Dr. Dog Finds Pop Music in a Swamp

The phrase “psychedelic swamp” could be a chapter title in a Hunter S. Thompson memoir. Each word is vibrant, and represents two entirely different planes of existence – one relies on a hazy, distorted functionality of the mind while the other defines a mucky, dark area of land coupled with grotesque pools of brackish water.

Dr. Dog’s Psychedelic Swamp provides visuals for these two distinct subjects, all while supplementing the mental images with vignettes of sights and sounds through pop music. The lyrics represent the journey of a fictional character who assigned his story to the band, birthed from their 2001 project bearing the same name.

“This album is not so much recycling that initial [project], but it stands as a chapter two,” lead guitarist and original band member Scott McMicken says. “Even when we finished it years ago, we knew there would be a second version. This ‘person’ gave us the tape with specific instructions to redo it. We had this super weird tape, which was kind of like an audio letter. We needed to turn it into a pop album.”

Psychedelic Swamp, the first LP by Dr. Dog in three years, was released in February. The group began recording the album as part of a collaboration with Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company. McMicken and his bandmates are currently on tour to promote their new album, and will be hitting DC on August 10-11 at the 9:30 Club.

“We’ve been wanting to do it for a real long time,” he says. “We’ve held that story close to ourselves, and it’s loomed largely in the history of the band. We’ve always wanted to get back into it and wrap it up. Being in a touring band, your years go by in a predictable way in a cycle. Every time we had an opportunity in the past, we found it difficult to give time to it.”

Dr. Dog has always had a penchant for representing – or rather, updating – their style as music evolves, but the goal to produce pop music has always remained the de facto goal of the group.

“As varied and open as we are, at the end of the day we really fall back on pop sensibilities,” McMicken says. “There’s a very pop song structure to our music. Some of the main tools in our shed are timeless classics like harmonies, [with an] old-school palate. It’s kind of interesting for us to introduce these older ideas with new musical things going on.”

 If the album maintains the skeletal structure of a pop record, heavily leaning on 80s and 90s influences, the skin and organs are largely made up by a dichotomy of music – from pulsating electronic music reminiscent of Daft Punk and Skrillex to the more deliberate and soulful emotional swings of blues. While the band perpetually attempts to inject scores of radically divergent sounds, Swamps’ vacillation represents the multitude of perspectives enjoyed by the character in a colossally entertaining manner.

“That was the goal, essentially,” the guitarist says. “Structurally, the original version of the tape wasn’t one song after another – it’s more like you’re in the swamp and you’re channel surfing. At one point, you’re in the mind [of the character], and at others you’re listening to the radio and the news. It’s a holistic worldview from within the swamp, so no song is beholden to another. The tape that the fictional guy gave us was him in the swamp recording the world he saw.”

The fusion of sounds on Psychedelic Swamp also elicit mental tableaus of old-school video games. Dr. Dog knows this, and the band’s website looks like an unlockable Pac-Man level jammed deep inside a video game cartridge buried somewhere in a rustic pawn shop.

“[Not coincidentally], simultaneously we made an entire version of it in 16-bit technology,” McMicken says. “We have an entire version of that album in video game fashion. We were also talking about how cool it would be to get some sort of video game designer to design an adventure game based around this theme.”

With tour dates set, and the album in the rearview mirror, the group is pondering their future. At a real fork-in-the-road moment, Dr. Dog is leaning toward departing their label and venturing out on their own with future endeavors.

“It’s gotten to the point where we’re the perfect band to just go without a record label,” he says. “As great as our relationship is with Anti- [Records], we don’t have anything to prove, and we have a loyal audience so we don’t really need the label to sustain that. At this point, you’ve probably heard about us and you either dig it or don’t. We’re not going to be a Top 40 band – we’ve never aspired to [be one].”

Catch one of Dr. Dog’s performances on Wednesday, August 10 or Thursday, August 11. Doors open at 7 p.m., and tickets are $32.50.

9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW DC; 202-265-0930; www.930.com

Photo: Courtesy of Anti- Records