Dee Dee Penny of Dum Dum Girls on being a shy person in an extroverted profession
Tyson Wirtzfield Dum Dum Girls
As a rare drummer and frontwoman, Dee Dee Penny (aka Kristin Gundred) was part of experimental pop band Grand Ole Party. Once that band split, Gundred took it upon herself to learn how to write songs on an instrument well outside her comfort zone. When that experiment seemed to work out, she pulled together members of a band that would help her actualize the kind of music she wanted to make and evolve: Enter the Dum Dum Girls, whose debut full-length, I Will Be, harks back to an older, garage/'60s girl-group sound, but with an underlying edge and unexpected lyrical sharpness, even amid songs that are clearly focused on love and its travails.
Touring in support of their latest EP, He Gets Me High, Dum Dum Girls bring their sunny but pleasantly dissonant pop show to the hi-dive tonight. We spoke with the charmingly frank and articulate Gundred about the perils of being a shy, sensitive person in the world of public performance, her songwriting and dealing with criticism.
Westword: I've been fortunate enough to get to see both Grand Ole Party and Dum Dum Girls, and I was wondering what the catalyst was for your pursuing an entirely different sound with Dum Dum Girls.
Kristin Gundred: For every recording and every song that sounds perfect, there are usually some noticeable flaws. Realistically, it's what we sound like, in general. I am, by no means, a good guitar player; I'm a singer. I learned guitar and have improved from when I started, but it's not the focus of what I'm doing. It's why I have a lead guitar player who's significantly better than I am.
Typically I write on my nylon string guitar, which is the first guitar I've ever had. I got it in sixth grade, I think, from a friend of my dad's, a music teacher -- my parents were teachers. She passed on her early-'60s nylon string, and I tried to learn Nirvana songs or something. And I failed. It took me ten years to actually play a song. I got frustrated really easily.
In an August 2009 interview with the blog Thee Outer Net, you said how you would probably be "dead or a drug addict or a dead drug addict" if it weren't for music. In what ways does music enrich your life so that you don't have to go that route?
It's really all I know how to do. I spent the majority of my childhood and teenage years being a very serious student. Kind of a typical perfectionist, overachiever type. I came very close to burning out in college, I think, because I had just been so focused when I was young, and I had this startling realization that it didn't mean anything, that it didn't translate. Everything I felt like I wanted to do as a career has been, if not music, it's writing -- something so luck-oriented. You can work so hard and put everything you have into it, and there's an overwhelming chance that nothing will come of it. I don't know: I've always had something inside of me that has helped me to keep going, despite basically failing at what I was trying to do for years.
Sometimes people assume Dum Dum Girls came out of nowhere, and all of a sudden, I've been gifted this Sub Pop silver spoon and didn't do anything to warrant attention at such an early stage. From my perspective, I've been working on my craft, whether it was writing or figuring out how to do music the way I wanted to, for ten-plus years. I feel like I put in a lot of groundwork and failed for much longer than I've had any kind of success.
Basically it's this drive that doesn't let me do anything else. Having gone through some pretty traumatic events in the last two years of my life, it's been a source of comfort to have something to busy my mind with. It's been a source of friendship -- the support system I have with my bandmates and other people I know and work with. It's always been a distraction and a way to sort of healthfully channel negative feelings.
What kind of influence did the music of the Vaselines have on you -- other than the obvious name reference -- and what was it like touring with them?
It was the last tour we did that ended last year. We ended up having to cancel a good portion of it, but we did do the West Coast dates with them. It was really amazing. Aside from the obvious reference in the name, I -- like many other people -- got exposed to them through Nirvana when I was a very young teenager. That's something I love about being an obsessive fan. You learn about what music people listen to that make music you like.
So through Nirvana I found about the Vaselines, which ended up opening this huge door to British music that maybe would have taken me longer to discover in a less direct way. And I thought they were such good songwriters. So simple, but it was distilled down to everything you needed. For a song to hold its own in such simplified terms, that's a great song, a powerful song.
Also the attitude, the topics of songs. I was always amused by what they sang about. Now that I can call them friends, to a certain degree. It's charming to meet them and see the people behind the songs and the topics, and it just made a whole lot of sense. It was definitely inspiring and validating to be able to play shows with them. It was a nice full-circle turn of events for me. I'd never seen them before, so it was also a real treat to see those songs that almost feel like they exist in a time capsule, because they didn't do anything for decades. To see them play those songs so perfectly was really cool.
Why did you cover GG Allin's "Don't Talk to Me"?
When I started recording stuff with Dum Dum Girls and putting a little more time and energy into it -- when it seemed like there was something worth pursuing there -- the way I learned guitar was learning songs by other bands. I found that to be the most rewarding way. You can be frustrated that you can only play three chords, but if you figure out you can play your favorite Ramones song, that's pretty awesome and encouraging.
I think that I was probably just on some poppy, punk kick playing Ramones songs, kids' songs. I don't know why I chose that one. It's obviously a perfect song. I've recorded all kinds of covers that have never seen the light of day and never will. But for whatever reason, I thought that one came out in an interesting way, pretty different from the original.
It was really funny to see how polarizing it was for our small community of listeners. They either thought it was awesome that we covered that song with dream-pop vocals, because it's clearly pretty far from where GG Allin ended up. Obviously, there were peers who called total bullshit on it. That's fine, too, but the point was that it was just an experiment to have fun.
It's a really fun song to play, and it's really validating when we do play it and I look out in the crowd and I see some weird little crust-punk kid stoked that we're playing it. That's great, because he might not have bothered to listen to us had he not known we played an early GG Allin song.