Though lead songwriters Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken have been collaborating on songs for more than 20 years, Dr. Dog may just now be coming into its own. Since adding drummer Eric Slick and multi-instrumentalist Dimitri Manos in 2012, the band has toured extensively. Next month, they’ll release their eighth studio album, B-Room, the first output from the band’s all-new, handmade home studio. It’s also the most collaborative record Dr. Dog has made yet.
Talking to Leaman from his Philadelphia home last week, he explained that B-Room is the product of a new approach that included writing in the studio, arranging as a group, and, for Leaman, learning to let go.
“We were trying to use the band as part of the process this time,” he said. “We’ve been recording for so long, so there aren’t a lot of strange sonic things that we haven’t already messed around with. To us, the novel thing was really using the band and trying to find out how badass we can get and how strong we can be together.”
On a sonic level, Leaman said, the album doesn’t stretch too far from Dr. Dog’s established vibe. The band is still chasing its inspirations, a combination of ’60s rock and pop icons ranging from the Beatles to the Beach Boys and ’90s lo-fi heroes like Pavement. But in place of the frenzied feel of past records, B-Room promises to be simpler, cleaner, and more pared down.
“I feel like, more than any of our other records, this one just moves more,” said Leaman. “It sounds less schizophrenic. When everyone’s playing and everyone’s thinking about what everyone else is doing, it sort of leads you to playing simpler and more complementary things and not feeling like you’re doing a lot of the heavy lifting on your own.”
Since forming the band in 1999, Leaman and childhood friend McMicken have in many ways carried Dr. Dog’s torch. They’ve seen the band through multiple lineup changes; written, arranged, and engineered most of the band’s records; and often acted as Dr. Dog’s in-house coproducers.
“That’s kind of how we’ve always worked,” said Leaman. “We’re not the kind of band that gets a budget for a record and starts asking, ‘Oh, where are we gonna record? Who are we gonna get to produce it? What is it gonna sound like?’ The only decision we make is ‘When are we starting?’”
For this go-round, that also meant building a new home studio, which the band designed and constructed from the ground up. “We put the control room in, and we built the tracking room, and we did it all to our own specs,” said Leaman. “We all grew up doing home recording, and I believe that’s when you do your best work — when you’re not uncomfortable and you’re not feeling like you’re invading somebody else’s space or wasting somebody else’s time.”
In fact, even the album’s title stems from the new recording space. In addition to a main studio, Dr. Dog’s new home contains a “B room,” where the majority of the record’s vocals were recorded, mostly to a 388 A-track tape machine that the band has been using for close to a decade.
“We did [most of the vocals] by ourselves in the B room, late night, with nobody around,” said Leaman.
With less than a month until the album’s release, and a massive tour alongside The Lumineers on the horizon, Leaman can’t help but get excited about playing new songs in new venues (and being on the receiving end of catered meals). He’s also gained a newfound perspective on Dr. Dog’s still-evolving dynamic.
“Why Scott and I have always worked well together is because we just like what the other person does so much,” he said. “For the past 20 years, we’ve been writing next to each other and influencing each other in a way that isn’t just hearing someone else’s song and copying it. It’s like a little ladder, and each little rung is getting us somewhere new.”
Dr. Dog plays the Santa Barbara Bowl (1122 N. Milpas St.) with The Lumineers on Thursday, September 26, at 6:30 p.m. Call (805) 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com for tickets and info.