TAS Interview: Toby Leaman of Dr. Dog
Philadelphia's own grass roots rockers Dr. Dog released their sixth album Shame, Shame last month and the quintet is currently in the thick of a North American tour. They arrive in New York this Saturday, May 15 to play Terminal 5 with opening act Deer Tick.
The Alternate Side caught up with bassist and co-founder Toby Leaman in Austin - literally in an alley behind a venue - and he revealed what he thinks is part of the band's appeal and longevity. "We've always looked at ourselves sort of romantically as an underdog band," says Leaman. "We've never been hip, we've never had a [hit] single and we've never been part of a scene."
TAS: Is it astonishing to you that Dr. Dog is six albums into their career?
Toby Leaman: No! Not at all. Scott [McMicken], the other guy who writes and sings, and I have been playing together since we were 12 or 13 and we're thirty now. By the time we started recording as Dr. Dog it was kind of like, "well, clearly you and I are going to be doing this forever." So it's no surprise at all.
TAS: You've all literally worked like dogs to make this band work and you've got an incredible grass roots fan base. And this is your first album on Anti- which is huge!
Toby: Oh, it's great! I'm so psyched. When we first knew that we were going to switch labels and started talking to labels, Brian, our manager asked us what kind of labels we wanted to talk to. And I said, "Anti." That was the first label that came up. We talked to a bunch but they were the ones who really made it work and I'm super excited. That label started with Tom Waits and he's one of my favorite [musicians], if not my favorite musician of all time. Everybody who works there is great and I'm super excited for this record. We've been done since November too.
TAS: You've been playing some of the songs on the album for quite a while in performance, yes?
Toby: Not quite a while. The way we work as a band is while the songs for the most part are written and done before we start recording, the bulk of the feel happens when we record. So we don't know what the final life of a song is going to be until we're recorded so we never really play our songs on the road until we've already recorded them. I guess in February was the first time that we toured playing any of the new stuff.
TAS: It feels that there's a certain degree of competence, assurance and dexterity you've achieved with this album, on songs like "Shadow People," for example. What altered for you in the making of the record? Did recording in Woodstock help?
Toby: Well, that had something to do with it - we worked with a guy named Rob Schneff who is an awesome dude. He was very, very particular about our performances, especially vocally. We went in working with a producer mainly [to know] how do other people record? Because we've mainly only recorded ourselves, we don't have any idea what other bands do with producers or how other studios work. We came to learn that we don't work like most bands. I always assumed that people did things the way we did it, but apparently not. We never play live in the studio together. It just never happens because we're still writing and overdubbing and the songs roll and roll. You might get 80 percent through a song and go, "okay, this is where the song's gonna go, let's start over and do everything right and then finish it."
TAS: That's so funny since Dr. Dog is so well-known as a live band. Do you you then take the songs and rebuild another life for them in performance?
Toby: Yeah, we've always been firm believers in the studio being its own entity with all of the records existing in their own place and then live being something different. Songs just continue to grow the more you play them until they sort of hit a wall. And I never like hearing a band that sounds like the recording. I feel that's sort of stupid - if you're just going to sound like your record, what's the point? I mean, just play the record super loud at a venue. Pay for beer or something. So we've always kept it separate. You have those liberties or certain things you can do in a studio that there's no way in hell you can do it live. And the same thing live; there's a certain amount of volume and energy that we've never been able to translate on a studio record.
We thought we were going to try to do that with this record, but it didn't really pan out. We ended up doing it sort of the way we always have.
TAS: But there seems to be a bit more emphasis on guitarwork with the new album? The guitar sounds brighter.
Toby: Oh yeah, well that's Rob. We've always struggled with guitar sounds and we've always been a band where the organ or the piano is going to do chords and the only thing the guitars are going to do is slides or solos. You might not hear the guitar in a song until the solo kicks in. For this record we wanted it to be more like the instrumentation we do live. Whereas it's not necessarily a live record, the instrumentation is evocative of that. Hence there's a lot more guitar and Rob is really good at getting guitar sounds.
TAS: The longevity of Dr. Dog is something that a lot of bands aspire to. What was the best advice as a band you've ever received and what would you advise a young band?
Toby: There was a real conscious effort when Scott and I started this band to be with like-minded guys. By the time Scott and I started this band we'd been playing music together for almost ten years and had been in a million different bands. We thought, we just needed to form a band in which everybody thinks the same way, everyone wants the same thing and everybody has to be willing to do or not do what they can in order to get it. Especially in recording, people might not play on a track and it doesn't matter because the song is done and who cares?
TAS: There's no ego in the band?
Toby: There is ego and it comes up sometimes, but in a healthy way. We're all really good friends too. That's common sense, but you'd be surprised how many bands don't even particularly like each other. I would say that for touring ... we had never toured in our lives and the very first tour we had, we went out with My Morning Jacket. They had just done It Still Moves, it had just come out - I think it came out while we were touring with them. They'd just gotten two new guys in the band. They didn't miss a beat, they worked their asses off and they didn't f**k around. Nobody went up there and half-assed it, no sandbagging, and everybody just played their heart out. There was no foolishness or ego. We saw that and went, that is a working, functioning, awesome band and that's what we aspire to be. No bulls**t, no pretense and just get rid of all that other stuff. If you want to be in the band, be in the band and do the band and if you don't, don't. That's the reality of the situation.
TAS: As a Philadelphia band, do you feel that being out of the tumult of New York helped? You didn't head off to Brooklyn.
Toby: Yeah, I think that's happening less now, where bands go to New York. When we started coming up in Philly, bands would get kind of big and then they'd go to New York. We've always looked at ourselves sort of romantically as an underdog band. We've never been hip, we've never had a [hit] single, we've never been part of a scene. We've just been doing the thing: putting out albums, touring, putting out albums, touring.
It takes a long time to get any sort of love in Philly, but once you get it, that's it! You are in! Sports teams and bands! Philly is not a good city for a touring band because people don't go to shows unless they love the band. People don't go to shows, like New York, because there's a buzz about a band. People in Philly go because they love the music. They're not going to pay $15 for a band they don't love.
The other thing that Philly affords, literally affords, is that it's so much cheaper than living in New York that you can work the most menial job and quit it every time you need to go on tour.
TAS: What was the worst job you've had?
Toby: Oh, I've had a million jobs! I used to deliver flowers, I worked for a moving company, I worked for an upholsterer, restaurants. Any dumb job you can name I probably had it for a period of time.
TAS: If anyone could cover a Dr. Dog song and you could choose the artist and the song, who would it be and what track?
Toby: Wow! I don't know ... one of my idols. I'd like to hear Neil Young cover one of Scott's songs. "Shadow People" would actually be a great song because he could solo, which would rule. It sort of starts off with just acoustic guitar, he could do his "Neil Young thing," rule that. That would be great. I'd love to hear that. There's some songs that we've written, we just love writing, and sometimes we try [to write songs a certain way]. I've written about four or five songs for Tom Waits (laughs). They'll never get put out!
It's funny. The more we tour, the more we work, the more we lose touch with what's going on. Unless you're touring with a band or they come up to you and give you a CD, I really don't know what's going on in music. I feel like I'm always the last to know. We [recently toured] with this band The Growlers. They're freaks! They drive around in a school bus, a bunch of weirdos, and they play this surf rock, not Dick Dale type, and they've got a really cool vibe. Great guys.
TAS: What is one essential thing that you always bring on tour with you?
Toby: I always bring crossword puzzles. The best one is in the New York Times. I've been trying to get the New York Times on our rider but it keeps not happening! It's like five bucks on the west coast, but I think it's doable! That's not asking for much. I just want a crossword puzzle!