In the Heavy Heavy Light: An interview with Dr. Dog’s Toby Leaman, Part 1 of 2

On Thursday night, Philadelphia’s finest will take Boston captive. After playing two gigs at Paradise Rock Club last February, Dr. Dog will be calling The House of Blues home on March 22 in support of their recent release, Be The Void.

Dr. Dog traces its roots to 20 years ago when the dual songwriters/vocalists Toby Leaman (bass) and Scott McMicken (guitar) began jamming and writing music together in eighth grade.

Leaman—Dr. Dog’s bluesy bassist with the whiskey howl—spoke to music editor Lucien Flores on topics ranging from songwriting, the band’s underdog label, beanie hats and more.

Lucien Flores: Dr. Dog has obtained this hardworking underdog label that always seems thrown around and mentioned with you guys. How do you respond to this? How does it resonate with the band and with your fans?

Toby Leaman: I definitely think that we think of ourselves that way. We’ve been doing it for so long and there hasn’t been a major jump in success at any given time. Just doing the same thing. Our live shows are sort of what have made the band a success, it’s not like we sell a ton of records or anything like that. I think we like working that way. I think we like the idea that . . . something none of us could live without. The other side of it is it’s a job and you can’t really be a man if you’re treating your job like it’s a problem, you got to find a different job or find a way to exist in your job and feel good about it. We all look at it that way. There are a lot of times where you don’t want to do a gig or you don’t want to go away for the weekend or do this or do that, but it’s a job, you got to do it. All bands that I feel sort of kindred to feel the same way: Don’t take it for granted; don’t assume that you’re going to be here next year. You got to do the work.

LF: And then on the flip side, there are the buzz bands that explode on everybody’s radar and then fizzle out. What do you think of that buzz band phenomenon?

TL: It’s awesome for bands that happens to and then they maintain it. Not every band is only good for one record; there’s lots of bands that [stay popular longer]. It kind of sucks for those bands because they’ll get to a place pretty quickly and then the idea is that, “Well we got to this place, we’re at this level, we’ll maintain this level and we’ll only get bigger,” and I don’t think that’s the reality in a lot of cases. Usually the second record is never going to do as good because that’s the fickleness of the public, but if it’s good, then that band can still exist and still be a great band and continue working. I think it’s a shame sometimes [when] you see these bands and think, “Oh man they’re a good band, I hope they don’t shoot themselves in the foot,” but a lot of times people do.

LF: You and Scott have been playing together since eighth grade . . . 

TL: It will be 20 years in October.

LF: Which is . . . 

TL: So long! We’re a slow burn.

LF: When you guys started playing together, what sort of music did you bond over? How different was that creative process? Obviously back then it wasn’t Dr. Dog; it was eighth graders just jamming to music or playing covers. 

TL: We actually never did covers, which is weird. From the first time we ever played together, we wrote. It’s just strange because that’s what I assumed bands did . . .. I didn’t know people were playing covers until I started playing with other kids our age and they were just playing covers, and I just didn’t understand. Not that I thought it was dumb; it didn’t occur to me. Why would you be in a band?

LF: That’s probably one of the reasons you guys are in a successful band making original music . . . 

TL: There’s a lot of times we’d have heart-to-hearts; we’re no good, we stink, we need to get better at this and this, and we need to figure out what’s going on, and these songs are dumb and our voices are stupid and these chord changes are dumb. You have to go through all that kind of stuff in order to write. We’ve been writing forever. It’s not like we just started writing when the band started. We had been writing for 10 years before Dr. Dog started so I think we have a leg up in that way.

LF: You guys have that 50/50 split in songwriting. Does that help temper any sort of egos that you may have? Or wanting to outdo the other? Does having this split help you both know that you have the space and time to create something and not worry about what Scott’s doing and he doesn’t have to worry about what you’re doing?

TL: Maybe we have always done it that way as a cushion for us. Not consciously, but I think it definitely helps to know that I might only have ten songs and Scott has twenty, but I know that five of mine will make the records. Sometimes you might write 25 songs and only eight of them are good. That happens. Him and I have just been doing it for so long so when a song is there as a Dr. Dog song, it’s our song. Whatever song I’m writing, he’s definitely influenced whether or not he’s written any part of it at all. Just the fact that he and I have been doing this forever and been constantly influencing each other and hearing what the other person is doing and just taking out the parts that you feel comfortable about and going in the same direction and vice-versa. Even though it’s his song, I still feel as if it’s our song. I know he feels the same way because it’s just the way we’ve always done it. And then once it gets in the recording process it’s sort of everybody’s. We’re pretty democratic in the way we do things; everybody’s voice is pretty much equal when it comes to the way we record stuff and the way we produce stuff. Only very rarely, at the very end of the process, if somebody feels really strongly about something and another person doesn’t . . . usually we’ll just scrap it if somebody is really opposed to something, we’ll just wait on it and see what happens. There’s been a few songs over the years that have not worked on one album and worked on other albums down the road.

LF: You’ve got this raw, bluesy, voice. Can you channel that at any moment or is that something that you have to work your way into? Is it difficult or even painful to channel it?

TL:  If we’ve been playing a lot, that’s always the first thing to go. I’ve slowly been writing songs in lower and lower keys. I hurt my throat real bad about four years ago. I cracked my trachea in this dumb boating accident and it was terrifying. I couldn’t sing for about five or six months. It was right when Fate came out. To have to go on tour and not be able to sing, it sucked. My voice has been coming back, I started to write songs in lower keys so I wouldn’t have to push it hard. I’m about back to where I was or at least pretty close. I’m definitely a better singer.  I definitely know what I’m doing more. In terms of being able to channel . . . you have to put yourself in a head space to perform. You have to believe what you’re doing or nobody else is going to believe it. You’re the first filter.

LF: I remember last year when you came into Boston. You said you were sick, looked sick, but your voice still sounded great. Do you have to persevere?

TL: Fortunately with my voice, even when I am sick, the character is still sort of there. I can’t always hit the notes I want to hit, but the character is there. That’s just something you have to do your whole life. You have to figure out where you feel comfortable and what is [the] most compelling way to sing. So that people can respond the most and that is definitely a conscious thing. You try and think different ways on different nights and you try and find the one the one that works the most and the one you can maintain the most. The first couple shows, you’re always pretty much displaying your stuff up there, doing whatever is possible and going nuts for two hours, thinking, “I feel great! This is going to be totally fine!” Then three or four shows into it you’re like, “Oh, I totally screwed myself! I’m wrecked!” Finding the balance is definitely the hardest thing for a singer; I can’t do everything every night that I want to do. And I want to do a lot!

LF: What song is hardest for you to sing?

TL: There’s a bunch. I mean there’s some I just can’t straight up sing anymore . . . some older stuff. There’s a sweet spot in the way you sing where you’re like, “I used to not be able to do this, but now I can do it because I do it this way.”

LF: Dr. Dog has those great beanie winter hats . . . 

TL: We sell so many of those things. Love it.

LF: I see them around all the time. Do you or anybody in the band wear them around?

TL: Oh yeah, everybody does. That’s why we made them initially because, “Oh it would be awesome to have these hats,” because you don’t really see those hats all the time. We just sort of made them and then we wanted to see how they did, but people love them.

LF: Do your fans see you in the street wearing them?

TL: I don’t know. Where I live I don’t see a lot of fans. Sometimes when we’re on the road, when you’re hanging around a venue all day sometimes I’m walking around and you see people looking at you and coming up to talk to you. I’m like, “How do they even recognize [me]?” . . . and then I realize I’m wearing a Dr. Dog shirt and a hat and I’m completely decked.

Part two of Lucien Flores’ interview with Toby Leaman will appear on Thursday’s issue of The Daily Free Press.

3 Comments

  1. My head frequently sports one of those hats for a young man who has always been close to my heart. I am one of the privileged who knows the deep reservoirs and life experiences that bring many of his songs to fruition. Some critics miss the genuine love for the music rather than the love of fame and money that truly motivates Toby, Scott, and the other members of this band. Hats off to them!

  2. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE TELL ME WHERE I CAN BUY A HAT!!!!! PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE put them on your merch website!!!!!!

  3. Mel, I hope you believe this article showed more of that love of music side. Toby was really easy to talk to and I never felt as if he gave a rehearsed or phoned-in answer . Great interview, great band, and they gave a great show at the House of Blues on the 22nd haha.

    Laruen, I would love one of the Dr. Dog hats as well. Wish they were back on the site!

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