On the Road with Dr. Dog

These Philly rockers and seasoned road trippers break down what it takes to stay sane while living life in transit
August 13, 2018Words by Veronica SederPhotos by Bryson Malone

Scott McMicken, lead guitar

Hitch a ride for Huckberry’s newest interview series, On the Road, where we sit down with the ultimate adventurers — musicians — to talk about life on the road, staying grounded, and of course, music.

First up: Scott McMicken of Philly-based rock band Dr. Dog. The band recently stopped in San Francisco where we got to chat with them about life on the road and their new album, Critical Equation

Read on for how taking a break from music ultimately led Scott back to it, what bands he’s listening to right now, and where he’d go if he suddenly had 36 hours to kill.

You came out with your latest album after taking a break from music. What was that all about? 

Yeah, last year it just became a little less clear what the obvious steps forward were. So it required us to basically talk about it and think about it more than normal. We were sort of beholden to our own creation — we as individuals, in many ways, had moved on in life, but the band had developed its own Frankenstein monster. It's like we were moving through the ranks and saying, "This is what we do." But it just didn't feel accurate anymore. We should be able to grow. We can't just do exactly the same thing and be happy about it forever.

So where did you go from there? 

In trying to figure out what was going on, and where we had room to grow, there was this weird paradox about being super collaborative and fully democratic. What's harder to realize is when that's actually a creative limitation — when the democratic process is essentially just watering down a stronger vision. If someone has really strong convictions about something, everyone else should be 100% willing to follow.

So for me being a songwriter in a band, and a lead singer, and someone who's constantly bringing a ton of ideas to the table, I found myself realizing I needed to be a stronger leader to get the results I was working for. But it's really not in my personality, and that's also not how the band is used to working. There was a mix of becoming comfortable even being a leader and also being weary of how other people might end up feeling if they're suddenly forced into a role where they just need to follow. And I went through it in a bunch of different ways with different members where we kind of hit some walls.  I hit a couple of walls that felt really substantial, and that left me thinking, "Maybe we should stop being a band."

How did the break go for you?

Zach Miller, keyboard

The break felt like the first time we actually got to just live our lives and not think every day about the band. Now that people have families and kids and stuff, and it's like life has taken on a whole new level of potency. And that just opened up all these creative doors. When it comes down to it, there's just no line between life itself and the pursuit of making music. So these things that start as this kind of technical, craft-oriented thing, end up being firmly rooted in your fundamental sense of yourself. And your willingness to be yourself and to be comfortable with that.

So focusing on life outside of music actually helped you get back to music? 

It was one of those instances where, when you really allow yourself to step away from something, when you come back to it, you have a new lens on it. The wonderful, kind of sublime thing about most complicated things in life is, when it's working, it's the least complicated thing ever. Like a relationship or something — you might care so much about it that you think a ton about it, and you analyze it. But you know when it's working best, it's very natural. It's like a tightrope walk of being very conscious and caring about something, but keeping a very light grasp on it. In order to walk into that space, I had to leave all of this stuff at the door. And the break really worked for me on that front.

How did you resolve things within the band? 

Toby Leaman, bass guitar

Essentially we kind of had to go all the way back to the beginning, and we would just start with the base-level thing. What it really came down to is getting everyone to understand that the context of our band is one of trust. So we shouldn't be afraid of each other on any level. If I've come up with this thing in my head that I've been just stewing on, and I wanna say it, there's no real danger here in being yourself and being honest about how you feel. We should all be comfortable both dishing it out and receiving it. It really is easy once you get over that hurdle.

I kept finding that, as I was going through this process, it would start with something that felt big in my head. And then I would address it, and that thing wouldn't feel that big anymore. And what I would have done there is peel back this layer, and then I earned my right into something that actually was a little deeper. And you're sort of paving this road forward by peeling back these layers. All that came together in a record that definitely sounds different for us in an exciting way. One that I think we'll continue to explore.

Tell us about how life on the road has changed for you over the years. How do you stay grounded while you're on tour? 

Yeah, there's been quite a bit of focus on that kind of stuff on this tour. That's a big component of knowing that we couldn't just keep on going on the same way we had been, so we’re trying to figure out a certain discipline to shake off the old habits and find some new ways of life out on the road, which pretty much amounts to just getting out more and allowing for there to be more experiences in any given day.

On tour it’s super easy to fall into that cycle where you get up, you move around for a second and try to find some coffee, and then you soundcheck, and then the next event is the show. So you look for dinner, and then you kind of just play the show, and then you stay up till 4 AM, and then you repeat that. Now we're all just sort of feeling different about that and trying to recalibrate the day's schedule to leave more time to do other things. We try to do a little research before showing up to a place, so we can see some museums, see some new history, and exercise. Like, a couple of the dudes are big into yoga, so they'll just find a little quiet spot next to the tour bus and do yoga. A couple of us will go for a run. Those kinds of things will give you some stimulus and keep you grounded.

How about during live shows? This album is more laid-back than the others. How does that translate when you're playing live? 

Eric Slick, drums

Frank McElroy, rhythm guitar

In concert, we have a tendency to play quite a bit faster and louder and just amp everything up because, when you’re performing live, it’s this visceral thing that you know feels good. So you get six people wailing from start to finish, and that's not always what's best for the music.

In order to be a more nuanced band, sometimes you have to essentially do nothing, which we have no trouble exploring in the studio when there isn't an audience watching, and you're able to constantly assess what you've just done by listening back and judging it objectively. But then live, you're just this guy standing on a stage doing nothing, and it's easy to unravel inside your head and lose perspective and feel insecure that there’s not enough excitement. It’s been a challenge for us to figure out how to let our show be more dynamic and let there be more mellow stuff without feeling vulnerable. It just takes a different kind of focus and a different kind of confidence that we’re trying to foster for ourselves.

You don’t want to go too far down that realm of what you think people want in the moment. Because then, you're kind of missing the point that, like, people are here because they already like you. They have these songs that they've been listening to, and they've made them a part of their life. We have such cool fans. We get so much positive reinforcement from fans on a daily basis, and it's not stuff like, "Oh, you guys are so cool." It's more like, "My sister and I listen to this song, and it's brought us closer together."

How else has this tour been different for you as a band?

It's like the corny thing you always hear bands say... but it's becoming very clear how important our audience is to what we do. That's always been there, of course, because it's not like we have ever been indifferent or irreverent towards our audience. But on this tour we’ve been trying to find new things to focus on and find more and more trustworthy ways to stay positive and stuff, and it's become very clear what a huge role our audience has in that part of the experience. So that's been such a game changer. It feels great, and I really want to express my gratitude for those who show their support for us.

For years, it’s been hard for me to understand what the hell to do with fame, or whatever, or how to even understand it. Creatively, I feel a stronger sense of responsibility to continue to create. That’s really important. And, what I'm learning is that, at the end of the song, even if I feel like I didn't hit some weird transcendent height, I can at least trust that the song happened. And people like the song, and it's not some leap of faith or anything. Because, meanwhile, there are like 800 people singing right back at you. So that feels pretty good.

We asked Dr. Dog what they've been listening to on repeat this tour. 

Who are you listening to right now?

Have you ever heard of this band called Floating Action? Oh, man. So good. This guy from North Carolina — kind of a one-man band. He does all the instruments himself and makes his albums at home. So I’ve been listening to Floating Action for a while now, and more recently I've been pretty much exclusively listening to William Onyeabor. Have you heard of him? Amazing Nigerian Afro-funk musician. Check him out.

Last question. You've got three days, a plane ticket anywhere and your schedule's totally clear. Where do you go? How do you spend your time? And who do you bring with you?

Oh, wow. That's cool to think about especially because I'm pretty homesick right now and on tour for a while. Well, it'd be my wife and I and we would... we've been talking about wanting to go to Hawaii for a while now. So I think my wife and I would go to Hawaii and we'd probably bring some games, some paint, and a guitar.

That sounds pretty perfect. Can we come?

Heck yeah! You’re all invited.

To hear their latest album and find out when their next show is, check out Dr. Dog's website here


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