Keep Your Esophagus Safe

Dr. Dog bring their past-meets-present psychedelic pop to Tucson

Dr. Dog are again on the road, in support of their new album, Fate. The band is riding a wave of buzz created by great albums, a few years of touring with their energetic live show and opening for the likes of My Morning Jacket, Wilco and the Raconteurs.

They were preparing to open this tour when they were hampered by a bizarre tubing accident. It seems Toby Leaman, half of the singer/songwriter core of Dr. Dog, suffered an esophagus injury while being pulled behind a boat in an inner tube along with his wife.

"They hit a wave and bounced and collided, and the back of her head went straight into his esophagus," explains Dr. Dog's other vocalist/songwriter, Scott McMicken, recently reached by phone at his Philadelphia home. "His esophagus got bruised, and it was pushing pressure up against his vocal cords, so he only had the middle one-third of his range." Leaman couldn't sing for the first three-week leg of the tour.

This presented a problem, since Dr. Dog's singing duties are evenly split between Leaman and McMicken. But they're all better now, again able to live up to the reputation they've earned as an innovative band in the studio, and a tight, energetic unit on the stage.

Dr. Dog's kaleidoscopic sonic palette references '60s and '70s psychedelic pop, dusty Americana and '60s three-part harmonies, all while remaining original and contemporary. Their music harkens back to past masters like the Beatles, but is filtered through an indie-pop home-recording ethos.

The band was born from home recordings Leaman and McMicken started making as teenagers, finding their way by themselves and using whatever equipment and instruments they could find. "It has been years of Toby and I living together and writing and making 4-track albums and songs all the time, so there were tons and tons of songs," says McMicken of the hundreds of songs the duo wrote, performed and recorded over roughly a dozen years.

At the same time, they were honing their live skills in a string of Philadelphia bands, the most notable being the art-rock band Raccoon. Dr. Dog existed largely under the radar until McMicken got the guts to give a demo to My Morning Jacket's Jim James before a MMJ show in Philadelphia.

James liked what he heard enough to ask the band to open for My Morning Jacket on an early tour. Leaman and McMicken, who had only played sporadically as Dr. Dog, quickly put together a five-piece band. They also compiled some demo tracks, ran to Kinko's, made some cover art and created their album Toothbrush, in order to have some merch to sell on tour.

Fast-forward a few years, a few albums and numerous tours, and you have Dr. Dog on the rise, getting support from people like Beck and Jeff Tweedy, and garnering plenty of praise from music magazines, tastemaker blogs and word of mouth after standout performances at music fests like SXSW. Their most recent album, Fate, was released in July.

Fate keeps with Dr. Dog's DIY recording ethic, as it was written, performed, engineered and recorded by Leaman, McMicken and the rest of the band (Frank McElroy on guitar and harmony vocals, Juston Stens on drums and harmonies, and Zach Miller on organ) on a 24-track in their Philadelphia home-recording studio. This is their second album on the 24-track, a machine they've worked up to from various smaller devices over the years.

It's a natural follow-up to We All Belong, their amazing 2007 album that is brimming with fractured, impressionistic, psychedelic rock. We All Belong is so melted, so darn trippy, that at first, it might seem a little musically overripe. But upon repeated listenings, the studio adventurousness combines with plentiful hooks and excellent harmonies to create a beautiful psychedelic sandwich of smart songwriting and inspired knob-nerd, home-studio warmth.

Fate is a cleaner, more straightforward and economical recording, showcasing more linear songwriting (for Dr. Dog, anyway) that reins in some of the frayed edges of the band's earlier, more lo-fi music. McMicken attributes the clean economy of Fate to better mastery of better equipment. "It felt like, to me, the tools we were working with were much more tangible. It's like instead of trying to build a house with a bunch of garbage, we were going to use lumber and hammers and nails."

It is also a more cohesive piece, full of other flavors only touched on in the past, including old-school R&B and '70s soul, as well as nicely placed horns and strings that complement the mood. Fate still references the Beatles, the Band, the Beach Boys and others, though it brings in new styles and voices.

Those critical of Dr. Dog's recognizable influences don't seem to understand that it is possible to wear your influences on your sleeve without being derivative, and to innovate within your influences.

The band members seem a little taken aback by all the ink about the Beatles influence: "I mean, yeah, we love the Beatles, but honestly, we don't talk about the Beatles much," says McMicken. "Nobody is looking for every little bit of Beatles information." (However, they have spoken in past interviews about studying The Complete Beatles Recordings Sessions book.)

They also get grief for their name. "I'm self-aware enough to realize that 'Dr. Dog' is a very stupid combination of words--a very lowbrow, childish or foolish kind of name," McMicken says. "I can also see it's more commonly aesthetically tied to hip-hop and jam-band names, two things that we are not.

"But I've also been a fan of so many bands that when I first heard about them, I thought they had an awful name." He goes on to say that once he understood these bands, their music and the context for their names, those names became perfect for the given project." Will this happen for Dr. Dog fans?

"That's my hope," McMicken says with resignation.