Dr. Dog: Gettin' To That Thing

By: Dennis Cook

Dr. Dog
Fate (released July 22 on Park The Van), the fifth album from Philadelphia's Dr. Dog is a pilgrim's hymnbook written in popular song, full of outward bound thoughts wedded to shoo-bee-do-wops and befuzzed guitar. It's the kind of album you like right away but find you're madly in love with after a few dates. By your first road trip alone you'll be ready to slip a ring on its finger. An upward draft informs everything, even the tunes that begin down in the dumps, and it's that tenacity at grasping at the light that elevates Fate - and Dr. Dog in general – above the realm of neat pop craftsmanship (which, coincidentally, they do quite well). Fate is ham-hocks and collard greens for starved souls that only reveals its true spicing once it's inside you.

"Some things present themselves in everyone's lives in a million different varieties. These things make music feel substantial," says Scott McMicken, one of the voices and architects of Dr. Dog. "I find the most solace and realization in knowing about these things. No matter how sort of stuck in the muck you get, if you can find evidence of these same things existing in other people's lives, well, it just feels like a function of life and a human attribute. It's really good. The most dangerous thing is getting lost and locked up in your own experiences. I find these moments of shared experience to be so beneficial."

It's this universality, this quest for commonality and connection that informs Fate. That they deliver this message in a package that recalls great pop artists of the past makes their philosophical slight of hand all the more impressive. Their Wikipedia entry begins:

Dr. Dog is a psychedelic rock band from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Their sound has been compared to that of various 1960s pop bands, especially The Beatles and The Band, as well as The Beach Boys.

Dr. Dog
It's lazy shorthand but this set of associations tends to crop up in nearly every piece about them, in one form or another. Though Dr. Dog shares the solidity and super charged creative energy of these reference points, they don't really sound like The Band or The Beatles and largely left behind any discernible Beach Boys nods a couple years ago. In much the same way as every singer-songwriter is the "New Dylan" or "New Neil Young," critics tend to lump music into codified little boxes. So when confronted by a fully flowering rock monster like Dr. Dog most aren't sure what to do with them. While many establishment wags can't conceive of a contemporary group making albums as rich as Revolver, Stage Fright or Smiley Smile, that's just what Dr. Dog has done with Fate, which hints at even more spectacular things to come. However, it's not especially psychedelic, at least not in the candy ass, incense and peppermints way most folks take it to be.

"That word is just swimming around there for anyone to pick up on. It's a very, very subjective word at this point in time. Any music possessing a general characteristic of color and some sort of imaginary landscape immediately falls into that psychedelic category," points out McMicken. "I feel this issue is somewhat of a problem but can also be seen as a challenge, not just in the building of the identity or consciousness of your band but in learning how to feel a personal connection with something that is so easily tagged and so easily referenced. To re-appropriate all these elements and sort of become familiar with the history, the grand narrative of whatever you're a part of – whether it's your own self-analysis or your family or culture as an artist – is an opportunity to learn to keep the peace with your own personal history AND to be very comfortable in terms of any given point in what precedes you, and being proud to carry these things on instead of lashing out against them or feeling like they only exist in their most beautiful form only for you to dodge and avoid. For the most part, that's kind of what Fate, the record, is about in a nutshell."

The ABCs

Do you feel like you're stuck in time?
Forever waiting on that line
If nothing ever moves
Put that needle to the groove
And sing

Dr. Dog by Sam Seager
As Virginia Woolf would tell you (if she wasn't clutching stones at the bottom of a lake), a room of one's own makes all the difference in art and life. For the past few years, Dr. Dog has recorded at their home studio. The lack of clockwatching and freedom to work at all hours has meant a steady technical progression that's matched pace with their increased skill as players and songwriters. They buy their tape used from a hip-hop studio in Philly, and from time to time happy accidents from the blunted maestros make their way into their tunes, shuddery, chuckling ghosts inside their spiraling barroom piano and fluttering melodies. After saving up their pennies, they purchased a 24-track rig that replaced their cherished four-track, which still gets a workout from time to time.

"We used to roll the tape and record a song. If it was awesome it was awesome, if it was bad it was bad, but we'd never go back. Now we can do several takes and let the music develop more naturally," says McMicken. "In a band you're constantly working on things together. It's very delicate. The good thing is you work through things and you wind up stronger than ever. For me, that's linked up with being in a band and always improving."

Continue reading for more on Dr. Dog...

 
The most dangerous thing is getting lost and locked up in your own experiences. I find these moments of shared experience to be so beneficial.

-Scott McMicken

 

And they are a little better each time out, their new evolution obvious from record to record, tour to tour, and even in the cheek of their band listing on their MySpace page, which only lists their nicknames (real names added for your informational pleasure) and poetic gloss on their role, befitting a group that took their name from a mishearing of Captain Beefheart's "Doctor Dark":

Taxi (Scott McMicken): lead woof+mud distortion guitar, vocals
Tables (Toby Leaman): finger bass, vocals, rhythm stomp
Text (Zach Miller): keyboardings, some guitar/singing
Trouble (Juston Stens): hammer hands of a surgeon, harmonies, embellishments
Thanks (Sukey Jumps): multi-string guitar, full-grip chords, vocal nuances

Scott McMicken by Sam Seager
Dr. Dog gets that music is mathematics and poetry, a sway between organization and free flight, and always with an understanding that they stand on the shoulders of giants that they borrow inspiration from constantly.

"The craft is just as fulfilling as the poetry or philosophy behind it. It's like a dummy you can dress up," says McMicken. "Originality is such a relative word. For me, to be honest is to be as original as you can be. You're given certain faculties, and you live with them and operate clearly through this sort of looking glass that's undistorted. That's originality at its core. It shows up in the most formatted, traditional, structured thing to the most wildly unrecognizable thing. People often seek out originality for its own sake, as if it existed outside of them so that they have to catch it in the wind."

The new album is a distillation of a lot of things Dr. Dog has been working on for a while, not least, a role for the studio that functions like another band member and truly serves the songs. All the elements on Fate work in a very empathetic way, rarely drawing too much attention to any one part since the whole is suffused in such an organic, dandy way. To wit, one doesn't sit around thinking about Ringo's drumming or George's searing guitar work while listening to "Back In The U.S.S.R." It's the cumulative a-wop-bop-a-loo-lop a-lop-bam-boo that seizes you. And this is how the Dog's version of Fate operates. This is pop rock but the band is standing up on their hind legs today and yowling, "This is OUR voice."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. As is to be expected as you remain a band and explore the root of the process and grow with it, at what ever pace you're comfortable moving at. We definitely feel we had a more informed, Technicolor view of what we are as a band and where we'd come from this time," says McMicken. "There's so many threads to this 'fate' notion that apply in a purely logistical sense to where we are as a band, as well as in a more philosophical sense."

"From all the live playing, we've gained such a different relationship to the music we're playing. For years and years, the music we made was almost pure fantasy. The writing of it has sort of always been the same, though the intensity and need for that has grown. We'd always been kind of a blank slate each time we went into the studio before. For the first time, this record felt really, really informed by all these elements that exceeded our imagination in the studio and are just the natural byproducts of us being in a band. We wanted to distil that," continues McMicken. "It was very intuitive but now that it's over I can see it's a whole new vocabulary and a whole new set of needs that I know has everything to do with our observations about music nowadays, as well our own observations about where we are as a band. There's been a certain dynamic and growth as engineers and producers. We've now made a handful of records, and I've had the luxury of working on other people's records. My experience of just making records has opened up more, and all of these things felt like very, very necessary aspects of what we were going to do, in so far as you go into a project and take stock to say, 'This is where the bar is right now and we have to hit it.' You open up this forum of problems and go about solving them as best you can."

Army of Ancients

Dr. Dog
In 2008, we are all inheritors of this huge ocean of cultural influences. Each of us, particularly artists, must figure out how to keep their head above the waterline, dog paddling furiously while humming The Police's "Too Much Information" under our breath. If a band slows down it's incredibly easy to be submerged by the hot rivers of ancient vinyl and fire hose fast bit streams coming at them. Further, it's easier to recreate and nuance than dig out one's own identity. Finding a way to inherit history while making some of your own ain't easy. For Dr. Dog, "pop" isn't a dirty word. They appreciate catchy, sing-able ditties but somehow reconcile that with being dedicatedly experimental, too. For them, these are not two separate strains.

"Certainly not. At its core, we really just make music we enjoy the most, and have always had faith that if we reach that point with something then we're doing the best we can. Our sole responsibility, even to any sense of an audience, is ultimately based on a personal responsibility to do what makes us happy. I think that's really all people want. At least I would hope so," McMicken says. "[Fate] is by no means a thesis or anything; it was a forum for us to look at these things, think about them and breathe them into our lives. It can definitely be 'caveman.' It was exhilarating while making it to not only think about sound but also these larger concepts that are perhaps even more relevant to our lives than the fact we make music."

Continue reading for more on Dr. Dog...

 
This album feels like fate in the sense that I'm very aware that this is only a record we could have made with EXACTLY the experiences we've had in this band so far. And the lyrics are rooted in that concept, too. It's about fate but it is fate itself, too.

-Scott McMicken

 
Photo of Scott McMicken by Michael Maly from www.sonicitchmusic.com

Fate's opener, "The Breeze," begins in quietude that doesn't hint at the largess to come, a brilliant kind of seductive bait-and-switch that goes on throughout Fate. According to McMicken, "The Breeze" is "structurally a one chord cycle going through. It's only one melody. There's no hooks, no refrain or anything. So, to look at the album as a piece, in and of itself - which we did by stringing all the songs together and not having any silence [between cuts] - we saw it as one, big, long composition. Sonically, we intentionally built ['The Breeze'] with a warbly acoustic guitar on a four-track that pops into a little bass and a little percussion and then the backups come in. It sort of represents where we started to go after Toothbrush [2002] through Easy Beat [2005], a little bit of We All Belong [2007] and now here we are at this Fate record. It represents where we've come from sonically on a very logistic level, including the equipment we used. We definitely tried to be as self-referential as possible on this record. This album feels like fate in the sense that I'm very aware that this is only a record we could have made with EXACTLY the experiences we've had in this band so far. And the lyrics are rooted in that concept, too. It's about fate but it is fate itself, too."

Dr. Dog
"At some point in the process it became very overwhelming, almost frighteningly so but in a good way that swept me up. We started out just throwing shit at the wall to see what stuck to get something cooking, to see what kind of intuition we were operating on this time," observes McMicken. "Having chosen totally randomly from at least 50 or 60 songs from this giant pile, about two weeks into recording someone noticed there were glaringly obvious connections between all this stuff. It was so easy to take one song and define another with it. All of them were holding hands in a way, and it became easier to see them and add them into this larger concept. It was not challenging in the least. All the train stuff and elements of the past, antiquity, was just there."

Trickster figures and coal shovelin' men abound, archetypes animated with human breathe, that make the arrow of time flow both forwards and backwards. Even the band's new Steinbeckian Dust Bowl stage outfits reflect this visceral connection with other time periods even as they pound out a sound that could only surface in the wake of what's come before. Portions of Fate feel like limericks or nursery rhymes ("how did the fox get the raven to crow?"). There's something primal or folk art inside their latest work that taps into deeper places than rock is known for, especially today.

"The further you delve into things the more you come back to these very simple, very timeless truths. It's a complicated mess to get to these simple things though," wisely observes McMicken. "More and more, I find that catchphrases and clichés that float around and become popular forms of advice at first seem like trivializations but in truth say things better than any amount of longwinded analysis can. That pursuit of getting down to some sense of simplicity – and in essence a sense of harmony and peace or whatever it is you're going to devote your thoughts and time to – is actually a very simple and shared experience. It is very tough to get down to but it's part of what I consider to be the work of life. I really feel we were connecting to these notions, and not being afraid if they came off as overly simplified. The truth is it's a pop record. You don't need to sit down with a pad and pencil to listen to it. We put just as much effort into making something aesthetically appealing that'll make your ass shake a lil' bit."

Hang On

And what you thought was a hurricane
Was just the rustling of the wind
Why you think we need amazing grace
Just to tell it like it is?
Well, I don't need no doctor
To tear me all apart
I just need you
To mend my heart

The reason folk and pub music works so well is because it focuses on family and hearth, death and birth, feast and famine. These subjects make people throw their arms around total strangers and sing. There's an element of that universal bonhomie in Dr. Dog. Whether conscious of it or not, the collective undertow within their music helps to generate a feeling of togetherness at Dr. Dog shows. There's a great beat and plenty of stunning bridges to help the ontological nuggets go down, which is probably why most of the time you don't notice how bright and thoughtful they're being. When you're having fun there's little time to ponder the abyss or our place in the universe; we simply exist and revel in the carefree free fall being conjured around us.

Continue reading for more on Dr. Dog...

 
I couldn't define for you what it is I like about ANYTHING. It's just that intangible thing, the realization that there's a life behind this thing and this is evidence of one human being's needs. That exists in everything from the most wildly abstract art to Top 40 stuff. Even outside the realm of art, you walk into someone's house and see how they organize objects. Or it's in the shoes somebody chooses to put on or the dirt stains around the light switch – just evidence of something going on, something real.

-Scott McMicken

 

"I would feel like an asshole if we were doing anything other than that! It feels awful to go into the making of anything with really strong, demanding expectations about your experience with it," says McMicken. "It's a function of our lives, it's a process we're involved with, so personally and on a purely selfish level it needs to be fulfilling. It needs to feel good. Beyond that, if I were to stop and think about what I hope people get out of it, this is just a thing a bunch of dudes like to get together and do, and it does mean something to them. I say that because from my standpoint, looking at art or listening to music, I really have no parameters on what it is I like. I couldn't define for you what it is I like about ANYTHING. It's just that intangible thing, the realization that there's a life behind this thing and this is evidence of one human being's needs. That exists in everything from the most wildly abstract art to Top 40 stuff. Even outside the realm of art, you walk into someone's house and see how they organize objects. Or it's in the shoes somebody chooses to put on or the dirt stains around the light switch – just evidence of something going on, something real."

Dr. Dog
"It's very easy to see, especially in the context of art in popular culture, that there's a lot of illusions and puffed-up chests. That's fine because at the end of the day that serves some function for people, too. If I had to go on trial about it I'd say it's a destructive element and an exploitation of people's fears and weaknesses. But, I know I'm subject to the same things so I don't feel especially judgmental saying that," McMicken continues. "Again, the fate notion comes in as a pretty relevant tool for looking at this. When the fate thing with this record trickled in as an album title – which we tend to establish early in recording – I had no objection to it but it challenged me. It's this notion that's so real but also so romantic, and because I was considering that I opened myself up to it. When you open yourself up to a certain idea it finds you."

So much so that McMicken has recorded a "way, way more personal" solo album since Fate entitled It.

"It was this cathartic thing for me. I'd built up so much muck and so much obstruction to my sense of self-worth," says McMicken. "Literally in one night, I did a 180 on seemingly the most incidental circumstances. With this new perspective I could dig into things that I was struggling with but with a much clearer lens, a much more harmonious sense of what they meant in my life. I hung onto that feeling long enough to crank out eight or nine tunes, singing 'em all into my four-track in my room. The reason it's called It is one of the songs talks about the saying, 'It's all in how you look at it.' Then all the verses are this laying out of things – 'It's cursed. It's praise.' ending in the refrain of 'It's all in how you look at it.' These things are gonna come and go. You can't control them but you have the power of perception."

"Fate" is a power word. Like "God" or "Soul," it vibrates with associations despite its one syllable brevity. Only its construction is perfectly simple; its meaning is fluid and open to interpretation. Naming one's album Fate almost tempts it in some ways.

"Now that it's said and done, I think we tempted it for sure [laughs]. It's a living, breathing beast in my life, and I started to see everything in these terms. But, it's by no means a dogmatic thing. I've come to feel about fate that it's this constant duality, this constant balance between realizing life is both within your control and not in your control," says McMicken. "There's simple ways of applying that to your understanding. It's like, 'Here I am today and there's obviously nothing I can do about that.' So, a reconciliation of your own personal history and the choices you've made is absolutely necessary. You can't resist those things. All you can do is use them as these tools to measure the value of life and the mistakes or the right moves you've made. If you're interested in being a happy person, if you're interested in growing and staying on top of things, you can't carry around this baggage. You have to step up and take responsibility for what's gotten you where you are AND realize that the future lies ahead of you. From this stronger vantage point you can move in that direction with more security but also realizing these elements are going to keep popping up, coming and going over time, and you're going to make mistakes and not know what to do."

Dr. Dog is on tour now, dates available here.

Check out exclusive interviews, live footage and more with Dr. Dog on JamBaseTV here!

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Comments

Chaloupka starstarstarstarstar Thu 7/24/2008 06:32PM
+5 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Chaloupka

This group is bad ass! Nice article too.

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^› {¬¿¬} Fri 7/25/2008 04:16AM
Show -5 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!
Ointment starstarstarstarstar Fri 7/25/2008 04:47AM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Ointment

These guys are the shit. 'Where We Belong' is a kick ass album, and words can't even explain how great this new one is. I highly, highly suggest everyone pick up this new album, and see these guys live next chance you get. Also, that was a very deep, insightful article. I like it! Keep up the good work Dennis.

dspaseman Fri 7/25/2008 05:35AM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

dspaseman

I heard of these guys about a year ago - never had a listen though...the new cd is GREAT. Instantly loved it.

NICU1985 Fri 7/25/2008 06:22AM
+4 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

NICU1985

G-Love and Dr. Dog! The week of philly love fo sho. But I digress, Dr. Dog is an excellent band with alot of good things goin on. A sound all music lovers can appreciate and get down to. Nicely written piece as well, keep up the good journalism jam base...cheers.

Smittea starstarstar Fri 7/25/2008 06:55AM
Show -5 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!
GratefulHokie starstarstarstarstar Fri 7/25/2008 06:58AM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

GratefulHokie

Great band doing GREAT things...seen them a bunch now from little places like NYC's Bowery Ballroom to Mountain Jam IV (where they didn't exactly...fit in but played very well).

@Baum - the breakthrough album for them was called "We All Belong" and still ranks up there as one of my favs. FATE though, IMO, is their best work to date. Had tix to see them at Bowery again this week...which got pushed back to August :( Hope to see the Dr. soon!

jimmy row Fri 7/25/2008 08:09AM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Easy Beat is great. Gotta go pick this one up

phanatic2 starstarstarstarstar Fri 7/25/2008 08:53AM
+4 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Fate is one of the best CDs of the year and Dog is selling out shows all over the place. Take the negativity aside and try giving the entire catalog of the band a listen and if you have appreication for good organic music with premium songcraft and you may change your stance on where all the hype is coming from. if not, oh well, maybe its not for you,...but it is for alot of other people.

Smittea starstarstar Fri 7/25/2008 09:10AM
Show -4 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!
HoodooVoodoo starstarstar Fri 7/25/2008 09:58AM
Show -3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!
HoodooVoodoo starstarstar Fri 7/25/2008 10:04AM
-1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

HoodooVoodoo

These guys kinda sound like the bastard child of Flaming Lips and Neutral Milk Hotel.

Smittea starstarstar Fri 7/25/2008 10:06AM
-2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Smittea

^ Bingo HoodooVoodoo. I have tentative plans to go and see them in September on the night of my birthday... that should illustrate my willingness to have an open mind about the band. I am by no means trashing these guys. I've listened to their music... it seems pretty good. I just don't get the hype. Looks like your lack understanding of their popularity has also elicited a negative rating from some of our friendly neighborhood bulletin board trolls. Talk about VERY shallow attempts at censorship.

snappy Fri 7/25/2008 10:53AM
+8 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

snappy

Question I guess is define "hype"? Getting more popular, having their work heard & appreciated by more people, is what every band wants, whether they admit it or not. Dr. Dog has been an active group for 7 years so it's not like they just appeared out of nowhere. Some of us having been chronicling their evolution for years and, not unlike what's happened with My Morning Jacket in the past few years, more people in press and elsewhere are starting to notice Dr. Dog. I don't see the hype in that. If they had one album and were formed two minutes ago I'd possibly agree. However, I can see not feeling as much passion or pleasure in what they do as others. That's just one's personal taste. Clearly, some folks really dig 'em, some folks not as much. That's life.

tDB and Gravy starstarstarstarstar Sat 7/26/2008 06:23PM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

tDB and Gravy

This fabulous band just made another fabulous album. Cheers to Dr. Dog!

Mightyquinn starstarstar Sun 7/27/2008 09:45AM
-1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Great band. Article is toooo much though. Trim back the 1500 words of fat, and try to present an actual story or some aspect of the band. Scott says some great things there - you don't need to bury his words in a heap of factual history.

rainydaywomen420 starstarstarstar Sun 7/27/2008 01:18PM
-1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

rainydaywomen420

im glad to see this band start to gain a little recognition. I just bought their new album the other day and its good but i dont think they could ever top easy beat.

FreeHawk Sun 7/27/2008 04:48PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

FreeHawk

a highly enjoyable band to see live.

hardingmr starstarstarstarstar Mon 7/28/2008 10:07AM
+5 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

"It's the kind of album you like right away but find you're madly in love with after a few dates. By your first road trip alone you'll be ready to slip a ring on its finger."

Wow! I don't think I could put it better myself. Picked the disc up right before a solo road trip this past weekend. First listen I liked it but wasn't sure if it could hold it's own with the past discs. By the time I was on my 3rd listen I felt like I was listening to some old classic that I hadn't heard in years, but yet still knew all the songs like the back of my hand. Great new album by a great band.

Chaloupka starstarstarstarstar Mon 7/28/2008 05:20PM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Chaloupka

Yeah, their new disc is great! I'd put it up there with the best of the year so far.

bluefox starstarstarstar Tue 8/5/2008 10:54AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

bluefox

I picked up the new record thanks largely to all the hype and damn if it isn't real good! Bastard child of the Beach Boys, Beatles and the Band I'd say is more accurate (and I like Flaming Lips and to a lesser extent Neutral Milk Hotel as well.)

Woody starstarstarstarstar Tue 8/5/2008 11:52AM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Woody

I bought fate last night, and man, it is my favortite album of the year over night. Great lyrics and hooks as well a good cohesive sound. Article is well informed also. But FYI: Paul played the drums on Back in the USSR

quarble starstarstarstarstar Wed 8/13/2008 11:57AM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Awesome article about an awesome band, although I gather that Scott makes it pretty easy. That man is full of grand and lofty ideas. Thought you might like to know that the second guitarist's name is Frank McElroy. I know this because I shook his hand and he said "Hi, I'm Frank," and I think we should believe him. Where do people get all this stuff about a Sukey?

See them live, if you can. They are beyond fantastic, and very friendly.

moemoe6434 starstarstarstarstar Wed 8/13/2008 06:08PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Just saw them a week ago and i think they are great live! Even better than the album! http://www.moemoephoto.com/index.php?p=40

spiderdonkey starstarstar Sun 8/24/2008 12:32PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

spiderdonkey

Article is okay at best. The band on the other hand is a remarkable joy to hear both on cd and live. I've heard more than half of their songs form the new album but until I hear Fate multiple times I cant make a judgement as to whether it is better than We All Belong or Easy Beat. Personally, I still love Easy Beat the best. On a side note I saw them perform a free concert in Philly the week that the new album came out and they played a lot from it. Now I've seen Dr. Dog live more times than I have fingers to count on because I'm from Philly, but when I saw them most recently I was not blown away by they set, free though it was! Hopefully when I see them in a couple months they will play a better set.