The obvious question for Amanda Palmer from Boston band The Dresden Dolls is, “Are you happy?” The band’s albums dwell rather exclusively on themes of loss and deception, albeit in a very creative, up-tempo, piano/drum way that makes you laugh, though uncomfortably. So I wanted to know if she was happy. “Right now, at this moment? Yeah. It is a shock to my former, chronically depressed self, but I am actually insanely happy.” To be sure, The Dresden Dolls have a lot to be happy about. Their self-released and self-titled second album is all the rage, they won the much-vaunted WBCN Rock & Roll Rumble, they are the darlings of critics everywhere, and they have been featured on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic. (In a recent Playback STL interview with Nic Harcourt, the show’s host, he mentioned the Dolls as one of his bands to watch.)
The Dresden Dolls almost seem like a throwback to a prior time. The band could easily have stepped out of a cabaret in 1920s Germany. Their press describes them as Brechtian Punk Cabaret. Often in painted faces and vintage attire, the band layers on a distinctive punk edge that reveals the venom in lyrics—but the threat, it appears, is not to the audience, but to former lovers and parents who have done this girl wrong. “The only people I really tend to flag in my songs are ex-lovers and parents, of course. I have already had the conversation with my parents and we struck a deal,” says Palmer, describing the gentle art of mining your own life for lyrics. “That is the beauty of being a songwriter with an artistic license. You can always trick things into enough of a distorted shape to protect the obvious. That is why there is poetry and that is why there is meter and little boxes that we force ourselves into to try to say something interesting within a narrow margin.”
Band mates Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione met in Boston in 2000, ironically enough at a Halloween party where Palmer was performing an impromptu piano recital. Viglione saw her and realized that she was the person with whom he wanted to make music. It was as if each had found their musical soul mate. Both found solace in music while growing up. “Hard core punk and jazz were his early loves” says Palmer of drummer Viglione. “When he was in his early teens, he discovered his hero—Elvin Jones—and later on, John Coltrane.” Palmer herself had a somewhat more standard pop upbringing which featured the Beatles, Abba, and “any crap that her mom was playing in the car.” Later in high school and college, she discovered darker stuff like The Cure and The Legendary Pink Dots. The two band mates still share music, but it has a more relaxed tone. “We are both getting into listening to a lot more mellow stuff. It might be just a terrifying combination of getting older, but also when life is going at such an insane pace, listening to loud fast music doesn’t do it for me anymore” she says with a laugh.
Asked how the band found an audience, Palmer said it was gradual. “It was really just good, old-fashioned word of mouth for quite a while. We didn’t have to convince people to come and see us; we just let it happen organically. We stayed in Boston for a long time. That helped us. After about a year and a half or so, we were at a point where we could play a club and pack it. That’s when we said we need to start branching out because we were getting a little too comfortable. That’s when we went to New York City; the same thing happened there. Now the same thing is happening all over the place. The word-of-mouth phenomenon of this band has carried us much further than the press, because one person e-mailing a friend to go check out a Web site has earned us an infinite number of our fans.”
While laying the groundwork, Palmer worked as the Eight-Foot Bride who became a fixture in Harvard Square. The human statue act earned her money to finance the band (she had only done it once this summer). “I don’t really need the money anymore, so I have hung up my veil for the time. I do have a little protégé, though, who is actually a Dresden Dolls fan. This one girl took up my mantle and spot in Harvard Square. I get to go by and see her standing there. Sort of pass the torch.”
The Dresden Dolls’ live performances approach legendary status with each member practically attacking both song and instrument. The approach is part therapy session and part performance. “The use of the word ‘therapy’ is interesting,” laughs Palmer. “Brian and I are very different that way. Brian has to play. If he doesn’t play the drums and a few days or weeks go by, he actually starts to go crazy. I am not like that. I can go long stretches of time without playing the piano and be perfectly content.” Palmer does profess a love of performing, if not just as a way to get her songs out there, then for the classic reason of getting attention. “It’s the age-old deep-seated need for attention that I have always had. I have always adored performing in any kind of form as in acting, playing, and basically being a brat since I was very little.” The more dramatic flare that they present on stage has set The Dresden Dolls apart from many of today’s bands. Palmer finds the approach very healthy to go against the norm. “In the rock scene nowadays, there is a real stigma attached to being dramatic or being theatrical and waving your arms around, saying, ‘Look at me.’ Because the grunge era really ushered in a kind of ‘Don’t look at me, I am looking down at my shoes’ mentality. You know, if you are performer, that is your job: you’re a performer, you are up on stage for people to look at.”
This bleeds over into their publicity for the band, where every photo and bio is carefully placed for the best effect. When I complimented her on the photos, Palmer responded, “If your band gets to the point where you can have your picture in the paper, that picture is a portal to the rest of the world. It breaks my heart every time I open up the paper and see the exact same photo of an infinite number of bands: four guys standing up against a brick wall. You’ve got to make an effort,” she laughs.
The Dresden Dolls do make an effort, with stunning results. The band will be touring the U.S. for the rest of the year; following that, they plan to tour Germany where the band, not surprisingly, is very popular. “It was unbelievable,” said Palmer about a previous tour to Germany. “We hadn’t even played a show there, but because we had a great publicist and people loved the record, we were instantly recognized. It is like a miracle to me.”
As for where the band would like to go and progress, Palmer had some ideas. “I would love to expand our live show so that we can actually tour with the kind of theatrical awning. The band still tours but it is within the context of the greater theatrical event, kind of like a traveling circus. Be able to involve a lot of other bands and performers—kind of like old vaudeville. Just create an entire world of people and talent that we can take on the road.” Asked to name it, Palmer paused and laughed: “Dresden Dolls Freak-a-Thon.” Whatever the title, the Doll House has much to offer.
Jim Dunn is Associate Editor of Playback St. Louis.