**2015 Keystone Press Award winner | First Place | Feature Beat Reporting**
To hear it from lead guitarist Scott McMicken, indie rock band Dr. Dog’s latest album began one quiet night while he was sitting at an acoustic piano in the middle of an empty, dust-covered warehouse in Clifton Heights, Pa.
The building, which once operated as a silversmith mill, was to become Dr. Dog’s new studio, Mount Slippery, but on this night, it was simply 5,000 square feet of nothing at all — just a lot of dirt and a pitched tent in the corner.
“We moved into the new space in early February , and I showed up and pitched a tent,” McMicken said. “It was a total construction zone, and I was living in there during that process, living in the dirt and the dust of the project, eating doughnuts every morning.”
“It’s an eerie quiet in there at night,” he said, “but it’s not really quiet — part of the building was built in the 1700s and there’s a lot of this creaky weirdness to the place; in the nighttime silence, you can really hear the room moving around, doing whatever it’s doing.”
Maybe the strange, settling noises of the old building put him in a reflective trance, but McMicken became thoughtful — he began considering the band, how far it had come and how the band members were all building this studio together, with their own hands.
“It was all dawning on me,” he said. “I was kind of building this connection with this thing that was happening; and so that night at the piano, I was looking out in the glow of [what] we were doing, and I wrote a song to the studio.”
The song eventually became Dr. Dog’s “Mt. Slippery,” an a cappella ode, layered with Beach Boys-like harmonies, about starting from scratch in a studio entirely their own.
“The studio very much became an extension and a symbol of where we are as a band,” he said. “We went into it with a great deal of confidence in what we needed in order to have the best possible place for us.”
And this idea, of building something from the floor up, is in many ways how the band approached its eighth studio album, “B-Room.”
It’s a loose, soulful album that at times subtly turns from what’s most familiar for the band. A good example of this can be found in “Too Weak to Ramble,” a raspy, lonesome, emotionally revealing acoustic tune written by bassist and co-songwriter Toby Leaman, who, by the end of the song, is violently retching the lyrics like he’s ridding himself of some toxin.
In short, “Ramble” is not your average Dr. Dog track; most notably, it’s without the funky bass and feast of harmony that have come to define the band’s music.
“We’ve talked before about having a song that was stripped down, just a vocal and guitar,” McMicken said, but still, “the idea that we would have a song like [“Ramble”] on the record was pretty novel for us, and therefore compelling.”
Such novel choices on “B-Room” are, according to McMicken, linked to the process of constructing the space in which the album would be recorded.
“There was this amorphous transition between construction and music-making,” he said. “In the music-making process, there’s so much dead-time for people that you could be done playing guitar and go tackle some project, like put the shower in.”
A result of this process is that songs like “Cuckoo,” “Rock and Roll” and “Too Weak to Ramble” don’t feel so much polished as sanded; there’s a rugged quality to them. You can almost smell the sawdust.
What’s ironic, McMicken said, is that the album is named after a room in the studio “that we specifically did nothing to … and most of the record was recorded in there, after we spent, like, six months and so many thousands of dollars building this incredible place.
“But that’s sort of the Dr. Dog scales of justice there,” he continued. “Whatever work we put into professionalism always requires a look back, some reaffirmation of our roots or where we come from and the way we work.”
So, that night back in February 2013, sitting at the piano, listening to the building speak, Scott McMicken was looking back and reflecting — as he seems wont to do — when he suddenly felt a retired silversmith mill transform into not only a studio space, but Dr. Dog’s new home.
Building Mount Slippery, he said, “was a dream situation, regardless of the music we made.” It seems appropriate then that the first song he’d write there would require no instruments at all, “just us literally inside of the walls of the studio that the song is about, singing to it …”