from America Online's "SPIN online" feature.
With their new album Retreat From the Sun, and their single "Minneapolis," the LA-based That Dog is currently all the rage in power/pop circles. Fellow Brentwood School alumnist-to-be/SPINonline copy editor Judy Coleman (SPINmag@aol.com) spoke with lead singer/songwriter/femme fatale Anna Waronker about forming the band, the Liz Phair syndrome and, of course, how the Go-Go's Charlotte Caffey changed her life.
"I think I could be locked in a room anywhere and freak out and [still] write songs," said Waronker, singer-guitarist-guiding force for That Dog. "[After high school] I was living with a friend of mine, and we just started writing lyrics. We didn't play any instruments at the time, but we started writing lyrics, and we already had the name of the band at the time, and we came up with it as a concept."
About six months later, Waronker decided to get serious about the band, so she called former classmate Rachel Haden, who would become That Dog's bassist, to enlist her help. Eventually Rachel's twin sister, violinist Petra, and drummer Tony Maxwell, a friend of Waronker's older brother, joined in and helped to birth one of L.A.'s most popular bands. Five years and three albums later, That Dog have toured the world and climbed the charts. Their most recent release, Retreat From the Sun, has elicited critical raves and national attention.
Originally written for a solo project of Waronker's, the songs from Retreat represent a breakthrough in the maturity and complexity of her songwriting. Waronker attributes her musical "revelation" to boyfriend Steve McDonald of Redd Kross. She said, "He was the inspiration for changing my style, because his songs are really well-crafted... and I kinda felt like, 'Oh wow. I'm not doing that, and I should be doing that because he does that and I'm really proud of him for it.'"
Afraid that the band would not want to follow her new songwriting direction, Waronker intended her first step out of the noise and randomness of That Dog's first two albums to be indepent of the band. But to her pleasant surprise, the band shared her feelings. "That's part of the why I wanted to make a solo record, because I wasn't sure if they wanted to go in that direction. After the fact I realized that they wanted to too. So that was fortunate."
For this record, Waronker decided to employ infamous indie producer Brad Wood, and ended the band's history of self-production. "[On That Dog's eponymous debut,] I basically didn't know what I was doing. [Recording] definitely changed my life because we produced it. I had a lot of input in that department, and we mixed it. I just had really strong visions about what I wanted to do with it. [For Retreat,] I wanted to reinvent what I was doing, so I thought working with a producer would be good just to change it up a bit, take the pressure off me and everybody else and make it a different experience."
Because of her work with Wood and her thin but frank vocals, Waronker has garnered countless comparisons to Liz Phair, but regards them as a double-edged sword. An admirer of Phair and her songwriting, Waronker doesn't think she sounds like the reigning indie queen, and in some ways resents the vagueness of the postulate. "It's a little bit insulting because [critics will] do that with anybody, [for] any woman they do that. They will compare you to any other women they think of. And the Brad Wood thing kinda gave it away, but I'd prefer [the Liz Phair analogy] to other comparisons, like Veruca Salt, which never made any sense."
The daughter of Warner Bros. music exec Lenny Waronker, and a product of years of West Los Angeles private schooling, Anna grew up with an appreciation for music. "I was exposed to a lot of music in an artistic way... [My dad] would take us to concerts all the time and we would meet bands on his label all the time...[My brother] was always really, really into music. He'd go to the studio with my dad a lot."
Despite her upbringing, Anna never pictured herself in a band. Instead, Anna wanted to be a music supervisor for movies. She explained, "When I went into college I didn't know what I wanted to do, and I thought that would be the one thing that I could do well. I have somewhat of a knack for that stuff. Maybe one day I'll do it. There's still time."
After three-and-a-half years of USC, Anna dropped out, a move she doesn't recommend to others, to pursue That Dog, which was "taking over her life." The band made their first album in 1992, and the recording process helped Anna find her calling as a musician. She said, "Being involved with that and being in charge of that, it made me realize that I shouldn't be in school because lectures were boring, and [making music] was really exciting. I knew I was being given a big opportunity to do that with my life."
After playing to packed L.A. clubs and opening for several larger acts, That Dog returned to the studio to make Totally Crushed Out!, a concept album chock-full of enticing three-part harmonies and wild violin solos. They created the album with a definite purpose: to record songs that could be played live exactly as they were on the record. "That was our post-touring record. I started writing for performance... We got a little noisy on it and a little punk on it," she said. Totally Crushed Out! spawned two music videos for That Dog's most well-loved tunes, "Ms. Wrong" and "He's Kissing Christian."
During the interim between this second album and Retreat, Anna made a conscious decision to change her musical focus. She recounted, "Part of my revelation was that we were playing grunge music. I always thought the loud bit/quiet bit was really cool before Nirvana or whatever, and then all of a sudden I realized that's what I was doing, and that's what everybody was doing, and that it wasn't important to me anymore.
"I wanted to do something different and also write without anybody in mind. Whereas before I would write a bunch of songs, and I would think, 'Okay Rachel will do this, and Petra will do this and there'll be a violin solo here,' [with] these songs I didn't think like that at all. I just thought about the song. I didn't worry about how I would perform it...The other thing is that I started doing my homework with different music and tried to apply that to my music."
Homework included Randy Neuman, Bow Wow Wow, Redd Kross and the Go-Go's. Go-Go's Charlotte Caffey had a very personal impact on Retreat, as she inspired Anna to teach herself piano. On New Year's Day 1996, Caffey played "Head Over Heels" on Anna's as-of-then unused piano (a loaner from her boyfriend). Since then Anna has written every new song on the piano. That Dog's next album might even be completely piano-based. And though she swears techno will never make an appearance on a That Dog record, Anna is also considering using drum loops on the next album.
Musical maturity aside, Anna has changed That Dog's entire attitude towards performing and recording. "We're going to ditch [the casual attitude]. I feel like I'm not a kid anymore. I don't want to be playing indie music. I want to be playing something I'm really proud of. And getting up there and not knowing what I'm doing and us giggling isn't where we are right now. We do that because it's not easy to play everything, but that's part of the change too. Taking it seriously and doing it for real and getting it there, being an actual rock band on these rock tours instead of a silly kiddy."