Q&A: Scott McMicken of Dr. Dog

Q&A: Scott McMicken of Dr. Dog
Photo by Chris Crisman © 2011 | Dr. Dog

Photo by Chris Crisman © 2011 | Dr. Dog

Fayetteville will soon be host to one of the best psych-rock bands out there in the biz.

I’m talking about the Philadelphia, Pa.-based Dr. Dog, who have been making their way through Fayetteville since they first started touring back in the early 2000s. You may have heard their cover of Architecture in Helsinki’s “Heart It Races,” or their underground hits “Shadow People,” “Lonesome” or “Truth.” Maybe not, but you should.

Dr. Dog is led by songwriters Scott McMicken (guitar, vocals) and Toby Leaman (bass, vocals), with Dmitri Manos, Eric Slick, Frank McElroy and Zach Miller composing the rhythm section.

Check out our interview with McMicken about their new album “Psychedelic Swamp” and the secrets to longevity in the music industry:

TFW: So you guys come through Fayetteville about every other year it seems. What’s your take on the Fayetteville vibes? Anything you’re looking forward to about your time here?

McMICKEN: It seems like we get to Arkansas on average once a year, over the past 12 years. Fayetteville in particular has always been a really weirdly supportive place we always look forward to playing. For some reason early on in our touring, there was a noticeable higher level of excitement, like more people than made any sense at that time.

Even from our first trip there, y’know it’s a special place to us, regarding all the places we’ve been. We’ve got this weird history with Fayetteville in particular and we always look forward to going.

TFW: What’s “Psychedelic Swamp” about?

McMICKEN: Ah, where to begin about the Swamp… So in 1999 or 2000,  it was just me and Toby, and Doug O’Donald recorded a tape. It was just the three of us. We weren’t a live band. We weren’t part of a scene. So that meant messing around with a four-track at home and falling in love with patchy, janky psychedelia. It was by no means a real production. It was just us getting weird with a limited set of tools and indulging in this concept of this narrative that was expanding.

We sort of wrote it in a way where the tape we made wasn’t actually made by us but made by this guy who had this story to tell and this lesson he had learned, so he makes this tape and sends it to Dr. Dog, but he can’t really communicate as he’s losing his grasp on reality. So he tells Dr. Dog to take it and transpose his message into American pop music.

We wrote that part of it back into it. It’s close to our hearts and we always figured we’d get back to the concept one day. It’s been hard to do that, but it started to come back when a theatre group in Philly, called Pig Iron, wanted to collaborate with us. They contacted us seeing if we’d be interested in working a piece of theatre with them. We presented them the idea of the Swamp. It had a narrative and a moral to it, and had a main character. They took to it and they were psyched.

Then we decided now is the time to make the rock album version of that old tape and we put the record out a couple months ago. That’s the nutshell. We just sort of revisited the tape and extrapolated on the ideas present in the song and wrote a new 40-minute pop album inspired from that space we were in at the time.

Eventually we’re going to put that tape out. Once people hear that tape, and it’s pretty crazy, I think they’ll better understand this new album. It’s a convoluted story. People tend to assume we remade an album, technically speaking.

TFW: So what was that like collaborating with a younger version of yourself, so to speak?

McMICKEN: Oh totally, it was wild. It was cool. We’ve been doing this for a long time and we’ve evolved and made changes along the way. It was really super fun to have to get back into that head space. What we all realized is how easy it was to do. For as much as things have changed and evolved, for the most part that part of it hasn’t changed since those early days. It was really easy to get into that frame of mind and execute those ideas in all of the newness we’ve experienced in our craft and experienced in general. It was a wonderful way to reach back in time and hold hands with a former self to see the connections and see the ways you’ve evolved since then. It was really inspiring.

Essentially, the swamp is about enjoying yourself and aligning yourself with things that make you happy and feel free. It felt necessary to be that while making the record, while the record was an actual manifestation of that feeling. If you got too bent out of shape, stressed or ego driven or anything, right away you’re completely out of line and you’re irrelevant to the project. It was good psychologically with everyone involved in the project. It was a super good experience for the band.

TFW: What are some of the secrets to keeping a band tight, motivated and creative for as long as you guys have been doing it?

McMICKEN: Y’know, I don’t know. We have very close relationships. None of us met just to make a band. Maybe it’s that. It’s hard to say. Things change over the year, especially traveling and leaving home, that feels different now than it did 10 years ago. That’s a crucial part of it, I guess. It sounds cheesy, but I guess we still care about what we’re doing. The thing that must start to unravel a band is if you maybe lose connection to what you’re doing or if it doesn’t feel as close to you as it once did.

We still love what we do I guess. The more we go on the more that can be done. It feels like with every year there’s more to pursue and more ideas to test and try. We’re a very collaborative group and there’s six of us, so there’s no shortage of ideas. That probably has something to do with our longevity and how we’re able to get along.

I’m not 100 percent sure what’s behind it, but it must be the fact that we’re still enjoying it. I think we were just content to be making music. Eventually, it’s 15 years later and you don’t need a day job anymore and that’s awesome. We’ve never had strong expectations beyond the desire to make music regularly. You can do it no matter what you have or who’s paying attention. When you boil it down it’s a way of life. We’re very fortunate that it’s been supported externally.

TFW: What would you consider some career milestones for Dr. Dog? I remember thinking “Shadow People” was to be your breakout song when I heard it at a GAP store, of all places, one day.

McMICKEN: Every record seems to have a song or two people gravitate to. We’ve never had a radio single, and “Shadow People” is like a hit song for us, even though it was never a hit song. We can look at the numbers for “Shadow People” and see, whoa, it got 10 times as many plays as the others. People aren’t putting on the record and hearing all the songs, they’re picking and choosing what they want to hear. In a way it creates this miniature culture of these are our hit songs, and these other songs are considered more obscure.

Our biggest song is “Heart It Races,” which is just a cover and it’s not on an album. That’s weird. It just points to the fact it comes down to a song by song basis because of the way people listen to music now.

All of this stuff is slowly accumulating over time. Nothing ever felt like a breakthrough. Like “Shadow People.” That’s been slowly culminating over 8 years. That’s kind of our deal, it’s been slowly percolating and functioning. We’re not trying to get anywhere other than where we are. We’ll keep doing what we’re doing, and that’s cause we enjoy it. There’s no feeling or ladder we feel like climbing.

It’s a different kind of time. The idea of the underground is far less relevant. There’s not as much a gap between what’s Top 40 and what’s obscure. In a lot of ways the playing field has been leveled a bit more because people can curate their own pop culture using the Internet. The best case scenario is to build your own little culture around yourself.

It’s this insular weird kind of culture that you can build around your band using your devices now. Most industries are a different mechanism than they were a decade ago. Sometimes it feels like something is being sacrificed, but at the same time it’s clearly a new opportunity for people to have a voice, and that’s wonderful. It’s hard to analyze, but I think in time it will level out.

TFW: What’s the Dr. Dog sound rooted in? It certainly has a timeless vibe to it, with blues and psych rock elements and a good handful of pop. Do you ever catch yourself if you’re writing something that doesn’t necessarily fit the vibe?

McMICKEN: That’s an interesting question, because I think it kind of gets to the heart of the band’s identity. It’s always been a free for all. There’s never been rules so far as what works and what doesn’t or who’s singing and who’s writing. We’ve always enabled ourselves to feel open and free with whatever seems interesting.

We also listen to such a large swath of music that tons of things trickle in to your subconscious. The quality within music is a very amorphous thing. You can feel it in the gnarliest, abstract punk rock music — and right now I’m listing to a gentle French Frank Sinatra-esque lounge singer. It’s there in the entire range from primal dark, guttural noise to gentle. It never felt like we needed to pigeon hole a smaller version of what it is we do. But you do hear our vocal style and 60s influence, for sure.

Tom Waits has been a big influence to us since the beginning like in “The Beach” or “Die Die Die.” That stays pretty prominent, a heavy but organic vibe.

Short answer is, right out of the gates there has never been a strong case of what our identity is. Maybe it’s because we cut our teeth before we were a functioning band. We just recorded and experimented with layering sounds. In that sense it’s not about capturing something it’s about exploring something. We really cut our teeth in that way. The fun and experimental joy of recording is pretty embedded in us.

Dr. Dog @ George’s Majestic Lounge

When: Monday, April 4, doors 7 p.m., event at 8:30 p.m.

Where: George’s Majestic Lounge, 519 W Dickson St., Fayetteville

Tickets: $22 general admission; available at georgesmajesticlounge.com

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