COMRADES IN AXES
DR. DOG’S LONGEVITY OWES TO THE BOND BETWEEN BAND MEMBERS
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly
It’s been a long ride for Dr. Dog. The band got its start about 15 years ago playing parties in Philadelphia before becoming the beloved underground band that rock stars (including Jim James) longed to be in, and then a national touring phenomenon, after the Abbey Road-esque 2008 breakthrough Fate. But what’s struck me, continually, about Dr. Dog — which, at its best, brilliantly juxtaposes The Band and The Beatles with a smidgen of indie irreverence — is the clear, strong friendship that comes through, even on the biggest stages.
At Red Rocks two years ago, opening for Wilco, Dr. Dog’s co-frontmen Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman rollicked around the wide stage — with the sun setting over Denver in the background — like teenagers who’d just started a band in their garage and were getting the chance to prove themselves by smiling and hollering until their allotted time ran out.
The subject of Dr. Dog’s famous camaraderie — reminiscent of how Neil Young & Crazy Horse always seem to huddle together during performances even on the kind of giant stages that seem to separate most arena-rock acts and their comparably giant egos — came up in a recent conversation with keyboardist (and founding member) Zach Miller recently.
“I think we are all pretty laid-back people and ultimately put the band ahead of our own ambitions,” Miller replies when asked how Dr. Dog has always seemingly kept drama to a minimum and maintained an extremely high energy level in concert, whether at Red Rocks or the tiny inside stage at Santa Fe Brewing, where I saw the band in 2010.
McMicken and Leaman had been playing together since junior high before starting Dr. Dog in 1999, and that bond — enhanced by a vow to never play covers — no doubt carried over.
“It was exciting to be introduced to their world, where everyone was in a great band and really good friends together,” Miller says. “We are there to serve the band. We love the songs, and I think that comes through on stage.”
Dr. Dog’s songwriting — according to most fans — peaked on its lighthearted, lo-fi first few albums (notably Easy Beat and We All Belong, both on Park the Van) and the flawless Fate (-Anti), which saw the group’s popularity skyrocket. With all the band members singing either lead or harmonies and most songs impressively fitting together like a puzzle, those three long-plays dazzled critics and music geeks alike, whereas the three Dr. Dog albums that’ve followed are enjoyable but at times sound like caricatures of classic Dr. Dog tracks like “The Old Days.”
That can’t, however, be said for “Humble Passenger,” the extended story-song that concludes the band’s latest album, 2013’s B-Room. Somewhere between Jeffrey Lewis’ comical hipster-rock and Phish’s “Gamehendge” saga, “Humble Passenger” takes listeners through the caverns of McMicken’s subconscious, where, among other things, his seventh-grade bus turns into a whale.
The hypnotic corresponding music is about as symphonic as a tasteful rock band can get without stumbling into Yes territory, and “Humble Passenger” has even been made into a comic book that’s for sale online.
“The comic came after the song,” Miller explains. “It seemed like an obvious move after we realized what the song had become. [‘Humble Passenger’] was based on an actual dream of Scott’s, which he had turned into a basic ‘I-IV-V’ folk demo. From that, [guitarist] Frank [McElroy] did an incredible arrangement to reflect the musical journey of the lyrics. We all recorded our parts in separate sessions from a scratch take of Frank’s arrangement. I was so pleased with the way it all came together, especially for such an ambitious recording undertaken in such a disjointed way.”
With such an extensive catalog — since 2002, Dr. Dog has released seven albums and a slew of hard-to-find EPs and other rarities — it must be hard to please longtime fans who are screaming for old-school gems such as “Oh No” and “California.”
“Definitely,” Miller says. “It’s always tough to get a good mix of things in the set, but we have to skew more to the newer stuff; that’s the whole point of what we’re doing. Ideally, we try to get in something from each album … but that doesn’t always happen.”
With a headlining set at the Boulder Theater, Miller and the rest of Dr. Dog should have ample time to please even their most hardcore fans.