Friday, August 15, 2008

Interview w/ Dr. Dog

Illustration by Darryl Blood

My interview with Scott McMicken of Dr. Dog as published by LA Record:

Dr. Dog is a band out of Philly making music like the Beatles would if they had started recording again in the new millennium. The tightknit outfit has a similarly tightknit group of friends, all of whom share special nicknames within the realm of the band. Scott McMicken (singer/songwriter/guitarist), aka ‘Taxi,’ speaks now with Linda Rapka, proud to now be known in the world of Dr. Dog as ‘Timber.’

Why does every member of Dr. Dog have a nickname starting with the letter T?
Scott McMicken (singer/songwriter/guitarist): You know how whenever you get a bunch of dudes together, everyone has a nickname? It’s kind of in the spirit of that—only it was intentionally made a little bit more obtuse. The key thing has to do with the self-referential, self-indulgent world of Dr. Dog that we involve ourselves with, which is by and large irrelevant to the outside world.

It seems quite a difficult task to limit your nickname to just Ts.
It’s with everything we do. Give yourselves some parameters to work with. That is my obsession. It becomes more a reflection with a sense of honesty and a sense of connection and a sense of purpose that needs no particular type of space to manifest itself. It’s almost easier to see the truth and that aspect of yourself with the more parameters that you give yourself.

What does your nickname ‘Taxi’ mean?
I liked it because when people are like, ‘Oh, I need a taxi’ and a taxi comes around and takes ’em where they gotta go. It’s just kind of like a quiet little helper. The other slight formula that applies to the nickname thing—this is another sort of thing that I see as very prevalent in the Dr. Dog world—you allow yourself a general spirit of openness and playfulness to things, and without being too scathing or self-critical or too full of self-doubt you can let in any kind of absurd idea and then start to add significance or meaning to it whereas it didn’t really come from a point of that. Once we started giving the first couple of people nicknames that start with ‘T,’ we ran with it. Since then I’ve taken the ‘T’ to become a very significant letter and found a lot of ways of making the letter ‘T’ seem significant within the Dr. Dog world. That’s part of the fun in being in control of some processes.

The ‘T’ is actually a tool of empowerment.
This is really the one aspect of my life — this band — that I have total control over. We all do. We can do whatever we want. We can say whatever we want, and we can apply whatever rules we like to the whole thing, and that’s something that I’m really thankful about having in my life. I think that’s why I’m a musician—to sort of give myself that context. But the ‘T’ thing — beyond starting off as an arbitrary sort of thing — the name is supposed to either sound like your name, or then you can sort of pick some word that in a more intangible way represents some aspect of your character or something you might relate with. It’s also just sort of a door prize, like ‘Oh, you like us?’ Or ‘Oh, you wanna join the band? Is this a cool thing for you? Well, we need that, so join us.’

Can I have a nickname?
Absolutely. Being Linda… ‘Tender’ kind of sounds like ‘linder.’ There’s not a whole lot of obvious ones in terms of phonetics. ‘Timber.’ It’s a word obviously used for wood, and they make paper out of wood. And as a journalist you use paper. So that works. Nice. You’re gonna take this with you to your grave.

Do you have a dog?
I think the band name stuck particularly well because we all are dog lovers and have dogs and always have had dogs and dogs are always around. And when you have that kind of respect too, it’s like, why not give a dog a doctorate? My dog—I can’t believe that kind of creature she is. She’s a legitimately inspiring living creature. She deserves a doctorate.

You are often compared to bands of the sixties — especially the Beatles.
It’s not a very conscious thing, but it’s just one layer behind consciousness. I can’t speak for other artists or anything, but I just get the feel that in my extension to other avenues of creativity that I draw from, the one major criteria that I look for in everything that I enjoy comes from some sense of honesty. Some sense of true awareness of the personality behind what I’m witnessing. That’s what brings out aspects of yourself. It’s like this mirror to look into. Fundamentally what I’m looking for is sort of the influencelessness of what I like. However, the aesthetics that go into everything in people’s choices with any parameters, especially with pop music—it’s like you’ve got that 4/4 beat, the 3/4 beat, you’ve got about three minutes and 10 instruments to choose from—obviously the influences come into large play with people’s aesthetic choices and sensibilities and of course what people choose to gravitate toward says a lot about who they are. You draw from the things you connect with most, so influences I find to be as telling and informative about a person as the honesty and originality that they put forth from their heart. So it is just kind of one layer back. Especially in this day and age everything is this stew, and any spoonful can contain any ten different ingredients and it’s all really delicious. That’s just the kind of world we live in. Specifically with this record I was definitely more conscious of trying to piece together elements in my head that I wanted to add to this—in part because going into the record there wasn’t a really strong vision. Within about a week the vision was just like—bursting. In true spirit of the way we work, we just start throwing stuff out and then start reacting to it, and then when we find what works, we inject it with as much meaning and significance as we possibly can. A lot of the inspiriation for the record for me is from us being the engineers and producers of our own record, and I wanted to challenge myself in that side of things. We’ve always recorded with very minimal means because we’ve never really had a whole lot of money or equipment. But slowly, slowly, slowly, as we started borrowing from people, we put together a studio that I felt like could do whatever it was we wanted to do—whatever that may be. I really just wanted to try to bridge the gap sonically. I wanted to try to make a record that sounded like if you go back in time and take the minds out of a studio in 1963 and bring them into a contemporary studio, so that you still had the same fundamental sensibilities and sensitivity and maturity that existed much more naturally in those days because of those limitations—and this again comes back to the value and importance of limitations—but with the technology now. It’s not so much I want to make a record that sounds like it was made in 1963, but I wanted to make a record that sounded like people who were making good records in 1963 would be making now if they were still making records.

What were you most hoping to accomplish with the record?
I wanted to make music that was dance music. But my immediate association with dance music is something that I really don’t appreciate at all. Not club scene, not like indie rock with a disco beat or anything like that, but kind of pulse… dance music not so much for the function of dancing but more as like its really reliable foundations. You get that beat going and in a few seconds you’ve established that this is the place to be and nothing is really going to change all that much. Here you are in the world of this song and there’s that reliable current about it, which is ultimately what makes good dance music. You can sort of let go for a minute, give in to the music, and turn your mind off a little bit. That’s the importance of mindlessness with certain music. It’s for the mind, but it’s for the body, and like David Byrne said, it hits the body way before it hits the mind. That’s the first experience of music, and then beyond that your mind sort of kicks in and attaches it with your emotional experiences or whatever else you associate with the sounds you’re hearing. So I wanted that really steady, steady, steady unchanging beat, but I wanted to combine that not with something that was full of the dancehall, but with something that was very organic and rural and very dissociated from any social implications of dance music. I just pictured being this band that was in the middle. A combination of something very earthbound with something very…. like plastic and dirt together or something. All my sensibilities—just trying to make a little puzzle where you can find the pieces to make a picture. That rural kind of visceral—like this-is-humanity-at-its-essence kind of pop music for me is Tom Waits. The best dance music to me to this day is still forty years old—Motown and oldies and R&B music is the most concise and intelligent and well-stated pop music that I can really find. Those two things really don’t have a ton to do with one another, but in my head I wanted to try and marry my feelings about those things to an extent. I’m not sure I necessarily did it but it was a good aesthetic palette to draw from and switch on and off depending on the moment. It’s definitely something that as a band we’ll try to pursue more.

What do you like about the new record?
Because of the intangible life that the whole thing took on—the parallels that it started to draw between what was going on in my head in the studio to what I am as a man in my life, who I am to my girlfriend, to my best friend, who I am to this neighborhood I live in, or this state or this country or to my family, all those sort of larger things that go on in life—it all just came into one. Everything seemed to be relating in the same ways, and that’s another reason why I’m really happy with the outcome of this album. Because not only do I now have an album that I’m really proud of for us as a band, but I feel as though it definitely helped me to be a better person in a way. And a smarter person. None of it’s this epic scale—like overnight shift in perspective or anything. It’s all kind of subtle things. But it’s because of the subtlety that I trust it more because I know that nothing happens overnight. Not for a band, and not for a human being. To feel those small few changes is just a good sign that you’re kind of growing up a little bit. I definitely feel like the album gave me a little kick out of that. And I didn’t expect that. I don’t expect that out of being in a band necessarily. I do expect it being a songwriter. I don’t have those kind of high standards. I don’t need it to fulfill me on this existential level or anything. It’s just super fun. So for that to happen I’m just really thankful.

One of your former band members went off to become a lawyer. Was there ever a question of whether or not music was the right pursuit for anyone else in the band?
Those are the ones that are not in the band anymore. Those of us who are still in the band—we never had a difficult time confronting that fact. The five of us that are in the band now are pretty secure and know why it is we do this and that will overshadow some of the sacrifices that you make to do it. Because ultimately it’s your dream come true.

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