Dr. Dog's Toby Leaman: "We were fortunate...everybody was in a weird band."
Dr. Dog (due Saturday, March 8, at the Boulder Theater) draws its roots back to the time that Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken started writing songs together when they were growing up in Newark, Delaware. Dr. Dog was a side project of Leaman and McMicken's main band, Raccoon. But it soon became much more than a diversion, growing to a five-piece and recording a 2001 debut, The Psychedelic Swamp. The group became known for its richly diverse sound, which incorporates aspects of Americana and psychedelia.
Since then, Dr. Dog has added a sixth member and developed a sound that is consistently arresting, partly because its songwriting is never rote but always richly varied. The group's 2012 album, Be the Void, debuted on Conan O'Brien's website. In 2013, Dr. Dog released its latest full-length offering, B-Room. We recently had a chat with Leaman about how he and McMicken found themselves as kids in an underground scene; what, exactly, Meatball Palace is; and how the outfit's old studio, Meth Beach, got its name.
Westword: When you and Scott McMicken started playing together in middle school, why did you not want to do covers?
Toby Leaman: That was never part of it. I don't know -- it always seemed we should just write. I started writing before I started playing anything, and Scott started writing, too. We would learn songs just to learn them. I think for both of us, playing music has meant writing music. Even as little kids, that's just what you did. As a little kid, you don't even know what you like or that you like the songs you're writing. But it's all part of the process. I remember being really frustrated as a kid and working really hard on something and not even liking it. Sometimes that still happens.
When you were writing music early on and playing out, what kind of environment was it for you in terms of playing live?
When we were really young, in high school and stuff, there was a healthy punk scene in Newark, Delaware, which is where the school was -- the University of Delaware. It was a college town, and they would have all-ages shows with punk bands. So we were going there all the time. We didn't play punk music, but that's what was around. Everybody would go and try to get beer.
We did that for years, but we were just too scared to ever play a show or anything. We were fifteen or sixteen, and those guys were probably like eighteen or nineteen, and it seemed like an impossibility to actually get up there and perform. So it probably wasn't until late high school that we started playing out. Then in college we played a bunch. Then we moved to Philly and played a million more times.
What kind of punk bands did you see at that time?
There were all different kinds. Not a lot of pop punk, though, I remember. Kind of harder, and then bands that weren't punk bands. The best band, actually, to come out of there at that time was this band called Zen Guerilla, which was phenomenal.
Oh, yes, Zen Guerilla.
You ever heard of those guys?
They played in Denver in 1999 with Man? Or Astroman. Kind of this soul and rock-and-roll band, right?
Yes -- they were the best. They were our heroes as kids. It was insane. The drummer and the bass player were these monsters playing kind of like Maiden, Steve Harris-style bass. Then the guitar player was really Hendrix-y, and the singer, he had an Echoplex, a tape delay, and he sang through that. Those shows -- as a kid, you were in hog heaven. I still love those guys and still listen to those guys. Their records are still great. They were weird as shit. But that's an awesome thing to see as a kid because we were fortunate that they were this weird band and everybody was in a weird band. It's not like people were playing Smashing Pumpkins covers or whatever; it was weird shit.
It seems as though everyone in your band is a multi-instrumentalist.
Very much so, actually.
Was that something you had going on from the beginning, or was that something that came along as the band developed?
Eric Slick is sort of the phenom, our drummer. He can do anything, and he's been taking piano lessons for almost twenty years. He's the smartest dude. But, yeah, everybody recorded. Dimitri [Manos] and Frank [McElroy] have been home-recording since high school. And Zach [Miller], too. We actually kind of made him play keys. He was a great guitar player when he joined the band but said, "Yeah, I think I can get around." He's been in the band for over ten years, but he started playing the keys with us. When you're home-recording, you have to be able to do everything. That's how we all came up -- home recording.
Meatball Palace? What is that?
That's Dimitri's world. It's insane. It's constantly changing, too. Originally, when he came on full-time, it was pretty much just percussion with a digital delay pedal with a tape cassette. That and acoustic guitar is pretty much what he played. Now he has a buddy in Tucson that builds these custom pedals. He has two pedals that are the only pedals like that in the world. Light-sensitive stuff. He's got a bunch of drum pads and little keyboards and sounds and baubles. He always describes it as home recording in that it's different every time. There's certain samples he might hit every night, but in general he's just kind of playing whatever the fuck he feels like playing. It's not just like hitting buttons and choreographed times.
A few people in your band play an Omnichord. That's not a very common instrument. Was that something that entered the band's sound palette early on? What do you like about the sounds of those things?
They sound great. They're kind of mystical but not cheesy. They just fill out a sound, and with a little delay it takes up a lot of space for being that little. We have two of them that constantly fall out of tune. I don't know why you can tune it. It seems absurd that at all you would even have that option. Our tech, Tom, works on them every day and tries to set the tuning. They don't make them anymore. You would think you could figure out a way to hardwire it to make it stay in tune. It's kind of a sticky wicket, though, because you see Jim James play it a lot. We're tight with those guys [in My Morning Jacket] and we're loosely associated with those guys and we don't want to look like we're stealing from Jim. But we've been using that thing for a while.
When your music is discussed by fans and critics, people often compare your music to the Beatles and the Beach Boys and later bands like Guided by Voices and Pavement.
Yeah! We're huge Pavement fans.
Did you get to see Pavement when it got back together a few years back?
No, we didn't. We played two festivals with them. One in Spain, and then both bands flew immediately to Sasquatch a few years ago. But we weren't able to see them either time. I will say this, though: The time I saw them was the worst show I'd ever seen. I was so angry. It was their last tour for Terror Twilight. They sounded like shit, and Malkmus was being an asshole, and it's my favorite band. It was a good thing to learn, to realize not what to do.
Malkmus may remember that and wonder what he was thinking. But the reunion tour was quite good. Of course, the stuff with the Jicks is excellent as well.
I would have loved to have seen it. I heard the new Malkmus record is good.
Are there more contemporary bands that have inspired you?
It's sort of a copout, but our buddy Seth Kauffman is always sort of an inspiration for us. He's a guy out of Asheville, [North Carolina] in this band called Floating Action. They're some of the best players, and they're good cats. His recordings are super-chill. It's the kind of thing you can put the record on and listen to it all day. We draw a lot of inspiration from him, for sure. He's another home-recording guy, too. A lot of what inspires me is the production stuff. Then the space in the song? That's something that is not easy for us to do. It's chill mode, which is awesome. Our default setting is not chill.
Why did you call your old studio Meth Beach?
When we first got there -- we were there for eight years -- there was a big empty lot in front of the building. The rumor there was that it was abandoned because there was a meth explosion there. In retrospect, that doesn't seem plausible. There's not a real big meth scene, as far as I'm aware of. There's more of a rural feel. Anyway, that stuck. The only thing in the big open area was a little pad the size of a gas station or something, but there wasn't anything on it. Except that there was inexplicably a boat there. We were pretty close to the river, so there were seagulls, too, so it sort of became Meth Beach. Now there's a chicken factory there. I've never seen any chickens going in and out of it, but it has a big chicken on it and a bunch of trucks. That was up in North Philly, north of North Liberty.
Obviously you built a new studio before you recorded B-Room. You have said that the writing of the album mimicked the building of the studio. And a "b-room" is a room in a studio. How did it mimic that process?
Not writing so much, more recording. The bulk of the writing was done, it usually always is. There were a few exceptions, certainly more than on other records. We built these two rooms sort of in the middle of this giant open space and everybody did what they could. I worked for general contractors for years until I made enough money to quit. My brother and my best friend still do that kind of stuff. So the three of us were in charge of the build proper. But everybody else could do something. Frank was there every day working his ass off running all over the place from the hardware store to the lumber store and that sort of thing. Scott and Dimitri both have a really good eye for just making shit look nice. You'd come in and they'd painted up something really nice. They're the ones that made it look awesome. We build a shower in there and we're working on a kitchen right now.
But we left the b-room totally shitty. That was a goal to leave it a workaday kind of thing with white, pegboard walls and really awful carpet just to make it feel like a home recording studio. That's where we had the gear too. We used this machine for years called a Tascam 388, sort of the height of reel-to-reel home recording. Then we had amazing outboard gear so it's pretty primo. We did a lot of overdubs in there. We did pretty much all the vocals in there and flew it back into Pro Tools in the control room. That room is great. It's got all these old black and white pictures from Dupont Chemicals, which was huge in Delaware, so it's all these guys in lab coats and petri dishes and the idea was you could go in there with a suit and a tie and a cup of coffee. That's workaday--that's the idea. For a while we tried to institute Dress-Up Friday and we would dress up really nice. That didn't really stick beyond a couple of Fridays.
Last year you played with The Lumineers at Red Rocks when all of that unusually heavy rain was going on in Colorado. How did it come about getting hooked up with those guys?
That was the first show of that run. They were fans. They actually asked to open for us a year or so before and we had already had openers or something. That tour was great. I didn't really know too much about that band but they're pretty legit with what they're doing every night. It's not easy to pull off to keep people engaged with music that's pretty sparse. But it's not too delicate, obviously. I was impressed with that band.
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