelphia underground, Dr. Dog found a national following thanks to My Morning Jacket, who handpicked the quintet as its opening act a few years back. But, now, with a series of experimental albums under its belt, the group—-Frank McElroy (guitar), Juston Stens (drums), Scott McMicken (guitar), Toby Leaman (bass), and Zach Miller (organ)—-has carved out their own following in the increasingly blurry space between indie and jam. Below, Leaman talks about Dr. Dog’s origins, the group’s trippy debut, and newest release We All Belong.
MG- You formed Dr. Dog when you were still in your early teens. What was your sound like at that point?
TL- Yeah, Scott and I were 12 or 13 when we started. We were writing—-we’ve always written our own stuff——and we were writing like the music we were listening too. This would have been like ’92 or ’93, so we listened to Nirvana and that kind of stuff that everybody was listening too. So, I guess we sort of sounded kind of like that when we first started. It wasn’t exactly that kind of music, but that general idea. We never had a drummer with us, so who knows what it really sounded like [laughs].We went through a lot of hilarious crap before we found out what was actually good and what wasn’t.
MG- We All Belong was recorded on a 24 track, 2-inch tape machine as opposed to your previous releases, which were recorded on 8-track. What led to this change in recording approach?
TL- Yeah we had been recording on we went from an 8-track, which was about seven inch reels and quarter inch tape, to 24-track with to inch tape. So, we had three times as many tracks and the sound quality was, I guess, twice as good. We actually had some money this time around and instead of going in the studio we went out and bought our own studio. Right before we got our tape deck and mixing board, a friend of ours was closing down his studio and pretty much gave us his space, so it all worked out.
MG- How much of We All Belong did you road test prior to recording the disc?
TL- Some of the songs we were playing out before and some of the songs were new. “Alaska” we have been playing and is on the album exactly the way we play it live. “We All Belong” we have played in different incarnations for the past year or so. And the way we used to play it is nothing like it is now on the record. “Worst Trip” is a really old song that we actually recorded for Easy Beat and at first we didn’t like it. We did our album and we thought we were done with last January and we listened to it and we didn’t like it so we decided to redo it all. We thought that one of the flaws might be that there are too many slow songs. So we said, “Well we’ll just go in the archive and take the fastest” and “Worst Trip” was one of them. We used to play that song all the time actually, up until we realized that it was going to be on the album. It is a song that we never thought we were going to hear again, and here it is, and I actually think that it came out pretty well.
MG- I assume the EP you released last fall was drawn from this excess material?
TL- That’s exactly how it went down. We had so much stuff and we wanted to make the album short and keep it under 45 minutes so we knew we were gonna have this extra stuff. Plus we’ve been recording for almost a year. We had tons of shit recorded and stuff that we thought was for different consumption we just put on the EP. Yeah, we spend a ridiculous amount of time in the studio. We’ve always recorded a lot though.
MG- Before emerging from Philadelphia, you recorded a concept album or sorts, The Psychedelic Swamp. Where did the idea for that album stem from?
TL- It was towards the beginning of when Dr. Dog was forming. The Psychedelic Swamp was pretty much the beginning. I mean Scott and I were in a ton of bands and we had a concept for a band that was going to be the band where we could do whatever we wanted. It didn’t really matter what kind of stuff we did and because of that, for years it only existed as recordings. So, this would have been around 2000, the time when Dr. Dog really started.
We did an album called The Psychedelic Swamp, which we’re actually trying to find a decent master of so we can actually start selling it. That was a concept album in the truest sense of the term. It was all consuming and it was hilarious. We had a great time making it. It just sort of invented this whole thing that probably makes no sense to anybody else, but to us was just like “Yes, this is totally working. Oh yea this narrative couldn’t be any more obvious.” And then other people listen to it and are like “Huh.”
It’s not like we came up with a concept and then recorded it. We recorded a bunch of songs and then we sort of tied them together. And then we had other songs that built the narrative that we actually wrote when we figured it out. But the concept was this guy who was living the hum-drum life here in the real world and he keeps hearing all these ads on the radio to come to Psychedelic Swamp. So he finally goes to the railroad tracks, and pulls off his skin. And he goes in the Psychedelic Swamp. First it’s kind of cool, but then he realizes it’s just the same shit. You gotta wake up for work and the radio still sucks. And there’s still TV and commercials and stuff. But it’s all a little more crazy.
MG- Have you ever preformed the album in its entirety?
TL- No, but it’s something we talked about a bunch. Scott and I did that, with our old guitar player, Doug [O’Donnell]. So it’s just the three of us. I don’t think any of those songs any of the other guys have played. And we’ve probably only played them when we recorded them. So, no, but it’s something we’ve thought about a lot actually. There’s a really cool theatre group in Philly called “pig-iron” which we’re friends with. I sort of had a fantasy, if we could get it together and make it more understandable and maybe have those guys work on a dialogue we could actually perform it as a musical.
MG- You’ve stated in the past that My Morning Jacket gave Dr. Dog its big break. How did Jim James first hear your music?
TL- They played a show in Philadelphia and Scott’s girlfriend sort of knew them from before when they were doing The Tennessee Fire record. So, she went up to them after the show and they were saying hi to each other and she or Scott gave them a Dr. Dog CD. He loved it and pretty much called us up and asked us to go on tour with him on a whim. He’d never even seen us play and at that time we were playing 4 or 5 shows a year, max. After that we really started to tighten up and once we toured with them that sort of floodgates everything. I really credit them for making our band actually exist.
MG- Was it difficult transitioning from a primarily studio-based band to a fulltime touring group?
TL- Well, we always sort of had a good attitude and we had been in so many bands that played a billion shows. It’s not like we were all coming from some place where we were all pulled out of no where, not playing any shows. So, we had a good idea of what not to do on stage and with Dr. Dog, the ethic is always to have a good time. And we always figured that if you’re on stage, and you’re dancing around looking like your having a good time, and you’re acting like an idiot, people can relax. If you look like the stupidest guy in the room everyone else can loosen up and not be so uptight and actually get into it. You don’t want to get up there and just stare people down and put on cool moves. It’s just sort of pointless, that’s not what we’re about. If you look on stage and say “boy, those guys look silly up there.” Then you can feel more relaxed to do whatever the hell you need to do to feel good about going to a show with a million people you don’t know.
MG- The Village Voice recently pegged Dr. Dog as part of the post-jam scene along with bands like the Slip, Apollo Sunshine, and the Benevento/Russo Duo. What does that term mean to you?
TL- That word has such a negative connotation. At first we were like “man this sucks.” But, on the one hand, those bands serve a function and people are super into their music when they go to a show. They’re not there to hear the songs the way they are on the album. We physically couldn’t play our songs the way they’re recorded live. So, we have to abandon that and come up with what works live, be it playing a song faster, removing parts, extending parts adding a solo, so that’s what we’ll do.