ThisSmallPlanet is a blog about life and culture. "New Music Today" is the indie rock music section, featuring links to new music downloads, selected music articles from our favorite sites, and original writing, photos, and videos about music by mikedx1 (Michael Donnelly)
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Dum Dum Girls - Pitchfork Interview
Dum Dum Girls
Frontwoman Dee Dee talks to us about the cathartic core of her band's new LP.
"I think I'm dying, I love you." That's the panicked text message Dum Dum Girls leader Dee Dee just sent her husband, fellow indie rocker Brandon Welchez of Crocodiles, when I arrive at her building on Manhattan's decidedly un-hip Upper East Side. Minutes before, New York City was hit with a rare earthquake-- 5.8 on the Richter scale-- that shook the singer's narrow apartment hard enough to overturn her cat's water bowl and send her racing outside. "I thought the building was collapsing," she says.
Luckily, it still stands. As does Dee Dee, who has weathered through her share of trauma over the last year and a half. After putting an old picture of her mother on the front of Dum Dum Girls' 2010 debut album, I Will Be, the singer watched her mom wither away from a sudden and deadly bout of cancer last year. The experience-- along with the hardship of constantly being apart from her husband while they were both on tour-- is felt throughout new record Only in Dreams, which lushly expounds on the group's garage-pop style and features Dee Dee's startlingly emotional voice in full bloom. "I wish it wasn't true/ But there's nothing I can do/ Except hold your hand/ Til the very end," she pleads at the close of the album.
Whereas her stage name (the Berkeley-raised 29 year old was born Kristen Gundred), her band's Ramones-via-fashion week chic, and her lighter, more referential early songs indicated that Dee Dee was donning the role of garage-rock hellion, Only in Dreams is more personal by miles. Not to say she's totally given up on the showy panache. Today, she's in jeans and a sheer top dotted with black circles, a gold "D" hanging around her neck-- call it Dum Dum Girls-casual. The self-described "recluse" is soft-spoken and admirably modest while talking about the new album, which was produced by studio vet Richard Gottehrer (Blondie, the Go-Go's) along with the Raveonettes' Sune Rose Wagner, and is the first DDG release to feature the rest of her one-named bandmates: guitarist Jules, bassist Bambi, and drummer Sandy. A small taxidermy duck sits on the coffee table in front of her as Dee Dee talks about overcoming her shyness, meeting girl-group idol Ronnie Spector, and not being able to sleep when that's the only thing you want to do.
Pitchfork: In concert, you and your bandmates put on this really stone-faced, unified front. How pre-meditated is that?
Dee Dee: Well, we're not like, "Guys, let's put on our faces." But I think it was a self-protection thing when I started. I was very shy until my early 20s, so it was a weird personal struggle for me to know I wanted to do bigger things while feeling very trapped by my level of comfort doing them. But the onstage demeanor has morphed into wanting to put off a pretty tough vibe. That's just the energy I feel when I'm playing.
I've always liked extreme performers; I don't think I am one, but my mentality is in line with that. There's a side to being in a band that some people embrace and some don't: the fact that you're performing and you care about how it comes across. I mean, does it get any cooler than [points to Siouxsie Sioux book on coffee table] or David Bowie? I've always admired people with really strong presences and felt that caring about the visual component of what you do is not intrinsically superficial or vain. Visuals are as artistic as sounds, so being serious about both isn't a contradiction to me.
Pitchfork: You expand your sound a bit on this album, how important is it for you to not just stick to that one girl-group/garage-rock style?
DD: Progression is important. I'm always going to play music in the general vein of rock'n'roll, but when I started I was very much associated with the West Coast lo-fi thing and I didn't want to get anchored in with anything that was just in vogue for the time being. I'm sure that the people who loved the first Dum Dum Girls 7" that came out HoZac will hate this record because it's so different sonically.
"Visuals are as artistic as sounds,
so being serious about both isn't a contradiction to me."
Pitchfork: The six-and-a-half-minute ballad "Coming Down" is a real departure, were you a little bit nervous about it?
DD: Yeah, but that song just couldn't really be any other way. I knew it was going to be an oddball but I also knew it was good and showcased a side of me that doesn't come out in those two-minute pop songs. I was really proud of that. That's the song my dad likes. I had the opportunity to meet Ronnie Spector a few months ago at Richard [Gottehrer]'s studio, and when she heard that song, she was like, "Oh, I can hear your vocals, you need to turn 'em all up."
Pitchfork: What was it like meeting her?
DD: So cool. I was in New York mixing the record, and she has some songs that I may help her write, so I wanted to meet her while I was in town. I dressed up a little bit, had lipstick on. She walked in and said, "You look like me." [laughs]
Pitchfork: There's a goosebump-y moment in "Coming Down" where you hit this really big note in the middle of the song. Did you always plan to do that or was it more spontaneous?
DD: When I demoed that song, I had been singing that note. But when we recorded it as a scratch track in the studio, I sang a much lower note. When I overdubbed my vocals, I was like, "OK, I'm going to try something-- bear with me." Everybody was like, "Holy shit, you have to do that." The note was so difficult to nail twice. [laughs] It's very much at the top of my range.
Pitchfork: I was struck by how straightforward your songwriting is on this album compared to the first one, especially given the stark subject matter.
DD: I think I still write a bit cryptically-- I try not to, but it just happens. I don't treat songwriting like a science, it happens pretty spontaneously. When I wrote "Bedroom Eyes", I was having terrible insomnia. I had just got back from Europe and was distraught and jet-lagged and staying with my dad because I didn't have a place at the time. I was very, very displaced and unable to sleep-- I gave myself astigmatism because I was on my computer all day. But I started reading about insomnia on Wikipedia and I ended up reading PoemHunter.com-- you type in a topic and it gives you this huge database of poetry. I found one poem that I just loved. It didn't have the phrase "bedroom eyes," but it was like a love song set within the context of insomnia. I thought it would be a good thing to write a song about; I don't think I've ever heard a song about it quite like that.
The lightest song on the record is probably "Just a Creep", though simple, catchy things like that can have bigger meanings, too. That song demonstrated another part of my brain that was going on at the same time-- just being so stressed out and spread thin that I was overreacting to things. I was having a lot of "are you fucking kidding me?" moments.
Pitchfork: Like what?
DD: You'd be surprised by the things people will say to my face after a show. I was in a Whole Foods and somebody recognized me and was like, "Oh, I saw you open for Beach House and Vampire Weekend, the sound was awful." I thought, "Do I come to your work and tell you something like that, point blank?"
I'm aware that we're a small band, but I think the Internet shortens the distance between people, and that can often lead to inappropriateness. Personal space doesn't exist, in a certain way. I like to do what I do in my house and I love to play shows, but I don't want to have to go out and talk to a bunch of people I don't know. But I don't want to come off rude. Because I'm quiet, people think I'm really cold, or rude, or snobby. But I'm literally scared to talk to them.
"When I met Ronnie Spector, she walked in and said, 'You look like me.'"
Pitchfork: Have you met anybody on tour that you were scared to talk to?
DD: I get starstruck really easily. I love music so much-- it sounds so silly to say that-- so if I'm playing a festival and somebody I love, like [Primal Scream's] Bobby Gillespie, is there in the backstage area, I'm like, "Wow this is amazing! There they are!" Other people are like, "It's just a guy." Johnny Marr came to our show in Manchester when we opened for MGMT, and we hung out with him. I was struggling to keep it together. I didn't say what I wanted to say in my heart of hearts: "You're the best guitar player!"
Pitchfork: This is the first Dum Dum Girls release where the whole band plays on it, was it hard for your to give up control at all?
DD: Initially, I was very much concerned with having absolute control. But as time has gone by, I'm not. I mean, the whole first record was really just how I spent my free time: stoned and drinking coffee in my house, spending three hours on a song. I had no friends, nothing to do. I enjoy doing that, but on a bigger record like this, I was very happy to relinquish some control, especially when I know it's in capable hands. Everybody gets it.
Pitchfork: Your voice is a lot bigger and more prominent on this album. Did it just take a while for you to feel comfortable putting it upfront?
DD: It's still pretty treated by normal record standards, but it's certainly not like when I would do it myself and have the reverb on eight out of 10. I'm sure that was a subconscious protective layer which came off a lot on the [He Gets Me High] EP, and even more on this record. It's been a pretty natural, obvious progression. It has to do with being more comfortable and also admitting that that's what I do: sing and write songs. I've always just wanted to sing in a rock band. All of my favorite records have vocals high in the mix, even if it's music that wasn't necessarily mainstream.
"This album deals with dreams out of desperation. Dreams were all I had."
Pitchfork: What's Richard Gottehrer's style as a producer?
DD: He has a lot of spontaneous ideas and kind of dances around and makes little suggestions. For the guitar lead on "Hold Your Hand", he came in a couple days after we recorded the track, and he was like, "I'm hearing this: [singing] na-na-na-na." [laughs] It was perfect.
He had a little direction with drums, too. He came to a couple rehearsals in L.A. and told [drummer] Sandy, like, "God, you just play the surf beat on every song?" And I was like, "We haven't gotten to the drums yet! Don't yell at her, yell at me!" "Bedroom Eyes" is like the debut of the hi-hat in our band-- we made a big deal about that. But, generally, there weren't many drastic changes from my demos; I know what I want.
Pitchfork: I was listening to "Caught in One"-- which has lyrics like, "All the pain and all the sighs/ That well up in my mother's eyes"-- and then I read that your mom passed away last year. Did you have any second-thoughts about writing songs about that experience?
DD: I didn't really have a choice-- I wasn't thinking about anything else. It was an out-of-the-blue shocker. My mom was very health conscious and exercised all the time, but she started having mysterious stomach and balance issues. My little brother called me and was like, "She fell over and she's really dehydrated. We took her to the ER, but they let her go." My mother-in-law's a nurse so I called her, and she was like, "It's neurological. She needs to go to the ER and get an MRI right now." So I called my dad and I was freaking out. I said, "You need to take her to the ER and you need to demand that they figure out what the fuck is going on."
So I flew home, and she was really out of it. I was there for the MRI. They found massive tumors all throughout her head. They did emergency surgery and she woke up and she had aphasia-- she could communicate but the wrong words came out. And she was never really back to normal after that. It was just a year of getting sicker. It was definitely very strange and surreal. But I think that a lot of the album's tone-- this frustration or intense desire for something impossible-- comes from being blindsided.
Pitchfork: That must of been especially difficult because you were on tour a lot of last year, right?
DD: Yeah, I considered quitting and taking the year off and going back home. I had discussions with my dad and my mom, to a degree, and they didn't want me to do that. I probably feel guilty that I wasn't home enough but I don't know how much of a difference it would have made.
Pitchfork: Songs like "Caught in One", "Wasted Away", and "Hold My Hand" sound really cathartic-- did songwriting help you get through that year?
DD: Yeah, sometimes I feel like the main grieving I went through was writing these songs. I'm pretty private and might have difficulty talking about things like that, so it was good to get it out somewhere. The few people I've talked to that have gone through similar experiences agree that, when you're dealing with a death sentence like that, you go through these really intense periods where it's awful and depressing, and then you feel like nothing. But it's not like it just happens to me. It's probably something a lot of people deal with, and I know there are bigger problems in the world. But I have what I know.
Pitchfork: I imagine other people who have dealt with similar situations would really be able to relate to these songs on a deep level.
DD: That'd be great. I get really affected by songs as a music listener-- they mean so much and they feel so significant. I don't kid myself that maybe I can be that for somebody else, but it's interesting to think about.
Pitchfork: Did you take respite in dreams during that period?
DD: Yeah. There are so many songs written about dreaming that are like, "I'm wishing for all these great things-- you're in my dreams." But this album deals with dreams almost more out of desperation. Dreams were all I had.
Pitchfork: Did you ever have any recurring dreams?
DD: I had a really intense flying dream most of my childhood into my teens. I would go out at night and fly all over the city and I could facilitate other people to fly with me. But if I was called into action and needed to do something where this ability would prove crucial, I would lose it in that moment. [laughs] That would be tortuous. Like, "Why am I dreaming this intense struggle? Aren't dreams supposed to be positive?"
Pitchfork: What does your family think about your career choice?
DD: For the first five years after I got out of college, they were like, "Are you going to do anything normal and stable for the future?" But they're really supportive and my dad has come to every show I've ever played in San Francisco except for two since I was 18. And it became apparent that I was attempting to do this on a bigger level when I got on a label that my dad could Google. My dad was a roadie for our last European tour, which was really fun.
Pitchfork: Did your mom get to see you do a bigger show?
DD: She never saw Dum Dum Girls, which is kind of sad. We didn't play on the West Coast for quite a while, and then it was just too late. But she knew the cover of [I Will Be]-- she knew she was on shirts. She was like, "Oh, I hated that picture." But I said, "You've got to divorce yourself from it." It just looked like a classic album cover to me. So I used it and then all of this happened after the fact. I wouldn't have it any other way, though. It's strange and cool she's on record shelves and in a small grouping of homes all over the world. It's this cosmic thing.