Over the past decade, Dr. Dog has evolved from a lo-fi novelty act into a theater-filling force of indie rock. Scott McMicken is the guitarist and one of the lead singers in the Philadelphia-based group. The A.V. Club sat down with McMicken to discuss different theories regarding the band’s infamous name, to geek out over The Beatles, and to contemplate the rise of neo-psychedelia. Released by Anti- Records Feb. 7, Be The Void is the band’s sixth full-length album. They play at Old National Centre tomorrow.
The A.V. Club: Is this your biggest headlining tour yet?
Scott McMicken: I definitely think it will be. Each release of an album seems to push us to bigger and bigger venues. With each new release, you prove your worth in a venue and then can take another step up. But, on any given tour, we might play to, like, 3,000 people in New York and then 200 in Knoxville, or a dive bar in Iowa City then some massive balcony theater in Chicago. It makes touring challenging, because you want to fill a big room, so we put more thought and ideas into the stage production and the overall visual experience of the show. But then you pull up to a club that’s just a pizza restaurant, and we’re like, “What do we do with this 30-foot backdrop we made?”
AVC: When you have to play those little venues again, do you just revert to the Dr. Dog of yesteryear? Does it become more of a raw show?
SM: Oh yeah, out of necessity. The inherent loud messiness of those cramped quarters encourages a sweaty show. But I think that one of Dr. Dog’s strong suits is our ability to adapt. I mean, a lot of things you have to do on the road might require you to go play a radio station in an office building where you just bring what you can carry in your hands. There are so many weird promotional things you have to do as a band, but I think those are the things I end up most proud of. Those are the things you have to do when your back is against the wall. It keeps you on your toes, and you never get too comfortable with what you do. I see in a lot of other bands maybe they get too comfortable, but that’s the thing that can’t happen. I feel there isn’t any risk then.
AVC: Do you feel like you’ve taken risks as songwriters as well?
SM: Our adaptability, if not a mission statement, has always been the natural reality for our band. It’s not our choice to play such a diverse set of venues, but that’s just what it is, so that’s what you make work. It’s been like that for recording too, going all the way back. Ten years ago, when all we had to record on was a four-track, it didn’t feel any less full of potential compared to now when we just flip open a computer with 24 tracks. Even in a philosophical sense, it’s about realizing a context and just getting the most out of a situation.
AVC: Does this philosophy also apply to Be The Void?
SM: I think, as a band, we’re becoming self-aware. Beauty and surprises come when your back is against the wall, so, what if you strategically choose to put your back against the wall? I really like the creative faculties that have to kick in there. In the way we did this new album, we were constantly exercising these self-imposed parameters just to see what could come out of that. We’ve never been excited by having many choices. Less technology has always kept our minds sharper. There are a thousand choices now, especially in a recording process. With this album, we talked to producers, considered all kinds of different ways to record, but ultimately we decided to just do it on our tape machine in our humble studio with nobody else around. And that was a really liberating decision.
AVC: The songwriting credits for Dr. Dog are basically split between yourself and Toby Leaman. Is it ever a challenge to share the songwriting duties with someone else?
SM: Toby and I have known each other for 20 years now. The first time we ever hung out, in the eighth grade, we went and played music together. So I don’t really have a sense of myself as a musician without him, and vice versa. It’s weird though, especially on this new record, when I look at it objectively I can see that we are very different. Especially as we evolve further into our own identities as songwriters, I might see a side of him that is truly and uniquely Toby, and seeing that pushes me to find the version of that honesty in myself, but the results are very different. And it shows in the music, but it just makes sense for us to put our songs side by side. The idea of being the only songwriter in a band just sounds like too much for me. It’s nice to have that double amount of material and feel just as proud of a song that he writes. I have the same affection for his songs [as] anything that I write. It’s something I don’t take for granted and am very grateful for. We’ve only understood our friendship as musicians.
AVC: That’s impressive. You guys have been partners in music for 20 years?
SM: Well having a band is almost like having a child. I mean, good parents will try to be on their best behavior, even if they’re not getting along, because there’s something bigger there you have to preserve. And that’s how it is for me and Toby. Pretensions do exist, and it can get nuts, but there’s always something bigger, and that’s the music.
SM: I think about the lo-fi thing, and vocal harmonies, or ’60s pop—all these things that were exactly what people were holding against us in 2004—but now the culture has changed. If we came out now, like if we released Easy Beat this year, I think it would be so much better received now than it was back then. We were doing so much three-part harmony because we were obsessed with the Beach Boys back in 1999, or whatever. I remember it was kind of a novelty act for us, and we embraced that. We embrace whatever seems to put a smile on someone’s face. If your appreciation for Dr. Dog requires some understanding that it’s naïve or bubbleheaded, I would encourage that just as much we make lofty claims of integrity or artistic merit or something.
AVC: Either way!
SM: I do think it’s fair to say though; we’re not that big. We’re not MGMT or what they did. But, I think, after years of touring where you don’t have a bus that you can crawl onto, we’ve been able to hang out with a lot of different people. And it’s been clear, even early on, that a lot of musicians would come to our shows. So, I’m reluctant to say this, but maybe we have had some sort of influence. Like, we toured with The Head And The Heart, and even they said they were inspired by our band. But, if you’re influenced by Dr. Dog, I don’t know what that even means. I mean, why be influenced by Dr. Dog? Why not just be influenced by The Beatles?
AVC: Are The Beatles the golden standard?
SM: I’ve never been a super-avid Beatles listener, and yet I’ll be the first to admit their huge influence. Obviously there’s something to millions of ears that is so inherently aesthetically pleasing. It’s gentle and playful, but it’s rich and deep. It’s as simple as it is complex, all these fundamental aspects of beauty are apparent there. So they are this catchall, because: A) They were very adventurous people. You were able to map their lives and character through their songwriting, which shows their commitment to their craft. And, B), sonically, there is just that color. It was inherent in the sounds of their voices. And the elements we’ve really taken from The Beatles, the three essential ingredients really, are the sound of the drums, the sound of the voices, and the sound of the bass. The bass always had a very clear, distinct melody and was always moving the songs forward. You hear that in a lot of Motown too, but not much other music. And the drums are like the frame of reference. I feel like, in the whole story of the evolution of fidelity, it’s been about the triumph of drumming. Everything is scaled to the drums. They create such a large sound, so you have to build everything up around them to fill that sonic experience. But their voices—Paul McCartney and John Lennon had the best voices in all of rock ’n’ roll without any sort of manipulation, but Lennon was known to be very insecure about his voice and would manipulate it a lot. He would use lots of echo, or singing in unison with himself, or pitch-manipulate it. It kept that very youthful sound.
When you obsess about older music, and you want to know how to sound like that, The Beatles documented every single thing they’ve ever done. Ringo Starr put towels on his drums. Most drummers would tune their drums, but he just put towels on them. They did snare overdubs simply to solve problems in poor engineering. But all of these things become definitive characteristics of their music—things that sound awesome, but came out of necessity.
The Beatles comparison gets thrown around all the time, though. I remember Oasis was called Beatles-esque, but everything that The Beatles conveyed through their music, philosophically and sonically, was so far beyond Oasis. I can’t find an end to investigating what The Beatles represent to music. The Beatles are underrated in the way they’re used as a cultural signpost for what music comes from. They were more adventurous than any of us can even comprehend, because they came from a time when there was no Beatles before them. The things that they came up with in such a short period of time, and styles they traversed and owned, that in itself is such an incredible achievement.
AVC: They still haven’t worn out their welcome, even as new generations keep coming up.
SM: And that ought be! The one frustrating thing is that, somewhere along the narrative of musical history, there was, like, this spite that came up and said, “We get it musicians, don’t be into them anymore.”
AVC: But you think we should be into them even more now.
SM: Yeah! It’s the same with Bob Dylan, too.
AVC: The Beatles and Bob Dylan both really cared about their art it seems.
SM: Yeah, it was a way of life.
AVC: When did you realize Dr. Dog was what you were really doing with your life?
SM: A definitive point was when Jim James took us out on tour with My Morning Jacket back in 2004. It was at a time when we didn’t even really have an official album out yet. But I put a few songs on a homemade CD and jewel case that I’d put, like, sprinkles and stuff in. My girlfriend took one to a My Morning Jacket show and gave it to Jim James afterwards and introduced me to him. A couple weeks later, Jim James sent me a letter saying how much he enjoyed the music, and also asked, “So what’s the deal? Do you have a label or are you going on tour?” And at that point, we had nothing. Just those CDs. So I wrote him back and told that to him, and then he invited us to go on tour with My Morning Jacket. So, that was insane and really made us tighten the screws. I mean, our band at that point was so conceptual, and was just this rotating cast of our friends. We had a guy who just danced behind an orange sheet, a fake audience member who was designed to be a really weird dude who was just into the music no matter how big the crowd was, stuff like that. We didn’t have gear either. We borrowed drums, had a battery-powered keyboard that belonged to someone’s sister. So, before we knew it, we went from that to touring with My Morning Jacket! We practiced so much and got so dialed up for it. I think it very much shaped our career in those early days.
I had a lot of paranoid issues about what it was going to be like going on tour with a huge rock band. I pictured Mötley Crüe in VH1 Behind The Music; I was really that naïve about it. I thought, “Oh no, now I’m gonna have to start doing drugs all the time!” But lo and behold, My Morning Jacket is just a bunch of really awesome dudes who are very similar to my friends, and they just work really hard every night to put on incredible shows. No nonsense or debauchery or antics, nothing that was the least bit intimidating or frightening. And when I saw that, I realized, well, this could be done. I’m so glad that that even happened to us, just to be the little brother in that situation, for them to show us, you know, “This is how you do it.” Even to this day, My Morning Jacket is still one of the hardest working and most exciting live bands on the planet, and it makes me feel so proud to see them because I know it’s nothing but hard work that got them there.
AVC: There’s this episode of King Of The Hill where the brand name of the dog food is called Dr. Dog. Did you get your band name from that?
SM: Weird, no! A friend of mine also just gave me a children’s book by Babette Cole called Dr. Dog. But we didn’t take it from her either.
AVC: Maybe she and Mike Judge are just fans of your music.
SM: Hey, that would be cool!