The doctor is in
Robert William Doctor, a.k.a. Phillip Flathead, delivers the goods on his debut album
It’s nearly impossible to spend time chatting with Robert William Doctor and not be won over by his expressive eyes and unassuming personality. On the morning of our interview, the 37-year-old folk singer seemed shy and a bit anxious. His 2-year-old son and very pregnant wife were asleep at home, and his second child was due to enter the world at any minute.
Despite having been through the process numerous times—Doctor works as a surgical technician at Sutter Memorial Hospital’s labor and delivery unit—he admitted that the whole childbirth experience was still nerve-wracking. “I’ve seen thousands of babies being born throughout the last 10 or so years, but it’s different when it’s your kid,” he explained.
Doctor also confessed that he had a case of the pre-interview jitters. “I felt almost like this was a job interview. I thought maybe I should get real drunk, you know? Be like a rock star,” he joked.
Thankfully, the interview process was not as intimidating as he’d imagined. In no time at all, the conversation turned to the release of his self-produced debut album, Four-Track Mind. The album, which includes songs written over a 10-year period, veers from the Woody Guthrie-inspired “Love and Medicine” to the more indie-sounding “Hollow Days”—a track that is strongly reminiscent of Omaha’s golden boy, Conor Oberst.
Doctor attributes the album’s varied landscape to his fondness for diversity. “I didn’t want to hear myself with my guitar over and over,” he said. “I wanted to have songs that definitely represented me as a solo performer. I didn’t want to come off as a band, but I’m a singer-songwriter, and I wanted the songs to become realized.” For some songs, that meant having additional musicians on board.
Doctor has been performing in Sacramento for the past seven years under the moniker Phillip Flathead. “I’m not someone who should be going up on stage; I have too much stage fright,” he explained. “That’s why I started playing as Phillip Flathead.
“It was like having a Halloween costume on,” Doctor continued. “I always felt so out there, and the songs were so personal. Most of the songs are about me,” he explained. “If they’re not directly about me, then they’re about how I feel about things.”
Perhaps the most personal track on the album is “Sergio,” in which he sings, “Cross my heart and hope to die / Was sticking needles into my veins / Needed something to satisfy me / And take away all this psychic pain.” Every lyric documents Doctor’s painful struggle with drug addiction. The song’s sensitive subject matter almost kept it from making the album. In the end, Doctor decided that the song was too important to leave out. Perhaps part of him hopes that it will speak to those struggling with similar issues.
Providing a stark contrast to “Sergio” is the upbeat, anti-consumerism anthem “Love and Medicine.” Penned after Doctor decided that he was going to write his own version of “This Land Is Your Land,” the song is a combination of hand clapping, catchy lyrics and lively music. Doctor’s energetic vocals are accompanied by mandolin plucking and a down-home bass line. You can’t help but tap your feet as Doctor sings, “All this love and medicine and all the light from Edison / And we’re still walking ’round with darkness in our souls / Along the way we compromised ourselves and set a price / Instead of reaching for each other we go reaching out for gold.”
So, is the self-effacing, two-named musician nervous about how the album will be received? Nah. “I’m sure that there are going to be people who aren’t into it, but you don’t make records for everybody; you make records for yourself,” he explained. “On the record, I’m just trying to be myself.”