By Team JamBase Mar 7, 2007 12:00 am PST

By: Kayceman

Dr. Dog
There’s something refreshing about Dr. Dog. One can sense a down-home honesty in everything this sunny, retro-soul rock band cooks up. From the three-part harmonies that recall the Beach Boys to the heavy Beatles vibe, this Philly five-piece refuses to shy away from their influences and instead embrace their roots. “With the Beatles, I honestly think they are underrated” says co-founder, guitarist and singer Scott McMicken. “They’ve been established as great so firmly that people don’t think about them enough. I’m nowhere near done being mystified by how incredible their songwriting was. I think any songwriter interested in the craft ought to be just flipping their lid about the Beatles every minute of every day.”

Just as the Beatles were defined by two alpha dog songwriters (Lennon and McCartney), Dr. Dog is anchored by McMicken and childhood friend, bass player and singer Toby Leaman. Although the name Dr. Dog – loosely adapted from the Captain Beefheart song “Doctor Dark” and a short story Leaman had written – has only been around since the two were at Pennsylvania’s West Chester University in 1998, the story of this band goes back much further.

Leaman & McMicken – Dr. Dog by Joshua Wildman
“Toby and I met when we were really young and we went to middle school and high school, and we were hatching the initial plans and ideas for what we now have in Dr. Dog” says McMicken. “[The band] was going to be an ideal place, and reliant upon nothing but maximum enthusiasm and love for what we were doing.”

McMicken and Leaman would go on to participate in a number of bands through high school and college. The two were always writing material, but they would hide the best, most compelling songs for their future band together. Meanwhile, they would bring “the scrap yard material” to bands they played in like Raccoon while figuring out what did and didn’t work, honing their chops in preparation for what would become Dr. Dog.

Dr. Dog
The big break came in 2004 courtesy of My Morning Jacket‘s Jim James. After a MMJ show in Philadelphia, McMicken gave James a CD of Dr. Dog’s tape-recorder experiment Toothbrush. The CD was decorated with rainbow sprinkles that caught James’s eye so he gave it a shot and loved it. A few months later Dr. Dog was opening for one of the hottest bands in America. Before hitting the road with My Morning Jacket, Dr. Dog was playing four or five shows a year. They were barely a band, but they got their shit together fast, and with the money earned opening for MMJ, bought some gear and recorded 2005’s Easy Beat to give fans something more in-line with their sound than Toothbrush.

Although Toothbrush had shards of what the band is capable of, it was never meant to represent Dr. Dog. That’s what Easy Beat was for. The band’s proper debut was still warm, intimate, and for lack of a better term, lo-fi, but it was professional, something they could sling out the back of the van with pride. The stellar songwriting, intricate harmonies, and passionate, old-timey vocals on Easy Beat lit the hipster world on fire. Between their captivating live shows and this new record, Dr. Dog began showing up in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Fader, and landed a spot at 2005’s Bonnaroo festival.

I feel like I’m in the center of all the music I value on this planet right now.

-Scott McMicken


From there it was straight gangbusters. The blogosphere draped praise all over the band and before you know it they were touring in support of big names like The Raconteurs, The Black Keys, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Architecture in Helsinki and Ambulance Ltd. “We’ve been incredibly lucky with the bands that have called us up and asked us to go out on the road with them” says McMicken. “I feel like I’m in the center of all the music I value on this planet right now and I’ve pretty much had the opportunity to share the stage with them. Just being out there has rekindled my faith in what music can mean nowadays.”

Dr. Dog
There’s something to this notion of “faith in music” that runs through Dr. Dog. Not so much in the sense of religion – although McMicken does partially credit the band’s dreamy three-part vocal approach to Leaman’s youth in a Methodist minister’s home where “every one sang” – but music that instills the listener with hope, joy, and at times, even faith.

“I think that our almost overemphasis on positivity is a direct response to the prevalence of negativity. You can either draw from that negativity and try to make something beautiful out of it, or you can try to create its opposite” explains McMicken. “I also think that part of managing all that negativity that definitely exists in the world is being willing to say something positive when it comes up; a lot of people, myself included, get a little cynical and tend not to trust happiness as much as you trust pain. Maybe you feel vulnerable, like ‘I shouldn’t feel happy because then I’m subject to having it ripped away.’ So I think a lot of the positivity has to do with the fact that we are not afraid to say when something is great or talk about how much we love something.”

The positive message and upbeat party vibe courses through the band’s February 27 release, We All Belong. Even the album title is inviting. Yet, there’s more to it than just distorted sunshine guitar solos and sing-along melodies (although they are definitely in there). There’s a yin to every yang, and sumptuous depths around every corner.

Take a song like “Die Die Die.” Even just based on the name we know this ain’t good times for all but the more you dig, the more you find. “I love that song, and to me it typifies what Toby is about as a musician. It’s this amalgamation of this soul power and this ancient, sort of primitive bone-banging kind of thing. That’s totally where Toby shines, in his ability to come up with that older-than-dirt style of songwriting and lyrical perspective. It touches on a lot of the themes that he’s always writing about – this kind of disparaging, masculine coping process of dealing with jealousy or drying. He thinks about death a lot. He’s got that kind of quality about him.”

Dr. Dog by Paolo Proserpio
Although Dr. Dog will at times drift towards the abyss, what defines We All Belong is the bright light that shines through the speakers. Songs like the rollicking piano romp “Old News,” the sweet but not sappy “Old Ways,” and the tender “Alaska” are enough to make old cynics who gave up on hope in 1979 a chance to believe again. This is why fans are flocking and the world is open for Dr. Dog. They’ve meshed a list of influences ranging from the apt Beatles and Beach Boys references to more subtle heroes like Tom Waits, Pavement and Neil Young to create some mutant blend of power-pop that seems capable of saving the world. And even if the music can’t save the masses, it appears to be saving McMicken and Leaman.

That’s totally where Toby shines, in his ability to come up with that older-than-dirt style of songwriting and lyrical perspective. It touches on a lot of the themes that he’s always writing about… He thinks about death a lot.
-McMicken on Leaman
Photo of McMicken and Leaman by

“There’s a built-in attitude towards Dr. Dog which is that nothing at any point can be anything other than an awesome thing to be doing. And, that still rings true for me” says McMicken. It’s clear this ethos drove the creation of the absolutely awesome new album. We All Belong is also a natural progression for the band. It’s in the same vein as 2005’s Easy Beat but it’s juiced up, more focused and just a better record in every way.

Scott McMicken
Part of the evolution on We All Belong was in direct response to the previous album’s success. After the huge underground craze of Easy Beat, Rough Trade snatched up the Dog, gave them an advance and told them to quit their day jobs and get to work on the next record. The band even purchased Soundgun Studios in Philadelphia. After years of recording in bedrooms and basements on 8-tracks, Dr. Dog now had a real studio, a 24-track machine, and more time than ever to realize their vision.

“I feel like Easy Beat is more of a sketch. This newer album is a little bit more techno-colorized. You get a little bit of shading on some of the songs” explains McMicken. The new gear and increased confidence certainly fleshed out the Dr. Dog sound, but they made sure not to loose any of that grainy, earthy tone that drew so many fans in to begin with. “We all really aesthetically take offense to the sound of modern production and that excess of detail and the artificial, sort of collagen implants beefing up something that really isn’t there to begin with” says McMicken. “For us it’s always been about trying to get things to sit well together and get all these instruments to blend nicely so they can all serve the song to the greatest.”

Dr. Dog
For a band on the brink of much wider success, these five friends from Philly are void of all the posturing that can suck the beauty from a rising star. After that first whiff of success they resisted the urge to get a big name producer and gloss up the sound. They didn’t jump in the van and move to L.A. And perhaps most of all, these guys are about as nice as anyone you will ever meet in the music business. Egos are gone and there’s no question this is all about the music not the business. It’s the same as it’s always been, two old friends writing songs and a bunch of guys having fun.

“All you really are when it comes down to it is five high school buddies trying to impress each other” says McMicken. “I’ve realized more and more that all I really want out of a band – or really anyone – is just to be convinced that they like what they are doing. Ultimately, that’s what anybody ought to be gunning for, just a sense of self-gratification, because if you start thinking otherwise than you start to think that the world needs your music or the world needs you for some absurd reason, and I think that kind of thought process leads to bad bad bad results and character.”

Dr. Dog has just released their best album to date and is about to head out on their first headlining tour ever, and contrary to Scott McMicken’s humble belief about his band’s music, the world needs Dr. Dog.

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