In the wake of the recent deaths of several classic-rock stars, it’s easy to forget about bands in the midst of careers that may achieve the same longevity and perhaps even “classic” status.
Dr. Dog — a scrappy, critically acclaimed Philadelphia rock-and-roll band that formed seventeen years ago and has never really taken a break — will probably never sell out arenas, the bastions of classic-rock success. But co-frontmen Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken, whose musical partnership began in the eighth grade, have boldly stuck together since the band’s formation, becoming something akin to the Lennon-McCartney (or at least Strummer-Jones) of country-inflected indie rock. The recent death of Glenn Frey (another co-frontman) led us to ask why a group like the Eagles flamed out in just nine years while Dr. Dog rolls on.
“The Eagles were a fucking nightmare,” says Leaman without missing a beat. “Those guys were total turds, or so many of them were. Frey was apparently no cupcake. The good thing about us is that we’re always really open with things that are bothering us, and that’s the name of the game with keeping a band together — making sure everybody’s happy. We’re pretty good at keeping things fresh and making sure that everybody’s needs are met.”
Not that the six members of Dr. Dog never get sick of each other.
“It happens,” Leaman says. “There will be a point on the tour when it’s like, ‘Oh, this guy. I can’t stand this dude.’ It’s like any relationship: How do you not get sick of your wife or your husband or your close friends? You’re just with ’em; that’s just part of your life. People have their little quirks and things that can be really obnoxious, but that’s part of who they are. It’s part of who I am; maybe I’m the most obnoxious one.”
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Last year, Dr. Dog released Live at a Flamingo Hotel, a live album recorded over a twenty-show stretch that features favorite tracks of members of the band’s cult-like following. Leaman describes the album as a sort of exorcism of “what we had been doing live for forever.”
Now Dr. Dog is looking forward, working on an album of all-new material and a new stage setup, but at least some of that process seems to involve delving into the past.
Part of the band’s identity has long been wrapped up in the myth of The Psychedelic Swamp, a concept album that would have been Dr. Dog’s first had it ever been released. The premise of the record — that Dr. Dog received a tape in the mail from a guy named Phrases who’d left his boring life on Earth for the “psychedelicized” swamp (where, however, many of the same problems persist) — became the basic theme for Dr. Dog’s entire career. According to Leaman, the story reflects “a state of mind, of freedom and experimentation, and just a love of what you’re doing.”
“That’s always been the premise [of Dr. Dog],” Leaman says. “That’s always been the goal — to keep it loose, keep it inspiring and make it feel like you’re doing something for the first time.”
Dr. Dog fans have clamored for a glimpse of Psychedelic Swamp, and last year they got their chance. Pig Iron, a legendary experimental-theater troupe in Philadelphia that had received a grant contingent on developing a show with someone outside the theatrical realm, got in touch with the band.
“We were more than happy to work with them,” Leaman explains. “We mutually admired each other. They said, ‘Do you have any concepts?’ and we said, ‘Well, shit, yeah. We have a whole concept album!’”
Their dream of turning Phrases’s message from the swamp into “an extremely successful pop album,” as Leaman puts it, had never died, and the band’s members leapt at the chance not only to put together a Psychedelic Swamp production with Pig Iron, but also to re-record the album — with original guitarist Doug O’Donnell, no less.
“Scott and I always called [Swamp] our personal masterpiece, because it is so specific to a place and time in our minds and a part of our development as songwriters and producers,” Leaman says. “But when we were playing it for the Pig Iron guys, they were trying their best, but…apparently, it’s just not as good as we think it is, let’s put it that way. It was really the first thing we had recorded that I was proud of, but it was really self-serving; it was not what you would call accessible or listenable.”
The newly released Psychedelic Swamp, a soulful trip that takes Dr. Dog back to its lovably quirky roots, showcases the growth that Leaman and company have undergone as musicians and songwriters in the past fifteen years. They rewrote the original Swamp material, added two totally new (but thematically in tune) songs, and had a blast reuniting with O’Donnell, who’d quit the band after Dr. Dog’s first tour because he didn’t want to go on the road anymore.
“We’re very close friends, but I hadn’t played with him in at least ten years, and it was so awesome having him come back,” Leaman gushes. “He’s just so good. Whereas we’re in the studio struggling, just trying to figure out what the hell’s going on, working our parts out, he would just come in and bang it out. He was just so much more competent, which is kind of embarrassing. This guy was essentially off the street and just crushing it.
“Doug was always a way better musician than Scott or I,” Leaman goes on. “He literally sat us down and taught us how to do harmony: ‘This is what you do.’ We would try Beach Boys songs and that kind of thing. A lot of the stuff we gravitated to was influenced by Doug, and even a lot of the stuff we gravitate toward now is so heavily influenced by Doug.”
When asked point-blank to define the concept of the “psychedelic swamp,” Leaman jokes, “The more I talk about it, the more confusing it gets.” But he stresses that more than anything else, the fictional Phrases, who “had a crap life, just a real drab, humdrum existence” before traveling to the swamp, “wanted us to turn his tape into pop music.”
Unlike much of the Dr. Dog music that followed Fate, the band’s 2008 breakthrough, Swamp mixes the irreverent, dusty spirit of Dylan’s Basement Tapes with the buoyant ambition of the post-LSD, pre-Yoko Beatles. That combination of zeal and imagination is synonymous with Philadelphia, according to Leaman.
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“It’s definitely a singular mentality of that part of the world: Once you do something good, you are appreciated for that forever if you live in Philly. Whether it’s music or sports, people don’t forget. And I think that has also sort of translated into how we run our band: There’s a lot of loyalty and a lot of trust.
“It seems like when you’re in a band in Philly, you’re in it for a while and you slowly get better and weirder,” he continues. “And you’re not in it to immediately go out and have some national success or anything. If you say, ‘They’re a band from Philly,’ you can’t say, ‘Oh, then they sound like….’ If you start a band in Philly, it’s usually a reaction to, or antithetical to, whatever seems to be happening at the time. There’s definitely a sense that you have to do something original.”
Asked if he sees Dr. Dog spending another seventeen years together, Leaman replies, “We’re getting there. I don’t see any reason we couldn’t pull that off.”
9 p.m. Friday, February 12, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue, $25.75, 303-832-1874; 9 p.m. Saturday, February 13, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder, $25, 303-786-7030.