Adding Bite to Its Bark
that dog. expands on its punkish aesthetic with decidedly grown-up song craft.
by Sara Scribner
Anna Waronker stands in the living room of her Hollywood Hills duplex surveying her extensive collection of memorabilia: Keane paintings of saucer-eyed children, vintage lunch boxes, an impressive cache of Barbies. She points to the dolls. "Those are all going," she says. "I'm tired of them."
Tossing the collection of pink pop culture icons is a significant decision for Waronker, the singer, songwriter and guitarist for the LA band That Dog. And it seems to symbolize her break from the ironic, youthful days of the group's past and her new flowering as an artist.
That Dog's third album, "Retreat from the Sun," is a buoyantly poppish yet decidedly grown-up affair. On it, Waronker emerges as a songwriter, capturing fleeting crushes and trial-by-touring friendships with sweet poignancy.
"I've always been obsessed with relationships. I've been obsessed with crushes. I love romantic comedies," says Waronker, 24, sipping iced coffee and dragging on a cigarette as she talks. "But I like this record a lot more because it feels so much more put together and so much more nurtured."
The quality of the record, Waronker hopes, might finally extinguish the skepticism that has haunted That Dog since its 1993 debut album.
At a time when Bob Dylan's son Jakob is riding high with the Wallflowers, That Dog is another LA band that's received lots of attention for its family ties: Waronker is the daughter of noted record producer and veteran music executive Lenny Waronker, and violinist Petra and bassist Rachel Haden are the daughters of jazz great Charlie Haden.
"I was really defensive about it at first, but I was 19 then," Waronker says. "I'm really proud of my dad, and the girls are really proud of their dad, but they don't have anything to do with our music except for being supportive and inspiring. They weren't at the sessions. They didn't play on it or produce it."
But whenever she does interviews, those pesky questions about her father arise. When Jakob Dylan's second-generation status comes up, Waronker balks: "Bob Dylan's kid versus a record exec's kid? Or a jazz bassist's kid? It's so different. I wonder if I'll ever escape it."
Lenny Waronker produced such esteemed songwriters as Randy Newman, Rickie Lee Jones and Van Dyke Parks. Anna acknowledges that growing up in a music-minded household probably spurred her imagination and made her a braver songwriter.
"When I was really little, my dad would bring home tapes and play them for me, and I liked Randy Newman a lot. Now that I can write, I can tell that a lot of it seeped in." Waronker keeps a photo of Newman next to the piano that was a gift from her boyfriend Steve McDonald, the bassist for LA pop-rock cult heroes Redd Kross.
Her father, who is one of the principal executives at the new DreamWorks Records, hears hints of Newman in Anna's style. But he believes that the artistic atmosphere at their Westside home was more instrumental than any particular performer in fostering her vision.
"She was surrounded by people who were really great artists from early on, and there was always a conversation, whether it was Randy or Van Dyke or Rickie Lee," Lenny Waronker says in a seperate interview. "She does have her own creative voice, and I'm proud that she has the courage and the will to do what she does."
Anna describes the roots of what she does as "haphazard." That Dog's three women, who were schoolmates as teens at Crossroads School in Santa Monica, were in college when they formed the group---Waronker at USC, Petra Haden at CalArts and Rachel Haden at Santa Monica College.
Says Waronker: "It just fell together. One day, Petra walked by the room and said, 'What are you guys doing?' And Rachel and I said, 'Well, we're going to make a band. Do you want to be in it?' 'Oh, OK.'...It was really sweet, kind of like falling in love." (The group's fourth member is drummer Tony Maxwell, best friend of Waronker's brother Joey, the drummer in Beck's band.)
From there, the outfit started playing gigs at local clubs and signed with Geffen Records in 1992. The first album, "that dog." was built on unusual vocal harmonies and a stripped-down, do-it-yourself ethic.
"We were such a baby band, we didn't know what we were doing," the songwriter says now.
"I feel so weird about the lyrics too. I was so young. It's almost embarassing to have people critique how you've changed: 'It's more mature.' Well, of course it's more mature. We're older. We're not teenagers anymore."
"Totally Crushed Out!" followed in 1995 with little fanfare, leaving Waronker deflated.
"I was sick of music, tired of the radio, tired of MTV; I had done a lot of touring and was tired of the crowds," she says. "I didn't write anything. Then I just had an epiphany: I'm just going to pull out my '80s roots and just do it differently."
Inspired by the pop-minded Blondie and Redd Kross, Waronker loosened up her punkish aesthetic and focused on song craft. Moving beyond the arty, almost coy, self-consciousness of its past records, That Dog opts in "Retreat From the Sun" for artful power pop. So far, the recipe has translated into greater exposure---a single ("Never Say Never") that has been bumped up to active rotation on MTV and is now being played regularly on KROQ-FM (106.7). Reviewing "Retreat," Rolling Stone calls Waronker's new voice "much more confrontational" than Liz Phair and praises her for leaving "the obsessive safety of the teenage bedroom on a wave of fast-moving post-punk explosions."
"A lot of it had to do with going out with Steve, and Redd Kross' being so thought-out and so good and so pop," Waronker says. "And I allowed myself to really get personal in my lyrics without coating it by being vague or using pop culture references. I feel much more solid about that stuff in my life now."