Interview With Dr. Dog’s Scott McMicken – The New Psychedelic Part I
Dr. Dog singer/songwriter/guitarist Scott McMicken recently sat down to chat with MT Music Blog for this week’s MC5 . McMicken, aside from a few of his favorite things in Detroit, talked about the band’s always-growing catalog, their ties to psychedelic music and the creation of their own alphabet. The Philly quintet released their sixth studio album Shame, Shame earlier this year and also knocked out a few tracks for this upcoming tour where they head to Pontiac’s Crofoot Ballroom tonight with Here We Go Magic & Prussia. Check it below for the full interview.
MT: I know you guys have opened up for The Raconteurs, and played at The Magic Stick in the past along with a few other venues around Detroit and Ann Arbor. What are some of your favorite things that you associate with coming to Detroit to play a show? What do you like about coming back to Detroit each time?
McMicken: Is Pontiac considered Detroit?
MT: It’d be considered the greater Metro Detroit area. About 20-30 minutes away from downtown.
McMicken: Ahhh gotcha. Well I always like, I dunno have a certain image of Detroit I guess. I like The Magic Stick a lot, I like when we play there we get to go bowling and stuff. My own memories are playing there with Bobby Bare Jr. and Jeffrey Lewis. I like to think about The High Strung [former Park The Van label mates] because they’re from Detroit. Always gets me thinking about lots of Motown music and all that Detroit garage-y rock, The Gories and all that kind of stuff.
I like the feel of Detroit’s history and I like that it seems to somehow, from what I understand about the music, to work with the present state of the city. There’s a sense of urgency behind everything there, I like that a lot. I have a lot family there, so that’s always cool. I used to love the Detroit Tigers a lot when I was a kid. I liked how when we first started going [to Detroit] we were real afraid, because people were telling us that people in Detroit are real hecklers and aggressive, but I like how every time we go it’s not really the case.
MT: We aren’t too bad. Are there any other Detroit musicians that you have been digging lately?
McMicken: I like Jack White a lot. I don’t really listen to much of his music, but I think he’s pretty awesome, he always seems to keep working real hard all the time. Nolan Strong and The Diablos. They are actually the thing I’ve been listening to the most. They kind of slipped through the cracks and just sort of resurfaced as this real gem for me. They’re one of the best things I’ve heard in a long time, I could easily put them at the top of my list of Detroit music. I like Iggy Pop a lot. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t know about, I’m always psyched to find out more about Detroit. I mean of course, the whole phenomenon of Motown music.
MT: did you guys blow out a tire last time leaving Pontiac?
McMicken: We did have a blow out there, and actually I ended up going to the hospital that day too! I went to the emergency room. I had a real weird show because I couldn’t hear anything, I had to have everybody else turn my amp on and adjust the sound and stuff because I had no perspective on sound of things. We were with The Growlers, they were so good.
MT: Yea, they actually were just here at a loft in Mexicantown for another cool little show a few weeks back. Why don’t we talk about your the last two albums you guys have put out. In 2008 there was Fate, and this last year was Shame, Shame your debut on Anti-.
McMicken: Fate seems to have this weird phenomenon around it for a lot of folks, and for sure for own experience. It kind of took on this slightly larger than life air about it, as soon as we started throwing ideas about it. It was wow. Even in our experience making it, the sheer amount of impact it was having on us, and the things we were reacting to seemed as much out of our control as in of our control. There were a lot of things, I don’t mean this in any kind of pious way or anything, it was one of those points in time where things were aligned well enough to be able to be expressed almost without trying. Where we were at, what the songs were about, how we were recording and of course what we were interested in that very particular moment. So to react to particular things and draw them out that will always be a fond document of a period of time for us as well, so it’s cool that it translates to our listeners.
MT: I personally saw a few people fall in love with Dr. Dog on that album served as their introduction to you guys.
McMicken: I’ve felt like that was probably the best like… that album definitely got us going a lot more. Maybe our other albums before that, some people liked them and stuff, but maybe they were a little too inaccessible for some types of listeners. I feel like Fate just kind of came into focus a little more. We’re always learning about the recording process as we record ourselves. Each album we learn how to present things more clearly and concisely. I still really like all the old albums. Probably for a lot of people who don’t really listen to a lot of weirder music or anything, not that it’s the weirdest shit around or anything…but it’s got sort of an air of homespun or a lo-fi take on how to get stuff done. A lot of people probably aren’t maybe used to that, the weird sounds on the voices, the lack of guitars, things like that.
MT: So Fate, like all the albums before it, was mixed and engineered entirely by you guys and on Shame, Shame it was the first time you worked with an engineer and producer?
McMicken: Yea we wanted to try that whole way of doing things finally. We felt like we were ready to try it because we felt like we were getting better as a live band. So we thought we could put the songs together as a live band and then just try to find some real skilled engineers and producers to help us record them in a more live fashion. For all the experience we have making our own records and stuff we don’t really know anything about how to mic up a whole band and get it sounding good live in the studio. It was time to try that. It didn’t work out ideally. In the end, we ended up spending a month doing that…in theory we were supposed to be done in that month, but we were nowhere near done when it came to the end of the month. We spent two more months on our own back at our studio with the tapes trying to do them the way we normally do them. It’s kind of a combination of working with a producer and an engineer for the first time and then having a good solid two months with the tapes all on our own to do our thing. It worked out pretty good as far as just stepping outside of the boundaries of how we typically work for long enough to get some cool basic tracks and also get some new insight on a different way of recording and then kind of go back home and apply that to own type of way of doing things. It was good. It was kind of one foot in the door. It wasn’t a full on success in that way of working. But definitely one step in the right direction, and that’s something that we’ve continued to experiment with and will continue to do into the next record.
MT: So are you looking for another producer/engineer set or back to recording on your own?
McMicken: The plan as it stands is to do it on our own, but not in our own studio. What we realized is that we don’t really need a producer, we just need a really good engineer. We’ve been producing records on our own for so long that there’s no shortage of ideas and no shortage of confidence at this point of how to arrange a tune and put it together. But we just need somebody who’s a better engineer so we can experiment with better/more subtle/richer tones, that’s where our shortcomings are still really prevalent. The next record is where we just recorded 4 songs this summer that were done in a studio in Philly called Minor Street (spelling). It’s run by an old friend of ours and we went in there to try it out and it worked out great. They have great engineers and we were able to be a live band but also experiment with things. It’s a perfect marriage of the old Dr. Dog and the new Dr. Dog. It felt really good, it felt like we could exercise our chops as live musicians with the feel and the groove but also feel free to rip it all apart and experiment with it, just be a lot more playful. Not just 5 guys clicking off and go and there’s your song. We were able to then sort of take it apart or manipulate it a lot which is something we’ve always enjoyed. It was all happening so fast thanks to these really great engineers, so it was kind of perfect. The plan is just to do it there the same way we did these four tunes this summer. There are also so many options, there are definitely still producers we’re still talking to.
MT: You were talking about psychedelic music before, I had read an interview where you had mentioned an accompanying album to go with your first album, The Psychedelic Swamp, which now out of print, is that still in the works?
McMicken: It’s in the works as far as; we’re definitely going to do it. It’s just a matter of time. It wouldn’t be very hard to find the time to do it. It wouldn’t be very hard because what’s required of us to complete it is conceptually built in to be very simple and kind of live rock and roll without any bells and whistles or tricks, without any psychedelia really, that’s the idea. The accompanying record to The Psychedelic Swamp would be a very very straightforward and direct, not psychedelic, translation of the whole garbled psychedelic record into just garage rock basically, that’s sort of the reason of what the whole about is about. It’s kind of a long story behind that record, but in a nutshell the idea behind it is that we didn’t make it. Dr. Dog didn’t make The Psychedelic Swamp. It was sent to us by a character named Phrases, who used to live on Earth, but escaped Earth and escaped all his woes to go to the psychedelic swamp as a means of release from all the troubles he was having in life. Then he gets there and at first he’s really excited and wowed and amazed at the lack of logic and lack of order to the universe. But he shortly thereafter realizes that the same issues and same problems persist. That his choice to just escape reality was not by any means a solution. He starts to get desperate and realizes this mistake he’s made but at the same time he’s spending all this time there and losing perspective on how to communicate with his former self and the former world that he was apart of. So the record becomes increasingly more and more incoherent. But he has this strong message that he really wants to spread to people so he chooses Dr. Dog to be the band to take this album that he’s made, it’s not even like an album, it’s kind of like a document of his experience in the swamp.
MT: At points it feels like a radio show, there’s a DJ leading you through these places.
McMicken: Exactly, it’s kind of this multimedia experience you’re hearing of the psychedelic swampland. You’re hearing what it’s like to listen to the radio there. You’re hearing advertisements. You’re hearing sort of the ambience of him being at work. You’re hearing the news. Yea. A lot of it is interspersed with sort of narrative songs. So he chooses Dr. Dog to translate this mess into an American pop context, so that his message could be heard and understood. So now we just have to do the thing of taking all the songs that are on there and like I said playing them very straightforward and recording them very simply so that they’re not manipulated at all, just straight to the point. When we do that prophecy will be fulfilled, and our job will have been done and we can release it. It seems silly for us to release it before we can do that because it’s a part of the whole concept. Also there are kind of pipe dreams about a movie. If we could ever one day turn it into a movie, that would be so great. Aside from the logistical nightmare of making a movie, it’d be pretty easy. The narrative is all there. In our heads it’s so fleshed out from point A to point B. It’s so visual in how involved we were getting into it at the time, talking about it and watching the story unfold before our very eyes on the 4-track. It’s all kind of there. It would just be a matter of getting involved with people who know about making movies and could help translate it. It’s still a work in progress. It’s something that we definitely still intend to get done one day it just becomes a question of when.
MT: Keeping with the psychedelic weirdness, it seems the first reference points that come to mind when people are talking about Dr. Dog are a the classic rock psychedelic pop three B’s, (The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Band) what are there other artists that influence Dr. Dog that people might not hear right away?
McMicken: There’s so many. It’s interesting I often find myself coming back to this same problem. Obviously I know linguistically what you attach the term psychedelic to, but really in my experience listening to music, you take something like early Pink Floyd or something that is obviously psychedelic music. You listen to it, and you feel a certain way, and you get that kind of joy of that expansive color palette and that strange imaginary and surreal sonic landscape to transport you to some other place while you’re listening. I can get that same sensation listening things that you wouldn’t as easily call psychedelic music. I guess what I’m trying to say the term is really amorphous to me. It’s less a description of a type of sound, or a trend in a particular type of sound and more a type of perspective adopted when listening to music. It can be John Coltrane, it can be Louis Armstrong, it can be James Taylor for Christ sake! If your mind is open and willing to react to the sounds in a proactive way Joan Baez is psychedelic or Dylan. You look at Dylan and his words take you off in places like that. The sounds are so rooted, but the words are so loss-y. So psychedelic as a term for me often has more to do with how I’m listening than what I’m listening to. All that crap being said, there’s so much stuff that has an influence on the band that I guess you could call more psychedelic like R. Stevie Moore, Ariel Pink or even Tom Waits is psychedelic in his own way. He uses this palette of real grounded earthy-ness and raw emotive primitive type of feel, but it’s just as blown out of proportion as Dark Side of The Moon, it’s just as unrealistic. Tom Waits is real great music for your imagination. I always listen to Os Mutantes and feel like they are super psychedelic. Jimi Hendrix being a more classic example. Punk rock is a big influence on the band. The Clash is a big influence, I don’t know if that’s very apparent very often. Some of that kind of the new wave stuff like Television and The Talking Heads come up a lot in my understanding of subtle aspects of our tunes. Hip-hop has a lot to do with what we’ve been doing lately. I don’t know, the band has always been pretty wide open with what influences members want to bring to it. We don’t have a particular direction or course that we have to stay. I’ve been listening to a lot of Wu-Tang and Dr. Dre and there’s such cool atmosphere and tone and the rhythm to the phrasing. This is where all the sudden Wu-Tang has a lot in common with Bob Dylan, just rhythmic phrasing in a vocal performance whether it be a folk song or a modern hip-hop song is super compelling. Really just the application of rhythm to everything, rhythm in the drums, rhythm in the guitar playing. That’s where you can listen to African pop music and get so excited by the full on headstrong devotion to rhythmic feel in every instrument that’s being played and no longer is there just a guitar bashing away to fill space and make it feel large. You can achieve largeness through much smaller level expressions of very refined ideas in rhythm. The biggest thing lately for us has been the pursuit of off rhythms. So that applies to so much stuff, African pop music, oldies music in such a subtle way. If you pick up your instruments and try to play “Goin’ to the Chapel” or something, if you don’t know what you’re doing, even though it’s so simple, you’ll just sound like some white boy ska band or something. It’s all about the looseness and the feel of the ability to be cohesive with one another to make it feel that natural. It turns out that’s so hard. The simplest things are so hard sometimes.
MT: Is there anything else you’ve got planned with this upcoming tour?
McMicken: We’ve got a new double 7” that’ll be at our show. There are four new tunes with a whole new language that we’ve made up. We invented a new alphabet and the whole record is written in the new alphabet that you have to decode and figure out. It’s pretty sweet lookin’. It’s something.
MT: You guys always have some unique hard physical copies of your records.
McMicken: For us that part of the process is always so fun. Coming up with fun ideas and stuff, wherever there’s an outlet of doing some kind of fun idea and playing around with it we always can’t help ourselves.
Oct. 20th 8p.m. Dr. Dog wsg Prussia & Here We Go Magic, The Crofoot Ballroom, Pontiac,
This is the first installment in our multi-part exploration of The New Psychedelic. Look for more from Umphrey’s McGee and their new school of improvisation, Roger Waters’ re-imagining of The Wall, Deadmau5’s epic light set up and (hopefully) Bob Dylan’s time spent back at dueling Michigan colleges. Check back with Metro Times Music Blog as we ramp up to for things to get nice and weird for Halloween.