How Dr. Dog recorded a Beatles song in parking lot

On a Monday morning in early June, Dr. Dog’s tour van pulled into the parking lot of Stage AE in Pittsburgh. It was technically their day off, but the band had work to do before headlining the venue the following night. They had just played the Wakarusa festival in Ozark, Arkansas, and while they were there, they took in a set by The Flaming Lips, met Wayne Coyne and got to talking. It turns out Coyne and the Lips were planning an ambitious, star-studded tribute to The Beatles‘ iconic, influential psychedelic opus, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band – and they wanted Dr. Dog on board, with one catch – they had to work fast.

Their deadline for turning in a mix of their cover was the following weekend, when Dr. Dog was scheduled to hit Bonnaroo. “It was a real shotgun-style, rapid-paced thing, which I really appreciated,” recalls Scott McMicken. “There was no dilly-dallying, and Wayne was really clear about this. He was like ‘This is how it works. If you want to do this, you’ve got to do it now.'”

The band got its assignment: “Getting Better,” the buoyant jangle-pop jam that sits at track four on Sgt. Pepper’s; it was the one song that hadn’t yet been claimed, but it’s also one of McMicken’s favorites, which worked out nicely. They also got the ground rules: the core of the song had to remain intact. They couldn’t change the key, they couldn’t change the melody, they couldn’t change the chords or the words. Beyond that, they had free reign to re-sculpt the song however they saw fit. Which brings us to the parking lot in Pittsburgh.

Dr. Dog


“We parked at the venue a day early,” McMicken says, a common practice with tour vans on off days. It happened that Stage AE did not have an event that night, and the parking lot was deserted, save for a crucial structure at the entrance.

“They had one of those little security booths,” McMicken describes. “You know, one of those tiny glass rooms that are like four feet by two feet, where the dude hangs out all day to let people in. We just took that thing over and turned it into this kind of mini, utilitarian studio.”

There was a bright florescent light in this tiny room, and whoever was up to bat would step up into it and lay down their part. Frank McElroy pulled out his laptop, fired up some recording software and used a combination of some wired microphones and the laptop’s built-in mic to capture sounds. Toby Leaman laid down his bassline and vocals, followed by McMicken. Dmitri Coates riffed on some keyboard parts and blended in other environmental sounds.

For percussion, Eric Slick pulled together trash cans he found scattered around the parking lot and used those on the first pass.

“Well aware that the intention here was to go pretty abstract with our presentation, we were just using whatever sounds we could find around the parking lot,” McMicken says. “And then a couple of additional sounds with our acoustic guitar. We  wanted to try and take it as far away from the box as we could and I think it helped being stuck in a parking lot with a very compromised recording situation because it lent itself to some pretty experimental ideas.”

After a day’s work, the band had pushed “Getting Better” to what McMicken described as “its outer limits.” The next day, soundchecking at Stage AE, they decided to reel it back in a touch.

Dr. Dog


“Our sound engineer helped us wire it in to the PA so we could play along to it after sound check,” says McMicken. “So we added some real drums to the recording and overdubbed some guitar and other real sounds.”

The rough mix was finalized and sent off later that week, with the full understanding Coyne got the final say and had carte blanche to embellish on the recording with producer Dave Fridmann providing the final mix. His finished version keeps pretty close to the ideas the the band recorded in the parking lot, but the big surprise was the addition of a verse from rapper Chuck Inglish of midwestern duo The Cool Kids. McMicken digs it, though, keeping in the spirit of collaboration.

“It’s weird, but I’m totally open to it,” he says. “A lot of interesting new dimensions are being brought to the tune, and it’s really enjoyable.”

With a Little Help From My Friends is out on October 28th, and features collaborations between Phantogram and Juliana Barwick (“She’s Leaving Home”), the Lips and Miley Cyrus (“A Day In the Life”), My Morning Jacket and J Mascis (the title track) and more. Proceeds from the record will benefit the Oklahoma City-based Bella Foundation, which helps low income, elderly, or terminally ill pet owners with the cost of veterinary care.

I ask McMicken if he ever pictures Dr. Dog orchestrating a mass-collaboration in the same way – the band is certainly well enough connected, after so many years of touring, with artists that are popular on the regional as well as national level. He shakes his head though. “I don’t see us as the curating kind of folk,” he says. “Maybe in a different context. I’ve always wanted to put on our own festival.”

The band sort of gets a chance to do that this weekend with their Lawn of Mann show on Saturday. It’s a complete one-off show for them, bringing in oddball popster Mac Demarco, Jersey acoustic punks The Front Bottoms and Philly art rockers Hop Along, as well as the local psychedelic troupe Needle Points for a DJ set.

“Once we’ve sold out the Electric Factory a couple nights in a row, it’s like, what’s your next uncharted territory?” McMicken asks. “We’ve always wanted to do a great Philly summertime show, and stack it with a good strong bill. There’s no other city we could book a show like that.”

It’s the band’s last hurrah before heading into a relatively hermetic fall that will, according to McMicken, yeild “a couple new Dr. Dog albums” by early 2015, as well as other projects within and without the band.

Added bonus of playing the Skyline Stage at the Mann on Saturday: it’s outdoors, in open air, looking out on the crowd as the sun goes down. “We do a lot of festivals, but haven’t really made it up the ranks yet where were the nighttime band,” McMicken says. “It’s one of my favorite ways to play music.”

Dr. Dog


Dr. Dog’s Lawn of Mann show takes place at the Skyline Stage of the Mann Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, September 13th. Tickets and information for the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar, and possibly won at the XPN Facebook page. For more stories in our Dr. Dog Days of Summer series, click here.

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