Interview with Dr. Dog’s Toby Leaman

Photo credit: Chris Crisman.  Interview by Julissa Trevino for Art&Seek.

On Dr. Dog’s seventh album, the Philadelphia psychedelic 60s-infused indie rock band takes a detour back to its roots, evoking an Easy Beat vibe that is both effortless and forward. That album, Be the Void, was released in February to positive reception, but bassist and vocalist Toby Leaman says there’s still a lot to accomplish. Ahead of their headlining Sept. 29 performance at the Fort Worth Music Festival, Leaman talks about Be the Void, their approach to making music and why there’s still a lot left for the band.

Art&Seek: What was it about “Lonesome” that made it the first track on Be The Void?

Toby Leaman: The tone is pretty dirty-sounding, and…musically, it’s upbeat but lyrically it’s kind of down which is pretty much what we’ve been doing for 10 years. That’s what it sounded like. It sounded like a song that kicks off a record.

A&S: Dmitri Manos, who worked with you for Easy Beat, is back for this album. Tell me about what he added to the sound.

TL: He added a ton. He and Eric [Slick], our new drummer. It’s the first record for both of them, or full record I guess. They added a ton. Dmitri in particular, he’s been playing in bands forever and he just has a really good attitude about working with guys and how to record in a studio and just the idea [of] when a problem comes up, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem. It can be just a different way of looking at stuff. He was there with us the whole time, too. Every day, all day. He was probably there more than anybody, I would imagine, because everyone went home and he was still there [laughs]. He’s such an awesome guy to have in the studio because he’s opinionated, but he doesn’t bicker or argue, which is something that I definitely do. He just has a really good attitude about recording. He’s really open to anything and always has great ideas about how to make a song more interesting.

A&S: Some of the same elements and sounds you guys are known for still apply with this album, but songs like “Get Away” and “Heavy Light” are more experimental than what I’m used to hearing. Can you talk about the influences for those songs?

TL: Umm, those songs, I guess they were a little more experimental as far as the instrumentation and things like that. I feel like we’re always trying to do something that sounds new to us and maybe that doesn’t always sound new to other people. “Heavy Light” in particular, I would say, it was one of those songs that was sort of pieced together, [came] together from a demo that Scott [McMicken, guitarist/vocalist] had made that was sort of a soundscape with a song buried in it. We just sort of pieced it together. That was kind of interesting because we started with not really knowing exactly what the choral structure would be but having a basic idea of rhythmic parts and building the song from there.

And then with “Get Away,” that song was a beast. That song was actually the worst song to deal with on the record. It was just a pain in the ass. It almost didn’t even make it because, I feel it’s still not quite where it needs to be. But I like the song so much we left it on the record. This whole album was so [difficult] but that song in particular was a little brat. It did not want to behave.

A&S: What do you mean by that?

TL: A lot of times songs just feel good and you know exactly where you stand with it, and when it goes down on tape, it sounds pretty close to what you had envisioned. And [“Get Away”] never really did for me. A lot of times [songs] will become something different. But this became something different that I was struggling with and battling to get it to what I wanted. It’s just like anything else. Anytime you’re working on a project, sometimes things that seem simple end up being extremely difficult.

A&S: What’s your favorite song off the new album?

TL: Right now, hmm… I actually haven’t listened to it in a while. When we first finished, I listened to it all day, every day. If I was going to listen to a song right now, though, I’d probably listen to “Warrior Man,” just ‘cause I haven’t listen to that song in a while and I’m kind of in that mood. I’m not sure that’s my favorite song on the record, but if I was going to listen to a song right now, that’s what I would listen to.

A&S: Dr. Dog is really energetic on stage. You guys have been playing together for a long time. How comfortable are you on a stage when you’re performing?

TL: We’re not really uncomfortable at all. I mean, sometimes you’ll find yourself on stage and you haven’t prepared on that stage but you have to play. In general, we love it up there. With Eric…I mean, he’s been in the band for over two years. But just having him back there added a whole new level of confidence.

A&S: What kind of things have you learned touring from the first time that you guys did a cross-country tour in 2005? What have you learned that maybe you wish you would have known?

TL: [Laughs.] Wow. I don’t know, ‘cause it’s so different. So [many] of the problems that you run into when you first start playing is ‘cause you’re broke. You don’t have hotel rooms, so you have to stay at a ton of people’s houses I wish I hadn’t stayed at. A ton of food I wish I hadn’t eaten. A ton of stuff I wish I hadn’t done. But, if I were to go back and give myself advice, yeah, I really don’t know. I feel pretty good about it. We took the time to go to parks and look at the city and do that stuff. I think that’s sort of important, especially when you’re first starting out on the road [and] you have a lot more time than you do as a headliner. You don’t have to be there for two hours, maybe an hour, before doors, before they even want you. Yeah, you should definitely take advantage of that when you can and hopefully it gets to the point where you don’t have time for that stuff. That means you’re doing something right. But yeah, I don’t know. I’d probably just say, whatever I was eating, I wouldn’t eat that.

A&S: What’s been your favorite band to tour with?

TL: There are so many awesome bands. My go-to answer to that is a band called Floating Action, which is pretty much my favorite band. The chillest music you can imagine, the playing is just phenomenon. It’s the kind of record[s] you can listen to all day without needing to change records, you know what I mean? The investment you put into it is is as much as you want to get out of it. You can either really get involved or you can just sort of let it go.

A&S: If you could collaborate with any musician right now, who would it be?

TL: I really don’t know. I’m excited to get back in the studio, but I just immediately start thinking about my guys. When you say collaborate, I immediately think it’s something I’m going to have to plan for and make time for [laughs]. It would be this awesome musical thing, but [I think], “Oh fuck, I’ve got to get a studio. We’ve got to figure out what we’re doing. Who’s writing the songs? What’s the band going to be like?”

A&S: What else do you want to explore musically with Dr. Dog?

TL: There’s a lot. The last record was very easy. It was fairly straightforward, didn’t take a lot of time. There wasn’t a lot of fussing around. I like that there’s that element to the band again. We sort of got away from that. Our first couple of records are sort of similar to [Be the Void]. But I’d like to get in there and really almost have the songs chosen before we start recording. Usually we have a plethora of songs that either barely get touched or don’t make the record. I think for [Be the Void] we had 40 that we worked on in some capacity. And I’d love to come up with an idea for an album, before we make the record, and as we’re passing around demos, say, “These are the songs,” to come up with a concise, conceptual element to it that we can do into the studio [with].

A&S: You mentioned you don’t have a lot of time when you’re on the road. What do you do when you’re not setting up for a show?

TL: Not much. We play wiffle ball. I usually read or do crosswords or play wiffle ball or go for a walk. It’s not like we’re going to museums or anything like that.

You can catch Dr. Dog at the Fort Worth Music Festival on Sept 28-29.