That long road from then 'til now brought plenty of adventures and changes, but Dr. Dog is still Dr. Dog.
The Philadelphia band, now a sextet, has gone from dishwashing jobs and home recording to widespread acclaim as one of the most vibrant live bands playing today, with a summer full of huge shows—like Lollapalooza and Central Park—in support of this year's Be the Void.
"Many things in the last couple of years have brought the band back around. I really feel a connection these days, after all these years, to what it felt like when we were just starting," says singer-guitarist Scott McMicken. "Continuing to just be Dr. Dog after all this growth is really awesome."
The band—McMicken; co-songwriter, vocalist and bassist Toby Leaman; rhythm-guitarist Frank McElroy; and keyboardist Zach Miller—experienced a slow and steady climb that led them to eclectic ANTI- Records for 2010's Shame, Shame. Since then, the band has picked up two more members: drummer Eric Slick, and multi-instrumentalist Dimitri Manos (of Tucson's Golden Boots), who brought relief, possibility and an expansiveness that helped bring Dr. Dog to a new level, musically and personally.
"The general spirit offered by those guys joining the band was a relief from some of the tension that had been building up. There was this more open and easy air of collaboration, and just a lot fun," McMicken says. "... It was very easily recognized by everyone. So that was the driving force for what we ended up with for the album."
Be the Void brought Dr. Dog back into the band's own studio after recording Shame, Shame with an outside producer.
"In the full recognition of all the newness that existed in the band, we just closed in. We had everything we need within. We have a great studio, a great engineer with Nathan (Sabatino, of Tucson's Loveland Studio), two new members—and everything just ruled," McMicken says. "It was more a spirit to things that was the driving factor behind the record than it was any particular song or anything.
"We were pushing for a style that was more live, more dynamic and rocking like our shows. The growth that we experienced as a live band since Eric and Dimitri joined was so tangible; it was exciting to get into the studio and just play rather than thinking about what we wanted," McMicken says.
With its pyschedelic-zen sort of title, Be the Void largely explores that realm—questions of existence, individuality and expectations, and the theme of being comfortable in your own skin, no matter what sort of turbulence surrounds you.
The title "is ambiguous. Some people see it as very dark. Other people see it as this very uplifting notion. The freedom of that statement is another reason we were drawn to it," McMicken says. "It evokes a certain bigger-picture look at things, which is always important in our band—a broader, more-universal approach to understanding our own experiences."
McMicken says the band's lyrics can sometimes seem like therapy, but he and Leaman work to make everything relatable as well.
"Toby and I walk that line all the time, not making things too personal and making sure they have a way of connecting," he says.
Be the Void actually comes from a song of the same name, one that didn't make the album but is slated for a forthcoming EP. "That Old Black Hole," the album's first single and video, is a spiritual cousin.
"Those two songs are two sides of the same coin, for sure," McMicken says. "'That Old Black Hole' is more like 'a day in the life' almost. 'Be the Void' is a much more broad sentiment in the song. 'That Old Black Hole' tackles what is essentially the same issue, but as it pertains to the smaller details of your life, waking up all those things weighing you down, breaking through our own little shackles at some point, and inevitably that stupid little stuff coming back at you in the end. 'Be the Void' as a song is a lot less personal in that way. It's a little bit more like a manifesto."
Despite the acclaim the band has received for Be the Void, McMicken says that these days, Dr. Dog's focus has shifted to being a live band.
"I'm so excited right now about our live show. This summer was great. We weren't really on tour, but we were popping out for a couple of shows at a time. It's some new nut we cracked this summer, by accident. Some new ideas are pouring in about how to make some little changes," he says. "The growth of things feels really good for us to keep reaching more and bigger audiences.
"As we grow, we just spend more money to be a band, to bring out more production, to have people on tour, to have better gear. Because we are getting paid more, we can put more into it, and we all enjoy that," he says. "We can continue to be Dr. Dog, create a set onstage and do all of the things that end up being natural extensions of what drive us and make us happy."
For Dr. Dog, being happy means reminding themselves of what's always been at the core of the band—what's made them happy before there were any real opportunities outside of themselves.
"The reality of what drives success for yourself in any context is that basic thing that got you doing it in the first place. If you get too honed in on any detail, you lose sight of the bigger picture," McMicken says. "... I had a very recent realization with that, and what it's done has opened up something that at one point not too long ago felt overwhelming into a great big playground of opportunity.
"For me, nothing's ever really set in stone. I'll get a grip on something, but I know I'll lose it again. You make a step forward, and sometimes you have to take that same step forward again. Being happy in a band and life in general is just that process.
"You can't ever get lazy. You can't ever assume you've got everything you need."