'I've never experienced death that closely': Dum Dum Girls work through tragedy, move beyond lo-fi
If all had gone according to plan, the Dum Dum Girls would have been gearing up to release album No. 2 right about now and not a four-song EP. Yet what should have been a celebratory 2010 for the vintage-cool California rock quartet was instead one marked by extreme highs and lows.
On March 1, Sub Pop will release "He Gets Me High," one cover and three songs written by lead Dum Dum Girl Dee Dee as she was on the brink of knowingly entering one of the more difficult periods of her life.
"I was on the verge of really hectic tours, and my home life was getting really, really [screwed] up," said Dee Dee. "These songs just kind of fell out of me. They were pretty untouched by everything I knew was about to happen, so I was really into latching onto them."
Heading into 2010, the Dum Dum Girls, who will perform a free show Thursday at the Mondrian Hotel's Skybar, were often mentioned hand-in-hand with Best Coast as one of L.A.'s most promising talents. With a retro, girl group-inspired home-recorded sound,the Dum Dum Girls struck a sleek, rebel-without-a-cause vibe, and a deal with Seattle's vaunted indie Sub Pop was a chance Dee Dee (real name: Kristin Gundred) couldn't pass up.
Yet it came with a level of guilt that only a few could understand, as Dee Dee's mother had just been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. She passed away in October. "It was completely out of nowhere," Dee Dee said. "It was really hard to figure out how to balance the opportunity of having a record out on Sub Pop and wanting to tour, and then feeling really awful for not staying home and just quitting music for the year. Our next record, as much as I really love the songs, is definitely a dark record."
The EP, then, stands as a pre-tragedy peek into Dee Dee's mind, and the title track is an exhilarating rush of reverb-drenched romanticism. "He Gets Me High" also represents a giant leap in fidelity and professionalism. With "I Will Be," Dee Dee's vocals had a somewhat detached iciness, and sat buried beneath the guitar hum. With the songs on "He Gets Me High," Dee Dee's skills as a singer are brought to the fore -- she's a little tense and demanding on "Wrong Feels Right" and a lush alto balladeer on "Take Care of My Baby."
The latter is something of a revelation for the act, a stark tearjerker of a love letter with minimal adornments and ghostly echoes. It also may provide a hint at what Dee Dee means when she says the act's sophomore album, tentatively planned for late 2011, is a "dark record." She leads, for instance, into the chorus with this grim gripper of a line: "I would watch as you were sleeping / To make sure you were still breathing."
And this is how the L.A-centered act does optimism. "It's about desperation, longing and the thought of something getting me through this mess," Dee Dee said. "That’s basically where all those songs came from. Because of what was going to happen, I knew it would be pretty impossible to not write songs about death and darkness and sadness, so I really wanted to latch onto this little bit of desperate love cry and put it out there. Maybe this is a little more hopeful?"
The follow-up to "I Will Be" has largely been written, said Dee Dee, and she expects to record it with her bandmates -- first names only, with Jules on guitar, Bambi on bass and Sandy on drums -- after concluding a spring tour of Europe. While Dee Dee teases it as a bleak record, "I Will Be" was no picnic, as the characters were on the lam, angry and drugged out.
"I know, but I’ve never experienced death that closely before," Dee Dee said. "I’ve had a close friend pass away. My husband’s best friend passed away -- grandparents. But to be in the same room with it on a regular basis? It’s really impossible to not have that really seep into anything artistic you would try to do. It will all be colored by that."
The act's "I Will Be" was cleaned up in the studio by famed songwriter-producer Richard Gottehrer, who has a songwriting credit on "My Boyfriend's Back" and a resume that includes work with the Go-Go's and Blondie, among many others, but it was largely home-recorded by Dee Dee. Heightening the casualness was the fact that the songs also were cut before Dee Dee had settled on her bandmates, giving it a garage-rock scruffiness.
In a rush to record the songs on "He Gets Me High," Dee Dee went into the studio without her backing mates, and instead worked with Gottehrer and the Raveonettes' Sune Rose Wagner. It's a beefed-up sound, one in which guitar tones streak, slash and have room to breathe, and the layered backing harmonies take a more prominent role.
"We are not a lo-fi band," Dee Dee said. "I just didn’t know how to record. I enjoy reverb and distortion, but you can record those elements in the highest fidelity ever and it’s still going to be loud and noisy. I was afraid people would say, ‘This is super slick. They turned their back on their punk roots.’ But for me, I have always wanted my songs to sound as best as they can."
Performing Thursday at the Mondrian -- or "that weird hotel," as Dee Dee called it -- don't expect the Dum Dum Girls to flash a bolder sound. Noise restraints will keep the band from performing with a full drum kit, and Dee Dee joked that the act may be forced to do "Mamas and Papas-style versions" of its songs. But one thing likely won't ever change, and that's the act's Hollywood-ready, black-only wardrobe of 1950s rebels.
"Historically," Dee Dee said, "haven’t most people’s favorite bands been highly conceptual and aesthetically striking? That’s a rock 'n’ roll tradition."
-- Todd Martens
The Dum Dum Girsl play at 8 p.m. Thursday at Skybar at Mondrian Hotel, 8440 W. Sunset Blvd. Admission is free, but RSVP is required: firstname.lastname@example.org. The show is 21 and older only.
Top photo, left to right: Drummer Sandy, guitarist Jules, ringleader Dee Dee and bassist Bambi. Credit: Tyson Wirtzfield. Middle photo: Dee Dee in early 2010. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times