ABOVE: DEE DEE PENNY OF DUM DUM GIRLS. PHOTO COURTESY OF JAMES ORLANDO
Pre-Too True, the Dum Dum Girls quartet were an unexpected novelty among a sea of reliably above-average lo-fi bands: their base of New Wave rock winked gothic in some lights (the band usually coordinates in all-black ensembles) and bubblegum pop in others (song titles include "Yours Alone," "Bedroom Eyes," and "Catholicked"). But their third studio album, also their third on Sub Pop Records, properly realizes a cult persona for lead singer and songwriter Dee Dee Penny, and one which rises like a phoenix to mingle with those of Debbie Harry and Siouxsie Sioux.
Accordingly, Too True is produced by songwriting maven Richard Gottehrer of "I Want Candy" fame (also Blondie, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and Dr. Feelgood), and Sune Rose Wagner of the Raveonettes. Their influence streamlines the album: songs like "Lost Boys and Girls Club," below, and "Evil Blooms" surf over the listener in sadness-tinged synth-y waves that are inherently catchy, driven from the energy in Penny's deep, full-bodied voice. Her love of the Everly Brothers' harmonies manifests in embracing familial chords of frustration, alienation, and self-doubt so austere that they're spectral.
Lyrics still venture into love, such as the serotonin-laden "In the Wake of You," but Penny has left her pining Lolita days behind for a bigger world. Her muse calls upon poets like Rainer Maria Rilke, Anaïs Nin, Arthur Rimbaud (one track is titled "Rimbaud Eyes"), Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Sylvia Plath, who coexist with lyric influencers like Lou Reed and Patti Smith. As Penny herself states, "I was a woman possessed, and my possession enabled me."
HANNAH GHORASHI: How did you find other people that shared your aesthetic and form this band with them?
DEE DEE PENNY: It wasn't that hard when I started Dum Dum Girls, [because then] it was just a recording project. I kept the aesthetic pretty minimal and pretty anonymous, and when I had the opportunity to sign with Sub Pop I knew I wanted to not waste that opportunity to actually have a band I could tour the record with and represent what I wanted to do in my head onstage versus in my apartment. I wanted there to be a cohesive aesthetic and something that was complementary to the sound so it's probably the same for me as for anyone who formed a band and wanted it to look a certain way or just for it to look like something at all. I'm a fan of the performance tradition—your Rolling Stones, your Beatles, your Elvis—your strong visuals. It was basically as simple as, "Let's sort of dress similarly." But generally it's black. [laughs]
GHORASHI: Would you say your aesthetic evolved since you've started or has it been pretty consistent throughout?
PENNY: It's evolved because as people, we've evolved. We probably started out wearing the same vintage dress and torn nylons every day, and that was probably more just for practical reasons. I think I've tried to polish the look as I've polished the sound to some degree, and with this record in particular, it was the first time that I'd had a lot of time between its inception and writing the songs and I wanted to utilize that time to intentionally develop an aesthetic. I brought on my friend Tamaryn, who's also a musician and artist, and she sort of served as creative director and sort of helped carve out what the visual side to the record would be. I just wanted it to reflect the progression I felt that the record had from stuff I'd done in the past. There's also a component to a band, that no matter your intentions, or in practice, people start defining you themselves and it can be pretty far off from where you're actually coming from. So I wanted to take the opportunity to reestablish how I wanted to be perceived myself instead of letting it be sort of constructed by everybody on the outside.
GHORASHI: I was wondering if you felt like people ever categorized the band in a way you don't agree with, whether it be a musical genre, or the fact that the band is all-female?
PENNY: Yeah, that's always going to be there. I feel like we do get it more because there is a sex component to the band, but that's pretty unavoidable. People want to categorize, people want to make observations... [laughs] As a person going into an interview, I almost automatically assume that the person talking to me has an impression, has—not an agenda necessarily—but an angle that they already see. So I either try to explain myself if I feel like we're not on the same page, or redirect it. I do a lot of correcting. I'm like, "No, no that's not actually true. I can see where you might have thought that, but let me just provide some facts." [laughs] "And then we can reassess your opinion." I don't let it overwhelm me or anything. People can't help think what they think, and unless we're talking personal attacks or criticism or something, the whole beauty to art is in interpretation, and when someone takes something from a song, even if it's not what you put into it, there's still an exchange happening there that I feel is a really positive thing.
GHORASHI: To return to the clothes aspect, a lot of style icons—I'm thinking of Chloë Sevigny, or Dita von Teese—I remember reading that they used to spend a lot of time in their rooms as teenagers making clothes, or absorbing the art of clothing. Were you that kind of teenager?
PENNY: Oh no, I was probably so much below how cool they potentially were. I was a total introvert, a total loner. I had a lot of issues that I dealt with as a teenager, just personal issues, that overshadowed everything else. I definitely read a book instead of hanging out with friends, and I wrote songs instead of going on dates. I hated high school, I was socially awkward, everything felt so dramatic. I felt that I was a late bloomer, and I'm better for having that contrast, because now I just do not give a fuck. [laughs]
GHORASHI: Is your name inspired by Dee Dee Ramone?
PENNY: No, probably everybody that I know who plays music has that one point in their life where they picked another name or whatever. I'm 31, so that's not really how I look at it. Maybe when I started, when it was a very new project, I wanted to have some distance, and I wanted it to be this character, it wasn't necessarily me, it didn't have to be me, it didn't have to be anything. I just wanted to make the music. But it's actually my mom's name, and I took it as my middle name.
GHORASHI: You released your first music with the name Dum Dum Girls in 2009, and under your own label [Zoo Music]. That takes a lot of drive, but what were you doing before then?
PENNY: I've been playing in bands since probably 2000. I went to college, I studied literature, I had every intention of pursuing writing, and on a more practical level, becoming a librarian, possibly going into the editorial world. I'd always felt this strong pull towards writing and also music and performing, but I had a lot of self-confidence issues and didn't really know how to do it. It's sort of sad in some ways, but it took a boyfriend being like, "You should join my band," to really get me to take the first actual steps. And I'm grateful that I had someone supportive and encouraging, but it's just a little depressing to me to think that it took me so long to get to where I could do things on my own. I had bad experiences with the bands I'd played with prior, and I quit music because I was so frustrated, so depressed. I'd realized that I dreaded making music, and I really needed to take a step back and get myself reoriented and back into a position where I was excited about it, because it had become my whole world, and to hate your world is miserable. But it was the first time that I decided to, you know, "Fuck everybody else, I'm just going to start my own thing, I'm going to do exactly what I want. I don't have anybody I have to compromise with, any other opinions to deal with, just my own." And that was the first time I'd actually had any real success. That was really encouraging. So it took me forever—'til I guess 24—to be in a place where I didn't need anyone else to do what I wanted. I mean, I didn't anticipate making a career out of it, I was really more motivated by wanting to get back into a healthy relationship with creating art.
GHORASHI: When bands first start out, they have to do so much work, in terms of finding places to play and getting word out, so is it kind of weird that you had to do all this really hard work and now it's a lot easier, in a way, because you have people doing it for you?
PENNY: I don't think it's a lot easier; for me, it's just a lot different. There's a whole management side—and I don't even mean having actual management—it's just the more people you bring in, the assumption and the truth to them, sharing the workload and taking care of the more monotonous aspects, the business side of things, it still affects you, and it's even more stressful. Ultimately, I still feel like I need to sign off on everything, I want 100 percent transparency between everyone that I work with... but yeah, initially it's like, "Okay, we're going to tour for the next nine months, and we're going to open for all these bands, and we're in my station wagon and staying with people in their living rooms," versus "We have a tour manager who drives us, and we have hotels, and we have a sound engineer." For me it's worth those things, but it's just a different struggle at each level, I think. At least for me, maybe that's because I'm a control freak.
GHORASHI: Now that you're over 30—and I'm saying "over 30" in quotes, because everyone seems to make a big deal about that —do you ever look back and think, "I can't believe I've done all of this?"
PENNY: [laughs] Oh yeah, for sure. I hope my previous answer didn't imply that I'm not grateful for the opportunities that I have. I was just trying to be realistic and say it's always stressful, so it's complicated. But I am so happy I get to do this for a living and I hope I can do it for many, many more years, because at this point, I don't know how else to live, really. But yeah, it's crazy to me to think about the things that I've done, and that our band has done, and where we've stayed and played—Athens, Greece, for example—which is just crazy. In the previous year, we played Istanbul and Slovenia, and it's like, I can't believe I wrote this song, and someone liked it and put it out on a 7-inch and I sold five hundred CDs and now—
GHORASHI: People in Japan are buying it.
PENNY: Yeah. It's a trip. It's a really special way to experience life.
GHORASHI: The album is called Too True, and there's a song on it called "Too True To Be Good"—is this an expression you say a lot in conversation?
PENNY: No. [laughs] I wrote that song in L.A., the first time I was in L.A. to finish the record. And I probably was just super stoned, and got a kick out of it. It's definitely a bit tongue-in-cheek. But I think that when you break it down, that's probably as applicable to life as the original cliché, "Too good to be true." I think a lot of what I was thinking about when writing this album had to do with a new level of self-awareness. Maybe it comes from being 30 and finally getting past a lot of the shit that I could not get my head out of, that really consumed me—only in dreams, and the parameters in which I was writing were very, very limited, and such personal experiences—and I finally got past all of that and got to a place where I can acknowledge all of the horrible mistakes that I've made and all of the wonderful things that I've experienced and just appreciate that they both have pretty vital roles in my life. Not everything that's good is really good for you, and vice versa. It's a little more complex than a black-and-white rendering of life. I think it's pretty gray and there's a lot of duality. I think it's good to realize things about yourself, and with that, you can figure out how to navigate life a little easier if you have more freedom in that sense.
GHORASHI: You recorded part of the album in your apartment in New York—how was that? Did you end up staying up all night and having a crazy schedule?
PENNY: [laughs] Let's see... it's like a three-step thing. I wrote the bulk of the album, eight songs, very quickly, demoed them pretty thoroughly in my apartment, and then I went to L.A. to record, and only got as far as the instrumentals, because I was unable to sing at that point. So when I left L.A., I had this weird record that was studio tracks with demo vocals. Because I had to take a lot of time off to rehabilitate my voice—
GHORASHI: What happened to your voice?
PENNY: I had just really strained it the year prior, touring. I had developed vocal nodes, and I had started singing in a different way to try to get through touring, and it had just really backfired. So I just stopped singing, and I started working with a vocal coach to kind of retrain myself to sing in a way that was going to be healthy. I'm a lot better than I was, but it still feels like my Achilles heel. That being said, I was incredibly stressed out, really depressed, really frustrated with that experience and the slow progress I was making by the nature of the issue. So when I was back in New York, and finally starting to feel like I could re-approach the song, I did not want to insert myself into a studio situation. Even though I love the people I work with, just having that outside presence and pressure, I felt, was going to end up undoing the progress I had made on a psychological level. There's a lot of stress and anxiety, and that can factor into vocal problems as well. So I built a little studio in my bedroom, and just slowly started redoing the vocals on my own time, pretty gently, over about three months. Initially when I wrote it, yes, it was getting up in the mornings, drinking a gallon of coffee, getting stoned, working for like 12 hours straight. There are elements of the demo-style retained on the record, but the actual record says "Recorded at the Coven or whatever"—just a funny nickname we have for my house.
GHORASHI: It sounds like you were nesting.
PENNY: Yeah, there was really no other way to do it. I just needed to get back to just doing it myself, and that was how I was most comfortable at that time. And it's great, now I have this setup that's a much higher fidelity level around, so I'm much self-efficient than I was the last couple of years.
GHORASHI: I thought your press release for the album was one of the most beautiful press releases I've ever read, by the way. You mentioned the letter Nick Cave wrote to MTV where he thanked them but declined an award [for Best Male Artist in 1996]. I wondered if you felt exactly the same about receiving awards or accolades?
PENNY: No, my reference to that letter was more about reiterating that I feel very personal about what I do. The tone that he takes in talking about his music is really protective, and that is what I identify with. I just think that's a badass letter to have written, and the sentiments are so well articulated.
GHORASHI: It is, I thought it was such a positive letter—especially the way he says he doesn't want to be in competition with other musicians.
PENNY: I view it the same way. It's just this weird, exterior thing that is forced on art, especially in, I suppose, music and film, though I'm really not very [laughs] hip to the inner art world, maybe they have a competition element as well. But that's certainly not what motivates me, and I think when you have that significance, it can start trickling down to the way people are making music. The idea that you can write something with the sole purpose of commercial or whatever value is very foreign to me. On the one hand, I'm actually interested in writing for other people. I think it's a pretty interesting extension of the craft I've tried to hone for Dum Dum Girls, but I would never put that into my own music. I guess my motivation for possibly trying to get into that world would just be trying to just infiltrate in a way that was a little more sincere than is always present in Top 40 music.
GHORASHI: You were also inspired by a lot of fin de siècle poets, and the Surrealists, who were approximately around that time, maybe 20 years later, but do you sometimes wish you could have been born in that time period?
PENNY: No, not really. When I was younger I wished that I had been a teenager in the '50s or the '70s, to experience those really explosive, youth culture music scenes. But I'm not a retroist in that sense, I think it's really important to recognize that what made a lot of those things great were the people at the forefront then, pushing forward. But I've always been a big reader, it's not like, "Oh, I learned to read for this record." It just happened to be one of those things that really lined up for me, like what I was going through in my head, trying to reconcile the last couple years of my life, and as I'd said, reaching this new level of self-awareness and self-acceptance and being able to move forward instead of being stuck. A lot of that was just sort of being echoed in what I happened to be reading at the time. And so for me that was really significant—it was already conceptually what I was thinking about.
GHORASHI: A lot of these poets whose writing you were inspired by were really pessimistic about society and its decadence. Is the minimalism I hear in the album a similar expression of nihilism? And I mean nihilism not as a bad thing but in a neutral, unavoidable, inevitable sense...
PENNY: [laughs] Yeah, maybe that is more prevalent in the record than in the past. I think I really had an existential and/or nihilistic tendency, depends on the day, I guess. Again, for me it's about acceptance—this is how it is, and there's no changing that on the outside, so it's how you interpret it and how you put that back into yourself and what you put back out.
GHORASHI: How did you meet [album producer] Sune Rose Wagner from the Raveonettes, and was it musical love at first sight?
PENNY: I've been a fan of Raveonettes since I was probably 19 or 20. I moved to Germany at that point and was going to school there, and they still were a Danish band at that time, they hadn't moved to the States yet, I don't think. I found out about them through this great UK magazine called The Face that doesn't exist anymore. I remember hearing them and being like, "Holy fuck, this is so up my alley," because I had been a singer my whole life and I was obsessed with vocal groups—it was something my father had impressed upon me. I loved harmony groups, I loved the Everly Brothers in particular, and I knew that was a reference point for Raveonettes. It was a noisy, beautiful marriage of aggressive music and tender vocals—that was something that appealed to me as well. So I'd been a fan for a really long time, and when I first started worked with Richard Gottehrer, I knew about him from his work during the '60s and '70s, as a songwriter and then as a producer of some punk bands and some New Wave bands. I then also realized that he had produced Raveonettes, so I was like, "Wow, okay, I guess he's still actively producing, and there's a chance that he'll like what I'm doing if he likes them." And he responded very immediately to me and we became very close, and because he had this existing relationship with Sune—he manages him, and he produced them, not on every record but a few records—it was his idea to bring Sune into the fold for the second release on Sub Pop which was the He Gets Me High EP. For I Will Be, I recorded everything myself, and I think that's very obvious on the record. Not in a bad way, just that's how I did it. And I didn't want to keep doing that. I wanted to expand how the band sounded, and how I chose to record and produce the band. So he's a multi-instrumentalist, and he's a genius, and even though I'm kind of not socially compatible just because I get shy or whatever, we hit it off really quickly, and he was really easy to work with. On the flip side, not in any sort of egotistical way, but both he and Richard treat me like an equal, kind of. Which was very strange [laughs], for me to feel like they thought that I had something worth doing.
GHORASHI: If they hadn't, I think that would have been a warning sign. [laughs]
PENNY: Oh of course! But I went into it without any self-confidence in what I was doing and so to have the support from them—it was great, it really helped me keep going.
GHORASHI: It's definitely a dream team.
PENNY: I think so too, and I don't feel limited by the fact that I've worked with a pretty consistent team. If anything, I feel like I have a lot of freedom. I've worked with the same engineer for all my records, and he comes from a very commercial hip-hop, R&B world—I love having that sort of thing, and both Sune and Richard have huge palettes of what they like and most of all, they're really capable. If I come in with some off-the-wall idea, they'll be like "Okay, let's do it." [laughs] I feel like they'd help me achieve pretty much anything if I come up with it.
TOO TRUE IS OUT TODAY. FOR MORE ON THE DUM DUM GIRLS, PLEASE VISIT THE BAND'S WEBSITE.