Leaving it all on the stage

Stagnation equals death: Dr. Dog plays the music that makes its individual members happy. Luckily, that formula makes for fresh, energetic songs that make fans happy, too.
Stagnation equals death: Dr. Dog plays the music that makes its individual members happy. Luckily, that formula makes for fresh, energetic songs that make fans happy, too.

In 2009, Dr. Dog bassist and founding member Toby Leaman told Xpress, "The way we've always been as a band is the recorded thing and the live thing can't be the same thing." Now, he wants to reverse his position.

"They're still two totally different animals," he says. But the addition of new members in the past few years has afforded the Philadephia-based group a heightened level of skill and confidence. "At the time, we weren't really capable of it, but we've gotten better. Our goal these days is to sound like a live band on record," says Leaman.

Dr. Dog's just-released Be The Void was made in a combination of live and overdubbed recordings, with no horns or strings. "There's not eight instruments going at once or all these improbable things," says Leaman. "There's six dudes, that means there's really only six things that could be happening."

In truth, Void sounds like much more than the sum of six dudes. From lead track, "Lonesome" (featuring some of the slackest, lankiest, garage-iest of blues-tinged indie-rock, perhaps of all time), the album sets a tone of such effortless cool that it’s hard to imagine where Void can even go from that genesis. Nowhere bad, that’s for sure. And, although no other song sounds exactly like that first one, Void delivers on its initial promise. This is a journey through moods and energy waves. It’s an antidepressant paired with a vitamin-B shot, so upbeat and enthusiastic that even the lyrics that deal with angst and self-depreciation come off as downright cheerful.

But, instrumentation aside, how does Dr. Dog — now a band for a dozen years, and the product of a 20-year musical partnership between Leaman and singer-songwriter Scott McMicken — reproduced that boundless, bombastic moxie on stage?

"There's no point in getting to the end of a show and not being exhausted," the bass player says. "For us, we're gone all the time from our families and friends. If we're not having fun, all the sacrifice is for nothing."

Leaman says that he sees a lot of videos that make him think the band on camera is in pain. That's certainly not the case with Dr. Dog's video for "That Old Black Hole," a hyper-playful collage of primary colors, costume changes, silly hats, a spaceman, pizza slices and parasols. It highlights the band's ability to perform brilliantly without taking itself too seriously. Experimentation trumps perfection.

"If we stagnated, that would be our death," says Leaman. After more than decade of being Dr. Dog, Leaman says the band members write for themselves and continually ask, "What kind of band are we now?"

With Void, says the bassist, "We wanted to see what were good at, and this kind of stuff is what we were good at [last] summer. We wanted people to hear a band playing music that was really excited about what they were doing."

In a way, even though the lineup and sound have changed, Dr. Dog is still the band it’s always been. Another constant: The lo-fi quality to both recordings and live shows. It's an artistic choice, but not one made in hopes of capitalizing on the trend (one now past its peak) of scuffed and gritty performance.

"Lo-fi, to me, is truer to what bands sound like," says Leaman. He explains that music in real time doesn't actually sound like recorded music, where levels are adjusted and manipulated. Through a live lens, you can't experience all that stuff at once, he says.

"Shit gets mashed together when you're playing live. It's all just coming at you," says Leaman. "I'm a firm believer in trying to do that with recording, too. I don't want to be able to hear the separation. I want things to blend together and have a cohesive feel."

When it comes to lo-fi know-how, Leaman is quick to wax enthusiastic about Black Mountain-based musician Seth Kauffman who is a longtime friend of Dr. Dog. Kauffman's band, Floating Action, is former Park the Van label-mates with Leaman and company (Dr. Dog is now on Anti). Of Kauffman, Leaman says, "That guy is a one-of-a-kind talent. What he's doing is obscenely good and it's executed so perfectly — his innate groove is so impeccable."

So, can we expect a Kauffman or Floating Action cameo at this week's Dr. Dog show? Leaman's all for it. The Orange Peel performance promises to hit a high note on many levels — Dr. Dog is at the top of its game and Void is a charmer of a record. And, now that the album's been out for a good month (long enough for fans to be familiar with its offerings), the band is primed to play (to blood-sweat-and-tears exhaustion, according to the plan) this buoyant new collection.

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

who: Dr. Dog (Givers opens)
where: The Orange Peel
when: Thursday, March 15 (9 p.m., $18 in advance or $20 at the door. http://theorangepeel.net)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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