A&E

The Weekly interview: Dr. Dog bassist Toby Leaman

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Dr. Dog
Nicky Devine

How’s the tour going? So far so good. Shows are getting nice and weird. We’re playing a lot of different songs than we have on previous tours, and we’re just playing a lot looser.

You’re touring behind January’s live album, Live at a Flamingo Hotel in January. Why did you go that route? We’re always coming out with recorded albums—we’ve got a couple in the works right now. People have been asking us to do a live album for a while, and it seemed like the right time to do it. We’d been running those songs into the ground, too. We’ve done probably a couple of tours with a real similar setlist. It was a way to give ‘em a little break for a little bit and still have a document in time of what we sounded like on this specific tour with this batch of songs.

Are you playing anything new on tour? No, just a bunch of old stuff we haven’t really played in a long time or ever played.

It looks like you guys have a blast on tour—but you’re also big on the recording process. Which one do you prefer? Usually whatever one we’re not doing (laughs). After about a month of either one, you want the other one. If we had to give one up, I guess we’d give up the touring part, ’cause we’ve always been a studio band. But we love to tour. [And] I feel like we’re better than we ever have been.

Why do you think that is? I think it’s just playing together. From the beginning of this tour we did an eight-day run in New York—small venues, and we had to play pretty drastically different sets every night. It made us learn all this stuff we don’t normally play. If you’re playing the same 25, 30 songs, you sorta get stuck in the way you play them. Playing new material actually helps your old material out; it gives you a new look on it.

Your most recent studio album, 2013’s B Room was more of a collaborative record. Are you approaching the new recordings the same way? Definitely staying with the collaborative aspect of it. That’s become a bigger and bigger part of it as we go on, just trying to get everybody a little more involved. Scott [McMicken] and I have always been the songwriters but just made a conscious decision a few years ago that we should be a little less precious with our material and let other people have a little more room to breathe on it … quit telling everybody what to do.

You and Scott have known each other since the eighth grade—and that’s when you started writing. It just seemed like the thing to do. We never really played covers. I mean, we would learn them. The stuff we were writing was no good, obviously. You don’t have anything to say when you’re 12 years old; you don’t have any real-world perspective or anything like that. It just seemed like that’s what we should do, and we were both pretty committed to it immediately.

Was anyone inspiring you in particular? When we were real young it ran the gamut. We were big Pavement fans, then we went through like a prog-rock Rush phase. We were into Nirvana but equally into the Misfits and Steely Dan. None of it made any sense.

What’s the key to having such a long-lasting working partnership and friendship? With any kind of working relationship, you have to make sure that everybody wants to do the same thing, that everybody’s on the same page, and if they’re not, try to figure out what you can do to make it work. We treat every song as it’s own entity; we’re not really stuck in a genre or a sound or a scene. It’s pretty easy to keep things fresh when you do it like that. We’re not really writing for anybody but ourselves.

How did growing up in Philadelphia influence the band? Is there a music scene there that you were a part of when you were coming up? That’s the thing that’s great about Philly—it’s always been vacant of any scene, outside of the Philly soul sound and early hip-hop. As far as the rock scene goes, it’s always just been weird bands. Every band that has gotten anywhere in Philadelphia are just weird dudes: Ween or The Dead Milkmen or Hall and Oates.

When we were coming up in the early 2000s, people used to leave to go to New York; that was always the big thing. If you got anywhere at all in Philly, you just immediately took off to New York. When we were there, there started to be this thinking like, no, everybody just stays in Philly. It sort of just incubates, and you’re not beholden to whatever the scene is. You do your own thing. You might not get the success that you would in LA or Brooklyn, but your band gets better. So by the time Philly bands usually start touring, they’ve been a band longer and they’ve sort of created their own sound before anybody has really heard of them. It’s not like they just put out an EP and all of a sudden they’re touring.

Why do you think Dr. Dog was able to break out of a place like Philly? We got lucky, which is always helpful. But we worked a lot. We didn’t turn down anything. We just did whatever we were offered. We just kept working. It’s not like we blasted straight to the top. We’re pretty much on the same trajectory as in 1999 or whatever.

You’ve said it’s important for bands to stay relevant, but you haven’t set out to be a trendy band, either. How do you evolve while not worrying about what’s charting? I think that’s probably the best way to evolve, doing it based on what you feel. This idea that everybody has to evolve is sort of flawed in essence. I mean, who the hell evolves in real life? Nobody really evolves. That’s sort of a flawed thing that started in the ’60s with The Beatles. Not everybody’s The Beatles. You don’t have to change the world with every record you put out. I think people confuse evolution with people just responding to whatever the new sound is and then just trying to emulate it in their own context, in their own band. We’ll evolve when we’re ready to evolve. And I think we are evolving. It’s just a weird concept that writers and critics have come up with, this idea that you can’t be doing a similar thing and stay relevant. I just don’t believe that at all. Quality is quality.

Dr. Dog with Hanni El Khatib. February 21, 9 p.m., $25. House of Blues, 702-632-7600.

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Leslie Ventura is a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly and Industry Weekly. She’s picked the brains of rock stars ...

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