From the campus of Michigan State University

Impact Chats With... DR. DOG

Recorded at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor on Thursday, April 15th

Nick Van Huis: You guys are from Philadelphia, and usually when bands reach a certain level of fame they tend to defect to bigger cities like L.A. or New York. Has there ever been that temptation for you guys?

Scott McMicken: No. We’re not that kind of people. I think there’s way more than enough going on in Philly for dudes like us. If anything, we would probably be more inclined to leave "the city" altogether. There’s nothing really that compelling to go to like L.A. or New York. We’ve been in the area of Philly so long, we have so many friends and history there that there’s never a shortage of things to do. I think we’re all pretty content in Philly.

NV: I’ve heard you guys give each other nicknames as well as those who are close to the band. What was the inspiration for that and could you clue us in to what some of the nicknames are?

Scott: When we started, we were really into The Residents, and The Residents were a completely anonymous band. Even in the way they looked, nobody really knows who they were. We thought that was a really cool way to approach being in a band, where it didn’t matter who you really were, because you were just something in this band. It was the context that mattered, not the reality of who you really were. Plus, beyond this kind of conceptual thing, it was fun. It’s like starting a club as well as a band. It’s real loose; we don’t actually call each other by that stuff. It’s just a simple way to not put our names on our records, and it’s a good way to include people who offer so much to the band, either in spirit or in the work that they do. It’s just an easy way to say, “you’re one of us.” It’s a gesture more than anything.

NV: What was it like working with an outside producer for the first time?

Scott: It was great. It was really educational. We wanted to go into the process of making an album where we weren’t so heavily involved in every aspect of it. We just wanted to focus on standing in a circle and playing songs together, and let somebody else put all of the microphones around, let somebody else do all that part. That’s exactly what we got to do up there, and we also learned to take it seriously, but in a different way. Not let things slide as much, raise your standards on your own performance and stuff. That has been a whole new direction for us. Whereas We All Belong was an educational record for us in that we just made things in a completely different way, and Fate taught us a lot about how to work that way, I feel like this record is a lot like that for us too. It introduced us to a lot of new ideas, and now I imagine on the next record we will further pursue some of the stuff that we only got to scratch the surface on with Shame, Shame. And a lot of that is thanks to our producer Rob Schnapff who is a really cool dude who, in a very gentle way and a very not controlling way pushed us to be more musician-ly about things.

NV: Your music is very retro, and you guys have admitted your love of classic rock, but it never feels like a rehashing of old ideas. How do you translate your “classic” music leanings into more modern music?

Scott: In the most general sense I feel as though wen I look around at music, and when I look around at the way people talk about it, judge it, criticize it, and the reasons for which people love it as well, I realize that there’s this needless amount of definition thrown onto things. It’s ok to see yourself as part of a tradition and it’s ok to see yourself within a certain set of parameters that have existed long before you were even alive, and then the exciting part becomes finding yourself within those parameters. It’s like when you look at the oldest American music, like gospel and blues, that’s the way music existed in culture for a really long time. There was just this specific form, and you worked within that form to find yourself and your individuality within it. That exists all through modern rock and roll music, pop music, R&B music, hip-hop music and everything. For a long time, I don’t even think that was questioned, but more and more people are start to severing themselves from any sort of historical narrative within music and assume that they can boldly go where no one has gone before, or reinvent the wheel or something. We don’t really think that way. It’s just about being more instinctive, and of course your instincts are so informed by the experiences you’ve had growing up and listening to this certain music. There’s nothing in my mind bad about assimilating that information into your creation. Originality and newness is not about the creation of some alien sound that no one has ever heard before; it really just comes down to an honest expression. If you can be honest and connect to the thing that you are doing in a way that provides you with as much joy as is available to you, then that’s an original moment, an original act.

NV: Also along with the retro feel to your music, there also seems to be a lot of looking back lyrically. For example with “My Old Ways” or “The Old Days.” Is that more of a conscious decision or are the just lyrics?

Scott: I guess it’s both. It’s a conscious thing, but also we have this nostalgia about things that doesn’t manifest itself in any kind of resistance to the way things are. It’s not like this push against the way things are heading necessarily, it’s just an aesthetic thing. There’s a kind of warmth and openness to trying to be undefined by the time that you are in, there’s something freeing about it. In the case of “My Old Ways”, that’s a very personal thing, where I’m talking about the history of my own life. I don’t want to go back to ten years ago in my own life. I’m not talking about the culture or anything like that, but I don’t want to go back to the thing that I was. “The Old Days” is one of those few songs that I have written that I have no idea what it is about at all, it’s just more of a visual thing. I just know that the words feel good and the images feel good. Sometimes writing lyrics can be fun in a purely linguistic way, like with words that physically feel nice coming out of your mouth. Some combination of the words stutter and jumble out like their shoelaces are tied together or something, and other things just slide on out in this exciting kind of way, and you start to really look at the color implicit in words, the syllables, and where the sounds are hard. It’s more of a lyrical thing in the case of “The Old Days”, it’s not a specific commentary on now versus then. In general, I’m sure what is a pretty apparent obsession with the past in this band is, for one, not so narrowed down to the past music. We may be a band and all but there are a lot of things about the past that are warm and inviting ideas for your imagination to run with.

NV: What has the switch from Park The Van to Anti- Records been like?

Scott: It’s been awesome. It’s cool, because we left Park The Van after a long time and there was no bad blood there, no hard feelings about that. Then we went to this label, Anti-, that i feels like Park The Van's big brother, because it’s bigger, they have more people working, and they have more opportunities waiting for us as a band. There’s more they can do with our music and more they can do to help us. But, in general, it all feels very similar. They’re very laid back, they’re not driving us with this commercial notion. All they've asked us to do is to continue what we have proven that we love to do for so long. Since the record has been out it's all been going well and it seems like they are happy with the way things are going. There are a lot of cool people who work there, and those people all know so much about music too. They can tell you all about this stuff you’ve never heard about, and they feel like real music lovers. That’s how Park the Van was too.

NV: How is it having two primary songwriters?

Scott: It’s cool, I love Toby [Leaman]. He and I started writing songs together when we were twelve. There wasn’t a period in my life where I was writing songs and he wasn’t my best friend, so it’s all I really know. If I remove myself from it, I can only definitely affirm my appreciation for it because I don’t think I’d ever want to be in a band where I was the only singer. That seems so crazy to me. I just feel like it’s built into our understanding of making music. He’s going to have songs, I’m going to have songs, and we’re going to be influencing each other. We were making music together the first day we met, and that was more than fifteen years ago. So we’ve been doing this thing together longer than we haven’t, and it’s really hard to detach myself from it. I’m really thankful for Toby as my friend, my brother, and as a musical dude. I owe him a lot. I value and respect his instincts in music so much. I don’t think I’d be where I am now, with my feelings towards music and what songwriting means to me, without him. It’s great, I recommend it to anybody in a band. Find somebody else whom you find some connection with in the realm of songwriting, because it's really helpful.

NV: Essentially, your band is a band with several singers, in regards to the harmonies and such. Do you write out the harmonies or do they just come naturally? Also do you do a lot of vocal workouts before the show?

Scott: More and more, we're doing that stuff. We never used to. We play longer sets now and we put more pressure on ourselves to sound as good as we can now. I still don’t do any vocal exercises but Toby and Frank (McElroy) always go into this room by themselves and sing this little scale over and over again. It’s on my mind all of the time, and I want to learn to treat my voice a little better. We all do. But right when we started playing music, we saw it as just another thing, just another sound on the stage. Everybody’s got a mouth, so make some sound with it. It’s only going to add to things. At the time when we were kids and just getting into music, I never got into the Beach Boys, until college. I always knew the Beatles, but I took it all for granted; I never thought that closely about them. We were really into the idea of having backing vocals. I remember hearing Ben Folds Five for the first time when I had just gotten my driver's license, Toby and I were just driving around and it came on XPN, the station near where we lived in Pennsylvania when we were kids. It was their first album just called Ben Folds Five and that song “Philosophy” came on and we immediately got that album. They were the only band that I knew or I was listening to at that time that had backing vocals, a lot of harmonies and stuff.

NV: A lot is written about Dr. Dog’s “rabid” fanbase. How do you feel about your fans?

Scott: When I hear "rabid", I think negative connotations. I mean, you don’t want rabies, and you don’t want to be around a rabid animal. But our fans are awesome. I love that there’s this certain kind of atmosphere to our shows where anything could happen and the fans are right there with you. They’re loud, they’re yelling, they’re dancing, and that’s kind of what we’re doing too, so you don’t feel as stupid because everyone’s sharing it with you. I think it’s awesome. I don’t know how you could ever complain about a fan, even if they’re asleep in the front row, you know? They’re there, and they brought themselves there, and I appreciate that on any level. A kid told me last night that we were a real inspiration, and I was like, "Man, I know what it’s like to be inspired." It’s a great thing. I know when I’m feeling inspired and I can identify the source of it, I’m just in such awe and admiration for that thing. To be told that you’re on the other side of that is almost difficult to comprehend, but certainly on its most basic level it's really flattering. But if our fans are, in fact, what you call “rabid,” then I’m into it.

NV: Is the song “Mirror, Mirror” off of Shame, Shame about vampires?

Scott: No… But I guess in a way it is. It’s kind of about a soulless state, like feeling a disconnect from yourself. And I guess that’s kind of the deal with a vampire or a zombie Like this human form with a disconnect with the bigger picture or something. It’s not specifically about vampires but there may be some parallels.