Dr. Dog takes barebones approach to building a new record

Thursday, March 6, 2014


Contributed Photo

Dr. Dog will perform at Liberty Hall on March 10 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $21.50 in advance and $24 at the door.

When Dr. Dog came together to start assembling the group's seventh LP "B-Room," the first six weeks of the project consisted of manual labor, and were not in any way musical. Investing their entire recording budget in construction materials, the six bandmates recruited some carpentry-experienced friends to help convert an old silversmith mill into their new studio space and 5,000-square-foot home.

“I think for like four years they were operating in it doing stuff like silver plating and like revitalizing old silverware,” says co-founder and guitarist Scott McMicken. “They moved out and we scooped the place up pretty much immediately.”

McMicken says the large industrial space had a beautiful feel to it, so much so they didn’t want to alter too much of its aesthetic: roller-skating-rink-sized hardwood floors, large windows, high ceilings, giant ceiling fans. Everyone pitching in, they built small rooms to line the edges of the perimeter for bedrooms, storage spaces, a shower, bathroom, kitchen, a hangout spot with couches and a piano, and the B-Room, where band members could work out album ideas while others were elsewhere in this gargantuan building.

Located five miles outside of West Philadelphia down a winding road, this new space is an improvement over their previous similar, but smaller, warehouse-like studio. Investing their time (and money) into the construction project wasn’t just about this record, McMicken says, but many more to come.

“It was a bigger-picture decision. It was our new home, a place we knew we were setting up and would be using for years,” McMicken says. “We had all these goals, and they obviously had to do with the record we were making, but it was also a longer view.”

Much like the homemade studio, their latest record best reflected the strengths of each member having built each song from scratch. Known for their lo-fi roots-rock funk-infused psychedelic music presented on albums in an overdubbed fashion, frontmen McMicken and Toby Leaman (who have known each other since eighth grade) took a more organic approach to "B-Room." Instead of demoing their ideas before revealing more finalized tracks to the other four members, the two kept the songs bare-bones.

“This time Toby and I were very keen on not pre-recording our songs so they could hear them as folk songs,” McMicken says. “We just wanted to keep the potential of the songs much more open to the ideas that other band members were likely to have.”

The group’s 10 years together have naturally progressed in the direction of a much larger degree of collaboration from all of the bandmates and a stronger foundation. Because of their closeness, they don’t have to be precious about their feelings, McMicken says. Even if there is an argument, it’s forgotten almost immediately after; everyone feels free being themselves.

Leaman and McMicken continue to act as the primary songwriters, but the level of trust among one another has evolved considerably.

“I know from personal experience I really do value to a great deal what everyone has to say or how everyone feels about stuff,” he says. “So much that if I bring in a song that I’m actually not that excited about and everyone else is very excited about it, low and behold, I magically start loving that song.

“No one wants to make anything at all if not everyone is satisfied with it,” he says. “We made a lot of songs, at least two records' worth of material when we did this. And we wound up whittling it down to the ones that everyone was happy with. We roll like that with everything.”

Dr. Dog will return to Lawrence to perform at 8 p.m. Monday at Liberty Hall, having played The Bottleneck quite a bit over a stretch in the past, McMicken says. Their live shows have increasingly sold out over the years, which is where you find their true fanbase. They have never done well with record sales, but it’s never been an expectation. As long as they can pay the bills, sustain their lifestyles, make records and draw people out to their shows through their records, they are completely satisfied.

“You gotta be someone like Beyoncé or something to make money off records,” he says.