INTERVIEW – Dr. Dog Growing Up: An Interview With Toby Leaman

Published In The Daily Free Press on 11/13/13

Childhood friends Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken form the crux of Dr. Dog. Others members have come and gone but the two have stayed constant, sharing vocal duties and songwriting credits, through the band’s evolution from their 2001 debut Psychedelic Swamp to 2013’s B-Room. While the former is a mishmash of lo-fi sounds to be decoded by aliens, the later is a soulful jaunt with sophisticated harmonies and a throwback sound created by a tight-knit unit of six.

While the hard-to-find Psychedelic Swamp sounds like an experiment in musical Dadaism, Dr. Dog’s follow up albums had more direction. The band’s third record, 2005’s Easy Beat, signifies the moment where Dr. Dog successfully melded their lo-fi psychedelic sensibilities with their love for blues and harmonies.

Dr. Dog’s next few albums had a similar hodgepodge of sound effects, blues, and Beatles-esque harmonies before 2010’s Shame, Shame marked a change for the band as they smoothed the rough edges and increased their production values. Each successive Dr. Dog album has more polish than the last but, even with the studio shine, Dr. Dog hasn’t lost its head. They stick true to their bluesy roots while expanding their sound.

Music sub-head Lucien Flores spoke to the raspy-voiced Leaman. Even through phone lines, Leaman came off as a good-humored lad who would enthusiastically talk about music for hours if left to his own devices.

So how does Leaman feel about Dr. Dog’s growth? He admits, “I don’t think we’re quite as heavy-handed as we used to be.”

“It definitely feels like a band, the sort of thing we were always trying to have.” To Leaman, the early days of Dr. Dog felt like him and McMicken recording with whoever was around. These days, Dr. Dog is an established group of six musical veterans.

Leaman thinks the lyrical subject matter is mostly the same as it’s always been — “reflection.”  “Not everything is about a girl. Not everything is about angst or about happiness. It’s a little more nuanced than that.” Leaman explains that confusion is a central theme of Dr. Dog. The figures of Dr. Dog songs are “not trying to figure out the greater questions” but they’re aware that these questions exist.

While the themes may have stayed the same, “it’s more satisfying to write.” “Lyrically, we’re way better,” says Leaman. Similarly, Leaman is impressed with the singing on the latest album, saying that the leads have never sounded better.

One of the band’s marked differences is a shift towards recording songs live in the studio. That’s not to say that they didn’t record vocals separately or they wouldn’t overdub obvious mistakes but they tried to record as many instruments as they could in the same take.

When we talked, Leaman was excited about recently recording a full-band version of “Too Weak To Ramble,” complete with three-part harmonies, live in only a handful of takes at Dan Auerbach’s studio in Nashville (“the best studio in the world. I mean literally. Anybody who’s been there will tell you the same thing.”)

While complex recording sessions were Dr. Dog’s “bread and butter for about ten years,” Leaman and Dr. Dog have aspired to meld the divide between their studio sound and live show. He suggests that, “it’s not all that exciting for outsiders” but “for us, it’s really exciting…it means a lot to us.”

“I don’t know the next time I’ll listen to this record.”

The vocals are better than ever, the lyrics are in tip-top shape and the band is closer to capturing their live essence in studio than ever before. So why won’t Leaman listen to the damn thing?

He explains, “It’s a weird thing too because you listen to it so much and you love it so much and then you’re done. And then you listen to it some more times and you feel real satisfied and proud. And then it becomes painful to listen to.”

It’s not any indication of his displeasure with the album, but rather something all artists go through. Anytime you create something creative, you’re bound to see flaws in it.

Leaman suggests that when Dr. Dog puts out five more records, his “minute” problems with the record won’t even occur to him. The further you get away from something you created, the more you’re able to accept it. Perhaps there’s a self-conscious perfectionist that resides in all artists.

Rock & Roll

The tenth track on the record, “Rock & Roll,” is a purely autobiographical number. Leaman sings about times he lost his mind and “freaked out” listening to records or playing music with his friends. “All of the verses to that are real specific instances,” explains Leaman. The first and last verses are about McMicken, the second is about another friend of his and his wife is the subject the third one.

“Rock & Roll” was a blast for Leaman to write.  He “could have had forty verses in that” but that goes against the essence of rock & roll. It’s about three minute songs.  “Get in, get out,” says Leaman.

Leaman wouldn’t reveal the albums he sings of. “I feel like if I told you that, it would be less interesting,” he admits. He wants the song to be universal and achieves that goal by not mentioning specific bands. “It might have happened to a buddy of yours with a band you hate or vice versa” says Leaman but “the important thing is the experience.” Leaman admitted that he wasn’t singing about Sgt. Peppers or Pet Sounds. “It’s like Clue” he jokes.

New Digs

Dr. Dog recorded in their new studio in the suburbs of Philadelphia. What was once a mill is now a recording studio with eight rooms and a place to stay overnight—a step-up from their last place.

To Leaman, space is “integral for how you feel” especially considering how long it takes Dr. Dog to make records. “When you’re spending that much time in a space…the space has to be awesome or you’re just going to feel like shit and your record is gonna suffer and you’re gonna be miserable.”

Case in point, Dr. Dog’s old studio. After a long night of recording, Leaman would wake up to the sound of other musicians. “You felt so horrible because…you stayed up all night and recorded and got shit done…but then waking up in the same junky, trashy place with no shower and no real food…a shared bathroom out in the hallway.” Says Leaman, “if you stayed there two or three nights in a row, you were pretty dead… You needed to get the hell away from that spot to keep your sanity.”

The B-Room, one of the many rooms in the spacious new studio, was the inspiration for the album title. It’s a “conductive place to either do nothing or get a lot done.” Band members could go in there for 16 hours and come out with what they needed without having bothered anybody or without “overly embarrassing yourself by messing up 20 billion times.”

The new studio space was also conducive to remedying a bad day. If a member of Dr. Dog wasn’t playing up to par and wanted to cut the day short, they didn’t have to go home. Says Leaman, “there was construction that always needed to be done.” Sweeping, cleaning, plumbing, you name it. You’d be helping the greater good by “doing things that need to be done and not going home feeling like shit.”

Dating Dr. Dog

I asked Leaman how Dr. Dog would advertise the band in a dating section of a newspaper.

His answer: “World’s Greatest Band. Unavailable For Parties. No Fatties. ”

 

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