Back to the swamp

Dr. Dog rerecords, reinvents debut cassette

Philly’s Dr. Dog.

Philly’s Dr. Dog.

Photo courtesy of ANTI Records

Dr. Dog performs Saturday, July 2, at High Sierra Music Festival (June 30-July 3), Plumas County Fairgrounds, Quincy,

Dr. Dog has taken the idea of making something old new again to a whole new level with its latest album, Psychedelic Swamp.

Fans of the band may recognize the title because Psychedelic Swamp was the name of the Philadelphia band’s self-released debut cassette. But the new version (released this past February) is not a remake of the original. It’s a total reinvention, for which various bits and parts from the cassette were taken, expanded upon and developed into an entirely new collection of songs.

Despite being a very loose and fairly unformed work, the long out-of-print cassette—self-made and self-released in 2001 when Dr. Dog was just starting to play shows around the Philadelphia area—did have a lyrical concept, according to guitarist/vocalist Scott McMicken.

“The tape was kind of a message to us, Dr. Dog, from this guy Phrases, who landed in the swamp and learned sort of a valuable life lesson while there,” McMicken said in a phone interview. “Then he felt the need to send his message back to Earth, and he chose us to be the ones to translate it because he was aware that what he was doing and his ways of communicating, while they made sense in the swamp, were pretty much incomprehensible to anyone here. … So he chose us to take that kind of garbled mess and turn it into the biggest rock album ever made, so that it could be spread around the globe to the masses.”

But the music itself wasn’t as defined. McMicken said it was more of a statement about the band members’ intention as they moved forward to experiment musically and always follow their muse wherever it took them. This helps explain the cassette’s free-form, shape-shifting nature.

“The original album is like 35 tracks and almost two hours long,” McMicken said. “There’s just a ton of stuff on it. And it ranges; I mean, I guess it all is music, but a lot of it is more of a kind of ambience. The original tape is less an album and more of this, like, I don’t even know what the word would be. From track to track you’re traveling through either something that would be a song with sort of narrative aspects in the lyrics into things that are soundscapes that are almost like field recordings from the swamp.”

The new Psychedelic Swamp, by contrast, is very much a cohesive set, featuring a dozen songs plus a short spoken-word interlude. Songs like “Dead Record Player,” “Fire on My Back” and “Badvertise” are concise, poppy and punchy, while several of the tracks veer into quirkier territory. There’s the gauzy texture on “Golden Hind,” the spacey feel of “Holes in My Back,” and the glammy tone of “Bring My Baby Back,” all showing that Dr. Dog has retained the sense of musical adventure that helped inspire the original cassette.

McMicken said there were very few limits placed on how far the band—which also includes Toby Leaman (vocals, bass, guitar), Frank McElroy (guitar), Zach Miller (keyboards), Eric Slick (drums) and Dimitri Manos (percussion/multi-instrumentalist)—could go in turning the original source material into something new.

“So, even the essence of the songs themselves, as far as their chord structure and melody, was also as up for grabs as anything else,” he said. “Lyrics were really the only thing we were beholden to. But even in that sense, we were adding lyrics to kind of lengthen things and make them work in longer songs for things that were actually just short little snippets on the tape. So yeah, from the architecture of the songs themselves to the arrangements, there was just total wide-open freedom.”