Two years ago, Philadelphia’s Dr. Dog – a quirky, loveable indie-soul band that released its so-so sixth album Shame, Shame on April 6th – packed Denver’s Hi-Dive, a tiny bar on South Broadway that holds about 200 people when the fire department isn’t looking. Last year, Dr. Dog electrified an over-capacity crowd of singing-along college kids at the 400-seat Fox Theatre in Boulder, and this spring the endearing, addicting throwbacks are filling thousand-capacity halls like the Gothic Theater in Denver. But getting bigger certainly hasn’t gone to their heads.
We never expected or yearned for instant success because it can be fleeting and it seems like it’s difficult to sustain,” keyboardist Zach Miller told me recently. “I’m sure we wouldn’t have tried to sabotage it had we broken [earlier] but in the meantime we worked hard and were fortunate to get a lot of great opportunities along the way. Our level of success has made our lives more comfortable and stable but we’re definitely not ‘rolling in it.’ We have steady jobs doing what we love and we live modestly.”
Like Ween and the Flaming Lips before them, getting noticed by the jam-band scene when their music really doesn’t come close to fitting into that category helped expand Dr. Dog’s fan-base. Formed in Philly back in 1999, Dr. Dog saw a pretty immediate boost in recognition when featured on the cover of Relix in 2008 around the time the quintet’s breakout LP Fate was released. Like most Dr. Dog albums, Fate wonderfully juxtaposed the dusty grit of the Band with the near-cheese of early Steely Dan, dueling All Things Must Pass guitars and subtle hints at the irreverence of Dylan’s Basement Tapes and fellow Philly heroes The Dead Milkmen.
[image courtesy of KEXP Radio]
There’s nothing particularly jammy about Dr. Dog’s music, although in concert they reveal better musicianship than most jambands. Still, a few minutes into one of their high-energy shows it’s easy to realize that between the contagious onstage calisthenics of the band’s two disparate front-men – Scott MckMicken and Toby Leaman – and the immediately intense connection the group and their lyrics have with their audience it’s obvious why fans of the Grateful Dead and Phish would be interested in following these guys around the country.
Similar to the aforementioned stoner-rock titans, Dr. Dog’s records have common threads musically and lyrically that could probably be seen as monotonous to the uninitiated but make fans feel like the band’s songs are as close as family. Across their six impressive albums, and a few EPs, it’s been as if cheery ditties like “The Old Days” and “Today” are injections of happiness available at the click of an iPod.
Playful singer/guitarist MckMicken – whose charming odes to love, loss and lemonade fall somewhere between Paul McCartney and the Dead Milkmen’s Joe Genaro – is Dr. Dog’s curious captain. In concert, MckMicken’s private eye get-up (from the brown suit and matching fedora to big black shades) and humble, high-pitched voice present a nice contrast to singer/bassist Leaman’s, whose howling, amorous masculinity makes him a sort of Neal Cassady for the indie-rock scene.
On Shame, Shame, Leaman again offers songs (see: “Later” and “Someday”) that, with more stripped-down arrangements, could easily be mistaken for Bruce Springsteen circa Greetings From Asbury Park. But in truth, Dr. Dog’s new material is actually much less produced than their previous recorded work. Through the years, on tracks like “Oh No” and “The Way The Lazy Do,” Dr. Dog has successfully indulged in Let It Be-esque rock n’ roll suites that warm the soul on headphones and can nearly manifest collective ecstasy in front of an engrossed audience. Miller claims that a more insular recording process was beneficial. .
“We were less inclined to include outside musicians and instruments [on Shame, Shame],” he said. We wanted to keep to a tight knit band feel and focus on the songs, so we only used traditional rock instruments. Despite the lack of orchestral instruments and arrangements, I still think we had a lot of great textures on the record. We wanted to take a much more direct approach with this record and I think it really served the songs well.”
The MckMicken-led “Jackie Wants a Black Eye,” the new album’s standout track, functions well as a Dr. Dog mission statement with the chorus “we’re all in it together now as we all fall apart / swapping little pieces of our broken little hearts.” But the succinctly beautiful track, with its Magical Mystery Tour harmonies and bouncy tenderness, also reveals why Dr. Dog plays a key part in the on-going lo-fi rock resurrection, which Miller downplays.
“We know and have played with My Morning Jacket and Fleet Foxes; we definitely feel a kinship with them but I don’t think we’re part of some kind of lo-fi revolution per se. I don’t think we can take credit [when] Guided by Voices, Pavement, and Silver Jews were doing this 10 years before us.”
“I guess you can look at the evolution of our sound as parallel to some of those bands,” he continues, “but I think it’s only because we recorded ourselves. It’s more about home recording than any specific aesthetic [and] home recording is not all that revolutionary these days when you can record on your iPhone.”
Thankfully, signing with a bigger label [Anti-, home of Tom Waits, Devotchka and Islands] hasn’t made Dr. Dog’s music go mainstream or made the tight-knit group want to do something crazy like leave Southeastern Pennsylvania for Los Angeles.
“Philly is just a cool, laid back place [and] I don’t think we ever looked at it as a stepping stone to some other ‘cooler’ city,” Miller asserts.
Miller sounded a little disappointed when asked whether signing with Anti- meant befriending Waits, whose music has been a substantial Dr. Dog influence.
“Tom didn’t send any flowers,” he joked “For a second we thought ‘oh if we’re on Anti-, we might get a chance to meet Tom Waits,’ but then quickly realized we’re not going to see him walking around the office or anything like that. We’re only marginally more likely to have any interaction with him. But it’s been a great experience working with them and they’ve been very supportive of whatever kind of record we wanted to make.”