In the eyes of the music scene, Dog Bite might come off as tame. Phil Jones, frontman and voluntary Zen master of the group, has been cast as a domesticated dog within the walls of chillwave, as once a member of the pioneering electronic act Washed Up. The fourpiece, which began as a solo outlet while Jones was on the road, has become, after a couple releases and countrywide tours, an assembly of like-minded musicians ready for a musical change of scenery. With a little help from a liberating record label and some influential contemporaries, Jones is ready to cut the leash with the release of Tranquilizers, which shows him and his bandmates in their natural habitats—somewhere in limbo between gooey shoegaze and retro soul.
“I was actually listening to this thing David Byrne was saying about musicians being put into these little groups, and at the time it’s not the greatest thing. But [these groups] sometimes help propel your name, or what you’re doing,” Jones told me on the phone in December. “But if it wasn’t ‘chillwave’ it would have been something else, you know. So I’m cool with it as long as people are listening.”
It would be difficult not to pin Dog Bite to a sound, especially after discovering the group is made up of former Washed Out, Mood Rings, and Balkans members. But when you read the influences—J Dilla, Caribou, and The Roots—alongside recorded covers from bands like Atoms For Peace, hampering labels and preconceptions begin to fade.
“Dog Bite—it’s music that just wants to hang out a little bit, talk about the universe, and then go home,” Jones explained, in an attempt at simplifying Tranquilizers.
In other words, this album is your shady drug dealer who sparks a joint, poses a few philosophical questions, and leaves you in a haze of thought and sedation. What is likely an all-too familiar metaphor for these four Atlantans, sums up the record nicely as an ephemeral piece of work that’ll latch on to your thoughts for days after your first listen.
Less than a year removed from Velvet Changes, Dog Bite’s Carpark Records debut, and fresh off a tour with labelmate, and musical confidante, Chaz Bundick (aka Toro y Moi), Dog Bite considers Tranquilizers to be the most defining work so far in their “musical journey.” The release of the album’s first single, “Dream Feast”, in October marked the start of a new era for Jones.
“I wanted to let people know this album was not like the first one. I wanted to set a tone for what’s to come.” That tone Jones speaks of, as he stands by his decision to pick “Dream Feast” as a single, is an overall more mature one that hinges on a dark sense of nostalgia. “Dream Feast” falls far on the side of Dog Bite’s signature dream sequence mellow-rock, rather than showing off Jones’ recent creative embrace of crate-digging, R&B, samples, and groove.
“Well I’ve been really into sampling. I like to sample and [draw influence from] a lot of stuff from the 60s and 70s. There are all the little crackles and little imperfections old records have but you go through all that stuff and come by these gems.”
Jones and the rest of Dog Bite compiled some songs in November, all along the lines of Jones’s recent binges—Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes, to name a few—and released a foreshadowing mixtape. The remastered deep cuts, when the light hits them right, showcase a bridge between R&B soul and the art of shoegazing. One could speculate that Jone put this tape together to ease the listener into Tranquilizers. He was quick to turn down this assumption.
“I’m not sure I intentionally did it,” Jones said about his genre-blending. “I started recording it while mixing the first album and I wanted to take a different approach. But I never try to work it out too much. I like to sit down, get ready to record and see what happens. I don’t like going in with too many preconceived ideas.”
Coupled with a mattress of oscillating guitars and modulating pulses, Jones’s knack for hypnotic use of space and clarity is unwavering, even in the face of instrumental complexity. The record features work coming from hands other then Jones’s for the first time, with former Balkans’ bassist Woody Shortridge and percussionist Tak Takemura contributing tracks to round the edges of Jones’s nebulous vision. After years of touring as a musical supplement, writing guitar riffs on battered acoustics to escape the insincerity of the electronic music he was churning out nightly, Tranquilizers captures Jones at his truest. Between moments of pop ingenuity riding along the simple tasteful drum grooves, the most telling moments are when everything else takes a back seat to Jones belting out croons and hooks over a warm drum machine and soft guitar strums. It has been a goal of Jones’s to create the emotional sound he wanted with lo-fi rock-oriented arrangements rather than electronics. His only electronic tools were an analog drum machine and the occasional synth pad, and only on select songs.
“After Washed Out, I started going down that path a little more. It was probably because [Washed Out] was starting to use a lot more electronic stuff, and I wanted to have more guitar-based sounds, without any synths or anything like that.”
Despite the simplifying that Jones intended on Tranquilizers, one of his secret tricks is sampling and repurposing his own songs.
“For example, there’s a song called ‘Clarinets’ where I just recorded three different guitar chords and threw them into a beatpad and just kind of messed around with the timing and pitch of each one until it evolved into the weird pattern,” Jones told me of the unorthodox recording method. As someone who began a career in music from an interest in sampling, this ingenuity seems par for the course. And though Jones worked singularly for years, signing with Carpark required a little help from his friends.
“I’ve known Chaz [Bundick] for a while now, three or four years. He always helped me out with little stuff here and there. He showed Carpark my stuff,” Jones explained.
“You hear horror stories from other musicians about what labels let them or don’t let them do. But Carpark has been extremely willing to let me do whatever I think is right for my music,” Jones said of the label that is home to genre-bending artists like Dan Deacon, Beach House, and Speedy Ortiz.
Dog Bite has found a niche that is based around breaking free and moving forward. This album has the entire framework in tact to follow its label predecessors in stirring things up in whatever scene critics will package it within. But by that time, Jones will be miles away.
“At this point I think I’m more interested in the music itself. I don’t think too much about how it’s going to be received afterwards because I’ll always be on to something different.”
Dog Bite's Tranquilizers is out now on Carpark Records.