By: Ryan Mannix
Dr. Dog’s newest album, Psychedelic Swamp, is Part Two of a concept that has been sixteen years in the making. The album is presented as a message from a character named Phrases, who sent the band a cassette tape detailing his existence in The Swamp, hoping to reach the masses. Unfortunately, the communication soaked in the mud for too long, and is barely comprehensible, hazy and jumbled.
The band’s job is to interpret this tape via their own American popular music sensibilities so we can all heed the warning. Yes, this is their second swing at it... their first try was actually the band's debut album. Not exactly a remake, not exactly an update -- the second chapter has been accompanied via a collaborative rock opera, multimedia event with the folks at Pig Iron Theater.
We caught up with guitarist and co-songwriter, Scott McMicken, to talk All Things Swamp and more.
What was the Swamp Is On experience like?
Really incredible. The concept was really an insular and private experience for those of us involved in it way back when. But it was very large in our imagination.
Then to have it open up so many years later, to so many people, who were encouraged to just jump in and make it their own, with so many different crafts. We kind of had to let it go to see it jump into a whole other dimension. It’s tough to sum up. Going from something so private, to something involving so many people is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
How did working with Pig Iron Theatre affect the process?
It was challenging in the best of ways. It was a different sense of performance. People are so fearless, just putting it all out there is really risky. Just going out there and not being afraid to try things and express themselves in the moment. Thats how they do it, they just try shit, and maybe they fall on their ass, or maybe they come up with something brilliant... but falling on your ass seems to be a big part of the process.
That just opens up so many creative portals -- when you’re less inhibited, which at first for us was a little awkward. But we knew out of the gate that it was next level, by the end we gleaned so much positive influence.
So did the inherent message of The Swamp change?
Well even in our first meetings with Pig Iron they were asking us these really basic questions about the concepts and themes that we never even really had the need to define before, so that was really helpful itself.
If anything what The Swamp is or represents to us is just this free creative lens, like feeling as though you're in control, but simultaneously passive as though you're interacting with it.
I actually listened to the new Psychedelic Swamp first, and just a few days ago found the old one online somewhere. It was kind of a crazy way to view the concept.
Yeah, its been kind of hard to communicate the two chapter element of it to some people at shows or in interviews. Some people think were just taking our first album and re-making it to make it better, but the concept was that we received this tape and we eventually were going to have to interpret it at some point. We knew when we finished that tape that it was a crazy weird thing, that was different than what we were even doing at that time. But we knew we were going to do it again, just pumping it through a very different, popular music lens.
Did you guys think you succeeded in interpreting Phrases' message?
Yeah, I do. We don't have any delusions about this being a concise package, but that's kind of the nature of The Swamp. It's kind of about operating with a certain creative lens, and letting themes prevail. There's really no wrong way to interpret the whole thing, which we know its kind of convoluted but it kept it really free.
What was it like going back to interpret some of the music? For example, "Fire On My Back" is very different.
A lot of it comes from just thirty second clips, and just expanding upon it. But that one was just one we were really into and it got a whole new chord structure. But we had to really remake it to make it a pop song. it was kind of like "anything goes" because we didn't really have a connection to the material as if were a new song being brought in. So anyone could go to any instrument or throw out any idea, and any way of capturing it in the studio. It was really open.
How are the songs working in the live shows?
Great! It was a little slow at first. We started the tour playing a lot of the songs, which was before the record came out, so a lot of people didn't really know them. It kind of seemed like it was slowing the show down.
Now we're slowly working them back in. The more the people know the stuff, the more we can get back in there. Looking back it seems that every tour from every album kind of shifts what we do live. The same goes for this record. It also affects how we play older stuff. It’s starting to feel like it's fusing together.
You guys have a lot of dog lyrics in your songs. Is that something that you and Toby do conceptually, or is it just fun for you? Or is it a subconscious thing?
Definitely not conscious. If anything, it's like a common thing that we love dogs. Something about the essence and spirit of your average domestic dog that we've always appreciated. Which probably led us to thinking that was a good band name to start with. There's an earnestness and soulfulness and a loyalty. Dogs exude a simplicity and mindlessness and in someway our band has valued that balance. Devotion to a point of severity, but through a lens of fun and simple.
"Old Black Hole" is a good example of how well crafted your tunes are. Could you talk about writing that one?
Yeah, that song was sort of the beginning of a realization I had in songwriting. Among the many discoveries you have along the way, the things you realize about the craft, I had sort of entered into a phase where I was way more focused on the lyrics.
For years when I wrote I was so often solely focused on the chords and melody. I would just be using gibberish syllables. Once I had that figured out, I would plug the words in after, which can be hard because you can be leaning towards certain vowel sounds.
Over time I began to focus more on the lyrics which led me to an opposite approach -- being totally content with the simplest melody in my head, because I always write lyrics while singing. "Old Black Hole" started as a a really simple, recycled country melody. Kind of hokey over simple chords, but once I had the words i could expand on it with variations on melody, and using minor chords and exploring the musicality of it.
It was a total excerise in that, and you can hear it in the song. The first part is over some re-contextualized chords, then after the bridge, its just rockin’ over those straight country chords. It is kind of like a relief because the melody just leads to those chords, like if you only heard the melody, your head would suggests those chords.
Can you talk about your rig?
I’m still using a Silvertone 1446... love that guitar! On this tour I've started using this amp -- I'm so, so in love with it.
We’ve had it in the studio, but for some reason it never seemed like an acceptable tour amp. But I was kind of like, fuck it, why not, because its a Peavy. Basically, Peavy is taboo for janky shit. But the more you dig into them and go back to the late 60s and early 70s, they have some amazing shit. I’m playing a Peavy Vulcan, which is the very first solid-state amp they made. They made them from 69-72, and it's rad. It sounds like what i want to hear and its a solid state amp -- like the least sexy thing possible
Are you still trying to push that edge of feedback sound?
Big time. Weirdly, some of the early solid state stuff can do that better than some tube amps. It's like of a different quality. Almost a warmer tone in some ways. I just love the early solid state amps, they have an aggressive, on the edge, sound. A lot of that feedback is having a hollow body guitar really loud, and some gnarly fuzz pedals. I feel like a solid state amp has a more transparent take on the pedals.
I really like your tone, its on the edge of chaos at all times but you do a really good job of controlling it.
Thanks, man. That's part of the reason I'm running all over the stage. I gotta get away from my amp. If I let a note ring out, I gotta get away from the amp because it's just screaming.
What's a song you always wanted to cover?
“A Whiter Shade of Pale”, and we’ve been talking about doing this Bob Marley cover, “Chances Are” from his doo-wop days, kinda pre-reggae. “Love in Vain” from Street Legal, I’ve recorded versions of it in my house, and man that song is really doin’ it.
What’s next for Dr. Dog?
We’re gonna try to bring Swamp Is On to some more cities, we’re working on getting funding and all that stuff, and the theatre side to that. Hopefully by summer we’ll have another set up in Boston or D.C. or something like that. Then we’ll be getting to work on a new album, we've got some of that we’ve already worked on.