Dr. Dog – Studio Talk with Scott McMicken

Equal parts quirky and kick-ass, Dr Dog has defined the D.I.Y approach to making music. In the span of a decade, they’ve redefined and reaffirmed the process of building a grassroots fan-base with a series of increasingly sophisticated recordings and regular touring. The logical culmination of their creative voyage was signing to Anti- and recording their newest album – Shame, Shame.
Originally a collaboration of recording fanaticism between lead guitarist Scott McMicken and bassist Toby Leaman, the current quintet is the end result of an evolution resulting from the usual sloughing around the road.  What followed soon after, was a chance connection to My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, which led to Dr. Dog opening for My Morning Jacket, The Raconteurs and Wilco.  It wasn’t long after that all the effort and exposure found the group headlining their own tours to increasingly devoted audiences.
Dr. Dog’s progress hasn’t been without its shortfalls, as the rigors of the road, and the slow dawning realization that their lot in life as a rock and roll band had left the quintet with a growing sense of dislocation that was only heightened by the recording process for Shame, Shame. Ultimately an educational experience, what started out as a collaboration with independent producer Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith) led eventually to a process of refinement not all dissimilar to the layering and distillation that earmarked Dr. Dog’s previous recordings: Easybeat, We All Belong and Fate (all of which appeared on the independent ParkTheVan label).
The crucial difference between those earlier albums and Shame, Shame lies in a more pronounced rhythmic thrust and a decidedly more compact structure to the individual tracks. This combination, while not alien to the band, resulted from working methods markedly different than the ones Dr. Dog had developed on their own. This underlying ethos, perhaps contained in an ironic interpretation of the album’s title, remains an idiosyncratic approach to composing that balances and increasingly clarifies emotional equilibrium and expression. It’s little wonder then that McMicken speaks with refreshing candor and great lucidity about the recording process and its results. Like actually hearing Dr. Dog’s music, this experience left them initially ambivalent but ultimately with a palpable sense of redemption, not to mention a renewed faith in the act of creation and themselves.

I haven’t heard the new album in its entirety but I did get a chance to hear some of the new material when I saw you play this past January. It seemed to be markedly different than some of the vintage material, so it wasn’t a big surprise to hear you talk about streamlining your material for the new album. Did you have everything all written when you went in to record?

All the songs were fully written and structured, but naturally we played around with the feel of things, the dynamic of stuff and the layering of parts quite a bit–which is always one of the most joyous parts of recording. The songs themselves had been fully fleshed out, lyrically and structurally: we were working off some pretty strong skeletal structures.

Since Shame, Shame, as much or more so as your previous ones, seemed to have a very clear cut concept. Did any of the songs turn out markedly different than you envisioned when you wrote them?

Oh yeah, in most cases and that’s always part of it, it’s always a surprise the way things turn out. We don’t map out recordings as much as it might seem. We start unloading instincts at the most basic level of what you want out of the song and then, once you get more down, there’s more to respond to, more to say no to and more to say yes to. Most of our songs, the way they end up has nothing in common with the initial thinking about the song. On this album there’s definitely a few of those: there’s a few songs that we had already recorded or attempted to record in the past and then what we wound up with, in some cases, was so far away from where we started with some original versions. There’s always a big evolution of the songs from the start to the end, right on through the mixing: so much is gained through the mixing process as well, so much you can draw out dynamically in the vibe of the song, even structural edit type things you can do that will change things pretty significantly.

Did you make a conscious effort on this album to keep things simpler and more straight-forward  for the sake of being able to play the songs live without having to transpose some of the core complex arrangements of tunes like the ones that were on Fate ?

Yeah, definitely, but i don’t think that the cause of that was to protect us down the line. It wasn’t motivated by the goal of "What can we do to make our lives easier when it comes to playing these songs live?" It was more trying to capture in recording that thing that tends to happen live. Using a sparser arrangement, of course, but using that sparser arrangement, how can you still fill it up? And what that always comes down to –and I realize this more and more we’re a band–is your level of performance. It can be a song of three instruments, if you can really hone that part, and play off everybody else, and really find your space, the song will lack nothing.

It was definitely more an exercise in that kind of way in recording for us. There was a definite sense, as we learned the songs to play them live that I’d say took a lot less. In the case of some of our past records, learning to play them live was almost as involved as the process of recording them to begin with. It has been really cool to step inside these songs and know that. It’s still challenging, there’s like new muscle memory that’s necessary, you still gotta get in there because there’s a lot to learn, but, essentially, it’s a lot more direct. At least I know that I’m playing a guitar (laughs).

That’s what struck me about the new songs played in concert. They seemed markedly similar and yet, as you guys played them, there seemed to be a sense you were really refreshed by the simplicity,  that you enjoyed being able to, not just bang them out, but play them almost unconsciously, almost without having to think about it too much. There was a greater air of spontaneity coming out of these new songs.

Thank you! That feels good that came across. It’s a very nuanced thing and in some ways not a very interesting thing to talk about, but to be in the position of having the songs in your hand like that is a very exacting thing and it can also be an indulgent thin;  it can make a show for somebody or it can be irrelevant to somebody. There’s many other things going on, but for us, when it comes to playing–Toby Leaman (bass) and I joke about how to take apart one note.  How far can you strip it down? Because inside those parameters, you open up new doors and a lot of that, for sure, is the nature of playing live for us. Definitely with this new album, and now having played live so much, this new album definitely bridges the gap between how we’ve always recorded and how we’ve viewed the stage.

I remember seeing you play once where you cranked out a really kick-ass hour and a half set that didn’t seem quite so complex as on other occasions. It sounds like it was a very natural evolution for you to go into the studio and record this way.

It definitely felt like a real necessity and, in that way natural It was a great leap for us to do something we’ve done for so long in one particular way and change it all up. Just to have other people around and involved in the process changes the social dynamic of the studio–we’ve been kind of shut-ins about it. It was definitely extremely educational and it definitely helped us reach our goal. More than anything, it kind of sets you up for your next record, it leaves you wanting a little bit more of this or that, something to look forward to getting a little better at. I feel like we’re just putting one foot in the door–not to diminish the record at all– I’m really happy with it. Because it’s the best record we could make, but it did teach us a lot. Like we have a lot more to learn about that’ll be fun going in on the next one.

It’s been almost as fascinating to follow your recording career as it has been to watch you develop as performers. With each album you seemed to take a slightly different approach to the recording and then on Fate pulling it altogether. It almost seemed the only way you could really go from there was essentially to start over with a much simpler palette. How did the sessions go when you got them started with Rob (Schnapf) as producer.

It wasn’t ideal but everybody in the situation was open. I don’t think anyone expects it to be easy, so when it was challenging right away, it was like "We’re prepared for this! " That’s how you figure stuff out.

The real barrier we encountered being up there in the studio with Rob was just the pace was so different than what we’re used to. While we were aware of the fact we were taking on a producer and an engineer, none of us felt like we were going to stop being producers and engineers. Particularly the engineering side of things: it was a different story once we got up there than what we’d been picturing: our input engineering-wise, was essentially limited to what we could communicate verbally and then, in most cases, communicating verbally didn’t seem to move matters along. Once we began to understand the context a little bit better, it got better overall because we realized we were there to focus on things as musicians and get good takes and consider different sounds and try different guitars and explore all these other things that we never have before. And we also, at that point, realized we weren’t going to finish there and eventually we would be home, and any concerns we had about sounds and stuff, we would be fully in control of later. Even go-to tricks, like EQ things, we weren’t encouraged to mess with the sound. And those guys have a whole other school of thought going into this: like they have a means of getting the sounds right away and that’s it. So if it wasn’t cool for us, they didn’t really know how to adapt. They go about getting their sounds to their liking right away, so anything else seemed like further manipulation to them, like a lost language.

We are so much about playing with sounds endlessly all the way to the end. We mixed it ourselves and tracked it ourselves for a couple months after that and it wasn’t hard at all. It was essentially a process of getting rid of so much; they had so many microphones –in some case they had sixteen taken up just for the drum kit–which creates this really huge depth of field and this 3D effect. And whatever defines our taste, that didn’t seem right, so we had to pull back a lot. But it was really easy and when I realized we weren’t going to finish the whole album with these guys like we planned, I stopped worrying about the way things were sounding.

But, in a way that was crutch, a compromise. It’s hard to stay inspired and it’s hard to stay attached to the songs when you can’t hear at least a glimpse of how they need to sound. It was tough, but I will say the relationship between us and those guys stayed really strong and healthy. There was a lot of real responsible communication taking place: it wasn’t like a nightmare situation, it just comes down to the logistics of making the music.  It took some compartmentalization on everyone’s part and realizing why we were all there, so it wasn’t ideal, but in the end, it worked out great because we learned so much. And not only that, but I feel like however many steps we took away from our comfort zone, we ended up back in our comfort zone, which made the record an expression of our ears and our hearts. It’s a good balance in the end.

It must have felt, as I’ve heard other musicians say, liberating  to be in the studio and not worry about the sound and just be able to play. It must have been equally comforting to take those tapes and stat working with them in your usual modus operandi.

I wonder what those guys think about working with us and that experience (laughs). There was a little bit of that thing where we were being perceived as our own worst enemies: are these dudes known for sabotaging their own art (laughs). There’s a little bit of a bumble-headed reputation around our band which is, at once great: there’s real merit about what that says about what we do. But what is also often confusing, and what may have been confusing for these guys, is that we take what we do extremely seriously. It’s everything at that moment and it’s hard to throw yourself into the thing when there is two people so integral to the process and you weren’t sure it was everything to them. But you can’t expect that and we made the best of it.

Essentially what we got out of it was an extremely important aspect of what makes this record what it is for us: a more dynamic rhythm section. We got mostly all of our basic tracks down and that is something we could not have done in our own studio: we don’t have the capability all the compressors and pre-amps, mikes and all that, that can give you a solid live take. Being in our studio and just having that foundation for our songs was great because then anything we added to it had to be sensitive to that. When you had the headphones on, you’re not just laying a track, you’re playing with the band. Every track that went with it was just jamming along with the band, so in a weird way, at this point in time, this was the best thing that could’ve happened for us.

I suppose a year from now you can look back and say you had it planned this way all along.

We might have that insight after having agonized about it, but everybody’s really happy with it right now.

It’s interesting you talk about getting really strong basic tracks because the one thing that has always impressed me about your recordings is that, no matter how complex they’ve gotten (and they’ve gotten pretty complex), there’s always a sense of a band playing music together; oftentimes when musicians get really involved in the production and recording side, it just loses the human feel. You guys have always kept that and, in part, that’s because you have a lighthearted approach to what you’re doing. Yet that doesn’t undermine how seriously you write the songs and how seriously you take what you’re trying to say. It’s been fascinating to watch how you guys have grown over the years: are you yourselves conscious of that growth as recording artists since you started?

There are certain facets to things I can look at and clearly see the difference. In one very huge way, in looking at the making of this last album; what we need to do, what we want to do, what we’re feeling right now, doesn’t have anything to do with anything we’ve done before: there’s some ingredient here we have yet to use and what is that? We threw ourselves in head first abd then sorted it out. 

So in that sense, it’s very clear to me to see this evolution of things. I also gained this sense, sometime around the making of this album, maybe right after-wards, I guess I took the band for granted in a way I hadn’t before, not in a bad way: this is what we do, this is what we’ve been doing. We’re making records based on our own internal logic, we’re making records based on the records we’ve made before, so we’re drawing as much off our own personal history as much as any other artist’s personal history at this point. So we can look at what we do as something substantial. And based on the little bit of work, shows we’ve done since making the record, like the short tour earlier this year, it’s changing and focusing.

It’s like I was saying before about making the album: it’s not only going to change how we make the next album, it’s going to change how we play live. And this album, though it was made essentially to be played live, it has changed how we play live just as it’s changed how we record.I can acknowledge the evolution but it’s a gradual change and so few changes, in the way we play or the way we record, where we stand or what our tours are like, its feels real overt.

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