Progress Report: Dum Dum Girls
It’s been almost two years since we heard anything from Dum Dum Girls. The band’s last release, 2012’s excellent End of Daze EP, was not only a much-beloved sucker punch of a record, but it also played like a perfectly blissed-out culmination of everything the band had previously spent two full-length albums and a handful of EPs trying to achieve. So, if you are in a band that seems to be just hitting its stride creatively, how do you follow up such a potent artistic statement? For Dum Dum Girls, it wasn’t easy. In order to complete the band’s new record — slated to be released in early 2014 — front woman (and primary creative force) Dee Dee had to contend with a series of false starts and the literal loss of her voice before she could put the final touches on what she describes as a much more dreamy and generally guitar-heavy record.
STEREOGUM: Hey Dee Dee. Where are you?
DEE DEE: I’ve been in LA for like two weeks now, rehearsing. You know, teaching the band the new record, plus we have a new guitar player who joined us. So getting things back in order to start playing live again, which when I look at a calendar… I mean we’re technically playing a show this weekend but when we start touring again it will have been over a year since we toured previously. So that was kind of like… fuck, that’s crazy.
STEREOGUM: Has it been a long time since you had a break that long?
DEE DEE: Yeah, I mean maybe the first time in my whole life I didn’t do something super actively. I mean Dum Dum Girls, historically, has toured at least minimum eight months of the year for the last three or four years. And I toured full time in a few bands before that for a few years. And before that, you know I was working at school and stuff. So yeah, the break was really strange but it was also… I had to take that time off. I mean I was technically taking time off to work on this next record, but I fucked up my voice so I had to take many many months off from singing. And then I was working with somebody trying to get it back for several months. That essentially is the main reason we took so much time off, but there were many little things that ended up needing to be worked on. So it was kind of like a perfectly timed, nightmarish break.
STEREOGUM: Yikes. Was the voice thing just from overdoing it?
DEE DEE: Yeah I think. You know I’ve been singing my whole life and I studied privately… I mean, it’s not like I was going to be an opera singer, but I did study privately in high school and through college. So I wasn’t approaching the band thing from a completely novice place. It wasn’t like, “I smoke two packs of cigarettes and I sing and I don’t know how to do the ‘warm up’ thing.” I’ve always tried to implement good behavior just because in the past, when I did smoke regularly — maybe like eight years ago — it really did fuck up my voice. I had to quit. But I think it was really just a combination of touring and the toll that takes on your body physically over a few years. Even though I wasn’t having a Rolling Stones kind of touring experience or anything, it was still just cumulative. So yeah, I just got to the point where my voice — this thing that I’ve always had and it’s always been strong and I haven’t had to put much effort into it — wouldn’t work. All of a sudden I couldn’t do things I’ve always been able to do. So it was like a total terrifying moment to be like, ‘oh my god I’ve broken my voice.’ But it wasn’t really anything permanent; it involved taking an immediate three months off and then starting to do, essentially, physical therapy for my larynx or whatever. That’s where I’m at now.
STEREOGUM: I can see how that would be kind of terrifying. I know other singers that have had similar things happen and it’s often so mysterious — like how you fix it and how it comes back — and you don’t always know if it will come back the same way.
DEE DEE: Yeah… it’s totally weird. Like I said, it’s the thing that has always defined me and to not really have that to count on is frightening. But I mean it’s something that happens all the time to people. I recently hung out with Mish from White Lung and we were talking about this a little bit. And she was like, “Oh that’s crazy. I think I’m about to need surgery to remove the nodes that are back of my vocal chords.” Which I guess she had this surgery when she was a teenager, not even from singing, but because she has an abrasive style of talking. Which I thought was so cute to think about. But anyway, yeah it’s just like overuse, but hopefully nothing permanent on my end. I’m still sort of tentatively freaking out at any moment. These rehearsals have been sort of stressful for me. I don’t anticipate this show being difficult, but I know I have a few months before I’m back in full swing.
STEREOGUM: Did this whole experience have an impact on the songs you were writing?
DEE DEE: Yeah. I mean essentially this has been an ongoing issue. The whole last year that we toured I was starting to have vocal problems that I was just trying to deal with on a day-to-day basis. I wasn’t really making decisions like “we can’t tour because I can’t sing” but it was just like I was just trying to get through it. I’ve always written music in a pretty similar manner. Basically I write things, and as we’re touring or when we have time off I demo them. And then I set aside like a week or two where I sit down and fully demo an album. So I did that last summer, about a year ago. At the time I was having the majority of my vocal issues with the middle of my range, which is what I always sing in. So when I was writing, I think that maybe not totally overtly, but sort of subconsciously, I was writing things that I could sing without stressing out. So I would say that the tone of the new record is definitely a little bit lower than what I’ve done historically, which makes sense to me. But if I try to analyze it through it’s like, “oh well I couldn’t sing the keys I would normally sing in so I’m singing in a lower register than usual.” But I think the main way that it affected me was when I came to LA last November to record with my long-time team, which is Richard Gottehrer, Sune Rose Wagner from Raveonettes, and the engineer I’ve worked with since our first record, Alonzo Vargas. We went to this great studio in LA and we tracked everything instrumentally and it was kind of like “yeah my voice is a little shitty so let’s put that part off and use the energy and enthusiasm right now to get everything down. And we’ll do the vocals at the end, I’ll rest up. I’ll get a massage.” So we did all that and it was like a really fun, really exciting time. And then I went to sing the first song and was just not able to do it. At all. And it was just really devastating. So we left LA with half a record. But like I said, the way I work is that I do those full demos and then we import those into our session and kind of build off of them. So I technically had vocals for most of the songs in some capacity, but I ended up realizing that a few of the songs lyrically weren’t right. So having the extra time ended up working in my favor because I really reexamined everything, saw how it was cohesive and the little things that didn’t fit and then I had more time to make the record exactly how I wanted. So if I had been able to do the vocals in November, I would’ve had at least three songs that I probably wouldn’t have been happy with. So I guess it all worked out. But eventually I redid some of the vocals in New York myself. I took some of the studio pressure out of the equation and got the set up in my apartment so I could record myself without anybody else. So the record is maybe half these newer vocals, and then I ended up using that half of the vocals I had demoed last summer.
STEREOGUM: Now that the record is done and you’ve had some time to sort of live with it… vibe wise, would you say it’s sort of in the same vein as what you were doing in End of Daze, or is it really different?
DEE DEE: I mean it’s moved on from that, but I think that makes linear sense; it sounds like the next step from there, at least to my ears. I mean there are a couple of different things on this record. There’s a lot more guitar — textural guitar stuff — which is why I brought on an additional guitar player for the live show. It kind of ventures into a newer, bigger… I don’t know how to describe it. A bigger, rock n’ roll sound or something? You know, occasionally. There’s a lot more mid-tempo stuff, which I’ve never really done. I think historically my band is regarded as the band that does like Ramones-y songs and then drowsy ballads or something. I mean obviously that’s not what I would say, but that I think there’s sort of a middle ground, which is prevalent a lot on this record. I think it has to do with sort of how I changed guitar style when I was writing. I definitely was listening to a lot of big sounding records. So I think that people have noticed an evolution from more 60s rock sounds and now they might hear more English 80s, 90s brit-pop stuff. Not like I wrote down a recipe and figured out how to do it. But you know, whatever flavor you’re into hearing ends up coloring the stuff you’re doing. And I think it was just one of those things where I knew I had… I’ve been demoing songs over the last year before I sat down and demoed this record. And I had probably 15-20 songs at one point and I just knew that they would not be this record. So I sat down with purpose for a week, when I had my apartment to myself, and I just wrote this record. And it was not really what I was expecting to write. You know, I remember I wrote one of the first songs and I was like, “Whoa, this sounds very strange to me. This is definitely on some Patti Smith/Pat Benatar line; I’m not sure what’s happening here.” So I sent it to a few people just like, ‘Can you do me a favor and let me know how weird this sounds? Cause I’m alone in my apartment and I’m really fucked up and I’m working like 12 hours a day and I have lost any kind of objectivity.” And they thought it sounded cool. I took that as the green light and decided not to second-guess anything else that was happening. I just sort of let it come out. And I definitely played it for a few people and they’ve all said it’s different and their favorite thing I’ve done so far. So to me that’s cool. I never really know how things are going to play out.
STEREOGUM: I was thinking about the fact that you’ve been doing this project for a while now, maybe longer than people realize. I mean has your feeling about making records and touring and the experience of being a working musician in a rock band… have your feelings towards all of that changed a lot over the years? Has your perspective on it shifted the longer you’ve been doing it?
DEE DEE: I mean sort of. It’s weird, you know? I technically started working on this stuff when I was in my last band in 2008. And my first record on Sub Pop came out in 2010, so there was definitely a period where I had stopped working when I was touring with another band for about a year. So when I quit that band, this became my focus and it was very much in the part-time realm. I had to get a job again and do all that stuff. Which is fine, because when you’re first starting out and you don’t have anything you’re super hungry, so you don’t care. It’s like “yeah I just worked ten hours but now I’m going to stay up all night writing something because I’ve been thinking about it the whole time I was at my shitty job,” or whatever. So to me that’s still a very real memory, I know what that’s like. Obviously after the first record came out and we started touring pretty consistently, I did get back to that day where I was like, “this is amazing, I’m quitting my job and now I’m going to be poor and in a band, instead of poor at a crappy job and in a band.” And we toured so much; we did so many support tours for that first year, which was awesome. We just racked up the weirdest experiences. And sometimes it’s interesting to look back and take stock and be like, “Wow, that is crazy that we did all that shit.”
STEREOGUM: Well, what were the weirdest ones?
DEE DEE: Our first thing was that we did a very short little tour with a band called Male Bonding, who was kind of set up the same time as us. And we remained good friends with them. And then right off the end of that we did a tour with Girls, which was kind of like our first real introduction into what the future might hold if we continued or whatever. And that was a really cool and weird and fucked up and special couple of weeks. To see sort of the interior of their world. They are, you know, JR and Chris are super talented. It was just a very eye-opening experience, and a very special one. We were touring in my station wagon for that tour as well, which was very cool. But I mean if anything it’s weird how complicated things get with any kind of forward step. Theoretically, Dum Dum Girls is a somewhat successful band in the indie realm and, you know, it’s what I do with my time. If I’m not on tour I’m working on it in some other capacity, so I definitely appreciate that and know how crazy that it is that I get to do this. So in that sense, being able to carry out this modern bohemian lifestyle where I live in New York and I tour and when I’m not on tour I read and write music. I have a very charmed life. It’s just weird, the longer you’re in it just to see how the fucking machine changes, you know? It’s pretty gross also. But I guess at this point I’m kind of taking the position of last man standing. I’m just going to keep going. We’ll see if and when everybody else notices.
STEREOGUM: Your records have historically been very well received too — both critically and commercially. Still, there is always this weird edge to it: you are validated as a songwriter, but also constantly being compared to other women or having your “look” dissected in some way. There’s still a lot of really gross, 1950s kind of sexist bullshit happening.
DEE DEE: Yeah. It’s always there in some capacity. Whether you’re being championed for being a woman in music or being ridiculed for being somehow superficial because you have a visual aesthetic and you’re a woman.
STEREOGUM: One of the things I always liked about Dum Dum Girls was that the songs were excellent, but you also had this very well considered visual aesthetic. As a band, you guys always looked fucking cool. And I don’t mean that in a dismissive or superficial way.
DEE DEE: Yeah, but in a way like many bands before us.
STEREOGUM: Yes, but I just thought it was always weird cause it was the thing you could either be praised for or called out for or the thing that would always be mentioned even if it was besides the point to the music you’re making. In some ways it’s like you can’t ever totally win… no matter what.
DEE DEE: No you can’t. It’s part of the conversation, no matter what the spin is. But I think at this point I’m just used to it. If you ask me in an interview what it’s like to be a girl in a band or what it’s like being in a girl band, we’re going to have a really shitty interview. And if you want to talk about the aesthetics of being in a band, for me it really doesn’t have anything to do with gender. As much as I think we’re a cool, badass band, the things that I look to for reference points or inspiration don’t really have anything to do with that. It’s as much how phenomenal David Bowie’s whole career has been aesthetically as it is with the Ronettes getting their start in Spanish Harlem. You know? I like the performance aspect of it, that’s always the thing for me. It’s not trying to look like something that is only specific to being a woman, it’s just I am a woman.
STEREOGUM: The record will come out at the beginning of next year then?
DEE DEE: Yeah it’s coming out in January.
STEREOGUM: Voice issues aside, are you excited about getting back on the road?
DEE DEE: Yeah I am. I guess I didn’t say that earlier, but I am 100% cut out for this lifestyle. I really am. I have a few close friends in my life, most of them are in my band, a few of them aren’t. I’m a total loner by nature. I love to travel; I wear the same thing everyday. There’s really nothing better than playing a show to me. I love playing shows. So there’s definitely a lot of anticipation for me about what getting back into that routine will be like. And also having tried to take advantage of how much time off I’ve had, I’ve really tried to update what I’m doing. I don’t want to be playing the same show that we were playing a year ago. I’m terrified of plateauing or repeating things. Also, I don’t know if I mentioned it but I’ve been working with Tamaryn a lot. She’s sort of creative directing this whole record cycle for me. So we’ve been working on all sorts of really fun things for me, cause there is a part of touring so much where the concept of the band can start running on its own. So I wanted to take this time to be like this new record sounds like a new record. This is the new Dee Dee. What is it going to look like? How are we going to play? I want to take everything up at notch; I want to put everything on drugs or something. So for me it’s exciting to start to see that stuff coming into reality and no longer just being ideas.
STEREOGUM: That’s really exciting.
DEE DEE: Yeah I mean if only I enjoy it, that’s enough. It’s been a really cool, fun thing to be doing simultaneous to mixing of the record, which was the main activity I was up to for the past five months.
STEREOGUM: So what will the rest of this year be like for you? Do you have other projects you’re doing as well?
DEE DEE: I mean technically everything is about this new Dum Dum Girls record, but Brandon [Welchez, husband and member of Crocodiles} and I have recorded a record earlier this summer for our little side project. We put out a 7” last year. But we recorded a full record and we’re kind of casually mixing it with Jorge Elbrecht from Violens and Lansing-Dreiden. So yeah he’s done about three songs of ours I think. But Brandon is on tour so it’s been a little more of a back burner thing; it won’t be out until next spring. But that was a really fun cool experience, and I’m a really big fan of Jorge’s so it’s cool to get him on board. I also decided randomly to write a Christmas hit, so I recoded that with Kurt, he’s the drummer of Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and his own band Ice Choir. I had him produce it. Yeah so I’m just trying to cover my bases, spread out a little bit, get comfortable.
Dum Dum Girls’ new record will be released in January 2014.
[Photo: James Orlando / Creative Direction: Tamaryn.]