Feb. 1 2012 01:47 PM

Is ‘Be the Void’ the roots-rockers’ very own ‘Kid A’?

Dr. Dog's Scott McMicken (third from left) didn't have a 'big, strong vision' for Be the Void
Photo by Chris Chrisman

Experimenting with new styles and sounds can do a lot for a band. Think of The Beatles in 1966 or Radiohead in 2000. There are also some experiments that should never have happened—like, say, Metallica and Lou Reed’s Lulu—but that’s another story.

In the case of Philadelphia retro-rockers Dr. Dog, they’ve gotten to the point in their 10-year career where they’ve stopped worrying about whether they’ll reach an LMFAO level of heavy radio rotation. As a result, they’ve decided to really start having some fun.

Singer / guitarist / songwriter Scott Mc- Micken and his longtime friend Toby Leaman, who also sings, writes songs and plays bass, formed Dr. Dog back in 1999. They’d record tapes and give them out to friends who seemed to dig what they were doing, and, eventually, they started playing small acoustic shows. In time, they became a full band and developed a sound often compared to The Band or The Beach Boys.

The band trudged along, logging time in Philly and on the road. They scored a big break from Jim James of My morning Jacket when McMicken’s then-girlfriend gave James a tape of the band’s first album, Toothbrush. Soon after, they were invited to open on My morning Jacket’s 2004 tour. That tour lead to opening for The Raconteurs and Wilco, and then they became headliners in their own right.

Though it’s been a slow climb, the band’s built up a loyal fan base thanks to constant touring and a steady stream of new material— six albums since 2002, including their latest, Be the Void, which hits shelves on Feb. 7.

When writing and recording the album, McMicken says, there wasn’t a “big, strong vision” behind it. Instead, with two new members—drummer Eric Slick and multi-instrumentalist Dimitri Manos—they felt an urge to let loose.

“We’ve always had a lot of different elements in our music, and we’ve always kept the identity of the band this wide-open thing that you can try whatever styles or sounds… that were interesting anybody,” McMicken says by phone from Philadelphia.

“When you’re really looking for something, it’s not as easy to find it until you just let go of it,” he continues. “Creatively, that was the attitude behind making the record.”

Listening to Be the Void is like biting into a piece of chocolate cake, only to find bits of bacon in it: There’s something strange in this familiar thing, but it’s kind of awesome.

The album starts with the twangy, slide-guitar-heavy “Lonesome” and then kicks into rollicking pop tunes “That Old Black Hole” and “These Days.” From there, things get interesting as Dr. Dog add new elements like samples, drum machines and digital sound effects. Manos also brought in what they call a “meatball palace.” That’s no Italian joint; it’s a series of cassette players that are run through mixing devices and pedals to produce psychedelic sounds and strange distortions.

“Everything we’re doing now is essentially about the fact that we’ve been a band for as long as we have,” McMicken says. “It’s just, like, how do we take control of our lives and make sure that we spend our time in a way that we’re proud of and produce something that we can always feel good about? It sounds all so simple, but [it] can be really difficult to just continue doing what feels honest to you.”

Dr. Dog have never put too much emphasis on getting on magazine covers and selling out arenas. In speaking to McMicken, you get the sense that the band wouldn’t even know what to do if they were thrust into such a bright spotlight. He’s confident that experimenting won’t lose them any fans and is happy the band is at a level where they play at great venues and have roadies and a bus driver.

Still, he holds hope that Be the Void just might be their Revolver or Kid A. You can imagine them looking at the finished product and quoting one of their own songs: “Will you do the trick?”

“We’re farther than having any expectations, and I feel that maybe that’s what’s going to make us happen,” McMicken says. “Stepping into larger and larger venues and seeing ourselves more in the culture, maybe we did make the album that will make that happen.”

For now, as they go on tour, there’s only one thing McMicken hopes the band will score.

“We’re gonna try to get matching maroon suits,” he says.

Dr. Dog plays with Purling Hiss at Belly Up tavern on Tuesday, Feb. 7. Email Alex Zaragoza. You can also bug her on Twitter.