WomanRock - May 2005
Punk Cabaret’s Darlings
By Tina Whelski
“Coin-Operated Boy/Sitting on the shelf/He is just a toy/But I turn him on/And he comes to life/Automatic joy/That is why I want a/Coin-Operated Boy.” These lyrics from the opening of the Dresden Dolls song “Coin-Operated Boy” were my first introduction to the punk cabaret duo’s self-titled debut CD and I found their delirious plunge into the depths of dark, vulnerable emotions so fascinating, I think we should explore further. Listen for the rompy oomph pah pah oomph pah accompaniment from drummer Brian Viglione and latch on to Amanda Palmer’s vocals as she twinkles piano keys, vibing a child nursery innocence that make the “picture of girl getting bitter” more tragic. “I will never leave my bedroom/I will never cry at night again/wrap my arms around him and pretend…”
Above the din, like many Dresden Dolls songs, there is playful musing, but like the illusion of carnival sounds, something sadder lurks. This story’s disenchanted girl bets “a billion dollars” she’ll never love you…but won’t you try to convince her otherwise? “He may not be real/Experienced with girls/But I know he feels/Like a boy should feel/Isn’t that the point/Coin-Operated Boy.”
While “Coin-Operated Boy” is certainly a highlight, the entire CD is filled with Dresden Dolls’ song-oriented conundrums. With its opening drum blast and manic-depressive melodies the psychologically pressed “Girl Anachronism is a flurry of madness and minor keys.” Lines like, “You can tell by the scars on my arms/And the cracks in my hips/And the dents in my car/And the and the blisters on my lips/That I’m not the carefullest of girls,” are surrounded by Viglione’s panicky instrumentation and wash an image of a girl with knots in her hair and bruises on her thighs who can’t connect. “Good Day” captures a surreal soundtrack akin to the visuals of a Tim Burton movie and “Missed Me” is simply sinister and troubling. Clear away the smoky cellar sounds and you’ll find the Dresden Dolls submerged in their fantasy of Germany’s Weimer-era cabaret.
Palmer talks to WomanRock about Dresden Dolls’ music and attraction to old-school cabaret, their tour with Nine Inch Nails and the band’s desire to transport audiences far away from the anxiety and doldrums of every-day life.
WOMANROCK: Not to pick a favorite song, but “Coin-Operated Boy” is brilliant. Your musical and lyrical choices perfectly capture that innocence of girl losing her fairy tale fantasy of love.
AMANDA: The most interesting thing to me about that song is the fact that I really didn’t think it was going to go anywhere when I brought it to Brian. Not because I didn’t think it was a good and funny little song, but because I thought that’s all it sort of was. I played it for him thinking, “I’m sure we’ll never add this to the set or anything, but isn’t it a funny little song and why don’t we play it at one of the shows.” Even after we had played it at a couple of shows and went in to record it was at the very bottom of the list of songs to put on the record…Meanwhile as that was happening and we were going through the whole pre-production for the record, which took a few months of back and forth, we were playing all these live shows and people kept requesting that song. Over the course of a couple of months it became everyone’s favorite. That was this little hint to us that maybe we should stick it on the record. Low and behold it became the single. That’s really comforting to me to think that my judgment of my music is so off base that something that I sort of wrote as a joke could turn into a hit.
WOMANROCK: How did you bring your punk and cabaret elements together to create Dresden Dolls?
AMANDA: Well that’s always an interesting question for me to try to figure out… I think looking at my music collection from seventh grade and then again from tenth grade and then again from twelfth grade gives you a good clue to unlocking the mystery to where such an erratic sense of style comes from…The music collection from when I was really young had The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Prince and Madonna and the soundtrack to Evita. Then when I got older it was The Cure and The Legendary Pink Dots and Leonard Cohen and things. When I got a little older, it was Laurie Anderson or experimental music and I got into stranger and darker things. But all my favorite albums of all time have all had that one essential thing in common, which is that they’re very much writers’ records and the music has never been as important to me as the words.
When I used to go record shopping when I was a kid and I would go into Harvard Square and root around in all the used record stores just looking for music and looking to see familiar names and bands that my cool friends had t-shirts of and stuff, the litmus test to me was that I would pick up the record or the tape and I would pull out the artwork and I would read the lyrics. If the lyrics looked stupid to me I wouldn’t buy the record. I still do that.
WOMANROCK: Is seventh grade when you started playing piano?
AMANDA: No. I started playing piano when I was really young. My folks got divorced and my mom moved up to Boston. The first house we moved into had a piano in it…I think I was actually like two…I was always playing it, but I wasn’t one of those child prodigies who could sight-read Bach and Mozart. I always really clung to my independent spirit being a hack and it’s painful to me to this day…Now I wish I could sight-read other peoples’ music and I find it very difficult, but on the flip side, I developed my own style.
WOMANROCK: When did you start beating your piano (laughs). You didn’t play like that as a little girl did you?
AMANDA: (Laughs). Oh, you should ask my poor step-father because I have a great recording. It’s like this unspoken joke we have. I have this recording of when I’m like fifteen or sixteen. I used to always keep the tape recorder by the piano to record little sentences, ideas or songs or whatever. We were always battling about my piano playing because he didn’t like the noise in the house. I have a bunch of recordings of him walking into the room telling me to play more quietly or to stop. There’s a great one where he crashes into the room and he literally loses it. He’s like, “Amanda it’s 11:00 at night and what you’re playing doesn’t even sound like music. You’re just banging on that thing and getting your aggression out and we’re going to send you to a psychologist!” It’s true. You listen to my old recordings from when I was fifteen and I’m treating it like a pure percussion instrument. It’s funny when I look back because Brian was doing the same thing on his drums. We were both really frustrated kids.
WOMANROCK: You met Brian at a gig at the artist’s collective in Boston where you still live. He was attracted to your storytelling?
AMANDA: And the pounding (laughs). He liked the pounding too. The story of how we met is actually very auspicious because it tells you a lot about where the band has ended up present day and all the artists we work with and the atmosphere of the live shows…I moved in here in 2000 right at the beginning of the year and I immediately started producing events, sort of like cabaret, salon-type parties where bands that I knew and performance artists and noise artists, whoever, would just come and I would put together a performance schedule. The house has four floors and a garden and there was just stuff going on all night in all the different spaces and I was just trying to bust out on my own as a solo performer. I would play at my own events and that’s where Brian found me. He got dragged over to a Halloween party here that I was throwing and I played at the end of the night.
WOMANROCK: Do you remember your costumes?
AMANDA: Well it’s embarrassing to me because I was so, although it’s very telling, I was so busy running around producing the event that I didn’t have time to think of a costume so half an hour before the party started I just dressed up as a temporary office worker, which for me was so out of character that it looked bizarre. Everyone that knew me was horrified. I put on a smart little black suit and a string of pearls and some clip-on earrings and did my hair up…Brian had played with his band the night before at a club and they had done the entire album of Pornography by The Cure…He just wore the costume he had worn the night before which was just a strange black costume with his face painted white and blood dripping off of his head. I saw him across the room and I remember seeing him and being like, “God, who’s that guy? Definitely looks like an ally.”
WOMANROCK: Was the current look of the band your doing?
AMANDA: Well it’s funny because people sort of see it as a thing. To me the look of the band is the result of five minutes’ worth of spontaneity one night when Brian and I were about to play with a Burlesque troupe and we said, “Hey, just for shits and giggles let’s dress up tonight.” I had a black dress and striped tights and Brian had a suit and I said, “Ah, let’s paint our faces.” Brian said, “Sure, sounds cool.” That was that…We both felt the real tangible, palatable difference in how we felt on stage and how the audience responded to us. There was just something. Once you put a mask on, once you put makeup on, once you wear a costume, the audience sort of takes a deeper breath and looks at you and they sort of expect a little more from you, but they give you a little more and there’s something magical about that. We felt that that night. We didn’t even talk about it, but next time we had a show we both looked at each other and said, “Let’s do that again” and that was it.
WOMANROCK: Did you always have an attraction to the old-school cabaret?
AMANDA: Well the thing about cabaret is I know as much about cabaret as the next person. To me it’s just as vague and ambiguous a term as everyone else seems to think it is because a cabaret is a genre and it is a place. Nowadays it’s a genre that if I opened up the paper and went to the cabaret listings there would be nothing that I’m interested in, cause it’s just generally going to see show tunes and standards sung by a woman in a sequin dress with a piano accompaniment. That’s just not my thing. But it’s the fantasy of the cabaret. Cabaret the musical. Weimer-Germany cabaret. Kurt Weill cabaret. That excites me the way some people can’t get over the fantasy of Woodstock or something like that. There’s just something about it where I look back and I say, “God that must have been amazing.” But it’s got deep meaningful associations, artistically, aesthetically, politically, just the way saying Woodstock does. It’s not just that there was this concert. There was a movement. There was an idea. There were political things happening. There was a change afoot. That’s what was happening in Weimer Germany. There were a lot of risks being taken, a lot of great political satire and a lot of, at least in the fantasy, a real exchange of ideas between artists. The idea of the cabaret being the place, like the cauldron, where all these artists meet, drink, get crazy and come up with their wild ideas that they then go out and spread into the world is the fantasy that I have in my head. That is what we try to do with the shows. We want to make sure that it isn’t going to be an ordinary fucking night where you show up, buy your ticket, buy your beer and you watch the band, but that you’re going to a place where something’s happening. It doesn’t matter what’s happening. It’s different every night, but we want people to walk through the door and feel like coming to a Dresden Dolls show means that you’re going somewhere special and that’s sort of where we enlist the help of our fans.
WOMANROCK: Tell me about your extra ensemble entertainers.
AMANDA: We invite the fans to do anything they want. We encourage them to do things that will work within the context of people coming to a show and hanging out before the show…On this next tour we’re going to see everything from living statues in the clubs and outside, to people doing magic, to belly dancers and aerialists to fortune tellers. There’s definitely a very carny element to it. The cool thing is there are plenty of kids who come to the Brigade, which is what we call it, and say, “Well I want to do something, but I don’t have any special talent. I can’t juggle barbells. I can’t do anything special.” These kids who don’t have any kind of carnival-type talents will come up with these insanely creative ideas. We saw on this last tour, this girl folded a ton of origami and put it in a big basket and put this crazy costume on and walked around handing it out to everyone. We just encourage people to be as random and spontaneous as possible. We’ve also had people hide in the bathroom at the clubs and play violins and saxophones. It’s whatever you do. Can you incorporate what you do into the show or can you come up with something and if you can, bring it on.
WOMANROCK: That’s fun.
AMANDA: Yeah, it’s totally cool. Sometimes it goes horribly awry, but sometimes it’s the most incredible thing. The most beautiful thing is almost every night Brian and me are surprised because we’re so insanely busy now that we actually have someone else organizing the whole Brigade. So, we’ll show up in like Cleveland and we’ll go into the club and all of a sudden we’ll see all this stuff happening and these human puppets walking around. It’s a beautiful thing for us also because being on the road can get really mundane and repetitive and tiresome and it keeps the tour from getting boring. We’re actually getting a show every night in return for what we’re doing.
WOMANROCK: I’m trying to picture your Brigade mingling with the Nine Inch Nails fans on your upcoming tour?
AMANDA: I don’t think we’re going to do it at the Nine Inch Nails shows because it’s just not right. A lot of what these people do is also very dark, a lot of the living statues, there’s a lot of very burlesque-looking stuff and there’s a lot of bloody, gory looking stuff. It falls somewhere between Halloween and Mardi Gras.
WOMANROCK: Trent Reznor hand-picked Dresden Dolls to open the Nine Inch Nails dates. Are you psyched?
AMANDA: Absolutely. We actually already played two dates with them in London and that was wonderful. They were exceptionally kind people. We were a little apprehensive about how we would be received by the fans of Nine Inch Nails.
WOMANROCK: Yeah, I was curious about that.
AMANDA: Well so were we (laughs). We were more than curious. We were a combination of curious and terrified…The fans at least in London were incredibly receptive to the Dolls and not only did we leave stage unscathed and no bottles were thrown, but the reaction from the audience was incredible and we made tons of new fans. I think if that was any indication of how the states tour is going to go it’s going to be incredible.
WOMANROCK: In the tradition of the old-school cabaret thinking, you guys try to bridge the gap between theatre, music and politics. Are there any programs you’re currently involved in?
AMANDA: We’re always doing different things. One of the questions for us is always how can we use the platform that the band’s been given by the fans for good without abusing it, without being tiresome. As far as the live shows go, we do what we can, and anyone who asks to sort of do anything politically at the shows, we give it really serious consideration and we try to involve those things.
WOMANROCK: That’s cool you try to give back.
AMANDA: We just try to do what we can. I think it’s very dangerous to just pick a cause and cling to it. I think one of the things that is important for artists to realize is that you can be way more politically effective by being the right kind of artist than getting up and waving a flag…By encouraging people to even just be creative in their daily lives, you do so much to nourish their hungry souls. I mean people are so starved for the right kind of stimulus and the right kind of support in their lives. People spend so much time watching television and getting barraged by advertisements and confusion and war and death and it’s just like, “What can we do to not add to that? What can we do to actually ameliorate that?” We don’t want to be another one of eight million forces telling people what to think, how to act and what they’ve got to do now, and say now and fix now. We’d rather just say, “For God’s sake, come to a Dresden Dolls show and do something creative. Use your imagination and have some fucking fun because we’re not here for very long.”
WOMANROCK: We’re both very song-oriented, so let’s just dive into your lyrics.
AMANDA: I never get asked about the songs. “Girl Anachronism” started interestingly enough, like “Coin-Operated Boy.” It was sort of going to be an in-joke to myself and there is a very specific story about it. I was a cesarean but my mother asked the doctor to take me out a day early…She didn’t want me to be born on an odd day cause my mom is strange like that. Don’t ask me why. It’s a whole other interview. She wanted me to be born on an even month, on an even day…I remember musing on that point thinking what a great thing for a song to be this open letter apology to the world for the fact that I’m such a flake, but I’ve got a great excuse because I was taken out before I was finished (laughs). That was the seed of the song and of course it became a free-for-all about my recklessness.
“Half Jack” is my favorite song on the album and it’s one of my favorite songs to play live too. I wrote that one around the same time I wrote “Girl Anachronism”…When I hear them as a set, they actually make a lot of sense together because they grapple with some of the same issues…My folks had divorced when I was really young and my relationship with my dad was very formal and very obligatory growing up. We were not close at all. As I got older and older and learned about him through my mother I hit my twenties and started really wondering about how much of who I am is made up of what I’ve been through and how much is made up of the fact that I’m biologically half my mother and half my father. It’s that whole nurture versus nature thing. I was really thinking about the unfairness of how little control we have over who our parents are and that’s basically what started that song off. It’s basically the idea that you can’t ever escape the fact that you are literally made up of half your mother and half your father. It doesn’t matter who they are or what kind of relationship you have with them, whether you’ve ever met them. Of course like all the other songs, it goes off on tangents.