Swimming the Swamp

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Photo by Stephen de Ropp
Photo by Stephen de Ropp

The usual crowd of animated Santa Cruzans, students and locals, dripped with sweat as they counted down the 30 minutes until Dr. Dog claimed the stage at The Catalyst on Jan. 31.

Blue hues from LED lights decorated drummer Eric Slick’s drum kit, Zach Miller’s keyboard and Dimitri Manos, a multi-instrument wonder. The entire set, complete with a black and white checkered background and disco ball, transformed the venue into a colorful backdrop full of green, pink and blue lights.

At their third show into their U.S. tour, Dr. Dog tripped out The Catalyst with their music and a journey through cosmic space, dark matter and brightly colored zing.

“It’s almost like surf music in outer space,” said UC Santa Cruz student Jeremy Lessnau as Dr. Dog transitioned into one of their more experimental songs, “Be the Void.”

Bodies bobbed as images of bright green flowers popped on stage. Musical chords pulled the crowd out and the band jumped into their more popular “Heart it Races” song, a cover of the Architecture in Helsinki track. After he sang, lead guitarist and vocalist Scott McMicken hinted toward the band’s new album “Psychedelic Swamp” dropping Feb. 5.

“It’s a pretty significant thing to put people through if you’re not in that kind of trance,” McMicken said.

McMicken calculated an approximate 16-minute trance where the band looped through sounds. Wearing matching shades on stage, McMicken was grateful for the tuned-in crowd, welcoming fans at a meet and greet backstage afterward.

“As much as we get inside ourselves, we get off stage and feel great because sometimes you do really well when your back is against the wall,” McMicken said.

Dr. Dog played to a packed Catalyst in downtown Santa Cruz on Jan 31 on one of their final tour dates before the release of their new album, The Psychedelic Swamp, due to be  released Feb. 5. Photo by Stephen de Ropp
Dr. Dog played to a packed Catalyst in downtown Santa Cruz on Jan 31 on one of their final tour dates before the release of their new album, The Psychedelic Swamp, due to be released Feb. 5. Photo by Stephen de Ropp

Dr. Dog, established in 1999, has gone through waves of sounds ranging from indie rock to soul-splitting raw vocals and captured hearts of Gen Xers and millennials. Their willingness to experiment contributes to their work.

“We were completely unhinged at some moments,” said bassist and vocalist Toby Leaman.

“I loved being [in those moments]. It’s very dicey and exciting to not know what’s coming next. It’s a fun place to be.”

Seven crowd members attempted to jump the stage for Dr. Dog’s set-list after avid listeners roared for an encore, unwilling to relinquish the space that allowed for them to let loose and surf the multitude of sounds.

Stelth Ulvang, a multitalented musician who plays accordion and guitar and sings — and also the pianist for The Lumineers — took the stage that night as well. Local musicians and UC Santa Cruz alumni bassist Dorota Szuta and guitarist Brett Hydeman joined Ulvang. After meeting Ulvang, they jumped at the opportunity to play a show, with one day to learn songs in a Santa Cruz garage.

“I was delighted with how much the crowd was into Ulvang’s performance. It went over really well, and he won new listeners,” Hydeman said, before discussing his personal experience on stage. “I’m in the process of finally moving out of Santa Cruz, and I’ve had so much fun playing shows around town, and in a way I think this is a warm goodbye.”

Szuta, who knows Hydeman from UCSC and previous bands, said they both played in familiar fashions.

“When I was a baby musician around 2007 and was playing in a band for the first time, I found a really supportive community in Santa Cruz,” Szuta said in an e-mail. “In retrospect, it kind of blows my mind that people were not only willing to listen to me play melodramatic songs, but were so supportive. I played a lot of houses that don’t exist anymore and community spaces like the Kresge Co-op, SubRosa and the Bike Church. I really owe my becoming a musician to that scene.”

Szuta, who crossed paths with Ulvang on tour six years ago, worked on a number of musical projects with him, while simultaneously working for a non-profit called Coastal Conservation Association and finishing up a master’s degree in marine science.

“It’s been challenging at times to balance science and music, but somehow I’ve managed to stay pretty busy in both realms,” Szuta said in an e-mail.

Ulvang, who plays frequent house shows in Santa Cruz, was excited to communicate with the crowd, encouraging someone to tell a joke as he tuned his guitar. The variety of Ulvang’s performance was a perfect teaser for the night.

Dr. Dog’s last song before their encore, “Jackie Wants a Black Eye” echoed in the eyes of those heartbroken souls in the crowd, who sang out loud, “When yesterday’s love defines you/and today that love is gone/Tomorrow keeps you guessing/the roller coaster is rollin’ on/And we’re all in it together now/as we all fall apart/And we’re swapping little pieces/of our broken little hearts.”

For upcoming shows similar to Dr. Dog, check out The Growlers on Feb 13 and Reel Big Fish on Feb. 23