"This was a straight-up construction project," says Dr. Dog's Toby Leaman, referring to the B-room, a crucial fixture of the new recording studio that he and his bandmates built early this year in a converted silver-smith mill outside Philadelphia. B-Room also happens to be the title of his band's eighth LP, which comes out on October 1st.
"Really, we did back-to-back projects," Leaman says. "The first part is being completely amusical – not having anything to do with songs or playing or recording techniques or performances. Before we even got to the project we were supposed to be working on, we'd already completed this other one that we were really psyched about. Everybody pitched in and did good work."
This literal hands-on approach kick-started a much-needed creative re-boot. Dr. Dog have always been revered for the deft, fluid interplay of their live shows, blending funk with roots-rock and psychedelia – but their previous albums are mostly sonic patchworks, pieced together through extensive overdubbing and demoing. B-Room offers a simpler, more organic approach to songcraft, a truer reflection of Dr. Dog's strengths as a band playing together in a room.
"Even while the build was going on, people were showing each other music," Leaman says. "Everybody'd already been hanging out. It was really loose. It wasn't like we hadn't seen each other in a few months and needed to catch up. It wasn't like, 'OK, let's start recording.' We just eased into that. It's the first time we just played for about two weeks – not aimlessly but without any intent, without saying, 'These could be the foundations for songs.' It was just, 'Let's see how many feels we can do; get it onto tape and see what it sounds like.' It was really freeing that way."
The studio became a second home for the band – and understandably so. A 5,000-square-foot pseudo-mansion covered in large windows, the space itself features two bedrooms, two bathrooms, multiple storage rooms, a main "chill room" with kitchen and couches, a control room, tracking room and the titular B-room, where band members would work out ideas while others were busy recording (or hanging out) elsewhere.
"There was a period of time where I didn't leave the studio for two weeks," says co-frontman Scott McMicken. "If you kinda just felt stale musically, somebody else could be inspired and could work," Leaman adds. "And you wouldn't just be sitting there pulling your hair out – you could actually go do some physical labor in the studio and still feel like you're doing something. You don't want to a do a guitar solo? Then sweep!"
In the past, Leaman and McMicken have always served as the band's two-headed captain, writing and demoing the material with the other members (guitarist Frank McElroy, drummer Eric Slick, multi-instrumentalist Dimitri Manos, keyboardist Zach Miller) adding their respective parts. With six members, all of whom play multiple instruments, it's tough satisfying everyone's creative impulses. But B-Room is collaborative in a new way, stripping back to a soulful, bare-bones approach. McMicken references the striking simplicity of old blues music, while Leaman emphasizes the importance of "establishing a role" and contributing to the project in whatever way possible.
"The point wasn't getting everybody on tape at the same time," Leaman says. "The point was getting everybody playing at the same time so everybody felt like they were all playing together. We could just go punch in certain areas, but everybody was already playing to the feel. [That way] you're not overplaying, and you're not overthinking. We've all been playing together for so long, and everybody understands that it's a very malleable process. You might have only done one tiny thing on a song or even nothing, but you were there. You added to it at some point. Just having everybody playing together is so freeing."
That camaraderie is evident throughout B-Room, from the sparse soulfulness of "The Truth" to the spooky spontaneity of "Minding the Usher," which originated from a late-night jam-session. But the most exemplary track is "Too Weak to Ramble," a powerful ballad sung by Leaman, backed by only acoustic guitars and McMicken's fragile harmonies.
"We'd decided we were definitely going to do that song live, just me and him," Leaman says. "I'm gonna play the guitar and Scott's gonna play the guitar, and here's the vocal take. Scott and I have been working together for over 20 years, and it's taken us this long to go into that world. It takes a certain level of confidence in a song, too."
"I felt the pressure just sitting next to him," McMicken adds. "It makes me well up every time I hear it now."
"We've been recording together for so long," says Leaman. "And we've always layered stuff and overdubbed and are very specific about arrangements. We know we can do that stuff; we trust each other enough to do that stuff. But it was nice to know that we don't have to do that to make something good. We can make something really bare-bones, and if we do it right, it works that way, too."
"A lot of times, we'll go into the record, and whatever stated intent gets forgotten pretty easily. With this one, we actually accomplished what we were trying to do, which is a great feeling."