A knit, pom-pommed beanie would seem terribly out of place in a vintage oasis that looks as though it were yoinked from the set of a John Waters movie. But that’s exactly the kind of sight in store for those looking to experience Dr. Dog’s latest endeavor.
“We’re working with some people to help us figure out how to build this shitty resort-type vacation vibe,” says Dr. Dog’s Scott McMicken of the full-venue makeover they’ll be bringing to each room they play as they tour behind Live at a Flamingo Hotel, their first-ever concert album. (The aforementioned beanies — which serve as the band’s trademark and are sold at all of its shows — will come along by the boxful.) Every venue Dr. Dog hit on their upcoming 43-date run — which began with four shows at the Music Hall of Williamsburg and continues with four more at the Bowery Ballroom through January 17 — will become Flamingo Hotel–ified. So far, that includes a concierge as well as décor consisting largely of pink, feathered waterfowl. “Novelty headwear from the merch table” and “retro hotel lobby with a Fifties vibe” conjure two decidedly different images. And a slick resort lounge decked out in pink doesn’t have a whole lot in common with the dingy, dank recesses of your average rock club. How these contrasting sights and sounds will shake out remains to be seen, but the band is optimistic as it puts the finishing touches on this ambitious undertaking, one that goes far beyond covering up a bunch of torn show posters with its own decorations.
“We’ve always been big on context,” McMicken says. “So to go into venues and make them an expression of who we are, it just further enlightens what we’re trying to do. Clubs aren’t inspiring architectural places, by and large; most of them are these black boxes that smell and there’s stickers all over everything. If you can dress it up a little bit, it’s inspiring for us.”
Flamingo Hotel is worth the effort and additional strategizing, as the sprawling, nineteen-track album presents the band at its best. Ample selections of elated choruses banking on sunny melodies, inventive instrumentals, dizzying guitar solos, and the crowing cheers of fans singing along to every indie-psych exploration make for a mirror image of Dr. Dog’s live set.
“I think a lot of that has to do with playing increasingly larger rooms,” McMicken says of the band’s zeal for Flamingo Hotel, an endeavor it was initially intimidated to attempt. “You realize there are some people that are standing 60 yards away from you, and all of the stuff that makes the show — the tics, the quirks, the expressions and chaos — it’s really not available to the bulk of the audience. All they’re hearing is the P.A. system; all they’re seeing are these dancing figures. This leads to the point where we finally have the self-confidence to say, ‘Yeah, make and record this shit!'”
The DIY ethos behind the elaborate stage setup is similar to the one Dr. Dog applied to 2013’s B-Room, the full-length they wrote and recorded in a studio they built with their own hands in an old silversmith’s workshop in Philadelphia. Flamingo Hotel includes “Broken Heart,” the jangling, riotous single from B-Room, as well as the warm meditation “The Truth,” from the same record. But this live album is more than just a recent tour diary or a haphazard collection of soundboard snippets. It’s the first piece of work they’ve put out that truly showcases their strengths as a band, their penchant for improvisation and their need to get as up close and personal with their fans as possible.
“For years and years, you always got some shitty board recording off of some shitty gig you played, and it would sound like a total disaster, even though you remember that night as your favorite show of the tour,” says McMicken. “The experience in the room is still the most important thing. You can walk this line and restrain yourself just enough to where [the recording] is sonically full, rich, and organized without having to sacrifice any of the danger and precariousness of what we feel like is a good live experience.”
Dr. Dog rarely stick to a set list, and this is reflected in the tracks that made Flamingo Hotel‘s final selections, namely “County Line” off their 2002 debut, Toothbrush. When bassist/singer Toby Leaman snapped a bass string in the middle of a song on the night of this particular recording, he needed time to swap out gear, forcing the rest of the band to adjust accordingly and noodle around with the tune, which had been noticeably absent from their routine for years.
“Bass strings almost never break…and [Leaman] just yelled at me to play something that’s more acoustic to fill up the air while he’s taking care of it,” McMicken recalls. “I just laid into ‘County Line,’ and the band trickled in. It wasn’t an arrangement we’d worked out or anything. It was completely not by design and it wasn’t on our set list that night. When you play these new songs a thousand times, you get to know them too well. There were a lot of accidental moments that occurred within songs throughout the record, and it only encouraged us to stick with the night-to-night approach. I like that part of our
direction. I want things to continue to evolve to a freer and freer notion of what’s required of us.”
Beyond the excitement of the tour itself and the live record in their grasp, Flamingo Hotel was more of a learning experience for Dr. Dog than anything else, a continuation of this tendency to one-up themselves on both aural and visual levels — and it’s something fans will hear long after they leave the Flamingo Hotel shows.
“When you’re on a stage instead of the studio, I feel like your main responsibility is to be constantly taking chances, and to really put yourself out on a limb, to create something original in the moment,” says McMicken. “In the studio, you should be a lot more self-conscious about executing something. Now, after going out and treating every stage we played for twenty nights as a studio while having to adhere to that riskier version of performing, it’s fully changed the way we view recording. [After Flamingo Hotel], we performed in the studio in such a way that we easily could’ve sold tickets to see what we did and it would’ve been a show.”
And while the Flamingo Hotel theme is a fictional construct that exists solely within the confines of a Dr. Dog show, it’s a state of mind the band hopes to revisit, if only to keep blurring the lines between the band they are at home and the band they are when surrounded by a small army of fans belting back the chorus of “Broken Heart” in full force.
“It really affirmed the symbiotic relationship between the live performance, the expressive, free approach, and also being in the studio simultaneously, which is the thing that tends to choke out those notions,” McMicken says of Flamingo Hotel. “We’ve tried to bridge the gap between the studio and the live experience for years. Without a doubt, committing to doing this live record and walking away from it has changed the entire approach to the studio and what it means.”
Dr. Dog play January 14-17 at Bowery Ballroom. Every show is sold-out but tickets are available on the secondary market.