BY MARY LYNN DOMINGUEZ On my first listen to Philly’s own Dr. Dog, I remember being hit by a brick wall of nostalgia, and not fully knowing why. They’re often compared to their most obvious influences such as The Beatles and The Beach Boys, but to me they seem a little less glamorous and more likely to be found jamming out alongside an old abandoned stretch of train tracks. The band’s catchy, bittersweet melodies, intertwined with melancholy lyrics, layered lo-fi instrumentation and bright, warm vocal harmonies had me hooked. Though I can’t always figure out what they’re singing about, I am almost certain that’s kind of the point with these guys. As such, there’s never really a bad time for their music, it reminds me of sunny road trips with friends and nights I’ve spent wallowing in self-pity. After repeated listens, this much was certain: Even if I couldn’t appreciate what I had in the moment, at least I’d probably have enough material to write a bluesy, heart-wrenching song about it later. It was in early 2011 during the peak of the band’s tour for Shame, Shame — their first album after signing with ANTI- Records in 2009 — that I was introduced to their music by a friend, who I hadn’t realized, may have had a secret infatuation with me, but later left me in the dust (a possible theme for my upcoming solo debut, thanks Dr. Dog).
Everything they’ve released — eight LPs, three EPs, various singles compilations — is imbued with the easy-breezy-beautiful trademark sound of Dr. Dog, a sound that dates back to their beginnings in West Grove, Pennsylvania in 1999. After re-locating to Philadelphia around the turn of the century, they spent years recording self-released albums, playing local shows and watching the coming and going of members. The band got their break in 2004 after receiving a rave review — and consequently an invitation to tour — from My Morning Jacket mainman Jim James. In 2009 they signed with ANTI- Records. B-Room, their third full-length for ANTI-, is a natural, less-depressing progression from previous releases with the label. However, my favorite Dr. Dog sounds to date can be found in Shame, Shame, Fate, and the pre-ANTI releases. The new album was recorded in an old silver-smith mill outside of Philadelphia which the group — drawing on the considerable shared experience in the construction and carpentry arts — reconstructed into a recording studio. The most notable difference between Dr. Dog then and now seems to be a cleaner, smoother production with more intricately layered sounds and less of the shambling jam-band feel of their early days, though there’s still plenty of grit and grime in their sound and lyrical perspective. In advance of their two-night stand at the Electric Factory on January 31st and February 1st, I got bassist-singer-songwriter Toby Leaman on the horn to discuss the ins and outs of Dr. Dog’s background, song meanings, and weird-beard fans.
PHAWKER: For the benefit of people who’ve never been inside a recording studio, explain what a B-Room is and why you guys chose it for the title of the new album?
TOBY LEAMAN: In a lot of music studios, you’ll have three zones: a control room, an A-Room, and a B-Room. The A-Room is usually the bigger, nicer place and the B-Room is usually smaller and not as nice. In our case, it’s not nearly as nice. It’s pretty ragged in there. We intentionally left it kinda crappy, just because we’re used to doing things on our own. The recording machine is what we’ve always used, and the look of the place is less like a studio and more like a basement or attic or something. We did a lot of the record in the A-Room, but ended up doing a lot of more interesting stuff in the B-Room, and the funkier stuff that made the songs work for that room. It seemed like a good title because that’s pretty much where we got it down.
PHAWKER: I love “Distant Light” — it sounds like the Greatest 70s Era Dylan Song Never Written. You sing it so I’m gonna assume you wrote it. What was the inspiration for the lyrics? In your travels, have you guys run into some mystical Merlin-type old man along the side of the road in the middle of nowhere who gave you directions to the “infinite road”?
TOBY LEAMAN: [Laughs] Those lyrics came pretty easily. Sometimes you work on a song and once you start it, it’s like “Oh, I know exactly what I’m doing.” You don’t have to figure out what the hell you’re writing about halfway through the song and then work backwards. This one was pretty simple. And you can kinda pull stuff, like the “yellow wood” thing is from Robert Frost. Then there’s the “[Mysterious] Stranger,” the story that Mark Twain wrote, where the guy hops down from a tree.[Laughs] You kinda take from what you need sometimes. But that story’s just kind of about not settling. Trying to move forward even if that’s all you’re doing. If there’s no goal in sight.
PHAWKER: So it’s not just a song about scoring drugs?
TOBY LEAMAN: Aghh…Dear Lord, No! Maybe it was.
PHAWKER: Your old rehearsal space/recording studio was called Meth Beach. Why?
TOBY LEAMAN: There was a rumor floating around when we first moved in around Kensington. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that area or not. It’s on American, south of Lehigh and north of Girard if you know that area at all. You know, definitely not Northern Liberties. It’s still actually kind of a shitstorm. The block across the street from the studio has nothing there, it’s desolate. There’s an empty parking lot. The rumor was that there used to be a meth lab there. It was literally an entire city block. There’s only been a gas station there at some point. Somebody just left a boat there, and there are always seagulls down there. That’s kind of how it got its name.
PHAWKER: Sounds dreamy. After eight years at Meth Beach, you decided to make a change and built a new recording studio from scratch. How did that figure into the new album turning it out the way it did?
TOBY LEAMAN: The process of building the studio wasn’t entirely dissimilar from the process of working on the record. The cool thing was that everything was sort of doing what they were good at. Some people can’t do certain jobs. Some of us worked in that world for a long time, building, construction and carpentry. Other people painted for years. Whatever you were good at, that’s what you did to help get this thing built. And it was a lot of fun to work on something that had nothing to do with music. It was just a totally different way of thinking. But we were with the same people doing a project. Each time we do a project like a backdrop, or when we’re doing a video or an arrangement of a song, it’s been nothing like this. That was fun.
PHAWKER: So it worked the same way for the album, too?
TOBY LEAMAN: Yeah, and I think Scott and I are making more of a conscious decision to let people have more control over the parts and the arrangements. At this point, we’ve been in a band forever with these guys, and we trust them. There was a time when Scott and I would kind of tell people what to do all the time. We just don’t do that anymore because people are better than we realized. They’re better at what they do than we are.
PHAWKER: Most of your recordings to date have been these really dense, rich tapestries of sound, with busy arrangements and lots of tone colors. To my ears, the new album is a lot more stripped down. Do you agree and if so was that a conscious decision?
TOBY LEAMAN: Yeah, definitely. We’re trying to work more as a band that can play live in the studio. I feel like that was conscious to some degree. We didn’t say, “Let’s make this sound stripped down.” We just wanted to play live as a band and that just happened to be the side effect of when you’re playing in a band and the groove is working and you don’t feel like you need to add a bunch of stuff on it to make it compelling. I love everything we’ve done, but when something doesn’t feel cohesive to me, my tendency is to just throw shit at it until it sounds cool. It’s a lot easier when you get the song done as a band. Not just to live in that world where you just add to it and cough something up.
PHAWKER: What is the worst thing that ever happened to you guys on tour — onstage or off?
TOBY LEAMAN: We’ve been robbed, everybody’s been robbed. There’s a lot of rough onstage stuff that’s failed completely. But nothing that’s horribly embarrassing. The worst things on the road are if the car breaks or you get robbed. It really doesn’t get any worse than that. Anybody who’s been on the road for any length of time learns that’s just part of the game. Those things happen.
PHAWKER: What is the best that ever happened to you guys on tour — again, onstage or off?
TOBY LEAMAN: Any given night is basically how good it’s gonna be. Pretty much whatever the last great show is the best time, because anytime there’s a bad night onstage it feels like the worst thing that could ever happen. So, you have to forget pretty quickly because when you’re up there performing every night it doesn’t matter what happened last night on any level.
PHAWKER: Right. You guys have been doing this for going on a dozen years. Back when you were broke and high and playing parties in West Grove, Pennsyltucky, did you ever expect you would wind up here — an acclaimed band with a global audience that records — or that you could even make a living doing this?
TOBY LEAMAN: Yeah, I guess we did. That made it easier for us to do. Just the idea that we were going to make a living out of it. We were making a living out of it, we were just poorer. We just kind of decided this was what we were going to do. We were alive. We were still eating food and keeping roofs over our heads, even if we were only making a couple hundred bucks a month or something. You just decide to do it. So I guess we always did think that way, but I think every band kind of has to have this idea that it’s gonna work out. In the back of your mind you’re always thinking that you’re gonna keep doing this. It doesn’t matter if it works out or not. That’s not the reason why you do it. But it is a compelling reason to stay positive.
PHAWKER: If you knew then what you know now, what would you do differently?
TOBY LEAMAN: There’s some business stuff that I would do differently. But as far as philosophically, I don’t know. There were a lot of times when we just settled for personnel that I would not be cool with now. For the first five years of the band, we didn’t really have a drummer. Looking back it’s like, what were we thinking? We would just have buddies and guys who just really weren’t too into it, and then when we got Justin it seemed like we were doing something that we could have been doing long before that if we had any kind of sense. But it’s hard to say, we spent that time recording because we didn’t really have a band. Anytime you practice anything you’re probably gonna get better at it.
TOBY LEAMAN: I don’t know. People usually hand stuff to somebody. Sometimes people throw stuff up onstage like a little package or something. Usually they’re directed toward Scott. He seems to be the one that gets the fan stuff and the love letters, little trinkets and stuff like that.
PHAWKER: Just marriage proposals and stuff?
TOBY LEAMAN: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. People still do stuff like that. Every once in a while I’ll get something in the mail and have no idea who it’s from.
PHAWKER: What’s the strangest piece of fan mail you’ve received?
TOBY LEAMAN: Yeah, you’ll get all kinds of weird shit. People telling you they’re gonna help you out in this way, or that they need you to do something for them, or that you’re obligated to do something. It’s weird, people expect something from you and they’re strangers.
PHAWKER: What do they expect?
TOBY LEAMAN: I don’t know, that you’re supposed to come to their house just because their brother broke his leg or something. That’s not a specific example, but it’s as stupid as that.
PHAWKER: Last question is hypothetical: You wake up in the middle of the night and your house is on fire and you only have time to grab one album, which one do you pick?
TOBY LEAMAN: What I listen to changes from day to day, but there’s an album I’ve started listening to again, it’s a collection of a bunch of Studio One recordings called Studio One Scorcher Vol. 2. It was recorded down in Jamaica in the late sixties, seventies, eighties. A lot of dub and reggae stuff. This one is instrumental, which is nice. But yeah, it’s just a bunch of studio one recordings. And, uh, it’s called something. But that would be the one I would grab. Plus it’s a double disc album, and it’s the one that’s out now so it would probably be a safety.