In the Heavy Heavy Light: An interview with Dr. Dog’s Toby Leaman, Part 2 of 2

Originally Published In The Daily Free Press on 3/21/12

On Monday, we ran Part 1 of Lucien Flores’ interview with Dr. Dog bassist/vocalist Toby Leaman in advance of the band’s show at House of Blues tonight. 

Monday’s interview focuses on Leaman’s relationship with his Dr. Dog cohort of 20 years, Scott McMicken. Dr. Dog, however, is much more than those two and the contributions of Frank McElroy (rhythm guitar), Zach Miller (keyboards), Eric Slick (drums), and Dimitri Manos (jack-of-all-trades) cannot be understated. 

Today’s portion of the interview focuses on the creation of Be The Void, the difficulty of choosing songs, the band’s democratic recoding process and their affinity for Boston. 

Lucien Flores: What are you doing now that you’re home? Are you doing any last minute preparations for the second leg of your tour or are you relaxing?  [Note, interview conducted on February 27th]

Toby Leaman: I’m just doing house stuff. Trying to hook up this stupid hose to the dehumidifier. Recycling, that’s about it. We did all our prep work before the first leg. Rented out a venue here in Philly and did all the preproduction stuff that we needed to do so we’re pretty well oiled and ready to go.

LFHow’s the tour been so far? 

TL: It’s been great so far. Kind of hard to draw the line when you’re doing a tour right when a record came out. It’s kind of hard to figure out how many new songs you can play. I mean, we’re all ready to play fourteen new songs or whatever, but I don’t think would be too psyched if that’s what we did. So it’s kind of a hard to strike a balance between doing enough of the new stuff and doing plenty of old stuff so that people will recognize a lot of the tunes. But with this next leg, since the record has been out for two or three weeks, I think we’re going to start doing a lot more new material. Maybe like 8 or 10 songs a night.

LFI know with Be The Void, there seemed to be this conscious effort to reach that live aesthetic in the studio and recreate the energy of the performances. How is it then playing these songs that are meant to capture the live setting in an actual live setting now?

TL: Definitely the practice for this record was way easier than any of our other records because pretty much everything on the record, you can do live so there isn’t any translating parts to different instruments or figuring out what we’re doing with harmonies or anything like that. It’s pretty much everything we can do live, we did in the studio. Practicing for these songs is so much less of a challenge. Plus they’re kind of easier too than a lot of our songs have been in the past.

They’re not as intricate and a lot of the harmonies aren’t as hard. I think that’s because we just didn’t throw as much crap on top because we felt really good about the bare bones of the song. We thought, oh, this is pretty much done. It was actually really nice to work like that. We’ve always been a band that was like, s–t well there’s strings here…Frank you do the strings on guitar, Zach you’ve going to have to take this one harmony keyboard line, I’m going to have to do this. Just parceling out parts so it’s kind of like this patchwork of all this stuff of stuff that seemed like it’s crucial to the song just sort of getting spread out across the different instruments. But this one…sometimes there’s just not parts for people to play. The record is a little sparse; it’s really nice in that way. And it’s translating really well live. Even before the record came out, we were playing some of the new songs live and people were digging them. I don’t think a lot of people had heard them before and they definitely seemed to be into it.

LFWhat’s your favorite one to play live now?

TL: Right now the sleeper one is “Heavy Light.” It just came out of nowhere to become an incredible live jam. There’s still five or six that we haven’t really done live so I don’t know. It changes from day to day.  That seems to be the one that is consistently awesome. It’s interesting too because it seems like such a weird song…out of all the songs on the record, that would be my last pick for the one that would work really well live, but it’s definitely working.

 LFThere were some difficulties on recording Shame, Shame: the whole recording session was slower, it was the first time you guys worked with an outside producer and it was just different from what you’re normally used to. Be The Void was quicker with faster paced recording sessions. I’m wondering if it’s easier for you guys to do everything at this quicker pace. 

TL: We like to work fast. That’s just sort of the way we’ve always done it. Nathan [Sabatino]—the guy who engineered this record—it was a guy we’ve actually worked with a bunch for fun. He had a studio out in Tucson for years. He’s actually a Philly guy originally, but he’s been out there for 12/15 years.  Good friends with Dimitri whose been out in Tuscon forever. Nathan decided he was gonna move back and we told him he should move into our studio and we should make a record together and it worked out great. He’s sort of got the same ethic: let’s just plow through this and if it doesn’t feel good, we’ll just go to a different song. We’re fortunate in the way that both me and Scott write so much material so if something’s not working, we can just put it on the back-burner and not have any real fear of not having enough material for record.

LFSpeaking of that, I read that you guys had close to 30 songs for the session and mixed about 20 of them. What are you going to do with all the extra material? I’ve heard that perhaps there’s an EP of extra stuff in the works, but what is your plan?

TL: Yeah, I would imagine that to be the case.  I don’t know what else we would do with them. Some of them might get reworked for an album down the road, but some of them I feel are done and didn’t quite make the cut, not because they are any worse, but just because they didn’t help the flow of the record. I imagine we’ll probably put them out in some capacity sometime soon.

LFHow hard was it to choose?

TB: You always think it’s going to be tougher than it actually is. The more and more you get into it, the more you see the ones that everybody is sort of responding to within the band and the one that people are gravitating towards. If you have a song that you worked on for one day and nobody every mentioned it again… [laughs] I guess it doesn’t cut the mustard. And then if you have a song that you don’t think is going to make the record, but everybody is sort of, when are we going to mix this? When are we going to mix this? When are we going to finish this song? The song that everybody is excited about. I will definitely say that three or four of my songs that were some of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written that I was so psyched to put on the record didn’t make the record and I think the same is true for Scott and it’s just what happens. Part of the reason we recorded by ourselves was to see what kind of band we are, because we never recorded a full record with Eric, our new drummer, and Dimitri. We had done songs, we knew it worked, we knew it was a lot of fun, but we had never tried a whole record. We just wanted to see where we were at as a band and the things that were working. What you’re hearing is where we were at as a band in the summer. This is the thing we were left with; it wasn’t necessarily the songs that we felt were going to make the record. This feels great, let’s just keeping working on this song and let’s just keep doing this thing. It’s just a snapshot of the band in the summer of 2011.

LF: How have you grown since if the album is the snapshot of the summer?

TL: I don’t really know [laughs]. I’ll have to see when we go back in the studio. I know live, doing what we’ve been doing for as long as we’ve been doing, you know that when you’re in the studio it’s going to influence your live show and your live show is eventually going to start influencing your studio work in any direction possible. We will see where we’re at as a recording band. As a live band, I think we’re tighter, I think there’s more emphasis on really playing together…playing at the peak of your ability. I especially think that’s true for Eric and I, really laying it down and getting it done. Feeling really good about the core of the song and going from there and that’s part of some of the madness that we used get to on stage. We’re still a pretty energetic band, but there are a lot of times in the past where I think the madness was there to cover up some of the insecurities about playing and I don’t think that’s the case anymore.

LFEric’s been with the band for two years now and this is the first album he’s recorded all the way through. He’s a very impressive drummer. What does he bring to the band and how does he change the dynamic? 

TL: Having a dude like him there and knowing that whatever happens, the thing that is most important will be totally fine. Not just fine, but great. You know, everything else can go into the pot and he’s always going to be right there. Knowing that you have a person behind like that is calming. Not to take a nap or something, but you’re not worried that sh*t this whole thing might run into a brick wall. He comes up with his parts so quickly and is still open to what our ideas are and is really good at executing them real quickly. Good connection like that and then it’s done. We’ll be done tracking drums and bass in about two-three hours from maybe a song that nobody’s even heard and that’s already done. He’s so fast in that way, it’s great.

LFSame question for Dimitri.

TL: He’s just one of those dudes…you probably know guys like this in your life where as soon as they’re around, you’re just happier. Constantly seems like he’s thinking on a deeper level than you and coming up with really cool ideas all the time. I love being around people like that—just straight up, creative, dude. And then in the studio, he was there all the time. He was there as much as Scott. He was just there the whole time doing all his input totally spot on. Just having him in the band is great because he looks at a problem and is persistent in saying that it’s not a problem, it is what it is and the problem actually becomes the thing that is cool. He’s got a real good way of twisting your mind around the point to keep a positive mental attitude. That’s the most important thing for our band, I think that’s where we really thrive; as long as we really love what we’re doing, I don’t think there’s anything that we’re not capable of.

LFYou’re coming to House of Blues in March, is there anything you do in Boston to kill the time? How do you like playing in the city?

TL: We’ve been playing the Paradise for so long, I would just go to the record store down there…There’s life a thrift store and a record store right there. That’s usually what we do. I actually don’t know where House of Blues is…

LFIt’s actually right across the street from Fenway Park. 

TL: Oh, that’s great! I love playing Boston. We’ve been playing Boston forever. It’ll be cool to be playing a different venue. I like the Paradise, but we’ve probably played there five or six times at this point. It’s always kind of fun to move on to the next step. I don’t know anything about House of Blues there though.

LFIt’s a nice venue. Sits about 2,000 people [2,425]. I know the show has been selling well, a bunch of people are going.

TL: That’s awesome. That would be great if we sold that place out. That would be awesome. Get people going to the show!

Dr. Dog headlines House of Blues Boston Thursday, March 22. Doors open at 7pm.

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