New York has definitely handed over its crown as being home to earthshaking epicentre of what’s hot, hip, and happening. These days all eyes are firmly focused on the eclectic sounds of the West Coast — as it seems that every single band we talk right now calls the place home. With Katy Perry (of all people) singing the praises of California Girls, just like the Beach Boys did in the 60’s, so are we with Los Angeles’ Dum Dum Girls.
Signed to the still cool Sub Pop records and riding a wave of praise from their debut album I Will Be, produced by the legendary pop songwriter and producer Richard Gottehrer (Blondie, The Go-Gos, The Raveonettes), Dum Dum Girls are kicking up a wall of fuzz with some peachy keen harmonies. Chris Berkley of Static recently spoke with lead ‘Girl’, Dee Dee in the midst of line-up changes, about recording the album and what it takes to be a Dum Dum Girl.
You’ve just had band practice — how are you sounding today?
We’re sounding great. I’ll let you in on a secret we’ve had a line-up change so we have a new drummer and our bass player is now singing. It’s been a pretty intense week of rehearsals. We’ve had a lot of ground to cover.
What’s going on there? Is it musical chairs in Dum Dum Girls?
Not so much musical chairs, Frankie Rose was drumming for us and she also sang, so we have a drummer now who’s just drumming. So it was a matter of teaching Bambi the high harmonies so that we would still have those.
Was that because Frankie was just too busy? She’s spent that much time in that many times, did she have other stuff to do?
She finally has got her own project underway and has been working on a record and she’s not the hugest fan of touring, she would probably do it for her own band. But it was probably time to do her own thing.
You must be able to relate to that as well Dee Dee because Dum Dum Girls started out as a solo project. You had to look for members to get things happening didn’t you?
Yeah I did. It was kind of just a strange way to pass the time. I had been playing music in other capacities and was really burnt from the whole thing and the only way I could handle playing music at the time was just not to involve anybody else and make sure I was doing exactly what I felt like. Once I had gotten over that and was ready to play with people again I was pretty particular in who I chose.
Do you sort of work out your vision then? Did you formulate an idea of how you wanted Dum Dum Girls to sound and then go and get the band members and say to people “this is what I want to do”?
Kind of. It wasn’t planned like that. It really happened accidentally. Like I said it was just a recording project I didn’t have any intention or expectation that it would become anything real. I took some baby steps and put out seven inches and an EP, there was enough interest, even in that, to warrant playing a few shows, and then obviously when Sub Pop became involved I was like “whoah this is a crazy opportunity and I definitely want to take advantage of it” that was when I decided I just need to find some girls and teach them these songs.
So Dee Dee when you say it started out as a recording project was it more about crafting some songs or some sounds for you than thinking about a line-up?
Yeah definitely. I wasn’t thinking it of a band at all. In fact I would spend hours and hours recording things and you know they’d be like twelve vocal tracks just because it’s a nerdy thing I like to do, these crazy harmonies. It was just a matter of writing these songs on a acoustic guitar and not knowing that that’s not how I wanted them to remain. I didn’t want to be writing folk songs so much. It was just a matter of time before I figured out how to record myself and the sound that I got was something I instantly I latched onto — “Yeah this is how it’s supposed to sound”.
Was the sound supposed to be homage, I guess, to stuff that you liked?
I never do anything that contrived. That’s not my intention like “And this is my song that sounds like the Shangra-La’s” or anything. It’s more a unconscious or subconscious thing where I have things that I love, I have elements of different types of music that I love and I have collected all those sounds and styles and pick and choose what I enjoy. Like I love how Motown drums sound, on any given Motown track. I love how their mic is and the reverb and just the beats even. I love distorted guitar and fuzzy bass and I’m obviously addicted to reverb. It’s just a matter of putting all those things into the songs.
That’s a pretty great checklist to have, Dee Dee.
(laughs) Yeah, bare bones rock’n’roll.
Was it also a case, like finding the band members, once you had the bare bones of these songs to kind of getting them to the next level you turned to a man responsible for a lot these classics, you got Richard Gottehrer in.
I did. I think maybe it is unclear, because sometimes I read reviews of the album where they assume the band members played on it, which isn’t the case, it was just a continuation of how I had been demoing songs.
How Richard was involved was I had tracked all of these songs and I stripped them of all my effecting and post-production stuff and I gave that to him to work with, these raw unaffected tracks. It was really an extreme mixing job and a medium level producing job because it was after the fact.
Yeah, it’s not like he was this svengali or anything.
No, no but what he did made a huge difference. We did it over the internet for about half of it then I flew to New York and mixed with him in a studio for a few days but I remember getting the first track over the internet and hearing it and going “Oh my gosh” and that wasn’t even the final version. To me it was night and day. Maybe to people who aren’t listening as closely the differences may not be as apparent. But it just sounded warm. The distortion and the reverb when they’re digital can sound really harsh and metallic and he really warmed it up and it sounded like analogue production and the vocals were just kind of shining. I was so happy with what he was able to do.
For people who don’t know he was there at the start. He wrote “My Boyfriend’s Back” as well as producing records since then for Blondie and The Gos-Gos and he even did that last Raveonettes album. So was half of it his production and half of it to get great anecdotes out of him?
I still have yet to spend enough time not working with him. I did have desert and coffee with him before we started mixing and begged him to discuss his time in The Strangeloves, some of their songs are some of my favourite songs. He’s a great storyteller and he loves to talk about what he’s been through.
Did he write “I Want Candy” as well?
Yeah he did. That was a Strangeloves hit that has been covered by probably a million other bands.
Apart from bringing in someone like that there seems to be a few more kindred spirits in terms of what Dum Dum Girls are doing as well. Is there a bit of West Coast resurgence in harmonic pop stuff? Your partner Brandon from Crocodiles was on similar tip in with his own album from last year. Are there some like minded bands around that you take solace in contemporaries apart from classic stuff as well?
Yeah, I mean there definitely are. A lot of it was attributed to that West Coast lo-fi sound from last year which included Brandon’s band Crocodiles and Wavves and now Best Coast. We’re all friends. I’m really happy to see everybody doing well. We definitely have similar reference points and taste in music. Anytime I DJ I’m always playing my friend’s bands because it fits right in.
And it also meant – you’ve done a Sonny and Cher song on the Dum Dums album – but it meant you and Brandon got to do your own duet. You didn’t have any nerves doing the husband/wife duet?
No, it was a lot more natural. I didn’t even really think about of it in that context. I was recording a song in our house and it just wasn’t working and I realised it needed to be a duet – it was more call and response parts. I just asked him if he could stop doing the dishes or whatever and come in, and he played guitar on it as well. For me it was a real treat because I’m not technically proficient on the guitar so the majority of the more intricate guitar parts on the record are performed by others – he did one, Nick Zinner did one and Andrew Miller actually did most of them. So it was just a treat to see the lead he came up with then to hear the song really come to life once it was a duet. It was a huge improvement.
So does that mean you have to call out for a male audience member to do it on tour the nights when Brandon’s not around?
(laughs) We don’t do it live for that reason. But we are going on tour with Crocodiles in June, just a little West Coast USA tour, so we will be doing it on that tour, which I’m pretty excited about.
I think that opens up the possibilities to be doing a Nancy and Lee songbook on tour for encores.
(laughs) Yes (laughs).
Now you guys need to come here, are there plans to bring Dum Dum Girls to Australia, Dee Dee?
Yes I believe there is. I just got an email from my booking agent who said she was going to start looking in to taking us over to your country.
You need to give Brandon a slap too as Crocodiles almost made it the end of last year then canceled. So put him on notice.
I know, they had to come home as I had some family problems. But they can’t wait to go back too.
You guys are on a promise for that. Thank you so much for the talk, I hope everything works out with the new line-up and everyone behaves themselves. Take care.
Transcription: Caleb Rudd
First broadcast on Static on 06/05/10. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the Internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).