“We were either going to break up or make our best record.”
That’s how Eric Slick, drummer and percussionist for longtime Philadelphia-based indie-rock act Dr. Dog, sums up his band’s state of affairs going into their recent recording sessions a day before they debut their new material on NPR’s Live from Here. Dr. Dog did not dissolve—that much of the story is a giveaway.
And Critical Equation, the band’s 10th official release, is a deliciously psychedelic slice of vintage rock-and-roll with a fast-beating pop heart. But navigating the path that led to Critical Equation may have been the band’s most singularly treacherous road trip to date.
“We’ve always painted ourselves as this happy-go-lucky band,” says Slick ̧ who joined Dr. Dog in 2010 after bonding with the group in Bonnaroo guest camping, in late February. “We’re smiling and laughing onstage. Our shows are joyous. But sometimes, when you peel back the layers of an onion, you realize what’s going on underneath that you never knew was there. And this album? It’s our refresh button.”
Frontmen Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman laid the groundwork for Dr. Dog around the turn of the millennium while students at West Chester University. They were two childhood friends and aspiring songwriters stoking unquenchable fascinations with rock mythology and lo-fi recordings. Those two interests fused with the creation of The Psychedelic Swamp, a cassette-only recording of experimental, deeply fuzzy trips through doo-wop, folk and pure noise. Soon after, though, the twin singers assembled a real-life band and recorded 2002’s Toothbrush, which is still drenched in lo-fi gobbledygook but presents songs that are lovable enough to keep My Morning Jacket fans fully engaged while opening for the Kentucky group on tour. Dr. Dog were off and running.
With records like Shame, Shame and Fate, they left the swamp behind for cleaner, pop-leaning production and irresistible singalongs that aped Paul McCartney at his most fun and free.
A decade and a half later, Dr. Dog had become one of indie-rock’s most beloved and dependable touring and recording machines, with legendary label ANTI- behind them and an ever-deepening collection of crowd favorites. The quintet of McMicken, Leaman, Slick, Zach Miller and Frank McElroy had recorded a solid, heartfelt new album, Abandoned Mansion, but Leaman and McMicken had loftier aspirations: They wanted to wade back into The Psychedelic Swamp and rerecord the songs with 15 years of experience.
Looking back to 2016 from his new home in Arizona, McMicken sees it much clearer now: “We wanted to wring out the last drop of everything we were up until that point. But it put the nail in the coffin for us. On some symbolic level, going back into the Swamp kind of fucked the band up.”
To fans, 2016 was simply Dr. Dog’s most prolific year yet. The cleaned-up and energetic Psychedelic Swamp reboot was released that February; Abandoned Mansion arrived in November. In truth, though, Swamp swept the band up in a wave of press and touring, and pushed their newer material—which had been recorded first—onto the shelf. After receiving an arts grant, Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company even staged “Swamp Is On,” a multimedia production that placed Dr. Dog in their most elaborate performances ever.
In comparison, Abandoned Mansion was released quietly—the same day it was announced—and on a donation-only basis with some proceeds bene ting the Southern Poverty Law Center.“The Swamp became a huge art project for us, and Mansion was just sitting around. When we did put it out, Trump had just been elected. It felt wrong to take any money from people,” says Slick. Dr. Dog silently neglected to tour behind the album—they’d stay off the road for much of the following year. Without any major declaration, all five Dr. Dog members knew it was time for a break.
“The perception was that Abandoned Mansion wasn’t a real album. Even the title makes it sound like a B-side record. But really, we’d become just that,” says Slick. “We were leaving behind this thing we’d built together.”
Plenty of bands take breaks due to exhaustion, stifled creativity or simply the desire to lead normal lives at home, cooking breakfast for their kids. But this felt different. Something was bubbling between band members behind those exuberant, sing-along performances.
“The same way a comedian learns to avoid conflicts by telling jokes, we learned how to avoid conflicts by playing shows,” says Slick.
Before and during their 2017 hiatus, Slick moved to Virginia, McMicken to Arizona. Several band members had kids. They made music—just not with each other.
“This was never an indefinite hiatus—we were just skipping one tour cycle. But the unforeseen elements of taking a break piled up,” says McMicken. “When we returned to work on new stuff, I was feeling pretty weird about it. This thing that’d been constant and static in our lives for so long—the band—felt different.”
One thing did not feel weird: the songs. In his months off, McMicken experienced one of his most furtive periods ever. He was on his own, and the solitude broke his creativity wide open.
“That Dylan line in ‘Hard Rain’: ‘I’ll know my song well before I start singing.’ That gives me such a chill. You can make music with zero intent, just throw shit at a wall until you suddenly see something,” he says. “But if you can put the entire world out of your head and just be yourself—if you can capture that moment on tape, you may have found something special.”
McMicken cites songs like “Virginia Please” and “Heart Killer” as the most exciting, where he got inside the heads of fictional characters to create a vivid new world. Staying off the road also seemingly helped the songs flow out naturally.
“Songwriting to me is like playing shows—I care a lot about the kind of experience people have at our shows. It causes me a great deal of anxiety. ‘Oh, everyone looks bored, we’re sucking, we’re weird.’ But on those nights, I’m not thinking about anyone at all. I walk off stage and feel totally secure with what I had to offer,” he says.
By that summer, Dr. Dog had reconvened in their West Philadelphia studio. The new songs were ready. However, the unease hadn’t dissipated. It’d grown exponentially. Band members were talking, yet not communicating; they felt unheard but also unprepared to speak out. Dr. Dog was preparing a new album fully on inertia—after eight months apart. And that dissonance was most apparent between McMicken and Slick.
“I hit a wall with him; I wondered what Dr. Dog meant to him, and we just blew the doors open. Things started to look pretty heavy,” says McMicken. “He’d act a certain way, and he was responding to the way I was acting, but I didn’t even know what I was doing. It was completely backward. And there were subchapters with all of us: me and Frank, Frank and Zach, Zach and Toby, Toby and Eric.”
The blockage reached a boiling point later that summer. McMicken called Slick to ask an important question—did he even want to be in Dr. Dog anymore?“
We had these brutal conversations, going through all the passive aggressive things that happen in a band if you don’t communicate properly,” says Slick. “It’s not because I’m terrible to deal with or I pooped all over his bed. But what Scott wanted from me was just openness.”
Over the course of two days, they spoke three times. And on the third call, they both felt a palpable shift.“It wasn’t Oasis or Spinal Tap-style; it was much subtler than that,” says Slick. “I’d been operating on this idea that I was just the drummer of a band. I played what everyone wanted and I left. And I realized that was no longer acceptable.”
As band members decided—and vowed—to communicate more clearly, to speak up in the studio and on the bus, they had several mini breakthroughs.
“People don’t need much,” says Slick. “The subtlest gestures of kindness can make all the difference.”
Almost immediately, the clarity began to creep beyond their communication and into their music. The more the band felt willing to express themselves, the more they wanted to question Dr. Dog’s oldest habits. And as a staunchly independent band that’s recorded their own albums since the beginning, that list was long.
“We began thinking: Why do we have all these self-imposed rules about what we do and sound like? We can’t play shuffle beats. We don’t do disco beats. We don’t do Dylan affectations. We don’t do reverb-y vocals. We picked these tropes in our music and denied our right to enjoy them,” declares McMicken. “It was all based on tastes, but tastes evolve. We started saying, ‘Fuck Dr. Dog.’ Whatever rules we made in the past must end.”
The first rule that Dr. Dog let go of was a big one—that they don’t hire producers. From there, McMicken immediately placed a call to none other than Jeff Tweedy. Initially, the Wilco frontman was responsive, McMicken says. The collaboration ended up falling apart, but not before Tweedy pushed McMicken further along his new, open path.
“He’d respond to me saying, ‘What I think you’re saying is this.’ And it made me realize I was being so cagey. And he was so from-the-hip. What was happening in our band was exactly that: communicating clearly,” says McMicken. “He taught me that if we were going to work with a producer, we had to walk into the studio with trust, first and foremost.”
Within weeks, Gus Seyffert, who’d worked with Beck and Norah Jones, had signed on. The band joined Seyffert in his studio in LA’s Filipinotown—a converted Victorian house—with a batch of songs ready to roll. It was immediately clear that Seyffert would serve both as producer and therapist.
“He’d come to each of us to check in and reassure us—he got into everyone’s head and convinced us what we were doing was a good thing,” says Slick. But Seyffert was far from a silent observer behind the booth; he wanted to create an album that he wanted to hear, pushing the band through take after take and floating his own musical ideas.
“There’s a dynamic in that band that’s been in place a long time,” says Seyffert, calling from an Australian tour stop with Roger Waters. “Me, coming in? I broke that wide open. I have knee-jerk reactions to things. When it hits me wrong, I have to speak up—and the whole band was in on that process.”
Seyffert moved in on their songcrafting issues as well, beginning with Critical Equation’s lead single, the subtly jiving “Listening In,” a tune about hearing the world’s conversations hovering around you.“
That song was chugging along, and it needed something new. Scott had this other song, a 6/8 slow jam with a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins vibe. I wanted to make that song the bridge of ‘Listening In,’” remembers Seyffert. “I had to make the case: The animals are talking, the lights are shining. You’re losing it. Then the bridge—from a completely different song—is all about heartbreak. That gives you the reason for feeling crazy.”
The gambit worked—and Seyffert was officially in the fold with Dr. Dog. They wrapped Critical Equation in just under three weeks, and left it in Seyffert’s hands to mix and master. It’s hard to argue that the album isn’t their best in nearly a decade—tunes like “Go Out Fighting” and “Heart Killer” are impossibly fun, organ-stacked, classic psychedelic-rock, like the 13th Floor Elevators on a sugar high. Leaman’s tunes—typically Dr. Dog’s more rocking cuts—are swirling, soulful and folky. The record closes with “Coming Out of the Darkness,” all jangling guitars and McMicken, wide-eyed, crowing, “Comin’ out of the darkness—get out the way!”
McMicken designed the album’s cover based on the five-pointed hex symbol of the Pennsylvania Dutch— neighbors to these Philly boys— with a color representing each band member.
“The spiraling line connecting each piece; that’s our communication. There’s truth and honesty embedded in there—everything’s in that hex,” he says.The album may represent a new musical chapter for the band, but it’s also a new chapter for friends who’ve been kicking around together for years—McMicken and Leaman have played together since middle school.
“This’ll work because we trust each other. And if we can do that, then we don’t need to be afraid. There’s no version of reality, to me, where the band doesn’t exist, where we’re no more,” says McMicken. “‘Fuck Dr. Dog’— that idea wasn’t about our band. It was about us all being happy, strong, soulful people with only one life to live.”