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Cover Story: Dum Dum Girls

January 30, 2014  |  9:38am
Cover Story: Dum Dum Girls

Kristin Gundred and I went to college together, beginning the same year and everything. I never met her that I can recall and only realize this coincidence because she now has a band and I write about bands and our lives intersect for a brief moment during one the driest winters California has ever had.

It is 10 years since we graduated and I went on to an unexpectedly lucrative career mixing cocktails in that college town of Santa Cruz, Calif. She spent several years working menial jobs, the type that prompted phone calls from her father asking when she was going to get her teaching credential or in some way start using her degree. Even from that point, we are both unexpectedly far from where we started, metaphorically at least. In reality, it is maybe 500 miles.

But had I even known her in passing, it would have still made sense if I didn’t recognize her. After all, since marrying husband Brandon Welchez of the band Crocodiles, her last name has been replaced with his. And beyond that, as a musician, she operates under a pseudonym: Dee Dee Penny—or just Dee Dee, mostly.

This separation of personal and professional identities typically can be motivated by a desire to clearly define the performance aspect as theater, the name just a character played at work, but the truth is Dee Dee is not interested at all in removing herself from the experience. Her latest album is titled Too True, and it is a truncated inversion of the well-known aphorism. Too good to be true, or too true to be good. Maybe at one time Dee Dee wanted her music to not seep too far into her personal life. But that’s just not possible at this point.

For example, I am invited to drive a couple hours south to San Diego to meet her in the midst of a family vacation, where she is juggling press obligations with visiting her in-laws. It is exactly one week before her third full-length is set to be released, but the album is already available for everyone with an internet connection to stream via the prestigious NPR First Listen. It’s actually the marquee stream for the week on the website, but at least one notable fan is not pleased.

“You know how on Tumblr fans will create ‘Fuck Yeah Dum Dum Girls’ or whatever?” Dee Dee asks me at a South Park bar named The Whistlestop. “Well, I came across on the Dum Dum Girls one that whoever runs it posted ‘Does anyone want to take over this blog, I don’t like what they do now,’ or something like that. I thought it was awesome. Like, sorry, but I will never care about something like that. I will always write for very personal reasons, and I don’t second guess it. That’s just not my motivation. Obviously, I hope people like it, but if they don’t, I wouldn’t change how I do things.”

This is easier in theory than in practice. We further discuss what some people are willing to forfeit or rationalize in order to maintain their career, but Dee Dee is firm is her belief that she wouldn’t do that. “I’ve written songs for myself before,” she notes, “I can do it again, but I will fight to the bitter end to maintain this as my career, and hopefully it doesn’t come to the bitter end.”

“For everybody that thinks the last EP was amazing,” Dee Dee says, “there is somebody that only likes the first 7-inch and the Hozac sound. But, I don’t think about that at all. It’s pretty dangerous territory. Obviously you want fans to get something out of your work and stick with you. It’s dangerous to cater to what people want, though.”

It’s difficult to not take her on her word—and not because she seems sincere, but because her struggle to get to this point has been characterized by conflicts and personal tragedy. She has pushed forward in the face of these events, turning personal trauma into useful art, compositions whose emotional availability and honesty can, and has, legitimately helped people in similar circumstances.

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Born and raised in San Leandro, Calif., Dee Dee had a “pretty normal childhood.” The daughter of two schoolteachers, she was accepting of the likely endgame of following her time at UC-Santa Cruz with a Masters in Library Science and becoming a librarian. “I was more practical back then,” she says, half-kidding.

Despite pedantic pedigree, Dee Dee felt a connection to a different family tradition, one that included numerous musicians and even amateur vaudeville acts. She remembers memorizing the words and dances to SWV and TLC songs as a child, but not necessarily being able to share those numbers with the world.

“I was a really quiet, introverted kid,” she recalls. “I knew at a pretty young age that I wanted to perform and be a singer, but it took me a really long time to actualize those desires. Not until I was an adult did I pursue that because I had a pretty severe case of stage fright and low self-confidence and all that common pre-teen, adolescent stuff.”

“It’s probably genetic, that desire,” she notes, “but I’m the only person that ever made it their thing; everybody else considered it just a hobby.”

After living abroad to study German, which would prominently appear years later on her debut LP as Dum Dum Girls in multiple lyrical references, Dee Dee returned to Santa Cruz and started playing in bands.

“I started as the singer in my boyfriend’s band,” she recalls, “and they were a really bad Jefferson Airplane/Rolling Stones sort of rock band. And I learned drums and played drums in a band after that [Grand Ole Party], and then was in another band.

“I was frustrated and fed up with the band experiences I was having, and I quit music and went to work a normal job, trying to get back in a normal relationship with making art. I finally learned the guitar after failing many times, which was because of laziness and being a perfectionist and being really put off by sucking at something. But when I realized that if I wanted to do my own thing, that I’d need to play guitar in order to write songs, I did that. And the first songs I ended up writing were the first Dum Dum Girls songs.”

It’s unclear at what moment she became Dee Dee and left Kristen for the name on her mail, but those first Dum Dum Girls songs quickly became the first self-released CD-R (via her own Zoo Music record label, which still puts out records to this day, notably the last Dirty Beaches double-LP), which led to a 7-inch on Hozac Records, known for their involvement with Smith Westerns’ early career. Quickly Captured Tracks wanted an EP, and her career was gaining traction at an unexpected rate.

“I couldn’t believe these smaller labels wanted to do something, let alone Sub Pop,” Dee Dee says. “When Sub Pop first contacted me, it was via Myspace and it was about doing a 7-inch for their singles club. And before I knew it, they were like ‘actually, I think I want to pitch you on an actual album.’ It was amazing. I grew up on a lot of Sub Pop records, and I didn’t know what to do, because that seemed like a really giant step and it was my first really big break; I didn’t want to squander it. So I ended up asking my friends who are in No Age because they had just signed to Sub Pop a year prior, how they felt about it, since they came from such a DIY background, and I figured if they told me it was a good idea, I’d do it. And they did.”

Dum Dum Girls to this day is identifiable not just by the sound of Dee Dee’s music, but by the aesthetic its members have visually captured and played with. In the early days, it might have been summed up as “goth kids at the beach” or “Bettie Page goes surfing,” but now there isn’t an easy encapsulation of what Dum Dum Girls represents as a whole, besides the name itself. In a few short years, Dee Dee’s project has formed a distinct identity from anything else in music, both present and past, an accomplishment of some significance when considering its infrequency.

“I had maintained a pretty anonymous identity,” she recalls of the early days of Dum Dum Girls, “and I hadn’t really considered putting a band together to tour. That wasn’t my motivation for the project. When I did put the band together, I wanted it to have a striking visual. I wanted there to be some sort of uniformity to the look that would compliment the sound. I’ve always been a fan of artists that had a pretty strong aesthetic, be it David Bowie or Elvis or The Ramones or the Sex Pistols. I always felt like having that visual that complemented the sound was this ultimate experience. I guess I was trying in some way to do my version of that. And as we establish ourselves as a band beyond the recording aspect, that all has developed a bit, but I think we look like the same band today, just grown up a little bit.”

“Art and music have always had a pretty close relationship,” she continues. “With this particular record, because I had a lot of time between when it came out and when it was finished, I set out to develop an even more cohesive aesthetic, so I brought on my friend Tamaryn as creative director. It is an even more developed visual presentation than ever before, and we tried to integrate it into the album artwork and into the press shots and into the videos and into the merch. So, for me, that was really exciting to take the art side more seriously and be more proactive about it.”

Tamaryn, who also has recorded a couple albums under her name for Mexican Summer, acknowledges the unusual position she has in the band from an “indie music world” perspective, but that perspective may be the problem people are having, be it Tumblr moderators or the stray cranky critic.

“It is more common in the pop world,” she notes about her gig as creative director, “but in this record, there are a lot of elements that are of a pop record. So, the visuals, there are a lot of ideas that are pop ideas. We’re not trying to make her Britney Spears or anything, but there are elements of Warhol and Nick Knight to Guy Bourdin and Vaughn Oliver, not so much taking from record covers, but channeling high fashion and pop images from the ‘80s, ‘90s and beyond.”

One pop image that was not an influence on the aesthetic was Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz album cover, which has been noted to bear a similarity to Too True’s cover. But that coincidence is as far as it goes.

“That stance just happened to be the best one from the photo shoot,” Tamaryn says. “Dee Dee had picked the photo to be the cover long before Miley dropped Bangerz. I totally realized the similarity when it happened and jokingly pointed it out to Dee Dee, and she didn’t think anyone would care to notice. It’s pretty funny but just shows we were tapping into the collective unconscious’ idea pool. It happens all the time.”

All of this styling and concern with image and visual presentation is meant to add to the experience of Dum Dum Girls, not detract from Dee Dee’s personal connection with the project.

“For me to say it was a good show,” Dee Dee says, “it means that I was fully participating and not thinking that ‘I’m on the stage, they’re out there, this is the next song, these are the words,’ it was so much more in the moment than that. For me, I can get to that place pretty easily when I’m performing. There is an aspect where I am a slightly different person when I’m on stage because it is this performance and exaggerated version of myself, but it is very much authentic and very much sincere.”

It doesn’t get more authentic and sincere than Dum Dum Girls’ last two releases, the excellent and underrated Only in Dreams and the also-excellent-though-properly-rated End of Daze EP. If there was ever a question about whether the Dee Dee who shows up leading Dum Dum Girls is the same person who friends call Kristen, these records should provide sufficient answers.

“Writing that album was the year that I was watching my mother essentially die,” says Dee Dee about Only In Dreams. “And it was super intense, and I really fractured my life. I think the only way I got through it was writing songs. That was helpful, and it was also a disadvantage, because after she finally passed away, I went into the studio and recorded it and then we went on tour. I didn’t give myself the time to process what had happened. So, I spent the next two years in a pretty weird state. And the End of Daze songs were written at the tail end of that, still very much overwhelmed and consumed, but with some sort of knowledge that I was finally getting past things.”

It has been noted that End of Daze parallels the grief process, something Dee Dee downplays, saying “It was and it wasn’t, because I was only really going through that via the music.”

“I think now I’m through it more completely,” she says. “And the fallout of dealing with a traumatic experience can be pretty gnarly. The things you do, how it affects your relationships… So, now I’m in a place of slightly more elevated level of self-awareness and self-acceptance to move past them. Understanding yourself and forgiving yourself for your mistakes is a way to improve on how you deal with the next horrible thing that happens, because life is pretty sad.”

Her words may ring a little over-the-top, but not after the story of Too True’s creation is shared. It begins while the group was supporting End of Daze, a release that saw Dum Dum Girls reaching new heights of critical acclaim and fan interest. But the band followed its release with the longest break since Dum Dum Girls’ inception, and it turns out to have not been planned.

“So I’ve been a singer my whole life,” Dee Dee begins. “I’ve always had a really strong voice. It wasn’t necessarily apparent when I started this band because of how I sing and how I chose to record myself and how I chose to mix the vocals especially on the first things that I did. As I started working with Richard Gottehrer, tuning the vocals and sort of letting the voice be a little more dominant, I think it became apparent that I’ve—and I sang in bands before, and I don’t want to say that I took it for granted because I took care of myself. I studied voice privately in high school, I studied music in college and I tried to implement healthy singing techniques, but there is just a point when you’ve been on tour for 12 months that the strain of it catches up with you.

“So I was starting to feel the strain of it and hear it in my voice. It started to carry over, like a hangover, and I didn’t know what to do, but every night it would start to crack. I tried to deal with it by ignoring it. At some point the accumulation of that strain meant that I was changing the way I was singing, and I was using too many muscles to compensate. I started to develop nodes on my throat, which is a very common thing, especially in rock and roll. That was something that I was dealing with while still touring End of Daze, and we went right in to record Too True in L.A.

“So I went in to start recording and I knew my voice was at its worst point based on the previous night’s show, and I decided to do it instrumentally. I don’t want to be stressed out every day; it’s exciting to record. It is really fun. So, I decided I’d rather have the initial recording be instrumental and then in a week, when we are done, then I’d confront the vocal thing. So we did that, it was going great, I’d demoed the vocals already and the day comes, I get my whiskey, I get my tea, my lemon, my honey, go in the room, turn the lights down, and I pick the easiest song and I hit, like, three notes before…I just knew I couldn’t put this on a record. It wasn’t working. And I wouldn’t say I had a nervous breakdown, but I had a very real situation on my hands and I broke down. I actually went and got the first massage I ever had because I was so overwhelmed with anxiety.

“So the next day I realized it wouldn’t work, and I decided to just stop there, go home, take a little time off. I took about three months off where I didn’t sing at all. We could have potentially toured on the EP more, but we canceled that idea. We just waited for my voice to heal, and it was a slow process. And even worse than the physiological issues are the mental issues. You’re stressing yourself out, you’re making it worse, you’re paranoid and that can affect you as much as anything physical. So I wanted to remove that initial stressor, and I got a studio, recording my own vocals slowly.

“At this point, I’ve come to expect [bad luck],” Dee Dee says. “But yeah, it was devastating beyond the ‘oh shit I can’t sing,’ but, that was the moment I felt the culmination of three years we’d put into this and we were at this slightly elevated position and we would have done more work, but we couldn’t.”

Now that the wait is over and the album is set for release, Dee Dee can focus on the musical aspect of her job, hopefully with her last few years of personal hardships behind her. Perhaps that is also part of the reason such a sonic shift has occurred on Too True, though the sound, Dee Dee explains, is only due to a new chorus pedal and a faster guitar strum, which ended up slowing the song tempos down.

“To me it has felt like a natural progression,” she says. “As I’ve had more access to things, I’ve utilized them. My position now is to service the songs. It may sound cheesy, and this record has a really defined sonic palette, but I’m trying to service the songs. I’m trying to play and produce each song the way it should be done, so there can be no question about it. If we had tried it another way, it wouldn’t have been right. And I couldn’t tell you what the next record will sound like.”

Her producer has a guess, though. Dee claims that when sequencing the tracks, he likes putting the song he believes will inform the next album last. On Too True, it is the understated, subtly affecting “Trouble Is My Name,” a song that Dee Dee says is special to her. She notes its tradition in the Dum Dum oeuvre, likening it to “Coming Down” and “Lord Knows.” The song gives Dee Dee options for her next release, a way out of this sound if she chooses. But really, there is little not on the table of possibilities, as nothing about Dum Dum Girls is written in stone, except for Dee Dee’s creative control.

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Here in her comfort zone, Dee Dee is warm, open and kind. There is actually an exact moment in our first conversation where she changes her way of talking to me, where she trusts me—at least a little. After discussing her mother, I ramble about the difficulty an artist faces when dealing with personal trauma, because dealing with that event is the job, and turning it into art is almost not even a choice. It’s what an artist does. And that can be very hard to suffer through. She is quiet after this, but the little she does say sounds like it comes from the same person who shows up to the bar in San Diego, willing to have a conversation and be fully in the moment. It doesn’t take long after meeting Dee Dee to begin rooting for her.

“I met Jules in this bar,” Dee Dee says about her guitarist, the one Dum Dum Girl that has been with her since the beginning. “We had a blind date because a friend heard I needed a guitarist, and we had a beer and I loved her immediately.”

Though not a traditional band, Dum Dum Girls is a group in some respect, with most of the members holding down long-term involvement, just having little or no presence on the recordings. It’s at this point in the conversation that Dee Dee drops a bomb.

“I’ve actually got a new band member,” she says. “And he’s a boy.”

Dum Dum Girls has always been all-female on stage, but the ending of this era is not something Dee Dee seems particularly worried about, noting the new member has been a longtime friend.

“I don’t want us to exist in the context of being an all-female band, but it is important,” she says. “It’s dangerous to say it’s a non-topic, but it is just as dangerous to say it is a topic. When I started this, it was both practical for the aesthetic to have female voices backing me up, and I also wanted to exist in that tradition.”

“When someone comes up and says ‘I bought my daughter a drum set because Sandy is so awesome,’ that’s important,” she says. “But I don’t want it to completely define us.”

This, like everything regarding Dum Dum Girls, is thought through and meticulously considered, with the care that only one person can show to something that is truly theirs. Even if I had met Dee Dee in college, I wouldn’t have known the Dee Dee of today. She’s clearly risen to the occasion, come out of her shell when life required it, dealt very publicly with some very awful circumstances and made music that has both enriched lives and inspired other young girls to do the same. It’s not impossible to see the correlation between goodness and truth there.

“I’m very ambitious,” Dee Dee says at a point. “It’s weird, I work with people that help manage some of the business aspects, but I also don’t trust anybody completely 100 percent—or trust might not be the right word—but I always want to know what is going on. This is an opportunity to do exactly what I want, and I will absolutely work super hard at it. I don’t shy away from opportunities. I do my part, and my label does their part, and we work together to have the most successful version of what Dum Dum Girls can be.”

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