Dr. Dog's fifth (and most recent) full-length, 2010's Shame, Shame, shimmers with a Beatles-esque pop zeal but also incorporates classically funky, workmanlike grooves that feel totally out of place in current alt-rock's weirder-is-better landscape. While the band may not have been aware of it at the time of their formation, their soulful sound clearly draws inspiration from their Philadelphia roots.
"I guess for us, kind of superficially, Philly just happened to be where we were," says keyboardist Zach Miller. "We love it here, and Philly has been really great to us. I have no complaints, but when we were just starting out, we didn't have much of an idea of how much history is here in the realm of pop music. When you start to dig around, you realize American Bandstand was here, along with so many of the oldies hits that you hear on the radio and the '70s soul sounds."
That original Philly upbringing also informed the band's ability to, well, be a band. "Philly is a great place to be a band," Miller says. "It's cheap. You're not stacked on top of each other like a lot of people are in New York—there's a lot of old warehouses to find rehearsal space, and it's an incredibly fertile ground for all kinds of really great musicians and really original, talented people."
Besides Miller, the current line-up features vocalist/bassist Toby Leaman, vocalist/lead guitarist Scott McMicken, guitarist Frank McElroy, and drummer Eric Slick. Their early dedication has certainly paid dividends. At this point, they're veterans—Dr. Dog formed in 1999, released their first studio album, Toothbrush, in 2002, and have somehow remained a modestly successful touring and recording act, despite the fragile state of today's music industry. Yet for all their successes, they've never quite broken through to the mainstream, their fanbase somehow split between indie rockers and jam-band followers.
"It's funny, because people started talking about us as a jam band, and I can kinda see that, but when I think about it, we don't really jam at all," Miller says. "Way less than bands that don't have that reputation. Most of the guitar solos are written out. We usually never have a strictly improvisational section."
Instead, Miller considers Dr. Dog a classic pop band. "Today, ‘pop' might be more of a slur in a lot of circles because if you think ‘pop' you think whatever crap's on the radio, and that's not too good," he says. "But in the classic sense, our approach is very song-based and song-conscious, and our approach is really trying to serve the song first as opposed to a more rock 'n' roll approach based on adrenaline and excitement first and the song taking somewhat of a backseat."
When we discuss their sound further, we both arrive at the term "sculpted." And it's definitely true—while the psychedelic grooves and crafted pop hooks on Shame, Shame sound effortless, tight, and professional in the best sense possible, the album's recording was surprisingly rough and slow, according to Miller.
"The idea was to learn and perform the songs more as a live band than we had done—all overdubs from a scratch track," he says. "It was honestly kind of a struggle because that was the first time we'd worked with a producer, and I think we both came into it with incorrect expectations of what it would be like, and we only knew the way we recorded, which is to say the way we record is not the proper way a recording engineer would do it."
But for all their studio tribulations (Miller still fumes about the "big battle" over the recording of Slick's drum parts), Dr. Dog emerged with one of last year's biggest sleepers. Shame, Shame is a small triumph, an album that should raise the band's profile. While they're currently gearing up for a brief U.S. tour, they've spent their recent months planting the initial seeds of a follow-up, working in Atlanta with acclaimed producer Ben Allen (of Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion fame) and Philadelphia producer Brian McTear (on a non-profit recording project called Weathervane), potentially aiming for a fall 2011 release date.
As for Shame, Shame, Miller doesn't seem too worried about living up to any kind of outside hype.
"We still came out with something we really liked and something we considered a success."