Interview: Dum Dum Girls

Marissa G. Muller

By Marissa G. Muller

on 09.29.11 in Interviews

Dum Dum Girls may borrow their aesthetic from ’60s girl groups, but their crackling guitar-pop doesn’t sound dated, especially when it touches darker themes. “This year’s been a drag/ Who knew it’d be so bad,” Dee Dee sings in “Caught in One” — and she’s not kidding. Written during the last days of her mother’s struggle with terminal cancer, Only in Dreams explores emotional volatility, but never surrenders or collapses. It is Dee Dee’s most personal release to date.

Dee Dee is poised over the phone, too, when talking about her past year. Though she says she’s not “terribly vocal” about her emotions, she generously shared her feelings with eMusic’s Marissa G. Muller about her mother’s passing, touring with her father, coping with songwriting and battling insomnia and displacement.


I saw you tweeted a can of alcoholic whip cream. Are those any good?

Yeah, it was delicious. I was at my sister-in-law’s house at Queens, holed up there for the hurricane [Irene], and she had a party — you’re supposed to use it to top tropical cocktails, a more trashy version would be on top of Jell-O shots, I guess — but it was really delicious; dangerous, I would say. I tried a spoonful of it. Maybe on top of hot chocolate, that’d be how I’d do it. I’m more of a Bailey’s sort of person.

Was her house evacuated?

Thankfully, no. I live on the Upper East Side so there was less chance of a flood here but I was freaked out so I wanted to be with family. Their place was fine.

Does your dad live in New York City, or is he still in the Bay area?

He’s still in the East Bay. He spends a lot of time in the mountains. He bought a home there — his little retreat.

What was it like having him on tour with you recently?

It was great. I know that probably sounds counterintuitive, but he’s just got a very particular take on life. Even though he’s old, he’s very active, very healthy, and enthusiastic about traveling and seeing things. He’s watched me try to do music with my life for over 10 years; he knows that I’m doing it better now, but it was interesting for me to see him sort of get the real “take” on what’s it like to be in a band, and a band that tours a lot. I checked with the rest of the band beforehand but he’s pretty hands off, so no one had to change the way they live. He befriended everybody. He bought a leather jacket. He gets why now I might come home from a tour and I’m sleeping for three days, because I haven’t slept for three months. I don’t have to apologize for being a sloth for a week.

Did he ever take you to shows when you were growing up?

He took me to my first show when I was 11. We went and saw Garbage. He sat through it and thought they were “quite good.” But he’s always been a good dad and supportive and has probably attended every show I’ve played in the Bay area since I was 17.

You said he was pretty active. Did you grow up doing things outdoors with your family?

Yeah. We didn’t do international travel really, but we’d go beach camping in Mexico. We spent a lot of time backpacking and camping in Yosemite. We’re very nature-oriented, and that’s something I’ve missed a lot for the past 10 years since I’ve been on my own. It’s hard for me to coordinate stuff like that, and my husband didn’t really grow up doing that sort of thing, so it’s not something we think about all of the time. But I’m really hoping I can get back into it. My younger brother is very much still into it. He just came back from a three-week backpacking trip in Yosemite where he was shown this secret, coveted paradise and he now knows the 11 mile through the thick path to get there. I’m supposed to exercise a lot, and then maybe I’ll go with him if I’m in shape. This was some kind of unbelievable half-rock climbing, half-hiking, switchback for three days — which I would maybe die during.

You tweeted that “‘Coming Down’ isn’t a break up song unless you want to break up with life.” What triggered that tweet?

I was probably stoned or something [laughs]. I try not to read reviews but for some reason something crossed my path and it wasn’t that they weren’t spot on — you can interpret things however you want — but it was the tone that they wrote with and it was dismissive. I was like, “Fuck you. You think you know it all. Give me a break.” And that’s just something that I can’t stand. There’s just so much attitude — good or bad, that’s fine — but I hate people that are snooty about it. It was just a knee-jerk reaction.

It seems like the most emotionally raw track on the album; maybe even more so than “Hold Your Hand.” Which one was harder for you to write?

Well, they’re really different. They bookend the whole experience. I wrote “Hold Your Hand” immediately after [my mom's] diagnosis, which came very, very suddenly and completely out of the blue. It was an immediate shift in my life, because it wasn’t a diagnosis like, “Oh, you have cancer, and these are the steps we’re going to take” — because she’d gone through that before. She had cancer twice in the past, but her health had been questionable, we didn’t know why, and then something major happened and she had to have massive head surgery, and she never really recovered. She was never completely herself again and it was just a decline from there.

That song was the beginning of the end, I suppose. “Coming Down” is essentially about the last two weeks that I was home. It was awful, it was so traumatic. It was crazy to see — to become friends with a hospice worker who could just look at her and tell you where she’s at in this transition. I was taking a lot of Valium and Ativan. I don’t know what you’re supposed to do in that sort of situation, but I was not doing it well. “Coming Down” is about all of that.

“Hold Your Hand” is very poised considering you wrote it as everything started to unravel.

I wrote it when I wasn’t at home so I think it was a bit more objective. I don’t think I was in denial but it definitely didn’t sink in for a very long time. It was just surreal. It’s almost been a year since she passed away, and I think only now that I’m starting to get it. It’s weird how the brain works, especially someone like me because I’m not terribly vocal with my emotions. I don’t do that very well.

How do you balance your private and public lives when you’re writing autobiographical songs? The memoirist Richard Rodriguez says that eventually all writers betray their families. Is that something that resonates in your own writing experience?

Yeah, that makes sense to me. I am a very private person, yet I put out a private record in a very public format. But it was sort of like I didn’t have a choice. I’m a songwriter, so that’s what I do, and it was either write the songs or don’t write songs. It wasn’t like I could make a list of other things that I could write about.

For me, everything needs to have a seed of something that I can relate to, because my entire life was totally tossed upside down. That was all that I had, really, in my head. That’s all that I could get out, so that’s what I did. This record has no betrayal on it, per se, but I can understand that sentiment, because at a certain point all you can do maybe is write what you know.

Did you start writing these songs as a way to cope, or were you already trying to write a record when your mom was diagnosed?

I wasn’t trying to write a record. I write songs as I have the time to do them, and I tend to write a lot in one bill. So it was more, like, if I had some time off on tour and I’ll sit down and write two or three songs. That was just how it happened. It definitely was one of the only ways I was dealing with the situation but it wasn’t intentional.

“Just a Creep” is decidedly more lighthearted than the rest of the songs. What kind of space do you see it occupying on the record?

It definitely stuck out as the sore thumb when I was looking at the songs but, to me, I thought it held a good place sonically, because it’s simple and catchy. I remember the weekend I wrote it: I was home at my dad’s house, in between tours, and he was out of town so I didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt really uncomfortable in this house. I had some records with me, most of them were boxed up in storage, but I had a record that Nardwuar had gave to me — it was the Girls in the Garage record — and I needed something like that; something fun, catchy, just something I could dance to while I was doing the dishes. I listened to a lot of Nancy Sinatra as well, just looking for something carefree. It was tough. I couldn’t put on the Smiths, or I would have had a mental breakdown or something.

So that was what I was listening to that particular weekend, and because of everything that’d been going on, I was even more sensitive to things than usual. I was reacting to things that I normally would have brushed off. I was feeling like it’s really necessary to have a thick skin if you don’t have one naturally, and it’s important to develop one in this lifestyle I have. The song is essentially about that: about needing to basically shrink down these potential issues and problems and brush them off because these people don’t matter. They’re just creeps. It’s pretty figurative but it definitely stems from a variety of experiences that are all of one.

I read that you based “Bedroom Eyes” off of a Dante Gabriel Rossetti poem. Are there any other Dum Dum Girls songs that have been informed by things you’ve read?

This was probably the first Dum Dum Girls song that was pretty significantly inspired by something that I’ve read. I’m always reading, so ideas can come from that sort of stuff, but this literally was: I was in bed, I’d been unable to sleep for a week, freaking out, really lonely, on the Internet. I gave myself astigmatism because I didn’t sleep, and I used my computer all night long. I finally got my hands on some sleeping pills and I was literally Wikipedia-ing insomnia out of desperation, and then that changed because I was like, “Obviously, I have to write something about this,” and “Bedroom Eyes” kind of popped into my head. I was like, “There’s the chorus, there’s the catchy pop phrase for a song that is more significant.” I looked up insomnia on and all sorts of shit popped up, like that [Rossetti] came up. It was devastating and beautiful. I’m not sure who he’s referring to in the poem — if it’s maybe more spiritual or someone he loved — but it seems to deal with separation and its contribution to insomnia or its relationship to it. And I was like, “Wow, that’s exactly what’s going on here.”

Did you sleep better after you wrote it?

I slept better after the Ambien kicked in. [Laughs]