By Mark Guarino
When Dr. Dog was given the chance to record by Rough Trade, the legendary London label that famously plucked Lucinda Williams, Belle & Sebastian, The Smiths and, most recently, The Strokes from obscurity and introduced them to the world, it goes without saying that the band was pretty psyched.
The Philadelphia quintet had already pushed small ripples through the press and pricked up industry ears due to “Easy Beat,” the small but pleasurable psych-pop album that became the must-have of 2005 that everyone was supposed to love, if they had a chance to hear it. Recorded on an eight-track recorder, the album became a word-of-mouth wonder the purest way: It was mainly available only at shows. To hear it was to be a diehard.
Rough Trade showered Dr. Dog with booty; the band received $18,000 to record a follow-up, which allowed them to build a studio in their hometown and jack up their track load thanks to a new 24-track console. They also headed on tours in Europe, opening for bands like the Magic Numbers and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.
When Rough Trade announced restructuring difficulties and let Dr. Dog know they were the first to let go, the blow came with a soft cushion: They were allowed to keep the money, the equipment it paid for and the album they were essentially allowed to make for free.
“It was kind of a blessing in disguise,” said lead singer and co-songwriter Scott McMicken. By that point, the band had also signed to Park the Van, the Philly indie rock label poised to break the album in the U.S. “Rough Trade would expect us to tour their territory a lot and clearly, Park the Van thinks the same thing. It would have been hard to juggle. It’s really nice right now to focus on the States. And because things are starting to pick up for us in the States, we can tour and not go broke.”
Turns out, Dr. Dog is having a very good year. “We All Belong” (Park the Van) arrived last February and since then it has slowly become the most talked-about albums of this year. Like many indie rock bands discovering the first wave of psychedelic bands in the 1960’s, “We All Belong” features fuzzy guitars, canyons of reverb, surreal and playful lyrics and unusual horn arrangements. But unlike about all of those bands, Dr. Dog has a strong melodic current through everything it does. McMicken and collaborator Toby Leaman write songs with clearly defined hooks. The densely layered vocal arrangements and ragged, homespun instrumentation is driven by bouncy, pop melodies. Dr. Dog may be one of the more unusual bands you’ll hear lately, but they are also one of the most likable.
High-profile admirers help. Starting with “Easy Beat,” My Morning Jacket invited them to join their tour and the band also did road time with The Raconteurs and The Black Keys. Last month, Dr. Dog arrived in Chicago to open Wilco’s hometown show at Millennium Park, an event that included an invitation for the band to return here for possible recording sessions at Wilco’s studio.
“I’m totally ready to take on new types of equipment and new techniques. And I feel there’s no better band that’s an example of that process than them,” McMicken said.
Even though McMicken and Leaman are 28 and 27 respectively, their collaboration goes back when they were 12 and leaving near each other in Chester County, 45 minutes outside the Philadelphia city limits. Upon receiving a four-track recorder from a musician uncle, Leaman showed up at McMicken’s house to learn how to write songs together. Their collaboration never stopped, continuing through high school and college (Westchester University) and, after that, into the city where the band spent years trying to find bands that shared their interest in home recording and pop music. Making music with no budget became one of the band’s strengths in that the limitations created focus on songs without frills.
“I never looked at a four-track as a compromising medium. We always respected working in these really, really unsophisticated ways,” he said.
Having the opportunity to expand to 24-track allowed the band — by then a five-piece — to create more textures, the very thing that makes “We All Belong” such a visceral listen. Yet despite the enhancements, the band still manages to keep the music warm and unvarnished. The songs seem to come from an earthly, mystical place but, at the same time, are bright and accessible.
Their approach, long honed from their junior high days, comes from “the general leaning towards all things homespun in art, really liking the craft in things,” McMicken said. “The more you polish things the more you strip away the craft, the more simple and tangible elements that go into it.”
The band created a recording process where guitars are used more as an embellishment and the main components become anything but. Later, for live shows, the band works backwards, learning how to translate what they created for guitars, which are easier to transport on tour.
“We grew up rejecting what seemed popular and feeling more proud to be a fan of something that is generally disliked … a lot of avant garde music and experimental stuff,” he said. “But in the end it always comes back to pop. I have a real appreciation for people who take it straight from themselves. It’s almost like, even the music that doesn’t sound worth listening to is worth listening to if it’s done well or the person is expressing something really unique about themselves.”