Dr. Dog: Dirty Analog Dreams
“We listened to everything through it,” says Leaman. “Ev-ree-thing. The speakers are a little bit bigger than computer monitor speakers, but they’re so much warmer. That became our basis—if it sounded good through the Fisher, we left it alone.”
Lest a cynical visitor think the boombox is some sort of a plant designed to cadge indie cred points, McMicken gestures to another bit of gear that he calls a “secret weapon”—a ‘60s-vintage Peavey live PA rig that most recording engineers would banish to the broomcloset. “That thing is all over the record, it’s in every song and used in well over half the vocal sounds,” he says. “We used it as a preamp. It’s super-dirty and grimy and has a nice dark reverb built into it.”
“What we have finally discovered,” Leaman chimes in, “is that our palette can’t be obtained the digital way. It took us a while to become fully comfortable with that. I’d say the experimenting we did in this room was key. There was a lot more stretching out on this record. I know jamming is a bad word but that’s what we did…Everybody was into trying crazy things.”
McMicken goes further: “Making this record reminded me of that fearless feeling we had at the very beginning. Coming back here and doing this outside of the official way of making records was totally appealing and exciting to us. We drew on everything we’ve learned, but in this very free way. There were no rules. On one level, it was about returning to our origins and realizing there was something really cool about that spark.”
As on the previous five Dr. Dog albums, both McMicken and Leaman brought in fully formed songs, most of them with finished lyrics. While they share love for giddy, exuberant pop melodies, the two follow wildly different paths as writers: McMicken specializes in tart, astringent songs that tend to peer into the metaphysical abyss, while Leaman favors more straightforward declarative verses. Dr. Dog records work in part because of the balance between these contrasting approaches. A steady diet of either would grow tedious before the end of Side 1.
Be the Void suggests that both tunesmiths have grown considerably since the one-dimension punchlines of the early days. The first single, McMicken’s “That Old Black Hole,” uses upside-down cliches (“time is racing with the clock, and I ain’t getting any older”) to examine what it means to strive; McMicken says the lyrics to that are “me getting as close as I can to the emotional stuff I hide from myself all the time.”
Leaman’s “Vampire” chronicles the exploits of a hurtful lover through a series of tormented vocal snarls. There’s healthy irreverence running throughout, but just about every song has a line or a riff that shows deep respect for rock history. The dramatic “Get Away,” written by Leaman, turns on a proud, head-bobbing wordless vocal theme that sounds like it was airlifted in from a Wings rehearsal circa 1973.
“We both love hooks that are like a massive sledgehammer to the brain,” Leaman says. “When we started, there wasn’t much of that happening, and so we bonded over bands like Ben Folds Five. Our first guitar player Doug (O’Donnell) helped us figure out our own way—he was into bluegrass and The Beach Boys, and he got us into doing the vocal harmony stuff. Back then, it was kind of a novelty. Now, it’s ubiquitous.”
The band wasn’t under any time pressure for Be the Void, but nonetheless work progressed quickly. They’d play through a tune, develop simple arrangements and those distinctive, sometimes widely spaced vocal harmonies, and then, usually with the rhythm section all together, they’d start recording. In two months’ time, Dr. Dog logged 26 completed tracks; they joke that it took longer to agree on the final 12 songs than it did to record them.
“Everybody had one or two they felt it was impossible to leave off,” says McMicken, “and we all lost out to some degree. We thought for a minute about a double album but that seemed too much—there was a sense that the process had been so organic that we needed to just go with the ten or 12 songs that felt right together.”
Leaman credits the two years of touring around Shame Shame with helping sharpen the collective sense of what makes a good Dr. Dog song. “We’ve been doing this for a while now, and we all know what it’s like to play these songs every night for something like 18 months. You get pretty intuitive about the kinds of things that are going to work live. That was a joy of this process: We were sticking to the basics, restraining ourselves from adding tons of layers. There’s still a lot going on, but I think less than on Shame Shame. Just being aware of the live experience in that way helped the songs…we thought about how long certain songs should last, not just in terms of bringing the hook home one more time, but also asking ourselves questions like ‘Do we want to hang out in this zone for another minute?’”
Similarly, Leaman and McMicken paid more attention to the textures and contours of the songs. “We talked a bit about the bands we’ve toured with and learned from, like My Morning Jacket, and how their songs unfold naturally in a way that gets everybody involved,” Leaman says. “We never wanted to be one of those bands that starts a song way up here [puts his hand over his head], and just stays banchee—then there’s no place to go. We went for big dramatic contrasts.”
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Dame shares a song from her new EP Preventions of Heartbreak.
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