Dr. Dog’s Scott McMicken Tells Us Why Sounding Just Like The Beatles Isn’t A Bad Thing.
For the past decade or so, Philly throwback rockers Dr. Dog have been a rather consistent lot. From 2002 to 2006 they released six LPs, three EPs, and a handful of special edition 7-inches and compilation albums. And for the most part each of these lo-fi recordings were done at the no-frills Meth Beach rehearsal space/studio that’s essentially served as the band’s home base for eight of the last ten years.
But when it came time to record last fall’s B-Room LP, the band decided a change of scenery was in order. So when the lease on Meth Beach expired, the boys began renovating an old silver mill on the outskirts of town into a legit studio they later dubbed Mt. Slippery. And immediately following the completion of that months-long construction project is when the band began recording their most recent album.
That in mind, we recently caught up with Dr. Dog lead guitarist Scott McMicken, who told us about the band’s newfound ability to incorporate hi-fi elements into the band’s records for the first time in its career and how the derivative nature of the band’s sound will affect its legacy.
A lot of the press materials for your new album focus pretty heavily on the fact that you guys built yourselves a new studio just prior to recording this album. Why did you guys feel like a change of scenery was in order this time around?
On the most basic level it’s just a change of scenery for the sake of changing scenery. We’ve been working out of our old studio since about 2004; almost ten years, really. As cool as it was — and as excited as we were to have it — the huge amount of time made it where everybody was interested in trying something new.
More specifically we wanted more room. Our old studio was one big room. We wanted multiple separate rooms to enable people to be working simultaneously on different things. We also wanted to be able to accommodate those of us in the band who move into the studio when it’s time to record, so we wanted to have a kitchen and a bathroom and showers and beds. We also wanted to get kind of out of the city, as much as we could without having to do too much driving to the studio. It’s a slightly more remote location other than the urban, blown-out wasteland where our old studio was.
Most of those aspects also were creatively aligned with what we wanted to do on this album, which is to be able to track more as a live band. At our old studio, on a technological level, it was difficult to do that. There was very little isolation you could gain between sounds. There was no isolation room and tracking room set up –it was all one room. The tape machine and the console and everything was in the same room as the musicians. It was really hard to get something that sounded cool with everyone playing at the same time. We knew before we decided to move out of the studio that with each record that was becoming more and more our preferred method of recording.
And you guys built the studio yourselves, is that right? Does that include all the construction stuff? Do any of you guys have construction backgrounds?
We all built it together and we recruited a few friends. We just took our whole recording budget from ANTI- Records and spent it at Home Depot. We got so much stuff to build with. The combined experiences of everyone made us a pretty legit construction crew. Everyone has worked in various aspects of that over the years, some more than others. But everyone has a taste for it. Most of the band’s members now own a house so we’ve all experienced home renovating and stuff like that for our own purposes beyond employment. [Bass guitarist] Toby [Leaman’s] brother Tad and [another one of our oldest friends] are pretty much professionals. My cousin Jim is a professional carpenter. The only thing we hired out was the sheetrock because there was so much of it. The space that we got was an old mill building and it’s a 5,000 square feet, open floor plan. In the middle of that 5,000-square-foot rectangle we built two rooms. We put rooms within the rooms. One is the tracking room and the other is the control room. The perimeter of the place is lined with these smaller rooms, two bedrooms, an office, the b-room in the corner, and then a shower and a bathroom. That kind of wraps an L-shape around the perimeter. But we did it all other than the sheetrock. Those experienced sheetrock guys will come in and bang out hundreds of square feet of sheetrocking in a day, whereas we would have taken two weeks to do that. But it felt very rewarding. I feel like when it came time to record music in there we were already spending 17 hours a day in there, seven days a week together working on something, so the relationships and ease of collaboration was very much already present. It was a nice way to segue into making music together. I think for all of us we found a startling similarity in the construction process to the music making process.
It’s interesting you bring that up. Do you guys hang out a lot outside of band-related activities? Was that a good way to have some non-musical hang time?
Oh yeah, for certain. We’re very much a part of each other’s lives on the road and off. It has gotten a little tougher the last few years because one of our members lives in Arizona. One guy lives in Delaware, which is really only 20 minutes from Philly. Eric is going to move to North Carolina to get a change of scenery. As the years have gone on it’s required a little extra effort to see everybody. But the truth of it is, we spend so much time together on the road and we spend so much time working on stuff — even non-album-making related stuff. This last break, for instance, over Christmas, we were together that entire time anyway because we were working on a few different recording projects for TV shows, and we shot a video. So the band keeps us together and keeps us seeing each other a lot.
Now with the new studio do you see yourselves ever recording other bands in there?
Absolutely. That was sort of the side thought we had going on. We wanted to make it, of course, suit our vision of a place we’d like to work in, but we also wanted to have the basic offerings of an industry standard in studios. The door is open now and word is starting to spread around. We have a couple of engineers who are willing to take it over and manage the place when we’re away. More or less we’ll use it for rehearsal, and then once a year we’ll block it out to make an album. But all of the other time there are engineers and producers that can consider it their own place and can keep bands coming in here. Nick Krill — the lead singer of The Spinto Band, and a really great engineer — used to run his own studio not far from where ours is now. He coincidentally decided to close it down around the time that we built ours. It’s been a nice transition to know that Nick, who has been slowly bringing over lots of cool gear, will be there and will be working. Long story short, we’re very much making it available as a place for public usage.
What goes on in the b-room? Why did you guys choose to name your album after that room specifically?
In a nutshell: we’ve been a band for a really long time and we’ve known each other a long time, and we’ve gotten to know each other over a really long time — not just as individuals, but in how we work and how we’ve done things historically. Despite that, we’ve grown a lot and evolved a lot. We’re eager to try things we’ve never tried before, more so now than ever. The new studio is a symbol of who we’ve always been, what we’ve always been about, and what we’ve gained through the years many years of doing this thing we do. The b-room was kind of to balance the scales. We built this nice, and what we consider big, beautiful studio that’s fully equipped and very professional. However the b-room is back there in the corner as well, and the b-room is very much the same type of studio setup we recorded our first album on ten years ago. That lo-fi, low budget, home recording style is very much a part of what we do when we get together to make music. The studio is actually called Mt. Slippery, but b-room is back there in the corner, and b-room is the old school way for us. The rest of this place is about the new school way for us. Those two worlds are very cohesive. You can work in both those realms even when your ambition grows beyond what you can do on cassette four-track or quarter-inch eight-track. With the way technology now enables you to fuse so many different methods and pieces of equipment into one way of working, there’s no real reason to set aside those old, maybe archaic, recording methods. Now more than ever you can get a whole lot out of that. The b-room is just kind of the foil to the new scene we’ve got going on with Mt. Slippery. B-room was all about that shitty, basement vibe. We spent a lot of time and money really beautifying and legitimizing so many aspects of the studio, but when it came to the b-room we left it really raw. We fashioned this identity around the b-room as this real work-a-day, utilitarian, 1950’s-style studio. If you’ve ever seen pictures of the early days of Motown it looks like a raw basement, and about all they had to enhance the sound quality of the room was to stick a mattress over the window. In truth, there’s so much beauty that comes out of those types of limitations, and we all know that. We don’t need those limitations anymore, but we still prefer them. That’s why the b-room means so much to what the new studio is, even though it’s just a fraction of what the place is all about.
I know you guys have used a Dallas artist, Andrew Kendall, to do a lot of your tour posters and artwork over the years. How did that relationship develop?
I know all about Andrew Kendall. He’s become a close friend of ours over the years. I’m a huge admirer of the ways he works and the things he does. He has truly hooked us up. I have a lot of [his posters] hanging up in my living room. He’s given us a lot of posters over the years, certainly band-related ones, but sometimes non band-related ones. Basically he presented himself to us several years ago. He just showed up to a show and he had made a bunch of posters and asked if we’d be inclined to sell them. Of course we were because they were so beautiful. Every time we pass back through there he comes by and says hi, so over the years we’ve gotten to know him pretty well. He’s just given us lots and lots of beautiful artwork over the years. The things he’ll use in order to come up with his images and the things he’ll put his images on are really inspiring, and kind of have readymade aspects to them creatively. It has just that nice lens on it that I think we all appreciate so well. He’s just been a really nice fit for us as an artist.
While a lot of the reviews of your albums are generally favorable, most allude to the fact that your music is pretty derivative of the Beatles, Beach Boys, and other ’60s acts. First of all, do you ever read your own reviews? And secondly, do you think the ability of your catalog to stand the test of time is at all negatively impacted by how heavily indebted to the past it is?
I read reviews. Most of us do. We have a pretty insular amount of confidence in the things that we do that, at the end of the day, the true merit of what we do is measured by us solely. We take that attitude into every song we write and record and every show that we play. So much so that I don’t care if every person in the crowd says that’s the best show we’ve ever played, if I didn’t think it was a good show then that good news from the audience won’t help. It goes both ways. There’s a vulnerability that comes with being that self-propelled by what you do. That’s the thing that ultimately guides us from getting too bummed out about the critics. However, there are certain moments where you wonder — there are levels of quality within journalism just like everything else. It’s OK for people to think and feel whatever it is they want. Once we do our thing and it comes back to that side we’re fine with whatever people think. Sometimes I think when it does hurt you is when you can tell the level of insight going in was very base level and very superficial. I think those kind of reviews are the ones that’ll make you go, “This is bullshit.” But we’ve been at it long enough to know the dangers of letting yourself be susceptible to whatever people think. The other thing that’s really helped us with that over the years is our fans. They’re super cool. I’m realizing that now more than ever. Our fans are so supportive. You might spend all morning reading shit reviews about your band, but then it’s like, alright, we’re on. And you go out there and it’s very apparent that the people there are very happy and the people you talk to are super happy. I sort of like the fact that we’re liked by people and not by critics. There’s something almost Bad News Bears about it that I like. Of course it’s easy to be like, “I get it, we sound like the Beatles. Duh.” I don’t know what else to say. I trust what we do.
As far as your second question, no, I think probably that fact that gives it more of a chance. There’s something sort of proven about older music in that for us to be standing here talking about it now proves that it’s already stood the test of time. If we’re representing attributes of that I’d say it gives us a better chance at standing the test of time than if our sound was full of gated snare drum, reverb from the ’80s that everybody knows. That sound was exciting for a minute and quickly did not stand the test of time. We’re the blue jeans of music or something, hopefully. We don’t not see ourselves as part of the tradition. We don’t see ourselves as separate from the past. We see ourselves as part of a stream, a narrative of music, that is continuing to respond to itself through various different insights, understandings, and individuals coming into the same 12 fucking notes and three chords. That’s the world we live in. Likeness to the past is not a taboo notion for us at all. In fact, just slightly, it becomes a point of pride.
Dr. Dog performs Saturday, February 22, at Trees.