Dr. Dog

Kevin Pearson

Hot off tours with the Strokes, Raconteurs, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Philly's Dr. Dog celebrate the release of their new album with a hometown party.

Dr. Dog

Dr. Dog

City: Philadelphia, PA
Venue: Johnny Brenda's
Date: 2007-02-16

Johnny Brenda's is packed. A regular hipster hangout, it’s the kind of bar that, upon entering, makes you feel a little less cooler than before you walked in. Of course, Dr. Dog don’t seem to care. Amid the rich, dark wood of the bar’s upstairs stage, in the shadow of a balcony befitting a Faulkner novel, they’re wearing hunting hats and sunglasses -- not cool, rock-star shades, but the kind you’d find in a gas station next to the pizza pretzels and day old coffee. They are here to celebrate the release of their new album We All Belong by playing it in its entirety, in order, from front to back. Live, Dr. Dog are a different beast (no pun intended). On record they play to their detractors' cries with a latter-career Beatles pastiche, but tonight they tear up the Fab Four playbook and just rock out. Backed at times by horns and strings (the benefits of a hometown show), the sound is rich and full, like a French dessert -- albeit one with an undercooked rawness. As an adopted Philadelphian, I’ve seen the band play several times in several locales with several different line-ups, and, while their records are pleasant-enough excursions into Sixties-soaked, harmony-hued pop, it’s live that they excel. An incessant touring schedule -- one that has seen them support (in the past year alone) the Strokes, Jack White’s Raconteurs, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah -- may be the reason for their live prowess. Another, more prominent reason may be that principal players Toby Leaman (bass) and Scott McMicken (guitar), who democratically share vocal duties (so much so, they swap song for song), have now been playing together for more than a decade. It has, in fact, been five years and four albums since Dr. Dog sprang forth from the dying embers of their previous group, local Philadelphia rock band Raccoon. Unlike its forebear, Dr. Dog defies the local tag (the band releases records in Europe on the legendary Rough Trade Records) while at the same time encompassing it: as the group's new album title, We All Belong, suggests, the band's members come across as peers, not pop stars. This could be due, in part, to their fortuitous ascent. When a taped copy of their second album, Toothbrush, fell into the hands of Jim James, lead singer of My Morning Jacket, he kick-started their career by inviting them on tour. Despite tonight’s hometown advantage, Dr. Dog lets the music do the talking. The in-between song banter peaks with an early “It’s very nice for us to be here.” Their sound is shaky at first, as the three-part harmonies that permeate “Old News” take some time to meld, but they manage to pull it together before the two-minute track is done. “My Old Ways” sounds slight on record -- as if a breeze would blow it away before it reaches your ears -- but tonight it’s given a classic-rock opening, down-strummed open chords seguing into textured instrumentation and McMicken’s reedy but emotive vocals. The Beach Boys harmonies of Dr. Dog’s records are ditched tonight, replaced instead with a rough echo that sounds uncannily like Neil Young and Joe Cocker have gone cavorting in a canyon. What serves Dr. Dog best is the interchangeable nature of their songs. Leaman’s tunes are taut, soul-filled rockers. “Alaska,” especially, sounds like the Band covering one of Stax Records’ more laidback numbers. McMicken charts a different avenue: sounding like Neil Young and Wayne Coyne harmonizing in a submarine, his songs have a poppy edge to them, one more melodic than weighty. These differences diffuse on the stage as Leaman plays preacher to McMicken’s country bumpkin guitar. Staid and serious, the bassist is a focal point because of his mic’s central position, but McMicken steals the show, wringing his guitar with wild abandon and hopping from one foot to another like he’s playing on hot coals. Despite being stuck at the back of the small stage, the horns are punchier than a Mike Tyson weigh-in, tooting their way to the forefront. The crux of Dr. Dog’s credibility, however, is also their downfall. The songs are instantly recognizable, so much so they sometimes smack of pastiche. On a similar note, their over-earnest approach is, if endearing, sometimes cloying, especially on the inexcusably literal “Weekend.” Despite the album-launch aspect of this evening, the loudest cheers are reserved for the announcement of older songs. The band promptly silences the crowd by swinging straight into the semi a-cappella “California” from last year’s Takers and Leavers EP. In complete contrast to the music that’s come before, "California" is a down-home, harmony-soaked, countrified slice of Americana. They follow it up with a few choice cuts from Easy Beat and Toothbrush, including a raucous run through “The Pretender”. The show ends with at least twenty people on stage. Egged on by the band, they clamber up to help the group through their closing anthem, “Wake Up”. And though the lyrics are a little trite (“Wake up, wake up, wake up, it’s only part of a dream”), everyone sings along as one crowd member inexplicably takes his shirt off. I see him later, outside, un-shirted and shivering in the crisp, cold 1 a.m. air. He might have been dreaming before, but he's certainly wide awake now.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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