The Noise - April 21, 2003
The Dresden Dolls
It won't take more than a song or two before you learn what The Dresden Dolls fans have known since day one: this is not your ordinary rock band. Brian Viglione on drums and Amanda Palmer on keys and vocals make music that's at once beautiful, disturbing, visual, and accessible. For just about a year, since the quirky drummer broached the idea of collaboration with the eccentric visual and performance artist, the pair have been astonishing everyone, including themselves, with the success of their shows. The Dolls have found themselves at the center of an adoring fanbase, with rave reviews, and about to begin work on what promises to be a breathtaking debut CD. It'll be co-produced by Martin Bisi (Swans/ Sonic Youth), and will feature stellar musical guests, including Ad Frank (…and the Fast Easy Women) and Shawn Setaro (Helicopter, Helicopter).
"Meeting Martin was a stroke of fortune," says Amanda. "I remember going into his recording studio and not believing my eyes when I saw some of the projects he had done." The Dresden Dolls are also founding a record label called Black Freighter with Martin and some other New York bands.
The Dresden Dolls isn't the first unconventional brainchild of Amanda Palmer. You might have seen Amanda's living statue persona around town, The Eight Foot Bride. "I've been earning a living from the Bride for about six years. It's a truly bizarre occupation. The stories I could tell would fill up volumes. I've been realizing recently that the Bride has made it feel second nature to stand in front of crowds of hundreds of people; I never have stage fright. The Bride is also a way to interact without inhibitions with the whole world. Literally, there's not any other art form where you present yourself so vulnerably to a random cross-section of the local population. It's humbling and empowering at the same time, and a great excuse to stare at people without endangering yourself."
Ladies and gentlemen, The Dresden Dolls.
Noise: The Dresden Dolls have been playing out for about a year. What would you be doing right now if Brian didn't come up to you and introduce himself that fateful night and talk about forming a band?
Amanda: What a horrible thing to think about. I'd very possibly still be hitting my head against a wall and feeling guilty that I wasn't doing enough to promote my music. Brian gave me the kick in the ass to actually start applying myself to what I was doing and to finally take on the task that I've always feared: to stake everything on the music and let the chips fall where they may.
Noise: He's like a demon on those drums.
Amanda: He plays the drums so musically and artfully and focuses so completely when we play that it blows me away sometimes... he's like some martial arts expert, poised for the kill, waiting for the next note to come. He's amazing. Brian completes the music I write, and takes it further. I've never been satisfied with the volume and the percussion I get out of the piano. Louder! HARDER! LOUDER! HARDER!! Luckily the drums have filled that void. I'm always reminded this when I play a solo show and feel how empty and thin the songs are without his drumming.
Noise: Let's talk about some songs. "Half Jack" is as disturbing as it is beautiful. Please tell me what this song is about.
Amanda: My mother remarried when I was very young. Jack is my biological father. The idea came at a time when I was realizing that I had all of these possible genetic traits of my "real" father without ever having really known him. He's a pretty frightening figure and it always freaked me out to know that I was literally made from this stranger's flesh and blood. The song also touches on my "I should have been an abortion" fixation. There are also all those double and triple entendres to the rest of the borders we humans have been trampling upon lately: gender, real and fake body parts, prostitution, real and fake sexes.
Noise: I look at some of your material, like "Glass Slipper" and "The Gardener" and "Coin Operated Boy," as kind of fractured fairy tales or twisted fables. Is that a fair description? And is there such a thing as "happily ever after"?
Amanda: That's a fine description. I love old nursery rhymes and children's songs, especially the wealth of irony they invite. Most fairy tales (especially the Grimms Brothers') are twisted enough without my help. Cinderella's sisters, in the original fairy tale, lopped off chunks of their feet to fit into the Glass Slipper (poetically, some unfortunate girls in downtown Boston have their breasts stuffed with silicone to fit into the Glass Slipper-our humble strip joint). Childhood is a very sexy and loaded and often unromantic subject. I never get sick of drawing on it. And no, Lexi, there's no such thing as "Happily Ever After." You might be happy for a while, but you will die eventually and be eaten by little buggies and wormies.
Noise: Were you a wild child or did you grow up to become one?
Amanda: I've always been considered a wierdo. Musically, however, things have gotten undeniably stranger as I've grown older. The sorts of things I was composing as a young teen sounded like a cross between Cyndi Lauper and Tiffany. On a good day. Perhaps one thing I should start counting as a blessing is that I never actually had truly formal training; I always wanted to be a "real piano player" but I was too much of a lazy hack. All I wanted to do was sit around and improvise and write my little songs. I learned the basics of sight-reading but that was about it... nowadays, it takes me hours and hours to read and learn a simple three-page piano piece. I think some of the aggression in my playing is overcompensating for that.
Noise: Do your songs come to you at times of mental anguish?
Amanda: God yes. It needs to be a certain kind of mental anguish, however. I've found that being overburdened with shit to do, though mentally anguishing, may be conducive to inspiration but not to actual writing. Heartbreak and anger are obviously useful. Extreme depression doesn't work. I just can't find the energy to write. I don't ever really get truly depressed anymore. Stressed out, yes-that's different. My songs used to be almost invariably about depression and pain. Things have changed. I've gotten sillier.
Noise: Do you come up with lyrics first, music first, or some blend of the two?
Amanda: I usually get an idea for a lyric in my head and it somehow magically attaches itself to a melody (this usually happens in the car). The lyrics will usually suggest the theme of the song and if I'm disciplined enough, I'll get home and record the idea. Then, if I'm even more disciplined, I'll sit down and expand on it later. Often the original lyrics will get tossed out along the way (the "Scrambled Eggs"/"Yesterday" scenario). Very rarely a song will just hit all at once and write itself. Those are always the best ones. I got the idea for "Coin-Operated Boy" in traffic near my house. I was stuck outside a laundromat that had a big sign that said COIN-OP LAUNDRY. I started musing about coin-operated boys and the melody came into my head. I had the song pretty much done by the time I got home.
Noise: Martyn Jacques of the Tiger Lillies said of his band, "The normal reaction for the first five songs is that they don't like it and then after five songs they start to like it. It's a bit difficult to switch straight onto it because it's different." Describe the "normal audience reaction" for The Dresden Dolls.
Amanda: I think it's pretty accessible, actually. I mean, the songs are bizarre but most of them have catchy hooks and pop formats. The line-up confuses people. "Drums? Piano? What?" I think it's pretty much a love-it-or-hate it situation, though nobody has approached me yet and told me they downright didn't like the stuff... I'm sure that'll come out in the press sooner or later. A normal audience reaction depends on where we are. We just played a show in New York to a pretty new crowd and lots of strangers came up to us and said it was one of the most incredible shows they've ever seen. Some people have cried. People are usually really impressed by the musicianship even if they don't dig the material. We've even converted a few frat jocks. It's encouraging.
Noise: What is great songwriting? What does music need to be powerful?
Amanda: Honesty. Not to say that songs need to be confessional or even factual, but there needs to be an honest intent in the delivery. I feel like so many bands and songwriters out there are fooling themselves constantly, trying to impress a jaded and inundated audience without really revealing themselves. Some of the greatest songs ever written are three chord jobs with lyrics that are just brutally honest, and speak to an experience impossibly complicated and painful to express in conversation. But the right image put to the right tune, even if it's non-sensical, speaks volumes and hits you hard. I feel that way about Leonard Cohen. You can't say what makes it happen, but you know it when you hear it. On the other hand, one has to admit that Britney Spears' music is "powerful," in that it's out there numbing countless pre-teen minds per minute.