After years of gaining fans the old fashioned way — self-produced albums, incessant touring — the time came in the summer of 2009 for Dr. Dog to graduate from low-fi psychedelic folk group to a fully formed band, with the confidence to rise above knock-off Beatles comparisons.
Around then, the Philadelphia sextet left tiny Park the Van Records for the much larger ANTI- label, and producer-extraordinaire Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith, Beck) signed on for the group's next record.
But the rock 'n' roll rite of passage of recording in an unfamiliar place only worked in theory for Dr. Dog, which plays Rams Head Live on Saturday. For the first time ever, the band headed to Woodstock, N.Y., to concentrate on its sixth album, "Shame, Shame," with Schnapf.
"We were together for a month, and it took us three weeks just to come to a consensus on how to [approach the record]," said bassist and co-songwriter Toby Leaman. "We eventually got on the same page, but we had a week's [worth of money] left. ... It sucked for us, sucked for Rob and it was like, 'Man, it could have been better.'"
When the time came to record the follow-up, "Be the Void," released this month, the band almost repeated its mistakes. Last spring, Dr. Dog headed down to Atlanta with Ben Allen, producer of Animal Collective's "Merriweather Post Pavilion," to work on new songs. But after a few sessions, the truth once again bubbled to the surface.
"We decided we can't leave home to make a record," he said. "It's not good for us. I don't write in these remote places. I write around Philly. That's where we practice. That's what's comfortable for us."
Part of Philadelphia's pull may lie in the band's history. In 2003, guitarist Scott McMicken's girlfriend handed a demo to My Morning Jacket singer Jim James outside a small Philly club. Soon after, James offered the group a spot on the road, and it's been nonstop touring and recording for Dr. Dog since.
"Our band feels very kindred to" My Morning Jacket, Leaman said. "They've been together a long time, and they work. They don't sit there and deliberate. They just do it."
As the relatively labored efforts of "Shame, Shame" proved, Dr. Dog works best quickly and without its members second-guessing themselves. It's always been this way for Leaman and the group's other songwriter, McMicken, going as far back as their first meeting 20 years ago. Leaman said the pair instantly began writing songs together, and they haven't slowed down since. Even if they aren't working in the same room, they consider songwriting for Dr. Dog a collaborative process.
"We may not be writing together, but what we're writing is influenced by the other person," Leaman said. "To me, it's our song even if I haven't done anything. And I know he feels the same way."
Leaman said there's never a shortage of new material. With the songwriting accounted for, Dr. Dog strengthened its musicianship before recording "Be the Void," adding drummer Erick Slick and jack-of-all-trades Dimitri Manos. Leaman said both additions — Slick, in particular — have forced other band members to improve.
"It feels good to think, 'Man, this guy is really testing me,'" Leaman said of Slick. "It's great to be getting better for a reason. I'm getting better, so our band sounds better."
"Shame, Shame" raised the stakes but sucked the fun out of the music. "Be the Void," on the other hand, reminded the veteran group of what it does best — loose, guitar-driven folk-rock with enough charm to soften its rough edges. It's safe to say the members of Dr. Dog feel rejuvenated — so much so, that there's already talk of recording a new album.
"We've been talking about the next record a lot, what we want to do with it," Leaman said. "We have so much left. Every time we finish a record, we wait a month and then I think everyone's ready to get right back in."
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