Dum Dum Girls Dee Dee Penny: I was a pretentious 15-year-old writing poetry
Dum Dum Girls are often recognized for their distinctive aesthetic, but are seldom lauded enough for the grit and professional resilience of songwriter and frontwoman Dee Dee Penny. Surviving intense personal tragedies as well as potentially career-ending battle with vocal trauma, the group's mastermind has emerged after a two-year break with her best suite of songs yet, entitled Too True.
Gimme Noise caught up with Dee Dee before the start of the Dum Dum's current tour to discuss her work with legendary producer Richard Gottehrer and Sune Rose Wagner of the Ravonettes, as well as her background in poetry and that brand new album.
Gimme Noise: Dum Dum Girls started as a bedroom project for you and eventually blossomed into a full band sound for your last two releases. Why return to that approach for Too True?
Dee Dee: Well, I actually did End of Daze on my own, as well as He Gets Me High. Only in Dreams was actually the atypical approach for me. At the time, I felt like it was really significant for the next output of recorded material to reflect the fact that we had graduated from a bedroom recording project to a pretty serious one, at least in terms of commitment and the amount of work in the actual band, we'd been on tour for more than a year at that point, and I felt like that needed to be represented. I felt like it was appropriate for that selection of songs.
But I've always worked pretty individually. Even with that record I wrote everything, and demoed everything and then we got together and the band learned the songs. I think it's just the way that I started, and the way that I've come to realize that I prefer to work. I don't know if when I started I anticipated keeping it pretty separate but it's how I'm wired, I think, with this band in particular. I have a lot of fully formed ideas so I like to keep the kitchen pretty empty.
That being said, you've stuck with some of your consistent collaborators, namely Sune Rose Wagner and Richard Gottehrer, that have been with you on most, if not all of your releases. Why has that partnership been so fruitful?
With I Will Be, I had literally recorded everything myself and wanted that initial release to be a progression from the 7-inches and EPs that I had put out, so that's why I brought Richard Gottehrer into the picture. He served as...sort of a mentor and did some post production work, helped oversee mixing, raised the fidelity up a bit from where it would have been had I just put out my recording. That was such a comfortable fit for me, again, being so personal and private about what I'm recording, that if I were to work with somebody, that it felt really natural and really comfortable.
He brought Sune into the picture on the next release, which was He Gets Me High and this was not just because he though Sune would have a good input, but [Richard] knew I was a fan and I think he regards us similarly in terms of how we do music. Sune is also a multi-instrumentalist, so anything that I captured at my ability that was capping-out at a certain point, he is capable of helping me make it a little better. So that's been something that we have done every record that he's been on.
I write and demo very thoroughly, and I'll send them the demos. We'll have already begun talking about influences and usually they have suggestions for minor arrangement ideas or comments. Then we go into the studio with the demos and put them into whatever board we're working on, and then work off of them. So we'll listen to the bassline, for instance, and if that's not a good take, we'll overdub it. There's some pieces of all the demos that we keep on the record, just because there's something interesting and special about those more accidental sounds that you couldn't capture if you tried. It's a layering process I would say.
On this record, especially, it sounds like that demo material may have been really vital for you. Too True had to be split into two sessions because of your battle with a severe voice condition, correct?
Yeah, when I went in to record the album in L.A. it was an interesting record, it was basically a high-fidelity instrumental record with low-fidelity demo vocals. Over the next six months as my voice improved, I slowly started overdubbing the vocals in my studio apartment. But I did keep at least one song because there was something about the energy captured on the demo that I knew I was not going to be able to nail, and that was "Rimbaud Eyes."
The only reason I ask is because your voice has been sounding stronger than ever on this record, and you really seem to have made a real push over the last few years to have your voice take the leading role as your main instrument, away from the guitar
Oh definitely, I think it was about time. I've always been heading in that direction and I think these songs just lent themselves to making sure that was the focus. I definitely struggled a lot, the vocal problems came from touring and strain, so by the time I recorded the Too True vocals my voice was in a much better place. I've really made an effort to maintain my vocal health, and hopefully this round of touring I can go back to having a strong and infallible voice like I used to. [laughs]
Sonically, this record shifts a little way from the jangly, guitar-centric stuff you've been making towards more synthesized sounds. What's driving that shift?
I think the main differences sonically are that I used some more aggressive tones on the guitar leads, that was intentional. I wanted to be a little more direct on this record, for example on "Lost Boys and Girls Club," I've never done that kind of guitar lead before in a song. The other main difference on this record is that there's a 3rd guitar, fast, textural, very pretty stuff happening, sort of Johnny Marr. It's jangly in one sense, but it's referencing a different style of that sort of finger-picking, arpeggiated guitar work playing. For me, it's not a huge difference from End of Daze, it's just a more intense version of that. That one is essentially a very ethereal record, but there's "Season in Hell" and "I Got Nothing," which I think hints at the direction that most of Too True went in. So that was the palette that I was taking a step forward from.
You strike me as a person with an intuitive sense of the economy of word-usage, and I think it really shows in your evocative song titles on your record. Are you particular about titles?
Yeah definitely, I don't think I've ever heard anyone say that about my writing, but that's literally exactly what I'm going for. I always thought I was going to be a writer. I was a little pretentious 15-year-old writing poetry in the library at lunch. I was very studious, and I had a writing teach who told me that she thought I had potential, but that I really needed to stop being so frivolous [laughs]. She gave me a book called Writing Down to the Bone, which I read, and I haven't read it cover to cover in years, but I've made sure I've had a copy at all points. It's basically about distilling your writing down to the essentials. That doesn't mean getting rid of imagery or symbolism or poetic, beautiful language, but it does mean only saying what's necessary to convey...it's about articulation, and that's definitely been a big goal of mine.
So when you're working on songs, do they start from a really wordy place before you pare them down to get to the bone, then?
No, it's probably the opposite of that at this point. That was more of a tool that I utilized when I was just writing fiction, or prose or long-form poetry. It's now just more the mindset that I have when I go to write songs. But it usually starts with an idea with a chorus, and that's probably why the titles are catchy in that sense, because that's what came first, and that's what I used to expand the song with.
I've heard that your schooling had a literary focus to it. You make some references Surrealism, art, and poetry on this album. Is Too True more of a realization of that scholarly period of your life than your previous albums?
I think a lot of that has to do with, on Only in Dreams and End of Daze, my parameters with which I could write were so limited. I was so overwhelmed by these traumatic personal events that there was no hope to write about anything else, and I think finally with this record, I arrived back at a place where I felt I had a blank canvas, and I was once again open to all courses. As cheesy as it may sound, I think that moving forward, and acceptance, and to a big degree, I've gained a lot of self-awareness that I've lacked in previous years. I think that these personal revelations that I was having, paired with the things that I've been re-reading, things that I've loved forever but have never really totally resonated before. I think I was just in a very open state where I felt I was taking in a lot more than I had in years.
Dum Dum Girls. With Blouse. 18+, $15, 7 p.m., Tuesday, April 1 at Triple Rock Social Club. Tickets. GIMME NOISE'S GREATEST HITS
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