Anna Waronker wanted to take us back to the early years of that dog., back to a place where, she said on stage Saturday night, we would be “sweating together and smelling really bad together.” In the early 1990s, that might have been Jabberjaw, an all-ages venue synonymous with the decade’s indie scene in L.A.. In 2019, it’s The Smell, a downtown DIY venue that has been a 21st century cornerstone for underground music in the city. It was, in a lot of ways, a perfect place for that dog. to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the band’s self-titled debut album, and they did that with two shows on Saturday, July 13.
Graham Coxon, an old friend of the band from back when that dog. toured with Blur, opened. That dog. performed the debut album in full, following it with an encore that included fan favorites like “He’s Kissing Christian” and “Minneapolis.” The encore also included a song from their upcoming fourth album, which will be their first collection of new music since that dog. reformed in 2011.
At the second of Saturday night’s shows, the remnants of sweat from the first lingered in the air. It was the kind of night where hair frizzes upon entering the venue and noses curl when you catch a whiff of ripe rock show stench. It was also the sort of show where you apprehensively grab a spot near the front of the room, knowing full well that, very soon, the place will be so packed it will be impossible to do much more than bob your head from side to side. Once the band started playing, though, it was easy to temporarily forget about the heat, the odor, and being lodged into the crowd like a Tetris block.
“The concept was, let’s go back to our roots, let’s go back to the clubs where we started and play this music that belongs in that environment,” says Waronker by phone on the Monday following the event. “That’s exactly what we did.”
“It was very warm and a lot of work,” she adds, “but it was totally fun.”
The day before the shows, that dog. released a 25th anniversary edition of their debut album, featuring four extra songs that didn’t appear on the original. Waronker says that, for her and bassist Rachel Haden in particular, these were among the first songs they played live. (She notes that drummer Tony Maxwell had more band experience when they started.) Some were songs that they hadn’t played since the album’s release. In addition, they also had to teach parts to guitarist Clint Walsh, violinist Kaitlin Wolfberg and singer Allison Crutchfield, who joined them on stage.
They treated fans to an early version of “You Are Here,” comprised of lyrics and titles from Beatles songs. “When I first started writing songs, I didn’t want any love songs or any guitar solos because we had just left the ’80s,” Waronker explains in our interview. “Then, I decided that I’m going to write a love song – almost a parody of a love song. And who writes the best love songs but the Beatles?” The problem was that Waronker didn’t realize “that you can’t use other people’s lyrics, even if you’re doing an homage to them.” So, she changed the lyrics, estimating that it took about an afternoon to revise the song for the album. In retrospect, she says, it shows that even early in her career, she had a skill that comes in handy as a songwriter. “I do a lot of writing for theater, so I guess I was made to be able to change things quickly,” she says.
There is a diary-like component to Waronker’s songwriting. “Ninety percent of the time, it’s autobiographical, but it’s also meant to not be,” she explains. “It’s meant to be whatever you need it to be.” Lyrically, that dog.’s debut album existed in the moment, and 25 years later, that makes some of the songs a fun flashback to 1990s Los Angeles. “Westside Angst” is about the change of area code, from 213 to 310, on the Westside of L.A. Now, Waronker describes it as “charmingly dated.”
“I think that was the first song that I had ever properly written,” says Waronker. “Back then, it was like – wait, these are my creature comforts, how can you just change it?”
Revisiting that dog.’s debut is a reminder of the band’s creativity. They wrote songs that balanced cheeky humor with tender introspection, and unabashedly drew from a range of influences, mixing crunchy guitars with strings and vocal harmonies. Their single “Old Timer,” which was accompanied by a Spike Jonze-directed video featuring the band members playing Hot Dog on a Stick employees, is a perfect example of punk song structure embellished with their trademark flourishes.
Waronker can see how her songwriting has evolved since the early days of that dog. “It’s very interesting – the first album was very punk rock in a traditional sense in that it was not like anything else. It was very raw. Whether it was a punk rock song or a weird acoustic song, it was bizarre,” she says. Even during that dog.’s first run, she notes, the songwriting shifted to a pop-rock sound by the time of the 1997 breakout album, Retreat From the Sun. Post-that dog., Waronker released solo music, collaborated with other artists and written and composed music for television, as well as a rock opera and musical. And now, there is a new that dog. album on the way.
During the encore, that dog. played a song from their forthcoming release, “If You Just Didn’t Do it.” Waronker says that the album has been completed and is expected to come out this year, although the release date and title have yet to be announced. “We started it a few years ago and we would do it in chunks,” Waronker says. “We thought we were at our last push of making the album, and that stretched out for a good year and a half or two years.”
With the new album, she says, the initial goal was to make music that reflected the band’s origins. About halfway through the process, though, they considered how they would make an album now. “It’s an interesting mixture,” Waronker says of the new album, adding, “it picks up where the band left off perfectly, in my opinion.”