published Friday, September 18th, 2009

Dr. Dog makes the medicine go down at Nightfall

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Scott McMicken

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    Contributed Photo
    Nightfall headliners Dr. Dog includes Scott "Taxi" McMicken (lead guitar, vocals), Toby "Table" Leaman (bass/vocals), Zach "Text" Miller (keys), Justin "Time" Stens (drums) and Frank "Thanks" McElroy (rythm guitar).

For a band that's built itself from the ground up and worn the badge of independence with honor, signing with a major label could force the musicians to change their approach to music.

Not so with Dr. Dog.

They may have dropped the word "indie" from descriptions of their brand of pop/rock since signing with ANTI Records earlier this summer, but the Philadelphia quintet basically have been left to their own creative devices, said vocalist/guitarist Scott McMicken.

"There's been no outside pressure to adhere to any kind of notion of what the band is supposed to do or be at this point," McMicken said. "We've got maximum freedom."

That's not to say the band isn't changing.

As they returned to the studio this year with ANTI's extra financial oomph, McMicken said they realized they were fundamentally different from the group he and bassist/vocalist Toby Leaman founded in 1999.

Years of touring night after night had shifted the band's approach to music away from its studio-centric genesis to become more of a live act. Even though they still resist the influx of too much guitar into their jangly, keys-heavy pop/rock music, the band members want their next project to reflect their new identity, McMicken said.

"We've always made these albums and been free to layer it up with whatever we want, whatever sounds and instruments," he said. "Then, when we go live, we have to turn it into a five-piece rock arrangement.

"We're trying to jump right to the five-piece rock arrangement part on this album instead of doing that later."

Tonight, Dr. Dog will take the stage as this week's Nightfall headliner.

Even though they've recently joined the major-label rank and file, the band will always stay true to the musical openness it was founded on, McMicken said.

"One thing that the band remains true to, one of our gimmicks or whatever you want to call it, is that the song doesn't make the grade if it doesn't have openness (to interpretation)," he said. "If you're going to ... carry them around and perform them night after night for years, they have to be able to change and grow with you."

RELATED LINKS FOR WEB

http://www.drdogmusic.com

IF YOU GO

* What: Nightfall concert featuring Dr. Dog.

* When: Tonight, Coral Castles opens at 7; Dr. Dog headlines at 8.

* Where: Miller Plaza, corner of M.L. King Boulevard, Market and Cherry streets.

* Admission: Free.

* Phone: 265-0771.

* Venue Web site: www.downtownchattanooga.org.

* Related links at fyi.timesfreepress.com.

DISCOGRAPHY

2001: "Psychedelic Swamp"

2002: "Toothbrush"

2005: "Easy Beat"

2007: "We All Belong"

2008: "Fate"

LINEUP

Scott "Taxi" McMicken -- lead guitar/vocals

Toby "Tables" Leaman -- bass/vocals

Zach "Text" Miller -- keys

Juston "Time" Stens -- drums

Frank "Thanks" McElroy -- rhythm guitar

WHAT'S NEXT?

Members of Dr. Dog are in the studio working on their next album, an untitled project slated for release in early 2010. The band is embracing its new emphasis on live performance and adjusting its songwriting to stand out more in the absence of studio post-production, vocalist Scott McMicken said.

Chattanooga Times Free Press music reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Scott McMicken, guitarist/vocalist with the Philadelphia-based pop/rock band Dr. Dog about their recent move to a major label and the importance of nicknames.

CP: You guys recently signed with Anti Records. This is your first time on a major label. What's the transition been like for you?

SM: Yeah, that was only like a month and a half ago. It was a change, but a very positive one. Since we put out our first album, which was on a label that our friend Chris Watson started for us to put out the album, as we progressed as a band, he progressed as a label and started putting out more albums for other bands. It was a nice relationship. We were this band that had really done nothing - no touring and made this album in our basement - and he was our friend and wanted to start a label. We all just learned together and progressed as a band side by side with the label. Every album we put out with them was sort of like with a different label because it was a young label and growing and changing as we were.

Then, it became time for us to move onto a different label, and they kind of agreed. We all sort of knew that after the last one, that it would be time to move on. They're a small label and they wanted to stay that way, but we're trying to stay on the proportional growth that we've maintained from album to album.

Anti was pretty unanimous among the band as one of our most-respected record labels just because of the roster. We were talking with them a lot. It's a great label. There's a lot of freedom there, and the people there are just down. They rule.

We've been working on our new record, and they helped us pay for it and put together a plan for how to do it. Also, they've been a really valuable insight in terms of talking about music and growing the craft and artistry of songwriting and the studio thing. It feels really good. I feel humble and proud to be on that label when I consider the other artists that are on there. It's flattering to think that they see us as a band that works on their very diverse but very credible roster.

They have this punk rock origin, and they don't put out a lot of punk music, but they come from a punk ethos. They came from Epitaph Records, which is an interesting parallel with us. We're obviously not a punk band, but we grew up on the punk ethics and grew up as punks. Musically, our sensibilities have changed, but we've always seen ourselves as one of the outsider, DIY type of bands. It all feels really great.

CP: You mentioned that Anti have been there as a resource for you, but have they imposed themselves on the creative process?

SM: There's been no outside pressure to adhere to any kind of notion of what the band is supposed to do or be at this point. We've got maximum freedom. That's obviously really important to us, as it's important to a lot of bands. I think that's what they're built on.

Signing a deal, at this point in our career, I think it's pretty apparent to anyone interested in getting involved with our band that we've been doing what we've been doing for a long time, and we've displayed enough evidence that we know what we're doing. We've been growing as a touring live band and as songwriters as well as as studio engineers and producers in our own right through the experience of making our own albums. They respected that of us. They've not once indicated that we lack for anything or need extra help, even though we did with this record open up to work with a producer and engineer, just for a sense of adventure and to try something different.

CP: That next album is supposed to be coming out early next year, and a comment you made on the label's site was interesting in that you suggested that Dr. Dog was finally playing “as a band” for the first time while working on this project. What happened to make that the case?

SM: I think that's totally tied in with the fact that this band, a long time ago, started pretty much as a recording project for two people, me and Toby. We fell into a great lineup of other people, and over more time, we started playing show after show and touring like crazy. We actually accidentally became a band. Coming back into the studio has been like coming full circle because the studio is somewhere we've always been comfortable, even before we were a functioning live band.

Now that we've been playing live so much more than we've been recording over the last 5-6 years, playing live has become the more major reference point for music in our minds, rather than the imaginary invention of the studio thing where you're inventing your band on a song-by-song basis.

It's like, “How do we apply what we already have seen ourselves to be night after night for years to the experience of our record?” We're still very much in the middle of it, so it's hard for us to talk much about the record at this point. For us, it's a very process-oriented thing. Other than having set out for a very live-band feel, we still very much keep ourselves open to whatever comes up in the process. That's kind of where we develop our vision, by responding to the information we're putting down and having that symbiotic relationship with it.

It's changing every day. Every day, it feels like the record is becoming something different. It's hard to say, but in general, it's definitely a more-economical, pared-down rock record with much more emphasis on feel rather than texture and overdubs and layers It's more about the groove and the rhythm section, and a sparser take on arrangement. That's essentially what we are as a live band.

That's the thing. We've always made these albums and been free to layer it up with whatever we want, whatever sounds and instruments. Then, when we go live, we have to turn it into a five-piece rock arrangement. We're trying to jump right to the five-piece rock arrangement part on this album instead of doing that later.

CP: Do you feel like that's going to make it easier for fans of you as a live band to connect with the album?

SM: I think, if we do a good job, that will hopefully be the result, to bridge the gap. That's always the thing with Dr. Dog that makes it difficult to talk about stuff, that for everything I would want to lay out and value about what I just said, there's an equal amount of energy that's very resistant to that, too. It's in that push and pull that we want to strike some balance.

We want to pursue the live thing and put down all the things we've learned about the intricacies and subtleties and nuances of playing together, but at the same time, we want to find something new that we've never experienced before.

There's definitely a level of experimentation involved, too. We're still a little bit weary of the electric guitar and trying to stick, recording wise, to more piano- and organ-based music like we've always done. But live, there's so much guitar. There will always be some differences.

We're still trying to figure out what the mood and tone of the record is, lyrically. That's another frontier of change for the band. Growing older and looking at things differently and looking at how we express ourselves differently and taking on life in a more honest and realistic way, it will inevitably show up that way in the lyrics, which will be darker subject matter.

You don't really want to pigeon hole yourself to a certain emotion while writing, at least that's how Toby and I feel, but the story, as it unfolds for this record as we whittle down the songs and get closer to knowing what the 10-12 songs the record will be, is shaping up to be darker thing. That works well with the liver, heavier, harder energy we're trying to get.

CP: Given that you're wanting to strip away some of the excess and distill your music on this album, has that made you give even more consideration to the songwriting since it'll be more front and center?

SM: Absolutely. You nailed it. Yeah, there's a certain directness that's been a priority to this record both, musically and lyrically. It definitely puts the song at the forefront. Part of the darker subject matter that we've been tackling, lyrically, ties into our feeling for this process, which is having more confidence in who we are and what we've become as a band and not feeling so much like we have to razzle and dazzle everything up with some psychedelic color palette. We're letting the songs exist as they come out and not taking them too far away from their origins. That definitely takes a certain degree of confidence in the songs themselves.

CP: What's the story behind the band all having nicknames all starting with the letter “T”? How did that process start?

SM: We're a bunch of dudes in a band together, but we also have fun doing it as this kind of secret society or boy's club, this elite inner sanctum of coolness. It's a device. It's also fully integrated in the ongoing notion of this band that we're fundamentally outside of everything else. That's not true, obviously, but it's a strategy, a conceptual way of adding character to the band for our own sakes.

It's almost like putting pride in your local football team; it's band pride, basically. That's where that came from, that spirit is what birthed those nicknames. The “T” thing is another thing that represents something to me about how we work. We came up with the idea having nicknames for the band, and the first person to come up with a nickname was our first drummer.

His name was Ted, and he choose was “Today” because when he was a kid, all his family members called him “Teddy.” But they were from Chester County, Penn., where we're all from, and because of their accent, it sounded like they were saying “Te-day,” so it sounded like “Today.”

He chose that, and so we all followed suit. It's like, “OK, that starts with a 'T,' so those are the parameters.” You can synthesize meaning by creating parameters really fast, so that's what we did. You can also create meaning later. So we were like, “It's a good thing it's a 'T,' because if you connect the three-dot symbol, it's like the end points of a 'T.'” It's fun games like that that help you build character and meaning to the absurdity of being a band.

CP: Is there a ritual to giving someone a name?

SM: No ritual, no. The only parameters to that are that you choose, it has to start with “T,” and we usually tell people that they choose a name that kind of sounds like your name, which is the simplest way to do it, or that encompasses some abstract notion of your character. Our friend Trumpet got a Dr. Dog name, and he's got a loud presence, a cutting presence in any situation.

CP: What is Dr. Dog's songwriting process? Do you and Toby take on all of the songwriting duties or does everyone in the band have a share in it?

SM: Songwriting-wise, Toby and I write all the songs. We've write as folk songs. That's how our songs come about, just an acoustic guitar, voice, lyrics and melody. At the same time, all our songs are written to work like that, too. We have hours and hours of demos, which is just getting songs down. That's essentially a whole other side of our band. We haven't put anything out like that, but we have a lot of just a singer and an instrument.

The songs are held to the standard that they have to work in that form. If they work like that, then we bring them to the band. They only get cooler once people start coming up with their parts and we build a dynamic and do the work of putting it together. They're always really fleshed out in the writing before the band gets ahold of them.

There's definitely an editing process that will occur with the band like, “Maybe we don't need six verses, let's cut it down to two.” Once we start playing, someone might say, “Oh, this part feels good. We should double the length of it.”

Toby and I don't even really write together. He writes songs on his own, and I write songs on my own. We've been writing songs and been musical brothers for so long now, that I feel like there's a shared intuition that we have as we get older and move in similar directions and get inspired by similar sorts of things and add the same kind of changing elements to the song as we grow. We've been friends at this point longer than we haven't at this point. We met when we were 12, and now we're 30. We met as two kids into music. That was the first thing we shared. Despite the fact that we don't write songs together, it does feel like a very “together” thing.

CP: What are your goals when you're writing a song? What do you set out to capture?

SM: The honest answer is that, whether I was in a band or not or the band went away tomorrow, songwriting would remain. It's an important thing in my life because it offers me a good feeling, a sense of satisfaction. That takes work, and that makes the sense of satisfaction all the more tangible when you have to struggle for a result. That satisfaction is tied into the continuing evidence of your ability to make something out of nothing, the general satisfaction of creativity. Delving more into the subject matter of the songs, it gives you new insights and understanding or a sense of closure with things that might be nagging at you. They're an opportunity for communicating with the self.

Sometimes, you might not be sure about how you feel about something, a situation or a person, and it's like “OK, I'm going to talk to this. I'm going to talk about it.” So you sit and talk about it, and as you start to allow yourself to do that, you start to formulate how you actually feel because you hear the things you say and you take responsibility for them. You might think, “I said that, but I don't agree with that.” It's the healthy result of a good conversation.

I view songs like that. It's one sided but it's a chance to express yourself and see it outside yourself and if you truly relate to it. When you do it and it works, it's awesome. It's like, “I get it. I'm less confused about this now” because you took the time to investigate it. For me, it's self-help or some context where I have to take responsibility for my own feelings.

CP: What kind of relationship do you have to songs you wrote when the band formed 10 years ago? Do they still feel relevant to you?

SM: Oh yeah, definitely. One thing that the band remains true to, one of our gimmicks or whatever you want to call it, is that the song doesn't make the grade if it doesn't have that openness.

You write a song and you invest yourself into something, but as soon as it's done, it has to have some kind of character to it that allows it to be anything at any given point. We, as the writers of these songs, have to be able to reinterpret them. That's life. If you're going to have to make these documents and carry them around and perform them night after night for years, they have to be able to change and grow with you.

That's where the craft of it comes in. You have to be fun with the language. There have to be layers and choices, like directness just to the point of effectiveness and no more, direct, but not too direct. You have to be direct, but put that directness together in a way that lets it be reinterpreted. That's what we do.

When we're making albums, that's what's so much fun. All these songs come from different times. In some cases, the songs were written five years before the alum, but in the process of making the album, they become something different. It's fun to view the songs in a different way and try to see how they're all telling the same story, even if though they're not. One might have been written when I was 18, and another was written last night.

You've got to maintain that freedom to have the writing change. I'm really only talking about our process and the strategies we adhere to to keep ourselves happy and having fun. For the people who listen to our music, it becomes one thing and stays that way, and I'm sure that thing is is completely different from what it was for me at the time of the writing and what it was five years later. We give ourselves the same freedom of interpretation that our listeners have.

There's so much meaning swimming around everything, and what the actual intent of the writer is, at the end of the day, irrelevant. It's actually pretty simple. We try to enjoy our music as listeners. We try to make music we really want to listen to. Part of that is adopting a perspective on it that lets it be more than what it I felt the other night at four in the morning when I wrote it.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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