Too many bands get caught up in business and forget there’s a reason it’s called “playing.” Philadelphia sextet Dr. Dog set out to embody that spirit with their richly layered psychedelic pop, imbuing it with a bar-band feel and boisterous energy. They lost it some during the recording of their last album, Shame Shame, but rediscover it on their new release, Be the Void, delivering their most rollicking, un-self-conscious rock yet.
Dr. Dog formed in the late ’90s behind two songwriters, bassist Toby Leaman and guitarist Scott McMicken, who sought to create a band unlike any they’d been in up to that point. Childhood friends who’d been playing in bands since their tweens (including one called “‘Tween Friends”), McMicken and Leaman set out to create a more satisfying band experience.
“The idea was that it was going to be a blast,” Leaman explains. “We were in, like, seven other bands between us, and they all had their little problems. Somebody wasn’t into the band, or wanted to go in a different direction, any of that kind of bullshit that always comes up. We decided we were going to focus on being positive and having a good time.”
So it was doubly disappointing when drummer Juston Stens’ interest began to wane prior to the recording of 2010’s Shame Shame. For a band built on its energy, it was like a flat tire, particularly when so much of the writing is collaborative. Everybody in Dr. Dog offers feedback on each others’ parts, whether or not they can play the part. It informs their freewheeling spirit.
“When you feel like you’re putting so much time, energy and effort into something and you’re not really getting that back from the people you’re collaborating with, it’s embarrassing, for one thing. You feel like a chump and that what you’re doing doesn’t have importance,” Leaman says.
It was doubtlessly a tough decision for Stens, who had been in the band for a half-dozen years as they graduated from nobodies to indie buzz band to artists on Epitaph imprint ANTI-, home to Tom Waits, Merle Haggard and DeVotchka. His departure was ultimately for the best. The new drummer, Eric Slick, is a graduate of the Paul Green School of Music, and with his sister, Julie, was part of King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew’s power trio for several years. He’s a tremendously gifted player.
“He’s probably the best musician in the band,” Leaman says. “Eric is really good at coming up with parts. I feel like you get a good drum and bass part and a good vocal lead, and you don’t have to spend a lot of time filling in the gaps.”
One of the more organic songwriting outfits, they’ll try anything in a song, loading them with layer after layer of instrumentation. The result is lush, orchestral warmth—but like someone bundled up for the cold, it doesn’t always move so well, and is hell to re-create live, absent another 25 musicians. The addition of Slick and multi-instrumentalist Dmitri Manos (who re-creates those extra layers live) has contributed to their pursuit of a live sound with less overdubs.
“[When] we overdubbed heavily, a lot of times the rhythm was the last thing to be solidified. So we’re doing all this hyper arranging to get it to sound the way we wanted it to sound, when really what we needed was just for it to move, and I feel that all the stuff on this record does that,” Leaman says. “It’s really a pretty simple record.”
As a result, Be the Void bristles with vibrancy and feels more like being at a party than sitting at a fine restaurant. “Everybody was kind of excited about the fact that it was like the old days,” Leaman says. “You come in and feel really good about the material and really good about where you are as a band, and you just bang it out.”
More than any other Dr. Dog album, this one’s built for performance. Expect them to really “bang it out” this weekend.
w/ Purling Hiss
The Urban Lounge
241 S. 500 East
Saturday, Feb. 4, 9 p.m.