Dr. Dog: Dirty Analog Dreams
Oddly, the song that they judge to have the most extreme contrasts didn’t make the record. McMicken says the song called “Be the Void” became “just too hard to land,” and was a source of disagreement. He describes the tune as a kind of marathon, with verses that build slowly toward a culminating refrain. “It went from a fairly abstract sprawl into this huge U2-sized hook. And that became a point of contention within the band: ‘Should the hook happen early, making the song more conventional or should it move in this less obvious way with the hook just erupting one time?’ We never resolved that question, and it put the song into a weird place.”
Though most of the material was ready when tracking began, one Be the Void highlight was the outgrowth of an aimless warm-up jam. The band was setting up one day when McMicken started playing a simple idea, almost like a hymn, humming the phrase “How long must I wait” to himself over and over. As the other musicians slowly got behind their instruments, McMicken says that he began half-singing some couplets that he’d written in a notebook weeks before.
“It wasn’t any sort of linear narrative, it was just some lines I found,” he recalls. “They all seemed to have this yearning quality, almost like an old blues. They seemed to want a very simple pattern, chordwise. As we went along, we were all trying to figure out where it should go—I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we need a bridge,’ and then yelling, ‘go to the IV chord!’ because sometimes you have to rely on the fundamentals.”
McMicken says that he was a bit dazed to have created a song in such an unexpected way, and was ready to go back and attempt a proper recording of it when the engineer told him that he’d captured what they just did—there were two active microphones, one pointed at the front door of the studio and another on the bottom of the snare drum. That take became the final version of “How Long Must I Wait.” McMicken says that everyone involved left the studio elated that day: “We’d never done anything like that before. We were all astounded.” ***
Since their early days, Dr. Dog has seemed perpetually on the verge of the breakthrough rock bands dream about. Not long after the initial 2004 release of their second album, Easy Beat, Kelefa Sanneh of The New York Times praised its “off-kilter ballads and light-headed riff-rock” in an article that generated widespread interest from the international music media.
Almost immediately, Dr. Dog became an “it” band. Ever since that initial burst, stories about the band have included predictions that widespread acclaim is just around the corner. This has been an unusual burden. When asked about having to live up to such expectation, McMicken lets out a heavy sigh and simply says “Whatever.” Though Dr. Dog’s heroes include bands known to have toiled in relative obscurity—Guided By Voices, for one—the musicians share a healthy respect for the radio pop of the 1960s and early ‘70s, during a time when commercial success and artistic excellence were not mutually exclusive.
They like the idea of creating songs that people might want to sing along with. Each of the Dr. Dog records contains a few overt (sometimes too obvious) lunges in the direction of an outright pop-rock “hit” and these are usually redeemed by other, more substantial-seeming songs. (Perhaps another measure of the band’s growth: On Be the Void, the distinctions between “light” and “heavy” aren’t so clear. A song like “Over Here, Over There,” might initially repel rock fans with its overweeningly earnest, almost ABBA-like melody, yet winds up offering disarmingly profound insights.)
McMicken says that the band once struggled with those Next Big Thing expectations, but not anymore: “It was pretty crazy there for a while. Every interview people would ask us, “Is this the one?” And, think about it—what can you say that doesn’t sound totally ridiculous? We’re lucky to have a manager who takes the long view and really doesn’t push us; and all of us are more interested in building something that can go for a while.”
He pauses, launching into a meditation on the modern music business and how the definition of “success” is undergoing deep and constant revision. How, he wonders, does an act know when it has “made it” in this climate? His conclusion, after a few minutes of musing aloud, is that the most important thing for an artist is to have clear and meaningful individual goals—his or her own goals, not just sales targets.
“Hey look, for a long time we have been happy to not have day jobs,” he says. “That’s big for us. We never had outrageous expectations; we wanted to keep reaching people and that has happened—every record’s done better than the one before, and we’re playing bigger places. After the last record, we toured in a bus for the first time, not a van. Nice change.
“Mainly, though, we’re comfortable where we’re at,” McMicken continues. “We’re having fun and I think that comes through. We know we’re lucky to play, and we’re pretty diligent about trying to get better, play harder. We get to play what we want, how we want—isn’t that making it?”
Beth Hart shares the opening track from her latest album, Bang Bang Boom Boom, live at Relix.
Jamie Lidell sets up in the Relix boiler room and delivers a tune from his 2005 album Multiply
Duane Trucks is happy to announce his new project, King Lincoln. Watch them perform “Coffee” live and acoustic at Relix’s Online-Video Coordinator’s loft in Williamsburg.
Here’s another song from Crystal Bowersox’s new record All That For This, live at Relix.
WYATT share a song in the famed Relix boiler room.
Goodnight, Texas share a song from their latest studio album, A Long Life of Living, live at Relix.
Warren Haynes performs a solo, acoustic version of “Railroad Boy” and explains how he adapted the traditional Celtic song for Gov’t Mule, backstage at the Hangout Music Festival.
Australia’s Alpine recently made their NYC debut at the Relix office with this song from their new album A is for Alpine.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
Dame shares a song from her new EP Preventions of Heartbreak.
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