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Constructing a Singular Sound Using Solid-State Amps
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If you’re a fan of Philadelphia breakout band Dr. Dog – particularly their latest album Be The Void, released in February on Anti-Records – there’s a chance that you might have found yourself listening to their music and wondering exactly what it is that you like about them. You know they sound good, but you can’t quite put your finger on why you like their sound.
That isn’t an accident, according to bassist/vocalist Toby Leaman. When recording Be The Void, the band used “a strange era of gear,” as he explains. “It’s solid-state Peaveys from the mid-’70s into the ’80s. Those are not what you would call coveted pieces of gear. But so much of the time, people are looking for that sound, and they just don’t know it.” The band ran all components through solid-state amps that provided a “unique sound,” according to Leaman. In so doing, they were able to avoid “massive, bloated drums that sound completely different from some shrill guitar. We believe in making it a singular tone.”
This technical approach has been borne out of nearly 20 years of Leaman playing with guitarist/vocalist Scott McMicken. The two form the current incarnation of Dr. Dog, along with rhythm guitarist Frank McElroy, keyboardist Zach Miller, drummer Eric Slick and multi-instrumentalist Dmitri Manos. “Part of the band has always been development of the record – the equipment and the gear, we’ve always done it by ourselves. We’ve always thought of ourselves as a recording band and a live band, and those are two things that we can do on our own. And so far, the production value of our records has always been knowledge and gear-based. We certainly have aesthetic things that we’re drawn to, but for the most part, we’re just learning,” Leaman says.
The band chose to self-produce Be The Void, after working with Rob Schnapf to co-produce their 2010 release Shame, Shame. The experimentation with a number of methods of recording and producing has been fundamental to the band’s evolution. “I feel we’re just better at recording because we’ve done it so many ways and so many different places, with different machines and different gear. So the progression of the recordings is just the natural state of affairs after having done it for so long.”
“It would be kind of depressing if each record didn’t sound a little better than the last. It would mean that we were stagnating or doing something wrong. We’ve always been very excited about the recording process.”
This doesn’t mean that the band misses out on the fun of the songwriting and recording process. Leaman penned the first song on Be The Void, “Lonesome.” It came about after he thought of the chorus first: “What does it take to be lonesome?/Nothing at all” and then provided the rest of the lyrics by deconstructing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” According to Leaman, “‘Lonesome’ just kind of happened. I came up with the chorus. It’s funny to me. It’s really obvious – it’s not a joke, but kind of a joke.” After that, he took the imagery of the old Hank Williams, Jr. song and “turned it on its head. I wanted to exemplify how lonesome the guy is, but he’s not having it. He would prefer to just be lonesome on his own terms.”
Along with a progression in their production and recording styles and tactics, the band has been relentless in touring. This summer saw them play Red Rocks along with Wilco and then playing the Susquehanna Bank Center along with The Avett Brothers. Their fall schedule will take them from places from Utopia, Texas to Anchorage, Alaska. They’ll also make a stop in Central Park in New York City and have played the Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon and David Letterman shows. While being critical darlings and having exposure on the national stage is a long way from their beginnings in Philly, the success has come at a slow and steady pace that Leaman is comfortable with. “It’s been so slow for us, there’s never really been a defining moment where we’ve said, ‘We’ve made it.’ We’ve been doing it for years. Every step seems logical. It doesn’t feel fleeting or unreal at all.”
Critics and fans have been unable to pinpoint an appropriate genre for Dr. Dog, and they have been given labels ranging from indie folk to psychedelic rock to Baroque pop (whatever that is). Leaman doesn’t put a lot of stock in labels. “I don’t have to be accountable for how people label us. They come up with a good turn of a phrase and use that to describe the music. I’m OK with just about any description of our music unless I think it’s completely erroneous. We always viewed ourselves as a band that made pop songs.”
In 2009, the band signed to ANTI- Records, marking a departure from Park the Van, the small indie label they had recorded several albums with. Leaman says the jump to a larger label has been mutually beneficial for both the band and the label.
“They take a lot of pride in maintaining artistic integrity. Very high on their list of priorities is keeping an artist true to themselves. So they might have a couple opinions, and they’re not afraid to say them, but they’re just opinions. It doesn’t become a directive.”
The band has no intention to jump to a major label “unless someone offered us a ridiculous amount of money for one record. But we would do that,” Leaman adds with a laugh. “So put that out there: If anyone wants to pay us a shit ton of money for one record, we would do it!”
Assuming no major label steps forward to accept his offer, the band is set to release a new EP comprised of several songs that didn’t make the cut for Be The Void. Leaman also says they might record another installment in their Passed Away series, consisting of a collection of songs that “never really found a home, or never made it out of the demo stage.” Then the band will return to the studio to record another album. According to Leaman, “Our goals used to be to play different things. Now it’s just, ‘When are we going to make the next record, and how are we going to pay for the next tour?’”
photos by Chris Crisman and Nicky Devine