Girls just wanna have fun
Dee Dee from Dum Dum Girls tells Sinéad Gleeson how her musical journey has led her to a noisy, fuzzy, stomping brand of catchy post-punk pop
REGRETTED THE first show I ever played; I should have played with a bag over my head.”
Dee Dee from Dum Dum Girls is frantically hunting through her luggage for her charger before a dead phone puts paid to our interview. Along with thousands of other musicians, she is holed up in Austin, Texas, for the music festival South by Southwest, where her band (bagless, we’re happy to report) are about to play six gigs in four days. When Dee Dee was here last year, Dum Dum Girls was “more of a solo recording project”.
Taking the decision to recruit band members was largely due to getting signed to Sub Pop and needing to tour. Would she have preferred to stay solo? “It's a lot of fun with three other girls in the band. We’re all good friends. I wasn’t reluctant about that aspect of it. I would prefer to be a little more behind the scenes, but you can’t do that if you want to play shows.”
There is something vaguely mysterious about Dee Dee, not least that her real name is Kristin Gundred and her tongue-in-cheek band moniker is about multiple homages. Take your pick of musical and literal nods to Iggy Pop, The Ramones, The Ronettes, The Vaselines, The Raincoats and a Talk Talk song, but Gundred admits that the latter was a happy accident. These pithy songs are spliced with a broad spectrum of influences that stretch back to her childhood. After plundering her mother’s Beatles records, it was her father’s albums that seem to have made a lifelong dent.
“My dad sounds like Frank Sinatra when he sings in the shower. He was a teenager in the 1950s, so his record collection was full of vocal singers and do-wop groups and surf instrumental groups. When I was 12 or 13, I bought albums by bands like Green Day or Hole, but it was when I was 18 or 19 when I starting connecting it all together. So, though I had liked The Cure at 14, I didn’t know about Siouxsie and the Banshees; and I didn’t listen to the Sex Pistols, but I liked The Ramones.”
These overtly noise-orientated landmarks are dotted through the debut album, I Will Be, but they’re just one component. The overall output blends melodic 1960s girl groupery with dark fuzz-pop and has been turning heads. “I wrote the songs over eight or nine months and used the same palette of sounds for every song. I’m a fan of heavily reverbed vocals, fuzz and that Motown drum sound, so I tried to make every song as catchy and as ‘single-like’ as possible.”
And they are catchy as hell, but the glue holding it all together is her voice. On the phone, she sounds like a 10-year-old girl. On the album, she sounds eerily like Tracy Tracy of The Primitives, chorally angelic with a brittle point to make (single Jail La La refers to a cellmate as “covered in shit”).
“I’ve always been a singer. As a kid, I sang in choirs and school musicals and I studied voice in college, but I didn’t really get how to start a band; I didn’t realise that you could just do it. It took me a while to get started. I finally learnt the guitar a few years ago and started writing songs, but this project was the first time I realised that I didn’t need to depend on anybody else to make music.”
This idea of musical dependence is something we keep returning to. After all, Dum Dum Girls started out as a one-woman project that has morphed into a band. The obligation to tour, and the advice of her label, were probably astute enough reasons to recruit band members, but there is a risk that it lessens an artist’s autonomy when thay have the artistic ideas of three other people to consider. Acts such as Tuneyards and St Vincent have resorted to inventive re-jigging when playing multiple instruments solo. Did she think about trying to do something similar in terms of playing live on her own?
“I toyed with that idea initially, where it was me and a drum machine and one other person playing guitar, but I wasn’t really able to recreate the songs in the way I liked. So I thought, well if I’m going to play them live, I want them to sound the way they’re supposed to sound.”
As well as Jules (on guitar and vocals), Frankie Rose (on drums) and Bambi (on bass), Gundred enlisted others for the album. Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner plays on Yours Alone and Brandon Welchez from Crocodiles duets on the song Blank Girl. Welchez also happens to be her husband (“he’s a lot cooler than I am”) and the song was recorded at home in their living room. It’s a tender effort, indicative of the amount of personal material on the album.
Gundred is aware that people listening to the songs will hear the upbeat melody but may miss what’s being said in between. It constantly flits from light to dark, sounding breezy, but with a grainy edge. “I try to impart something of meaning into everything. Even a song that might seem superficial makes sense to me as an honest statement. I love music that’s – as you say – both light and dark, but it’s very much about striking a balance, I couldn’t make music that was all about one or the other.”
What is very specific about how the songs sound is the rolling hiss that operates just below the surface. Guitars roar, drums sound like biscuit tins being bashed and the overall affect is lo-fi and unglossy. Gundred recorded the songs herself but had very specific ideas in mind for mixing. Step forward, Richard Gottehrer, writer of I Want Candy and producer of The Go-Gos, Blondie and The Raveonettes. Because Gundred initially recorded the songs herself, she admits that the noisiness is accidental, but it was a sound she was keen to maintain. It was also the sound that interested Sub Pop. “It took me a while to figure out the sound I was looking for, and Sub Pop encouraged me not to change it.”
Signing to a label that gives you that much artistic freedom and support is compounded for Dee Dee by the fact that its acts were the ones she grew up listening to. “It’s been one of my revered record labels since I was a teenager. A lot of their early releases made it so legendary to me. I was a big Nirvana fan and being on the same label as The Vaselines is a really big deal for me.”
Pre-Sub Pop, hype around Dum Dum Girls was based on a couple of singles and was huge. Gundred seems slightly nervous about the expectation, but is aware of how lucky she is, sounding both grounded and grateful. “It’s very weird. Without that kind of hype I don’t think we’d be here [at SXSX] this year.”
And racing through six shows in four days doesn’t bother her? “Not at all, but if I had to be ‘out’ 100 per cent of the time, I’d get pretty tired by it. I like performing, but for two out of every three shows we play, I just go straight home afterwards.”