PULL IT TOGETHER "As you go on, you start making records that people are actually going to hear, so you think maybe you should put a little more professionalism in it," says lead Dog Toby Leaman (second from right).
The last time psych-soul oddballs Dr. Dog played a show in Lawrence, Kansas, they were opening for the Black Keys: indie-rock's prodigal sons, who slowly graduated from skeezy bars to the national stage of SNL, from "those guys whose name sorta sounds like the White Stripes" to "those guys who sell millions of albums." But on their current trek, promoting their playful and raw seventh album, Be the Void (Anti-), Dr. Dog have reached headliner status, playing the biggest, most tightly packed rooms of their career.
It's been a slow, steady climb for the Philly-based sextet. Ever since their formation in the late '90s, Dr. Dog have never been an easy band to predict. Originally a side project for multi-instrumentalists Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman, the duo started recording experimental pop ditties on an eight-track. Their second album, Toothbrush, found its way to My Morning Jacket's Jim James — and before long, Dr. Dog had themselves a national audience, one that remains faithful in spite of the band's unpredictability. Always reacting in opposition to their last stylistic move (releasing ramshackle, lo-fi folk-rock one album and polished, vintage soul the next), they've confused as many critics as they've charmed, and that elusive breakout hit is still a distant dream. But today, camped out backstage in Lawrence, reflecting on how far they've come, Leaman's unsure of what the future holds — and is sort of okay with that.
"Any time you release a record," Leaman reflects, "you think, 'Maybe this one'll have some legs.' But I don't think, for our band, it's really dire for it to explode or anything. We've been fine without that, and we're still around and still continue to grow. It would be great, but you don't want to start thinking at any point that it has to happen — because if it doesn't happen, you'll feel like shit. And the reality is that it kind of doesn't matter for our band. We're fortunate in that we've set up a situation where we're going to be fine. This tour's bigger, absolutely. But whether or not we turn into the Black Keys or something — that's really neither here nor there."
Though widespread commercial success remains elusive, Dr. Dog have a rabidly devoted fan base. Their audience has remained loyal throughout endless personnel shifts and reinventions — a fact Leaman likens to the band's jaw-dropping live presence. "We've found that if you come to one of our shows, you'll continue to come out to shows when we come through town," he says. "We're trying to have a good time."
Be the Void is the band's most infectious, wildly creative album yet, harnessing the energy of a newly beefed-up rhythm section (with percussionist Dimitri Manos and "immediately awesome" drummer Eric Slick). The album was self-produced; after a productive stint in Atlanta with producer Ben Allen (Animal Collective, Gnarls Barkley), Dr. Dog settled back down in their own home studio in Pennsylvania. The goal, after years of band instability, was to figure out who or what Dr. Dog really are.