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My Life As That Dog

Anna Waronker barks up our tree

BY JOHN D. THOMAS
If you can imagine the Go Go's covering Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville, you'd get a pretty right-on mental impression of That Dog's Retreat From the Sun. This L.A. quartet consists of three gloriously talented young women (lead singer/guitarist Anna Waronker along with sisters Petra Haden on violin and vocals and Rachel Haden on bass and vocals) with Tony Maxwell confidently kickin' the kit. That Dog was recently in Atlanta opening for Blur at The Roxy and are looping through Olympic town again this week for a gig at Chastain, opening for Counting Crows and The Wallflowers, the most overhyped and overplayed band since Oasis.

In this summer of soulless electronica, That Dog's sexy power-punk pop is refreshingly direct and snappy. On Retreat From the Sun, they sing about bondage ("Gagged and Tied"), boyfriends ("Did You Ever") and lousy relationships ("Annie"). This is certainly well-trod territory, but their phenomenal harmonies, inventive instrumental conflations (cello, French horn, synthesizer, sleigh bells) and aggressive lyrics will make young boys want to toss their Hanes at them on stage.

The band has been together since the early 1990s and has released a couple of full-length albums (1993's that dog and 1995's Totally Crushed Out!), but this is by far their most mature and successful effort. (Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and The L.A. Times have all gushed over Retreat.) I recently chatted with an intermittently yawning Waronker from her home in Hollywood about life and love on the road.

I see an aggressive love-'em-and-leave-'em thread that runs through your record. Is there a lot of romance on the road for you?

No, nothing at all. Actually, I'm in a very committed, monogamous relationship that I've been in for over two years, so there's no romance on the road. A lot of those songs that were about crushes and flirtations were written before this relationship.

Tell me a little bit about this guy.

He's in a band called Red Kross. He's the bass player. I'll just give him a little plug. It's a great band, they just played a show last night that was incredible.

What's up with the name of your band? Is that just three attractive young women trying to be ironic?

No, actually I came up with the name before Rachel and Petra were even in the band. I started the band with a friend of mine and it was really just as a joke and neither one of us were musicians. I saw a dead animal on the side of the street, a roadkill, and got the chills from it. And she said, "What's wrong?" And I said, "Ugh, that dog." And she said, "What a great band name." And I said, "OK let's have a band called That Dog." And she said, "OK." We started writing lyrics, it was just as a joke. And then a friend of mine taught me how to play a left-handed guitar, but I'm right-handed. So he tuned it so it was an open chord so I could just move my finger up and down the neck. Then I started writing songs. We did that for about six months and we made a tape and then she moved away. I decided I wanted to continue. I wanted to put a real band together with actual musicians.

I get the impression from reading your press kit that you try to downplay the fact that Rachel and Petra are jazz great Charlie Haden's kids. True?

Yeah. Well, it's not that we're trying to downplay it, it's just that we want to keep the focus on our record. There are so many extracurricular things about this group that it's important for us to focus on what we're actually out here working on and promoting. It's just a bunch of side projects and different personalities and everything. But it's not that we really want to downplay the father thing, it's just that we don't like to put too much focus on it. It's been a first question of every interview for the past six years.

Have you ever gotten any musical advice from Haden or played with him?

I don't know if they've ever played with him. I've never played with Charlie. I'm actually not too personal with him, but I think that he's really supportive and he helps Rachel and Petra, and he gives them a lot of good advice and input. It's good to have someone with a really strong musical background to lean on in case of emergency or just for support.

This record is much more polished than your earlier stuff. Have you been hearing complaints about the band's change in direction, complaints that you've become too slick or have become sort of a run-of-the-mill alternative band?

In the studio we were concerned about that because when I wrote the record I really wanted to make a departure from what That Dog had done, and originally this was a solo record. So everything was supposed to be different. I wanted to work with a producer and wanted to take things much more seriously and put myself in the running in, like, commercial music. I want a career and I felt like the music I was writing actually could kind of fit in there. All the commercial stuff is like an afterthought, but we were concerned that we were alienating our audience, and then we realized that we didn't have that big of an audience (laughs) so they would have to love it or leave it. So now with all of our old fans -- and now there's a bunch of new ones -- with the old ones they all like it. I don't know if they all do, but we've gotten good reports from people we've seen on the road for the past few years of touring. Everybody seems to be very enthusiastic, so I guess we're doing all right. I'm very happy with the record.

I saw you all recently on "House of Style" on MTV and I must admit you looked a bit uncomfortable. What was that like? The whole thing seemed a bit goofy to me.

I was most uncomfortable during the tai chi session. I tried to get us not to have to do it, but they wanted us to, so we did. All those things are goofy. But it was fun. I'm good friends with Pat (Smears of the Foo Fighters), so it was fun for us to work together. It's a cool thing to do. A perk about this job is that you can watch TV or go to certain shows or whatever, meet certain people or be fans of certain people and then you can actually experience it on your own, which is cool. So we've all seen "House of Style" and so it was fun.

Have you seen any impact from having appeared on that show?

I don't know, because it aired when we were home, so I don't know if a lot of people picked up on it. I haven't checked any of our record sales since it aired.

Do you pay a lot of attention to record sales?

Yeah. This is a business, you know. When I'm writing and when I'm recording and when I'm performing, this is an art and it's music and I love it. When it is business, it is business and I understand the difference, and I kind of find the separation to involve myself in the business as well. I like to know what's going on because I want to know why I'm doing certain things, why I have to leave my life for six weeks at a time.

Many people have likened you to Liz Phair. What do you think about that?

I'll take it as a compliment, but I think it's going a little overboard. If Brad Wood [who has worked with Phair] hadn't produced this [record], no one would be saying that.

You've played in Atlanta more than once. Do you like playing here or is it hard to tell the difference from one town to the next when you're on the road?

[Last time] we had a day off here. Yeah, I like Atlanta. I had a very good spinach salad in Atlanta. I don't remember what the restaurant was called. I was staying in a hotel in the cheesy touristy area by Planet Hollywood and those places. I just went into some little restaurant and got a great salad. That's about all I can offer. But I had fun.

That Dog opens for Counting Crows and the Wallflowers on Monday, Aug. 4 at Chastain Park.