The Dum Dum Girls’ Black Parade

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Published September 29, 2010

PHOTO BY MICHAEL NIKA; DEE DEE’S DRESS (CENTER) BY HOLLY SAMUELSON

The Dum Dum Girls hail from sunny California, but the group’s noirish pop belies their heliophilic roots. Theirs is a hazy, nocturnal sound: darkly harmonious paeans on life and love that evaporate into a velvet drone. Like their fatalistic predecessors, the Shangri-Las, much of the their appeal lies in the dark-light dichotomy of their music and image. Frontwoman Dee Dee Penny may sing jangly anthems about her “baby,” but she does so in a funereal black Edwardian dress, with eerie projections flickering behind her onstage.

“I’ve been a black-clad girl forever,” declares Penny. “I wanted us all to have a unified look–so we just exaggerated the concept.” It’s worked: in their “admittedly goth, but classy” attire, the Dum Dum Girls resemble modern-day Edward Gorey anti-heroines. Or, as friend and collaborator, Sune Rose Wagner of The Raveonettes hints, Gothic Lolitas. “The Japanese girls are going to crazy for them when they finally play over there!” he remarked. The band’s style prowess is undeniable, but their highly praised Sub Pop debut album, I Will Be, rightfully dominates their shadowy aesthetic. With her notable songwriting and what Wagner  calls a “truly divine voice,” Penny imbues her doom-tinged music with the ingredients of timeless pop.  As Wagner concluded, the Dum Dums are “dark, sexy, dangerous, yet delicate and refined–everything you want from a rock ‘n roll band.”

COLLEEN NIKA: Can you describe the inception of the Dum Dum Girls?

DEE DEE PENNY: It really just started as just me playing songs on acoustic guitars. I had been in other bands, and I was really sick of being held to the whims of other people’s control, really. I was a singer that didn’t play an instrument that could write songs–I played the drums; I didn’t play guitar yet. So, it was a vehicle for me to learn guitar, write songs, and begin recording. All the early songs were recorded by me at home: just me, my computer, my drum machine, and a nylon string guitar my dad gave me in sixth grade! I just re-amped it all to make it electric. Then, I got to the point where I had a 7″ out. Then, Mike Sniper put out my EP on Captured Tracks. Suddenly, more people knew about me than I had friends!

NIKA: So, the Dum Dum Girls entity is your brainchild and started out like a solo project. When did you decide to add the other girls to the lineup?

PENNY: I felt it was important to establish a real lineup for touring. No one really remembers, but I played a few very small early shows last summer: Brandon and Chuck from Crocodiles–and an iPod–were my backup band. I wore a mask onstage! I basically just danced drunkenly onstage. It was really silly. I knew I needed to flesh it out. So, I asked my friend Frankie Rose to play drums and sing at least one of the three harmonies with me. Then we added Bambi Davies on bass and Jules Medeiros on guitar later. It was really important to me that it was an all-girl group. It’s the only way the Dum Dum Girls can work!

NIKA: Will the other band members be more involved with the recording process for the next album?

PENNY: I think so. With this album, I was literally like: “Okay, girls, I recorded an album with Sub-Pop, here are the songs. Why don’t you learn them and I’ll see you in a month?” I hope in the future the process will be more collaborative. They are way better at their instruments than I am!

NIKA: What has been the biggest evolution for the band in the past year?

PENNY: We really feel like a band now. A year ago, the girls literally met at CMJ three days before our first show; we literally practiced nine hours a day in Brooklyn leading up to it. But we didn’t have a real tour lined up. When the album came out earlier this year, we knew we needed a finalized lineup for touring. So, we got Sandy Vu to be our new drummer about three months ago, which completes our real lineup. Now, we’ve become tightest group of friends. We literally spend more time together than we do with our boyfriends or husbands. We put up with so much bullshit as girls on the road, trust me. It’s absurd.

NIKA: Is it a matter of not being taken seriously as female musicians?

PENNY: Yeah, the guys we encounter at venues think we don’t know what we’re doing, or they make condescending remarks. We just played a show at a small college in Massachusetts and the sound guy found it fit to “advise” us on how to tune our instruments. [Mockingly.] He said: “Let’s see what that bass sounds like without all that reverb!”. We were like, “Dude, we have a sound. We know what we’re doing.” It’s just a lot of bullshit. Luckily, we’ve developed a “Don’t Fuck With Us” united front!

NIKA: Interestingly, a lot of your collaborators have been male.

PENNY: Oh, totally. In no way, am I anti-dude. Obviously, there’s my husband Brandon [of the band, Crocodiles]–he’s been one of my biggest supporters. I would play my early songs for him on acoustic guitar. Now, he’ll text me on tour and say, “I just told a journalist you’re the best songwriter!” Sappy, but I love it. Nick Zinner [of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs] played on a song on the record. I’m not a good guitar player, so I’m glad he was willing to do that. I wanted memorable melodic leads, so I needed some outside help. I recorded I Will Be, my debut album, with Richard Gottehrer, which was a dream come true. And Sune Rose Wagner [of the Raveonettes] has been a great friend and collaborator and helped me record the new EP, He Gets Me High, along with Richard.

NIKA: Were Sune and Richard people you admired as songwriters previously?

PENNY: Yes. I mean, the opportunity to work with Richard was something I couldn’t refuse. He’s worked with so many of my heroes and is responsible for writing some of the greatest songs ever–”My Boyfriend’s Back”, “I Want Candy”, “Nighttime”. And now, we’ve developed a really nice working relationship. He really respects me: he thinks I have something good going on, which coming from him, means so much. He also works really well with Sune, who gave me so much valuable input. We share a catalogue of similar references. He’s inspiring as a songwriter because he writes hundreds of songs for every record the Raveonettes release; he is way better at any instrument than I am.  I’ve always loved his music–I mean, who else was referencing the Everly Brothers in the 2000s?

NIKA: What’s the rest of the year looking like for the band?

PENNY: We’ve been on tour pretty much all year, both here and the UK. It’s been pretty intense. We just finished our tour with Vampire Weekend, and now we’re off to Europe to open for MGMT. But after we come back to the States, we’re going to be doing a short tour with the Vaselines, which is amazing because I named this band partially after their album, Dum-Dum!

NIKA: How does it feel to be in the support band position as opposed to headlining your own show?

Penny: It’s been rough. We’ve done like five or six of these support tours. It’s like “Jesus, man,  I’d really like to just be in a tiny room again and play for 100 people that really love us!”.  Right now, we’re playing these huge rooms for crowds of 5,000 people who don’t know us. And with Vampire Weekend, it’s especially strange–because all of the fans look like members of the band. [Laughs]

NIKA: A lot of argyle sweaters in the crowd?

PENNY: Yes. I can’t pretend we’ve made a huge splash with them. It doesn’t help to play at 6 PM every night. But it’s been interesting!