Hanging Out ‘At A Flamingo Hotel’ With Dr. Dog

Long acclaimed for the band’s spirited live shows, Dr. Dog finally has a live album to its name. Before today’s release of the 19-track “Live At A Flamingo Hotel,” Pollstar talked to guitarist/vocalist Scott McMicken about the album, wearing your own merch, and pizza.

The neo-psychedelic/indie rock act keeps things interesting in the studio and on stage by having McMicken share frontmen duties with bassist/vocalist Toby Leaman. The rest of the lineup is made up of rhythm guitarist Frank McElroy, keyboardist Zach Miller, drummer Eric Slick and multi-instrumentalist Dimitri Manos.

The live album boasts tunes from throughout the Philadelphia-based band’s career, including a handful from its most recent LP, 2013’s B-Room – “The Truth,” “Broken Heart” and “Too Weak To Ramble.” Live At A Flamingo Hotel even features a few of its earliest songs, “County Line” and “Say Ahhh,” which can be found on 2002’s Toothbrush. And of course Dr. Dog couldn’t leave out the fan favorite cover of Architecture in Helsinki’s “Heart It Races.” The album was recorded at multiple shows during the act’s 2014 tour.

In its review of Live At A Flamingo Hotel, Rolling Stone declares that the album “captures the wild fun of its concerts.” The magazine notes that after listening to the collection of live tunes, “the idea of following them on tour will suddenly seem totally reasonable.”

Sounds like you better block out time in your schedule to catch the band on the road. Luckily for you, Dr. Dog has a nice stretch of dates ahead of them. On Monday the group wrapped a four-night residency at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg and on Wednesday “The Dr. Dog 4X4” continues with four shows at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. A U.S. tour runs through mid-April.

The press about your live album hasn’t really indicated where the album was recorded. Are you kind of keeping that info on the down low? Or was the album recorded at multiple shows?

Yeah, that’s it. It was multiple shows. It’s not on the down low, it’s not like a secret or anything like that. It’s more just like a playful concept that we developed that it was [recorded at] this fictional place called Flamingo Hotel, of which there’s supposedly many Flamingo Hotels, one in every town. … [The] collection of songs were all recorded and picked from maybe 20 shows or something. … I think like you have a choice when you’re making a live album – are you going to present this thing as though it’s one long continuous concert … Or are you just kind of using the live context to record material for the sake of what being live does to the material itself and then essentially just making an album out of it. We sort of wound up leaning more towards the latter version of that. We’re not in any way, shape or form trying to replicate a concert, we’re just trying to present our material as best we can and show the differences between live … and what it’s like in the studio recordings. So that’s that.

Did the recordings of the songs on the album take place pretty recently?

Yeah, it was a string of like maybe 15 shows from our winter [2014] tour, from March to April.

How did you come up with the setlist for the album?

We mostly just recorded all the shows and listened to them all … it was a slow process of whittling down all the songs where we had particularly good versions [that] everyone agreed was a good version because we had a lot of versions of every song to choose from. And they all varied pretty wildly. We didn’t go into it saying, “These are the songs we definitely want to have” or anything like that. We just picked out everything that sounded good and exciting and then we were like, “OK, how many songs is that?” We had to cut a bunch of songs out to get it to 19 songs. We were just kind of choosing based on what we as a band thought wound up working, what versions were good.

The album includes a cover of “Heart It Races” and pre-orders come with an instant download of the song. How long have you been playing that cover live?

Architecture in Helsinki is the band, who is our friends, and they recorded that song for an album in 2007 [Places Like This] … Before they released the new album they released [a version with] all the songs from their upcoming album except every one of them was covered by a different band that was friends of theirs or bands that they liked. They asked if we would be willing to do one of the tunes. And we said yes, of course. We recorded [“Heart It Races”] … and over the course of time we wound up having it available, we made a 7-inch and then everything kind of winds up in the end trickling onto iTunes. And then lo and behold it became probably, I think, our most popular song in some crazy kind of way. It became an often requested song at live shows, where to us it was this strange little moment in time, this fun little project that went down. Over the course of a few years the song really caught on for our fans. I think we probably didn’t really start playing it live until three years ago, maybe.  

Do you remember some of the cities that the album was recorded in?

The leg of the tour that we recorded all those shows was the second leg of the tour … most of it’s from the Midwest to the West Coast, between Texas and Vancouver … To the best of my memory, I know there were some Portland, some Seattle, some Austin – I remember those being three shows that were pretty fruitful for us when listening back. It was pretty unpredictable, like there were shows on that tour that I remember as real standout shows, once the night was over, being like, “Oh, that was such a great show.” But that didn’t necessarily translate when listening back. And what was interesting was that some of the shows that I remembered not feeling very good about at all wound up in some kind of weird way providing a lot of versions that we all deemed were the best.

How interesting. I wonder why it turned out that way.

Yeah, right? I think it’s just one of those things. It’s also an important affirmation that you shouldn’t let your head rule the game too hard. You never really know. Things are never really what things seem to be to you.

Is there an ideal venue to play live for you? Or do you have a few favorite venues?

At this point there’s so many cool ones that we look forward to continuing to play. We haven’t played the Fillmore in San Francisco in a while and it was so much fun. We always have such good shows there. And Stubb’s down in Austin, Texas, is really great because you get to play outdoors … Oh, there’s this place, The Higher Game in Burlington, Vermont, oddly enough. It’s just this really cool venue. It’s pretty simple. They have two rooms. One room can hold maybe 500 people and then the other room can hold maybe about 1,000 or so. It’s kinda in a parking lot next to a Burger King. It’s nothing really that special architecturally or anything but maybe it’s more to do with the people that work there and the general kind of way in which music is received in Burlington – really unpretentious and really open-minded and it always feels great to play there, mostly I think on account of the people that live there. And among the people that live there, the ones that work at the club are super nice.

Seems like the audience at the show would really make a difference.

Yeah, all the difference in the world, for sure.

Are there any songs in particular that you especially enjoy performing live?

Yeah, yeah, for sure. And then there are those that are borderline nauseating because you’ve played them so many times. There’s a definite full range spectrum there. But we never really let the songs get too nauseating because we have plenty of other songs. We don’t have to. There’s no song that we necessarily have to play. There just winds up being songs that we end up playing because until they stop working they seem to work really well. Then you give a song a rest for a few years and then pick it back up later and it seems like a whole new song again. And all that being said, I think I really like playing “Heavy Light,” because it’s just one song that we’ve always kind of built in these zones within it for improvisation and so we kind of get to these parts of the songs and then every night just kind of approach it differently. I really like that experience of just kind of improvising in a live show. I’d like to be able to do more of that and I think the whole band does. I think we’ll be including more and more of those opportunities for ourselves within songs to just improvise and kind of recreate what that song means on a nightly basis. … I like “Old Black Hole,” just because it’s fun to sing. And “County Line” is always nice because it’s just much more mellow. And “Too Weak To Ramble” too. I like the more mellow ones these days. And a whole bunch, I like to play them all. If you’re not able to enjoy playing the tunes, it’s pretty unlikely it’s going to work out.

That’s a good point.

(laughs) Yeah. That thing like we were just saying, things aren’t really as they seem to you. You might actually feel like you’re playing this song and … maybe you never even liked the song to begin with, say hypothetically, or maybe you’ve played it too many times and you’re not enjoying yourself and then you just convince yourself that whatever’s happening right now is really bad for everyone witnessing it. Meanwhile, you’re the only one witnessing what you’re witnessing and then everyone else is having a great time. It kind of falls into that category again. Yeah, I don’t know why that keeps coming up but there must be something to it.

Photo: Courtesy of Anti-

When I saw you guys play in San Francisco earlier this year I noticed you and Toby were wearing beanies and I saw that they were also sold at the merch stand. Is there a story behind the beanies?

Oh yeah, we’ve always pretty much just rocked our own merchandise at shows and in life and (laughs) I think it’s mostly because the type of dudes we are. But what exactly happened is I think it encourages people who like your band to want to have that thing more. We first got them for ourselves so that we could wear them and it just seemed really cool to have a beanie of your own band. We might have at first ordered 20 additional ones to sell and they sold instantaneously now we just can’t even order enough of them. People just keep buying the beanies over and over again. And I think it’s because those beanies are really cool.

We’ve run experiments … Our merch guy, Travis, had this idea. We had this whole box of T-shirts, that was the last box of this one particular design and [it] had all the tour dates on the back of the shirt and the tour was about to end … Travis had this theory that if I or Toby or one of us in the band wears the T-shirt and then goes out and does the show then we’ll sell a bunch of the T-shirts and it totally worked (laughs).

I don’t know if you’ve seen this ’90s movie “Can’t Hardly Wait,” but there’s these guys in high school who have a band and one of them is wearing the band T-shirt and this other guy goes, “You can’t wear your own band’s T-shirt!” But you know – you can if you want to.

(laughs) Yeah, you should!

It’s kind of silly how some fans even feel like they’ll look like a dork if they wear a band’s T-shirt to the show.

That’s like, who would call somebody a dork for wearing a New York Yankees jersey to a New York Yankees game or something?

I don’t know why music fans have to act like they’re so cool.

Exactly. Nobody’s cool.

You and Toby share frontmen duties as far as lead vocals. With the live shows, is it basically whoever sang lead on the recorded version will sing lead live?

Yeah, yeah, I think there’s only one instance of that not being the case and that’s a song of ours called “My Friend” that the last song on Fate and that’s the only song we’ve ever traded lead singer duties on. Yep, whoever wrote it sings it live, whoever wrote it sings it in the studio and that’s pretty much the rule 99.9 percent of the time.

Have either of you ever written a song for the other one to sing?

Yeah, well that’s what happened with “My Friend.” I wrote “My Friend” and then when it came time to record it, in my head I heard it as Toby singing, which doesn’t really happened that often. It was kind of an anomaly. And then when we recorded it, he sang the first half and then I sang the second half. But what’s kinda messed up now is that whenever we play it live I have to sing it but I never really wanted to sing it, I wanted him to sing it.

Does he not want to sing it anymore?

Right after we finished recording Fate and right before we started to go on tour behind Fate he got injured really badly in his neck. For five or six weeks of touring for Fate he wasn’t singing at all and we were going out and I was singing everything every night until he recovered. In that time I was like, “OK, we can do ‘My Friend,’ even though you sing that one.” We were still doing shows and I was singing every song but I wasn’t singing Toby’s songs. We were just doing entire shows with my songs. It would sound really ridiculous, I think, if I singing Toby’s songs (laughs) because my voice is so different.
But [“My Friend”] was one we could do even though it was him singing on the album … because I wrote it and I had a demo of it. It wasn’t from such outer space, the idea of hearing my voice on the first half of that tune. So we just started doing it. And then [Toby] got better and his voice came back in time … but then for some reason, he just doesn’t want to sing it ever. I don’t know why and I always have to sing it. … It’s sung pretty high on the chorus and Toby doesn’t like to have to sing really high.

I was wondering if you ever want to sing some of his songs but since your voices are so different it makes sense to stick to what you’ve written for your own voice.

Yeah, I’ve never really. In fact, we’ve even had a lot of fun, if we’re practicing or something we’ll do a Toby song but I’ll sing [and] everyone just winds up laughing hysterically.

Photo: John Davisson
Forecastle Festival, Waterfront Park, Louisville, Ky.

On Nov. 5 the band tweeted that it had started recording its next studio album. What can you tell us about the new album?

I don’t really know what to tell you about it yet. … We’ve kinda just taken this approach which is very much informed by the experience of doing this live album. I think the live album gave us a whole new perspective on the studio because we realized you can actually create recordings that work out on speakers in a context where the speakers are the last thing you’re thinking about, like a concert. Being on stage in front of people we’re not thinking about how perfectly executed every little tiny detail of what’s going on is. We’re focused on the bigger picture and searching for a certain kind of energy.

But when you go to a studio you have the tendency to think about the minutiae and zone in on the details and really strictly define your part and try to execute it with precision. It’s a different mental framework but doing the live album I think really helped us draw in the gap between the studio experience and the live experience.

So basically what all that means is we’ve been recoding a lot whenever we get the chance. And doing so in a more or less in a completely live fashion, just setting up the whole band in a room with no headphones or anything and having a speaker with the vocals in it, in the room. Just basically setting up a little venue in the studio. … And not really overworking things and just kind of judging the merits of the performances just like you would if it’s a show. Like [once] the song ends – how did you feel about it? Is it good or is it bad? Versus opening up that whole studio process. Where it’s like in the studio you start the song, then you finish … then you’re like, “OK, we did something. Now let’s begin working on it and let’s create something out of it. Or let’s add this to it and add that to it … and sculpt it out.” Versus just going in and playing a song and knowing right away if it was a good piece of music or not, according to your perspective.

I really don’t know where it’s going to lead to as far as a record, I just know we’re doing as many songs as possible, whenever the time presents itself. The first phase of it was about two weeks solid every day. …  It feels good, it’s real loose. Generally kind of more mellow. I don’t know if it’s going to stay in that vein or not because we’re going to get together to record more on a break with our tour in February.

Photo: facebook.com/twobootspizza
If you bring in your ticket stub from one of the NYC residency shows you'll receive 20% off The Dr. Dog pizza at Two Boots.

I was looking through the Q&A that Eric did on Twitter Dec. 17 and someone from Two Boots Pizza asked, “If u guys could design a pizza – and this is a real possibility – what would be on it? We could feature it during your New York run with @bowerypresents!”

Whoa! Really?! Awesome.

I had wondered if the band had talked about actually doing a Two Boots collaboration or if that was just a fun Twitter conversation.

Yeah, that’s great! I would love to do that. I’ll have to reach out to Eric and make sure he stays on top of that. That sounds really cool.

You should definitely stay on top of that. So, if you could design a Dr. Dog pizza, what would you pick as the toppings?

I mean, that’s kind of like saying, if you ordered a pizza what kind of pizza would you order? I’ve [never] thought to myself, “Oh, this thing is great … Why hasn’t someone put this on a pizza yet?” Everything that seems at all vaguely reasonable to put on a pizza, I feel like I’ve had it. Like, I’ve even had pizza recently that had pizza on it.


They cut circles out of a pizza and then put those circles of pizza on a big pizza. It was this place called Pizza Brain in Philly and it’s this really funny place. And they called it a postmodern pizza.

They really took it to the next level.

Yeah, yeah. It’s very conceptual. I like to have basil on a pizza a lot. So if I could design a pizza that was going to be like a Dr. Dog pizza or something I would try to make sure it had basil on it – fresh basil.

It might be hard to get the whole band to agree on a signature Dr. Dog pizza unless you guys are just really easy going. I know some people are pretty agreeable but my family is kinda nuts about their pizzas. So it could go either way.

Yeah, yeah, we usually have to get a lot of pizzas to make sure everyone’s satisfied. Plus you got vegetarians and then … I pretty much like pizza to be pretty simple, but some people like to throw everything under the sun on it. I’ll have to talk to the band about it.

Photo: John Davisson
SXSW, Rachael Ray’s Feedback Festival, Stubb’s, Austin, TX

Editor’s Note: New York’s Two Boots Pizza is offering the new Dr. Dog pizza this week to coincide with the NYC residencies. The pizza, called “The Dr. Dog: Jackie Wants Her Own Pie!” is described as “a top-sauce pie with spinach, roasted garlic, provolone, mozzarella and parmigiano.” Fans will recognize that the dish takes its name from the Shame Shame track “Jackie Wants a Black Eye,” which just so happens to be included on the new live album.

Upcoming dates for Dr. Dog:

Jan. 14 – New York, N.Y., Bowery Ballroom
Jan. 15 – New York, N.Y., Bowery Ballroom
Jan. 16 – New York, N.Y., Bowery Ballroom
Jan. 17 – New York, N.Y., Bowery Ballroom
Jan. 20 – South Burlington, Vt., Higher Ground       
Jan. 21 – Buffalo, N.Y., The Town Ballroom
Jan. 22 – Washington, D.C., 9:30 Club         
Jan. 23 – Washington, D.C., 9:30 Club         
Jan. 24 – Charlottesville, Va., Jefferson Theater       
Jan. 31 – Boston, Mass., House Of Blues Boston      
Feb. 2 – Quintana Roo, Mexico, Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya (My Morning Jacket’s One Big Holiday)            
Feb. 5 – Saint Paul, Minn., Turf Club
Feb. 6 – Minneapolis, Minn., First Avenue    
Feb. 7 – Minneapolis, Minn., First Avenue    
Feb. 10 – Seattle, Wash., The Showbox
Feb. 11 – Portland, Ore., McMenamins Crystal Ballroom    
Feb. 12 – Oakland, Calif., Fox Theater
Feb. 13 – Los Angeles, Calif., The Wiltern    
Feb. 14 – Pomona, Calif., Fox Theater Pomona       
Feb. 16 – Phoenix, Ariz., The Crescent Ballroom     
Feb. 17 – Flagstaff, Ariz., The Orpheum Theater
Feb. 19 – Denver, Colo., Ogden Theatre      
Feb. 20 – Salt Lake City, Utah, The Depot    
Feb. 21 – Las Vegas, Nev., House Of Blues  
March 25 – Louisville, Ky., Mercury Ballroom         
March 26 – Asheville, N.C., The Orange Peel
March 27 – Nashville, Tenn., Ryman Auditorium      
March 28 – Chattanooga, Tenn., Track 29    
March 29 – Oxford, Miss., The Lyric Oxford
March 31 – Baton Rouge, La., Varsity Theatre
April 1 – Houston, Texas, House Of Blues    
April 2 – Dallas, Texas, House Of Blues       
April 3 – Austin, Texas, Stubb’s Bar-B-Q / Waller Creek Amph.       
April 4 – Austin, Texas, Stubb’s Bar-B-Q / Waller Creek Amph.      
April 6 – Tulsa, Okla., Cain’s Ballroom
April 8 – Lawrence, Kan., Liberty Hall
April 9 – St. Louis, Mo., The Pageant
April 10 – Chicago, Ill., Thalia Hall  
April 11 – Chicago, Ill., House Of Blues       
April 12 – Chicago, Ill., House Of Blues

For more information please visit DrDogMusic.com.