“John’s got about every single Salvation Army’s address—across the country—programmed into his Palm Pilot.”
Denver, the lovely mountain town that’s home to spectral pop outfit Dressy Bessy, has been experiencing a drought for the last five years and was getting an uncharacteristic downpour as Dressy Bessy lead singer Tammy Ealom picked up the phone. It was the third straight day of massive raining in the area and it just happened to be the birthday of Ealom’s husband, Bessy (and Apples in Stereo) guitarist John Hill. The outdoor greenery was benefiting—swallowing every drop with roots that had been getting grabby and rude—but Ealom wasn’t sure about the positives of the overflowing gutters and perpetual gray clouds that seemed to be stalking the area.
“It’s kind of freaking me out. We’ve had a lot of rain and we’re borderline desert,” she said, pausing at times during the conversation to ask if the lighting strikes popping beyond her windows were audible on the other end of the line. “But it has put an extra curl in our hair.”
The precipitation was going to be enough to get Ealom into the kitchen to craft Hill a birthday cake with frosting, candles, and the works, so it wasn’t all gloom for the pride and joy of the Mile High City. But then, Ealom never has a problem turning sour into sweet—more like sour into the sweetest shit imaginable. She could sing about chowing down on the contents of a full ashtray and apply enough spit and polish to make the ashes and Kool butts sound like exotic delicacies. She could grind her teeth down to piles of powder over a personal atrocity—say, if someone told her that the polyester suit she was wearing (just a dashing striped number) isn’t all that cool, or a crummy day when nothing goes accordingly—and make it into a delightful pop nugget that could worm its way straight into the skin and be cuter than a flock of baby ducks. She sets bad moods up and then knocks them down, just as she does on the band’s fourth long-player, Electrified (Transdreamer), where she sings an album closer that could suitably be about the wet days she’s been sloshing through. On “Who’d Stop the Rain?” Ealom asks, “Who’d stop the rain, for the one day?/You’d stop the train to settle down…/You’d never see it comin’/From under my umbrella/You don’t mind if I’m dancin’ in the rain/Though it’s cold outside and/I could use a drink.” Somehow dark clouds get put through the washer and come out on the other side splendidly fluffy.
“Music, for me, is the most uplifting religion. I’ll be having a bad day and I’ll just go down and pick up my guitar and start playing. It’s worked for a few years, anyway,” Ealom said. “It’s just what I do. I’ll sit down and that’s what I get. I’ll give some credit to Casio. I start all of my songs with a beat from a Casio keyboard that I’ll take out of the recording later. Casio’s got some great programmed beats.
“I don’t think I stay down that long. I take advantage of my down moments to flip myself up with writing my music. I just say, ‘All right, fuck it, let’s go.’”
An abandoning of the mundane and drab takes place when Ealom goes to work, notching together the sugary confections for which she and the rest of her band—Hill, bassist Rob Greene, and drummer Craig Gilbert—have been known since they started in 1998, quickly becoming the adored underground band. Last year, the Denver Post named Dressy Bessy the top underground band in Colorado, an odd distinction for a unit that’s been producing for six years and hovers on the periphery of the other indie rock behemoths that always get the first nod. The band’s been the same as that first kid to get roped off and pushed back into the line just before jumping into a seat on the log ride at Great America, only to hear that the park’s closing in five minutes. It keeps waiting for its time to stand next to The Shins and The New Pornographers, comparing heights and feeling at home on the wider-seen side of the dormant Elephant 6 collective that enjoyed a rightful splash in the big pool four or five years ago when Neutral Milk Hotel, Beulah, Olivia Tremor Control, and Apples in Stereo dented more than just an issue or two of Magnet. There’s always been the problem of where Dressy Bessy fits in and why it can’t get its toes into the fight like some of its counterparts have, to great degrees of success. Ealom’s still underground for no other reason—it’s not because of the songs aren’t good enough, that’s a guarantee—than she just hasn’t had enough people listening to her percolating lyrics and dissolving like sugar cubes in hot coffee for her roasting, retrofit jangle that couldn’t be adverse if it were trying to be.
“We are getting more fans. It’s empowering for the band. We just keep paying our dues and paying our dues,” Ealom said. “We have so many friends in bands that have gotten really big. The Shins and Bright Eyes—they used to open for us a few years ago. Give us a call. Take us on tour with you. That’s the one thing we’ve never had—a really big tour like that. Those are kids who wouldn’t have heard of us before. A while ago, The Shins said to us, ‘Maybe you guys can take us to Japan,’ because they thought we were huge in Japan. I think bands think we’re bigger than we are because we’ve been around so long and, because of that, we’d require more money than we do. I guess we’ll just keep coming around.”
But then there are the times when coming around interferes with all those others coming around. A rumor that circulated through many bars and rock taverns in 2001 was that Dressy Bessy and fellow popsters The Minders were adversaries that premeditated tour itineraries to purposely coincide with the others’. If Bessy were playing Minneapolis at the 400 Bar, The Minders would be across town at the Ascot Room, thinning crowds. Ealom said that it wasn’t a sabotage attempt, but the mindless acts of a couple of mixed-up booking agents.
“It was just that tour. I kept thinking, ‘Why doesn’t everybody just contact each other?’ It seemed like everywhere we went. It happened a lot on that tour, where we’d be in the same city, on the same night,” she said. “We had the same thing happen with The Moldy Peaches that one year when they were really hot. They were playing every night in the same city we were. We couldn’t get away from them. Jonathan Richman was like that for us for a while, too. I mean, I would have liked to have seen him play. But that always sucks when you get somewhere, you open a paper, and you’re like, ‘Awwww, fuck.’”
Most of the new record was penned during a year that saw the first lineup change in the band’s history when drummer Derren Albert left the group, citing overall unhappiness with playing and touring. It was a decision they took hard, having a set idea of how a band should stay working with all its original pieces.
“It’s always been important to me to have the same people in the band that started it, like The Beatles. I think it’s admirable. We all just worked so hard. But this has made us a better band,” Ealom said. “It hit me in the heart pretty good. He stuck it out for a while, but I don’t think any of us could have imagined that he was that miserable doing it.
“When he told us he was quitting, it was like a weight was lifting. We weathered it. I spent six months, literally, every day, all day writing songs about the crazy shit that’s happened over the last year. I’m best under pressure and I’m a busybody. I have ADD so, if I’m bored, I write songs.”
Albert’s departure wasn’t the only amount of strife that hit the band in the last 12 months, and in some ways, it wasn’t even that which hit closest to home, but Ealom wishes to keep the other hardships private.
“There were some personal issues that I’d prefer not to talk about. We’ll save it for our memoirs,” she said. “It took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to make this record. We made a lot of good music out of the bad.”
When those songs aren’t getting pumped out, Ealom and Hill are paying their rent making eBay work for them. Their incomes come solely from touring and the profits they turn as a result of their salvaging skills and a little needlework, sorting through bins and racks at the numerous thrift stores and summertime garage sales with such sharp eyes that it’s not uncommon to turn a $3 purchase into a $200 boon on the electronic resale market. Ealom, a handy seamstress, re-sews hems on dresses and skirts that have come undone and replaces buttons when needed. She has a regular clientele that makes a point to regularly check out her newest offerings. She’s made as much as $350 on a dress that she got herself for three lowly Washingtons.
“I can look at the top of the shoulder of something on the rack and tell if I’ll like it or not. I like a lot of grandma clothes. And when I find something really great, the whole store can hear me whooping about it. We have rooms of our house just filled with clothes. I actually have friends who come over and shop in my basement,” she said. “We haven’t been going as much as we usually do because we’re getting T-shirts and everything ready for the tour. But it’s ridiculous how many shops there are here and how cheap they all are.
“We do some shopping when we’re on tour. I do, but I’m not going to have as much money to spend this time and we’re not going to have as much room in the van. We will do some, though. John’s got about every single Salvation Army’s address—across the country—programmed into his Palm Pilot.”
The band’s listening to a lot of Gordon Lightfoot, Electric Light Orchestra, Led Zeppelin, and Eagles of Death Metal as it readies itself for another journey out on the hard road, taking every matter into its own hand and fending for itself. It doesn’t rely on The Shins for an invitation onto its first big tour of all the medium-sized venues this country has to offer. It will get there by itself, if it has to.
“We’re all doing pushups every day. We’re pumping up,” Ealom said. “We don’t get together to do them as a band, but we’re all doing them. And we’re all eating right. We’re excited."