Think Less, Feel More
Epic Notions with Scott McMicken of Dr. Dog
Words by Audra Tracy
Photo by David Turcotte
Dr. Dog is heading out on tour this week, so you should probably get fueled up and ready for it. “Everyone should drink yerba mate tea and put a mixer of your choice in there”, guitarist/vocalist Scott McMicken recommends to his ticket-holders. “You just drink that stuff and you feel great. You have all this energy and focus, and it puts you on top of your game.”
Solid advice from a guy whose band is also enjoying a new-found focus, thanks to Dr. Dog’s new studio in their hometown of Philadelphia. A serious upgrade from their previous recording space, the spot has breathed new life into the artistic process, as heard on their seventh album, B-Room.
“The old place had become such a mess, and so cluttered that it was almost encroaching – it worked against you”, he laments. “And when you’re in that streamline mentality that you want to have when you’re working, you have an idea, you want to do it now. It’s all about now – capture that moment. That’s been an evolving kind of musical goal, to pay more attention to the intuitive side of things”, he says, “think about things less and feel things more – and work quicker that way.”
And so the band took over an old mill, gutting the inside but keeping its original floors, exposed brick, and factory-sized windows intact. And just as they redesigned the place to be a functional, more efficient studio space, McMicken and his band-mates felt it was equally important to maintain a certain vibe within its very walls.
“Initially we had that clubhouse mentality – we started just like spray painting and doing all this crazy stuff”, he recalls. “But it became apparent almost immediately, there seemed something so crude, or so wrong about not taking a more refined approach to sort of setting the tone. Because the place itself has such an incredible feel to it, and the more we kind of recklessly ‘weirded’ the place out, the more it seemed to just offend the natural beauty of it. As we started to realize that, that then formed our approach to the decor and the vibe of the place. Now it’s really kind of classy… it’s this weird ‘Wes Anderson colonial’ feel”, he laughs.
Once the studio (and the vibe) began to take shape, Dr. Dog set their sights on fine-tuning their overall recording process, too. More space meant more possibilities, and more freedom to try to bridge the gap between a studio session and a live show. What emerged from the walls of the old mill was B-Room, which is perhaps the band’s most soulful effort to date.
“I’d say for about half of the album, what you hear is what happened when the song was counted off: everyone playing at once together, and capturing it all at once”, he says of B-Room. “We even wrote that way. We would sort of just record ourselves playing without any real agenda, and just improvising to see what kind of cool melodies and grooves and general feels might emerge, and that became very useful towards the construction of the songs.”
All this reflection got McMicken and I talking about the power of music in general, and how any song has the potential to harness an almost spiritual connection between an artist and their audience.
“There’s something inherently palpable about rhythm, and melody, and tone, and feel that is a language spoken by all people. And I think that with the major tenets of religion, in the broadest kind of sense, is a similar aspect of humanity”, he points out. “Even simple music, like just mindless, visceral rock n roll music, something that isn’t necessarily trying to pry at deeper levels of understanding, but prying at something deeper nonetheless, because it’s really abstract.”
“I can sit down and write a song and record it, and make all these decisions about what it’s going to mean”, he goes on. “And then someone else can hear it, and it can take on a completely other form and other significance to them. So the sheer variety of the language within one piece of music is seemingly infinite.”
“I think it speaks to the fact that the act of listening to music is not a passive thing at all”, he concludes. “You’re not just sitting there taking something in, you’re bringing as much to the table as what’s being brought to you.”
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