Where do you go after The Psychedelic Swamp?
That was the question facing Dr. Dog after the veteran Philadelphia band finished touring in 2016.
The quintet led by Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman will play their biggest hometown show yet when they headline the Festival Pier on Saturday night behind their reenergized new album, Critical Equation.
It's the 10th studio album by the Philly band that's steadily grown in popularity as a touring act since their rootsy, psychedelic, melodic rock first drew comparisons to the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and the Band with 2005's Easy Beat.
Critical Equation was recorded on a tight schedule in Los Angeles in November with producer Gus Seyffert, who's worked with a list of luminaries, including Norah Jones, Michael Kiwanuka, and Roger Waters.
From the opening "Listening In" and its fabulously feisty follow-up "Go Out Fighting," the album captures Dr. Dog at their most melodically enticing and inviting. McMicken praises Seyffert "for getting us to play in a more limber way. He got us to relax."
But Critical also gets Dr. Dog moving forward creatively again after being sidetracked by "two years in the Swamp," as McMicken put it in an interview this week.
That fruitful episode involved revisiting a low-fi concept album McMicken and Leaman recorded in the 1990s about a man who attempts to escape his humdrum existence by decamping to the place that gave the album its name: The Psychedelic Swamp. The songs became the focus of a 2015 production called Swamp is On with Pig Iron Theatre Company and a beefed-up version of the original album that was released on Anti- records in 2016.
"I'm so glad we did that whole Swamp chapter," McMicken says. "It was an idea that had been with us for so long, and we found the perfect way to revisit it. But it was a complete tangent from where we were headed creatively."
Turning to the Swamp also meant that Dr. Dog put aside an already all-but-completed new album recorded at their Clifton Heights rehearsal space/studio. That set of songs, known as Abandoned Mansion, was intended to be the follow up to their 2013 release B-Room.
After the Swamp tour, "there was a feeling of exhaustion," creatively and otherwise, McMicken says. He, bassist Leaman, guitarist Frank McElroy and keyboard player Zach Miller had been on a make-the-album, tour-the-album cycle since Easy Beat. Current drummer Eric Slick joined in 2009.
Dr. Dog needed a break. But merely taking eight months off with no activity seemed like a bad idea. To tide fans over, they put out Abandoned Mansion with minimal fanfare. In late November 2016, the album's availability on their Bandcamp page, was announced with an Instagram post. All initial proceeds went to the hate-crime-fighting Southern Poverty Law Center.
With that, the band retreated for a half year's worth of what McMicken calls "nothingness." In his case, that meant heading to the desert in Tucson, Ariz., where the West Grove, Pa. native lives with his musician and graphic artist wife Leann Cornelius.
This week, McMicken, 39, was interviewed on the Dr. Dog bus while parked on Columbus Boulevard in Philadelphia, where the band was on a stopover between a date in Pittsburgh and three shows in Brooklyn. In Philly, the group members scattered to see family and friends in the oppressive heat while McMicken kept cool in the air-conditioned bus.
The time off did the band a world of good, he says. For one thing, watching how warmly Abandoned Mansion was received without promotion, "was an affirmation that we have this grassroots infrastructure. And both because of the way the culture and the music industry is shifting, and also the way we established ourselves up to this point, that furthered our determination to put our music out ourselves."
The break also made Dr. Dog realize that they needed to work on communication if they were going to continue productively.
In the band's bio, Leaman, who has been sharing songwriting duties with McMicken since they were 13, says, "We've been touring and making records for our entire adult lives. It was important for all of us to figure out if we were actually doing what we wanted to be doing, or if we were just letting momentum carry us down this path we'd always been on."
After the success of Abandoned Mansion, the band was emboldened to release Critical Equation on their own label. Rather than continue on with Anti-, the group took out a $100,000 loan with a Nashville bank that does business with bands, using the money to hire a Music City company called Thirty Tigers that performs the promotional duties usually associated with a record label.
The band is also taking advantage of other ways the music industry has changed. Preparing for a tour that McMicken says "is all about trying to shake up what we've been doing for so long," the band rehearsed songs from both Critical Equation and Abandoned Mansion.
But as important as new material is to moving a band forward, the old stuff means more to fans. So what do you do if you have 150 songs in your catalog and only two hours to play?
"We just went to Spotify to check the numbers," says McMicken. They picked the 28 songs that are most popular on the music-streaming service, and rehearsed those to have them ready to work into the set.
"It's not like the obvious radio hits, because those don't exist for our band," he says. "It was just a natural way to find which songs had some degree of popularity." Some unexpected tunes turned up, like the deep cut "Army of Ancients," from 2008's Fate.
It's no big surprise — though it is ironic, considering the band has two strong songwriters — that the list-topper is "Heart it Races," Dr. Dog's version of a song by Australian band Architecture in Helsinki, which has over 18 million streams.
In general, McMicken says, the evolution of the music industry has been more asset than hindrance. "We've never really known anything else. We're not a pop radio band. We've never really made any money from anything else besides touring."
When he was writing for Critical Equation, McMicken says, "I wanted to stop thinking. I wanted to stop filtering. … I was trying to create something that I can stand behind as a statement and that I value in life and that I genuine think the world needs more of."
And what would that be?
"Honesty? Love?" he says with a good-natured shrug. "I don't know, I'm not coming at this in some bold new way. 'Dare to be obvious,' is what Toby always says. The most poignant moments in life are always connected to the most primary elements."