Dee Dee the Dum Dum Girl: Ready to Go Plural
Every home-recorded solo project that’s worth a damn at some point begs expansion – usually the kind that demands more hands in future endeavors. Such is the case with Dum Dum Girls, the L.A.-based, ramped-up garage-pop band helmed by Kristin Gundred, better known as Dee Dee. Until recently, Dum Dum Girls has been less a band and more of a project – and it’s always been completely hers.
After two hard-working years making music on her own, a deal with Sub Pop yielded a slew of 7-inches, a full-length and, most recently, He Gets Me High, a four-song EP. Now, Dee Dee says, she’s ready to relinquish control.
“[He Gets Me High] is kind of the last solo version of Dum Dum Girls,” says the 28-year-old in an unexpectedly soft, reserved voice considering the deeply rooted rock ‘n’ roll raucousness her band exudes.
And despite her often-girly lyrics – many that boast an old school devotion to the opposite sex, like “Yours Alone” – Dee Dee is decidedly strong-willed. Paired with an utter awareness of self, her music, naturally, has always been very personal. She maintains that many of those characteristics stem from her birthday – she insists she’s the epitome of her astrological sign.
“I’ve been very self-aware in that [I’ve been] kind of [a] Virgo perfectionist my whole life,” she says.
But Dee Dee says a history of feeling like an arbitrary member in a band is what really reaffirmed her independent nature.
“[Working solo] was a direct reaction to previous experiences I’ve had with music where I felt like I really hadn’t contributed anything or I was compromising what I wanted,” she says. “When I finally started doing my own thing, it was such a relief to not have to factor in someone else’s opinion when I knew I wouldn’t agree with it.”
With little skill in terms of musicianship, Dee Dee says, she did have some doubts.
“I’ve had the bug for a really long time. I used to record very strange arrangements because I didn’t play many instruments at all,” she says.
It wasn’t until she joined a band that she realized her own ideas were all that mattered.
“I was in a couple rock bands and I kind of just went with the program,” she says of her early career. “It just took a while for me to figure out, ‘Oh, wow, this is not what I want to be doing,’ and therefore, let’s figure out how to do what I want to be doing.”
She then retreated from bands altogether, worked a “really shitty job” and immersed herself in writing under the moniker Dum Dum Girls.
“For me, [recording alone] was this really liberating experience. Even though I’m extremely limited in my ability to record or play the bass or whatever, it was still better than trying to do it with a band,” she says.
Soliciting Richard Gottehrer for postproduction on I Will Be, then, marked Dee Dee’s first step in weakening a white-knuckle grip on her work. The iconic musician and producer’s credits include classic pop tunes like “My Boyfriend’s Back,” guiding Blondie’s and the Go-Go’s debuts and “I Want Candy,” the biggest hit from The Strangeloves, Gottehrer’s studio project-turned-fake band. True to her analytical personality, Dee Dee was able to admit that something was missing from her self-recorded work, and the solution was in postproduction.
“Probably in one of [my] weird texting or e-mail back-and-forths [with Sub Pop], it was brought up that, ‘Wow, what if we could get some sort of famous pop producer to do something?'” she giggles.
Gottehrer was cold-called – or cold e-mailed, Dee Dee can’t recall – and something about the music must have “piqued his interest,” she says. But even with an industry legend in the mix, Dee Dee couldn’t let up on her strong-willed tendencies.
“Despite being in awe of him and having so much respect for him, I was still very much [like], ‘This is my baby,’ and I [had] very clear ideas about things,” she says. “I was almost afraid that would come off offensively, that I just wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, do whatever.’ But I think he enjoyed that about me.”
A possible setback in what Dee Dee calls a “personal journey” to accepting others’ input was losing drummer Frankie Rose, the former Vivian Girls member who played with Crystal Stilts during most of her stint with Dum Dum Girls. Rose had been hard at work on her own project, Frankie Rose and the Outs, and had to leave Dum Dum Girls once momentum picked up. Surprisingly, Dee Dee calls the split amicable.
“I would never want to hold back someone from doing what they want to do, because that’s essentially what I had been doing or had been dealing with. So it was really important for [Frankie] to focus on her record and get it done. We were all in support of that,” she says.
Sandy Vu joined the roster soon after, and since then, the familial feeling that’s crucial to cooperation has swelled – so much so that the four-piece recently had matching “dum dum” script tattooed on the inside of their index fingers. Clearly, Dee Dee’s jaded outlook on teamwork is dissolving.
“I’m pretty much at the point now where I feel like we’re a band, and I love all of those girls, and I love spending my life with them. We feel like a gang,” she says. “I have their backs and they have mine, and they work extremely hard. I’m really grateful that I was able to find people that respected me enough to help me carry out what I was trying to do.”
So the new EP, He Gets Me High, released March 1st on Sub Pop, is a shuffle toward adapting to traditional band procedure, where most players get a say and the recording setting is a studio instead of a bedroom. This go ’round, Sune Rose Wagner of The Raveonettes joined Gottehrer in production – a decision that Dee Dee says was easy to accept.
“I knew that if Sune were involved with the recording process that the sort of toughness and evilness that I wanted the songs to retain, even though I was loosening my control over the project, I knew that they would remain intact,” she says.
Wagner’s influence on He Gets Me High is subtle – mostly because the Dum Dum Girls’ aesthetic has always been in line with The Raveonettes’ darkly romantic, pop-minded brand of rock ‘n’ roll.
“I didn’t want to put out the EP and have it sound exactly like I Will Be. Which I could have; I had demoed versions of the songs that I did in the exact same way that I did I Will Be. To some people that might be an interesting artifact to have. I love hearing demo versions of songs – as a record collector and total music fan, that’s something I love. But I definitely wanted to do something that showed a marked improvement in the band,” she says.
The result is a slightly more polished version of Dum Dum Girls. The reverb’s not as thick and the lo-fi label doesn’t really apply, but all four tracks still slide smoothly into the band’s repertoire. Dee Dee says she wanted the EP to better reflect the live sound of the band instead of the bootleg-recorded feel.
“It’s impossible and I think silly to try to duplicate what a home recording sounds like when you have this loud, talented rock ‘n’ roll band version available,” she says with a laugh.
Welcoming change and help is part of Dee Dee’s charm, and will likely be part of Dum Dum Girls’ endurance.
“I’m very aware that [I Will Be] was sort of me maxed out, what I’m capable of myself. I love that record and it’s really sentimental to me. It represents my first attempt at songwriting, and it’s really special to me because of that. But I felt like it was time to put something out there that reflected the progression that I’d made as a songwriter,” she says.
“I can write these songs and I can get better at writing songs…but I’m interested in moving forward and utilizing opportunities to work with people that are really good at what they do in order to make what I’m doing even better,” she says.
On the next LP, slated to release by the end of the year, the other girls will sing on the record for the first time. And there will be room for “classic band collaboration,” Dee Dee says.
“If I have one thing, I feel like I have a voice that I know how to use and get across what I’m intending to,” she says. “So it’s a little scary to think of letting go of that total control. But I sing with [the girls] all the time, and our voices sound so much better together than I do singing with myself.”
“I’m excited. At this point I would never go back to using a drum machine so obviously, why wouldn’t I use Sandy? Even just the terminology – I’m going to use a drummer – we’re a band at this point, so obviously we’re going to record the record as a band.”
Photo by Tyson Wirtzfield.