Littered with lo-fi guitar riffs and captivating hooks, Dr. Dog's prolific discography and interminable touring has earned them cult status among their fans. Their live shows are completely riveting, brimming with infectiously catchy choruses. Dr. Dog houses two eclectic songwriters, Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken, who mold each song to their distinctive style.
Their first album, Toothbrush, was released in 2002. Shortly after, they got their first big break when Jim James of My Morning Jacket got wind of the Philadelphia-based band and brought them on tour. Sixteen years later, the band is still pushing themselves out of the box. Their tenth album, Critical Equation, was released in April and is one of their most sonically satisfying records to date.
Dr. Dog recently played at the historic Riviera Theatre in Chicago. Arriving early, I was able catch the band rip through a few songs during soundcheck backstage. There was a new intensity that resonated throughout the soon to be packed venue, preluding one of the best shows I have ever seen from them. For the record, it’s my ninth time seeing them.
After soundcheck, drummer Eric Slick introduced himself and we briefly chatted about a couple previous interviews for the ‘Having a Beer With’ series; Lauren Denitzio of Worriers and Jeff Rosenstock. We bonded over how incredible Rosenstock is, as I had just caught his show the previous weekend at Logan Square Auditorium.
I then met a personal hero of mine, Toby Leaman. Armed with a six-pack of a few Chicago standards, I followed Leaman down to the green room. After a quick run down of the offerings, Leaman went with one of my personal favorites, Apex Predator. Brewed by Off Color Brewery, it’s an herbaceous farmhouse ale that paired especially well with the first truly hot weekend of the year. I indulged in Revolution Brewing’s Fist City, a pale ale that is supremely popular with the locals.
That All Day from Founders has been creeping in pretty heavily, because it’s not super heavy.”
Let’s start with beer. Do you guys have a go-to while on tour?
That All Day from Founders has been creeping in pretty heavily, because it’s not super heavy. Usually we get Sierra [Nevada], just because it’s easy to find and you know what you’re getting.
It’s nice to have something you can find everywhere.
On our riders we use to have it say, ‘Go get us some local beer.’ It’s probably better now, but it was rough. They would just bring it in and say, ‘Here’s some blueberry whatever.’ It comes in a pounder and your just like, ‘Ugh.’ ‘Here’s 11 of those.’ And you're like, ‘No man!’
You guys are from Philadelphia, do you have a favorite local brewery over there?
Tired Hands is so good. It’s in Ardmore, which is right outside of Philly. It’s really hazy, like the style, I think it’s called New England.
Yeah, New England IPA’s! That’s the new thing.
I love it. It’s a real gamechanger.
Who is the coolest person that you’ve ever shared a beer with?
Marc Ribot probably. Yeah that was awesome.
When was that?
We played a show and we asked him to come and sit in for a couple songs. He’s my favorite guitar player of all time. He came and it was awesome. We totally hit it off immediately and he crushed it. It was the most satisfying experience. A hero of yours just comes in and you’re immediately buddy-buddy, yucking it up.
Have you guys ever thought about collaborating with a brewery and doing a Dr. Dog beer?
Dogfish does that all the time. They’re in Delaware, and I live in Delaware too. I always thought those dudes would try to hit us up because they do that all the time, but it hasn’t happened. I just saw they have a [Flaming] Lips one, though.
You guys took a break recently, right after you dropped ‘Abandoned Mansion.’ How paramount was that refresher for the band.
Oh, it was massive. Dimitri [Manos] leaving the band was a real eye opener. He had been playing with us for like seven years and he’s just like, ‘I can’t do it. Im done.’ I was like, ‘Oh, you’re kinda right.’ We were kinda stuck in this stupid situation, where we had recorded Mansions, and then we shelved it, and quickly recorded Psychedelic Swamp. The songs were older songs. You know most the songs we had written like 18 years ago and they’re kinda ridiculous, so you didn’t really feel attached to them. As an album, it totally holds up, but going on tour and playing that was so weird man.
We had all this Mansion stuff that wasn’t out yet, so we didn’t play any of that, and only played like three songs off the Swamp. So it didn’t really feel like we had an album, even though we had two. We were playing the same shit that we had been playing for the other album cycle before that and it just felt really dumb. It felt like we had done something wrong, which I guess we did. We realized we just needed a break. We wanted to still get Mansions out and we were done with our deal with Anti-, so we just started our own record label, We Buy Gold Records.
Speaking of the label change, what sparked that move?
We had done a bunch of records with Anti-, and we still have good relations with them. Once the deal ran out, it was like, ‘Well, what do we really need a label for?’ They were always good to us. They let us do whatever we wanted. The advances were good and stuff like that, but we just wanted to be able to do whatever we wanted even more. For this record, because we didn’t get an advance, we were like, ‘How are we going to make a record with no money?’ So we took out a loan and it was freakin’ genius. It’s like a business loan. You take a business loan out and pay it back when your making money on the road. The masters are yours. It’s genius.
The new album is incredible. It’s definitely one of the my favorites. It’s not dissimilar so much from the other albums, but it does have a different feel to it you know.
Thanks! Yeah, it’s kinda darker, at least to my ear. Thicker and a little meatier.
You guys have been playing together, especially you and Scott, for upwards of, what, 20 years now.
Yeah, longer than that. He and I started playing in 1992. So, however long ago that was, what, like 26 years. And we’ve officially been in Dr. Dog longer than we haven’t—that just happened this year.
What are some of the pros of working with that same group of people creatively for that amount of time?
The pros are you know what everybody’s capable of, and you know who should be doing what and how it should be done. Giving jobs to people, like, ‘Okay, Frank, we need you to write harmony for this’ and, ‘Maybe Zach [Miller] would be better on guitar for this part.’ It was so funny going to Gus’s and, you know, we have all these terms we use and it seems obvious to us what we’re talking about—like, ‘Oh, this is too woody.’ Everyone knows what that means! He kept saying this, oh what was it, it was ‘too horny’. So, if your playing on top of the beat, like if you weren’t behind enough, it’s ‘too horny.’
You guys obviously have a huge amount of respect for one another. Did that respect ever make it difficult to communicate with each other? Did that contribute to the the much-needed break from the band?
There was some interpersonal stuff, but by and large there wasn’t any overwhelming tension. You constantly need to check in with each other and be aware and make sure everybody’s doing alright. We’re pretty good about talking it over. We needed a break from the band, not from each other.
Thelonious Monk, he’s the best. Or Dylan. That’s kinda it. That’s kinda all you need.”
What are some bands you’re listening to currently?
[William Onyeabor] did a reissue of that Onyeabor record. He rules. I think he’s Nigerian. I listen to a lot of African music. I like the psyche stuff, some of the harder funk stuff, and then just kinda the weird stuff. I’m always listening to Floating Action. This guy Seth Kauffman, he’s a buddy of ours. He’s the most underrated dude in all of music right now. He’s so good. He puts an album out like every year and it’s always incredible. I don’t know why he’s just not crushing it; his album is so much better than other music out there.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Modern Jazz Quartet lately. It’s one of those bands I keep going coming back to like every couple years. They’re so cool and understated. It’s like a four-piece orchestra kind of. It’s so subtle and sophisticated, but it still fuckin grooves, ya know. Last night, we were listening to Parliament. When Scott and I were kids, we were big into They Might Be Giants. We loved everything. You could put anything in front of us and we would eat it up—Thelonious Monk, Danzig—literally anything we could get ahold of.
Who's your most influential songwriter?
Probably [Thelonious] Monk, he’s the best. Or Dylan. That’s kinda it. That’s kinda all you need.
I just got into Monk a few years ago and it was one of those where I was like ‘I am way too late for this. I should have been listening to this much earlier.’
Yeah, I got so lucky. My dad was a minister so we grew up in the parsonage. They had rummage sales and whatever didn’t sell would just be put in the garage so I could grab whatever I wanted. I remember there was Criss-Cross and Bridge Over Troubled Water. I was looking at these two records and I was probably like 14. It was so serendipitous. Criss-Cross—that shit is engrained. It blew mind. The songs are so good and the timing is so weird. I was so lucky to get that when I was so young. Right around the same time, my uncle gave me Rain Dogs, that Tom Waits record. He was my man for a long long time. I love Tom Waits.
Thelonious Monk has a beer too!
Yeah! He’s got a red hat on the label I think.
Anything you want your fans to know about the future of the band? Where you’re going from here?
I don’t know what we’re doing. We’ll figure it out. We’re definitely gonna make another record. We have some songs leftover from Gus’s that just didn’t get finished that will probably come out sometime this summer. There’s a lot of material. I’d say we probably have at least twice as much, maybe three times as much stuff already done. So yeah, it will be interesting when we go do our next record if any of the songs come back. Sometimes they come back.