The Ever-Refining Songcraft of Dr. Dog
Decked in a work shirt rolled up to the elbows, suspenders, and a stocking cap, Toby Leaman often looks like he's just as ready to build a birdhouse as he is to play bass and sing for Philadelphia-bred sunny psychedelic act Dr. Dog. Appropriately, in between tours, he does fix up the house he shares with his wife in nearby Wilmington, Delaware.
"I just put up a fence last week," he says proudly. "I put up a swing. I cut a hole in the ceiling to get to the pipes because there was a leak. I fixed the leak, and then I patched up the ceiling."
Construction work used to be a regular part of Leaman's life prior to Dr. Dog's ever-growing following among a varied clump of rabid fans who might like lo-fi acid rock, jam bands, Robbie Robertson, NPR, or all of the above. Little by little, Leaman, songwriting partner and lead guitarist Scott McMicken, and the rest of the band have grown from a Philly cult band into a Bonnaroo staple by finding a balance between working hard and playing hard.
"When we started the band, the point was for me and Scott to make it a good-time band," Leaman explains. "That's how we wanted to feel. There's an artistic part to it obviously, and that's a huge part of it, but it could be the dumbest thing in the world and we'll do it if it's fun."
Thus, amid the neon sunglasses, stage props resembling the inside of a tiki hut, and even a piñata filled with cigarettes for a Christmas show a couple of years ago in Brooklyn, there's an uncompromising focus on the musicianship. These intricate harmonies, thrilling guitar breaks, and gut-busting sing-alongs really ramped up with the group's 2005 album, Easy Beat, and each release to follow has improved the band's fidelity and craft. Last April, indie powerhouse label Anti- (Tom Waits, Neko Case) released Dr. Dog's fifth studio album, Shame, Shame.
Produced by Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith, Beck), the album bears the mark of typical Dr. Dog whimsical wordplay ("Well, I plan to hit the bottom, the bottle, then the top/And I pray that something quits me before I gotta stop.") with an unmatched warmth and polish from the instruments and their clearest walls of harmonies yet. But there's no downtime for this good-time band.
Later this year, Leaman says, a batch of decidedly more positive tunes he and McMicken have been cranking out are headed for another Dr. Dog release, and they're 99 percent sure Ben Allen is the guy to produce it. Aside from being a fan of the band, "he did that Gnarls Barkley song 'Crazy,' which was the first thing. The bass tone in that song is so good. When that song came out, it blew my lid."
So it could be a funkier ride in the future with a guy who has created music with Cee Lo, Christina Aguilera, and M.I.A. Another important consideration for the future, Leaman says, is changing up that workingman's wardrobe.
"Once the new record comes out, we talked about maybe going straight to suits or something like that," he says. "It would make for an interesting contrast from what we're doing and what we're wearing. I feel like if we're all wearing the same suit, we'll look really sharp."
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