Q&A: Kristin Welchez On The Evolution From Dee Dee & The Dum Dum Girls To Kristin Kontrol
In late January, Kristin Welchez — who has been known as Dee Dee from the Dum Dum Girls — announced that she’d be adopting a new name for a new project. She has become Kristin Kontrol, with the promise that her new music was unlike anything we’ve heard from her before. The Dum Dum Girls’ most recent release, 2014’s gorgeous and underrated Too True, may in hindsight have hinted at what was in store — its dreamier surfaces and ’80s mope-rock vibes in some ways set the stage for the way Kristin Kontrol mines that decade on her debut, X-Communicate. But it’s also true that Kristin Kontrol is radically different from anything we would’ve expected from Welchez as Dee Dee. It draws on various strains of pop from various eras, collapsing them together into slick, infectious synth-pop. And not that there weren’t plenty of catchy Dum Dum Girls songs over the years, but X-Communicate and the evolution into Kristin Kontrol show Welchez becoming an absolute machine when it comes to hooks. The highlights on the album — “Show Me,” “White Street,” the title track, and “Face 2 Face” are my current favorites, though “Don’t (Wannabe)” and “Skin Shed” are contenders, too — are seriously unshakeable, songs that are stuck in your head when you wake up in the morning. It’s often effervescent on the surface, but is also an album that appears occupied with parsing unsteadiness and questions that crop up when you hit a certain point and look at how you’ve been living, and wonder how you’re going to proceed. It’s fitting subject matter for an album where we see an artist undergoing a self-enforced metamorphosis into something new. X-Communicate is quickly becoming one of my favorite albums we’ve heard so far this year, so I decided to catch up with Kristin at the Bud Light Factory at Brazos Hall in Austin, where Stereogum presented an official SXSW showcase this week. Amidst Kristin telling me how she dreams of someday pitching and writing an entry in the 33 1/3 series while Run The Jewels and Kendrick blared through the speakers above us, we talked about the process of shedding Dee Dee and finding Kristin Kontrol.
KRISTIN KONTROL: Is it me or does SXSW seem dead this year?
STEREOGUM: It does seem kinda dead in comparison to the other times I’ve been here. What showcases are you playing?
KK: I’m not performing. I’m here to DJ. I just announced the Kristin Kontrol thing, and I don’t have the live thing established yet. So, I was like, “Oh, cool, I don’t have to go this year.” And then it was like, “No, you still have to go, you can DJ.” I was like, “Oh, I’m quitting live music immediately and I’m going to pursue a career as a mediocre DJ.” I DJ’d at Cheer Up Charlies last night and I walked into the worst music and dancefloor I’ve ever seen so I decided to open with Crass and just play a gnarly 75 minute pure punk set, like ’77 to ’78 exclusively, ranging from unlistenable for the layman to the Beat or something. That was fun. Tonight I’m doing two sets at Hype Hotel because I’m a Charli XCX super-fan so I’m going to sandwich her set with my tones.
STEREOGUM: So how long have you been planning the Kristin Kontrol switch?
KK: Not long at all. In an abstract way, I have felt like I needed to figure out how to do what I wanted to do a little bit better. I think with the last Dum Dum Girls record, Too True, I started feeling like…not growing pains, but whatever the opposite of growing pains are. I’m growing and no one’s noticing. I didn’t think I could continue on my, whatever, journey in the context that Dum Dum Girls exist in, which I felt like I’d lost control of. So rather than dismantle this thing, seven records or EPs, so much fun, and a really amazing fanbase, and the importance of, essentially, an all-woman band…those were all really special and important things. So I didn’t want to change the infrastructure, so as I was recording over the last year, it was in the back of my mind like, “I need to figure out how to put this out in a way that’s going to feel more appropriate.” I didn’t think about it, I didn’t worry about it. I waited until I had the record done, and I turned it in, and I was like, “So…solo?” It was a couple weeks of trying to figure out logistics and what to do.
STEREOGUM: As you were making it, you weren’t thinking it was going to be a separate thing necessarily?
KK: Spiritually, it felt like it. I 100-percent let go of…you know, I used to write songs and be like, “This isn’t a Dum Dum Girls song, this is something else.” Which is why I had side projects. This was…this is just me. And I’m going to broaden the reflection of what I love. For me, it was a very freeing writing and recording process.
STEREOGUM: Dum Dum Girls is still essentially your thing, you’re the only songwriter.
KK: It is, but most people don’t know that. The idea, the aesthetic, is such a gang, such a “band” thing.
STEREOGUM: Was it a matter of feeling constricted by people’s expectations of it, or do you try to maintain borders like, “This is what this project is, this is something else”?
KK: I had tried to approach it in the same way, like, “I’m just going to evolve how I’m evolving. This is the home my stuff lives in.” It was starting to get kickback like, “I’m being received in a framework that’s pre-existing.” I’m kind of convinced if I put out this exact same record as Dum Dum Girls, it would be reviewed and received totally differently. Maybe I’m wrong or paranoid. For me, it just made sense, and it’s a clean start. The Kristin Kontrol thing came very, very last minute and it was one of those serendipitous ideas. I proposed it to Jonathan [Poneman], the president of Sub Pop, and he was like, “I love it.” It solved all these problems and immediately created a host of new problems.
STEREOGUM: What were the new problems?
KK: Well, initially, “How are we going to transition from Dum Dum Girls into whatever this new thing is?” I’m fairly certain that a good chunk of Dum Dum Girls fans will be interested to at least check out whatever I’m doing next. But it needs to be easy to understand that this transition has happened. So we were trying to figure out: Do I put it out as Dee Dee? There are logistical issues with that. Instead, I was like, “No, let’s have a completely different name and start over.” It felt right, it made sense. I’m not a pessimist at all, but I was so wonderfully shocked that most Dum Dum Girls fans were psyched about it.
STEREOGUM: What lead you to the actual moniker Kristin Kontrol instead of Dee Dee, or whatever?
KK: The thing that I thought made sense was Dee Dee, because it’s this alter-ego that I have and we could just carry it forward. But there are too many random Dee Dees over the last forty years of music that Sub Pop was like, “We’d get a cease-and-desist.” I felt like my only choice was to use this last name that NME made up the first time they wrote about us. There was a typo, a placeholder they meant to delete. They were like, “What’s your last name?” I said, “No last name.” It was our first CMJ, 2010, and we were the #1 band to watch or whatever, and I was reading the article and it said Dee Dee Penny. And I was like, “Who the fuck is Dee Dee Penny? Penny!?” So my single-tear-shedding-down-my-face compromise was, OK, if I can do this solo and that means I have to do it as Dee Dee Penny, I’ll do it as Dee Dee Penny. So, I’m visiting California over the holidays and I’m in this bar I used to hang out at like ten years ago, reminiscing with friends who used to have DJ night named after the band Skull Kontrol. And we were remembering this incident where someone, as an insult, referred to me as Kristin Kontrol. I immediately made it my email address. It’s been my email address for like, eleven years. So, in this funny little nostalgic conversation, I was like, “Damn, I really missed out. Kristin Kontrol is my punk name. It’s so funny I didn’t realize it at the time.” And I was like, “Wait…should I? Is this the solution?” I asked a few close friends who are kind of mentors on the music side of things, and everyone was like, “Yeah, that’s amazing.” At the end of my desperate email saying “Please, let me do this,” I was like “Hey, what about Kristin Kontrol?” and [Poneman] was like, “I love it, it makes me think T. Rex, Siouxsie, Bowie.” Perfect. Let’s do it.
STEREOGUM: That’s interesting that it comes from so long ago, because the album is kind of digging into some roots, too, right? With returning to ’80s pop you liked as a kid?
KK: Not exclusively. That’s one of those funny things where it got away from me. I like to pull out all specific references unless I’m providing them. I use that as a starting point. The first music that was mine was all that ’80s stuff I fell in love with in elementary school, and then I got into Nirvana and Sonic Youth as a pre-teen and teenager and it went from there. It’s not just that I am letting those influences in. There’s a song on there that kind of goes the Ace Of Base way of reggae. I’m a huge reggae fan. There’s a krautrock song. It was just really fun to not be like, “Oh, we can’t do that.” I was like, “Why would I have ever said I can’t do something?” It was a really nice open thing.
STEREOGUM: You’ve worked with Richard Gottehrer and the Raveonettes’ Sune Rose Wagner with Dum Dum Girls. Did you have any new collaborators for Kristin Kontrol?
KK: I love [Gottehrer and Wagner] and they’re geniuses, but this time around I needed new blood. My friend Kurt Feldman, who has this amazing band Ice Choir and used to drum in Pains Of Being Pure At Heart — we had done a Christmas single together a couple years ago, and he’s like, the synth master. So I knew I wanted to bring in a lot more arpeggiated bass, programmed drums, etc. I wanted him to work on it. And also, a very good longterm friend named Andrew Miller — who had played guitar on the first Dum Dum Girls record, and had joined Dum Dum Girls on our last tour, and is starting to be a legit producer — I had him do the other half. They’re wildly different. Andrew is a punk and hardcore kid at heart, but the Weeknd is our shit. And Kurt is like, obscure German synthpop from 1981. It’s a wide spectrum that I can pull from.
STEREOGUM: Maybe working with the two of them effected this a bit, but did you have to change the way you write songs for this new project? Too True did set the stage for X-Communicate in some ways, but that’s still more of a guitar record compared to where you are now.
KK: I’d written exclusively on guitar for years. In knowing that I really wanted to do something different, I forced myself to do things differently. I abandoned the guitar. I was writing exclusively on keyboard, and I wrote the worst 40 songs ever, you know? Then I started to bring the guitar back in, because I realized that, progression-wise, it was more helpful in certain ways, and also writing on a keyboard, if you’re not a virtuoso, you can make a lot of interesting mistakes that are cool that you wouldn’t have necessarily found on the fretboard.
STEREOGUM: I remember Thom Yorke saying something about that in the ’00s, that he liked writing on piano because he hardly knew what he was doing, and it opened things up in a way.
KK: Which is like, you know, when I first started Dum Dum Girls, I was such a beginner. And when I rarely hear those first recordings, I don’t even remember how I wrote that. It’s so basic that it’s somehow elevated. I wish I could write that simply again. This was, anyway, an attempt at that, but a total failure. There was a huge learning curve for me. But, at a certain point, I figured out the relationship I needed to have to both instruments and I did some version of full treatments for everything, while knowing that [Kurt and Andrew] were going to replace and fix things. I was trying to give impressions of what I wanted, in terms of the production side and the arrangements. They knocked that out of the park.
STEREOGUM: Do you consider Dum Dum Girls to be a completed project now? Or do you want to keep both of them going at the same time?
KK: I mean, I’d have to clone myself. For me, this is just growing up into the next phase. But, at the same time, I was so fortunate to see Iggy Pop a couple nights ago. It’s just perfect guitar swagger. And I was like, “Oh, man, I’m going to totally want to make a guitar record.” Who knows. I’m not concerned, but in establishing Kristin Kontrol, I feel like there is no template and that was what I wanted to do. I was like, “I cannot do Dum Dum Girls for the next 10 years.” I’m a woman, dammit! [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Earlier you referred to Dee Dee as being an alter-ego, and now you have the new moniker. Do you consider these names to be like a mask, or do you think of them as your different characters that you’re writing through?
KK: The Dee Dee thing came out of…I didn’t really have intentions to do that. I started the name Dum Dum Girls and it was an anonymous online presence for a while and then it was like, “OK, I need to have a presence that’s a little more real.” So I went with that, it’s my mom’s name, it sounded like a punk name, I took it as my middle name, whatever. That really was the alter-ego. I kinda lost a bit of control of that, as well. Kristin Kontrol is just a clever name for just, actually, me.
STEREOGUM: It seems liberating on a few fronts, then.
KK: Really. It’s cool. I’m really excited. I’m broke, but I’m super excited. You know what? If you’re comfortable, you’re lazy. It’s a fact of life in New York, but in general I think it’s good to create that bit of struggle, if only to keep some integrity in your art. [laughs]
X-Communicate is out 5/27 on Sub Pop.