Dr. Dog is a band from Philly that plays some damn good rock music, and they’ve been sharing it with sold out crowds around the globe for the better part of the last 15 years. True to that rough and weird Philly standard, they got their start recording DIY-style in a basement rehearsal space, releasing their lengthy 35-track debut album “The Psychedelic Swamp” before they even played a show. Locals devoured the lo-fi poppy tracks with a 60s rock ethos, showing up in increasing numbers to shows and clearly hungery for more.
Over the next decade Dr. Dog gave them just that, building their career the old fashioned way with killer live shows and grinding the pavement. They released four more albums independently before signing with ANTI records in 2009. The group maintained their independent ethic while utilizing every advantage the big name label had to offer. After three more albums and multiple EP’s, this would prove to be the move that launched them onto the national stage and solidified their place in modern rock history.
Lately Dr. Dog has been missing in action, taking a hiatus after a giant tour while simultaneously recording their newest album “Live at The Flamingo Hotel.” We sat down with guitar player and founding member Toby Leaman to see what the guys have been up to and that they have in store for Santa Cruz this Sunday.
GOOD TIMES: So you guys started off as the band “raccoon” in middle school, which is a pretty sweet band name, and then eventually morphed into Dr. Dog. How did that come about?
TOBY LEAMAN: “Dr. Dog” as a band name was just sort of “fluke”-ish. There was no real intent or message there, just tossing ideas against a wall and seeing what sticks. I realized that I wasn’t playing the music I wanted to play, and I wasn’t in the band I wanted to be in. On top of that we were playing so much and it was kinda too much. We were sort of guitar rock, and we wanted to do something more nuanced, not something so pigeon-holed. So we started Dr. Dog as a recording project so we could do what we wanted, then we put all the tracks together in a limited release. People liked it and we sort of had to form a band from there and figure out how to play the tracks live. It’s funny because usually you get the point where people love your live show so you go record, but we kind of did the exact opposite for Dr. Dog.
GT: What was your first show as a band like?
TL: We were kicking around a lot of ideas in the beginning. We would throw our own shows before we had our first one, even while we were recording. They were more friendly gatherings than shows, mostly at the barn that we practiced in. Our first “real” show was kind of a coffee house deal. We had brought in these TVs and set up all these screens in front of us on the couch with the audience to our back. So while our friend filmed, the audience watched us from behind playing on a couch, while we watched the audience on the TV screens in front of us. Pretty surreal!
GT: You guys have a pretty unique sound. Coming from Philly that’s no surprise, considering it birthed bands like Ween and The Dead Milkmen. What “scene” or sound did you come up in or associate with (if any) growing up?
TL: The scene in Philly was pretty amorphous, and not much has changed. Dead Milkmen and Ween are two big ones that come to mind from growing up for sure. That’s a good example of Philly right there. I mean, what the hell genre are The Dead Milkmen anyway? They would be on hardcore punk show bills when I was a kid. Great stuff. Before we were old enough to play in bars or get our own shows, we would just play with like six bands at a punk show, not because we were punk but because it was the bill we could get on – and most of us were in punk bands early on. Stuff like that is what has always made Philly unique. It’s almost like people are going out of their way not to have a specific scene. No one jumps on a sound bandwagon. There aren’t press mechanisms that want to put everything in a genre. They just stay insulated and get weirder. It’s great.
GT: With 40 shows in four months this tour is a pretty beastly strike, but you guys have been touring together for a long time. How has your road lifestyle changed over the years? What do you guys do to stay sane?
TOBY: It’s a lot better now that we have a bus! That immediately makes things infinitely easier. Sleeping on floors is a young man’s game. If we had to go back to that my head would explode. We maintain sanity fairly well. We’ve always been really aware and focused on who is with us, making sure everybody’s head is in a good spot and we’re all working towards the goal and being friends. That’s what really matters for a good tour.
GT: Your new album is a revisiting of 2001’s “Psychedelic Swamp”. How did the decision to re-do those songs come about? Also, when you guys first started you never did covers as a rule. Did it feel kind of weird to have your first covers essentially be of your past selves?
TL: It was a really interesting process to say the least. It almost felt like we were recording someone else’s songs, and they weren’t super special to us anymore. It was a realization like, now I actually have to deal with these things and figure out what I was trying to say. When you’re writing songs at 19 and looking back 15 years later, everything looks a lot different. I tried to look at them through the filter of how we are now as a band, and you really have carte blanche at that point to do whatever you want with them. Also, it was interesting walking into a recording situation with a precise list of what we have to get done, whereas usually you might have some thirty songs and only twelve make the record.
GT: Besides the revamped tracks, are there any other tricks up your sleeve this tour?
TL: We’ll rotate a set list, but it’s gonna be very heavy on the new record, and probably bring in some older songs that we haven’t been doing. The production for this tour is gonna be really rad. We’re just starting to practice and get the production all built up. I don’t really know how to describe it other than there’s going to be a lot of lights. We’ve built our career on the backs of our live show, so it’s something we always take a lot of pride in. We want everyone who comes out and sees us to have a blast.