Song Dogs fall back on Americana roots

Ryan McCloskey (right), on guitar, vocals and harmonica practices with his band Song Dogs for an upcoming show on Thursday at Underground Arts. | Andrew Thayer TTN
Ryan McCloskey (right), on guitar, vocals and harmonica practices with his band Song Dogs for an upcoming show on Thursday at Underground Arts. | Andrew Thayer TTN

Stopping into drummer Dan Cooper’s house for a Song Dogs practice is an experience in itself.

After being greeted by Cooper’s own song dog, Rilo, a guest might be offered a beer or water, seeing that they are only two drinks in Cooper’s house, while  the bandmates joke about the day’s triumphs and tribulations.

Or maybe they’ll talk about the sports memorabilia lined against the walls and Mariama O’Brien, the band’s percussionist, will relay tales of her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter and Cooper, a 2013 Temple law graduate, will discuss his law job – but briefly, because each case is confidential.

Upon organist Emily Southerton’s return from Los Angeles, she might fill the band in on her experience promoting the Poet Warriors Project she founded as a part of Teach for America.

But eventually, they’ll start practice.

Song Dogs is a Philadelphia-based band gaining recognition. After starting in 2008, the band has since produced one EP and a full-length, entitled “Wild Country,” that was fully funded by Kickstarter and produced by Bill Moriarity, who also produced albums by Dr. Dog and Man Man.

However, Song Dogs isn’t one of the typical grungy, in-your-face bands that seem to be pouring into Philadelphia. Instead, members go back to their roots. Listing Neil Young, The Band, Jackson Browne and other iconic folk musicians as its inspirations, the band ties together the twangy, bluesy sound associated with it into its Americana-rock feel.

“I really immersed myself when I was in school into the ‘scenes’ I guess,” said vocalist and guitarist Mike Southerton. “That’s when everybody had a first- or second-generation iPod and stacked it with as much stuff as they possibly could, and I think that after a while there was something kind of disingenuous about that. You lost a sense of roots or your own personal purpose in doing that. A lot of life is about that exploration, but if you’re able to bring it back to a place where you started and you’re able to make those connections, then you’ve really done something good for yourself.”

After a write-up by music blogger Val Haller published in the New York Times and a nod from WXPN’s blog The Key, band members said they have seen a rise in popularity that has added more credibility to its name.

“[Haller’s write-up] provides a legitimacy factor,” said Sam Conver, the band’s bassist and vocalist. “Which is annoying, but at the same time, is absolutely true. Everybody on Facebook, at the time I put this out there, if any of my college friends had never listened to me play music and they saw it, they’d be like, ‘Oh, maybe I should actually check this out.’”

The band said the series of write-ups, radio plays and more have attracted some familiar faces at its shows. Every now and then, band members said they peer into the crowd and find an old high school or college friend who just stopped by to hear what Song Dogs is all about.

It’s those same people, and others, who helped “Wild Country” come into fruition by donating to its Kickstarter.

“[The Kickstarter] was probably the most humbling experience I’ve had with the band, even aside from the New York Times – that’s awesome, but the people that came out of the photo album of your life to support you, it was incredible,” Mike Southerton said.

“It’s very humbling to see the different feelings, how much [money] we were going to get, if this is going to work,” O’Brien said. “It’s also like, how many people believe in us and are able to stick with us and believe that we can do this and support us all the way through.”

In addition to its sound, Song Dogs said its stage presence is to thank in part for its success.

Ryan McCloskey, on vocals, guitar and harmonica, said the band strategically puts O’Brien in the middle for her dynamic stage presence. From her, he said, the band and audience are able to feel a special kind of energy.

“Sometimes I’ll find the next day that we’ve head-banged so much that I can’t move my neck, and I feel so stupid a lot of the times because I feel like every time it happens, I say it’ll never happen again, and then we go out on stage and we just lose it, and then I’m like, ‘Man, I’ve never learned anything from any of those times,’” McCloskey said.

O’Brien’s dedication to the band is admirable. It’s apparent in her stage presence, but also in the fact that just nine days before giving birth, she was onstage playing with the band at the North Star Bar.

“I also think it’s the authentic-ness of the songs – we have passion for the songs,” O’Brien said. “When you write a song, you believe in it or else it doesn’t work, and I think all the songs we write, we really take to heart.”

“We’re always, always working on being more expressive onstage,” Cooper said. “We played a Talking Heads set recently, and they’ve always been my idol for stage performance, that’s kind of what I’m always trying to make the show visually. I want it to be a visual show as much as an audio show. But it’s kind of difficult for me since I’m trapped on a stool.”

The band said that now as a group of established adults with 9-to-5 jobs, they have received some doubt in regards to their success. However, the band can finally say it’s on the upswing.

“We can go to all the people that have supported us and say ‘thank you,’ and we can go to all the people that doubted us, and say ‘look now,’” Cooper said.

Patricia Madej can be reached at patricia.madej@temple.edu.

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