Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Dr. Dog Enjoying the Ride


An interview with Zach Miller of Dr. Dog
By Andrew Daniels

It isn’t appropriate - or the slighest bit accurate - to call Dr. Dog Philadelphia’s best kept secret anymore. Not after the last couple of years they’ve had. The classic pop quintet has seen itself skyrocket from the Philly underground to the national conscious at a staggering rate, beginning with the release of Easy Beat in 2005 to last year’s breakthrough, Fate. The band’s accomplishments? Spreads in magazines like Rolling Stone, playing major festivals like Coachella and becoming the go-to band in late night television, to name just a few.

As soon as the guys finish their set at Musikfest in Bethlehem, Pa. on Aug. 3, they’ll travel to New York to record their sixth studio album with producer Rob Schnapf for new label Anti- Records. As organist Zach Miller reveals, things are looking brighter than ever for Dr. Dog.

What are you doing right now? Just taking some time off before heading back out to tour?

Well actually, we’re gonna be recording next. That’s our next big endeavor. We’re going up to Dreamland Studios up in the Catskill Mountains all of August. I think we’re actually heading up there the day after the Musikfest show.

Let’s get to recording in a second, but I kind of wanted to you to start off by talking about the band’s year so far. We’re a little more than halfway through 2009, and it seems that now more than ever, things are at a whirlwind for the band. I wanted to congratulate you on “My Friend” being in the trailer for Funny People. That’s huge.

Thanks, yep, I’ve been seeing a lot of stuff on television about that, and it also looks like a really good movie. I’m psyched about that. I’m not sure how they picked it, but I know that Jonah Hill is a big fan of ours. Obviously he’s in that movie, but I don’t know if he had anything to do with it. They kind of came to us and said, “hey, want to be in the trailer?” And we said sure. [Laughs.] I think there was some money involved, but I don’t really remember how much. It’s kind of weird how subtle the use of the song is. You have to listen for it to hear it. Not to complain or anything, but I’d be surprised if somebody heard that and said, “wow, I have to check that song out.”

For much more with Zach, including details about the new album, the deal with Anti- and which band's break up was "one of the great tragedies of all time," continue reading after the jump.

What else has been going on this year?

Well, we started off in Australia, which was really exciting. Having a summer new year was pretty interesting. We were on tour two days until Christmas until the 11th in Australia with the Black Keys. We played this festival outside of Melbourne called Pyramid Rock on New Year’s Eve. We were actually on stage with the Black Keys for the big countdown. There are only two guys in that band, so they wanted to make it look more like a party. That was kind of an exciting way to ring in the New Year. After that, we did a tour in April, we did the Jimmy Fallon show, which nobody had really done yet. That was the first week of his show, and it was really cool. We followed that up with some pretty good festivals, including Coachella, where I saw Paul McCartney and Ariel Pink, and they were both really awesome. Since then, we’ve just kind of been jetting around. Oh, we actually did a festival in Spain called the Azkena in May. We saw the Zombies, Alice Cooper, Dan from the Black Keys. That was a cool festival because it was only two stages, and nobody was playing while anybody else was playing. Everyone would be down at one end watching a band and then when they were done would turn around and walk down to the other side.

Has all the success that you guys have built up in the last three or four years on a national scale - late night television, spreads in major magazines, playing big festivals - ever overwhelmed or surprised you?

Well, I don’t really feel like our lives have changed that much because of it. We’re not living like rock stars, let’s put it that way. We just work really hard, so it kind of just feels normal to us now. But then when I take a step back and think about what we’ve done, it’s actually pretty incredible. Like, I watch Dave Letterman at night and think, “we were on this show.” So yeah, it’s funny to step outside yourself and look at the whole thing. I don’t know if I feel surprised. I always knew the music was great, from the first time I saw Dr. Dog play before I was in the band to the day I joined. We just put a lot of hard work into it, and a lot of people do know Dr. Dog and will hopefully know us in the future.

I was talking to Sean from Hoots and Hellmouth a few days ago, and he was talking about how the rise of Dr. Dog has significantly contributed to a sort of boom in the Philly scene. There’s now a spotlight on some of the bands and things going on in the city because of your band’s success. Do you agree with that? Are you honored?

We just felt obliged to show everyone these great bands in Philly. For a while there, literally all my favorite bands were bands my friends were in. I did step back and asked myself objectively, “are these bands really just this good or do I just like them because I like the people that are in them?” But no, these bands are amazing. Even if I didn’t know these guys, I’d still think so. When we first got signed to Park The Van, they put out Easy Beat. Toby and Scott had toured with Chris, the owner of the label, before with their first project, Raccoon. Chris was tour managing Racoon as he was starting the label, and he said, “do you know any other bands?” And we gave him a handful of great bands in Philly that are all our favorite bands in the world, like The Teeth, The National Eye and The Capitol Years. It was amazing that none of these bands were on labels or doing anything, so Chris signed them and we quickly became an even more integrated family of bands. Not only are we from the same city, but now also on the same label, which Philly didn’t really have.

Park The Van is based in New Orleans, right? But a lot of the bands are in Philly.

Yeah, well not too long after we signed with them, Chris got flooded out in Katrina. So for 4 or 5 months, he was essentially just kind of wandering around, literally homeless. He had Dr. Dog and The Teeth on his label, and the only thing he had going on was in Philly. At first he got placed in a hotel up here until he found housing, and eventually he found a place in Schwenksville. Last year, he moved back to New Orleans once everything calmed down a bit.

You had mentioned The Teeth, who were pretty beloved around here before they broke up a year or so ago. Two of those guys actually lived in Bethlehem, which I never really appreciated until I realized how great that band was. Do you know what they’re up to now?

One of the great tragedies of all time. Those guys were so, so good and I think they’d just been a band so long and played so many shows. Things were really starting to happen for them, like playing Bonnaroo and all these great opening slots on big tours. For a multitude of reasons, they broke up. I know Peter and Brian had started this band called The Purples. They had some songs up online, but that was a while ago, I’m not sure what they’ve done recently. Someone was talking about bringing them out on the road as their band, I can’t remember who. I hope it doesn’t end with The Teeth. I hope they’ll continue producing music again.

Today is the one year anniversary of the release of Fate. I saw you guys in Rittenhouse Square either during the release week or the week after, and your live set was almost if not all of that record. Clearly you were pretty psyched on the record at the time. Are you still pushing that record as hard on these upcoming dates, or are you gonna focus on new stuff on the fall tour?

We haven’t really played any new songs, except for one that’s actually kind of old. We still play all the Fate tracks except for “Uncovering the Old,” which is one we’ve never really quite mastered live. Everything else we still play every show. Those songs feel more like where we are as a band right now, and I think we play them a lot better than some of the songs we’ve been playing for years and years. So there’s a lot of incentive for us to play those songs.

Let’s get to the new record, then. You’re trekking to the Catskills for this one?

Yep, I think it’s the day after we play up there in Bethlehem. We’re going to Dreamland with Rob Schnapf.

Get out, really? That’s big. How’d you hook up with him?

We were talking about working with a producer in some capacity for this record, and he was one of the names that came up between our manager and a number of people we work with whose opinions we trust. They gave us a list of names and he had reached out to us before as a known fan of the band. He goes to see us every time we’re in L.A. We’d never met him before but during that tour in April, we just went around and met with what must’ve been 8-10 different producers and engineers and he was one of the guys we felt most comfortable with. He felt like one of the guys, super laid back and he knew our songs and was obviously familiar with us. Just seemed like a great guy for the job, and we’re all super psyched about it. I’m really looking forward to it.

This is the first time you guys have used a producer on a record.

Yeah, we wanted to focus on musicality a lot more, because our role right now is we pretty much do everything. We share the studio with Bill Moriarty, who helps us out a lot with mixing and just setting everything up and making sure it’s all working together. But tracking is something we mostly do on our own, and it just gets a little hectic sometimes when you have to go back and forth from your instrument to the board to figure out why it’s not sounding good. You have to have the technical knowledge and then try to put yourself back into the song musically. So I think we all realized that we wanted to focus more on the musicality, and do some more live tracking which we don’t usually do. Ninety percent of our records are just overdubbed. We wanted to have a little more fidelity, too. I think we’ve really come along way from Easy Beat to Fate...there’s a pretty notable gap between those two. Obviously Rob will be running the show from a technical side of things, but it should be more of a collaborative process. We’ve been really used to tracking ourselves, and it’ll be interesting to see how everything plays out.

Is there a particular direction that the songs are going in?

Well, the initial concept is more of directness, I would say. It’s more song-serving arrangements, and maybe not as much orchestration as Fate. There are definitely fewer layers. The more direct approach is what we’ve been talking about lately. But anything could happen. It’s going to be a new experience for us, so there’s a lot of ideas going around.

What kind of timetable are you looking at? An early 2010 release?

Yeah, that’s the plan. We just signed to Anti- Records. We knew that Fate was going to be the last record with Park The Van. They’re a really small label, and I think they’ve done a good job and we’ve been very fortunate to have all the opportunities we’ve had, and we’ve really come a long way on an extremely small label. I mean, they have three people on staff. I think a new label will raise our profile a lot and get the songs out to more people, obviously.

I don’t know how familiar you are with the Lehigh Valley or Musikfest.

My cousins live up there in Allentown, but I know nothing about Musikfest.

It’s an annual 10-day festival spread across several stages in downtown Bethlehem that draws almost a million people a year. You guys are playing on Amerikaplatz, which might be the biggest free stage at the festival, so there will be virtually every kind of music fan in the audience. How do you approach playing shows like these with such diverse crowds?

[Laughs] You’re making me nervous.

Maybe I shouldn’t hype it up like that, but it’s definitely something special.

We don’t normally try and tailor our set to who we think is out there. We just go up there and do what we do, plain and simple, and try to have a good time. If people respond to it, that’s great, but if not, there’s not much else we can do. I do feel like we have pretty wide appeal. We get people who are in their 60s, and then like, toddlers are into it as well. So it’s always nice to hear from somebody who maybe you wouldn’t expect to be a fan come up and say that they liked the show. It feels good to have that cross-cultural appeal.

This might be kind of hard to answer, but is there one song from the Dr. Dog repertoire that best represents the band? Obviously your sound has significantly evolved over the last decade. If I had someone who wanted to check out the Musikfest show and was curious to what you guys sound like, what’s that one song I could go tell them to illegally download?

That’s a really tough one. It would have to be something from Fate. I think maybe “My Friend” would be a good example. It’s got both Toby and Scott singing lead on it, it’s got the harmonies, and it’s got the ambition that we always try to put into the songs. Know what I mean?

Totally. It’s got the two really distinct parts to it, and the ending kind of encapsulates the whole record. That’s a good pick.

Nice, I got the right answer!

Last question. Every review I’ve ever read of the last couple records have gone something like, “Dr. Dog sounds like The Beatles, The Band and The Beach Boys.” It’s all true, and I’m sure that’s flattering to be linked with those giants, but to be honest, those comparisons get boring to read over and over. Who are some lesser known influences that have creeped into your music over the years? Maybe even for the upcoming record?

A very obscure one would be R. Stevie Moore, who’s sort of been a pretty prominent influence in the tastes that we’ve developed. Tom Waits is obviously really awesome. He doesn’t come up a lot as far as a direct reference point. Well, some of Toby’s songs kind of get Tom Waitsy on them. But in terms of guitar sounds, Marc Ribot’s been a huge influence on Scott for years. Recently we’ve been talking about the whole directness angle, which has led us to referencing the Rolling Stones albums a lot, and old soul music, and just in how seemingly simple yet colorful the songs were. If you listen to a Rolling Stones song, it’s guitar, bass and drums, and then one little color instrument. Like the marimba on “Under My Thumb.” That’s definitely going to be an influence on the new one.

You were mentioning some of the bands in Philly as your favorite bands. Have you felt their influence?

Like with The Teeth, they haven’t neccessarily influenced the music but definitely the live show. Just with touring them so much, we had the unenviable task of following them on most shows, and I mean, they were just an incredible live band. I feel like that energy in the room when they were playing was really palpable. You can definitely see the influence when we put more energy into the live show, because they just raised the bar.

Thanks to Zach for talking forever! Catch the band live on its fall tour. Dates are up on Myspace.

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