12 January 2014


Dee Dee Penny of Dum Dum Girls
Photography by Eleonora Collini

Dum Dum Girls started as the bedroom recording project of vocalist and songwriter Dee Dee Penny (a.k.a. Kirsten Gundred). Their debut album I Will Be was a collection of great ‘60s-inspired, frenetic, noise rock-surf pop songs, but it was only with sophomore record Only in Dreams that they really started standing out from the all-female garage bands of the last decade thanks to Dee Dee’s visceral songwriting and the excellent touch of legendary producers Richard Gottehrer (Blondie, The Strangeloves, The Go-Go’s) and The Raveonettes’ Sune Rose Wagner.
After releasing the brilliant End of Daze EP in September 2012, Dum Dum Girls are now back with Too True which will be out on Subpop late January.  Dee Dee was in London for promo and I spent most of the evening with her, talking about the upcoming album, the writing and recording process, her side projects and what really inspires her to make music. She is very friendly, chatty, honest and willing to share her inner emotions as well as admit her weak points.

Writing songs is something that comes out pretty naturally for her: “I am usually pretty quick at writing” she says. “I have the main idea which is the hook of the chorus and then I use the verse to expand on that concept”. But it’s also something she needs to do on her own: “Writing is a very personal thing for me and I found that I work best when I isolate myself”. Dee Dee wrote the new album mainly in New York where she now lives: “Between tours I was in New York by myself as my husband (Brandon Welchez of Crocodiles) was on tour and I just sat down with the intention of writing the record, although I didn’t have any direction or anything specific. I would just wake up, get a lot of coffee, then get stoned, write and record the whole day into the night which is the way I had always done it. So I did that for about eight or nine days”. She then finished it in a rented Hollywood apartment in two separate sessions.

Too True was recorded in Hollywood Pet Sounds at East West Studios. The recording process is a more collaborative effort as Dee Dee has relied on the same production team and engineer (Alonzo Vargas) for almost everything she has done with Dum Dum Girls. “We are quite a family but there is still a lot of room for growth. Everybody brings their own ideas and pushes in different directions. I usually know what I want pretty clearly and they help me to get there in the best way “. 
Dee Dee Penny of Dum Dum Girls
She seems to have a total admiration for the producers of her albums who have contributed to her work a lot but in different ways. Of Richard Gottehrer she says: “I was a huge fan of his work, so getting the opportunity to collaborate with him was very surreal. Not only he has written some classic songs that were my favourites growing up, but he has also produced some of my favourite records. And the more I find out about him, the crazier the fact that he’s a good friend is, as he has really seen the ins and the outs of the music industry since the 60’s. The most inspiring thing about Richard is not at all music related but it’s that he never becomes jaded. I don’t think I have ever met a person in the music industry that hasn’t been at one point pretty burnt out. He has just had this career that has probably been half luck, half talent and just the right attitude to survive it”. Gottehrer’s production style is pretty light-handed and enthusiastic: “I come in with fairly finished ideas and he would jump on a song all excited, suggesting I should do this or that. He’s very cute and enthusiastic. I am pretty sure it has been his style forever as I read interviews with other bands he worked with, like Blondie or The Go-Go’s, and they all talked the same way about him that I do”.

Sune Rose Wagner came on board a bit later but has been a precious collaborator since the He Gets me High EP: “It’s really natural between us. I don’t know why, as I am kind of a weirdo and it’s not my comfort zone to work collaboratively but somehow it has worked out. He’s a little more straightforward. Maybe it has to do with him being Danish. For instance I had three songs that I still had to finish for potential B-sides but he didn’t like them, and he was right. Sune is incredibly talented and a multi-instrumentalist”. The Raveonettes’ frontman has contributed to this record more than any other before: “If I have an idea that I can’t execute myself I just can tell him and without much direction he will nail it, which he did probably on this record more than he had ever done before. Too True is more textured and I just couldn’t do that at all, as it’s a conceptual thing, I knew what I wanted the songs to sound like, but I wanted to have an element, like a third guitar, that I wasn’t able to represent. So we talked about it and I just gave him a few references. He is just very in tune with what I like to do, so it’s easy for him to help me”.

Rose Wagner also played on Too True, but not on its predecessor which is the only album to date with the full band participating to the recording: “  Only in Dreams was an album that I thought was necessary to do as a band because I recorded I Will be by myself in my bedroom and it really sounded as a bedroom album. Then we formed the band, we learnt the songs, we went on tour and there was a discrepancy between the way the album was recorded, sort of lo-fi, versus a live band. And even though as a band we got better over the years, it sounded different than on the record, so I wanted to put out a version of Dum Dum Girls that was representative of what we sounded like as a band. That’s also the template I used for the rest of the records as, though I went back doing them on my own, I want to be a proper band and sound like that on the record and live”.

Dee Dee Penny of Dum Dum GirlsThe relationship with long-time label Subpop also seems very important for Dee Dee. For instance for the first single of the new album she let them pick: “They pushed for “Lost Boys and Girls Club” which originally wasn’t my intention. I think it’s a great song, I think there is a lot of attitude, it’s slower than the stuff I usually do and it has this big guitar riff. But I trusted that their choice was appropriate”. I am intrigued by the meaning of the song so I ask her what it is about and she tells me: “It’s not a motto or anything for my generation, but for me it had to do with a personal revelation as most of my life I was very straightforward thinking and I had goals, but since I shifted my focus to do music my life got a lot more bohemian and I struggled with that for a while”. But then she laughs: “ One day I realised that’s the way I need to be and that’s how I have learnt where my growth comes from, making a lot of mistakes and not knowing necessarily what I am doing, but experiencing lots of enriching moments along the way while being a bit lost. I think that’s probably something a lot of people identify with”.

She also seems pretty pleased with the video of “Lost Boys and Girls Club” directed by Cody Critcheloe, a well known director in the underground scene of New York, the Midwest and California. Of him she says: “He has his own visual style and this video is probably his most ambitious to date but a perfect example of his style, very pop and shiny”. They shot in Kansas city where Critcheloe is from because they could stretch the budget so much further than in New York. “And he had these 20 teenagers he recruited that were all fun to be around” she continues. “ I don’t think I have ever been on any video shoot or anything band related that wasn’t overly stressful …. Everything was mapped out to the minute which was interesting as I didn’t have a concept of what the video was going to look like because I only knew the little parts I performed. For the most part I think our fans enjoyed it ”.

The recording of Too True took longer than usual as Dee Dee had some vocals issues which forced her to take a big break in between which was very hard for her: “I had never had so much time off and it was difficult for a varieties of reasons, some just financial, and also because I didn’t know how to keep my mind from going crazy without having something that I do every day. When you are on tour you have to force yourself to perform every night which is very fulfilling”. She is one of those people that need to be constantly busy (“If I am not busy it’s a bad thing. Even if I am super tired right now it feels so good to be back working”), so during that long break she started some side projects. First of all Haunted Hearts with her husband: “We have been together for almost seven years now and we had always played in bands but never in the same band. We finally had a significant time off because of my vocals issues so we first put out a 7”, and then this past summer we had the time to write a full album and record it with our friend in California. We just finished mastering it so we are going to release it on our label probably in the summer”.

Dee Dee Penny of Dum Dum GirlsDum Dum Girls also recently composed the opening theme for the animated series “Beware the Batman”. Dee Dee recalls : “I remember we were in town rehearsing for something and someone from my label called me and said that Warner Bros wanted to invite us to their cartoon office as the animation department wanted to meet us. And I was like ‘what?’.” The animator Glen Murakami is a huge fan of the band: “we met him and he showed us some scratches he had done for the new series, and he wanted us to write the songs and be in the cartoon as characters every now and then as well. Of course that got cut somewhere down the line, but he stuck with me in terms of writing the song”. She really found it easy to work with the animator (“he was asking me to be dark, like Bauhaus and Siouxsie Soux but very catchy like Buzzcocks”, she says) and the producers, and to convey to what they wanted in terms of appealing to a target audience: “As it’s probably going to be young boys, pre-teens that watch the show, Glen asked us to make sure the vocals didn’t sound too cute or girlie, but more aggressive”. She is very pleased with the results: “It was interesting as I had never written for something so specific before. You need to have the chorus or the main part of the song to fit the intro. I thought I just had to write the song and then he would animate it but no, you have to write with all those time constraints. So all that really influences the tempo and the vibe, but it was a pretty entertaining experience and I would totally do it again!”

I ask Dee Dee if for her writing music is therapeutic and she says: “I don’t know if I would say that this record was therapeutic when writing. But I wrote records which I then understood were therapeutic”. And what about thinking about performing the songs live when writing? “I can't think so far ahead.” she confesses .“I am very in the moment when I write, so much that when I get to the recording I have no idea what to make of it. For me that moment of anticipating what is going to be like to perform the songs live happens when the band get together and start rehearsing”.

For the Dum Dum Girls frontwoman performing on stage wasn’t always easy.“At the beginning I had stage fright for years and I just didn’t play in bands as I was too terrified to do anything I could actually do.” she candidly admits. “Then when I finally started singing in a band I was super nervous so I just got really drunk at that show,” she continues “and I remember afterwards just recognizing what it felt like to perform in front of a few people for the first time was a very unique feeling, there is nothing like that. I think I spent probably the last fifteen years trying to chase that feeling. It doesn’t happen that often when everything feels so perfect, but when it does it’s just incredible”.

I want to know what really inspires her to write music so I ask Dee Dee what her big influences are and she tells me: “I would say Velvet Underground is a major reference to me, not just for the lyrics but also for their approach to songwriting. Also The Beatles are probably my favourite band, like for a lot of people. And then David Bowie as well”. And what about non-musical influences? “I read a lot. Typically when I write songs, I have some ideas like usually the catch phrase like “Rimbaud eyes” for example, but then I spend a lot of time between that initial spontaneous input and what I write later developing the initial idea. I read a lot to sort of just get in the zone”.

Dee Dee Penny of Dum Dum GirlsWhen writing she takes everything seriously and does a lot of preparation: “I would never put out a song that was what it’s called a filler. So I would just listen to music, and if I think a song is great musically I want to do something as good. On my computer I have tons of books that I’ve read a lot of times. Or for instance I have Patti Smith website that I read religiously. That’s a perfect example of what I think is ideal, when you have the combination of great music, great energy and such beautiful, articulate poetry”. I then want to know if she ever writes lyrics before music? “Yeah I keep a folder and it’s not necessarily lyrics. I write a lot. Sometimes I would go back and look at it, pick some lyrics then put them into music.”

As Dum Dum Girls are an all-female band I ask Dee Dee if there was ever a moment in her career when she thought she was being discriminated for being a woman and she admits so: “Yeah definitely. At this point when we tour we have a sound engineer that tours with us and she is a friend, ready for us so that we don’t have to deal with a lot of stuff we had to initially. On our first tour we were driving around in my station wagon. We were also borrowing gear from the first band as we hadn’t toured before and we were asking things that they didn’t give us. It’s different now as we travel with our own team and we are like ‘this is our show. Don’t fuck with that!!’ .”

I finally want to know how much importance she gives to media and if she reads her reviews. “Not really”, she says “as I think that’s a pretty dangerous territory. On one hand I don’t care, you can read a negative review and be like ‘I don’t care, I hate you’ and that almost empowers you more, but at the same time it can hurt as my skin is not consistently thick enough”. For Dee Dee what really matters are fans and not writing commercial music to please masses: “I just hope our fans like the music and that’s well received for a variety of reasons but I don’t write songs thinking if someone is going to like this or how this is going to be reviewed in mind, as that’s actually dangerous because you may lose your creativity, unless you do something very commercial intentionally which I don’t do anyway”.

Dee Dee would carry one talking longer but we have also a photo shoot scheduled. She seems shy at first but then she plays in front of the camera in a natural, charming way. What I really like about her is not only the music, but the fact that she seems to be very genuine and spontaneous. I hope she stays like this forever.

Too True is out on Sub Pop on 27th January.

Check out some photos of Dum Dum Girls' show at Hoxton Bar & Grill, London here.

Originally published on The Line of Best Fit

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