That Dog Learns New Tricks
by Erik Himmelsbach
(First appeared in BAM magazine, 7/11/97)
Tony Maxwell is hedging his bets. Sure, the floor of the Mercury Lounge--a sweaty club on Manhattan's Lower East Side--barely allows for breathing, let alone standing room. And you'd think his view from the drum kit would be reassuring, as a few hundred people happily sway back and forth to the chirpy pop noise created from the stage. Yet early in the band's set, That Dog's drummer, sage and sole carrier of the Y chromosome blurts it out anyway, almost as an apology, "We're from Los Angeles. But don't hold it against us." Are you kidding?
This is not a tough crowd. In fact, the audience is in love, L-U-V. Like, rapture city. And That Dog justifies their love by assuredly rocking through a tight (yeah, believe it--like a fuckin' drum, certainly a far cry from the old days) and bouncy 45-minute set of sonic enchantment, performing most of the songs from their delightful new Retreat From the Sun, leaving the contents of their earlier releases at home, save "Ms. Wrong" and "Silently" from 1995's teen diary/CD, Totally Crushed Out. That Dog, that quirky little Westside combo, has totally grown up, name and all. The band formerly known as "that dog." has sprouted capital letters: "We needed to, like, mellow out," says singer/guitarist/songwriter Anna Waronker. "People haaaaated the lower case and the period. Hated it." In the past, the band's trademark was loose-limbed discord--songs seemingly held together with Scotch tape. The cacophony of Waronker's crunching guitar, sisters Petra and Rachel Haden's angelic harmonies (they are two-thirds of triplets; Tanya, who occasionally contributes cello to That Dog recordings, is the third) and Petra's dissonant violin collided to sound like nothing so much as the punk-rock bastard children of the Roches.
Waronker's tunes, often lacking a proper chorus, were more like journal entries than actual songs. Both their self-titled debut (released in '94) and Totally Crushed Out were chock-full of girlish anguish and adolescent minutiae, what Maxwell refers to as "retarded innocence." In songs like "Westside Angst" and "Paid Programming," That Dog spoke to our trivial-yet-essential (don't deny it) concerns.This was a band searching for its voice--naively yet fearlessly thrashing about on its earlier recordings. But there's little of the old youthful eccentricity on Retreat From the Sun, as Waronker has blossomed into a crafty pop songwriter. And it may be the best New Wave record you'll hear all year, channeling That Dog's spiritual godmothers, the Bangles and the Go-Go's for inspiration.
Of course, Waronker went right to the source: former Go-Go Charlotte Caffey, now the wife of Redd Kross' Jeff McDonald, whose brother, Steve, is currently Anna's best boy. "I would say Charlotte is a serious influence," Waronker says. "She's a really good musician. I listened to the Go-Go's, studying what she was doing. Then I started listening to the Bangles and Blondie, really studying it. I picked up a lot from it." Close your eyes and listen to Retreat's title track. It's absolutely 1984, with its simple piano riff and canned handclaps that echo the Go-Go's "Head Over Heels." In fact, you can almost see those pastel Olympic flags flying. She also enlisted Caffey to play the cheez-whiz synth part that highlights the single, "Never Say Never." Waronker seems to embrace the notion of becoming LA's next queen of womanly pop. Reclining on a couch at Otis, a bar in Hell's Kitchen, following a gig opening for Matthew Sweet at Times Square's Roseland ballroom, she lights a cigarette ("I've quit, but it's my night off"), sips gingerly from a gimlet, and chatters with rushed enthusiasm, as if
her discovery of the art of songwriting has unlocked the key to the universe. Suddenly, it all makes sense. She's unblinking and focused, even when "Our Lips Are Sealed" blares over the jukebox and Petra and a few pals add some live harmony from across the table. Previously, the band deliberately recorded material that could easily be duplicated live. "We couldn't do multiple guitar parts," Waronker explains, "so that kind of designed our sound. With this record I dropped everything, which left room for everybody else," such as Maxwell's "four on the floor" drumming on "Never Say Never" or Petra's wicked, arena-ready violin solo on "Did You Ever."
Adds Maxwell of the extra attention paid to recording: "We worked and worked to make things simple. It was a backwards way of achieving something. People would hear it and say, 'Oh, they've diluted some of what made them original in the first place.' But I still think we're crappy enough on some level as musicians so we still sound like That Dog." Retreat doesn't sound like what we've come to expect from That Dog partially because Waronker wasn't writing the songs with the band in mind. "I don't know what I was writing it for, to be honest with you," she says. "I wasn't sure how [the band] would take it because it was really different. I was really nervous because I thought they wouldn't like it."
It was a crucial period: After three years, the band's warm 'n' fuzzy edges were beginning to fray as its members drifted into outside projects. Maxwell was dabbling in video directing, and also had his other band, 9-Iron, for which he sang and played guitar. Petra became the hardest working violin player in LA, performing and/or recording with the Rentals, froSTed, Beck and her brother's band, Spain, as well as releasing an otherworldly solo record last year, Imaginaryland, an eccentric collection of tunes with wordless vocals. "I wanted to sing like I was in a Bulgarian choir," Petra says. "I don't get to do that in That Dog."
Rachel? Well, Rachel worked with the Rentals and Susanna Hoffs, but also spent some time getting, as they say, her head together, and tapping into her potential as a musician. "I just started to write music and songs," says the bassist. "I never thought that I could. I just thought, God, I want to write songs. I want to see if I could do it. Then I went into therapy and that helped a lot. I realized that I had really low self-esteem and I need to get that up and I need to get my confidence up, too. I'm really working on it and it's helping my music." Rachel actually quit That Dog for a few months while the band toured to support Totally Crushed Out. Plastered on a couch at Otis, Rachel sits quietly alone while Anna talks, Tony works the room, and Petra dances to the '80s hits blaring from the jukebox. Her face is adorned in glitter, leftover from the Roseland show with Sweet ("glitter puts me in a more sparkly kind of mood, especially when I'm feeling sad," she says). "I was going through a really hard time," she explains. "I didn't feel mentally or physically able to continue touring. But I worked it out and I'm back and I'm really happy." Rachel's departure rattled the group's foundations. "It kicked our butts a little bit. We were a bit stale," Maxwell says. "I think the new style of songs are a result of that as much as anything else. All of a sudden you lose trust with the bond of the band and you realize it's fallible. We did a couple tours without her but it just felt wrong. That's one thing I've never felt in another band as much as this, just a certain chemistry that occurs when we all play together."
The band fulfilled its dates with Steve McDonald filling in on bass. Which, in some ways, was a blessing in disguise; Waronker credits McDonald's frantic style of playing with helping change her attitude about songwriting. "I'm really particular about playing and I'm really precious about songs; his style is so unique and insane that I really got into it. It made my mind open up to anything." This was great news to Maxwell, who had long been pushing Waronker to dig a little deeper. "I've always been ambitious about what we could do," he says before the Mercury Lounge gig. "I was always the one who was pushing to try things and then getting shot down because they weren't ready. But it had to go at its own pace."
McDonald also influenced Waronker by lending her a piano, which she learned slowly, using "Head Over Heels" as a guide. "I started writing more serious melodies and singing them out more," she says. "It freaked me out at first. I felt like, damn, I'm writing showtunes. What am I going to do? As I kept doing it, they turned into pop songs." Her self-consciousness as a writer also melted away. Just listen to the deliciously wicked "Gagged and Tied," in which Waronker imagines herself a dominatrix ("I don't care if you don't treat me like a lady/And I don't care just sit there and don't disobey me"). "I generally write to get my stuff out, but I was always nervous if I got too personal. With this [record] I didn't care. My goal was not to hide anything anymore. Just simplify it and do it. Don't chicken out." Had Retreat not been a That Dog record, Waronker would have gone solo with it. "I probably would have done this on my own because I was really passionate about it," she says. "Then I would probably have tried really hard to write songs for That Dog. I think it was stagnating, though, and I feel like we made two records that were pretty similar and we needed to do something different."
Ironically, as Waronker asserted herself as a bandleader, she loosened up in other areas, deferring to an outside producer (Brad Wood) and relinquishing her role as the band's manager. In the wake of Rachel's three-month departure, the band took on added importance. "I realized this is a real job. You don't fuck around." Having Wood, who has produced Veruca Salt and Liz Phair, among others, in the studio, enabled everyone to focus solely on the music. "We wanted everything to be as good as it could be, whatever that took," Waronker says. Wood, she adds, "dealt with each person really well. He knew what every person should contribute."
In the video for "Never Say Never," Maxwell plays a shrink to Waronker's patient. Not the most original plot with which to promote a single, but it nevertheless hit close to home. Maxwell, as the oldest by three years (he's 28), has been a therapist/mentor for his bandmates since their
formation five years ago. "When someone is in a crisis, it's like, 'Tony, what does that mean? You've been there, what is this?' I just have that kind of personality. I tend to stay calm somehow. A friend of ours came up with the [video] concept knowing the band intimately. We all just said, 'Oh yeah. That makes sense.' " "I think we all help each other emotionally and mentally," says Rachel. "We're there for each other. When we have freakouts, anxiety attacks, I'll call Anna and tell her about a problem I know she'll understand. It's a family, it really is. When I quit the band, I felt like I was deserting my family." When That Dog was born, however, Anna barely knew the Hadens, although they had all attended private school Crossroads in Santa Monica. Maxwell was a neighbor, and a good friend of her brother, Joey. They got to know each other as they went along. "We kind of fell in love while starting the band," Waronker says. Rachel was enlisted first, after an early version that included friends of Anna's from USC dropped out. Petra joined simply because she didn't want to be left out. "Anna and Rachel were playing music together in Rachel's room and I walked by and I said, 'I want to be in the band, but I can't play anything. What should I play?'" Petra remembers. "I used to play violin, so I got it out of the closet and dusted it off." Rachel, originally a drummer, chose the bass to emulate her brother Josh, the leader of Spain (of course, her father, Charlie Haden, is also a pretty fair bassist). "Anything my brother did, I wanted to do," she says. "He was just so cool and I wanted to be just like him. I wanted to be in a band. I would just practice everyday to Minutemen songs. Mike
Watt played scales on a lot of the songs. He's very inspiring." That Dog were three musical neophytes and a guitarist playing drums, playing in a sandbox, constructing their work as they went, without a blueprint. "The key to understanding That Dog and why it exists at all is just its utter backwardness," explains Maxwell. "We've done everything backwards. A lot of people who get into music, they pick up a guitar or start playing drums, usually starting by emulating Led Zeppelin or whoever their heroes are at the time. But Anna and the Hadens didn't do that so much. They just jumped right in and started playing, which was a huge benefit to the music. It forced them to create something original from the beginning, which is really hard to do."
Only Maxwell has the requisite punk and new wave cred. Anna listened to the Randy Newman records her father, former Warner Bros. and now DreamWorks exec Lenny Waronker, brought home. And when Petra joined That Dog, "I was a geek," she says. "All I did was listen to the soundtrack to Superman and Pat Metheny. I listened to Bach, John Williams, Charlie Haden."
Much has been made of the band's rapid ascension, signing a deal with Geffen less than a year after getting together, after an independently released 7-inch single received respectable airplay on college radio stations KXLU and KCRW. "It was just insane," says Waronker. "We were such a baby band and we had no ambition. We were just doing it out of emotion. I had never been in a band before. They had never been in a band before. It was a big shock." This is where Maxwell's experience came in handy. "I was the one who did everything. I plugged in all the equipment, showed them how things could work. Guiding them in terms of how things could work structurally as a song."
The band still remembers the trauma of their first gig at Jabberjaw. "I had never been on a microphone before," Waronker recalls. "It was really frightening. The girls laughed hysterically the whole time. They barely sang anything. I was as stiff as a board and a wreck." Petra dealt with her stage fright by tossing down a few. "In the beginning I was really freaked out," she says. "I used to drink four beers before playing. Sometimes I could pull it off." After a year, she gave it up. "Now I kind of like the nervous energy I get while I play. I still get really nervous. I have to hit myself in
the stomach. The performance anxiety hits me really hard." Jealous grousing from other musicians and the press also surfaced following their signing, as the band heard whispers that their success was due to their fathers, Lenny Waronker and Charlie Haden. "The truth of the matter was that it took five years for us to grow into it," explains Maxwell, whose own father is a physician of renown. "We never pretended to be anything other than what we were. And a lot of people harped on the famous father issue. That doesn't have anything to do with the music or anything we ever did." It may have taken five years, but Maxwell was anxious to quicken the pace at every turn. "Anna and I always had a healthy tension--with my trying to prod things and kind of poke at them and her being really stubborn and focused--it really helped things evolve in a natural way." But Waronker opted to move slowly and cautiously. "I originally wanted it to be very small," Waronker says. "But the deal at Geffen was really suited to what we needed and it seemed like the right thing to do." That Dog may have been short in the craft department, but they hardly lacked chutzpah. "We were really sensitive about producing it and mixing it ourselves and being very involved," Waronker says. "I managed the band for the first two years. I knew all the cliches about the recording industry and I figured if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it my way."
While Waronker's motives may have been noble, many lessons were learned, and she's lightened up over time. "It took a long time to grow up and grow into the reality of everything. Now I completely consider it a career. I understand what that means. But back then, being so young and never having to really work at it...which, you know, is a double-edged sword. You've been given all that pressure and expectation and responsibility without having any idea about what it means."
Despite the band's newfound pop savvy, That Dog still maintain an endearing innocence that's essential to their charm, best embodied by the Haden sisters. While Maxwell and Waronker can tell you all about the bumps in the road of their career, but the Hadens are oblivious, simply lost in the music. "Today I was thinking, this is my life," Rachel says. "I really get good feelings from it. I just now decided that I have a passion in life, and it's being in a band and playing. I'm never really sure what I want to do, what I want. Now I think I do."
Petra, meanwhile, has an decidedly un-rock 'n' roll view of her career in a That Dogless world. "Maybe I'll become an elementary school choir teacher. I could practice a hundred times a day and join a symphony. I could play on Sesame Street. I could play on Captain Kangaroo." If not, maybe she could take solace in knowing that she inspired youngsters glued to MTV to pick up a violin and start a band.
That Dog will unleash their infectious melodies to a rabid audience at the Roxy on July 16th
(c) 1997 Erik Himmelsbach