Out of Time or Outer Limits?
An Odd Little Interview with Dot Wiggin
Maybe it’s that The Shaggs were birthed by palmistry in the late 1960s when their father had his palm read by his own mother, telling him that he would have four daughters that would become famous musicians. Or, growing up in Fremont, New Hampshire might’ve prepared The Shaggs for a career that didn’t so much take off as it resulted in being the only source of entertainment available to townsfolk since the band was a fixture at the Town Hall Saturday dance. But as Dorothy “Dot” Wiggin sees it, The Shaggs were merely a local sensation that broke up in the mid ‘70s after Austin, their father, passed away, but have since been scrutinized longer than they existed, leading to off-Broadway theater and rumors of a major motion picture. All this after daddy forced them to take vocal lessons, guitar and drum sessions and practice all day after pulling them out of school. Pretty good for a band that wrote songs about their cat and bicycle seats!
Dot Semprini (she married when she was 27) has for many years lived in nearby Epping, New Hampshire, less than a 15-minute drive from Fremont. Though they were praised or cited as an influence by the far-flung likes of Frank Zappa, Kurt Cobain, NRBQ and Jad Fair, among others; have had their sole album reissued numerous times; were the subject of a 2001 tribute album featuring Deerhoof, Ida and Danielson Famile; and were recently the subject of a BBC documentary, The Shaggs never reunited other than a performance during NRBQ’s 30th anniversary show in 1999 that only featured Dot and sister Better (Helen Wiggin, the group’s drummer, declined to participate, and died in 2006). And yet now, at age 65, Dot Wiggin is embarking on a solo musical career, albeit one set in motion rather randomly. Two years ago Dot was participating in a Q&A session, along with her sisters and fellow ex-Shaggs Betty and Rachel, during a Shaggs tribute in Fremont when she was asked if she still wrote songs. Lyrics, she replied, but not music. Jesse Krakow, a musician and longtime Shaggs fan who organized the tribute, volunteered to put some of those words to music. It wasn’t long before Krakow had assembled a group of like-minded musicians and coaxed Dot in front of the microphone as lead vocalist. The Dot Wiggin Band was born.
Released by Alternative Tentacles in late October, Ready! Get! Go! bears the simple, authentic charm of those old Shaggs recordings without futilely and foolishly attempting to mimic the untrained abilities. A mix of unrecorded Shaggs songs, more recent writings and a Skeeter Davis cover, the album was recorded at various locations including The Shaggs’ old haunt, the Fremont Town Hall, and Dot’s living room. Her youngest son Matthew puts in a guest vocal appearance, and Jad Fair did the cover art based on a photo of Dot. And she’s begun playing selected shows with the group. Not a bad way to hit retirement age running…
What kind of place is Fremont?
“Hmm… Very small. At the time it was a small town, very small town. Country-like.”
I had somebody once describe it to me as a place for inconveniences, infestations and ham & bean suppers. Now, that sounds like the place I came from.
“Inconveniences? (laughs) I don’t know about that, but ham & bean suppers would definitely work!”
What was the reception like when The Shaggs played? People in Fremont, did they get rowdy?
“They got a little rowdy, but it was the only entertainment that was around. Around the town.”
Were they aware of the record?
“Not at the time, no.”
I have lived with it for years, and I have this theory that The Shaggs and The Monks are probably the most influential bands of the ‘60s. How do your kids respond to your music? Do you ever play it for them?
“My younger son Matt has most of the songs downloaded on his laptop, and he listens to music on his laptop when he goes to bed to go to sleep, so he likes it. He’s always liked it. My oldest son, Will, it’s not his kind of music.”
Van Dyke Parks’ kids thought his music was crazy, so I think you’re very lucky that your kids listen to your music.
“I guess so!”
There were three of you – you, Helen and Betty. And Rachel played, what, live?
“She played bass, but she came in on the tail end of the band. Well, she’s close to six years younger than I am, so she was still in elementary school when we started. So once she got to high school, then my father started her on bass guitar lessons. And she played at a few of the dances, but nothing on record.”
Let’s talk about the new record, which I love. Your voice has never sounded better than it does on the Skeeter Davis cover (“End of the World”). It has all the sorrow and distance that that song requires.
“OK. I wasn’t pleased with it, so thank you.”
“No, not when we recorded it. It sounded better when I heard it on the CD, but I didn’t think I did it justice. Maybe because it’s my favorite song by Skeeter Davis AND Herman’s Hermits.”
I almost got to see Herman’s Hermits once, but didn’t go.
“Oh, I seen them a bunch of times. Yeah, but I never did get to see Skeeter Davis.”
She was married to one of the NRBQ guys, right?
“Yeah, she was married to Joey.”
“Banana Bike,” was that a Shaggs song?
“No, that was probably written in the early ‘90s. Helen was living with me for a while, and she was having health issue. You know those Stingray bikes? She picked up a Stingray bike with a banana seat, got it there in Fremont, and she loved to be on it. She was probably in her fifties, and she’d get on it and just take off, not tellin’ us where she went or when she’d be back, so a couple times I’d get in my vehicle and go hunt her down. So that was where the idea of the song came from, and I remember reading the lyrics to her at the time, and she said, ‘Dot, are you makin’ fun of me?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not makin’ fun of ya, Helen, it’s just so you see what you put us through!’”
What do you do for fun nowadays?
“What do I do for fun? Uh… we go to the movies once in a while. I go to concerts. And plays.”
Who have you seen recently?
“Ed Gerhard. He’s a one-man band, guitar soloist. He plays three or four different guitars. I haven’t been to NRBQ in quite a while – they haven’t been around here.”
It’s been 20 years for me.
“Well, it hasn’t been that long, but it’s probably been maybe four. And let me see… Herman’s Hermits, but I haven’t been to theirs even longer than that, ‘cause they haven’t ever come here. Even Massachusetts. The closest they get is Connecticut. I’d have to do an all-night for that, and I have a dog, and if I went I’d have to take the dog with me, and it’s just too much, too much to go through.”
My favorite song on the record is “If I Could Be Your Hero.”
“Yeah, I did not like that.”
See, I like all the songs you don’t like!
“(laughs) That one’s OK. I like that one. Oh, the last concert I went to was Weird Al. My son really likes Weird Al, and he was in Hartford, which is like a half-hour away, so we went to see him. Weird Al Yankovic.”
Just to think that Dot Wiggin went to see Weird Al is amazing…
“Eh” is probably the most Shaggs-like song on there.
“Probably! That one Jesse wrote, and that is NOT one of my favorites.”
“Wiggin Out” reminded me of The Outer Limits. That was my favorite TV show back in those days.
“OK. Jesse wrote that too.”
Fremont is located near Exeter, or the Exeter River?
“Yep, Exeter, Epping, Raymond – it’s in the middle of all those.”
Is that where the “Incident at Exeter” took place?
Betty and Barney Hill – the Incident at Exeter.
“Oh, yeah, that was there.”
That was it? See, I do know something besides music. UFOs and music.
Besides Skeeter Davis, do you plan on doing any other cover songs when you play live?
“We did ‘Paper Roses’ by Marie Osmond at one of our last shows. And Jesse wanted to do another one, so I suggested Tom T. Hall’s ‘I Love.’”
You’ve got great taste.
“(laughs) It’s one of my favorites. I don’t listen to a lot of country, but he is one that I really like. And I always liked Charley Pride back in the day.”
Me too. I’ve listened to every Charley Pride record because that was my mom’s favorite performer.
“That was my mom’s favorite, too!”
There’s a song on the album called “Just Another Crazy Day at the Farm.”
“Yes, I wrote that one. I work at a place called the Farmstead, Farmsteads of New England, which isn’t really a farm. It’s a day program for young adults who either have autism or some kind of disability. We mentor them to transition them from high school to adulthood. I work there part time, and the song pretty much says it all, but anybody who listens to it would think that it’s from somebody who lived on a farm and tended all the animals. We do have animals around there – there’s goats, sheep, um, rabbits, chickens. So it’s kind of like a farm, and then all the, um, they’re called ‘farmers,’ the clients, take care of the animals during the day.”
You’ve got two songs about speeding, “Speed Limit” and “Speed Limit 2.”
“‘Speed Limit’ is one I had written when I wrote all my other songs, in the ‘70s probably. It never got recorded, but I had written it and got a copy of it. So then Jesse write ‘Speed Limit 2’ and it takes off from my ‘Speed Limit.’”
What’s the craziest band you’ve ever played with?
“I haven’t really played with too many bands. I recorded three songs at a recording studio in Baltimore with Jad Fair, so I would have to say Jad Fair and Half Japanese. I didn’t really play with them, just Jad. Jad sang with us, I think on ‘My Pal Foot Foot,’ on stage, and I recorded three of Herman’s Hermits’ songs on one of Jad’s CDs that he’s producing now, or recording now.”
You did copyright “Foot Foot,” didn’t you? Because I see it everywhere.
I know a lot of times, cartoonists don’t copyright their material, and then it goes into public domain. So you do have the rights to Foot Foot.
“Well, maybe not for the drawing, but the song ‘My Pal Foot Foot is copyrighted. The picture probably isn’t.”
Who drew the picture?
You’re so creative! Just amazing.
“Well, it was about my cat, and it was my dad’s idea to have a picture of Foot Foot, so… I wanted it to look like an original cat, so I did like half-cat and half-whale, or whatever. I don’t even remember where I got the idea from! (laughs)”