That Dog will play two shows at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn tonight and on Friday night, their first East Coast shows in 15 years. Beginning in Los Angeles in 1991, the quartet spent the better part of that decade perfecting a sound that split the difference between indie-pop, pop-punk and power-pop, while penning increasingly complex instrumental and vocal arrangements. Shortly before disbanding in 1997, the band released their swan song, Retreat From the Sun, a record that still stands as one of that decade’s lost alt-rock classics. Even if they never quite attained the level of success that labelmates and fellow Los Angelinos Beck and Weezer did, That Dog’s cult following has remained strong, as evidenced by the near-instant sellout of their first Brooklyn show (they later added a second show). And you can detect their influence across the indie world. That Dog were meticulously layering three-part vocal harmonies and writing violin arrangements long before the Fleet Foxes and the Decemberists. Hive sat down with lead singer and guitarist Anna Waronker to discuss the reunion, finding yourself as a musician and why being in That Dog was like being in a marriage.
Last year, you guys played two shows in Los Angeles. This year, you’ll play four more, two in L.A. and two in New York. How did this whole reunion get started?
Well, the way we’ve done things has always been kind of backwards. When we first started, we didn’t really know that we were musicians until we made a record. And this was sort of like that too — over the years, some members wanted to do shows and others didn’t but it somehow came together. And when we all got together it just kind of clicked — the shows last year were really good. So again, we didn’t really know what we were doing but we all liked the result and wanted to pursue more.
“We had better be better now — we have no excuse at this point!”
Has it been weird playing songs that you wrote 15 or 20 years ago?
It’s actually been really cool to go back and look at something we’d started over 20 years ago and be able to appreciate it, especially now that we’re all real musicians, in a way. We didn’t really understand what we were doing at the time but in hindsight, we had a really interesting harmonic sensibility with both the instruments and the vocals. We really didn’t know how cool that was at the time — we were just doing what felt right to us.
Did you guys have an inkling that the response to the reunion would be so positive? Or did that come as a surprise?
Some of us were surprised, some of us weren’t. Rachel [Haden, bassist] is like the ultimate That Dog cheerleader. Meanwhile, I’m more of like, an introverted, homebody artist-type, so I wasn’t sure anyone would even care. I have a younger sister and I know that some of her friends had only discovered That Dog during the last few years, so I thought there was a chance it might turn out like this. The first reunion show in 2011 sold out in several hours- – and that was like two months before the show. That was very surprising. The same with the Music Hall show, that was equally surprising. That’s not even our hometown, you know?
How have the reunion shows been different from shows during the band’s first go-around?
Well, after we did the Troubadour last year, it inspired us to do another show here [in L.A.] at the Largo where we’re going to do a lot of material we’ve never done live. We’re going to try a lot of the acoustic songs and the more complex songs with a string section. We never explored that side of the band live the first time around — we were always on rock tours, playing with other rock bands and it just didn’t make sense. So, I’m very excited to see how that goes.
Did you guys want to try that kind of stuff during the ’90s or was it not even a consideration?
Rock shows are what we usually did live. It didn’t even occur to us until we listened to the songs as grown ups to try to do fuller arrangements. Now, it’s almost like a dare. I’m charting it all out now and it’s so complicated. And Petra [Haden, violinist and vocalist] has written some string arrangements and they’re so beautiful and complex. The first time around, we always did stripped-down, acoustic things on the side, but it didn’t seem like fun. We were 20 years old or whatever and playing rock shows was a fun release for us. When we disbanded and I didn’t have that anymore it was difficult at first. You see, I have a lot of pent-up anger. [Laughs.] But no, we’ve all become individual musicians and really embraced our musicianship in a mellower, prettier way since then. This sounds ridiculous, but it’s like we were too young then. Which is not to say that young people can’t make pretty music but we were too young.
Are the Brooklyn shows going to be similar to what you described — with a string section and a lot of material that’s new to your live show?
No, I think they’re going to be full-on rock shows. I don’t think we’re going to fly out like 10 musicians. [Laughs.]
Is there a rationale to that? Like, these East Coast folks haven’t seen us play in 15 years, if ever, so we had better fulfill their expectations of what a That Dog show is like–that sort of thing?
You know, I hadn’t thought of it like that. I think it’s just more that we have all missed playing those songs and doing them live the way we used to do them. Everyone’s solo records since That Dog haven’t been as rock — my first solo record had a few rock songs on it but other than that, we’ve all been doing mellower stuff. There’s a lot of emotion and energy behind those That Dog songs. It was such a specific thing and I think we’re all just dying to see what it feels like again.
You mentioned earlier that you guys are all ’real’ musicians now. Does that mean that you’ll be bringing an increased level of musicianship to these shows?
Well, it’s funny, Tony [Maxwell, drummer] has always been a real musician. But the other three of us were really just figuring out who we were as musicians in That Dog. After That Dog, Tony went into directing and got a full-time creative job, he really didn’t touch the drums for 15 years. But the rest of us have been playing music, collaborating and working on various solo projects ever since we disbanded. So for the three of us, we had better be better now — we have no excuse at this point! [Laughs.] Of course, Tony came in after not drumming for 15 years and totally outdid himself, he’s better than he’s ever been. We’ve stepped it up in a way that sounds like we’ve been on tour for a year. Well, okay, maybe not a year but a month, at least. We just kind of got it together. It’s been a very pleasant surprise for all of us.
As you mentioned, you guys have all been working on various projects in the intervening years. You’ve had two solo records, Rachel has toured with everyone from the Rentals and Jimmy Eat World to Todd Rundgren and Petra has had two well-received a capella records, in addition to touring as part of the Decemberists. Has it been strange coming back to That Dog after playing with so many other bands?
I can only speak for myself on that one, though I’m sure everyone has a similar feeling on this. We started out really young — That Dog was the first music we had ever done, really. And every single detail we knew, every single part we felt because they were the first parts we had ever written and played. There was so much pressure toward the end that it got a little stressful. So to release ourselves from that felt freeing. I felt like I was on a different path — I didn’t want to do a lot of vocal harmonies or weird chords. I wanted to straighten things out. But after a while, I realized that that’s how my brain works. And all of us in That Dog, that’s how all of our brains work. We were really lucky to find each other in the first place and it’s amazing that after all these years, we still speak the same language.
The nicest part about getting back together is that it feels a little like getting back to where we began, before all the pressure. In the very beginning, we used to sit in Rachel’s bedroom and flesh out songs and it kind of feels like it’s back at that place. And to have that rewarded by having 1,200 people buy tickets to see you in one weekend, that feels really good.
Have you found that collaborating with other artists in the years since has been different than the way you guys worked together in That Dog?
It’s as different as marrying someone and dating someone. If you’re married, you can get a divorce, sure, but you’ll always have that in your history, in your bones. It’s really unique to find other people with whom you can have that kind of connection. I’ve been so fortunate to play with a lot of great musicians over the years but just because I’m playing with someone great, it doesn’t mean we have that same chemistry we had with That Dog. It’s just that different. It’s like your first love — at least for me, it is.
So you’ve sold out shows in both L.A. and NYC … any chance you’ll expand the reunion to play other cities?
Well, every time we make a plan, another one unfolds. So, if that continues, then probably, yes? But it’s expensive to do and I’ve got an almost three-year-old now that I can’t be away from for that long. Everyone has other commitments now. But the possibility is definitely out there.
Your husband, Steven McDonald, who currently plays in OFF!, recently reunited with his bandmates in Redd Kross — is there any kind of spousal reunion rivalry at play here?
Well, they’ve toured and recorded a new album — which is really great, by the way. But we’re not there yet — we’re just dipping our toes in all of this. We don’t know what the future holds, we don’t know if we want to do a record or anything. So no, thank goodness, there’s no competition because that’s no fun. We just appreciate all the support and are excited that some people who haven’t seen us will get a chance to see us.
That Dog play at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn on May 24th and 25th. Tickets for the second show are still available.