Dr. Dog's Scott McMicken and Zach Miller on Shame, Shame and More: Interview on The Sound of Young America

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Show: 
Bullseye
Guests: 
Dr. Dog

Zach Miller and Scott McMicken are members of the Philadelphia band Dr. Dog. Their music synthesizes the sounds of the 1960s and 70s with contemporary influences, and they've built a major following over the past ten years. Their latest album is Shame, Shame.

JESSE THORN: It’s the sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guests are Scott McMicken and Zach Miller, members of the band Dr. Dog. They’re a lovely, friendly, happy feeling; although sometimes sad lyricized band from Philadelphia. Their new album is called Shame, Shame. Let’s hear one of the singles from the record, “Stranger.”
Scott, Zach, welcome to the Sound of Young America. It’s great to have you here.
ZACH MILLER: Thanks for having us, Jesse.
SCOTT McMICKEN: Thanks for having us.

Click Here For a Full Transcript of Our Interview.

JESSE THORN:So tell me a little bit -- I know that you, Scott, were deeply engaged in the origins of this band, which go back farther than the band actually existed. Tell me a little bit about that.
SM:Well, it took a long time to get it even to be what you could even call a band, but what I will say about the many years before that, and I'm talking about really starting in 1994 or 1995. I remember there was a point when Toby and I became friends, I'm 32 he'll be 31, we became friends when we were about 12. That friendship was born out of, "Oh, you play guitar? I love that fact, you should come over," and I'd go over to his house and play guitar and he'd sing, and then within about month he had a bass; and so our friendship began around playing music.
Once he got that bass we would just play every day together all the time, and what was hilarious about it in retrospect now is that it was so difficult. We practiced more in ninth grade than we ever have now, as far as kind of having a disciplined regimented practicing schedule. We practiced everyday and worked so hard on it to seemingly no satisfaction. I think the thing we were blessed with as kids was just at least knowing we were no good; that we were awful. We kept going and playing, but we were kids. We didn't know what we were doing; we didn't know how to write songs. We were just kind of grabbing styles and mutilating them. But we knew it, so I think that's what separated us from the other kids.
There was always this tone that, and it was as vague as I'm about to describe it even then, that there was an ideal situation for us, and we're gonna find it, we're gonna get there and it's gonna rule. It's going to be everything we want; it's going to be everything we've wanted to hear in music. We didn't know what those things were; we weren't coherent enough to lay out what that meant, we just knew that it waited for us. We lived in that kind of state of confusion about it all through high school, and then when we got to college it took an entirely different turn where so many people all of a sudden became apart of it; it went from just the two of us with a drum machine in a small town in Chester County, Pennsylvania to going to West Chester, Pennsylvania and meeting people, and then suddenly the band had ten people in it.
It sort of stayed that way until about 2003 or 2004 when we got asked to go on our first tour, and when we were asked to go on our first tour that's when all the pieces fell into place. People who wanted to really be in the band now that it meant going on tour and traveling would, and those that weren't really in it for that reason would stop. That really helped organize the structure of the membership of the band, at least, and who played what and what instruments were being used and everything.
It was a long, slow, gradual development paralleled the entire time with what I would call an excess amount of confidence about what ultimately was to come. That was what it offered even when it had nothing to offer was the security of a dream, essentially. We are the best, we're the best band in the world, and nobody knows who we are, and the less people that know that the better. That was the thinking in those times.
JT:So your goal even as teenagers, even in 1994, it wasn't we need to learn really well these two songs from Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magic or from Nevermind, you already had a vision of being something in the future?
SM:Yeah, but just in the most vague and general sense. We had no actual vision. We just knew that we loved what we were doing and we knew that we weren't very good at it, and we knew that because we loved what we were doing we were going to continue to be very good at it, and one day we would be able to actualize some sort of -- we could dare to have a vision at one point, because then we'd know how to put it forth.
JT:You grew up in a place that was sort of on the rural side of suburban. Did you get out of town with the idea that we're gonna go and we're gonna start a band and we're gonna be rock and roll guys with our lives?
SM:That certainly ended up being what happened, but it never was with that design. We left Chester County and went to West Chester University because it seemed like a good place to go to school, and close, and all of our friends from high school were going there. We all went up there and got ourselves a big house. So it was a natural continuation of our lifestyle from high school to West Chester, 30 minutes up the road, the same group of people, we were all playing music together.
We had a basement full of instruments and recording equipment; sort of lived that way all through college making music all the time. We even had a barn out in Nottingham, Penssylvania that was our first drummer Ted's --Ted's parents owned a lot of property and one of these properties had a barn and they turned it over to Ted, so we turned it into this amazing place where we'd go every weekend and spend the whole weekend playing, and then when we got out of college we all moved to Philly sort of for the same reason. Again, it wasn't like, well, here I go beginning my life as a rock and roll guy, but that was essentially what happened. We just washed dishes and recorded every night and then one day we were asked to go on tour, and since then we've been able to sustain our lives by doing that. So inadvertently we just have been living 100% and fully committed to the rock and roll.
JT:Zach, how and when did you join this party?
ZM:I first saw Dr. Dog at a show they were having at that barn, and it was one of the greatest shows I'd ever seen. They had a swing and all these sticks up in the rafters, and it was this whole clubhouse kind of vibe.
JT:Did you say all these sticks up in the rafters? Like drum sticks, or just stick sticks?
ZM:Just sticks and branches, right?
SM:Tons of branches.
JT: You guys are saying that as though every rock and roll barn has branches up in the ceiling.
SM:They don't? My apartment is currently full of branches. You guys take it for granted.
ZM:Yeah, I guess it just seems normal now, but maybe…Anyways, I saw that show and talked to and met most of the guys in the band that night, and then I would just see them around town. I was a huge fan from the first note. It was amazing. It was one of the best shows I've ever seen.
JT:What did you like about the band?
ZM:Well up until that point I didn't think anybody was making good music anymore and that classic rock days were over, and I really hadn't heard any good bands or people writing songs like that. So I was immediately struck by just how songs stuck in my head and it seemed like they were songs that I had already heard before, there was just an instant familiarity, which I think with any good song you immediately latch onto it; and I felt that way about every song that I heard that night. It was quite a revelation to me, because I grew up in a very sheltered artistically, culturally area for the most part. I didn't even know indie rock existed until I went to college. I just had no idea because nobody ever played or nobody ever would know bands or anything where I was. It was just a real game changer for me, I was like, wow, people are actually out there writing awesome songs again.
Then that opened up a whole door into this world and it's been great. I've met a lot of really great musicians and artists, it's been awesome
JT:It's The Sound of Young America, I'm Jesse Thorn. My guests are Scott McMicken and Zach Miller of the band Dr. Dog. Let's hear the title track of their new record Shame, Shame.
Scott, you mentioned that the band relocated to Philadelphia just as it was becoming a proper band. You stayed in Philadelphia, which is not always the case for bands in Philly. I think the siren call of New York City just a couple hours away is enough to draw a lot of bands out of Philadelphia. Tell me about what you liked about Philadelphia as a place when you moved there, besides that it was just the nearest major city.
SM:So many things just as a citizen of Philadelphia and a musician within it. As a musician, especially when we started -- Philly is such an interesting town historically and musically because there's so much music that you can associate with Philadelphia and you can walk the streets and hear story after story about this is where this happened and this is how this happened and this is where these guys are from and everything. But prior to really moving there and focusing on that it's not like the city as an outsider had this big identity around it as representing a particular part of the history of music necessarily. The Philly soul sound and a lot of hip hop for sure rises to the top --
JT:I was going to say I can't imagine that you moved to Philadelphia because you wanted to collaborate with Beanie Sigel.
SM:No, I bought ice cream from his ice cream trucks and that was as much as he and I needed to work on anything. I think when you go there -- immediately we met tons of musicians; immediately we realized where to go to hear good music, what the good music was, all the various ways in which you could experience it form touring bands. When you're coming from a small town the luxury of touring bands running through your town every weekend was a big change. The ability to see all these bands that you always hear about was a big change, and then from that on down to things like punk shows in warehouses and arty noise shows in basements and all this sort of thing, you quickly realize there was in fact a lot of music going on there and it felt good to be a part of that because it felt like nothing -- the first thing I noticed was, and maybe this is a way in which we tend to operate, but by contrast it's like, We're Dr. Dog because nobody else is. We don't really see ourselves as a part of a musical scene of any sort, both in Philly or otherwise, but naturally were someone to say, "Oh, Dr. Dog, they're part of this whole deal that's going on in music", I could understand that.
From the inside we tend to latch on to more of a certain sense of self as a band that is more isolated and ideally the underdog story, because that's always how we've been; we've always been the underdog. And now we're out there and people know who we are, but there's still ways in which you can rearrange where the band has come to be through this point and call it successful, but at the same time call it the underdog story. I think just as a strategy that inspires us; that helps us. For the kinds of music we grew up listening to and the sorts of artists that we tend to appreciate the most, it serves our purposes to view ourselves as outside of everything else.
JT:From the perspective of a non-Philadelphian, that seems like a Philly thing, to see yourself as the underdog. That seems like one of the great prides of Philadelphia.
SM:Yeah, and that's what I was hoping to swing it around to. There's that feeling in Philly, as a citizen of Philly, with sports, with the local community, everything just seems to exist on its own merits. Nothing is getting enhanced because of the certain reputation or a certain instant coolness that comes along with it or anything like that. It feels really down to earth yet at the same time really broad; really wide array of experiences inside the city and a wide array of different things going on. The longer I live there the more I realize I'm just scratching the surface.
I've been there 11 years now, and in the last six months -- and I've been in West Philadelphia 11 years, and in the last six months my whole concept of that part of the city has radically changed due to new people I've met and new things I find myself involved with. This is happening in the same streets that I've lived in for ten years, but my whole sense of the environment has changed, and you realize that the longer you live there the more it unfolds into all of these different things. Nothing is ever, in West Philly in particular, ever narrowed to one -- there's so many different kinds of folks, and everyone is so in your face. Where you hang out, all kinds of different folks hang out, and everybody's really social. You just take a walk -- it's something I'm aware of now. You just take a walk and I know that by the time I get back home I'm going to have some sort of story to tell my cousin, who I live with, or whoever's home. It's aggressive. It's aggressive, and therefore you're forced into a lot of different ways of looking at things through this wide array of different folks that live there. I don't know, that's inspiring.
I don't know what else we'd be looking for, as a band, like why we'd move to New York. It's affordable, we have so much history there, we have so much friends and family there, that not only has it, as we progress as a band, turned our wandering eye to New York, but the longer time goes by the less likely anything like that is ever going to happen just because we're getting deeper and deeper into the city that we live in and love. It's a wonderful place to live.
JT:I want to play this song from the new album called "Shadow People." From what I understand, it's a little bit about that sense of place. Maybe you guys could tell me a little bit about this record before we play it.
SM:Sure, that song is exactly -- kind of what I'm talking about. It takes a particular slant on the neighborhood; it was a particular kind of night, kind of a dark night. It was a heavy night; it was humid; it was a summer night; it was raining; everything just seemed like it was sweating. The whole world just seemed like it was sweating, and it was dark. And my neighborhood at that point smelled real bad. There was a Chinese restaurant, and so when it would rain the sidewalks, all the oil -- there would just be oil slicks on the sidewalk, and garbage.
I lived at a particular juncture of a couple of streets with a lot going on. Different houses, lots of foot traffic, and definitely lots of characters, every day characters. And I just wasn't having it. I didn't want to be there at that point in time. So that's where this song was born out of. A not so pleasant take on the neighborhood. But again, with anything in song writing, and I don't know if we'll get more into song writing itself or something, but taking that unpleasant angle through song writing can oftentimes offer, for me, a way past it. So what felt like a really heavy and sort of morbid night, after having written that song took on a new kind of cartoonish look about it, and then I suddenly felt like I understood the context that I was in better, and that I had achieved something in my way of looking at it, assessing it, and expressing it in a way that came back to me in order to change the initial notion itself.
I just said it because it's not some sort of dirge; it's not this horrible song about a place I hate or anything like that. Just that West Philly does have that grime and grit and that intrusive aspect about it, too. This song certainly was born out of that.
JT:Let's hear it. This is "Shadow People" from my guest Dr. Dog and their new album Shame, Shame.
So you guys have always, or at least until recently, recorded your own music. Starting with a four track machine, or something like that? An eight track machine?
SM:Yeah, four tracks is where we got started with that.
JT:Tell me about why -- I can understand why as a young band you buy a four track off of Craigslist or something like that, or at the Goodwill, and you just want to get your stuff down on record. Why did you commit yourself so much to that as a band? What did you like about having that home studio, do it yourself approach, rather than about the idea of writing and rehearsing a group of songs and then going into a studio and recording them?
SM:I think it really all began -- it's interesting, because the band began, I could say, as a four track recording thing. Any sense of what the band was was due to the recordings we were making on a four track, not due to what this group of people was getting around and coming up with as their sound, so it was like necessity really. For Toby and I all through high school being best friends and playing music every day and at the same rate not really finding anybody else who it seemed like worth letting them in on that, we were two guys and a drum machine so the four track offered us the opportunity to actually invent the sound of band that we didn't really have.
And then, of course, when you get involved with that, the craft of it and the experimentation of it and all of that takes over and the thrill of it is born, and it's self perpetuating because doing it is so fun. It's like seeing yourself on TV or something. Like seeing yourself in another context coming back to you in a way that you're typically only used to experiencing and not be included in. To hear music you make come out of the speakers for the first time when normally that's this sacred moment of taking in some other thing, which to you makes no sense in reality.
JT:It's the same speakers that The Beatles or Jimmy Hendrix come out of, that's you coming out of.
SM:Exactly. It changes everything for you as a listener and as a music maker. So that's where we were able to exercise a lot of our passion as young musicians was through the four track, because we didn't have a band; we didn't know where to go to play shows. There was no context for us whatsoever except the four track.
And then as you get older and get into weirder and weirder music that was all doing it the same way we were anyway, so that just became doubly inspiring and kept us going with that. Like Stevie Moore and lots of the home taping type stuff. Then also realizing historically the recording technology of 40 or 50 years ago or on back farther than that, compared to now. Learning more about that made you realize that these things, four tracks and this type of thing, they're not limiting at all. They just are what they are. You can approach them with that same attitude of I'm going to make this as good as it possibly can be, and then you set your parameters differently and it doesn't feel like a compromise. It never felt like we have this little tape machine because we're poor, but what we want is a state of the art studio for a month and a producer. It didn't even factor in. There were no limitations despite the obvious limitations.
JT:Do you think it shaped who you were as a band? That you were working through this medium, so to speak?
SM:Definitely. Like I said before about that underdog thing, too, and what I've come to understand in more refined ways as we've gone on as a band is parameters and the liberating powers of understanding your parameters. That's the essence of music, I really believe. How many different men or women have sat down, one individual, one acoustic guitar, and that's it, and what variety has been born out of that.
Pigeon holing things even down to the tightest corner still can obviously produce such an infinite array of possibilities; that becomes really exciting to think about when making music. We use that in our process all the time. We'll say, We're going in to record this song, there's a weird Peavey mixing board from 1964 that looks awesome but probably sounds awful, and no matter what everything on this track is going to go through that. We're going to define our process right now by this thing. If you just commit to it and understand your context and do the best you can within that, it's an achievement comparable to doing that very same thing within a far more high-tech scenario. Seeing that lesson in song writing and recording and performing has been one of the things that's still the most propelling thing about being involved in music. Realizing that you can continue to strip more and more away, and you're not narrowing the reach or the capacity of what you can express by any means. You can give yourself one string and half the alphabet and you can still shock yourself with what's available inside there.
ZM:It makes you focus really on what's essential, because you can't say, We have all these tracks and all this space to noodle and put whatever on there. You kind of have to say, What is this Part about? Or what does this -- does it need three guitars? It really makes you hone in on what's the essence of the part, and I think that's really formed how we've approached being a live band, too. We try to make the parts very concise and important. I think that definitely came from those limitations of only having four tracks and eventually eight tracks and then twenty-four tracks. By the time we had accumulated all these tracks we kind of already knew how to handle and knew how to think about them, so I think that was a really important learning process.
JT:Is there a song from your first couple of records that you recorded on that four track that we could play that either you're particularly proud of, or you think is emblematic in some way of the value that that process gave you?
SM:Yeah. Easy Beat, which I think is often seen as our first album, because it was the first one put out on a label, was all done on a quarter-inch eight track machine in Zach's basement in West Philly, which coincidentally had been at one time where The Dead Milkmen had lived. It was pretty awesome, we moved in there and there was all this leftover stuff from The Town Manager's, the band they started after Dead Milk Men. So that was interesting, Easy Beat was recorded in the house where The Dead Milkmen lived.
JT:Since then you've moved into the house where Daryl Hall lived from Hall & Oates.
SM:Yeah, movin on up! But there's an album before Easy Beat called Toothbrush, and it's self-released, even to this day -- well, no I guess Park the Van puts that out.
ZM:Oh, yeah, I guess they do now.
SM:But the whole thing is four track. So really anything off of Toothbrush -- I'm trying to think of --
ZM:Well there was some eight track on Toothbrush, right?
SM:Oh, yeah, you're right.
JT:Well, pick a favorite.
SM:You could play "Heaven", the last track on Toothbrush.
JT:Let's hear "Heaven" from Dr. Dog and their album Toothbrush.
It's The Sound of Young America, I'm Jesse Thorn. My guests are Scott McMicken and Zach Miller of the band Dr. Dog. We were talking about you guys being such a self contained unit, and when you recorded your most recent record Shame, Shame, you went out and hired a real live record producer to help you shape this new album. First of all, after DIYing for so many years, what led you to that decision that you wanted to bring in another voice into that process?
SM:Definitely governed by the fact that despite how I kind of laid out the history of the band being one of, essentially, experimental recording process, it had obviously reached a point to all of us that those days were over and that we were a live band now. Going into making Shame, Shame was the first time that that was really apparent. Up until that point, even though we'd been touring six years pretty heavily, every time it came recording time it was easy to flip the switch and go back to, Okay, forget about live music, go back that weird zone of overdubbing and everything. We understood recording to be a more expressionistic process rather than one of capturing some sound that we felt as though we had.
That was different going in to Shame, Shame. I guess we just crossed that line where we got way too much going on in the realm of our live show and what that feels like to be playing -- to ignore when it's time to record now. Realizing that made it obvious that we needed help, because though we have recorded ourselves for more than a decade, none of it has ever been to capture a live recording or to really capture the subtlety and nuance of a good performance; it had never been about that. So we don't know how to do that. We don't know how to do that; we don't have the technology to do that, so it became obvious that we needed somebody with some experience to help us, to show us how it's done. We didn't go into it like, "Now we enter the age of having a producer." We don't need to produce -- we're playing for our next record, we're not taking for granted we're gonna have a producer. It wasn't like we finally crossed this threshold. It was just that at that point in time, totally necessary.
And it worked out cool because it didn't work out exactly as we had hoped, as in we gave ourselves a month in Dreamland studios in West Hurley, New York, with Rob Schnapf and his engineer Doug. We gave ourselves a month to record the album and two weeks to come out here to Rob's studio and mix it, but it didn't work out that way. So in one way the expectation of the process kind of flopped, but in no way did it make the music suffer. It's just that it was taking longer for us to make that adjustment into this new way of working, and it was taking longer for Doug and Rob to understand the kind of guys we were and where we were coming from and the kind of control we still needed to feel like we had in the recording process. Figuring out our roles collaboratively between Rob and Doug took longer than we had hoped, but in the end it led to really cool stuff but not a complete record.
So we took the tapes back, spent two more months in our own studio doing exactly what we had always done to these fancy tapes with expensive drum recordings on them that we got up in Hurley. It was a really good marriage for us of stepping out for a minute and trying something new. Getting the basis of these tunes down live and really well engineered, and then just going home and messing it all up and doing the thing that we've always enjoyed to do so much and play around with it. It was kind of one foot in the right direction, and as with many things with Dr. Dog one step at a time is the thing we're most interested in. We've never really taken any leaps and bounds creatively or as far as our audience, we just keep going, keep going, keep going, and things keep going with us. It worked well for us, is what I'm trying to say.
Maybe it would have been better had we stuck to the goal and finished in the time we were allotted and certainly would have been better as far as a label would be concerned, or whoever's paying the bills. Really at the end of the day it was just the best way for us to experience something like that, and then to be able to come home and make sense of it all in exactly the way we were accustomed to doing.
JT:Let's hear the title track from Dr. Dog's new album Shame, Shame, they're my guests here on The Sound of Young America.
Your career has been this -- you started when you were 12 or 13, and now you're 31, 32, so that's 18 -- 19 years, something like that. Dr. Dog has existed as a proper band for about 10 years now. You're here in Los Angeles; you're playing the Wiltern which is a pretty sizeable theater. It seems like with each tour you're moving up one rung over the course of ten years. Did you imagine your rock and roll careers would grow in this way; this slow, steady Pennsylvaniace?
SM:Yeah, I think so. It's hard to say what we imagined. It feels really natural being where we are. It's really for me to appreciate and be almost surprised by, or even guilt myself into feeling as though I'm not appreciating enough what it is we have going on for ourselves in our lives, because it's really awesome to be able to make music. That's all I'm really expected to do in my life, and I'm aware that that's a wonderful thing. In realizing that, I can observe that maybe I'm not appreciating it enough, or as much as I should sometimes. Does that mean I never expected this to happen, or what?
At the same rate it doesn't seem like anything that has occurred has occurred other than any reason other than I'm very familiar with the time we've spent, what we've done, what playing this venue before this venue before this venue, and living in a van and living this thing. It's all very tangible when you break it down to your day to day experience. Yeah, we've been to L.A. 30 times in the last five years, and we've walked away every time feeling like we did our best. We love what we do. If it's pretty clear at any given point in a recording or a performance or anything that we're loving it, then I always know, well then other people -- certainly someone else will. We're not some weird deviants with different brains from everyone else, like our perceptions are not going to be shared by anybody else.
JT:Because you're so committed to curly fries.
SM:Because I'm so committed to curly fries. And I love cheeseburgers. But I love this band more, and despite how much you tend to view a band as understood and defined by it's growth through what venues its played at or what magazines you've seen them in or who they've toured with, what I'm often more amazed about and I even as an outside observer of other bands find myself more intrigued by is the process within the band; the evolution within the band. How the people relate, how it changes players, how they change their process, how they change and grow as writers, how their old work seems to them now, how much they think about where they want to go or how much they don't think about that.
All those things are fascinating to me, and I'm amazed to be a part of it because here we are as a band, what literally feels like 20 years after I met Toby Leaman. We did have a pact at that point that this is where we are going for better or for worse, and it's 20 years later and I still can't even understand the capacity that exists inside of my relationships with these people. We're together all the time; we're living like brothers; we're sharing ideas; we're taking risks, taking chances. Helping each other. Hurting each other. Everything. And it's such a wonderful thing to have inside of your life as forms of relationships; as forms of commitment. And also towards a result, towards a shared goal. It's just amazing to be a part of. I can go through any number of things and I can make any number of changes and I can have any number of reservations or dreams or aspirations, but I'm just one of six. Everybody's got their own, and I get to reap the benefits of what everybody else goes through because that's how we roll as a band; that's how we share the experience.
I just really feel swept up and caught up in something that is for certain larger than myself, and it feels really good. It makes the tangible reality of living this life, traveling, leaving home, being in a bus, whatever the drawbacks are to it, a lot easier, because you just look around and you wonder how could you ask for anything better than this as a way of life? What was that about, curly fries?
JT:I think that's lovely. I want to close with one of the four new songs that you've just released. These songs have gone up to your Facebook and they'll be Part of a deluxe version of your new album Shame, Shame, and you're also touring with the Mon Double Seven Inch if I'm not mistaken. If there's one song that we should share, which one should it be?
SM:What do you think, Zach? Zach takes a mean organ solo in the intro and outro of "Nobody Knows Who You Are."
ZM:How could we resist that?
JT:Okay. Here's Dr. Dog and "Nobody Knows Who You Are" from the deluxe version of their new album, Shame, Shame. Thanks so much for taking the time, guys.
SM:Thank you for having us.
ZM:Thank you.