Track by Track is a new music feature that tasks artists with telling the story behind each song on their latest album.
Dr. Dog’s latest, Critical Equation, marks the Philadelphia psych outfit’s first album of new material in five years. It also marks a shift in their process, with the band recording exclusively on 16-track analog tape and inviting the assistance of an outside producer, Gus Seyffert (Bedouine, Michael Kiwanuka). “We wanted it to feel really live and be tracked in a live way,” says co-frontman Scott McMicken.
To do so, they ventured out of the comfort zone of their own studio and holed up with Seyffert in Los Angeles. “That was a hugely informative and determining factor about what you make,” McMicken explains. “The context really shapes the thing you’re making. It forced a whole new way of approaching the recording process for us.” Working with Seyffert also helped shape the music’s new direction. “You have to trust someone if you want to experiment and find out things in a different way,” adds McMicken. “He was encouraging and supporting all of these things that to me were the things we needed to target and get rid of. To him as an outsider, these were the things that make Dr. Dog, Dr. Dog.”
The result is an album that’s as sincere as it is oddball, a representation of how creative restraint can often open up new doorways. We’ve heard this evolution of the band’s sound in pre-release singles like “Listening In”and “Go Out Fighting”, and now you can listen to Critical Equation in full below via Apple Music and Spotify.
For further insight into how the album came together, McMicken sat down with our own Sarah Midkiff to break down Critical Equation Track by Track. Check out what he had to say below.
I had this wild night, and it started with “Coming Out Of The Darkness”. I was alone at my house and I had one of those ‘90s, battery powered keyboards. I was using that to write songs. I do that more and more. Most of my life I’ve just written songs with an acoustic guitar or a piano. The feel of the song has become a more exciting part of music in general for me. I wrote a bunch of songs that night. It was such an awesome night. For whatever reason, everything was just making sense in the way I wanted it to. It was this intuitive thing where I’m not taking things too seriously. Turns out the less seriously I take them out of the gate, the closer I get to a conclusion that in the end feels really serious for me. It’s inviting yourself into that process without any pretense. It’s a nice way to get somewhere deeper. Listening in is the voyeuristic thing. It’s like being at a restaurant and listening to people. They’re not talking to you. Sometimes the natural world feels that way. That’s where I was coming from with that tune.
“Go Out Fighting”:
“Go Out Fighting” took many many turns along its way. Not so much musically; that has one musical idea going on. It’s all about that groove, that propulsive beat. It was more the lyrics and the melody. The way that song started was kind of a jam. I’d sit there for so long and improvise and sing stuff over top of it. I’d be grabbing notebooks and seeing what scraps existed that never made it anywhere, drawing from things like that. I ended up with way too many ideas and I couldn’t figure out which ones were better. That line “never give up, go out fighting,” I had pulled out of my notebook because I’d written this other song that had that line in it. The other song wasn’t a scary-sounding groove at all, it was this happy, major chord thing. It’s weird the symbiotic relationship between the words and the chords… I wrote several versions of the song written around that line.
“Buzzing In The Light”:
Our goal was to make an album that sounded like our band playing songs. Everything just felt really fresh. Even weeks later, when I’m at home listening to my album that’s done, I’m still finding out things about it. Because it happened so quickly and there was no time to sit there and drill it in. We wanted to understand things on the most basic level. It was a challenge. I think it was a game-changer.
I’d been working on that as an instrumental. That’s why the melody is so long and sprawling. The verse is actually this kind of non-repeating thing. It’s this super long melody. I became so obsessed with it. I worked on it for so long. Never begrudgingly. I loved the feel of the chords beneath it. I could just listen to that over and over again as I just kept working on melodies on the keyboard. Eventually, I got to a point with it as an instrumental that I felt that it was really cool. Then I was like, “Man, if I could just write some lyrics for this now.” I used to write like that years ago where I’d write the chords and the melody, then when I was satisfied with that I’d write the lyrics. It started to get so hard. You get fixated. It adds another challenge when you have to fit words into a thing that is already moving in a certain way. I gave up on writing songs that way a long time ago. I realized in order to write lyrics for this, I have to do that. It turns out it wasn’t hard at all. I was able to get through it pretty quick. I really like the mood of it.
There’s some weird, purely visceral, aesthetic criteria about a title. Certain combinations of sounds and words just feel like a title more so than others. After we tracked that tune, I was out on the porch having a cigarette and I was overwhelmed. I said to Gus, “I think that was the single best musical experience I’ve ever had in a studio in my entire life.” I’ve thought about it a ton to try and figure out why that felt so good and how to get more of that. The song itself, the process of writing it and the process of recording it always worked in some inexplicable way. I can’t even really tell you what that song is about, but I can 100% stand behind that song in terms of how it makes me feel.
Toby [Leaman] wrote that one, and I was privy to many versions of it along the way. I feel like he always had the lyrics. I never heard it until he had completed the lyrics, but I know he wrote it pretty fast. There was a couple lines that he came up with in the studio. He’ll do that more than I ever really do. He’ll still be working lines right there while he’s singing in the studio. I’ve been hearing it so much in his demo, then rehearsing it for a month or so before going to LA. It wasn’t until our album was done that I feel like I finally heard that song for the first time and felt the impact of the lyrics that he had written… He had a pretty refined vision for where he wanted it to go.
I was down to cut it. I pretty much did cut it. I was like, “Dudes, no to that song.” Then a week later, we’re talking about it again. Not that I hate that song. I like albums that feel like a whole piece, and with two songwriters already, you never really find out what that big picture is until really late in the game. Then you’re like, “Oh I see this album has this flavor.” A bunch of songs get recorded. If you cut these five out, the whole album feels pretty rockin’, but if you put these five back in and cut these three out, it’s a super sleepy album. All of these bigger picture questions about what the album will be on the whole are really late-game realizations. I felt like this poppier element, if we just bail on it completely, we end up with this pretty exotic sounding record. I had a much dirtier version of that in my head. A much more aggressive version.
I originally wrote the lyrics. The first thing I like to get done is the lyrics so that I can know that I feel good about that, then play around with the music. The reverse of the way that I started writing tunes. I’ll pick a real, innocuous melody usually with a country feel. I’ll use the same three chords and let that be the chords and the melody just to give me a coat hanger to find the right lyrics to hang off it. “Night” started as a hokey country tune… I kept it really simple. I showed it to the band and they all loved it. Then I did a whole other version of the tune that was just a pure experiment in songwriting. After having done that initial demo which sounds a lot like the record version, I then scrapped all the tracks on that demo except for the vocal and the drum beat. I sat there with a guitar and tried to find the weirdest chords I could play that would still work with that melody. I tried to go for the weirdest ones I could possibly find and string them together. I created this whole other version that we almost did over the chill version.
“Under The Wheels”:
Toby’s vision for that song was a real chugging, basic shuffle rock and roll song that we can make weird in a couple various, subtle ways. Like great old Stones songs, when you break them down. It’s just some muddy guitar and you can barely hear this, and maybe this thing is way too loud, but then there is one weird surprise element. I loved that idea. It’s worth the challenge and not being afraid of these cliches. I’ve never really understood this whole war for authenticity. You know when it’s real or not. On the surface, it might look exactly like something you’ve seen a thousand times but the feeling in that moment is undeniable. Gus heard that shuffle beat and was like “Uh oh.” For whatever reason, he picked it apart a lot with regards to our initial arrangement. He carved out a different shape to it and some really weird sounds for us. He’s such a good musician. That’s why we were there. We got to be a better band for it.
“Coming Out Of The Darkness”:
The line ‘can’t hide from the pain of reflection,’ coming up with that line, so much of songwriting is getting to know yourself or learning something about yourself. I felt like I really learned something about myself when I came up with that. It felt confessional in a way that I feel as though I need to be more. Hiding is just no good. It takes courage to truly reveal yourself, but it also takes a lot of experience and a lot of desire to even figure out what it is you have to reveal. That song was such a gift to me. I had the night to myself and I was going to work on some songs, but right away I felt completely uninspired. That can end up being a pretty vulnerable thing. It’s a fight sometimes. Sometimes things just happen naturally, other times you might have to fight more them a little bit. Other times, it just doesn’t even happen. You can end up feeling so much worse after the fact. Just like the creative process can lift you up, it can really tear you down, too. There’s this romanticism that exists about songwriting. There are definitely a lot of times in the creative process where something comes out of nowhere comes something very clear. That’s what happened with that tune. It became this perfect meta thing. I had been in that sludge and I was starting to feel myself climbing out of it and it was literally the line “coming out of the darkness.”
Dr. Dog 2018 Tour Dates:
05/02 – Boston, MA @ House of Blues
05/04 – Detroit, MI @ Majestic Theatre
05/05 – Chicago, IL @ Riviera Theatre
05/06 – St. Paul, MN @ Palace Theatre
05/08 – Milwaukee, WI @ Turner Hall Ballroom
05/10 – Tulsa, OK @ Cain’s Ballroom
05/11 – Dallas, TX @ Granada Theater
05/12 – Austin, TX @ Moody Theater
05/13 – Houston, TX @ White Oak Music Hall
05/14 – San Antonio, TX @ The Rustic
05/16 – New Orleans, LA @ Joy Theater
05/17 – Birmingham, AL @ Iron City
05/18 – Atlanta, GA @ Tabernacle
05/19 – Black Mountain, NC @ Pisgah Brewing Co.
06/01 – Santa Ana, CA @ The Observatory
06/02 – San Diego, CA @ Observatory North Park
06/05 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Theatre at Ace Hotel
06/07 – Oakland, CA @ Fox Theater
06/08 – Portland, OR @ Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
06/09 – Seattle, WA @ The Moore Theatre
06/11 – Salt Lake City, UT @ The Depot
06/13 – Denver, CO @ Ogden Theatre
06/14 – Denver, CO @ Ogden Theatre
06/16 – Indianapolis, IN @ Egyptian Room at Old National Centre
06/17 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Stage AE
06/19 – Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Steel
06/20 – Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Steel
06/22 – Vienna, VA @ Wolf Trap
06/23 – Philadelphia, PA @ Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing