Sick Among The Pure - July 2005
A Conversation with The Dresden Dolls
f you ask the Dresden Dolls where they got their name from, this is what they’ll tell you:
“Dresden is a city in eastern Germany that was known widely for it’s delicate china and porcelain, and for the delicate and innocent “dresden dolls” made from said stuffs. Ironically, many people also associate Dresden with the not-so-delicate firebombing that took place at the hands of the allies towards the very end of WWII in 1945, practically leveling the entire inner city (and it’s unparalleled architectural beauty) within a few short days and killing thousands of men, women and children.”
This ironic connection between delicate innocent doll stuffs and not-so-delicate firebombing turns out to be a fairly accurate description of the music by the Dresden Dolls; innocent dolls and firebombing – but in a good way.
The Dresden Dolls first got together shortly after they met at a Hallowe’en loft party in 2000 where Brian Viglione (Drums) saw Amanda Palmer (Piano/Vox) perform some of her songs. Discovering a certain like-mindedness, the two set off to become a wonderfully unique Brechtian Punk Cabaret duo filled with just enough carnal intensity, cabaret-style whimsy, raw truth and, above all things, love – unrequited, that is – to breath some life back into the rotting corpse of Rock n’ Roll. In 2003, they released their self-titled debut album produced by Martin Bisi (Swans, Sonic Youth). Their remarkable live show has earned them opening slots with Beck, the B52’s, a tour with Legendary Pink Dots, a victory in the 2003 WBCN Rock and Roll Rumble, a tour with Nine Inch Nails, an invitation to play the Royal Albert Hall in London as part of the Patti Smith curated Meltdown Festival, and a number of European festival and club shows lined up for a summer tour. With a DVD on the way and hopes to get back in the studio as soon as September to record their second album, and listed as “artists to watch”
in the May, 2005 Rolling Stone, the Dresden Dolls seem to be on the verge of bursting out all over music mainstream.
Fortunately, I had a chance to sit and talk with Amanda before the band got too big to get an interview with. The interview took place one hour after I was released from the hospital after having surgery the day before. We raced home – I was not driving, I swear. And I tried to clear my head from the sweet morphine haze the hospital drip had provided me with to keep me comfy. All I could hope for at that moment was I would be able to stay awake long enough to do the interview, and she would do most of the talking. And sometimes you get what you want.
SickAmongthePure: I know your schedule is chaotic, so I want to tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to do this interview.
Amanda Palmer: Not a problem, really.
SATP: So, I was just blown away by you in San Francisco where I was first exposed to you, and I’m looking forward to knowing a little bit more about you and sharing that with our readers. I want to warn you though; I just had surgery yesterday so if I sound a little bit loopy, that’s why!
AP: I’m sure that’ll make it even better!
SATP: [laughing] Awesome. So, the first question I have is on the last page of your CD insert – there’s a quote that says, “Accept the worst, expect the worst, demand the worst”. This quote reminds me of something Nietzsche might have written.
AP: [laughing] You know, the funny thing is, when we put the album together if you look at the original collage, the quote’s actually attributed to its source, but it got cut off...
SATP: Oh no...
AP: ...when it got reprinted.
SATP: So whose quote is it?
AP: Actually, it’s Karen Mantler’s.
AP: Oh yeah. She’s Carla Bley’s daughter and a fantastic songwriter and Jazz musician. And one of the first shows we played as a band as the Dresden Dolls was at a little club in Boston, and I had fallen in love with Karen Mantler and called her in New York to see if she could play a gig with us, and it was just a huge deal to us because we had never played with anyone even remotely famous. She came and, you know, I pulled her aside at one point in the night and said, “How do you fucking deal with this? How do you deal with all the things that can go wrong every night?” Ya know, they had driven from New York, they had lost equipment, they were having sound problems, and everything just went to shit. And that’s what she said. That was their mantra in the band. Not only expecting the worst, but demanding the worst.
SATP: Okay. That takes on a whole different perspective! Do you think great art requires suffering? Because this kind of comes up in your album – there’s a lot of suffering that comes through on your album and it really is great.
AP: Well, I wouldn’t say that great art necessarily needs to be inspired by suffering. But sometimes just the making of great art is suffering. I mean, a lot of people compare it to giving birth. If it’s easy, it’s possibly not authentic, ya know? And it’s certainly also true that always and forever there’s a lot more inspiration to be found in the darker sides of life. I’ve found that to be true.
SATP: Tell me about how the song writing process works for you.
AP: Well, lately it doesn’t work at all.
SATP: No, I don’t imagine on tour...
AP: Usually I get lyrical and melodic ideas served right at the same time. And then it’s really a question of whether I can get my ass to a piano and actually finish the song. I’ve found there’s a real unavoidable consistency to how quickly an idea gets turned into its full-blown potential. If I get an idea and I don’t sit down with it at the piano until a week later, it’s usually fizzled out. And, you know, I’ve seen that the best songs – all of the best songs – almost without exception have been written in one or two quick sittings when everything is really... Writing a good song is like juggling five or six balls at one time, and you need to sit down and give it the attention that it needs. And if you come back to it, you’ll never quite get the right feelings and the right ideas in that same matrix again. It just disappears. So, it’s a lot like making anything. It’s a strange, strange world, the world of song writing. I’m still trying to figure it out all the time.
SATP: [laughing] Fair enough.
AP: Certainly, nowadays on the tour bus I write nothing at all, which is definitely a little depressing, but there’s no way around it. I’m not the kind of person who can write on the road and I never have been, so I just have to take that for what it is and then hopefully write my ass off when I get home.
SATP: Right, because you’re scheduled to go into the studio in September, is that right?
AP: Right. Well, luckily we’ve got the next record pretty much finished, because the record that we have out now is three years old. And I spent a lot of time writing before we really became such a touring machine. So there’s a lot of material from that nd there’s also some material from before I even met Brian that we’ve reworked, and are stickin’ on the record, so…
SATP: So you’re set for that. That’s great.
AP: Yeah, that one’s good. It’s the next one I’m worried about! [laughs]
SATP: [laughing] So, what kinds of things can we expect from the next album then?
AP: Well, I think it’s gonna be kind of the same eclectic mix of songs that’s on the first record. On the first record things seem to skip styles really…it’s diverse aesthetically. And it’s gonna be more of the same. I never try to write a song in a particular style. It just ends up happening, and otherwise my self just keeps
following that impulse and Brian does the same thing. So, there are certainly, I think thematically, there is certainly some new stuff and some similarities that pop out when I stick the songs all next to each other and try and figure out what the album’s gonna look like. I haven’t been in a serious relationship since that last record, and so there’s certainly no more pissed off break up songs, but by the same token there’s a lot more songs about masturbation...! If anything, I think it’s gonna show a little more maturity and if anything as well I think it’s gonna have a little bit more of a Rock edge and a little bit less of the kind of the silly cabaret edge.
SATP: Can you say a bit more about what you mean by a Rock edge?
AP: There aren’t really songs that are in the vein of “Miss Me” and “Coin Operated Boy” – there’s sort of a little bit of a faster, harder thing going on.
SATP: Now you perform a fabulous cover of “War Pigs” on your set. What was the motivation for doing that?
AP: Well, it’s strictly about the show. “War Pigs” is a song that we thought would just be funny to cover a couple of years ago and we did it. We have a tradition of doing cover songs at our Hallowe’en shows, so at a local Hallowe’en show in Boston we came out with “War Pigs”, thinking that we would just play it that once and that would be it, and then we’d let it die. And then about a year later we were playing in a Boston Rock benefit with a bunch of other Rock bands, and we were feeling our insecurities about being the odd band, and we knew that there was going to be a lot of Rock with a W types, so we decided to play “War Pigs” to bring them over to our side. It ended up being such a hit that we kept it in the set for a while, and we also figured that playing it in the set opening up for Nine Inch Nails on this tour would be – it’s always like the secret weapon song. Everyone’s sort of sittin’ there, wondering what to think and as soon as we pull that out, it sort of gives us this credibility that even if we’re singing these theatrical songs, it’s sort of an invitation to like us.
SATP: I’ve noticed that it seems the majority of the crowd eventually gets pulled in, and then there’s a few people who are yelling “We want Nine Inch Nails…bring ‘em out,” as if that’s going to bring them on any sooner. And then by the time you bring out “War Pigs” everyone is screaming along with you, and rockin’ out, and you have won them over and everyone’s happy. And when I saw that, I thought, “Wow, that’s a smooth move!”
AP: Yeah, definitely. And the thing I love about the song the most is that it really features Brian’s drumming skills, which are extraordinary.
SATP: Absolutely. He is an amazing drummer. You do another song that features him, it’s an extended opening...
AP: It’s “Half Jack.”
SATP: That’s right. I was noticing his chops. I dated an extremely talented drummer for many years, so when I saw Brian play I was able to recognise how good he is. I just thought, “Holy shit. This guy is fantastic!”
AP: Yeah, he’s pretty amazing.
SATP: And I remember the first time, I hadn’t heard you at all before I went to the first show, and I saw the piano and the drums and I was thinking, “There has to be more…they have more players than just a pianist and a drummer, right? They’re not really gonna do this, right?” [laughs] And you came out and by the end of the first – I don’t know – measure, or certainly by the time you get to the line “I’m on fire!”, I was,
“These guys are amazing!”
AP: I have to say, also, the piano is such an incredibly versatile instrument. It can really do a lot. I think people forget that the piano is the ultimate solo instrument. Drums are also so expansive, so when you put those two things together you don’t really need much. And then technically, piano goes lower than a bass, and it goes higher than a guitar, so sonically you’ve got that ground all covered if you really know how to play it.
SATP: I was trained classically on a piano so I can play that, but I don’t think to do anything else with it, so I thought, “Piano and drums? That’s not a combination. What on earth do you do with that?” [laughs]
AP: I, luckily, wasn’t trained classically. I think that would have ruined it! [laughs]
SATP: Actually, that was one of my questions. You’ve stated in your diary that you regret not having learned to read music that well, and it seems like at least one possible explanation for the creativity in your music is the fact that you haven’t been traumatized by the dogmas of classical music or music theory.
AP: Definitely. I think I also use that as kind of an excuse to be lazy though.
SATP: How so?
AP: I definitely had my own song writing style and everything from the time I was fifteen or sixteen. But I was just such a, ya know…just so not interested. I was just never interested in sitting down to practice. And I had a real Catholic guilt about it. I figured, “If you’re gonna be a musician and you’re gonna do this with your life, then you really need to have a little discipline and sit down and learn how to read music and learn how to really play a few classical things. Learn your Bach and learn your Mozart.” And I did a little bit here and I did a little bit there, but mostly I just couldn’t. And my arrogant excuse to myself at fifteen was, “I don’t need all that. I’ve got my own thing going.” I mean, it’s like the laws of overcompensation. It’s almost like the less discipline I had, the more I had to prove to myself and everybody around me that I could get by without it. And that’s a big part of what’s inspired me to work so hard. Maybe not on the musical side of things, but to work so hard on the business end of things to really make the band happen, ya know? I didn’t have the discipline to sit down and practice Bach for an hour, but I could sit down for six hours behind a computer and shoot out promotional e-mails. That, to me, was fun. So I think I was just cut from a different cloth.
SATP: But you’re also very talented on the piano.
AP: Thanks. Well, I’m not saying I’m not. But my theory is that the piano itself was kind of an accident, and if my Mom had been a guitar player, then there would have been a guitar lying around, it would have been the guitar. My Mom was a real ‘Five Easy Pieces’ product of the ‘50s. But I’ve never professed any deep love of the piano. It’s more…give me something I can make chords with. And if it’s a piano, great. And if it’s a guitar, great. As long as I can bang on it, and say something simple. But that’s something I’ve always sort of wished to change. I have such a love/hate relationship with the instrument that I’m sure it’s going to be a long interesting lifetime struggle to sort my way out of it. I do find on the road that my playing improves immensely, but it improves within the parameters that have been set. We’re playing the same songs every night. Those songs become much tighter and my solos become more nuanced and things like that, but it’s not like I could then get home and rip out the Rachmaninoff.
SATP: A love/hate relationship…what do you mean by that?
AP: It gets back to what we were just talking about. I love the piano because it’s my instrument, but I also sort of resent it because I’ve always felt this kind of sense of inadequacy compared to other “real” piano players. The only way I can get around that is by reminding myself that I’m a performer and a songwriter. And I wouldn’t even say that I’m a singer, but if I can remind myself that I’m first and foremost a performer, and a songwriter, and a writer, or whatever it is, then I can sort of forgive myself for the fact that I would never call myself a pianist, even though some might want to call me that. I might be tempted to call myself that. It really just comes down
to when do you start calling someone a piano player and when do you start calling someone a pianist? If your passion is in a pie chart, how much of it has to be taken off? There are days when I would call myself everything and then there are some days when I say I am not any of these things. I’m just a human being. But it’s hard; I’ve struggled with questions like that since I was little because I have never had one talent. I was always into a little bit of everything. And I was always sort of jealous of the other kids who knew they wanted to be professional ice skaters or were definitely really great at chess, ya know… had that one definable, simple thing. And me, I was always drawing and singing and dancing, and making plays, and writing stories, and it’s really beautiful that it’s manifested itself in a band in a great way, but it’s also…it can cause these minor identity crises where you wake up and what are you supposed to do today? Are you supposed to manage your band? Are you supposed to write a song? Are you supposed to go to experience life so you can feel like an interesting person? You’re constantly faced with these decisions that there are no simple answers for and no one can help you out with this one, you’re just really on your own.
SATP: So, have you gotten the courage up to ask Trent to do power yoga with you yet?
AP: [laughing] I don’t think Trent needs power yoga.
SATP: No, I don’t think he needs it.
AP: Trent brings an entire gym into his dressing room every night.
AP: He and I have talked a little bit though. We’re starting to bond. I feel more in common with that guy than I do with anyone else on this entire tour. It’s interesting for me to look up at that huge upper level where he is residing, facing the exact same struggles that I am, in a different context, trying not to lose his voice, trying not to talk too much, getting singled out as the control freak all the time – it’s the same shit, different day, different town.
SATP: So is he able to be kind of a mentor or give you advice, or do you already have your own ways of doing things?
AP: Well, I think his path has been a very different one just in terms of what he’s been through. It’s not like he and I have – we haven’t really connected at some deep profound level. I mean, we’ve sat and we’ve chatted but I am hoping sometime before the end of this tour – I’ve actually asked him if he’d be into this – just going out and shedding some Trent wisdom on me. But it’s very humbling to see that Trent Reznor, whose sold ten million records or however many he’s sold, is facing the exact same struggles that anyone in a band trying to be a performer does; having to get on stage every night. It all boils down to the same problems and the same struggles that I have, or that someone in some local band in Anytown, USA has. You still learn how to manage your time. You have to learn how to manage your control with people around you. A lot of the same things. And I’ve learned a lot simply by watching. Learning how the crew functions and how he functions and how the whole show goes down. I mean it’s an incredible show, and, for them, toned down, but they’ve got three semis and three tour busses, and people running around from ten in the morning setting things up, but there’s a real method to the madness. Watching it unfold every day is a great lesson.
SATP: You are doing even more shows than they are on this tour, and I’ve only seen four of them, but I’m guessing it’s true that you give something like 150% for every show that you do. What kinds of things do you do to fight the exhaustion and keep your enthusiasm up?
AP: Well, you’re asking on the wrong morning.
SATP: Sorry. I had the question in mind because so far in your diary you’ve come across as highly enthusiastic and bursting with energy, and then right before we started talking I read your most recent diary entry which basically says, mid-tour malaise has hit and you’re exhausted.
AP: I’m trying. It’s just very hard. It’s such a struggle to try to be human beings having fun and yet be the picture of discipline because you need to get out onstage every night so I find myself really Jekyll-and-Hyding sometimes. I’ll be exercising all day and eating the right foods and doing everything that I can do, and then out of the blue I’ll show up at a party and someone will offer me a drink and a cigarette and I’ll say, “God damn it! I work so hard, I deserve this!” And of course regretting it for the next three days as I try to get my voice back. So, I’ve never been more disciplined in my life than I have had to be on these tours, and it’s really hard for someone like me. On a given day I’d rather just be hangin’ at home, writing songs, going on walks, drinking wine. But I’ve actually found that exercising is key. And I exercise and stretch religiously now because it really combats the fatigue and the touring body that you deal with. So, that’s a new one. I mean, I’ve known for years that I should do that, but finally seeing the impact, seeing that it works is a huge revelation.
SATP: Well, I’m glad you found something to help get you through the rigorous touring experience. I don’t think discipline, eating right, and exercise are the first three things that come to mind when most of us non-famous folk imagine what it must be like to tour. Speaking of non-famous folk, it seems like you guys really have a largely positive response from the Nine Inch Nails fans and it has to feel great. Especially given that we’ve all been waiting so long to see these guys tour, and so any opening band is going to have to be playing to an already impatient audience. And on top of that, you’re not exactly the type of band that comes to mind when one thinks, “Gee, I wonder who Trent’s gonna have open for him when he tours?” ya know? You’re not really A Perfect Circle, or Marilyn Manson – although on Manson’s The Golden Age of Grotesque there are some similarities in terms of sources of inspiration such as cabaret and vaudeville in Germany in the ‘30s, etc. Still, it seems like there is something, or even several things that cross over that the audience is responding to when you come out. Do you have thoughts about what that is?
AP: Definitely. The more I watch Trent and become closely familiar with the songs, it makes a lot of sense to me. You’ve gotta remember this guy was in the drama club in high school, too.
SATP: Right… and the school band!
AP: Yeah. No, that’s the missing link. The missing link is that he played Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar. I think when you really break a song down, even though the all around instrumentation is wildly different, you see the songs are a lot of emotional explorations or truths or whatever it is that they do, and Trent, in his songs, tends to do something that I tend to do often, which is these sudden shifts in dynamic where you’ve got pounding aggressiveness and all of the sudden contrasted with quiet vulnerability in it back again. And there’s an emotional rawness that’s deliberate in my stuff and in his stuff that I think is a real crossover point for the fans. When people think Cabaret or Punk or Punk Cabaret or whatever, the kind of impression they get of the band before they come see us, we usually don’t live up to anyone’s expectations. It’s usually kind of a, “What the fuck?” reaction on the part of some people, but that’s a part of it. Part of it is getting up in your costume and make up knowing people are going to expect something really shticky and songs that are just silly or stuff that’s just completely over dramatic, but it’s really not. My goal as a songwriter and our goal as a band is to just find some emotional truth, and I see Trent doing the same thing in his performances and in his songs. So, I think people see that and I think that’s what they’re responding to when they respond.
SATP: So, why Punk Cabaret and not Goth?
AP: Well Goth, the state of Goth has fucking been pathetic since 1984. I mean, the look has gotten even more ridiculous, but there just hasn’t been a good Goth band since Bauhaus. A lot of them have tried, but for me Goth ends with Joy Division, and Bauhaus, and The Cure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. And, anything else, I think it’s just kind of a joke. So, I wouldn’t want to put us in the Goth circus tent of 2005. I mean, I think we have more in common with fuckin’ Country Western singers than we do with what's nowadays passing for Gothic music.
SATP: I was reading about how you first got the idea to dress up the way that you do now when you performed with a group of your friends who are burlesque
dancers. When did you come up with the idea to sort of dance while you’re playing. I mean, the way that you move when you’re playing is really quite amazing because it gives the whole stage movement in a way that most piano players just don’t get away with.
AP: Honestly, that’s just evolved very slowly as I’ve become more comfortable on stage. I used to be a lot more tense and centered and focused, but as I felt more comfortable and as I would sort of experiment and venture out a little bit. It’s just been very slow and never deliberate. I always moved my legs a lot, just because I think that was my way of keeping time and whatever, but it’s a full physical performance. It’s much more fun and much more liberating to move around while you’re playing spastically, and however much liberty you give yourself, your body will just do shit that you wouldn’t believe. [laughs] So, I just find myself giving my body more and more permission and I see where it goes and sometimes it looks ridiculous and sometimes it looks sexy, and you have to be able to close your eyes and take the plunge and risk looking like an idiot.
SATP: Well, you're risking it, as well as Brian, too, because he does a lot of moving around – performing in addition to his drumming – really makes the show so much more interesting and fun than it would be otherwise, so congrats to you both for taking the plunge. On a similar note, a lot of your persona as a band focuses on being creative or artistic, and you’re very encouraging to your fans to do the same. I thought your contest for free tickets was one of the coolest things I’d ever heard of where in order to win tickets to your show, fans had to submit pictures of them dressed up like living statues in front of police stations, no less. And some of your rules included things like: the photos will be judged based on madness and beauty and attention to detail and aesthetic balance, but creativity wins the most points. So with all this emphasis on creativity and the like, do you believe there is such a thing as bad art? Or art done poorly, objectively speaking?
AP: Oh, God, probably more than anyone. But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be made. I make bad art all the time, you guys just don’t see it. Bad art needs to exist so that artists can get practice. And that’s a question we face as a band all the time. We have an open call to people, which means that any dope off the street can show up at a Dresden Dolls show and do whatever they want and we might not like it, but we enjoy taking that risk. Once you have that trust, sure, people abuse it and people come and do stupid shit and stuff that we don’t aesthetically agree with, and stuff that we think looks terrible, but we still support them because I’d rather someone were out there doing that than just sitting home watching TV, you know? Makes sense to me.
SATP: The open call is a great idea, and I’ve seen
some of the people who have pulled it off brilliantly. And I suppose you’re right about those who aren’t so brilliant. At least they’re taking the time and energy to do something creative or at least quasi-creative. There’s a song that you perform, I don’t know the title exactly, but it’s something like “Port of Amsterdam?”
AP: Yeah, it’s just called “Amsterdam.”
SATP: Okay. Is that ever going to show up on a CD anywhere?
AP: Well, it’s almost certainly going to show up on our live DVD. And whether we’ll ever put it out on a CD, I don’t know. One of the beautiful things about that song is that it’s really a live piece, which is vital. It will be great on the DVD.
SATP: Yeah, I picked up your live album and it wasn’t on there so I was disappointed. But I’m happy to hear it will be available on the DVD at least. Did you write that song, or is it just a German drinking song?
AP: No, it’s a classic Jacques Brel.
SATP: On the DVD, are you going to have any backstage footage?
AP: Oh yeah. There’s going to be a shitload of backstage footage.
SATP: I’m sure your fans are thrilled about this. Let me ask you this: how does a Dresden Dolls headliner show differ from when you’re the opening band?
AP: As an opener you’re really trying to win over an audience, obviously, and when we’re headlining, it’s very different as we’re already accepted and at home. We play a much longer set on a standard thing, but honestly, there’s not that much of a difference. We still get up and do the same thing. We change the set around, but we don’t change anything about what we do.
With their US tour winding up in their hometown of Boston in July, the Dresden Dolls head off to Europe for their summer tour that will be a mix of festival and club dates. In addition to continuing on with several more NIN tour dates, here are just a few of the bands they will share the bill with: Rammstein, System of a Down, Patti Smith, Psychedelic Furs, Marilyn Manson, and The Hives. For a complete list, go to the calendar section of their website.
If you haven’t heard this band yet, you can get a taste of the Dresden Dolls from the comfort of your own home or coffee shop by going here and downloading “Girl Anachronism”, “Bad Habit”, “Missed Me”, and “Half Jack”. Even if you lived in Germany in the early ‘30s and visited the cabaret often, it would only give you a partial idea of what to expect. After all, Punk and Goth (the Goth of Bauhaus and Joy Division, anyway) had yet to be born, and these genres are major influences in the sound of the Dresden Dolls. This is a band about which one can finally say there is truly nothing out there like them, and they are fantastic. And if you like the recorded version, you’ll love them live. They are, at heart, performance artists.