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November 24, 2006 | Author: Greg Phillips. Pic by

dresdendollsmainIt’s true that Boston duo The Dresden Dolls’ stage show contains elements of cabaret, theatrical review, perhaps even vaudeville and burlesque. The image they present is of another time, of smokey Berlin clubs, silent movie theatres and trendy french cafes where artists and philosophers discuss the meaning of life in a cloud of Gitane created haze. But in essence, they’re a rock band. She (Amanda Palmer) pounds the piano keys harder than most, and he (Brian Viglione) responds with equally powerful thuds of his drum kit. It’s more the fringe performers, the dancers, hoola hoopers, sword swallowers, fire eaters, artists, members of their huge international fan base called ‘The Brigade’ that supply the nightly visual paraphenalia. The Dresden Dolls were recently in Australia on a sold out tour to promote their latest album ‘Yes, Virginia’. While Amanda slept in her hotel room resting her flu-ridden vocal chords, drummer and sometime guitarist Brian Viglione sat down with Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips for a chat.

GP: Both you and Amanda are free thinking people in a world that imposes a lot of restrictions and barriers, do you see yourselves as messengers of freedom of expression?

BV: No I don’t think we put ourselves quite on the pedestal of being messengers. We do what feels natural first and foremost. We do what we believe in and play the kind of music we enjoy, with the guiding principle of incorporating all of who we are, sense of humour, sense of drama, whatever particular things happen to be most attractive to us. We don’t make any effort to censor that. We try to incorporate that and it keeps the whole experience really vital, as opposed to saying I think I really need to sculpt my image to fit into this niche and attract this kind of person. We sort of do what we do and have a good time doing it and  that seems to attract an audience of people, who, above all else, are open minded and ready to check out the show and the music, and be open to the experience. Which is what we want.

The band was once described as ‘Brechtian Cabaret’, after the German socialist dramatist. The Bertolt Brecht reference is probably one that you are sick of hearing, but if he was alive today, do you think he’d be into The Dresden Dolls?

I don’t honestly know. I won’t bullshit and say that I know that much about Brecht’s life and his work and tastes to be able to say that he would like us in this context or what. If there was any link that was supposed to be made in that reference it was like a Brecht File and the idea that we challenge the audience to be themselves and not just be on this level of an observer experience. The sentiments expressed actually make them think and apply to their daily lives, as opposed to just getting caught up in it.  What we hear is … a lot people have gone to see us, and walked into clubs and said ‘I thought I had you pegged’… you know the chick angry songwriter on the piano and the side kick guy on drums, but I walked out of there with my mind completely blown, and completely different to what I was expecting. So that’s a convoluted round about way of saying you get to gauge people as opposed to having them go through a predictable experience. Again its not a reference that should be weighed to heavily, it’s just a rock band.

Do you ever feel restricted by just the drum and piano format?

By instrumentation, no not really. I think both of us were excited to see how much you could make by the little we actually had. Fortunately for us, the way we play and  the type of instruments we play have tremendous capacity and dynamic and melodic range. We have embraced that and used it as a tool. In fact it’s very liberating in a way. Whenever I play with a rock band you find a very narrow role within the band. You’ve got to lock in with the other rhythm section players and you are like the main support to the structure of the song. With The Dresden Dolls, from my stand point, I can just orchestrate and react very spontaneously and work directly with the person communicating the story, as opposed to just living with the track. As a drummer that’s really exciting and for Amanda as well, it allows a lot of interplay between us, you know without getting too heady about it.

Because Amanda is such a percussive piano player, do you think that’s a big part of the chemistry between you?

Definitely. One of the main factors when I watched her the very first night I saw her play … I thought to myself, this girl is composing clearly with drums in mind. It wasn’t this free flowing typical singer songwriter on a piano, she had a very solid rhythmic foundation, but she was lacking actual power. She was pounding, pounding, pounding and I thought, all she needs is a little more force behind that, and that would free her up to concentrate on the lyrics and the melody and things like that..and that’s the direction it has gone in.

When you are recording and include additional instrumentation, is there ever a consideration as to how you’ll replicate that live?

Sometimes. It depends on the material and where we stand as a group at that particular time. With the first record, we thought there was such a diverse stylistic approach in just the song writing that we thought … let’s first try to service the song, minus the whole visual element of the band, but then that album really benefited from extra instruments and sound effects and overdubs. It really helped to project a lot of the imagery. With ‘Yes, Virginia’ we had a different head space. I think we were a lot more confident with the group in what we could deliver and how to do that with just voice, piano and drums. We incorporated the guitar parts on the record exactly the same as we perform them live. That was just a stylistic thing for that batch of material. For the next record I would like to see a mixture of both.

Are you into technology at all, into triggering?

No, no, no! Definitely not. That’s very counter to my nature as a player and I think to the essence of the way the band operates. Very little of what goes on musically live is premeditative. The songs have a definite framework but there’s a lot of improvisation that goes on and things never really get played the same way twice. For me the idea of being tied to a sequencer live kind of takes all the fun out of it, kind of like having a leash on. That freedom is something Amanda and I have come to depend on.

What does your kit consist of?

Just a basic five piece drum kit. I have a single bass drum with a  double kick pedal which I never thought I would use, because it’s such a heavy metal thing. I just thought when will that ever get used with the chick singer thing! I was wrong thankfully. So, yeh, snare drum, two floor toms and two cymbals. Its pretty basic. Again too, that test of how much can I actually pull out of the instrument without having to refer to synthetic devices or a whole percussion tray with all these extra things, and it has been a really great exercise for me creatively.

Do you have any endorsements?

Yes. I have several . I am endorsed by Yamaha drums, Zildjian cymbals, Vic Firth drum sticks and Gibson guitars.

You’ve done a lot of supports for some big bands recently, have the fans always treated you well?

No (in a timid high pitched voice). Basically the winning streak was broken on the Panic at the Disco tour in the states. We realise now that it was actually the vocal minority but we were scared shitless when we toured with Nine Inch Nails in 2005, thinking these people are going to tear our heads off but they were really cool, open minded and at the very least a respectful audience to play for. And we won over tons of new fans. With the ‘Panic’ tour we found we were really at odds with the taste of the kids who were there for a really pop oriented commercial kind of sound. I think a lot of the music we did was kind of over their heads. In terms of hostility the Panic kids, you know the 12-16 year olds, take the cake with obscenities and calculated attacks. With the whole Nine Inch Nails, thing maybe one guy would yell out at the end of the set, but the Panic kids would yell like ten (obscenities) at a time between every part of the song. It was crazy, but not for every show. We realised that it is silly to let that kind of shit get to you. Half these kids … it’s their first concert and they think that’s a cool thing to do. We would go out into the crowd afterwards to sign autographs and loads of kids would come out and say we would have never heard of your band unless you came out and did this tour, and I’m so glad I found you.

Playing the larger venues, how do you go projecting with just piano and drums?

That was something we felt intimidated about at first, but we found the point was to just go out and do what you do and not worry about it. If the show translates … great and good luck to you and see you next time. If you think the show sucks, then it’s not going to work and tough shit for you. We’ve been lucky so far. Sometimes maybe your gesticulating might be a bit grander. I remember the first time that we were on an arena stage with Nine Inch Nails in Mexico City in front of 20,000 people and I looked out and thought my god. You still just try to focus on the music the best you can and realise that PA and screens etc will help.

Do you remember the actual beginning of the ‘Brigade’ or did it just evolve over time?

Where that whole thing began is where the band came from and that’s a kind of art scene and the salon parties that are actually called box parties that Amanda would have at her house. She would have all of these multi media installations and poets and music in the back yard. When we released our first CD in 2003 we wrote on a forum that if anyone would like to come along in the spirit of the night, they could dress up and have a blast. So we started getting people dressing up at our shows. And Amanda having once been a living statue, wanted to start incorporating all that was happening at the parties. She began looking for performers and sent an invitation out nationally, then internationally. You know, write to us and tell us what kind of performance thing you can do. It took off all over the place. We had great response in the west coast of the US, in the mid west them Paris was incredible, UK was great. Australia has been phenomenal. It’s probably one of the top places for that kind of thing. We’ve moved away from featuring some of the more amateur fans to trying to focus more on actual performance troupes that have really polished acts.

What does the future hold for the band?

Well the immediate future is going back to do the US tour, then two shows at the roundhouse in London, then the play, rehearsals all through November. Then the show goes through to mid January. Then we are hopefully in for about a year of solid time off which will be nice. Amanda will get to go and write new material and do solo tours if she wants. I’ve got a lot of projects and educational things I want to do. Lots of people I’d like to go and take lessons from. Start doing clinics, play with lots of different people.. A great opportunity to regroup and refresh.


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