Q&A With Dr. Dog’s Toby Leaman

With a big show and album on the horizon, we get a progress report.

By Elliott Sharp
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 31, 2011

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Toby Leaman

Photo by michael persico

Philly’s Dr. Dog headline this weekend’s WHYY Connections Festival, and head out for a short tour in November. They’re currently working in their Kensington studio on a follow-up to 2010’s critically acclaimed Shame Shame , and this seventh album—tentatively titled These Days—is scheduled for a mid-January release on ANTI-. We caught up with bassist Toby Leaman to get a progress report.

My Morning Jacket played the Mann last week. Jim James was a guest on Shame. Did he stop by to drop something on your new album?

[Laughs.] No, but we were joking about having him come in. Last time it was the exact same situation, though, where we were mixing and he was in town.

I heard you were considering working with producer Ben Allen. That happen?

No. We did a few songs with him that turned out great, but the logistics didn’t work out: It would’ve meant going to Atlanta for the summer. We tried recording away from home last time and it didn’t go very well. Since we’re touring already, we didn’t want to record on the road. Also, it’s our first record with two new members [sixth man Dimitri Manos and drummer Eric Slick], so we wanted to see what we could do on our own with the new lineup. We didn’t want to work within somebody else’s idea of what the band is since it has changed. So we’re working in our studio in Kensington, which we didn’t think we’d do again.

So the Shame experience also led to the decision to do it yourselves?

Definitely. We realized we’re much more comfortable working by ourselves. There’s such a learning curve for even the vocabulary of what you want something to sound like. We all know what we mean when we say “woody” or “cloudy,” but it’s hard to explain that to someone. Also, when we were in Woodstock working on Shame , things were moving too slow. We spent a lot of time waiting around and shooting BB guns and not getting done what we could have.

Is there an album title?

We were gonna call it “Mysteries,” but decided that wasn’t indicative of what was going on while we were making the record, which isn’t very mysterious. Now we’re kicking around “These Days,” so you’ll get the record and it will say “Dr. Dog These Days.” Because it’s what Dr. Dog is doing these days, you know? It’s pretty self-explanatory, actually. [Laughs.]

How many songs did you start with?

We had a ton of stuff going in. We recorded about 25 songs and will mix about 21. We’re in a conundrum right now trying to figure out which songs to keep. I don’t know what to do.

Double LP!

[Laughs.] We were told multiple times “NO DOUBLE LP!” I’m also a firm believer of keeping albums under 40 minutes, but I don’t know what we’re gonna do with this one. They’re all album material. It’s gonna be tough.

What’s one of your favorite songs?

There’s one called “Lonesome” that’s a deconstruction of Hank Williams Sr.’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” But the character in our song’s totally fine. The chorus is like “What does it take to be lonesome?/ Nothing at all,” and each verse is a deconstruction of the Hank’s original words. The third verse is, “The moon can do what he pleases/ He can cry so much he sneezes/ And if a falling star falls from the sky/ I’ll pick up the pieces.”

You’ve been writing with Scott McMicken for 20 years now. How have you both changed as songwriters?

He’s grown exponentially. He has a level of introspection most people may experience but are incapable of verbalizing. He can connect words to emotional experiences that, for most of us, remain vague and unreachable. My words are less jagged and inaccessible. I’ve learned how to cut the fat, and my songs are more structurally sound and friendlier to the ear. There’s much less angst now.

I heard the record’s more upbeat than usual.

Yeah. The making of Shame was such a drag, so the songs we gravitated to were in the mood of, “Oh, I’m fucked.” That was the attitude then, but now I wanna write songs that make me feel good. There’s nothing to gain from singing songs every night that are like, “Oh my god, I’m so confused!” and, “Oh, my life is a mess!” I’d rather play affirming songs. We’ve always written about the ether or the miasma or whatever the fuck you wanna call it, but this one’s certainly sonically more upbeat. There are still some downers that people might not notice until they read the lyrics, and then they’ll be like, “Oh, this guy’s a fucking mess!” [Laughs.]

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