This interview was first published in the Wears The Trousers 2011 yearbook, available from our online shop.
It’s fair to say then that emotions run deep, if not unchecked, in their second album Only In Dreams. It’s a record that certainly packs a wallop in its themes of mortality, sadness and longing, but it’s done with such grace that any excess morbid thinking has been excised and replaced with something altogether more nuanced. These refinements extend, too, to Kristin’s vocal. No longer cloaked in reverb or retiring behind a wall of guitar noise, Only In Dreams finds her front, centre and determined, proud and thankful to be heard.
I couldn’t help but notice from your blog that you seem to have fallen in love with Berlin.
Oh yeah, I completely love it now. I’d been before but hadn’t spent that much time there until this year, but it’s great. Unlike New York or London where there are so many people and it feels like everyone is on top of each other, it seems like it’s underpopulated there…at least the areas I’m in. So it still feels and looks like a proper city, but there’s a lack of crowds that make it seem a bit more relaxed. It’s cheap too, which is great.
Let’s talk about the album. I remember you saying that you wanted to go for a cleaner, slightly poppier sound when you started making it…
Yeah, definitely. I had no interest in putting out my first album again and again, which I’m very capable of doing as I demo everything in kind of the same way. I like to see everything moving forward, for some progress to be noticeable. The He Gets Me High EP that came between the two albums, for me, was a very appropriate middle step. I think otherwise it might have been too much of a shock to go from the first record to this record.
Is the result pretty much how you thought it’d sound?
Yeah. I always write pop songs in the vein of rock ‘n roll, but I wanted to give it a new angle this time round, to take advantage of being a whole band. So, to me, this album sounds a whole lot different to the first record, which was home recorded, and the EP, which was tracked instrument by instrument in a studio. I wanted it to sound live, to harness that energy. I also wanted to take advantage of being in a proper studio and of the producers that I had, who totally get what my ideal is and what I do. It allowed me to kind of relinquish control for the things I’m not good at and just know that they’ll sort it out.
Well, we all know from the first album that you and Richard Gottehrer are a great match, production-wise.
Yeah, it was so strange to me that we worked so well together. It wasn’t an accident that we met but definitely was quite random and not really anything I anticipated, so it’s been kind of perfect. What he brings is not only the knowledge and experience from a lifetime’s career in all different arenas – being a songwriter, being in bands, producing records, working on a label etc. – but he’s very enthusiastic still and not jaded in the slightest. To have that sort of energy at this point in his career is pretty special. Most people I know who are my age are already jaded.
How do you try and avoid that yourself?
I don’t know…I’m not an asshole [laughs]. I don’t take for granted the opportunities that I have now. I’ve failed at music much longer than I’ve had any success, so I enjoy the music and enjoy the hard work. I don’t really know what else I can do that could come close to fulfilling me in the same way. I guess I just remember the jobs I had before Dum Dum Girls started touring. No offence to the sweet employers who were kind to me, but there’s a difference between working a job that you have no interest in and working all the other hours of the day doing something you love, and being able to just do what you love exclusively.
I remember when we first interviewed you, one of your employers commented on the article saying “Ah, this is our receptionist! She’s touring Europe, we’re really proud of her!”
[laughs] Yeah, I tend to surround myself with really good people. I’m really lucky in that regard.
So how did Sune Rose Wagner from The Raveonettes get involved on the production side?
I’d been a fan of The Raveonettes since 2000. They were doing pretty well in Europe the year that I went to school in Germany, and I was really into them at the time. I hadn’t really heard anyone else doing that sort of trashy ‘50s pop for a while. But we kinda just met as friends first as we share a manager and, of course, Richard has produced his band in the past. I think we just got talking about maybe bringing Sune into the studio to help out with things. I have a very good idea of what I want, and Richard has a very similar idea but he pulls me a bit more in the pop direction, so I thought that if we brought in Sune he’d bring out the other side as he’s kind of an expert in noise, in making sure songs sound evil and have teeth and whatnot. That, to me, was an enticing balancing act to try, and I was really happy with how the EP came out so it felt natural to get him in for the record as well. And again, we just have a sort of uncanny natural rapport.
Obviously the album is incredibly personal for you. How did you get through pressure of making an album through the immense upheaval of your mother’s illness?
I don’t really have the capability to determine what I’m going to write about for the most part, it’s generally just what I’m going through or dealing with at the time. So there was really no way to not write songs about it, and if anything it was my only therapeutic outlet for coping at the time because of travelling so much and trying to get home as often as I could. I was feeling kind of guilty for not being home all the time. I had a pretty much non-stop internal dialogue about the whole thing. And as much as it may have been detrimental to be throwing myself into my work as a coping mechanism, we were so busy touring that when we needed to stop I had about half the album written anyway, and we just took the next couple of months to sort of stick it out and just finish the songs. Looking back, it wasn’t the greatest thing for me to do, mentally, but at the time it was really the only way I knew how to get through it.
And now you’re having to talk about those still-raw memories with strangers. Is that weird for you?
Yeah, I didn’t really think it through. I’m wondering if at some point I’m going to reach some sort of conclusion that I’m just not going to talk about it anymore. But I guess, you know, if you put songs like that out there and people have questions, I should just try to answer them. But it’s a pretty direct album, so I don’t think there needs to be that much explanation if you were to pay attention. I did an interview recently and some of the questions were offensive as it was obvious that they’d not even listened to the record. I was a bit like, ‘I’m not going to sit there and tell you what all the major themes are on the record. I mean, really, fuck you!’
I felt kind of dumb actually myself, as I’d never caught that hint of Chrissie Hynde in your voice until listening to this record, with all the reverb stripped away.
[laughs] I definitely spent the first record kind of cooing and singing softly in my living room so my neighbours wouldn’t hear me. But yeah, I’ve been singing in the shower trying to emulate Grace Slick since I was about twelve, and I think it was definitely the right time to bring the vocals up and out of the mix like a ‘proper’ album, I guess. I love The Pretenders, but they weren’t necessarily a huge influence. Of course I look up to Chrissie Hynde a lot and think she has fantastic style and one of the most distinguishable voices, and that’s one of the things that I’ve always really longed to have: an instantly recognisable voice. You know, I actually saw her in a copy shop in Brooklyn last summer and almost had a heart attack.
So, you’re recording in a studio, you’ve turned up the vocals and are making more direct, punchy rock songs. Did you feel like you could cut loose a bit more and inhabit more of a Grace Slick-style persona?
Yeah, definitely. I love listening to music and writing music, but there’s no feeling like playing a good show. Maybe it’s all in your head but it’s life changing, and if it’s possible to experience that while you’re recording then I feel that’s just ideal. I think we really nailed it. It was fun for me to be able to cut loose a bit more and not worry about controlling every little thing.
You mentioned earlier that all the band members had some involvement in the singing this time around.
Yeah, everyone really stepped up. For me, probably the last thing I let go of in the studio was the singing. Before I’d always just do the backing vocals myself but the first song we recorded doing them together was ‘In My Head’, which is sort of a call-and-response with Jules, and I was like, ‘Wow, it sounds so much better to have two different voices that have two different tones. Why didn’t I do this sooner?’
Another big theme on the album is distance, and feeling separated from your husband Brandon.
You know, the more I think about it, the more I think that’s actually the whole theme of the record that comes out in the different relationships. Essentially, it’s about the great divide between what you have and what you wish you had – hence the title, I guess! But yeah, the last year was just a bad year really. There’s no other way to describe it. For a few different reasons, but touring so much and just always being away…it gets really, really hard. So Brandon and I have become a little more proactive in forcing our people to coordinate our schedules more.
Sounds good. So, what can you tell me about the album cover?
I started thinking about astral projection and felt that it was totally suited to the album because I’m talking about all these things that exist only in the subconscious. I researched a lot of images and there was one particular image that I found really striking, of a man in the same sort of pose, naked. I’m assuming it was staged and not an actual photo of astral projection, but I instantly thought ‘That’s it!’. I tried to recreate it with a bunch of old polaroid cameras using a really, really slow shutter. We did about twenty or thirty shots of me lying down and getting up really slowly, and used the one that came out the best. It looks sort of Victorian in its aesthetic, and that’s why the back cover is of a Victorian-era funeral wreath, which I thought was appropriate.
It’s beautiful. So, given how much effort you put into the packaging, were you upset that the album leaked so early on the internet?
No, not really. I knew it was going to happen as well as Sub Pop, the diamonds that they are, were giving out a link to stream the album with every pre-order, so obviously someone just ripped it from that. The things that upset me more were very minor, like people referring to it as a ‘summer album’. I was like, ‘Yeah it leaked in the summer, but it wasn’t out until the fall,’ so it’s little stuff like that. I know people download things – I download things – so it’s not really a big deal. I just want to make sure that people are aware of the whole package as I put a lot of heart into it. It’d be nice if you could sort of ‘control’ how people are introduced to your album but I guess you can’t. So, whatever.
And you’ve already recorded over twenty demos for the next album? That’s pretty impressive.
Yeah, I tend to demo a lot of stuff whenever I have downtime. I pretty much have ten songs I wrote before I moved to New York and about ten since then.
Finally, how do you feel about the ‘lost’ album from your old band Grand Ole Party being released? Was that with your blessing or a cynical cash-in on your success?
[sly laugh] I don’t have a thing to say about it.
Dum Dum Girls play Islington Academy tonight in London. Check out the recent Malia James-directed video for ‘Coming Down’ below.