That Dog. are proof that the ’90s were a very different time, one when an alt-pop band with three women, one guy, extraordinarily catchy songs (“Never Say Never” and “Long Island” were every bit the equal of “Buddy Holly” and “Say It Ain’t So”), and a cool gimmick (full-time violinist Petra Haden) could have full major-label backing and still fall between the cracks. They released three albums before parting ways in 1997, including the great Totally Crushed Out! and the absolute classic Retreat from the Sun. After various projects and solo ventures in the 2000s, they’ve finally reunited for a handful of shows (and, one hopes, a second shot at improving rock radio playlists). Frontwoman Anna Waronker spoke to Sound of the City about the future of the band, the influence of her biz-legend dad Lenny Waronker, and why she prefers After School Specials to Sweet Valley High.
Your band has reformed and your husband [Steve McDonald] is in OFF! and doing a new Redd Kross album. Did you two recently hire a babysitter?
What’s been different about the reunion shows so far?
Well… everyone is more confident. Rachel and Petra always considered themselves musicians because they played together when they were really young, like children. But you know, I don’t think we ever considered ourselves, like, serious musicians until after the band. So going back and revisiting that material, some of which is really sophisticated, with the confidence and knowledge of what we can do now, I think that’s made it really good. Singing live for me, it’s great singing with them. Some of the stuff I think was so low, that I’d like, cheat. [laughs] It was ridiculous.
You mentioned that you worked with a string section and did some songs that were never performed before. What songs weren’t you able to tackle before?
We just did two shows at [L.A. venue] Largo at the Coronet, and we wanted to do something that we’d never done before and we wanted to play songs we’d never played before, like “Until the Day I Die” from Retreat from the Sun and “Rockstar” from Totally Crushed Out!. Kind of the weirdo, orchestrated stuff. String section and we got a percussionist and we got a piano player, and a horn player for one song and um… we played all those acoustic-y ballad-y songs or the midtempo ones that we never really played live and it was really cool.
Yeah, that sounds awesome. But I guess we’re not going to get to see that in New York?
No, no. Because we hadn’t… no, no. But you’ll get to see all the hits, so to speak, in New York.
Yeah, we like the hits too. Do you guys play any of your other well-known material like [Weezer duet] “I Just Threw Out the Love of My Dreams” or the one from Josie and the Pussycats?
No, we’re just doing That Dog. stuff.
By the way, how great is that movie?
[laughs] Josie and the Pussycats? I was a little underwhelmed when I saw it but it was fun to work on. It was a little sci-fi.
I liked it a lot! I found it really subversive for what it was.
Yeah, I guess that’s true.
When I last saw you guys I was very young and you were opening for the Wallflowers and Counting Crows. I didn’t really grasp how weird that was at the time, like, why did they market you to the dad-rock crowd?
At the time, we’d never played with bands like that ever, and we were offered this huge tour. Adam Duritz from the Counting Crows is a very big fan and we were on the same label, and he was very supportive. And they’d offered us a tour before and we said no. And then this time around, we were kind of like, going for it, playing the game more around Retreat from the Sun tour, so we said “Sure, yeah! We’ll do whatever, we’re cool. We’ll play to a totally different audience.”
One thing I’ll say, because I know it was so weird, is that it was nice to play for nice crowds! We did a couple of nights in a big theater with just Counting Crows and us and I’ll never forget one of those shows because the crowd was so nice and excited and supportive. And this was after coming off months with the Foo Fighters, where it was rough. Even with, like, Jawbreaker, it was hard. I know girl rock has become way more normal but even then, it was harsh.
I would think you guys would be a better fit for the Foo Fighters’ audience…
I know, but they still said,” Take off your clothes,” they threw shit at us… we were weird. We weren’t like Veruca Salt in that they were more straight-ahead rock—two Les Pauls, you know what I mean? We were weirdos, you know, crazy harmony, a violin, my weird tuning, unique songwriting. It was definitely confusing for a lot of meatheads.
I can’t see someone hearing “Never Say Never” and being like, “This would be perfect if there weren’t that fucking violin.”
Now everybody’s got a violin! We were definitely one of the first bands to do that.
You also stood out because bands interested in doing something as rough and grungy as “Old Timer” wouldn’t usually be putting the time into harmonies like that.
That was what was so interesting about the combination, but also I think it’s what I do. Generally when I do something I have no idea what I’m doing. Maybe I do by the end, but when I start I have no idea what I’m doing. I was scared actually, to play the songs now with our… abilities now, but it’s still really raw. Just less mistakes, sort of.
Did people at the label try to tell you things like that That Dog. would’ve been bigger if you guys did things like racier videos?
Ummmm, no. I don’t think so? I don’t think they did. I think that was more my thing.
Do you think they were scared to pressure you because your dad’s a record company legend?
I don’t know… it was such a different time. I wanted them to be really clear on who I was and who we were as a band when we started working with them because I didn’t want to be in some machine with people telling me what to wear and what to do. Or what to sing. It was such a bizarre unique time in music, and I didn’t feel any pressure ever. And honestly I would say to my dad, like, “Do you think someone’s blah-blah-blah-ing because of you?” and he said, “People don’t throw away money. They are clearly investing in you. It’s not like they’re giving you $20 to go get a t-shirt made. They’re pouring money into this thing you guys are doing. They can’t be doing that as a favor to me, why would they? It’s a waste of their money. It’s a business.” Not that he’s money-centric, because he’s not, he’s so artist-centric, but he’s also a very straight shooter and it was helpful.
How did being raised by a record exec impact your musical education?
It didn’t. I didn’t have one really. He played music a lot in the car, stuff he was working on or stuff the last label was working on that he was trying to figure out what to do with. He would always play stuff and want my opinion so I learned how to listen to music critically, I think, but I never took music lessons or learn to play certain types of music or anything. I just saw him nurture artists and how he would talk about them and he would say the same things to me.
Was Totally Crushed Out! supposed to have a storyline or just the running theme of crushes?
I never wanted to write love songs. I thought that was cheesy and cheap. So when I started writing that it was supposed to be like a Beatles parody love song thing. And then I wanted to write more love songs. So I thought, well, then they’re all love songs. I’m gonna start writing about all the crushes and all the boys, all of it. And I was also like, 20.
Did you have a special affinity for the Sweet Valley High books?
No, it was more the aesthetic of it that I liked. I was more into—I forget what it’s called—the teenage alcoholic movies, the eating disorder movies… I think I need a little tragedy and drama.
After School Specials?
Yeah! Those are a little more fun for me.
It would be criminal not to ask: Are you writing new songs for That Dog.?
Welll… uh. Hmm. How do I answer this. We have not yet discussed exactly what we want to do in the future. We only planned on doing a couple shows, and then we threw in the Largo ones. So we haven’t had an official conversation all together about what we see the future holding, but we’ve had individual conversations and it seems like there will be something for sure. I’ve started to put that hat back on.
That Dog. play Music Hall of Williamsburg tonight.