Interview with Dr. Dog bassist Toby Leaman

By | April 4th, 2011 | No Comments

Toby Leaman straining the vocals at the Masquerade in Atlanta. -- photo by Ryan Myers

Touring on their fifth studio album, Shame, Shame, Philly retro-rock quintet Dr. Dog is scheduled to play Culture Room in Ft. Lauderdale on April 15. Whereas plenty of indie rock acts leave South Florida off their tours, Dr. Dog usually pencils in a Ft. Lauderdale date, having played Culture Room in 2009 on their Fate tour and Revolution in 2007 to push We All Belong.

A year after recording Shame, Shame, their first big-studio album under Anti- Records (whose roster includes the likes of Tom Waits, Wilco, and Neko Case), Dr. Dog is already working on material for their next album. I recently spoke to bassist, singer, and co-songwriter Toby Leaman about the growing pains of getting big, coming up in Philly, and why recording the last album was terrifying.

What was the Philly scene like when you guys were growing up?

TL: Well, Scott [McMicken, singer and co-songwriter] and I didn’t move to Philly until about 2000. We grew up about 45 minutes away. There was a college town called Newark that we used to go to, and they had a pretty good scene there when we were kids coming up. It was mainly punk bands in the early to mid-90s. The best band out of there was called Zen Guerillas. A bad ass band. They didn’t break up until 2002, 2003. They were heavy soul and blues with a little bit of speed metal mixed in. It was awesome.

When we moved to Philly, the scene there was pretty tight. All the bands that stuck around Philly incubated there. The old model was if you got kinda good, you moved to New York. That’s what everybody did. But everybody that stayed in Philly was just getting better and better, and there was no one style. There weren’t a million bands that sounded like The Strokes. Everybody sorta did their own thing.

And getting respect in Philly — and I think this is still true — it’s hard-won. Bands have to be pretty good. There’s not what you’d call a “buzz band” that seemingly comes out of nowhere. It’s ingrained in the ethos of the city. Philly views itself as an underdog, being so close to New York. It’s definitely part of the culture of the city that nothing’s free, nothing’s cheap. Whatever respect you get, you earned. And then, once you get to that point, you’re loved forever.

So what’s it like when you play Philly now that you’ve come up as a band?

TL: It’s the best. We get a lot of love. It feels really good because we’ve playing there for 15 years, and to see so many people at our shows now after playing to nobody . . . You know, it built really naturally, and it took a really long time, so it really does feel good.

You mentioned the Zen Guerillas broke up. Do you find that a lot of good bands don’t make it for one reason or another, or does the cream tend to rise?

TL: A little bit of both. I think the cream does definitely rise. It’s hard being in a band, and it’s hard to keep bands together. Even if they’re good. Some people don’t want to tour. Some people have bad attitudes. I think the biggest asset for a band, whether they’re good or not, is resilience and commitment. You’ll get somewhere — you might not get on TV and everything — but you’ll get somewhere by just sticking around. People do get lucky, but the bulk of it is just hard work. And a lot of people aren’t willing to put in the time.

“Shadow People”, the first single off of Shame, Shame

I have to ask you about something. I saw you guys play a show in Chicago in 2009, and I picked up the Fate vinyl, which has this really cool drawing on the cover. I ended up meeting a friend at a bar down the street after the show, and she told me the bartender was the artist —

TL: Yeah, the Rainbow Room maybe?

Yeah, that was it.

TL: Yeah, that’s this guy Ken Ellis. We were in that bar — I can’t remember if we had finished the record or were making the record — and they had all this artwork up on the wall. And we were touring, so we had cash in hand. So I asked him, “Who did all these?” and he said, “I did.” I was like, “Well, fuck – how much?” We just bought it from him right there. It was pretty cool. I love that image too.

I thought my friend was messing with me, but I had the guy sign the cover anyway.

TL: I thought the dude was messing with me too. I was hesitant to hand him cash. I think he showed me his license, and I looked at the name on the picture.

You recorded Fate and the rest of your records on tape. Are you still doing that now that you’re on Anti-?

TL: It’s a mix now. We recorded on tape at first because that was what we could afford. And we like it. We came from working on four-track tape machines, and then we got a Tascam 388 — which is the best. You can’t get a more awesome machine. It’s just the best. It’s eight tracks. We recorded on that forever. We did Easy Beat and Toothbrush on that, and a million other songs.

There’s part of it that’s definitely aesthetic, because there’s a certain amount of natural compression you get from tape that you really can’t get anyway else. When people say tape is warm, that’s what they mean.

So that’s what we knew. But once we started working with other people who had some knowledge, you start to see the possibilities that are there with digital. Especially nowadays. Ten years ago it was totally different, but now the sonic difference [between tape and digital] is barely there. So we’re sorta moving in that direction.

How was the experience of recording in a pro studio for Shame, Shame different than what you were used to?

TL: It was difficult at first. Really difficult. We almost bailed in the first couple of weeks, because we’d never worked with someone before. It didn’t even occur to us that people don’t work the same way, which seems really naïve. But we had a pretty well-defined way of working, and a pretty quick speed too.

We were used to throwing endless shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. But Rob [Schnapf, well known for his work with Elliott Smith] wanted us to frontload everything. “Why would you play a drum and bass track if you know you’re not going to keep it?” Well, because we might want to change it. He thought that was insane. And I guess a lot of people don’t work like that. So that was a huge hurtle to get over. We started to see it his way more, and he started to see it our way more as time went on. It ended up being a pretty good experience, but in the very beginning it was very shaky, very dicey, and terrifying. Because that’s money. It’s not just time — it’s money as well.

We did a lot of things wrong in working with somebody. We’d just never done it before. For a band that has made as many records as us, little shit didn’t seem obvious to us.

What would you do differently?

TL: We probably should have taken a good month or so before we went into the sessions and learned at least some of the songs. You know, the changes, the keys, what we might want to play. I mean, that seems really basic and commonsensical, but that’s never what we did. The only thing written were the chord changes and the melody and the structure. And that’s it. We don’t know the feel. We don’t know what the instrumentation is. And that’s the fun of going into the studio. Here’s the bare bones of the song — now what can we find out about it?

Was it awkward because you guys were used to figuring things out during recording, and now you had people standing around watching you?

TL: There was some of that, and also the speed of it was so slow for us. It was too slow. We’re used to getting it down as fast as possible. If you have one idea, get it down, and go from there. But with them, we would record and then go in and edit, and it would go on and on and on, and there was all this time where it didn’t seem like we were doing anything.

And also it was probably the worst time relationship wise within the band. Even going into the studio, there was a darkness that needed to be addressed. And I think the album reflects that. There’s not what you would call a happy song in the bunch.

What was the darkness?

TL: Our drummer [Justin Stens] was definitely losing interest in the band, and it was becoming apparent. And then when we hit any kind of complications, nobody was in a good state of mind. We just thought we were failing, and it was tough. [Stens ended up leaving the band during the recording of Shame, Shame.]

But we’re totally over that now. We’re the exact opposite of that now. Everybody’s super psyched. I think the next songs for the next record are going to crush. We’re way more confident as a band, and I’m really excited right now. This is the most excited I’ve been since the first time Scott and I started recording.

When I saw you guys in Chicago, one thing that stood out was your singing — it looked painful. It seemed like you were about to tear your vocal chords.

TL: Definitely that happens. Sometimes you tear your vocal chords. Sometimes it is painful. I mean, no one ever taught me how to sing. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I’m just doing what I think sounds good. I’m sure there’s easier ways to do it, but I don’t know ‘em.

I remember thinking, That chord is popping through his neck and it’s about to snap.

TL: Nice. I hope it wasn’t too traumatic. You know, you’re up there in front of people. You’re feeling it. You know, I’d rather being doing that than sandbagging it.

You mentioned the next record — what’s its status?

TL: We’ve already recorded four songs. And they’re great. I love ‘em. I think it’s some of the best stuff we’ve ever done. We’re working with this producer at Atlanta named Ben Allen, who’s done a lot of awesome shit. It’s gonna rule.

When’s it due out?

TL: It’s gonna be a while because our keyboard player’s wife is having a baby in May. We won’t get started recording [the masters] until July, which is kind of a bummer. But it’s going to give us more time to actually do the thing we always said we were going to do, which is learn the songs in advance. Which seems like a no brainer, but it’s new to us.

Dr. Dog plays Culture Room on April 15. You can learn more about it and other upcoming shows on our list of the Top Ten Music Events in April.

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