that dog.’s Anna Waronker On ‘Old LP’ and Getting Advice From Randy NewmanA chat about songwriting, nolstalgia, and getting the band back together
As the 1990s recede further into the distance, they become a more fabled time for music in general, and “alternative/indie” rock in particular. Time has smiled considerably on a variety of bands under that broad umbrella, who were perhaps popular at the time, but not instantly considered the stuff of legend.
that dog. are definitely one of those bands. Dismissed by some hipsters during their original 1991-‘97 run as showbiz kids whose major label ascent was too quick for comfort (singer/guitarist Anna Waronker is the daughter of record exec Lenny Waronker; sisters Rachel and Petra Haden, bass and violin respectively, are daughters of the late, great jazz bassist Charlie Haden), their crisp, clever pop songs have nonetheless aged better than most, and even their most arcane, time-specific cultural references (“He said I’m leaving on Wednesday / come see me when Low plays”) sound classic, not dated. Their fanbase was sizable and dedicated, but because they had neither a major hit song nor substantial enough “indie cred,” they never got the reputation they truly deserved.
Twenty-two years after their initial breakup, things have started to look different. Since reuniting in 2011, the band has drawn big crowds to revisit their back catalog (including a visit to Riot Fest in 2017 to play the entirety of their 1997 classic Retreat From The Sun), and music journalists—including myself and fellow Riot Fest contributor Annie Fell—have started breathlessly singing their praises. With the first comeback hurdles cleared, the most dangerous one was in sight: it was time to get back in the studio and work on some new material.
A risky gambit which, I’m happy to say, has paid off in spades. Old LP finds the band not only in top form when it comes to their classic sound (see: “If You Just Didn’t Do It”), but also stretching successfully into lush orchestral pop. Since the band reunited, some fans have bemoaned the absence of Petra Haden, and while her contribution surely would have been welcome here, the album shimmers and shines without her—plus, Petra’s absence gave the band a chance to reunite with their original drummer, SNL alum Maya Rudolph(!), for some three-part harmonies which likely would have been covered had Petra been there.
Whether or not Old LP brings that dog. the notoriety they barely dodged in the 90s, it will be a record that holds up well with the rest of their excellent catalog. To celebrate the album’s release, we got Anna Waronker on the phone to chat about the record, the challenges of being a cross-country concern, and getting arranging advice from Randy Newman.
RIOT FEST: The new album, Old LP, took about three years from conception to completion, give or take?
Anna Waronker: Around that long. It might have been a little bit longer. Tony [Maxwell, drums] lives in New York, and he has a very busy job as a creative director at Nickelodeon. So, he’s luckily getting to be creative in his work, but he’s also working all the time, plus he has a family there. I’m here in LA, I also have a family, and am working on different things all the time, too. So, between my schedule and his, plus the occasional Rachel wrench thrown in there, we’ve done everything we can to work on it as quickly as possible!
Was it hard to make a coherent album recording in that kind of stop-and-go fashion?
That’s something I think Tony was concerned about, but I feel like we couldn’t have made it any other way, between everything else going on and my revisiting our back catalog. In the writing/arranging thought process, I had to go back to the beginning of my doing that kind of work, which was in that dog. I wanted to get back in that mindset, but then get it caught up to where I am now musically. Then, I tried to bring that to where Rachel and Tony are now, and see where their thoughts were, too.
So, as long as it’s taken, and as frustrating as it’s been at times, it couldn’t have happened any other way. If we’d just done it in the first half of that time, it wouldn’t have had as many layers to it. I was initially trying to stay very “old school” that dog.-minded, but by the end, I was thinking, “Well, what kind of album would I want to make now? What would I want to make with them?”.
The sky was the limit, whereas at the outset the goal was to keep it very small, like how the band started. Back then, we could only do what we could do! Now, we’ve got more ability, but back then, I could play one thing and sing one thing, and I couldn’t even think about anything else.
How would you say your approach to songwriting with that dog. differs from your solo work?
When I first started doing solo stuff, the mentality was specifically, “How would I NOT write for that dog.?” I’d never really had the opportunity to do that. When the band was first together, whenever I did anything solo, we just used it, because we wanted whatever was the best material. Retreat From The Sun was completely written and arranged as a solo album that, at the last minute, I decided to do with them.
So, with the first solo album [Anna], I just wanted to do everything I couldn’t do when I was in the band. With the second one [California Fade], the goal was just to do something I’d feel really proud of, and to explore different avenues I’ve never gone down. With Old LP, we’ve kind of married all of that! Writing it, though, I kept thinking of my favorite that dog. songs, and all the songs that people respond to when they talk to me about the band. I really wanted to pay tribute to all of that, so when I was writing, I immersed myself in that stuff.
Speaking of what other people might respond to, there’s a line in the new song “Just The Way” that really stood out to me: “I haven’t felt this way since 1995.” Was that a little wink to long time fans, or is that just how it came out in the storyline of the lyrics?
It is 100% in keeping with the subject of the lyrics, but there is a nod. I’m aware that we are a band from a different era. At first, I thought it was really weird to date yourself, because I don’t think of the 1990s like that, but I know that it’s now thought about in that way. I kind of like calling attention to all of that, though, because it’s there and we’re all feeling it. So, I like the nod, but it really actually was about the storyline.
It’s okay to have a little joke in there. You’ve always had funny asides in your lyrics that I think the listener appreciates.
Thank you. I do like to get those subtle things in there, to see if you’re paying attention. If you’re not, though, that’s okay, too!
There are some really ambitious arrangements on this new record. That’s true of your old work, too, but there are tracks on the new album, like the title track or “Drip Drops,” which are straight-up orchestral/chamber pop. Was that something you’d aspired to back then, or is this direction a more recent development?
That’s an interesting one, because when Petra [Haden, that dog.’s original violinist] was in the band, that was her domain. I had suggestions and had written some parts—well, guitar parts which she’d turn into a violin part—but it was really her. When she wasn’t going to be a part of the reunion, part of what I wanted to do was expand that sound, because that’s the kind of album I wanted to make.
That’s what I really connect with now: making orchestral music and twisting it. I mean, that’s what I like to do with everything: take something we understand as one thing, then put a twist on it. It’s exciting to look at a thing from different angles.
I’ve been writing and composing for years, but I was a little bit nervous to step into that role. Finally, I just had to say “fuck it” though, because this was what was driving me. It’s the most fun for me. At first, I held back a lot, trying to keep it in a classic that dog. framework, but then again, I said “fuck it” and just let it all out.
I didn’t want to be overly ambitious—I don’t have any training, so I didn’t wanna feel like a chump—but it didn’t matter. It turns out that one of my greatest loves is doing arrangements, both vocal and orchestral. That was my favorite part of making the album, more than the writing and the other fun stuff. I also have to give it up to Kaitlin Wolfberg, who plays on the album. She was SO supportive of my arrangements, but also, there are times where I’d just have her improv and go wherever, and she would nail it every time. The fact that we were able to collaborate so nicely and easily was really cool. I’m very appreciative for her support and contributions.
You did all the arrangements yourself, then?
I did! Well, on Old LP, I panicked a little, because I didn’t want it to just be strings. I understand strings, because I can put them in a framework in my mind that’s like a rock band, but I started to get a little nervous when it came to woodwinds and horns. I wanted to understand it better.
I happen to have a very special relationship with Randy Newman. I’ve never asked anyone to help me with anything like this, but he’s asked me to come over and listen to his stuff. So, I finally asked him, and he was the best! He just sat down with me and helped me better understand certain instruments, and gave me ideas to help flesh out those parts of the arrangement. I’m going to take all that information with me for the rest of my life. It was really special.
That’s a great friend to have in that situation, for sure! I swear that’s not supposed to be a joke about his Toy Story song…
Ha, I didn’t even get it, but you’re right! I do have a friend in him. I’m going to use that.
When you first got back together in 2011, what was it like revisiting things you wrote in your twenties, maybe even teens?
It was a trip. I never really understood what the term muscle memory meant. After that dog. broke up, but before the reunion stuff, I used to have a recurring nightmare that I was at a festival, and there was this never-ending “How do I get to the dressing room?” situation, and when I’d finally get there, someone would say, “Okay, you’re in that dog., you have to play in five minutes, and you have to play ‘Grunge Couple.’” That song is one that we didn’t play throughout our career; we played it a lot during a certain period, then it kinda went away. It’s not one I’d know right off the bat, plus the guitar parts are really weird.
So, later we got back together and played all these old songs we hadn’t played or thought about in twenty years. Without any rehearsal or preparation, one of us—I can’t remember if it was me or someone else—suggested we do “Grunge Couple.” When someone asked if we should listen to it first, I said, “NO, let’s just do it.” I wanted to face my nightmare. The crazy thing, though, is that I played the entire thing without even thinking. The muscle memory knew where to go!
So, yeah. Revisiting the old songs, some of it’s embarrassing, some of it’s adorable, some of it’s fun, and some of it’s just frustrating. Ultimately, it’s nice to revisit it all, because you’re seeing it from another perspective, and you can see something was actually really good, or way more complicated than you remember. When we started doing shows where we did Retreat From The Sun all the way through, I realized that that album is SO hard to play. There’s so much going on at all times, because we were primed and ready for that challenge. I’m more laid back as a musician now, so I’m like, “Please don’t make me do ‘Being With You,’ it’s going to make me so tired!” I have to do a guitar solo, and sing, and do the rhythm… it’s too much. But it’s worth it.
What’s changed the most about the band, and your relationship with your bandmates, since the initial breakup?
Like, between how I left it, and how I feel now?
Wherever you wanna go.
Oh my God. Well, for me, the most important thing is that I don’t take things so personally, in all honesty. Musically, Petra was done [when we broke up, but that was actually great, because it’s opened up new areas for me and Rachel to express ourselves.
The reason it felt comfortable to do something new after all this time was that, when we picked up to play together again, that thing that makes a band a band, and a special band, was still there, and it wasn’t going anywhere. It was there for the taking! It felt selfish to not do it. We still had the thing! That’s so rare, and I wanted to explore it.
Old LP is out now. Anna Waronker would also like you to know that she has busied herself recently with co-composing the music for the Hulu series Shrill with Shudder To Think’s Craig Wedren(!), and that you can catch that dog. in LA on 11/16 (tickets here) and Brooklyn on 11/23 (tickets here).