Choler catches up with Dresden Dolls frontwoman / piano torturer Amanda Palmer to ponder the band’s imminent voyage from play time to big time.
Let’s face it: if you’re a rock band based in Beantown, you’ve got more than one pair of skin-tight leather trousers to fill. If the bar band-turned-stadium-filling paleontology exhibit on wheels known as Aerosmith isn’t enough of an intimidator, meditate on this lineage: The Modern Lovers. The Cars. The Pixies. You can hear snippets of all 3 in just about every song on modern rock radio today (in addition to several albums worth of enduring classics by all 3 of the groups themselves). And they, obviously, weren’t even necessary to put the town on the map. Maybe it’s something hot-wired into the city’s DNA. You walk down the street and pass Paul Revere’s house. Turn a corner and stand at the square where the Declaration of Independence was first read. Go for a waterside stroll and pass by the site of the Boston Tea Party. The dirt under your feet is daring you to create something earth-shattering. What’s your first move, then? If you’re songwriter / vocalist / pianist Amanda Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione, it’s simply to meet one another, and let the chain reaction take care of itself.
The world is slowly catching on to the twisted cabaret acrobatics of the Dresden Dolls. A video in rotation on MTV2’s “Subterranean” here, a slot on the Lollapalooza 2004 second stage there, and pretty soon, you’re courting real success. Los Angeles tastemaker KCRW has come calling for a “Morning Becomes Eclectic” spotlight, which usually portends Very Important Things, and the duo — which kicks out a live show heavy on the china doll makeup and cross dressing, but surprisingly light on the gothic histrionics — now has national distribution for its first album, courtesy of a deal with Roadrunner Records. Palmer has earned overexcited accolades as “the next savior of females in rock,” and the All Music Guide has already gushingly aligned the duo’s stripped down Kurt-Cobain-meets-Kurt-Weill sound with John Coltrane, the Beatles and Charlie Parker. (Consider the comparison horse officially flogged well past expiration.) A more realistic Palmer told us during our interview that the Dolls’ success — while every bit deserved — is building gradually, helped along tremendously by their tireless local touring, a little help from their friends, and the phenomenal, home-grown video for “Girl Anachronism,” the group’s lead-off single.
A blistering blend of piano-driven confessional, Wiemar burlesque aesthetics and land speed record post-punk, “Girl …” is that rare and beautiful thing that occasionally reminds people why Boston has such a bullish musical legacy: a frighteningly original, uncomfortably personal saga that threatens to burn your block down on its way to changing the world. Or maybe it’s nothing more than the explosive sound of two musicians enjoying one another to the point of obsession. Epic history can be written on an intimate scale — and that’s pretty much how Palmer laid out the Dolls’ past and present when she spoke to us by phone from her Boston arts collective home.
Sean Flinn: So, for those folks out there who haven’t visited the group’s Website yet, or some across any of your other press, can you give us the Reader’s Digest version of how the Dolls came together?
Amanda Palmer: I was being, pretty much, a slacker and trying to put together my own band — I knew I wanted to. Brian, concurrently, was playing bass, of all things, in local Boston band. He was utterly miserable that he wasn’t able to find a way to get out on the drums, because that’s really what he was interested in doing. And we met at a party at my house. I used to throw sort of salon / performance art parties, at which I would perform and I would get friends, performance artists, dancers and bands to perform as well (because I live in a rather large house). And Brian got towed along with a mutual friend of ours, and it was Halloween night, 2000. He saw me playing a set of solo songs – just on acoustic piano, no fancy set up or anything — and he knew before I did that we were completely destined for each other. He approached me at the end of the night and asked me if I’d like to get together and play and the minute we started playing with each other, we both … it was hilarious. I wish we’d had a video camera. The day we started playing together, within the first half hour, we were sort of screaming and jumping up and down and acting like really excited six-year-olds.
Sean Flinn: I know on the Website you described it as “falling in total rock love with one another.”
That’s exactly what it was. We were both completely convinced that we had found the missing link in our lives. And we were right. The way we played together was so perfectly complimentary, that it was like fate had plucked us both out and thrown us together. We still feel that way. We can’t believe how lucky were, of all people, to find each other because there’s just so much chemistry, it’s unbelievable.
Does the chemistry have something to do with the fact that you have limited the group to just two people? You’re a two-person band, just piano and drums, and most people would tend to think that that’s 3/5 of a group, not a full group. Did you fear that you might not find that chemistry with any other people to round out the group?
I never had designs on being a duo. I always figured I would find a band. But, you know, we experimented with different lineups. We added guitarists. We added bassists. We tried working with all sorts of different configurations, and we played out as a band quite a bit a few years ago. And the response was overwhelmingly weighted in favor of the duo. People really wanted the distilled version. We would play sets where it would be just half drums and piano, and half drums, piano, bass and guitar. And while some people were a little more turned on by the sound of the full band because it was more familiar, most people just wanted the nitty gritty Brian and Amanda duking it out on stage – which is what generally turns people on about the show; that it’s this really intense connection between two people. And I’ve thought a lot about why that is, but it’s just … I think the more you add to it, the more you kind of dilute it.
Yeah, I can see that.
I thought of a really good analogy for this recently. It’s the same way that, if you’re watching a play, watching two people have an intense argument on stage is a lot more effective and engaging than watching an entire cocktail party of people, where you don’t really understand what’s going on.
The other people tend to draw focus away from the main crux of what’s supposed to be happening on stage.
Yeah. In addition to that, I think both Brian and I would start feeling a little guilty if there were other musicians on stage and we’re just focused on each other, it’s not very musical. It not really fair to the other guys.
Getting into the style of music that you guys play: I played some of the first album for a friend of mine who immediately described it as “Brechtian punk.” I don’t know if I’d ever heard that phrase before. Is that, to your mind, an apt description of the group? I know a lot of critics have tied in the word “Dresden” in the band’s name and the fact that you wear makeup on stage into this sort of Wiemar Republic cabaret type music. Is that something you were shooting for or was it something that sprang out organically from what you were doing?
It’s more the second. It sort of appeared after the fact. When we started playing originally, we didn’t wear costumes on stage. We were playing in jeans and t-shirts. And one night, we were on a bill with a burlesque stripper troupe – they had a residency, and they invited us in as a guest band – and just for kicks, I threw on some really trashy lingerie and painted my face white, a la Cabaret. And it worked so well. It just sort of clicked, and from that day on, we kept doing it because it worked.
And eventually, Brian, who’s a complete closeted drag queen … well, not so closeted anymore … he’s been dressing up in his mother’s lingerie since he was seven years old. But he and I both love costumes and make-up and doing it up. We love dressing up. It’s another miracle of chemistry. We share most of our clothes on the road.
You can just take one suitcase then — it’s very convenient.
Yeah, exactly. We played an acoustic show the other night, and he wore my standard costume, and I just wore my regular dress. But he got all dolled up in the white stripes and the black dress, and he looked very cute.
Hope you got pictures. So, given the make up and the theatrical bent of the shows, what are you ambitions for the Dolls’ stage shows going forward? I know you guys are a two-man gig right now playing somewhat small shows, but in the future that’s going to start getting bigger. What would you like to do with the stage show?
I would really love to expand the stage show. It’s going to be a question of what’s practical, obviously. But, all of my life, I’ve struggled with the marriage of rock music and theater. And I’ve actually directed a lot of theater that was half concert and half music video half play. That’s one-and-a-half things altogether, but you know what I mean.
The things that really turned me on artistically when I was younger — The Wall was one of my obsessive favorites, and Rocky Horror — I’m generally not turned on by most musical theater or opera, but some people manage to do it and hit on it just right, where you can take rock and you can take elements of theater and sometimes put them together to come up with this brilliant mix. That’s something that I hope to shoot for. I would love to do really magical and theatrical — and probably dark and twisted — stage shows. That will be a really fun matter of finding designers and lighting people and working on scripted elements of the show and working with what we’ve got — which is sort of the way we tend to do it. We’re doing Lollapalooza this summer and it’s going to be as stripped down as it gets. We’re going to be on a bare stage and it’s going to be the drums and the piano and that’s it.
… and about a billion degrees outside as well.
Right. And when we travel around in clubs … when you’ve got 40 minutes to say something and 10 minutes to set up, you basically keep it simple. Which is what we’ve been doing and it’s been really effective. But when we get to the point where we’ve got time to set up and money to throw around and stuff to play with, there’s going to be some really beautiful theatrical stuff that emerges from that.
That’s cool. Well, you’ve given me a lot of jumping off points there. I’m going to start with you mentioning the theatricality of the music and your fondness for that, which, in one sense leads me to wonder about your songwriting style, and how autobiographical your songs are versus how much they’re reflecting a persona that you’ve adopted in order to tell the story of the song. What mix is going on there? How deeply personal are these songs versus how much of them are stories that you’re telling?
They’re mostly autobiographical. I think that the ones that are sort of more caricatures of myself or completely adopted characters that I wouldn’t want to lay claim to at all are usually pretty obvious. But then again, everything is borne from experience. A song like “Missed Me” is pretty obviously spoken from the character of this evil, manipulative little girl, and I’ve been close enough to that evil manipulative little girl — or accused of being that evil manipulative little girl — to feel like I can tell the story appropriately.
It’s always an interesting question, and it’s something that gets really sticky, because once you stop being a completely autobiographical songwriter – which a lot of songwriters are, surprisingly. A lot of songwriters don’t ever depart from what they believe is true, and you wouldn’t hear anything coming out of their mouths that they wouldn’t defend in cocktail party conversations. Then it gets very dangerous because then you find yourself perhaps having to defend point that you don’t agree with because it’s your character. Songwriting is especially dangerous that way. A novelist can do that and it’s pretty much acceptable. And certainly a filmmaker, or a painter can paint a pretty gruesome scene and it all seems pretty detached. But when you’re getting up there and you’re speaking somebody else’s story as if it’s your own, with [nothing to indicate that you’re not] being yourself, it’s a little frightening sometimes.
I can imagine. And I imagine too that you get the whole David Bowie school of songwriting, where he practically lives in these characters that he creates, and then puts them away and pulls out something else – you’re never quite sure if what you’re getting is actually him or the character that he’s created. Even when he’s not wearing the make-up or doing the big fancy stage show.
But that’s almost the beautiful thing about it. That’s the whole mystique. Who the person actually is become really fuzzy, even in the mid of the person themselves. But it does work both ways. I often find that through writing, I’m forced to define myself which is just fascinating.
Do you ever find that writing music gives you license to let things out that you otherwise might keep not public — keep more private?
Oh yeah. Constantly.
Are there ever any consequences to that? Do you think, “OK, I’ve written this song, and now I’m going out and performing and — whoa! I’m really putting out some stuff that normally I wouldn’t reveal to people!”
Yeah. You know, the real danger of that – and I’ve been thinking and coping with this a lot lately – is that, often, the most fertile material is directly about people you really care for and care about, but the conflict in the relationship is so inspirational that you don’t want to toss it. And thing that gets really sticky is when it’s something like your family, where everyone has these really complex relationships with their mothers and their fathers and they’re endlessly fertile ground for conflicted songwriting and conflicted emotions.
But your parents are going to hear these songs, and your mother is going to hear this song that you wrote about her or your father is going to hear this song that you wrote about him and they might not want to know the deep dark terrible emotions. And that really gets you into a bind. And, in fact, I heard Ani DiFranco, who’s an interesting songwriter in her own right – she’s one of those pretty much confessional songwriters – but I heard an interview with her which was really interesting. She was talking about how her private life becomes very invaded by her fans, and every word gets examined and over examined and applied to, you know, “Was this song about that relationship or that relationship?!” And she said she very deliberately doesn’t write about her family, just to protect the relationship itself. I’ve already not done that. I’ve already had to deal with the wrath of my mother for bringing her up in a couple of songs. Well, I wouldn’t say wrath. It’s more painful that wrath. It’s not that she’s angry. It’s that it’s actually painful to hear me dredging up these old emotions – but it’s such great material that it’s hard to avoid.
Does she have a problem, too, I mean … not only are you bringing this stuff up, but you’re doing it in front of — especially as the band gets more and more popular — potentially of hundreds of thousands of people.
Yeah. That’s the tough call. And that’s also where the inspiration for the writing often comes in, in that you’re forced to be a little bit more poetic, a little bit more subtle, or a little bit more vague – not use the word directly, and on and on like that.
Do you find, knowing that these songs, especially as you acquire a wider audience and you’re sitting down to write new material, that your self-censor is getting any stronger because you know there’s going to be a wider audience for them and the impact on people you know could potentially be greater? Is that a conflict that every songwriter runs into?
I would guess so. And it’s something I’ve feared. It’s actually something I’ve been trying to cope with in the past couple of weeks because I’ve had a couple of weeks off from touring, and I’ve been trying to write and piece together the new record. I have to admit: your self censors really do come into play once you know, not even who your audience is, but that you have an audience period. [That] changes everything, because, I would say that, probably 80% of the material on this record that we just put out was written before I had any audience at all. I didn’t even have an audience of one. I had an audience of none. I mean, I had an audience of thousands in my narcissistically bloated fantasy. But there was no real place that these songs were ever going to be. It was all theoretical. And that really does, on the one hand – on the flip side — give this kind of immediacy when you’re writing because there’s that [feeling of], “Oh my god, this minute this word come out of my mouth, I can take it right into the studio. I can take it right into the club, and a bunch of people will hear it.”
There’s something really amazing and fantastic about that. On the other hand, that also gives an incredible weight — and unwanted heaviness – to the writing. So it’s another kind of unlearning. It’s like have to train myself to be really disciplined, in a way that I haven’t before, to forget about all that, and forget about what may be heard and may not be heard, and just write. I’m sure – I can’t imagine that any successful musician or writer or artist doesn’t go through this once they have an audience.
We’ve talked a little bit about the acquisition of an audience for the Dresden Dolls and for your songs, so I really wanted to start talking about the video for your song, “Girl Anachronism,” which is really where you guys started reaching beyond a New England audience or a cult audience to serious, serious exposure across the country. How and when in the group’s history did that video get made? Was it before or after you signed to Roadrunner?
It was before.
OK, so, where did you get the resources for it and where did the concept spring from? Give me the story of the video?
Well, it’s a great story and it involved a lot of luck and fortune. One of my dearest friends, and one of the most incredible artists I personally know, is Michael Pope — he’s the guy that directed it. He and I met right around the time that Brian and I met actually, or maybe a few months before. He’s always lived a kind of rag-tag Bohemian existence, couch surfing from New York to Boston. He was working on his own film, at the time – a future film – and he moved into my house, which is kind of an arts collective. He started taping our shows, and we knew that, the minute we had resources to make a video, we would do it. It was always something we had talked about. And as soon as the band started getting really serious, and the minute the record was done and we had a single – we had a finished product of music that we knew was going to be released, that’s one of the first things we looked into doing.
We had no money. We were unsigned. So we hit up a friend of ours for $5,000. We said, “We’re going to make this. We’re going to pay you back within a couple of years.” And that was it. We took the $5,000, we stretched it about as far as humanly possible, and we made the video in about 2 days. And it’s incredible, because it really does look totally legit — and it is. It’s real film — but it’s the product of a lot of effort and a lot of underpaid people and a lot of free time and labor and a lot of winking a nudging and friends at film stores hooking us up. Basically, what you see is probably closer to a $10 — 15,000 video, and we got a lot of breaks. We pulled a lot of strings, just because we didn’t have any money. But with that video in our pocket, that’s definitely a huge part of what helped us get singed and get the attention of the people that we were trying to get.
It’s more than a little astonishing to me that you could make a video … not astonishing to me that you could make something that good with that kind of budget — but astonishing to me that something that good, made with that kind of budget by an independent group – something that’s truly independent — would actually get picked up by MTV and really gain a wider audience. How did you guys actually get that out in front of people to the point where it was actually being seen?
Well, when we first finished it, we did all the editing here in the kitchen on a Macintosh. Then we just started burning DVDs – we got a DVD burner and started burning them. We made Xerox copied artwork and we started taking it around with us. I would play it for people in New York that I would get connected to. I’ve sent it out to everyone I could possibly think of who was even remotely important. And right around then is when an A&R guy from Roadrunner hit me up for publishing, actually. I sent him a copy of the video, and he brought it to an A&R meeting and everyone there just lost their shit.
I can imagine. I pretty much lost my shit when I saw it on TV, so … it sounds like, beyond just having it seen by A&R people, when it was actually aired on TV, was there a noticeable or dramatic impact from having it on their air? Did you guys wake up the next day and notice it?
No, not at all, actually. I mean, we always get fan mail. We always get a lot of e-mail. And there was a trickle of e-mail from people who were like, “Hey, I saw you on MTV, I checked out your site, this is great!” But not a ton. I think … our record had just gone on sale, nationally, about a month ago, and we’re only just starting to get a sense of what’s happening out there and who’s finding out about us. It’s still pretty much under wraps. There a station here that’s playing it, and there’s a station there, and there’s a little group of fans in San Francisco, and no one has ever heard of us in Omaha. It still has really yet to happen.
Still a lot of building left to be done.
Yeah. But it’s actually exciting. I kind of like that.
Well, better to have a chance to build something like that than to have it dumped on you all at once. I imagine even the level of success that you guys have hit right now can be kind of a challenge to grapple with.
Yeah. Well, having management is the key, and we finally did find a fantastic manager. That was the beginning of a new era for us.
I read somewhere in an interview that the point you said you wanted to get to was where someone was actually sending out the press kits for you as opposed to you having to send them out yourself.
And it’s finally happened!
You’re living the dream!