by Marissa Ross
I found out on a Wednesday afternoon I would be interviewing my favorite band on Thursday at noon. I ran around my house, singing at the top of my lungs, “I’m going to looooove you! Till the day I was born! And I’m going to caaallll yooou! So keep your ear to the horrrn!” Oh, man. I had just purchased Passed Away, Volume One that morning, and had completely fallen head over heels in love with Dr. Dog for the sixth time.
Back in 2006, I was drinking fo’ties with some pals. One good and very wise friend said, “Marissa, listen to this. They will be your new favorite band.” I was then subjected to the melodic bliss of the Takers and Leavers EP. It hit a chord that hadn’t been touched since I got Rubber Soul when I was eleven. I sank into the couch, utterly taken away by the awe-inspiring harmonies and the lyrics that spoke of all of my heart’s inner clangings I could never quite string the right words together to express. I felt like a schoolgirl again, wide-eyed and open hearted, trailing like a puppy behind a series of albums that I devoured in unconditional love.
Dr. Dog, Philly’s own boys club of hope, faith and good vibes, has been spreading harmonious arrangements and optimistic aphorisms for over ten years. Starting with a modest duo called Raccoon, Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman eventually worked up to their five-man band. Taxi, Tables, Text, Trouble and Thanks released their LP, Toothbrush, in 2001. Endearingly lo-fi and heart warming, Dr. Dog continued on their journey, extending their message of universal love with their enchanting accompaniments to the masses. Easy Beat was released in 2005 to adoring reviews, the Takers and Leavers EP hit the scene with their exclusive hand-made album covers in 2006 and was followed by 2007’s We All Belong, a more hi-fi side of the merry-making men. The production value has followed a natural and organic progression; the grimy side effects of low budget recording falling to the wayside as Dr. Dog shines on, procuring batches of wholehearted, genuine jams that still ring true to their eclectic collection of influences.
It is early 2008. Dr. Dog just released the LP Passed Away, Volume One, a collection of unreleased ditties from over the years, plans on releasing an entire new LP in the upcoming months and is hitting the road. I sat down with my own dog and had the pleasure of chatting up Taxi (known to family, friends and neighbors as Scott McMicken) on the boys’ trip down south to Georgia.
CMG: I just got the Passed Away, Volume One, what spurred you guys to release it considering you guys are planning a new album this year?
Taxi: Well, they’re very old recordings really and not really songs we intended to rerecord or anything they were done awhile. More or less we just had this gigantic pile of old recordings and new ones are coming all the time so we just like to take any opportunity to get the old stuff and get it out there, get it out of the house and clean up. So, we created that album and the concept that it is going to be an on-going forum for us to keep dumping out old home recordings. It is what it is now and over the course of the next year, it’ll probably be five or six more songs. We’re just going to try to make an album that never ends. Intially it started as a little website where we’d post them. Maybe it’ll go to print but it’s still understood that whenever we have old recordings to put on it it will be our context for any old recordings. We recorded so much music over the past ten years and we haven’t really been releasing any music until three or four years ago so all that old stuff, we still love it but we’ve moved on from it so it’s nice to get it out there.
You guys are often compared to many of the great bands of the sixties- how did that era affect your music?
It’s hard to say. We all grew up listening to that music and to this day. Part of what defines great, timeless music is its ability to exist in any context in time and still remain relevant. That’s how we feel about it. The major components of the great music of the sixties, seventies and the fifties are things that I think are still alive and well in the best of contemporary. It has a strong craft behind it- from the song writing, the level of musicianship, the approach to the arrangement of songs, the way people defined themselves with their instruments to do what is in the best service to a song. There is just way more evidence of that in older music. It’s obviously not gone, there’s plenty of bands that to me represent that sensitivity about a minimalist approach to pop music where the tricks and the bells and whistles and the excessive amounts of frequency and technology that is heavily influencing modern music doesn’t get in the way and cloud up the more human aspects of it. Like great voices, the ability for singers to harmonize and sing together and smart but minimalist part arrangements where everybody understands that what they’re doing within a song is one small part of a song. The song is greater than its parts. Those are all things as a band from the very start we wanted to crack the code on and we’re still learning. More than anything, it’s the song writing. It’s the distinct character that seems to come out of that older music.
Your own music seems to embody a lot of the ideals of that time that I believe modern music lacks.
Yeah, me too. Nobody in this band is comfortable trying to portray some sort of unsolvable problem. It’s nice to tie things off with hope and at the very least, a mild sentiment that no matter what the subject of what you’re speaking of is, no matter how negative it might be in your own life, that it offers by the end some sense that it is acceptable and it is a natural part of life to go through these things and everybody does. We never feel comfortable until we achieve that point with a song, where these is some kind of way out of it.
The production of your albums has consistently changed with each release, where do you guys see it going?
I don’t know where we’d like to go with it at this point but I do know what we’ve done so far is exactly what we wanted to do every step of the way. At a very basic level, it’s been a money thing. When we were just recording in complete obscurity, as college students or dish washers, we would get whatever we could get our hands on, whatever we could afford and have as much fun as we possibly could with that stuff, doing the best we could. Once we started putting records out and had record labels involved, each time they slip you a little loan and you can buy a new microphone, a new compressor, whatever. It sounds trite but really for us the equipment we’ve been able to collect over the past couple years has been probably more influential on the music we make more than anything else. The song writing is still the same as it’s always been. It’s always pertaining to our thoughts and feelings about life, which is consistent. When it comes time to record, these little bits of gear will change the sound you have. We still produce and engineer our own records but as silly as it sounds, spending six hundred dollars on a microphone versus spending fifteen hundred dollars on a microphone will radically change the output of the record. That’s stuff we’ve always wanted to learn more about but was never really fortunate enough to do until we got recording budgets. We musicians and we’re song writers and we play in a band and all that but we’re all very interested in the technical side of recording records. There is so much to that. You got to give a lot of your time and a lot of your thought to think about these technical things but it’s all towards the goal of being able to express yourself in newer ways. You need to spend time with the tools to see what they do. It sounds weird but you find out if you take your microphone and just stuff it in your mouth and sing into it, it’s going to create a very different mood than if you sang into it from the other side of the room. With each record we get to get new stuff and we just finished a new record that is definitely the most hi-fi. It’s kind the record we’ve been wanting to make forever but never had the means. For right now, we’re exactly where we want to be there hasn’t been too much thought about where we want to go next. It’s really satisfying to take on new things and work them in that helps us do new stuff and represent ourselves as a band that has grown a lot over the last couple years.
When do you expect a release on this new album?
I can’t say for sure, there’s still some loose ends and we’re on tour again. It’s questionable but I’m thinking sometime this summer.
You guys were at the Lebowski Fest last year, what songs did you guys perform?
We did “Her Eyes Blue Million Miles” by Captain Beefheart, “Just Dropped In” by Kenny Rogers, “The Man in Me” by Dylan and that Sons of Pioneers song that opens it up (Scott then sings it for me).
Do you have any thoughts on The Dude on himself?
(Laughs) The Dude, I love his character. I love that movie it’s great. I’ve heard that The Dude is a real guy in LA and apparently he’s much more of a salty dog, kinda perverse and offensive and sometimes he shows up at these Lebowski Fests so I was hoping to get a glimpse at the man behind the myth but he didn’t show up. I love the whole vibe in that movie. It’s hilarious and it’s one of the few movies I can watch back to back, day after day and never tire of it.
Speaking of men behind myths, I don’t know if you’ll be willing to give it up, but is there any significance behind your nicknames all starting with ‘T’?
Yeah, well, it’s a theme for starters, like a family and you can make a ‘T’ when you connect the Dr. Dog sign. There’s three points to a ‘T’, ya know? It’s a club. We’re more of a club than a band.
If I saw you guys in a bar and I wanted to send your club some brews, what beer should I order you?
I think we all like Guinness. We’re not real picky drinkers but nobody really likes light beer but other than that we’ll put down whatever you put in front of us.
If you could have any lineup for a tour, who would be on your bill?
I’ll keep it semi-realistic and not pick bands that are dead. I would love to tour with Joanna Newsom, she’s one of the best songwriters to ever live and she’s just a young girl. It’s exciting. Also, Ariel Pink and R. Stevie Moore and Jeffrey Lewis and The Teeth. Juston would love to tour with St. Vincent. Captain and Beefheart and The Magic Band would have been amazing…
Not to interrupt but there has been speculation that your band name is based upon one of Captain Beefheart’s songs.
Someone made that connection but no, that’s not where we got our name. I’m fine with any association with that whole scene though, I’m a big fan. That was “Dr. Dark”, I guess it kind of sounds like Dr. Dog but no, that wasn’t it.
There has also been speculation that the name was inspired by the Muppets’ Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem band?
That’s not true either but I hate to deny it because I’m as much of a Muppets fan as I am a Captain Beefheart fan. But these are all just happy coincidences.
What kind of dogs do you guys have?
I have a golden retriever lab mix and a black lab. Toby has a weird street mutt, she might have a little bit of lab in her but she looks like a grey hound, thin and elongated. She’s not as wiry as a grey hound though… Having been a dog lover for a long time, any qualms I had with any breeds before are out the window. Now I even like the small fancy dogs. I met a couple of those recently that were really charming. There’s not a dog I don’t like.