Charting the history and progress of Dr. Dog requires a flexible perspective. The more recent development of Dr. Dog as a band unit actually arcs much further back to Dr. Dog as the musical teenage pursuit of childhood friends Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken.
“Toby and I write the songs and we’ve been friends and making music together since we were about 13, and it’s kind of been the continuing evolution of that relationship between Toby and I,” McMicken says. “The last five or six years, there’s been a definitive lineup — we have the five people in the band, also longtime friends of ours — but even before that regular lineup and touring schedule, Toby and I always had a sense of it and were always pipe dreaming about it together. We were writing songs and recording on a four-track, and that was the primary outlet for many years, more like conceptualizing a band and recording at home.”
The Philadelphia-based lo-fi Pop/Punk duo would have continued along the path of casual home recording sessions, intermittent rehearsals and a rotating band membership if not for a fateful opportunity from My Morning Jacket in 2004.
“We got offered our first tour, and it was kind of out of the blue,” McMicken says. “We hadn’t really been functioning much as a working band. We’d have a show around Philly every now and again and we weren’t very good at promoting ourselves. It was a lucky break because it made it more clear who was interested in being in the band, as far as who was willing to commit to going away for a tour and have that be a part of their life. It helped solidify the lineup and also helped us solidify as a live band. We had to get amps and we had to play together a lot more.”
As regular touring became a necessity rather than an option (they’ve now opened for The Black Keys, The Raconteurs and Wilco, among others) Dr. Dog quickly morphed into a more settled configuration — bassist Leaman, lead guitarist McMicken, rhythm guitarist Frank McElroy, keyboardist Zach Miller, drummer Juston Stens — and began writing, recording and touring as a unit.
“For a long time, we were sort of inventing the band for every song,” McMicken says. “Now, I think we’re very comfortable and happy with where we’ve gotten with one another in all this playing together.”
Describing Dr. Dog’s sound is like tagging a moving carnival train from another carnival train going the other way. Imagine a basement summit meeting between Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Robert Pollard, Stephen Malkmus, Beck and They Might Be Giants, and you’re getting close. From its earliest self-released work (2001’s Psychedelic Swamp, 2002’s Toothpaste) to its latest output for Park the Van (2005’s Easy Beat, 2007’s We All Belong, last year’s sublime Fate) and going forward from here (the band signed with Anti-/Epitaph earlier this year and is nearly finished with a new album, slated for release early next year), Dr. Dog has been and will be guided by a number of voices.
“Motown, the Phil Spector kind of sound and that general ’60s Pop sound are obviously a big influence on us,” McMicken says. “But the influence certainly spans into many other aspects, and in some cases that can be older Country music and even Hip Hop in the sensibility of building an arrangement around one idea. When talking about the rhythm section, Motown, Reggae and Hip Hop are where you go for the best Pop rhythm sections. On the guitar side of things, more angular or Punk or even ’70s Glam Rock elements end up filtering through our guitar ideas. We all feel pretty open with this band to allow any influence in, if it comes up and seems like the right thing for the moment. It’s kind of a no-holds-barred policy for us.”
In a general aesthetic sense, McMicken cites artists like The Beatles, Tom Waits and The Band as having a profound impact on Dr. Dog’s overall presentation.
“Basically any bands that have that thing about them where their recordings sound as much like what they are as the songs themselves,” McMicken says. “That’s probably the top-tier inspiration stuff, those songwriters or bands that really put their identity and a cohesive aesthetic in every aspect of the band. That’s one of the things we all love about being in a band, that control over every little detail of it.”
At the same time, McMicken notes that Dr. Dog works diligently to sound like Dr. Dog, using other bands as signposts rather than templates.
“Sometimes people think this is some easy game you play, like you decide to sound like The Beatles and then everything’s super easy and there’s nothing of yourself in it,” McMicken says. “Like the lyrics you write have no real meaning to you, they’re just a reference to some other band. We don’t exist to make music as a reference to another thing, even though it’s pretty clear our stuff is pretty referential. We’re just trying to make music that excites us and sounds like us to us.”
DR. DOG plays at the Mad Hatter on Thursday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.