Pet sounds

“You never know with a song,” muses Toby Leaman, bassist for Philadelphia-based Dr. Dog. “You could have a great song and it just might not ever work, recorded. And you could have a song that you don’t feel great about, and all of a sudden it’s just kickin’.”

Who let the dog out? Philly’s Dr. Dog asks, “What’s the point of being in a rock band unless you can play rock?” Photo by Elizabeth Weinberg.>

This is the evolution from album to live show. Dr. Dog is currently six months into touring behind last year’s Fate (Park the Van).

“I would imagine for us it takes a lot longer to learn our album than it does for other people,” Leaman says with a laugh. But he’s feeling good about the group’s live show, remarking that Fate‘s dozen tracks have “pretty much solidified.”

“The way we’ve always been as a band is the recorded thing and the live thing can’t be the same thing,” the bass player explains. In fact, Dr. Dog—which started with the tween-aged friendship between Leaman and guitarist Scott McMicken—has its own way of doing things. A decade into various band configurations, Leaman and McMicken fleshed out the format that suited their tastes and songwriting style best. And, around 2000, Dr. Dog was born. Though Leaman and McMicken (who share singing and writing duties) launched their psychedelic-tinged rock outfit with a backlog of stage-ready songs, success was not instantly theirs. For one, there was the matter of the name.

“They were often mistaken for a hip-hop group,” says the band’s bio. But the group broke free of the Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Bow Wow pack, thanks to an opening slot for My Morning Jacket, followed by tours with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, The Black Keys and Jack White’s The Raconteurs. These days, Dr. Dog can return the favor, handpicking up-and-coming acts as openers. Asheville’s Floating Action, led by Seth Kauffman, plays a string of upcoming dates with Dr. Dog.

“We try to pick bands that we believe in, that we really like, bands that our friends are in,” Leaman says. “We had three pretty big shows on the East Coast in Philly, New York and D.C. [Floating Action] opened for us every night and it was great. They really know how to set up a mood.”

Mood is important to Dr. Dog, especially in the process of creating Fate.

“For this album it was a little easier because we came up with the title and sort of a loose concept of what we wanted the album to sound like pretty early on,” the bassist reveals. “We wanted the lyrics to have a certain tone and we wanted the arc of the album to flow.”

But a sound arc is not quite the same as a narrative arc: “It’s not like we have a character on a planet driving around in a car,” Leaman says. “This album is more of an intentional concept album in that we tried to tie it together thematically. The album sort of developed out of the attitude around the actual recording.”

While making an album, the group works in shifts, around the clock, in their own studio. And they record on a reel-to-reel machine, an engineering dinosaur thanks to a wave of pocket-sized digital devices. Though Leaman insists the predilection for analog was initially a matter of budget over aesthetics, necessity once more proved to be the mother of invention.

“We started on the four-track Tascam that everybody had and then when we wanted to upgrade there was a bunch of digital equipment out there, but it was super bulky and expensive. It seemed like it was changing all the time, so we just got a reel-to-reel machine that was eight tracks. It was cheap. We got that and paid for it and it came with a bunch of tape.

“After a while you get comfortable, and those are the sounds you gravitate to,” Leaman says. “We got used to that sound,”

Plus: “Neither of us are real tech heads or gear heads.”

But Dr. Dog—despite the rapper moniker, the alignment with indie rock movers and shakers, and a steadily increasing fan base—boasts an old soul. Fate is a collection every bit as heart-on-sleeve-aching as it is satisfyingly rocking. And, staying true to The Beatles and The Band influences, Fate is unapologetic in its straightforward rock sensibility. As is the band behind the album.

“I have no idea the relevance of us,” Leaman says. “The kind of rock music that happens changes all the time, but that’s really all you want to hear. What’s the point of being in a rock band unless you can play rock?”

who: Dr. Dog (with Drug Rug and Floating Action)
what: Psychedelic-tinged indie rock
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Thursday, Feb. 12. 9 p.m. ($12 advance, $14 day of show.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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