“I don’t know if I regret not quitting music for a year.”
When I first spoke to Dum Dum Girls frontwoman Dee Dee (née Kristin Gundred) last February leading up to the release of the group’s He Gets Me High EP, she was four months removed from her mother’s death. It was expected; she had terminal brain cancer and was diagnosed at the cusp of what became in some ways the best and worst year of Gundred’s life.
In less than three years together, her Los Angeles-based fuzz-harmonizing outfit had quickly developed a reputation as some of lo-fi rock’s most compelling newcomers. 2010 was supposed to be the year that the group honed its musical chops and earned its stripes on the road, transforming from a solo project into a full-fledged band. But Dee Dee found herself at the crossroads, with her musical and professional life soaring but her mother’s impending death looming.
“I was trying to tour non-stop and take advantage of the opportunities I’d been given while my family was falling apart,” Dee Dee says. “I really struggled with that, [but] my parents made it very clear to me that they didn’t want me to put my life on hold.”
Rather than stepping away from a budding musical career, Dee Dee carried on, writing both her EP as well as her sophomore full-length record Only In Dreams—a release that exudes a remarkable confidence in all of its invigorating fleshed-out fuzz.
Prior to her mother’s diagnosis, Dee Dee’s early career featured poorly recorded, nostalgic-laced “three-chord records.” Out of her darkness, however, she’s emerged not only with a heightened focus on becoming a better musician—her honed songwriting skills and the band’s tighter sound are notable on the new album—but the music also provided a coping mechanism as she mourned her mother’s passing.
“Essentially with this record, I didn’t really have a choice,” Dee confesses in a recent follow-up interview. “It was write about this or have nothing to write about. It was, I suppose, semi-therapeutic—maybe the only thing to deal with what was going on.”
As a result, Only In Dreams is about as honest of a pop record as you’ll find. “I [knew] that the next LP would be dark and sad, because there’s no way to run from death,” she admits. “It seeps into everything.”
For the new record, Dee Dee wrote “Hold Your Hand” immediately after her mom died, while “Coming Down” lingers for six-plus minutes with doubt and despair indicative of this entire period. The latter ballad emerges as the perfect counterpoint to some of the Dum Dum Girls’ shorter, energetic tracks, slowly meandering as Dee Dee laments, “You abuse the ones who love you / You abuse the ones who won’t / If you ever had a real heart / I don’t think you’d know where to start.”
During this time, the Dee Dee also learned to rely on others to help create her vision. No longer can Dum Dum Girls be considered a solo project, as she’s increasingly leaned on bandmates Jules, Bambi and Sandy, all of who deserve credit for a portion of the Dum Dum Girls’ musical flourish.
“It was a really big step for us to do a record as a band—to bring the girls in more basically because that’s what we’ve become,” Dee Dee says. “We’re more collaborative at this point. To me it was an important step to bring them into the recording process.”
A full-band, collaborative effort wasn’t always a guarantee for Dee Dee and the Dum Dum Girls. The wife of Crocodiles frontman Brandon Welchez began by just posting songs on her MySpace. An abundance of positive feedback kept Gundred writing songs and eventually releasing last year’s impressive lo-fi debut I Will Be.
For both of her following releases, she decided to step out of her private persona, bringing in producer Richard Gottehrer (The Go-Go’s, Blondie) and The Raveonettes’ Sune Rose Wagner to help sonically craft Only In Dreams, allowing her to focus on what she does best—write pop songs.
As she’s become more confident in her songwriting abilities, she also became comfortable with her own musical shortcomings and sought to have those rounded out with her bandmates’ strengths. “I knew that Bambi would come up with something that was better or I knew that Jules was working on a lead for a song and I just didn’t need to bother because she’s a much better guitar player than I am,” Dee Dee explains. “It just seemed like the next step that we should take…I wanted a record that sounded like the band that we’d become.”
Despite the breakthrough success that the Dum Dum Girls have achieved during the past year, Dee Dee still questions herself. Because of her personal trials and tribulations, she’s become a better musician, broken out of her introspective shell and turned into a stronger individual.
She doesn’t deny any of that, but at the same time looks back her choice to carry on through her mother’s final months with indecision. “It’s weird. I don’t if I have an answer now either,” she admits. “I don’t know if it would have made a difference if I was home more. I wish maybe that I would’ve been there for my little brother. At the same time, I can have the conversation now or then, and they’d think how things happened were the way they were supposed to. It’s a weird, bizarre thing to deal with.”