“It’s frustrating to learn the guitar, because you suck so bad for the first week or two,” explains Dee Dee Penny, the singer/songwriter at the center of Dum Dum Girls. “I could not handle sucking, so I just said, ‘Fuck that.’”
That was about 18 years ago, when Penny still went by the name Kristin Gundred and based most of her chord progressions around the buzzsaw riffs of Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. In the vaguely defined space between that short-lived attempt at shredding and the first proper Dum Dum Girls single (a 7” for HoZac), she dropped the guitar for a bass and bounced around several bands in the Bay Area, eventually landing behind a drum kit and mic for the San Diego trio Grand Ole Party.
She’d rather not discuss those days, but the group had a solid local following and generated enough buzz to land a Yeah Yeah Yeahs tour leg. The only problem was the persistent feeling that the singer/drummer was stuck playing someone else’s music. So the name change happened, a record label (Zoo Music, co-founded by Crocodiles frontman Brandon Welchez) was quietly launched, and she picked up the guitar again for the first time in more than a decade.
“I got really frustrated with the band situation I was in,” she says, “and I knew I needed to play an instrument that’s conducive to songwriting. There’s only one Karen Carpenter, you know? [Laughs] So I went back and learned the easiest Beatles songs, and the easiest Bob Dylan songs. Even if you’re shitty at playing those three chords, they’re still amazing.”
Listening to Dum Dum Girls develop over the past five years has been like slowly walking away from a wall of sound — although the Brill Building era has long hung over Penny’s hooks and harmonies, right down to her longtime collaborator, producer Richard Gottehrer (“My Boyfriend’s Back,” “I Want Candy,” “Hang on Sloopy”) — and finding a spotlight-seizing star behind all that riffage and reverb. The project’s creative growth continues on Too True, which brings Penny’s lavish vocal lines into full relief alongside steam-pressed drum patterns, low-lying bass lines and subtle echoes of post-punk, Brit-pop, even heavy strains of Surrealism.
Or as Penny puts it, “I only exist in the A.D. world now.” As in “After Dum Dum.” The following interview explains things in much greater detail, from the books that have never left her side to the song inspiration/shirt her husband has refused to remove for the past two years.
Has it been both a blessing and a curse to publicly grow as a songwriter, where the first songs you ever wrote, and everything since then, has been put out there? It’s almost like you’re the musical version of a child actor.
[Laughs] Yeah, I say that all the time; I’ve just never phrased it that way.
Well, you know what I mean.
Totally. It’s cool from a cataloging standpoint. When I’m 50 years old, it’ll be interesting to have every step of the process documented. It’s funny to have something so [old] out there. Like, ‘Did I start too soon?’ But I don’t feel that way.
Were you always writing and recording yourself? Just not releasing it?
I played violin first as a child; that’s where I got my foundation for music theory. Then I started taking singing really seriously. I took private lessons, and I took choral composition in college. I also knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a performer. I was incredibly shy, though, so the two things didn’t really line up in a productive way. I definitely wrote songs as a kid, and recorded myself in middle school. It’d sound like Joni Mitchell or Fiona Apple or something. Then I tinkered with piano, and when I started playing in bands, I always wrote around the bass.
Did you just want to be a singer for a while there?
Definitely. To this day, I’m an alright rhythm guitar player; better than four years ago, but my motivation is not to be a great guitar player. It’s to play well enough for the songs that I’m writing, which is almost always vocally driven.
How have you dealt with the fact that you’re very introverted, yet also happen to have this desire to perform, to very much be the center of attention? Is that why you created a persona for yourself in the beginning?
When I started, there was definitely a motivation to maintain some distance, probably for self-preservation. But I always had some stage fright. There’s just this release that happens when you perform, and I really love that. It doesn’t pose a problem for me anymore. I am who I am most of the time, and the person onstage is also very much a part of me. I absolutely love it. But if we were just hanging out at my house and you asked me to play a song on guitar, I’d probably say no.
Do you remember the first time you performed in front of people?
The first rock ‘n’ roll show I played was at this really strange former bar in San Gregorio. I think it was a These Arms Are Snakes’ show, and we were this really scrappy, obnoxious Rolling Stones/Jefferson Airplane thing. We had to rent a U-Haul to get our gear there because we had a Hammond organ, which was absurd. And I’d just started drinking so I got wasted. That’s how I pushed through that stage fright feeling. We were probably awful, but it was a good feeling. I could finally connect this desire, this compulsion I had to be a performer with the potential of it.
Was anyone in your family a performer as well?
My dad’s side of the family is where the musical talent lies, but it was always a hobby. His parents were amateur vaudeville performers on the radio, but everyone was very working class. They had a trade and at a certain age, the artistic impulse was put to the side as something-we-enjoy-doing-sometimes. I got a college degree and was going to potentially go to grad school to get my masters or my teaching credentials. But I reached this point where I felt like I couldn’t do that straight path anymore. It took many years for my dad to stop asking me when I was going to get a job like that. At this point, he’s totally in support of it. He’s even gone on tour with us [laughs].
Did the idea of being a teacher simply not sound fulfilling to you?
Well, on a practical level, I wouldn’t be a good teacher because I’m too quiet. I don’t have the teaching gene both of my parents have. I could see myself tucked away in a library for the rest of my life but that’s only part of me. I definitely have this compulsion to create and perform. It’s hard for me to imagine an alternate lifestyle. I’m very fortunate to be able to do this now.
You mentioned a lot of writers in the leadup to this record — people like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, who are often name-dropped by people but rarely discussed. Can you talk about what those writers mean to you? You seem like the kind of person who actually reads them.
[Laughs] Yeah, I definitely take a lot of comfort in books. I always have. It’s a common joke that I make — that I “had books, not friends” as a kid. But yeah, I’ve always taken a lot of inspiration from a mixed bag of writers. Especially on this record.
There’s two very overt references. One’s more of an adaptation of the Rimbaud poem “The Drunken Boat.” It’s probably 10 or 15 stanzas, and I took three or four of them and set them to the song. It was also inspired by how my husband Brandon made his booking agent schedule a day off of his last [Crocodiles] tour so they could see Rimbaud’s hometown. He came back with this touristy but awesome T-shirt that’s this classic portrait of Rimbaud. He’s literally worn it nearly every day since; we’re talking like two years of it staring at me. And even in this badly rendered, screen-printed photo, he has these piercing eyes. So I was just playing with the concept of someone else having those eyes. And at one point, I thought about taking parts from a poem of his. That was a fun one for me, poring through various collections until I found the thing that stood out.
Flowers of Evil was something else I read, and was obsessed with. There’s one poem within that collection called “Hymn to Beauty.” It delves into the idea of beauty within ugliness, or good within bad — that dichotomy, and not knowing the true nature of something. A basic concept, but I found his analogies to be really beautiful, and that loosely inspired “Evil Blooms.” Maybe more in the title than anything else.
Poetry is a really maligned art form. Like bad poetry is viewed as really bad. It’s a harder sell than novels, you know?
Yeah, it’s interesting. We’ve been in New York for a few years now, and we’ve made a few friends who are in the art scene and do readings. We’re trying to get more into that world, but it’s pretty terrifying. It’s very small…There’s a poet kinda close to me in age named Ariana Reines. I saw her doing a reading at a small gallery and it was so inspiring. It was crazy, more terrifying than a show could ever seem to me. That seems like such a dying breed at this point.
More terrifying because of how poets put themselves out there, and there’s no barrier to what they’re saying — no music?
Exactly. Even with myself, I try to write well, but there’s this supplementary layer of music. I don’t feel like all of my lyrics are poems at all. There’s definitely some dependence on the music. My goal is to get to a point where I don’t feel that way.
So what’s one song on the new record you’d feel comfortable leaving behind for someone to read 50 years from now — a faithful representation of you as a writer?
[Laughs] I don’t know…
Maybe the right answer would be the one that simply steals from Rimbaud?
Exactly. I feel good about that one. Maybe “Evil Bloom,” the second song on the record. That’s a nice little snippet. [Reads some of the lyrics back] It’s like, ‘Interesting. I just tried a couplet right there, in my head.’ I’m not horrified by that one.
You’re horrified by the rest then?
No, not at all. I stand behind my work, but some songs need the context of the music. It’s not that they’re lacking on their own; they just complement one another.
You wrote most of this record at home, during a week-long break in New York, right?
Yeah, I had the apartment to myself and nothing to do for about 10 days. That’s how I’ve always worked — isolation. Get up, drink a gallon of coffee, roll a spliff and start writing. That’s pretty much how I did this record. I came up for air a few times and was like, “Whoa, what am I doing?” I remember with “Rimbaud Eyes,” it didn’t sound like anything I’d done before. To me, at least. I was having trouble being objective about it, so I sent it to Todd [Killings] from HoZac, the first person to put anything out by Dum Dum Girls. And he loved it, so that was my one moment where I thought about whether I should keep going.
What was so different about it to you?
Just the whole thing. I stepped away from writing music for a while, while we were on tour, and it was very different from anything I’d written previously. In a good way, in a way I was psyched on. But I was also not capable of analyzing it because it felt so foreign to me.
You’re about to go back on tour. The last time you did, you ended up losing your voice. Are you a little anxious about going back out there?
It sucks, because it’s something I never had to think about before. But I’ve take a lot of time off, and done a lot of rehabilitative work. It’s a physiological issue as much as a mental one. I just need to learn to relax. I’m really excited; I didn’t know to do with myself over the last year.
Was there any point where it felt like you wouldn’t get better? Like a small chance where you wouldn’t be able to sing again?
No, but it was really slow going in terms of making any progress. I just tried not to let myself get too negative. We’ll see; ask me about it six months from now.