Northeast Performer - Cover Story, January 2003
Welcome to the Dollhouse:
The Dresden Dolls
words by John Lefler
photos by Kelly Davidson
The Boston music scene may have its foundations built solidly on pop and rock music but there has never been wanting in bands that failed to be easily incorporated into the mainstream fold and yet still kept tongues a wagging. One of the more recent additions to the "I don’t know what you’d call it, but you’ve got to hear them!" category is the Dresden Dolls. This dynamic duo of Amanda Palmer on piano and Brian Viglione on drums has quickly created a buzz around town with their emotive, self described Cabaret punk style, and attracted a rabid fan base of scenesters, artists, and voyeurs.
"When we show up at a club it still astounds me that there are any people there who seem so genuinely interested in just hearing what we have to say," says Palmer. "I always fantasized about that, but to watch it turn into a reality it’s just mind blowing." One things that slowly becomes apparent about Palmer is that for all of him vim and vigor and exhibitionist tendencies she is very self-conscious about her music and peoples’ response to it. "I wrote material for so many years, never really knowing what was going to happen to it. Tons and tons of songs have just never seen the light of day. I always played them to be heard but they were always written for an imaginary audience. Now the audience isn’t imaginary anymore. It’s really exciting to think about what that’s going to mean for my songwritingin general I think it will only be good but it’ll certainly change things."
There is plenty of reason for Palmer and Viglione to be excited and also frustrated. Much of their recent energies have been focused on putting together their much-anticipated first album. Early on after their incorporation as a band they hammered out a rough five song self-titled EP. It’s self released and a good snapshot of the band’s overall storm and storm but the band’s sounds has matured so much in the two years they’ve been playing together that this fully realized offering is much anticipated.
Unfortunately the band is running headlong into the quagmire of things not musical that goes along with making an album. "We’ve been working so much on the business end of things and recording and networking and figuring out what we want to do with this album that we haven’t spent enough time playing together," Palmer laments. "I haven’t spent any time writing. Just in the past few months I can count the number of times I’ve sat down at the piano on one hand. And that’s been really painful lately." But in her style Palmer takes the negative and tries to give a healthy spin. "I’m really looking forward to working on new stuff. I can already feel this sort of change occurring. There’re lots of things I want to write about and there’s a lot that I have to say. I’m getting really antsy to get back to doing it."
To help get their album of the ground the Dolls enlisted underground producer and engineer Martin Bisi who has worked with such luminaries as Sonic Youth and Swans. The process has been more involved than expected and the release dates has been creeping ever so slowly further into the future. Now the tentative release is sometime in the spring. A major reason for the set back was Palmer ending up on the injured list. "When it comes to my piano playing and my singing I’m really a hack and that’s started to take it’s toll on me because when you don’t play correctly and you don’t sing correctly you can only do it for so long and it starts to catch up with you." And catch up it did. The Dolls began gather themselves for the recording sessions during the summer, Palmer was diagnosed with tendonitis in here arms.
After a month and a half of recovery her and Viglione finally made their way to Bisi Brooklyn studio and began recording when Palmer’s voice began giving her trouble as well. "I’m not a trained singer, I just get down there and belt. I try and belt with control, but I don’t have the training to get down there and sing for 8 hours. The only thing I can do is use tricks to try and conserve my energy and try and schedule [myself] in such a way where I don’t blow my wad all at one time."
Some might look at the situation and romanticize it as supremely punk rock, the destruction of one’s self in the name of your music. But Palmer takes the situation seriously. "I have to at one point put my energy into learning how to play without destroying myself in the process. It feels like I’m spending capitol. I can’t just go on the road for three months and play the way I play every night because I’ll be dead in two weeks. I’ll have both arms in casts and no voice left to speak of. That’s a daunting black tunnel that I sometimes feel like I’m looking down. Now there’s a really compelling reason to say, ‘Ok, I’ve got to stop fucking around and I’ve got to really get some training.’ I mean, I can do anything if properly motivated, that’s what I’ve found, it’s just a matter of wanting it."
Through it all there has been Viglione behind Palmer as support. While all of the song writing, both music and lyrics falls to Palmer, Viglione isn’t just a silent partner to the whole event. He is in awe of Palmer’s talents and continually bolstering her, an amalgamation of coach, friend, musician, and comic foil all in one. Watching the pair interact during their down time and especially on stage often leads to the assumption of their romantic connection. "Oh my god people always assume we’re a couple?" Palmer gasps in mock surprise. "Actually he’s my brother. Actually he’s my ex-husband."
"We’re second cousins but we still have sex," Viglione says with a straight face before breaking up.
Neither is affected by the misassumptions. "There’s kind of a mystique," says Palmer "We’ve never been a couple, per se. We get our sexual rocks off on stage. That’s one of things that really drove the band in the beginning."
Viglione affirms, "That was definitely an integral part of the chemistry."
"We really were attracted to each other," continues Palmer. "And there was just all this sexual tension. We realized from day one that having a relationship if it didn’t spell doom within a few months it would spell doom eventually."
"I think there’s enough chemistry in the band to keep it going and both of us satisfied in that sense," says Viglione.
"It sort of adds to the mystique of the band," Palmer adds.
Viglione concludes to much laughter, "We’re gonna be the Fleetwood Mac of the next century."
Regardless of rumours or assumptions upon seeing the Dresden Dolls live is a surprisingly emotional experience and much of that feeling can be contributed to the way Palmer and Viglione interact onstage. Their communication is rarely verbal except for perhaps a change in the play list. Otherwise the songs take on lives of their own each time they’re played thanks to the connectedness of the pair. "I listen intensely and watch her hands very closely and focus on where to embellish and where I hear the subtlety," says Viglione. "I think that effects dynamically how the song will evolve."
"One of the great things that has happened is that we’ve just become intuitive," Palmer says. "I play a new song for Brian and he’ll already know what needs to happen. I’ll play the beat for Brian and then say, ‘That’s my one specific idea, the rest just fly with it,’ and he almost always nails what I had in my head. That just gets better and better as we play more and more because all of the feedback I give him on all of the songs just lends itself to the next song."
Viglione expands on the theme, "We have a very intuitive and similar well from which we draw so that helps the process too. We both feel the dynamics similarly. Being a duo that maximizes the give and take in the listening that goes on. I think our performances come off as so theatrical is because we’re so tightly involved with each other in the creative process on stage. We both have a huge flair for the spontaneous element that can come during a performance rather than just getting up there and going through the motions."
"Which you kind of have to do when you’re in a six piece band," says Palmer. "You can’t just decide that part needs to swell and everyone will just sort of follow along with you with just two people you can take liberty that way."
"I do a lot more watching [in the live setting] because I’m not as concentrated on delivering the lyrics," Viglione says. "What I appreciate about it is being sort of the wind beneath the wings. Not to be too corny, but that’s very much my role. It’s all about drawing out the most powerful aspects of the song and conveying that in the most emotionally effective way. And playing for me as well as Amanda is a really intense emotional release."
"That’s one of the things I fear about adding other instruments to the band," says Palmer "is because it won’t leave Brian enough room to play and that would be a real loss."
However with all that having been said neither of the Dolls feel that an addition to the line up would be out of the question. As it is, Shawn Setaro on bass and Ad Frank on electric guitar have been known to sit in on live sets occasionally. In an effort to fully capture the musical needs of the Dolls both Setaro and Frank will be appearing on the upcoming album as will Jonah Sachs on cello and Meredith Yayanos (of the Vanity Set and formerly of Barbez) on violin. So as Viglione puts it, the addition of another member will be "a very natural evolution." But don’t expect to see signs posted for the position anytime soon. "We’re waiting for the show where some freak comes up to us afterwards and is like, ‘I am your Blixa.’ We’re waiting for Blixa," says Palmer. "Someone with the neon glow who plays cello, bass guitar, bagpipes, and violin. I’m really excited by the idea of playing with a full band because there are definitely songs in our set and there are certainly songs I’m writing now where I really hear more orchestration."
"It’ll be the right balance of chemistry. That’s such an integral part of what’s going on," adds Viglione. "It would take a really strong individual and someone who is really comfortable and has a really good sense of themselves and their playing."
"We couldn’t just put out an ad and audition 15 different people," Palmer says. "We’re so personally connected. We don’t just get together for rehearsal and then that’s it. This band is our life. That’s it, we just live Dresden Doll 24/7. They’d have to add something really significant to make it worthwhile."
The idea of any line up changes for the band may be left up to chance and randomness, there is more thought being put into plans for the future look of live Dresden Dolls sets. Both Palmer and Viglione take the stage with a certain amount of theatrics in mind with their faces painted up powder white, silent movie style. Viglione often doffs a bowler hat and dark shirt, tie, and pants affecting the look of a stylish mime. Palmer is usually clad in a short black dress, a white embroidered "A" on the chest, and black and white striped stockings attached by garters. Her eyebrows shaven for a Marlene Dietrich Look-a-like contest a while back she has been elaborately decorating with swirls and scroll work, which "like The Illustrated Man" as she puts it are "an ever changing story." The drums and her keyboard, a Kurzweil that she’s altered to read "Kurt Weill," are often decorated with flowers, but given her self confessed "theatrical itch" she has much bigger visions for what is to come.
"It’s not just about the music," Palmer attests, "it’s about combining different things. I like bands that use film that have really creative concepts of how to put visuals to their music whether it’s artwork or video or what not. The idea of music and art is to inspire people and you just do that the way you know and that’s the way I know how to do it and that’s to create a sort of theatrical environment that people just think is exciting. I think one of the next major steps in terms of the direction of the band and the live show is starting to really focus on the theatricality of it. I’ve been envisioning maybe a year from now actually putting up a full show that has a beginning, middle, and an end. Maybe not even do it in a traditional nightclub but do it in a theatre. We’ve already been talking with Michael Pope [Neovoxer film project] about shooting film. Sort of running with The Hotel Blanc idea of creating films based on the songs filmed with the live environment in mind so that we’re actually playing on a set instead of just playing on a rock stage. The set will involve film and maybe more. It’ll be really interesting to see where that goes. I hope to have time to do that. I hope we’re not so fucking bogged down by basic band business with the album and publicity and touring and stuff that I can’t do that."
Currently future plans for the Dresden Dolls are revolving around the birth of their album. "We’re at a crossroads right now before we release," says Viglione. "Are we going to shop around and try and look for a label that could help us pay for the pressing and chip in for the publicist and that sort of thing or do we retain a certain amount of control? We’re just now starting to dabble in the record industry."
"The different possibilities, it’s really nerve wracking," says Palmer. "They’re good problems to have, but do we want to just go with a small label who could get us some distribution or do we want to hold on to it and wait for something great to come along." The Dolls, along with Martin Bisi and Barbez, have loosely united under a label called Black Freighter. "Right now it’s not a label of any substance," Palmer admits. "There’s no office, everyone is paying for all of their own stuff, but we’re sharing a publicist. That’s basically what makes us a label: we’re sharing bar codes and we’re sharing a publicist." So the Dolls are not only trying to wrap up the album, but they still need to choose what the best route to the public will be.
Unfortunately for the Dolls, the music industry is feeling the pains of belt tightening just like the rest of the economy. "People keep saying it’s a bad time to find a label because no labels really have any money at this point," says Viglione. "A lot of people keep getting dropped. They get dropped from their major and onto an indie and that doesn’t leave much room for local bands trying to come up and find a spot." The deluge of money and contracts that was going strong thanks to the alternative explosion of the ‘90s has crested and is quickly slipping away leaving many independent artist high and dry. But while the Internet may have left investors hanging and raised the ire of the RIAA and it’s constituents, it continues to serve independent artists like the Dresden Dolls quite nicely [you can check for yourself at www.dresdendolls.com]. Palmer notes, "It’s easier now to self-release than ever. I can’t imagine what things would be like without the Internet."
Palmer and Viglione may find themselves in a state of limbo to a certain degree, but they are full of the sort of passion and determination that leads to notoriety. They will do what needs to be done to realize their dreams and in the meantime they will continue to fuel their audience’s fire. As Palmer says, "I think we both have a lot of confidence that in whatever way [the album] gets out there it will eventually get to the right place. It’s just a question of which path it goes to get there."
Image is nothing: Dresden Dolls vs. Gender Rolls
The music isn’t the only thing that’s tough to pin down with The Dolls. Their on stage image and personas are also difficult to feel out. Palmer’s is especially enigmatic because in a world of western thought, even in such socially modern and open times she is more often saddled with certain impressions or assumptions that have little to do with her and everything to do with established norms.
During the interview with The Dresden Dolls The Northeast Performed inquired about how consciously the idea of gender rolls is addressed by the band musically and otherwise. With Palmer’s on stage persona a fusion of erotic and neurotic, the visual association of a short dress, thigh-high black and white striped stockings, and a pair of ever moving legs beneath her keyboard is short-circuited by the blunt force emotions being handed out in the songs.
AP- I haven’t come to any solid conclusions but the last time we were down in the studio I brought along the Rolling Stone Women in Rock issue and was fascinated. All of these interviews are just mind-boggling. A lot of the content of the interviews was ‘How do you see your role as a woman or as a sexual object?’ or ‘Do you try and play up your feminity or your sexuality or do you try and cast it aside so that you’re just seen as a musician?’ That wouldn’t be really in the Men in Rock issue. Every issue is the Men in Rock issue kind of, but the sexuality question is so loaded for every single female performer because it seems that no matter what you’re doing, you’re making a sexual statement. Whether you’re playing it down or playing it up everyone’s always sort of looking for that element of it. So, I started wondering about that and think how there’s kind of a catch 22 because if you wear really provocative clothes on stage, if you wear a boustier and garters on stage, you could be saying two things or more, but in a way you are saying ‘I’m a sexual object and admire me or don’t.’ I’m definitely, how would I put it, taking advantage of the fact that I’m a sexual person and using it and fusing it into the music as well, but there’s that creepy fine line between are you using that manipulatively or are you using it because you have the confidence and the shameless honesty to get up there and say ‘I’m a sexual person, these are sort of sexual songs, and I don’t have any problem getting up here half naked and playing the piano.’ I think that depends on how people want to see it. They can either look at it and see it as a manipulation or they can see it as an empowering thing.
There’re two questions actually because there’re the songs themselves and the sort of gender play sort of thing that goes on in the songs and then there’s the performance. I think the stuff comes up in my songwritingjust because it’s different motifs that pop up in almost all the songs that I write. It’s one of those things that pops up as a question that’s always battering, bouncing around in my head because I’m a woman but I have this sort of aggressive quality that people see as masculine. I also kind of have a low speaking voice so sometimes I come across as more of a dyke or something but I’m not. I can’t just slough off the fact that I have this dual thing going on all the time. Even when I play up my feminine side it’s fun to play with because you can. That’s the way I see it. It’s so much fun on stage to get people off that way.
The line between manipulation and empowerment is that as long as the material is strong enough that’s what actually empowers you to do whatever the fuck you want. And that’s where playing with gender rolls and playing with image gets really fun because I feel like I could go up on stage and wear just about anything or nothing and still bring the power of the material to whatever image I want it to project. That’s where you really fuck with people’s heads. Because you can get up there and protect an image that gives them a very specific conception or assumption about what they’re going to see and then you can just decimate them with the opposite. But it’s a little nervewracking to think that the power could be misused or misinterpreted. You don’t want to feel like you’re a chick getting up there and because you’re naked you’re stealing the spotlight. If I were in the audience I’d look at the naked chick too. Why not, it’s a naked chick. I think that’s where confidence comes into play because when I was playing solo before I met Brian I deliberately dressed down and never wore makeup on stage because I was really afraid that it would be a disservice to my songs. I don’t want anyone to feel like I had to get up there and present an image in order to be listened to. But now I think I have enough confidence in the music itself that I can basically do what I want, look how I want and the audience just has to deal with it.
BV- I sort of felt that way when we played "God Dam the Son" at the Oni gallery and I was wearing a nightgown. I felt empowered.
AP- I don’t know how [Micheal] Gira would have felt about that. He wouldn’t’ve laughed. I don’t think he’s got enough of a sense of humour to see the beauty in that. That’s one thing I love about Brian, he’s not ashamed to crossdress.
BV- That’s something that was wigging out my family since age fourteen. I’ve always had sort of feminine features and I’ve just enjoyed playing with it too. And to get to do it with the band it just totally feeds into the image.
AP- That’s also a historical rock and roll liberty that you can take. If you can’t crossdress when you’re in a rock and roll band, you can’t crossdress.
BV- It’s great. The sort of ambiguity opens it up for people. It causes you to reevaluate your perception of what you’re seeing and how you actually feel about it. You go in and you say, "Ok, this kid’s in his suit and she’s in her garters so it’s going to be this certain thing."
AP- With Brian it’s even more beautiful because he’s wearing a dress on stage and then you just see him wig out on the drums. His energy on the drums is just so …
AP- Yeah. It’s so masculine, there’s nothing feminine about it. It’s so physical and he’s like buff and built, that to see him wearing a dress it’s that same thing, it’s just this "What the fuck?" scenario. Is it a theatrical device or is it just a gimmick.
BV- One of the things that excited me when I first sensed it in her was that sense of pushing limits and that kind of thing. That’s still there in the live show.
AP- We’re both attention getters too.
BV- What that power is is when you can push it back on the audience and empower them. You want to use that to liberate the people in the crowd and say, "I’m comfortable within myself and I’m just gonna bust out, let’s get you going." That’s what feeds me.
AP- But you don’t want that to be alienating.
BV- But it’s not this self-gratifying thing like, "Yes, cheer for me!" It’s like, "Come on get excited! Use the music!" How I feel is I want to be a means as a channel to give that to people.