Dog on Fleas

A Conversation with Dean Jones of Dog on Fleas

The music of Dean Jones and Dog on Fleas has been a constant presence at Dadnabbit HQ ever since my daughter (who’s currently a proud six and a half) was very small. As you’re no doubt aware if you’ve read the site for any length of time, I’m a big fan — not only of Dean and the Fleas’ songs, but their warm, quirky production aesthetic, a style that lets the music breathe while making room for all kinds of unexpected stuff.

Dog on Fleas’ new LP, Invisible Friends, includes everything I’ve come to expect from Dean and the band — exotic instruments, lyrics that are laugh-out-loud funny one moment and heartbreakingly tender the next, instantly hummable hooks, rock-solid arrangements with deceptive depth — while demonstrating that they’re still growing as songwriters and recording artists. Basically what I’m saying is that Invisible Friends is their best record yet, but don’t take my word for it; enjoy some of the videos embedded in our chat below.

Between your solo career and all the music you help create for other artists, I feel like you’re probably writing constantly. What’s the writing process like for Dog on Fleas? Is it more democratic, or is everyone off starting songs on their own before they bring them to the group?

I guess it’s mostly me writing stuff. I’m trying to get [bassist/guitarist/singer] John Hughes to write more. [Laughs] He’ll bring in something great and then say it isn’t quite done. We work on stuff a lot.

What about you as a writer? Are you the type of guy who punches in every morning, or do you just wait for inspiration to strike?

Here’s my philosophy: I’m kind of all or nothing. The window is either open or closed. For instance, when Invisible Friends was done, I had no time to write, because I was working on everything else — so to get that window open again, it takes a little bit of work. And then once it’s open again, I’m writing three or four songs a day. I actually carry a little recorder around with me at all times, just in case I stumble over a little idea, and then I don’t listen to it for months.

I feel like this kind of thing is probably common for a lot of artists. You have to write a lot of crappy songs to write a good one, you know? I’ll write songs I don’t even think are really all that good, just to exercise my songwriting muscle.

I’m always curious about the answer to that question, because I’ve known artists who don’t write unless they’re working on an album, and I’ve known others who treat songwriting like a day-to-day job.

Yeah, I hear artists like…you know, John Hiatt. I hear him on the radio, and I’m like, man, that guy gets up at 9 o’clock, he has a cup of tea, and he has a song written by 10. Cut it out, man — I’m so sick of him. And there are a lot of people like that, who seem like they just write a song at a certain time of day, and it doesn’t seem like anything to me. Just pumping it out — Hiatt can write a song in 10 minutes. You can tell they were written during “songwriting time.” I feel like my best songs come when I’m in the car or on a bicycle, and I have to pull over to grab them.

I feel like a lot of the best creativity happens almost by accident, and usually while your brain is occupied doing something else.

Right. Yeah, for me, it’s the bike. It’ll hit me in a field or something. I’m serious — I just drove to a gig the other day, and I wrote four songs on the way to the gig. One came and I was like, “Hey, that’s amazing! I just wrote a song!” Ten minutes later, another one popped up. I don’t know how they are yet, but… [Laughs]

You’re probably at an advantage in the kindiesphere, because a lot of artists have to take day jobs that don’t have anything to do with music…

Yeah.

Whereas running No Parking Studio allows you to marinate in other artists’ music a lot. I feel like that has to have a profound effect on your creative process.

I love it. Even if I’m working with a song I don’t love, I’m going to be able to bring my creativity to it. If the artist gives me a little bit of leeway with it, I’ll take it. And in the kindie world, there are a lot of people seeking me out as a producer, which is really cool. I actually have to worry about whether the Dog on Fleas record is going to cut into the Okee Dokee Brothers album, you know?

How do you think your production career has impacted Dog on Fleas as a band? I’m sure it’s had an effect on scheduling, but I’m also interested in hearing how working with other musicians has helped color you as an artist.

I don’t know. I’ve been doing other records for people for awhile. Invisible Friends definitely would have been finished sooner if I hadn’t been working on other people’s records, but I think we’re probably the same. I’ll tell you, the Okee Dokee Brothers were really interested in pre-production, and I appreciate that, although I’m not sure we’ve really gotten into it with the Fleas. I mean, it’s my studio, so we can just spend the night and record a song, and if it doesn’t work, we can throw it out and start again.

I really love the job you did on that Okee Dokees record. The production is pretty involved, but you won’t notice unless you’re really paying attention. It breathes.

I don’t owe the musicians anything. It’s the song, you know? I remember reading something about how Tom Waits talks to his songs. He’ll be sitting in the corner, asking them what they want him to do. I love that — you can go in so many directions, and that was the case with the Okee Dokee Brothers. They’d hear something and say it was cool, but they knew there was something else that was still waiting to be done.

What’s the tracking process like for Dog on Fleas? Your sound is very live, but I know plenty of overdubs are involved.

We have our routine. We’re always in the room together. There are overdubs and stuff, but if I’m playing guitar, it’s guitar-bass-drums, and we’re all in a room. Maybe the amplifier is upstairs, so there isn’t any bleed. On the new record, the vocals were redone for most songs, but there are a few that were live. We’re definitely always playing three instruments live and overdubbing the rest.

So start to finish, how long did it take to record Invisible Friends?

That’s a tough question. It was actually a different album at one point — like three years ago. The songs wanted to live together, you know? It took on a different quality at some point and shifted the songs in a new direction.

It takes a certain amount of bravery to listen to that — to lose those other songs along the way.

It’s hard to throw out a song. I’m arguing with the guys in the band, and arguing with myself — but ultimately, every song on this record is talking about a little world. Little people. Even the ones that don’t really relate can still live in the same little room.

A lot of family entertainers struggle to strike a balance between “kid-friendly” and “stupid.” You guys manage to consistently stay on the right side of that line.

Wait until you hear the next one! [Laughter]

Let me put it a different way — you guys don’t write songs about learning the alphabet or washing your hands.

No, I know. And I know people are trying — or they come up with a song title, and that becomes an idea. If you ever think something is a good idea for a song, it should not be written. [Laughs] I’ve probably ignored that advice. But people come up to me all the time and say, “I had this idea for a song,” and I tell them, “It won’t be any good.”

So then how do you come up with a song like, for instance, “Fortunate Mistake”?

Actually, I had a band a long time ago called the Falling Wallendas. We had a song called “Fortunate Mistake” with this whole mythology — we were really into performance art, with a tap dancer and this little old lady who made our clothes. I don’t remember how that song went, but I’ve always really liked the idea of fortunate mistakes. I’ve written like 10 songs with the same title, I just like it so much.

I love the message behind that song, but what I love even more is that it isn’t overt. I think a lot of your songs trust people to hear what they need to hear, instead of beating them over the head with a message. That’s a pitfall that a lot of kindie artists find it hard to avoid.

Yeah, right. I love someone like Robyn Hitchcock — maybe he’s saying nothing, but I always feel like there’s some thing. I understand. I might not be able to put it into words, but that’s what I prefer — that feeling where you feel like you understand the song, even if you can’t put it into words.

If it works, it works. I was just thinking about this, and I think I have a typical type of song that I write, but I think there’s only maybe one of them on Invisible Friends.

What do you think makes a typical song for you?

Oh, I don’t know. It’s like Fred Eaglesmith — he grew up in the town next to me in Canada. He’s great, but he can write the same song over and over again, he’s so freakin’ smart and he’s such a great word guy. Anyway, I remember this story about him losing a book of songs at the airport or something, and his manager was freaking out, and he just shrugged — “I’ll just write more songs.” [Laughs] I can’t think of what my typical song is, but I’ll start to write one and feel like it’s something I’ve done before. A few words, a little melody, eh. There has to be something that sparks something in someone other than me.

I like that your songs demonstrate a willingness to be strange, or even a little dark.

I like that. And I think kids like it too — they’re into that, and they always have been. I can recall hearing the Beatles — they had stuff that left me wondering, as well as some fairly grotesque lyrics. It was appealing. I won’t go into the problems of the kindie world, but…get a little weird, man, you know? Kids can take it.

How did you develop your fondness for such an eclectic array of instruments? The credits on the booklets for the albums you’re involved in are always pretty entertaining. Did I hear a baritone guitar solo on “Smelt,” off Invisible Friends?

No, that’s just a regular guitar — it’s just the E string. That’s my style. One string is enough for me. [Laughs] I’ve always just been fascinated by instruments, and I’ve played in a lot of improvisational settings. Up this way, there was a school — the Creative Music Foundation is near here, which was founded by a guy named Karl Berger. Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, all these guys were up here. There was a whole school up here in the ’70s, and people were coming up to really explore world music. You think about all the “out” jazz guys, and they were probably up here, along with musicians from all over the world. That bleeds into the Fleas.

I wonder if that makes it harder to create arrangements — the presence of so many other colors on your musical palette.

No, because they just call out if they’re needed. I feel like I don’t — I’m conscious of not reaching for that stuff too much. But I can go there. [Laughs] Daniel Littleton was just over here, and we were talking about this homemade instrument that I asked a guy to build, which is a West African two-string fiddle. Daniel and I get along like that — talking about something that sounds like, you know, an ngoni. I don’t know how many people do that.

And you’re already working on your next solo release, right?

Yeah, actually, we had another Dog on Fleas CD planned — we were going to do a Tin Pan Alley record, and we had the songs picked out and everything. That’s a fascination of all of ours. We’ve played some of the tracks live. But I think we’re going to write our own, because you have to pay for them unless they’re in the public domain, and that’s just more paperwork for me. I think we’ll cover a couple of public domain songs and write a bunch of our own.

But yeah, we were all set to go and then I pulled the plug because of all that, and started writing more — and now there’s going to be a solo record and a Dog on Fleas record. The solo record is going t0 be — the first song is called “Absurd.” I think that’ll be the album title. And it’s interesting, because one day after I decided to hold off on the Fleas, I went out in the back yard with an acoustic guitar and wrote a song and I thought, “This is what the solo album is going to be like.” And then I wrote another one, totally opposite. The new one is synthesizers and drum machines. So much for the folk thing. [Laughs]