To be honest, I thought the concept behind Dr. Dog’s zany, just-released album was prett-ay, prett-ay, pretty straight forward. The West Grove, Pennsylvania-based psych-rock band went back to basics, quite literally. They took goofy songs written 15 years ago on battery-powered keyboards and dusty four-track cassette recorders (all meant for their debut album) and re-recorded them for a proper big album release on this year’s “The Psychedelic Swamp." [Listen/buy it here]
The original songs, coincidentally enough, never officially saw the light of day, having fallen by the wayside almost immediately after they were finished (although superfans have gotten ahold of leaked tracks). But here they are, bigger and better -- and altogether more experimental -- than they ever were. Going from a bedroom setup to a huge high-end studio with all the gadgets and instruments you could ever want at your disposal kind of does wonders for lavishly layered pop music (just ask Brian Wilson, right)?
The only thing is, after talking with the band’s lead guitarist Scott McMicken ahead of their Feb. 20 Observatory North Park show, the entire thing got way more conceptual than I could have ever imagined.
“From the day we finished the originals, we knew there’d be a part two,” McMicken told me. “That aspect of the narrative being that we didn’t ‘make’ the original tape. It was made by a guy -- someone else -- sending it to us with specific instructions. He lived in another world, a psychedelic swamp, where the order of life is upside down. He knows that the tape is going to sound like madness to anyone on Earth. And he figured Dr. Dog is the band that can see through that. He’s got a message that he’s trying to spread. In the back of our minds, we always knew there was another record. This one is us translating the first.”
OK, if that sounds like garbled gobbledy gook, you’re not alone. But at its essence, it’s just a fun story: A being from a place called the Psychedelic Swamp sent a tape of songs he recorded to Dr. Dog for them to release into the world -- with the band intending to go through those songs at a later date and reimagine them in such a way that they’d make sense (or more sense) to the general public. What the alien’s message was for us, I'm not entirely sure. But it makes for some pretty interesting music.
For the past 10 years or so, Dr. Dog has been a reliable fixture in the indie-rock music scene, borrowing elements from '60s pop, blues, soul and psychedelia -- all of which seemed to get more expansive with each album. It’s safe to say though that “The Psychedelic Swamp” is the band’s biggest endeavor yet.
“It really expanded our studio experience,” McMicken explained. “I think the experience got us all working in different ways. It dissolved the kind of roles we’ve fallen into. The studio has always been an open-minded space for us, but this was pushing that even further. Creatively and technically, people were getting involved more than they ever had before and also letting go like they never had before. This album was an excellent exercise in the collaborative spirit.”
If you’re not familiar with studio recording sessions, most of the time bands set up in a big room with all their instruments mic’d up, and they record the songs as they play them. Generally, they’ll then go back over those songs and layer different tracks and add more textures (or overdubs) to the foundation tracks of the songs. Apparently Dr. Dog went in a completely new direction for “The Psychedelic Swamp.”
“We got the songs’ bones on the table, and then we’d have several different zones in the studio to work on them,” the band’s guitarist told me. “Everyone had their own laptop to work on them. At various points, you’d be cruising through the studio and there’d be five different workstations with five different guys working separately on the same song. Afterward, we’d meld them all together and you’d hear all these contrasting and weird ideas. There was such little design going into it. Everyone was free to kick 'em around, pick 'em apart and add new chords, new melodies, new lyrics -- anything, really.”
Which is pretty impressive considering that normally in a band setting songs “belong” to a particular person. Sure, bands as a whole will write music, but songs generally start with a skeleton brought to the table by one specific songwriter. Needless to say, arguments arise (see the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd -- any successful band really) when other band members start changing them. According to McMicken, that couldn’t have been less of a worry.
“We’re so far removed from the original material at this point, there was no strong personal attachment," he said. "There was no vision for how this needed to sound. It was really wide open. [The songs] were originally written as improvisational songs, and when we went back to them, we had an even more limber attitude. Once we decided to do it, we just went for it.”
And now that the record’s out, how do McMicken and the rest of the band feel about spending the last couple years working on a record and a group of songs that had, essentially, already been made 15 years ago?
“It’s not about rehashing something that already exists,” he said. “It’s about inhabiting a general understanding of the thing and being inspired with new ideas and new avenues and angles. Really, the work still continues now, with the tour and what our sets looks like -- it’s all furthering the concept. We could devote the rest of our career to this story … As a piece of music, [the original songs] don’t really hold up to any kind of critique, but it felt larger than anything we knew about music at that point. In a weird way, it pushed the notion of what the process can be like. There’s just something so beautiful about music -- to be in the center of it, its creator, and you’re being just as influenced as the thing you’re making, the ideas that you’re receiving back in an ongoing conversation. It just feels so right on a level that really transcends music-making. It feels right in the way that a good day feels right.”