Interview: Dr. Dog Explains How It Stays Scrappy

Dr. Dog plays the Ogden Theater tonight.
Nicky Devine

Dr. Dog rolls into Denver to play the Ogden Theater on Thursday, February 19 in the thick of a three-month tour that began January 9 with "4x4," an eight-show Brooklyn and Manhattan run. The energetic and soulful Philadelphia indie-rock stalwart, whose best tunes juxtapose the Beatles and the Band, is celebrating the release of its first-ever live album, the 19-track Live At a Flamingo Hotel. Hanging out in his hotel room before heading to the first 4x4 gig, singer/bassist Toby Leaman spoke with Westword by phone about Dr. Dog's history, as well as Flamingo Hotel, which features an Architecture in Helsinki cover and reaches all the way back to Dr. Dog's quirky 2002 debut, the self-released Toothbrush.

Toby Leaman: You're in Colorado, right? I always love playing in Boulder. I don't think we've played in Denver since we played, like, the Hi-Dive.

Adam Perry: You should do eight nights at the Hi-Dive.

TL: That'd be awesome. I'd be into that.

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AP: A lot of your songs have unanswered questions in them. Would you try answering some of them for us, just free-association style?

TL: Yeah, I can try. Some of them are Scott [McMicken], I'm sure, but we're old buddies. I know what he's talking about. What have you got?

AP: "What do you do when the drowning stops?"

TL: In that song ["Hang On"] it's referencing, like, when you're in the heat of an argument and everything's caving in; you're drowning. You can't really see. You'd do anything. Obviously the argument always ends, so you never actually drown.

AP: "What does it mean to be here?" [from "The Ark"]

TL: That's a good question. To be is to do. That's pretty much about it. There's not necessarily any meaning behind being, but you know the basic act of being is doing something. That's one thing you can definitely see. The proof is in the pudding. That's one thing you can actually wrap your hand around.

AP: "How did the fox get the raven, the crow?"

TL: Those are taken from Aesop's fables, that whole chorus of "Army of Ancients." They're all real short synopses of Aesop's fables, and that one is...the fox, he flatters the raven.

AP: "Where do all the shadow people go?"

TL: That is a great mystery (laughs). That is a nugget of a lyric right there. That, actually...I think Dan Auerbach [of the Black Keys] wrote the "Shadow People" lyric. Scott wrote the rest of that song and they were texting back and forth with each other. He wrote Danny, "I need a two-syllable word before the word 'people.'" Danny sent him a list of 30 or whatever and Scott picked "shadow." It really worked for the song but, just so you know, Dan gets credit for that one.

AP: You guys have been around a long time (15 years) but had never released a live album. Why now?

TL: It just seemed like the right time, you know? We're better than we ever have been, the way we're playing. I think the songs on the last few tours, I think some of the songs we we're beating into the ground, just playing them a lot; they've been in heavy rotation now for, like, eight years. So one of the purposes [of doing a live album] was purging ourselves of some of these tunes and try and come up with new setlists that we're psyched about. With that in mind, and knowing that every night for 20 nights was being recorded, it's important that you don't shirk on any night. We don't really shirk, anyway, or if we do it's "band meeting" pretty much immediately. But I can't even think of any time in recent years where that's happened. There's nights where it's a really off night, though, where we're playing atrociously.

AP: The whole night is off?

TL: Sometimes. Oh yeah. Sometimes it's hard to right yourself, man. It very rarely happens [and] we're professionals, so you don't ever see it. We're not the kind of guys who are gonna, like, throw mics down or yell at the audience or cut our set short. That's not fair to anybody. But when you do something every night, sometimes it's gonna be off. But over the years you learn a lot of tricks to get yourself back in, find that little doorway back into where you feel comfortable and where you feel like you can exist in whatever seemingly endless pit of anguish you're in. "What little glimmer of hope can I find to make this all OK?"

AP: Kind of like a pitcher who doesn't have his best stuff but fights through it.

TL: Yeah, or how a lot of ace pitchers will give up a couple early runs and then they're lights-out the rest of the game. That's it. That's the same switch. Actually, I don't know if that's it but it's a damn good analogy. (Laughs)

AP: Do you remember the first show you guys played together?

TL: Scott and I played a party. I think it was eighth-grade graduation, probably 1992. We're old, man.

AP: And the first Dr. Dog show?

TL: 1998, probably. Early Dr. Dog shows were just...there'd be a party and we'd be, like, "OK, Dr. Dog's gonna play in the upstairs bathroom. So that bathroom's off limits for the two hours that Dr. Dog is playing but if you want to watch you can open the door and watch them play." It was a lot of weird stuff like that.

AP: How much have you changed as a live act since then?

TL: We're better, fortunately. We're a lot better. We're not as scrappy, or as blindly optimistic. Maybe it's just the difference between 17 and 35. We play a lot better together. The songs are better. Everything's better. Just from playing together for so long, you're quicker on your feet and better at responding to people. Pushing for a vibe, you can get into that pretty quickly. You can react quicker, and that makes everybody happier and makes everybody play better, too.

AP: About that scrappiness - you guys were known on your early albums and at the early shows for that kind of dustiness, and now...

TL: It's still there. It's not like we're up there reading thesis papers or anything. We come for a party. When we come off the stage, there's nothing left. That's the point. And it's our world. It's a Dr. Dog show. You don't have to pretend that your three hours of sanity are the same here; they're different. Because they can be. Why the hell not? Why would you go to a show and want the natural order of things to play out like they always do every other time in your life, you know? Our recordings are kind of like that, too. "How can we make the situation strange enough where the result is gonna be even stranger?"

AP: How do you choose what to play every night, with so many songs?

TL: I feel like the past two tours got stuck in a rut with some stuff. We played 20-25 songs a night and were only rotating about 30, which is neither here nor there. It's nice to have that sort of comfort level, but right now we're doing eight nights in New York and we have 70 songs. So next time you see us hopefully it will be a completely different set. We'll still do whatever our version of a hit is - people wanna see those - but the goal is to play all 70 songs [in eight shows]. And I can tell you why it was so easy to pick what songs we were doing, though: because we weren't practicing.

AP: I'm from Pennsylvania, too. There's a very clear identity there. Sort of like Ween, which is also from Philadelphia, you guys seem very firmly rooted in where you're from and how it defines your attitude and ethos.

TL: Yeah, there aren't a lot of bands that come out of Philly, but they're all weird, and they're all these kind of strange amalgamations of stuff that doesn't really fit in. AP: Like the Dead Milkmen.

TL: Perfect example. Another band where there's multiple lead singers, too. There's never a "scene" in Philly. You know who the sound guys are and the promoters and the venues and who plays what in what bands, but it's not like "This is the Philly sound." There's nothing like that going on. You have a band like The War On Drugs right now...there's not another band that sounds like them. Name another band that's big in Philly and there isn't another band that sounds like them. They're sort of these pop-up things standing on their own because they sound great.

AP: How do you keep that sense of where you're from when you're on the road constantly for 15 years?

TL: That's surprisingly easy when you're in a bubble with the same [band and crew] every day and your interactions are really with the same 12 people. For an hour and forty-five minutes you're yelling at a crowd of strangers, but every other minute you're just seeing the same people you see at home. It's a pretty standard thing among people who tour; you get into your routine and you become pretty into it. Even on your days off in the middle of, you know, North Dakota it's 12 dudes doing this thing. At least for us; maybe we're unique in that we do everything together. We're good at surrounding ourselves properly with people who have the same sort of vision, same attitude, same work ethic.

AP: If you don't do that, your band breaks up because you can't be on the road together.

TL: There's a million reasons why a band can break up, but that's one of them, for sure. If you're unhappy with the people you surround yourself with you're doomed.

AP: Do you try to make every night a totally different experience? How do you capture that on one live album?

TL: Well we have the benefit of the album being from about 13 different nights. There's always something you can glom onto from your life, or within the band interactions, that makes it feel different. The fact that it's a different venue makes it a different experience automatically. The place is different. And you can try to right whatever sort of wrong has been nagging at you. That's something different. You feel different every day and you try to bring at least a piece of yourself every night to let people have a window into what you're thinking and what you're saying. And that's not hard to do if you're actively trying to express yourself in a way that's meaningful.


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