My Morning Jacket fell in love with Dr. Dog's sparkling demo and drafted the band for MMJ's East Coast Tour. And that was just the beginning.
Last October Scott McMicken and girlfriend Sharon Curley stood outside the TLA after a My Morning Jacket show. Curley was a longtime fan of the band and had befriended frontman Jim James. When they saw James, they chatted a while and gave him Toothbrush, a demo CD by McMicken's band, Dr. Dog.
"A week later we got this letter in the mail from James that was just up and down with praise all about the CD," says McMicken. "He said it reminded him of falling in love with music for the first time."
"The impression I got is that he was just in love with the sound," says Dr. Dog bassist Toby Leaman, who also played with McMicken for years in Raccoon. "The freshness, I guess, appealed to him."
The letter ended with James asking what he could do to help spread the word about Dr. Dog. "I had no idea what to say," admits McMicken. "Then they just asked us for the tour."
My Morning Jacket, in the midst of promoting its critically adored major label debut It Still Moves, offered Dr. Dog the opening slot for an eight-date East Coast tour. The fact that Dr. Dog was almost completely unknown in Philly--even Raccoon had more name recognition--and had no proper album didn't seem to matter.
"We were signing autographs. People were screaming," says McMicken.
"We were signing guitar picks in Richmond," recalls keyboardist Zach Miller.
"In Richmond, Jim James got onstage and he was like, 'Dr. Dog is the best fucking band in the world!'" laughs Leaman. "And, you know, we're opening for them."
McMicken adds, "He did that just about every night."
Toothbrush was recorded over the course of nearly three years and finished just weeks before it was handed to James. "It was never meant to be an album," says Leaman.
"The songs were compiled from fourth-generation dubs off cassettes," McMicken says. Copies of the CD were burned on Miller's father's computer.
Still, it's easy to hear why James was so enamored of Toothbrush. There's a little folk, blues, indie rock, soul, bluegrass--and a whole lot of down-home harmonizing. It conjures images of old friends sitting on a porch swapping instruments and just letting the tape recorder run. Which, come to think of it, is how people described My Morning Jacket in the beginning.
Billed as "an introduction to Dr. Dog," Toothbrush is certainly more coherent than the sprawling 35-song The Psychedelic Swamp, which dates back to the band's early days in West Chester.
"Scott and I were doing songs for Dr. Dog before Raccoon, during Raccoon and after Raccoon," says Leaman. In Raccoon--which disbanded last year but played a final reunion show a few weeks ago--McMicken and Leaman shared songwriting duties, trading off between guitar and drums.
They still split the songwriting in Dr. Dog, but McMicken plays guitar and Leaman plays bass. Juston Stens plays drums, Zach Miller plays keyboards and Raccoon bassist Andrew Jones recently joined on second guitar.
So what, if anything, makes the two bands different? "Harmonies is a big thing, obviously," says Leaman.
Credit that to Dr. Dog guitarist Doug O'Donnell, who amicably departed after the My Morning Jacket tour to focus on his own long-running band, Doublehorse (formerly known as the Overtones). A serious disciple of bluegrass and the Beach Boys, O'Donnell showed his pals the lost beauty of harmonizing.
"Harmonies are really important to Dr. Dog," says Leaman. "A lot of people who can sing can't sing harmony. That's just something you have to work into. People just don't hear that shit. It takes some getting used to."
Calendar: March 25-April 1
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide