Interview: Dr. Dog Learns New Tricks

The more you learn, the more you realize how little you know. That’s what Dr. Dog discovered while working on Shame Shame, their Anti- Records debut. The band has always had an insular approach to making music, producing albums like Fate (2009), We All Belong (2007) and Easy Beat (2005) alone in their Philadelphia home studio. And that’s always worked out for them. Their critically acclaimed albums have not only drawn praise from artists, like Jack White, Beck, Jeff Tweedy, Kanye West and Lou Reed, but by fans who help them sell out 1,500 capacity venues around the world.

With Shame Shame, however, Dr. Dog knew they needed to try something new.

“We’ve been doing it our own way for so long that there was really no more we could figure out on our own,” says Dr. Dog bassist/vocalist Toby Leaman. “We needed somebody outside of us that had been doing it a long time and been doing it differently and recording different bands and all that kind of stuff.”

So band members Scott McMicken (guitars, vocals), Frank McElroy (guitar), Eric Slick (drums), Zach Miller (organ), and Leaman took their songs to Dreamland Studios in West Hurley, New York, to work with Producer Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith).

“At first things were going really slow and it was kind of frustrating,” says Leaman. “But once we hit our stride it started going great. We ended up learning a ton.”

Typically Dr. Dog would throw down layers and layers of sounds. But Schnapf’s influence resulted in sparser instrumentation.

“We usually just throw anything down and just build on that and throw and throw and throw and throw,” says Leaman. “Then when about 80 percent of the song is done, we’d end up re-recording all of our parts better. Rob’s approach was always much more front-loaded. You got your performance down first and then you never had to go back and re-do it, which is sort of obvious I think to anybody who makes records. But for us, we’ve always sort of worked backwards.”

Stylistically the band was the same, but Dr. Dog began to see life beyond overdubs and liked what they heard.

“I think because things were coming out sounding pretty good, especially the guitar turns and the vocals, we were much less inclined to throw a bunch of other shit on top of it,” says Leaman. “With Rob, the instruments were taking up the right amount of space and they weren’t fighting each other. And sonically there weren’t things missing in your ear. You kind of want the whole spectrum there. So the instrumentation is much sparser.”

The band approached songwriting as they always had. McMicken and Leaman both write. And the fact that they’ve been friends since eighth grade means it’s a pretty familiar process.

“It’s pretty much worked the same way forever, ever since Scott and I started writing together,” says Leaman. “One of us will have the bulk of a song, maybe the entire song written, all the chord changes, melodies, the words for the most part. And then we bring it to the band and that’s sort of when the song gets fleshed out in the recording. Everybody’s pretty diplomatic.”

As a songwriter, Leaman wanted to challenge himself on Shame Shame.

“Lyrically I tried not to be as obtuse or hidden,” says Leaman. “I made a concerted effort to be really obvious with the lyrics with no double meanings or anything like that. No wordplay. Just real straightforward. Just to see if I could do it.”

Thematically, Shame Shame seems darker, partly a symptom of the band’s success, which keeps them on the road longer and away from family, friends and everything else that’s familiar. But the band didn’t go into the record with a particular point of view. Those truths just emerged.

“Some songs came under the theme of general detachment—of not knowing yourself or not exactly feeling at peace with whatever situation you’re in,” says Leaman. “Then you start to see the threads of that in other songs. It might not be as overt or anything, but once you convince yourself that there is a theme you can pretty much tie anything into it within reason. I think part of the reason that theme exists all over the record is because those are the songs everybody in the band was gravitating towards and we all sort of live the same lifestyles.”

Some songs were easier for Dr. Dog to record than others. “‘Stranger’ was never not going to be on the record,” says Leaman. “That was one that we had done a while ago and it immediately worked. We did the drum and bass and Scott and I came up with this descending line together. That song was pretty simple to write. And once ‘Shadow People’ really got moving the album started to sequence itself.”

One of the most satisfying songs Dr. Dog recorded was “Someday,” a song Leaman wrote three to four years ago that had just been kicking around.

“That was really serendipitous,” says Leaman. “That was the last one that we did with Rob. We were sitting in the studio and decided to work on it. We just fucked with the drum machine and ran it through a bunch of delay and ran it through some processors and then played it out through some speakers in the room and just recorded that onto tape. It’s kind of nice recording a drum beat sometimes because there’s no dynamic and then the dynamic is up to you. Sometimes working like that is nice because you can really hone into the parts you want to shift,” he continues. “That was definitely one of the easiest songs to record on the record. I kind of wish we had had something like that earlier in the session when we were struggling. We were just hitting the wall so much of the time, for like the first two weeks. And for that to be the last song, it actually left a real nice memory of that place in your head after so many complications. It was kind of like, ‘Oh we finally all together nailed it.”

Dr. Dog performs @ Terminal 5 in New York on May 15.