Dr. Dog's Toby Leaman: "We were fortunate...everybody was in a weird band."

Categories: Profiles

Louis Kwok
Dr. Dog
Dr. Dog (due Saturday, March 8, at the Boulder Theater) draws its roots back to the time that Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken started writing songs together when they were growing up in Newark, Delaware. Dr. Dog was a side project of Leaman and McMicken's main band, Raccoon. But it soon became much more than a diversion, growing to a five-piece and recording a 2001 debut, The Psychedelic Swamp. The group became known for its richly diverse sound, which incorporates aspects of Americana and psychedelia.

Since then, Dr. Dog has added a sixth member and developed a sound that is consistently arresting, partly because its songwriting is never rote but always richly varied. The group's 2012 album, Be the Void, debuted on Conan O'Brien's website. In 2013, Dr. Dog released its latest full-length offering, B-Room. We recently had a chat with Leaman about how he and McMicken found themselves as kids in an underground scene; what, exactly, Meatball Palace is; and how the outfit's old studio, Meth Beach, got its name.

Westword: When you and Scott McMicken started playing together in middle school, why did you not want to do covers?

Toby Leaman: That was never part of it. I don't know -- it always seemed we should just write. I started writing before I started playing anything, and Scott started writing, too. We would learn songs just to learn them. I think for both of us, playing music has meant writing music. Even as little kids, that's just what you did. As a little kid, you don't even know what you like or that you like the songs you're writing. But it's all part of the process. I remember being really frustrated as a kid and working really hard on something and not even liking it. Sometimes that still happens.

When you were writing music early on and playing out, what kind of environment was it for you in terms of playing live?

When we were really young, in high school and stuff, there was a healthy punk scene in Newark, Delaware, which is where the school was -- the University of Delaware. It was a college town, and they would have all-ages shows with punk bands. So we were going there all the time. We didn't play punk music, but that's what was around. Everybody would go and try to get beer.

We did that for years, but we were just too scared to ever play a show or anything. We were fifteen or sixteen, and those guys were probably like eighteen or nineteen, and it seemed like an impossibility to actually get up there and perform. So it probably wasn't until late high school that we started playing out. Then in college we played a bunch. Then we moved to Philly and played a million more times.

What kind of punk bands did you see at that time?

There were all different kinds. Not a lot of pop punk, though, I remember. Kind of harder, and then bands that weren't punk bands. The best band, actually, to come out of there at that time was this band called Zen Guerilla, which was phenomenal.

Oh, yes, Zen Guerilla.

You ever heard of those guys?

They played in Denver in 1999 with Man? Or Astroman. Kind of this soul and rock-and-roll band, right?

Yes -- they were the best. They were our heroes as kids. It was insane. The drummer and the bass player were these monsters playing kind of like Maiden, Steve Harris-style bass. Then the guitar player was really Hendrix-y, and the singer, he had an Echoplex, a tape delay, and he sang through that. Those shows -- as a kid, you were in hog heaven. I still love those guys and still listen to those guys. Their records are still great. They were weird as shit. But that's an awesome thing to see as a kid because we were fortunate that they were this weird band and everybody was in a weird band. It's not like people were playing Smashing Pumpkins covers or whatever; it was weird shit.

It seems as though everyone in your band is a multi-instrumentalist.

Very much so, actually.

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