What makes Dr. Dog thrive? Friendship, trust and change

By Max Ufberg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 29, 2014

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This doc rocks: Dr. Dog is playing two nights at the Electric Factory this week, with the Districts and Saint Rich.

Scott McMicken, guitarist and vocalist for Dr. Dog, doesn’t shy away from the truth. When asked about the sales of his band’s latest album, last fall’s B-Room, the West Grove, Pennsylvania native answers bluntly: “I guess it’s doing terribly.”

There isn’t a hint of anxiety in McMicken’s voice when he says this. That’s because, as he explains it, album sales aren’t really important to Dr. Dog; they’ve just never been a viable metric for gaging success. “If you go by sales, [B-Room has been] pretty measly. But on tour, our audiences get bigger and bigger,” McMicken tells PW. “A band can’t really gain much of a sense of how they’re doing in very many tangible ways. The sales side of a record is not really a part of the industry anymore.”

This is all relative of course; since forming in 1999, Dr. Dog has headlined WXPN’s XPonential Festival, toured the country with bands like My Morning Jacket and signed with indie powerhouse ANTI- Records. Along the way, they’ve released eight albums, as well as a sonic smorgasbord of demos, EPs and live recordings.

But what’s most fascinating about Dr. Dog, more than all of the many successes, is that at its core, the band still revolves around a friendship some 20 years strong: that of co-founders McMicken and bassist Toby Leaman. The two have been pals since a fateful bus trip to Ellis Island in eighth grade, as McMicken remembers. “That’s when we initially talked a lot. That day after school, I went to my house, got my guitar, went to his house and I played Jimi Hendrix and The Lemonheads.” And while Leaman didn’t play an instrument at the time, McMicken was instantly impressed with his new friend’s innate creativity, illustrated by Leaman’s impromptu attempts at singing. That admiration still holds true today and, according to McMicken, it’s a big part of the band’s success. “[Toby] is the most intuitive, creative person that I’ve ever met,” he says. “He can come up with stuff off the top of his head.”

After recruiting several other musicians, Dr. Dog spent its first few years playing small bars and house parties in Philadelphia, until a then-girlfriend of McMicken’s handed Jim James, frontman of country-rock darlings My Morning Jacket, a homemade CD with some early demos. James was so impressed by the band’s blend of unabashed ‘60s pop with modern psychedelic flavorings, he invited them on tour. That was in 2004. Ten years later, they’re headlining a two-night stand at the Electric Factory.

McMicken says he and Leaman—along with the rest of the band, which has seen several members come and go over the years—have only become more susceptible to change and innovation, a fact best evidenced by B-Room’s overwhelmingly soul-filled aesthetic. “We’ve known each other for so long, you gain a lot of trust through the years,” McMicken says confidently, citing an argument that the two had while recording B-Room as affirmation of their musical, and personal, bond.

“He and I got in this fight over how many songs we were recording. I was like, ‘Let’s just do everything, make a double record.’ He was more like, ‘Let’s think about the 12 best ones and focus on them.’ It was so ugly verbally. He walked away. Five minutes after that, it was completely over,” he says. “That’s a benefit of having a relationship that has been given so much trust over time. You can have a fight and know that it doesn’t actually mean anything.”

This ability to challenge one another musically manifests itself in other ways too, namely the new Dr. Dog recording studio, in nearby Clifton Heights. Up until now, the band had been recording almost exclusively in Kensington. But, as McMicken puts it, it was a good time for change “just to reap the benefits of what a change can bring about.” After a lengthy search, Dr. Dog finally settled on an old warehouse, which they then took to repairing. “For six weeks, we started building. We basically spent our whole recording budget at Home Depot. We wound up falling completely in love with the choice that we had made.” McMicken talks excitedly about the specifics of the new studio, from the nearby woods to the work that the band themselves did to create the space.

It’s obvious that he still gets pumped about music—and also that he still respects his oldest band mate as much as he did on that first bus trip to Ellis Island. That’s the best part about Dr. Dog: contrary to the countless Behind the Music-style tales of betrayal that plague other bands, ultimately, they’re just a few friends having a good time, making music.

Fri., Jan. 31-Sat., Feb. 1. 8:30pm. $27.50. With the Districts (Fri.) + Saint Rich (Sat.) Electric Factory, 421 N. Seventh St. electricfactory.info

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