Dum Dum Girls Outside Perspective
Published Jan 29, 2014After two prior albums and a handful of EPs, Dum Dum Girls' music remains much as it always has, with songwriter Dee Dee still devoted to soaring pop hooks, fuzzy guitar tones and gloomy vibes. Her third LP, Too True, shows that there's still plenty of mileage left in this sound, since her writing has never sounded so sharp. Again working with her usual production team of Richard Gottehrer (Blondie, the Go-Go's) and Sune Rose Wagner (of the Raveonettes), nearly every song centres around an instantly hummable chorus, striking the perfect balance between mopey darkness and pop bliss. This comes across in tunes like "Lost Boys of Girls Club" and "In the Wake of You," which are triumphant anthems despite their bleak lyrical content.
While at home in New York — where Dee Dee moved a couple of years ago from her longtime home of California — the singer answered Exclaim!'s call to discuss her unencumbered emotional state, overcoming vocal issues, and writing songs while blackout drunk.
You wrote much of Too True in a weeklong session. What's the value in writing in such a condensed way?
I tend to write a few songs at a time when I finally have the time. A lot of it is just out of necessity. In the past, when I would be touring a lot, I would have ideas as we were going along but not really have the time to develop them. So I kind of put them on the backburner and then if I had a week off I would revisit them and force them out. I had done that to some degree over the previous months, but it didn't feel cohesive to me — probably because they had been written so far apart from each other. I really felt like the next thing I wanted to do needed to be a very cohesive thing, so in my mind that meant that, my first opportunity, I was going to sit down with the intention of writing an album and see what happened. It coincided with having my apartment predominantly to myself for about a week and a half. At that point, this sort of nagging feeling that I needed to write a new record had built up for a while and so I sat down with that purpose and it just happened.
Do the results feel like one body of work because of that?
Yeah, they definitely do. Previous stuff I had done had thematically had that same effect because I was really limited about what I could write about. I was very consumed by personal experiences I had been having for the year prior to Only in Dreams or End of Daze, and so in that sense, they made sense as pieces of work because, thematically, they did not really have a whole lot of range. With this, I felt like I was finally beyond that. That I had free reign to get back to writing what came out. I wanted to make sure that, sonically, it sounded like a record, because I knew there would hopefully be a wider spectrum of topics.
What influenced these songs?
There wasn't a ton of preconception. The main thing was [that] I was trying to be free of writing about very personal things. I was again able to look outside myself a bit more. I still obviously write about what I know. I don't usually write complete fictitious songs or anything, but I was able to look to music I was listening to or things I was reading or experiences I had. Finally, it was just like, "Okay cool, I can just write freely, whatever comes." In the aftermath of Only in Dreams and End of Daze — I think it's pretty obvious what those are about, or dealing with. So I think there was, at least to some degree, a sense of acceptance, and maybe a greater sense of self-awareness that I hadn't previously been able to incorporate into what I was writing.
You had some vocal problems while making the album so you had to delay recording the singing. How did the songs change in the extra time you had?
Just for clarification purposes, I had been having vocal problems for about a year prior to writing the album. It was something I was struggling with while touring. So I knew that I was going to have problems with the vocals. I had demoed the songs in my kitchen, really more focused on getting the ideas out than worrying about the quality of how I was singing. So when I did go into the studio, I made a point to record it instrumentally first. I didn't want every day to be this up and down, like, "Okay, that worked really well, now I tried to sing it and that was really frustrating." So I just put off the vocals until the very end, and then the day that I needed to [sing], it was immediately apparent that it was not going to happen. It was super frustrating. Really depressing. I don't want to say that I define myself by how I sing, or that I sing, but I do to some pretty significant degree.
But, as you've sort of guessed, it was the first time where I was forced to sit on something. I tried to take advantage of that and really re-evaluate things. There were a couple songs that I significantly changed, and I'm grateful that I had that extra time, because I didn't feel they were up to par. I almost left what was eventually released as the first single, "Lost Boys and Girls Club," off the record completely because it was underdeveloped. It was an example of —"Oh, I wrote this song and I really dig how it sounds instrumentally, and I have this phrase. Sure, I'll write some verses." But I didn't end up liking the tone of the song. I didn't like what it was about. The melody was a bit underwhelming. That one, I was like, "The song has potential," because it's a pretty — I don't want to say aggressive, but it's a pretty forward-sounding song for my repertoire at least. It's pretty big and dramatic as a statement. It needs to actually be saying something. So I went back and rewrote the verse melody, I came up with the "Lost Boys and Girls Club" as my concept, and then I expanded upon that. In essence, the extra time was exactly what needed to happen.
You mentioned a new guitar pedal in the album's press release. What stamp did that put on the songs?
There are basically two things that I did differently that significantly effected the songs. The first thing was — this is very specific to me, I don't know if anyone else would notice this — but I play rhythm guitar pretty basically, and on almost everything I've ever done, I've played a pretty similar kind of shuffle rhythm guitar stroke. That informed the pacing of the song, the tempo of the song. I decided on this record that I wanted to play — not downstroke barre chord punk style, but I wanted to play with faster rhythm guitar. Like, "Da-na da-na-na-na-na-na-na." More consistent to that sound. So what that then does is, I'm playing as fast as I can like that, but it actually sort of makes the tempo of the song slower. So there's a lot more mid-tempo songs on this record because of how I decided to play rhythm guitar.
In terms of pedals, I brought in more chorus on the guitar and I used a much more aggressive RAT pedal for lead stuff. Those were the two main things. I've always been very much [about] reverb and fuzz on guitar, and there's obviously still that, but because I wanted a lot of textural guitar, I definitely wanted there to be a few different tones happening so that each guitar part had a place and had a purpose, and together had bigger sound.
Was it recorded with a full band?
I've only ever done one record with a band, and that was Only in Dreams. I typically write and demo myself, and then take those demos to my producers and then we build on top of that. That's what we did for End of Daze and that's also what we did here. There are live drums on some of the tracks, but it is predominantly drum machine or built beats.
In a press release, you said that Nick Cave's 1996 letter to MTV was an inspiration. Why was that so important with this album?
It's not that it was so, so important or significant to this album specifically. It was more that, when I was sitting down to write that little bio, I was just saying, "Take a look at how this person talks about his music and where he gets his inspiration and the reverence he has for it." That's something that I found really inspiring to read, and it's something that I had been thinking about in different capacities. Being in a band and putting out record after record, it's hard to stay away from the stress or the pressure of stuff outside — how things are going to be received critically or by your fans. I definitely always try to remember that I need to be motivated by myself before anything else. For me, that resonated in reading his letter and how he talks about how precious what he does is.
You've said that you wrote two of the songs at a separate session in Los Angeles. Which songs were those?
The last one that I wrote for the record, which I demoed very, very amateurly, was "In the Wake of You." I was totally drunk when I wrote it, woke up the next day with a terrible hangover, noticed my computer was open and my guitar was out, and I had apparently written and recorded this little song. That was the one song where, in the studio, it was a much blanker canvas. The other song that I wrote in L.A., which was a trip prior to that last trip, was "Too True to Be Good."
Stream Dum Dum Girls' Too True by clicking on the link here.