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In My Room

Dr. Dog’s Toby Leaman talks about the band’s custom studio, the Beach Boys, and life on the road

A band’s creative process doesn’t always begin when the first notes of an album are recorded or even when the first lyrics are scribbled into a blank notebook. For Philadelphia-based psychedelic rock band Dr. Dog, the creation of their latest, soul-inspired album, B-Room, began with a hammer and nails rather than a pen and paper.

Dr. Dog

Info: 7pm, Monday Jan 27 at the Town Ballroom, 681 Main Street. $18 advance tickets, $20 day of show.

Before a guitar string was plucked or a vocal harmony constructed, the six-piece band and their friends set to work constructing their ultimate studio in a repurposed silversmith mill outside of Philadelphia. The result was a studio specifically built for the band that would be recording in it. It may not sound important to the casual music fan, but to have a second sound room in their recording studio, a b-room as it is called in the biz, was such a big thing to this band that they chose to name their seventh album, released in October on Anti-Records, after the space itself.

This week we spoke with songwriter Toby Leaman of Dr. Dog about the creative explosion that was the construction and recording of B-Room, the first time he heard the Beach Boys, and his favorite childhood toys.

AV: Buffalo is the second date of your headlining tour. You’ve done headlining tours in the past, but you’ve also done many tours as an opening act for bands like the Strokes and the Black Keys. How does headlining compare?

Toby Leaman: It’s drastically different. For the first five years all we did was open. It was great. We did tons of tours, with Wilco and the [Black] Keys. When we toured with the Keys they were pretty small still. We did a bunch of tours with those guys. We even did Australia with them. But when you’re headlining, obviously you get more time. It’s way preferable. But we actually did an opening tour recently for the first time in four or five years and it was great. Those are actually the biggest shows we’ve ever done. When you’re opening you have about 45 minutes of work to do a day, which includes the show. Very kush.

AV: When I went to listen to your latest record, B-Room, I thought I knew what to expect based on your previous records. But the moment I heard the first track, “The Truth,” I thought, “Wow, this is actually a soul record,” especially tracks like that and “Minding the Usher.” Of course there are folky songs and psychedelic rock songs, too, but then there are tracks like “Distant Light” that bring the soul and the psychedelic rock sounds together. How do those two sounds work together for you?

TL: It was sort of a happy accident that [soul] was the music we were gravitating toward. We were trying to make a concerted effort to do everything live, to do as much as we could live, all six of us in the room at once, and try to minimize the overdubbing. When you’re in that situation, where everybody is playing to everybody else in the room, what you end up doing becomes pretty simplified. It becomes more crucial, but you become less busy. There is more space. So for whatever reason, when we start to play like that we just gravitate toward soul music. It’s fun to play that together. It’s satisfying music to play.

AV: How does the place, the setting where a record is recorded, affect the resulting album?

TL: Pretty immensely. We have always been very particular of what our studio looks like, what it feels like. We built this one so it was easy to make it very comfortable; to make it a place where you’d want to hang out even if you weren’t recording. The process was pretty relaxed. We had never had a b-room in recording, so we had two rooms working at once, which is something that we always wanted to do. And then there’s a whole chill zone and bedrooms and a shop and everything. If you weren’t feeling it, normally you’d have to just sit there and hopefully get it together, but we had so much stuff to do just maintaining the studio and getting it right, that if you weren’t feeling it, you could go be productive in a totally different way that would still be helpful to everybody. If you were there and you were engaged in any way, shape, or form, your presence was meaningful. Which is nice because then you’re not stuck just sitting there reading a magazine while someone is on their 50th take on an organ sound. In any other studio that’s what it would be.

AV: At what point during the creation of the record did you decide that you wanted to name it after the recording studio?

TL: We didn’t have a name for the record going into it. A million were tossed around. We’ve always been a band that tends to pick a song name from the record as the title—I mean it’s almost always been the name of a song, except for Be the Void, which was actually a song that didn’t make the record—but nothing seemed to fit, nothing was all encompassing. The b-room, I felt, was a focal point for this recording. It was a huge part of why this recording felt so breezy. I mean obviously you pull your hair out and you want to punch everybody in the face at some point, but for the most part it was a lot of fun. There was a lot of freedom, we had a lot of time to do it and we did a lot of songs.

AV: Was that by design?

TL: Yeah. It took us about a month to build the studio before we even really recorded. We were working on this thing for a month before we even played a single note of music, and then about the first two weeks we just played. We purposefully didn’t bring any songs to the band. I didn’t bring any, Scott [McMicken, guitarist] didn’t bring any. We felt like it would be cool to just play and get the room figured out, make sure everything is wired right, and at the same time get everybody’s chops back. We were able to just ease into the record.

AV: That sounds like a pretty wonderful process, actually.

TL: Yeah, but it was a process. It was a lot of time and commitment and fighting. There has never been anything good to come from total relaxation; you need some kind of conflict and sweat.

AV: Did just building the recording studio feel like an accomplishment in itself?

TL: Absolutely. I was just there yesterday and every time I walk in it just feels so good. There is still stuff to be done too, which is exciting. It’s a fantasy. When you’re 12 years old and you have a guitar, you’re always imaging your ultimate jam space, and this is it.

AV: Listening to your music, it’s obviously heavily influenced by the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Do you remember the first time you heard either of those bands?

TL: I do. I remember the first time I heard the Beach Boys. The first time I really processed the Beach Boys I was probably like 19 or 20 and our old guitar player Doug [O’Donnell] was hugely into them. He had everything. He had like nine different versions of Smile. This was at the dawn of the Internet, so this stuff was still pretty hard to get. All I knew was like “Help Me, Rhonda” and “Little Deuce Coupe,” but then he started playing this shit and I was just like, “We gotta sing like this.” Not that we sounded like them, but we tried to; we tried to sound like them, tried to get our harmonies like that. The Beach Boys were so advanced, so far advanced. Trying to duplicate it was intimidating, of course.

AV: You met guitarist Scott McMicken when you were pretty young, when you were 13 or so. How did you meet?

TL: His dad was a pilot so he was always getting moved around. He just moved to my town [Clifton Heights, Pennsylvania] and he just came into class at school. He would wear Chuck Taylors and liked to write the names of bands on them. I don’t know why, but I just remember looking at his shoes and thinking like, “Oh yeah, that’s cool.” But he was the new kid in town. I was trying to play music but he was like a little kid phenom on the guitar. It was a no-brainer. We probably hung out one time before we decided to start a band. We didn’t know that we’d be a good fit, we’ve played with other people and stuff, but you’re so hungry for that kind of stuff when you’re a kid.

AV: Other than play music, what did 13-year-old Scott and Toby like to do together?

TL: Probably just try to buy weed and walk around [laughs]. Watch MTV and eat potato chips. We played some basketball. We spent a lot of time on music. We would spend hours just trying to figure out the frickin’ Alesis drum machine or something.

AV: I ask that because I saw the video for “Love,” and it features a bunch of clips from vintage toy commercials. What toys did you love as a kid?

TL: Hmm, well, I played a lot of sports. I remember as a really little kid loving Lincoln Logs and Legos. Anything you can build I was really into. I never had action figures like He-Man or G.I. Joe or anything like that.

AV: Lincoln Logs and Lego’s are more of a creative thing; you can build whatever you want.

TL: Yeah, yeah, and I have an older brother and he was always building stuff, so it was like anything he was into, I was into. He’s very handy. He is actually one of the main dudes who helped us build the studio. It’s right down the street from his house.

AV: Favorite place to eat on tour?

TL: That’s tough, man. You end up trying to eat at the place that looks like it will do that least amount of damage. We want to try and eat healthy because so much of the time you’re not eating healthy. We have the luxury now of being able to afford to think about where we’re eating, but for years we were just eating you know, two sausage-egg-and-cheese things at the shittiest gas station you’ve ever been to. Then you’re eating there and you’re crapping there. It’s gross, it’s a horrible cycle, but that’s your life for a month when you’re on tour in a van. Crapping at gas stations and eating whatever they offer.

AV: I’m glad you guys made it through that period of your bandhood.

TL: Hey we could always go back. You never know.

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