[Hummingbird Exclusive Interview]
Scott McMicken finishes a cigarette as roadies mull backstage at Lockn’s Fred Festival. The mid-day lull at a sweltering summer festival is nothing new to the Dr. Dog co-founder.
After twenty years of touring, the motions of the day are habitual. But there is no doubt in McMicken’s mind that he’s on the precipice of uncharted territory. Not only is the day’s impending set Dr. Dog’s first performance in over a year and a half, but it’s also the band’s final appearance before their farewell tour.
Two days prior to Lockn’ was the first time Dr. Dog had seen each other, or played together, since their June 7th announcement of their “Last Tour”.
“The only word [for it] is surreal. It’s a paradoxical kind of feeling. It’s a clash of familiarity and fear of the unknown at the same time,” says McMicken, lounging in the shade of the main stage.
“On the one hand, this very moment feels so foreign. To be doing this thing that is also at the same time so ingrained in our DNA by this point.”
Prior to the pandemic, Dr. Dog hadn’t gone more than a month without playing together since 1998.
In the time since, the group has played 675 shows, everywhere from Coachella to Conan, released ten studio albums, and supplanted themselves as one of the revered live acts in indie rock.
While it’s easy to assume a sixteen month halt in performances was the impetus for Dr. Dog’s resignation from tour life, the decision actually entered the group’s consciousness circa 2018’s album, Critical Equation.
“Going into Critical Equation is when I feel like those ideas started to become clear. I remember thinking for the first time that it wasn’t obvious what I wanted to do.”
For Scott, there had always been a natural flow of creative energy which had Dr. Dog shifting toward new projects, but it felt like “the flow stopped feeling very natural leading into Critical Equation.”
Although McMicken is proud of the resulting product, the process to get there was “hard.” The group had to work through long standing issues with communication between bandmates amidst the tedious task of breaking old musical habits.
The album’s guiding mantra, “Fuck Dr. Dog,” is exemplary of how time wears on a band, both creatively and interpersonally.
“By saying ‘Fuck Dr. Dog,’ I was implying there is a certain level of separating yourself from your own history in order to create a new future for yourself.”
For the band that meant hiring a producer other than old friend Nathan Sabatino and coming to the studio with their songs already practiced and arranged. The departure in identity is evident in tunes like “Listening In,” whose cavernous, maximalist production presents an ominous foil to Dr. Dog’s naturally cathartic spirit.
It’s fitting that Dr. Dog’s swan album is one which looks to further evolve the band’s musical identity. Their catalogue is full of hypnagogic melodies revolving around meditations of time, growth, and the unknown — amounting to a psychedelic ode to the grand trip that is life and it’s liminality.
At the precipice of the end, or at least until further notice, McMicken recalls the beginning of it all with wistful reverie, “I just think of it as so pure.”
It started with bassist Toby Leaman. The pair would write songs in their childhood bedrooms with nothing but guitars, a drum machine, and a tape recorder. The duo and their drum machine called themselves Baseball until they went to college, filled out their lineup, and became Dr. Dog.
From there they spent weekends holed up in then-drummer Ted Mark’s family barn. Wedged between the wafting smell of a Herz Chip factory, a Wawa, and sprawling cow pastures, the band would play all night, then pass out next to their instruments in sleeping bags.
It was around this time when they recorded the demo intended to be their first release, The Psychedelic Swamp.
Fueled by pot smoke and Wawa turkey hoagies, the concept album told the tale of a wizard named Phrases, who retreated into the psychedelic swamp to hide from his troubles, only to realize the longer he stayed, the more he fractilized into nothingness.
The story goes, realizing he was doomed, Phrases frantically transmitted the album to the young members of Dr. Dog so they could spread his message to the masses via an epic rock album.
“His message,” says McMicken, “was don’t run from your problems, tackle them head on. You can’t hide in the swamp, you can’t escape, you got to deal with shit.”
For McMicken, it isn’t like Dr. Dog lost it’s creative purity, but it grew-up with the members as individuals. The same can be said for their live act, he says. When the band got their first break opening for My Morning Jacket in 2004, the sound was scrappy and bombastic, fueled by sheer adrenaline.
“It felt like the ethos was like, ‘get in there, you have like twenty-five minutes, make a mark and get out.’”
As they released more music, their style would continue to refine. Each album added a new focus to the older tunes, and each new member contributed a new sonic dimension.
In 2010, drummer Erik Slick brought with him a tighter pocket. In 2012, Dimitri Manos bequeathed the band a psychedelic and improvisational edge. Now, Michael Libramento is helping expand the live show’s textural presence playing lap steel, percussion, bass and whatever else is placed in his hand.
McMicken explained Dr. Dog has always challenged themselves to be more subtle and intimate in shows, not losing the manic vibe which defined their youth, but consciously working to expand their dynamic range.
He chuckles, “You begin to appreciate the spaces in between the notes and stuff. Yeah, that’s the classic trope of getting old.”
While the decision to take a step back had to do partially with a feeling of reaching a musical saturation point of sorts, a large part of the decision dealt with the members’ individual lives.
“When we started, home was wherever we were,” says McMicken, “[now] people got kids and people’s idea of their home means something so different now than it did twenty years ago.”
The band’s most recent space between notes, the sixteen months between their last show and Lockn’, gave each member time to appreciate and imagine what life would be like without touring.
The time away was a final confirmation of something they had been discussing even before the pandemic hit. It was time to put Dr. Dog on the shelf for a while.
The easy option for Dr. Dog would be to keep trodding a path they’ve already worn. Plenty of bands do it; continue to ring-out half-baked albums even though the project is spent, sleepwalk through their tours, collect their checks, and remain unfulfilled — but that would be retreating to the swamp.
Sometimes the biggest challenge is to walk away and be okay with leaving.
With the decision made, Scott says the band’s reunion two days prior to Lockn’ had them brimming with excitement and ideas for the upcoming tour.
“We were thinking about the whole tour as a celebration of the entire catalog of music. So we’re trying to be able to play, like, everything basically.” says McMicken.
The group modeled the idea after a four-night stand they played at the Independent in San Francisco. The residency was some of the final dates they played before COVID, and throughout the stand Dr. Dog didn’t repeat a single song. Scott hinted at attempting the same feat for their final five night stand in Philadelphia.
But old songs aren’t the only thing returning to the stage for the Last Tour. After a few years of using stage lights, the group decided to take one final hardware store mega-haul to build their stage set like old times.
A Dr. Dog tradition, set building has produced many funny-looking-back-on-it memories over the years. The Psychedelic Swamp set sticks out in McMicken’s mind for the hours he spent in a narrow hallway trying to put a masking tape grid on a carpet which was leagues larger than the corridor they were working in.
It’s also funny to think McMicken wouldn’t have been sweating his ass off the night before the tour, had it not been for a happenstance turn of events. The Psychedelic Swamp reboot kept being placed on the back-burner until a friend’s experimental theater troupe, Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company, approached the band with a grant.
“The nature of the grant was to encourage them to collaborate with someone outside of their wheelhouse. They thought of us and said ‘Let’s do a rock and roll thing!’”
It just so happens the Swamp was the perfect story for a theatrical adaptation. The one issue was that the band had just finished recording their album Abandoned Mansions, and to fulfill the grant they needed to record the Swamp as soon as possible.
McMicken explained earlier in the conversation that signing onto another album is no small task, once you commit it’s a two year process between recording, promoting, and touring. But having waited fifteen-odd years to release their scrapped debut, they signed-on.
Bringing Phrase’s psychedelic message to the masses actually paid more dividends than a check off the career to-do list. Instead of signing on for another two years with Abandoned Mansions, the band decided to release it on Bandcamp. No ads, no record company, and no commitments.
“It was kind of a cool experiment because we realized, like, we don’t have to do that. At this point, we have our audience built-in enough where we can just put a record out like that.” says McMicken.
So a “super chill” release from Dr. Dog may be in the cards years down the line, but for now they’re just focused on their last waltz around the country. After that, Scott McMicken feels his time needs to be spent at home with family, writing and recording music for his solo projects.
While the past year has been imbued with general uncertainty, knowing it’s the end of a formative chapter of their lives has given way to a moment of solace and appreciation for the members of Dr. Dog — a living reminder that some of the most unprecedented changes in life can provide room for its biggest clarities.
Looking back at all the time spent playing music with his closest friends, Scott McMicken describes it as “joy, pure joy.”
A big thanks to Scott for taking the time to chat with the Hummingbird! Bellow you can find Dr. Dog’s socials, Band Camp, and Last Tour schedule so you can catch them before time runs out!