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Interview With A Dum Dum Girl

5+1 special moments in Dee Dee Penny's career

Having followed virtually every Dum Dum Girls concert in New York for the past two years, I imagine it was probably fate that I met Dee Dee Penny in my homeland, Greece. Dum Dum Girls visited Athens last December to promote their new album Too True, and I, well, I... was back for Christmas. Meanwhile, Too True was due for release in a month and that, of course, was going to be the focal point of our discussion. Yet fate (i.e. tour manager) decided otherwise again: “You only have ten minutes” Claire Murphy said leading me backstage and, as it turned out, she really meant it. At the end of a hectic European tour, having played London the previous night and arrived in Athens only two hours ahead of their show, time was of the essence for the band. So I just put my original two-page questionnaire aside, and asked Dee Dee to share 5+1 special moments in her career.

 

Is there a moment that’s the single most important during the process of songwriting? Like a magic moment or something?

Um... for me it’s kind of... I mean, it’s not magic, but I sit down and it kind of just happens. It’s very spontaneous and so, if you can, you know, go with that, without too much analysis to impede that process, but you can somehow be aware like “Oh shit, I’m writing something, this is cool”—that’s the sweet spot. Because I really don’t pre-think a lot of it, I tend to hone in on a topic or a phrase that becomes the chorus, but it kind of just happens. When I go back I kind of start to analyze things like “Oh, interesting, I was writing about that.” It’s not an out-of-body experience, like, by any means, but it’s definitely like a creative train that I’m on that I’m not necessarily feeling like I’m in control of. So... recognizing that, is exciting.

Was there a moment—a song, basically—when you felt that you had written something that was really different from anything you had done before?

Um... I mean, for me this new record is a big deal. With End of Daze, the last EP, I tried to do some different things... Um, ‘Mine Tonight’ and the Strawberry Switchblade cover ‘Trees and Flowers’ were probably where I think I achieved doing something outside of the typical Dum Dum Girls box up to that point. With the new record, I approached things a little bit differently, and it was because I wanted to take a more significant step forward than I had in the past, you know, I felt like it was appropriate. So I think this record is definitely my best work... Ah... yeah. [laughs]

 

A moment when you felt that Dum Dum Girls was really coming together as a band, that the whole thing started to gel?

Yeah, I mean, we’ve existed in a few different formations over the years, and even now, like, our bass player, she’s playing with us for about two years. Um... it was in that first year of touring [2010] when we really sort of crossed over from it being me writing songs, and sending them to the other members, and them learning the songs, and then as a band, you know, on stage we play the songs. We definitely crossed over to a point where it was like, we played the songs as a band, and that was exciting. I played in bands for many many years before, but never my stuff and never with people that I genuinely loved [laughs] and felt a connection with when performing, so that was cool.

I think I’ll always remember our first festival performance, we played the Pitchfork Stage at Primavera, probably like four years ago, and we were terrified, we played at midnight, I think we played after The Slits or something crazy... And we were so so nervous—there were thousands of people—and my guitarist was so nervous that she lost her voice, just out of fear. We went on stage and she had, you know, during sound check she was like “Aaa-aaaa” [sings], and then backstage all of a sudden she’s like “aaa-arrgh” [makes choking sound] and we’re like “Fuck!” Because she’s singing all the harmonies, like, I sing and then she sings, that was the deal, and I was like OK, it’s gonna sound real different if she’s not singing. And we start the first song and, you know, she’s back, and that was just like “Oh, thank God.” And, you know, it was probably objectively not a great gig—we’re a much better, tighter band now, four years later—but that was like the height of feeling like a good band, like we nailed it, we just all came off that stage being like... yes! [laughs]

Was there a moment when you felt ready to give up?

Yeah, totally. I had started writing Dum Dum Girls songs while playing in other bands just because, like I said, I wasn’t the songwriter in these other bands and for, you know, all sorts of reasons, from just straight-up musical style I was unhappy to just personal relationships within the band I was unhappy, I was completely burnt on the concept of a band, I hated being in a band. And so when I started writing songs which then, for whatever reason, I called Dum Dum Girls—it was just me writing and recording in my house—that was me trying to be like, OK, I need to get back to a positive relationship with music, because it’s really the only thing I love and right now I hate it. And I was like it’s time I just do my own thing, like, it doesn’t matter—because at the time I was touring and I didn’t have a job—but I was like, I would rather get a crappy job, and just go back to making music that I like, on my own terms. So that’s what I did and then, after failing for years and years in the other bands I’ve been in, I ended up having, like, a crazy opportunity to work with Sub Pop. It was the first time that I set out, without intention, to just do my thing purely for the sake of doing it, and I got positive feedback, I got the support I needed to do it for real. So that was incredibly... fantastic. [laughs]

 

But with Dum Dum Girls you’ve never thought of quitting?

Not really, I mean, when we started there was that whole wave of, like, 2009 Brooklyn lo-fi scene and then there was like a 2010 California answer, you know, so my band was definitely considered a part of that. Even though I didn’t actually have a band, we didn’t play shows, we didn’t exist but like, sonically, we were lumped in with that stuff. And that was great, that was a very appropriate and very hopeful scene to be associated with, because it was a thing that people were into at the time...

 

In California, you mean?

Just all over, it was a popular sound. But I quickly tried to move past it because my intention is never to be married to a scene, I mean, I’m a songwriter, I’m a performer, I like music, it’s not about, you know, what microcosm I can exist in. It’s about having a career and making progress as I go along, I would get bored if I made the same record over and over. So I’ve never felt confined to anything. I feel like I have to reiterate occasionally with journalists who still call my band a lo-fi band, I’m like, “Have you heard any record other than the first record?” [laughs] It was all done in very high fidelity studios, just because I use distortion doesn’t mean it’s lo-fi, I mean, that’s just a guitar pedal, The Beatles used distortion!

 

As you’re becoming more successful, was there a moment when you felt kind of distant from yourself?

Oh no, this is very much who I am. Yeah, I would never do anything that wasn’t myself. [laughs] I mean, I’ve never felt like I had to do anything specific, I always just do what I feel like doing—which is nice, and so far that’s been cool with the world. [laughs]

 

A great New York City moment since you moved there?

I mean, I love being there all the time... Um, I was able to go up in the Empire State Building for a party last year and that was a trip. We were on the thirtieth floor, we had some incredible view of the city, it felt like I was on borrowed time, like, how did I get in here, it’s not like what normal people do—so that was cool!

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