Dr. Dog

Dr. Dog

Dr. Dog out 7/19/24

For more than two decades, Dr. Dog have maintained a shared devotion to the unruly alchemy of making music. When it came time to create their 11th studio album, the Philadelphia-bred band adopted an entirely new way of working together, embracing a multilayered process designed to foster an even deeper synergy among its five members (bassist Toby Leaman, lead guitarist Scott McMicken, rhythm guitarist Frank McElroy, keyboardist Zach Miller, and drummer Eric Slick). Dr. Dog began their journey with a close-knit session at Leaman’s uncle’s cabin in the Pennsylvania woods, and steadily made their way toward the joyfully unfettered psych-rock of their new self-titled LP. Their first full-length since 2018’s Critical Equation, Dr. Dog reveals a band–over twenty years into their storied career–growing together and evolving, fully committed to the singular work of dreaming up songs that brighten the mind and expand the soul.

Mixed by multi-Grammy-winner Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell, Drive-By Truckers), Dr. Dog finds McMicken taking the helm as producer for the first time in the history of the decidedly egalitarian band. “I moved to Asheville a while back and built a little yard-shed studio that’s changed my whole perspective on music,” he says. “Because you’re in a shed, there’s no pretense that what’s happening is very serious—but over time, that sense of playfulness ends up allowing for more serious things to happen. When we started planning this new album, it felt right to try to merge my universes and make a Dr. Dog record the same way I was making records every day in my backyard.”  

Made in three distinct phases, Dr. Dog first took shape during a five-day stint at the Pennsylvania cabin, where the band recorded live to McMicken’s 8-track tape machine with no rehearsal and no overdubs. “For this record there was an emphasis on creating something very soulful and live-feeling, which meant starting with all of us looking each other in the eye and connecting to the music,” says McMicken. “The idea was, ‘Let’s be loose, let’s not overthink.’ The more you can let go of that fear of being imperfect, the more you open yourself up to deeper expression.” As Leaman points out, that session marked the first time Dr. Dog had gathered for an extended period since 2021, when they announced their decision to retire from touring and limit their live performance to one-off shows. “It felt great to be together again and work on these songs that everyone was excited about, and to do it in a new way that felt so satisfying on so many levels,” he says.

The band tracked nearly two dozen songs at the cabin, and then each member returned home and immersed himself in adding new texture and detail to those free-flowing recordings. “In the past there was a certain pressure that came with executing our individual ideas,” says McMicken. “If, for example, I want to play the same guitar solo 60 different ways to see which feels best, it’s not ideal for the rest of the band to sit there and watch me figure that out. So this time we let everyone further explore the songs at their own speed, in the environment that’s optimal for their own creativity.” Dr. Dog met up again for the third and final phase at their Philadelphia studio, where they reviewed the revised material and finalized each track before rounding out the album with their signature five-part harmonies. “Those harmonies have always been in our DNA, and for this album we chose to record them in that classic way where we all stood around one microphone and sang at the same time,” McMicken recalls.

True to the eclectic spirit that’s always animated the band, Dr. Dog’s 11 tracks shift from soul to surf-rock to symphonic pop with an exuberance made all the more powerful by their revitalized creative energy. On “Love Struck,” the band offers up a tender folk reverie that drifts along at a wonderfully unhurried pace, unfolding in lovely banjo lines and warm background vocals from singer/songwriter M. Ward. “One thing I wanted us to explore with this record was the idea of leaving more space in the music,” says McMicken. “As a rock band we’ve tended to focus on constantly ramping up the tension, but it felt good to bring a more fluid feel to a song like ‘Love Struck.’” On “Talk is Cheap,” Leaman takes the lead and delivers a dreamy psych-pop love song graced with jangling grooves. “It’s a song about my wife and how much I rely on her, how she’s always there for me,” says Leaman. “It’s funny because I’m not a big love-song guy, but everything I wrote on this album is for her.” While McMicken and Leaman have historically shared songwriting duties throughout Dr. Dog’s lifespan, “Tell Your Friends,” in a first, emerged from a composition brought in by Slick: a sweetly nostalgic piece of storytelling the band later adorned with delicate piano work and scratchy beats constructed from a raga-style drum loop. “It’s Eric’s first song on a Dr. Dog album and I immediately loved the beautiful simplicity of it,” says McMicken. “He ended up playing guitar instead of drums, and we decided to present it in a very minimalistic way that seemed to fit with something so catchy and timeless.” 

According to McMicken, creating such an expansive body of work required plenty of intensive communication with his bandmates. “I knew that the music was only going to be as good as the process, and that the process would be defined by our support for one another,” he says. “That meant learning to understand each other in new ways and recognizing how we’ve all evolved, rather than holding onto old ideas of who we used to be. It’s incredibly complex when you’re dealing with four other people who are all growing in different ways, but there’s an undeniably beautiful feeling to expressing yourself freely in the company of others.” To that end, the album’s eponymous title essentially serves as a celebration of Dr. Dog’s camaraderie. “There isn’t really a concept or cohesive idea that unifies this collection of tunes,” says McMicken. “In the end it’s about us being together, doing the work, and showing up as our truest selves.” 

While the making of Dr. Dog in many ways marked a period of profound change for the band, the album also owes much to the resolute self-reliance that’s long defined their creative partnership. “We’ve never been the kind of band to say, ‘What’s the hot new sound? Let’s do that,’” says Leaman. “It’s much more about exploring what excites us, and asking ourselves if what we’re creating makes us happy and makes us proud. As long as we’re staying relevant to ourselves, that’s really all that matters.” And Dr. Dog, by staying true to their own ever-changing fascinations, ultimately hope to provide a certain service to the listener. “I think what drives us to keep growing is the goal of creating those moments of soulfulness within a song, whether that song is deep or sad or goofy or whatever else it might be,” says McMicken. “This record was made of many choices, but they’re all rooted in the understanding that music is such a powerful tool for connection—both with your collaborators, and with all the people who exist on the other side of the speaker.”