It has been an interesting and challenging transition for Dum Dum Girls’ lead singer, Dee Dee, aka, Kristen Welchez. Her new solo project, Kristin Kontrol, is a step in a new direction that fuses all her musical influences and puts her love of pop music to the forefront. With the debut album, X-communicate, on the horizon, Kristin spoke to us about her creative processes and finally letting go of that Dum Dum Girls trademark.
You have singled out influences such as Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, and Madonna. Did you have any modern influences for Kristin Kontrol’s debut?
They are not the sole, overarching influences but I think I singled them out because I was trying to give a larger reflection of the role music has played in my life. As a child, the 1980s was the first era to have an impact on me, independent of my parent’s music, and I was definitely a child of the 80s in terms of its pop culture. I tried to pull in my love of Krautrock and Reggae and just wanted to celebrate all the eras of pop music. In terms of contemporary artists, I don’t think I was super, directly influenced, but I have been really taken by The Weeknd over the last couple of years. I really love his intention of bringing a ton of genres together. Using broader genres to paint what he is doing really appealed to me; I think it is really exciting and a cool phase in music at the moment. Dum Dum Girls was placed into a specific niche scene of low-fi/C86 type stuff and of course, it’s a sound I love, and a sound that allowed for anonymity because it was very noisy and the vocals were kept hazy. When I finally stepped out on my own I was definitely tentative, but I never really wanted to be anchored in any particular scene, certainly not that one because there no room for growth.
The genre-less phase in music right now seems to be a good time to create and experiment…
Yes! It is so cool to see how receptive people are to it because even 5 years ago it was like you felt you had to be loyal to a particular scene or a sound which really informed the bulk of what you listened to, and now, it’s just about being hungry to hear new stuff, there’s a lot of cross over and to me, can only a good thing. I’d rather be a part of something that’s much more welcoming with less defined lines.
Have you always intended to do a solo project?
When I started writing for this record, even when recording it, it wasn’t with the knowledge that it would come out as Kristin Kontrol, that was very much a last minute decision in how I should release it. I was essentially making the fourth Dum Dum Girls LP, and, in a sense, that was a solo project on paper anyway, I had the record deal, wrote the songs for all but one recording, and I only worked with only one or two producers. It obviously had this huge band component and aesthetic that worked hand in hand with it because when I did the first Dum Dum Girls record with Sub-Pop, I didn’t want it to be a bedroom project, something I couldn’t tour.
I definitely wanted the band experience and so that worked for a really long time but at a certain point, I started feeling like the template of Dum Dum Girls was so rigid in how I was viewed. I have always tried to make progress between the records and expand on the sound but the length or width I could go with each record was decreasing so I felt like if I kept going forward it would always be thrown back and contextualised to how it fits into what Dum Dum Girls was expected to be. I mean, it’s just music, it doesn’t need to be that heavy, but I did start feeling like I had pinned myself into a corner.
How do you feel the sound has transitioned from one project to the next?
I think that anybody who actively listens to my music won’t find it surprising that X-Communicate is where I have ended up. Friends and colleagues have commented that it makes sense to them, and if I had put it out as Dum Dum Girls they wouldn’t have thought it that strange a transition, but I don’t think that’s the perception at large. I was definitely interested in removing the guitar as the foundation and on a production level I tried to delegate the guitar to a more ornamental space, which also had to do with just imagining how this would be performed. Also, for the most part, I am just going to have the two producers who made the record as the band and another supplementary musician.
It does appear like a natural progression, building upon what you’ve already learnt and accomplished…
Yeah, definitely! I am not rejecting Dum Dum Girls, who and what influenced me at that time are things that I obviously love and is a huge part of me, but I just wanted to feel like I could, you know, include a lot of things that might have gotten a couple of raised eyebrows if introduced in the Dum Dum world.
How does your musical process work, is there a story or inspiration behind X-Communicate?
I don’t have a concept or theme that I sit down and build from, and I think Too True is really the only record where I tried to inform it beforehand and that was still indirect. This time round, it has been a laboured writing process: I started in January 2015 just off finishing the last Too True tour and I knew that I wanted to expand the direction. I didn’t fully know what I was trying to do specifically so it turned out to be a kind of a trial and error process. I started writing with an extreme approach at first; I didn’t want to make a guitar record so made the decision not to write on guitar at all! I was just writing on piano and using a lot of sounds that I had not experimented with before, I definitely wanted it to be a lot more electronic based. Unfortunately, because I was so focussed on the production element of things the songs just weren’t really working so I wrote over forty songs that were just not good. I definitely got frustrated at a certain point, overwhelming so, and had that fear that people probably have all the time in thinking, “I am I still capable of doing this?”
But that’s all part of the creative process, isn’t it?
For sure! I needed to get it out that way so that I could understand that the guitar is actually my songwriting tool and so using it to writing songs doesn’t mean I have to put it on the record. So once I brought the guitar back in and got a little balance back to how I was approaching songwriting, it all grew from there. I think I wrote over 60 songs for this album, whereas, in the past, I was only writing, at most, 15 songs for a 10 song album that has four B-sides or something, so it was an insane amount for me. I have a huge stack of handwritten songs.
It seems like a worthwhile personal journey because it confirmed your writing process and gave you a stronger confidence in your writing ability…
Completely! I am not like a fatalist or anything, it definitely was necessary to go through that to get where I ended up so it had to happen that way.
And your process seems to explain the mix of songs on the album…
In regards to X-communicate, every year I get re-obsessed with something that I have been previously obsessed with, and this time, I went back through my heavy Sinead O’Connor phase. Her voice is this consistent thing and it’s how you know it’s her and her songs are produced or arranged to really just elevate whatever she is singing. So I became very obsessed with that. I would go on message boards and read as much stuff as I could find about the engineers and how they produced her voice. I found out it was very simple because her voice is 90% of it and the other 10% is a very specific reverb. I did my best to emulate the settings on this reverb that I found from a music nerd who had analysed it. I tried to recreate that balance and explained to the producer that using my voice as the anchor was important because I knew that the songs were going to be produced very differently from each other; I wanted there to be something to tie it all together.
You finally chose to use your twelve-year-old email address for the name of your solo project: Kristin Kontrol. Did you ever worry about the marketing aspect of your new project following the success of Dum Dum Girls?
Actually, it was a huge road block at one point. I had casually mentioned to Sub-Pop that whatever my next move was it might be better served as a different thing and they understandably were not into that idea because, if you look at it collectively, we had put in 8 years of grassroots building, you know, we might have come up on a hype-wave, but we then toured for years. It was intimidating for them to try and imagine how to translate that into something new. I set aside that conversation and didn’t worry about it for a while because I needed to focus on the music and just hoped that my work would validate my opinion.
I felt that true fans would question it because the band, the sound, everything would be different and, to me, that just didn’t feel right, I didn’t want to dismantle or change the structure of Dum Dum Girls. Asking people to accept such a huge change, I felt, was disrespectful to the fans. I understood that Dum Dum Girls has a life of its own, something I am not completely connected to anymore, and Kristin Kontrol is now a funny little nod to that, a way to re-establish my authority over my art. Feeling like you have lost control over your own creation is such a ridiculous feeling and once I knew that, it became all about what the new name could be.
So what were your ideas?
I thought about Dee Dee because that is a story that makes sense, but there were logistical issues because other artists had used the name in that capacity and perhaps it would be difficult to find me online, you know, stuff like that. So then I thought about using my last name but there was this ridiculous issue of our first big press engagement where NME, in 2009, put us as their number one band to watch and we did this huge interview. Despite confirming my stage name as just Dee Dee, following some fact checking, they published my full name as Dee Dee Penny. I thought, “What? Penny?” I still don’t have the full story, but, apparently, it was a placeholder that they accidentally didn’t pull out. This erroneously published last name has followed me ever since. My management delete it time and time again from the Wikipedia page.
I started to feel really desperate but, after spending time with friends reminiscing about a DJ night called Skull Kontrol, in California, I remembered why I changed my email and Skype address to Kristin Kontrol over 12 years ago. I sent a slightly drunken, final response to an email conversation I was having with Jonathan Ponyman, the founder of Sub-Pop, resigning myself to having no name change for the album, but I added a footnote to the email which said: “OR, we could use Kristin Kontrol (emoji wink)”. Jonathan immediately wrote back and loved it. It felt more like a definitive break, a bolder move, and that in itself was perhaps worth some attention. It all seemed so obvious after the fact and establishing Kristin Kontrol removes any template or expectation and provides me with something I can continue to go forward with. I didn’t really realise how much I needed it, but as soon as that decision was made I felt that I could breathe deeper or something. There really was a lot of stress and tension tied up into this thing.
X-Communicate is due to be released May 27th via Sub-Pop