The goth squad: Dresden Dolls inspire fans


April 7, 2006


Few bands in recent memory have been as successful at creating new, dark and alien worlds on album or in concert as the Dresden Dolls, who conjure an unholy combination of a decadent Weimar Republic cabaret, a punk-rock club and an opium den.

"It's funny that people say our show is theatrical, because we just play our instruments as directly and as passionately as possible and everything else sort of falls into place," says singer, songwriter and pianist Amanda Palmer.

"There's no stage set, dancing girls or actual theatrics; it's just [drummer] Brian [Viglione] and I pounding the s--- out of our instruments and really putting ourselves into the songs. There's nothing more theatrical than performers who really like to sing into their mikes and do it old-school rock 'n' roll style."

But if the flamboyantly attired and made-up Dresden Dolls aren't themselves acting out their gothic melodramas, that doesn't mean the fans aren't elsewhere in the club, turning the venue into a bacchanal or a torture chamber.

"We rely on our audience to make the club look interesting, whether they're actively coming in and helping us set up or just lighting it up with their presence. We really try to encourage them to treat the club like a place of complete madness and freedom. The cabaret side of the band is not about the band, it's about the place and the people: You're not supposed to just come in, sit down and watch the stage."

And the strangest spectacle the band's music has inspired?

"Oh, my God, there are so many," Palmer says, laughing. "There's a great girl in California who showed up to a bunch of our West Coast shows, and she does this great thing with her makeup where she puts latex over her lips and puts eyelets along her upper and lower lip and sews her mouth shut. It looks fantastic! That's a memorable one. We have seen some really beautiful and crazy stuff."

Palmer, 29 and a mesmerizing vocalist, formed the Dresden Dolls with Viglione, a drummer of considerable sensitivity and power, in Boston in 2001. They made their recorded debut with the live set "A Is for Accident" in 2003, and followed with a self-titled studio album in 2004. But the new "Yes, Virginia..." is their most impressive offering to date, rife with indelible melodies, dramatic arrangements and exquisitely witty and literary lyrics expertly recorded by Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie, the alt-rock veterans whose resume includes Hole and Radiohead.

"We basically wanted to make a live record in the studio," Palmer says. "We'd been touring so much, and the band was really, really tight, and we wanted to make this record a clean, true and raw representation of what we do onstage.

"I didn't go out shopping for producers. Sean found us a couple of years ago and invited us into the studio to do some pro-bono work, because we were really poor. I just liked him, trusted him and never looked back. I said, 'Any kind of relationship like this can grow.' I had faith in the fact that he got the band and would be able to do it, and he did."

Indeed, packaged with an impressive 30-page booklet containing artwork submitted by fans, "Yes, Virginia ..." is as much of an otherworldly experience as the group's live shows, whether Palmer is singing about someone on the verge of administering an unwanted sex-change operation ("No second thoughts, the knife is nearing/You'll never hear the little pitter patter of this little feat of engineering") or an alcoholic crawling back from a blackout ("I'm trying hard not to be ashamed/Not to know the name/Of who is waking up beside me/Or the date, the season or the city/At least the ceiling's very pretty").

Many fans and critics assume that such hard-hitting songs must be autobiographical, but that underestimates Palmer's talents as a writer. She bristles a bit when I broach the subject, though I note that I'm on her side: After all, Edgar Allan Poe didn't have to commit murder in order to portray the nefarious deed with vivid flair.

"Maybe he did -- in his head," Palmer says, laughing once again. "I think it's a beautiful luxury of being a writer: to confabulate. At the same time, a songwriter has a particularly nasty lot in life, because anything he writes that sounds possibly confessional is immediately going to turn into fodder for questions of whether or not it's autobiographical, and that doesn't happen to writers in other media.

"Obviously, you can only really write what you know and what you feel. So in that sense, every single song -- everything you write -- is going to be about you, even if it's complete fiction. It's your take on that fictional story. I think it's a fun game for me to say, 'I can write whatever I want and people can believe whatever they want to believe.' If it sounds honest, it probably is. Sometimes, you can sound incredibly honest, and the fact that you're making up the details actually adds to the credibility."


Yes, yes -- I was burned only recently by expecting too much from one of my classic-rock heroes when I got my hopes up about the Queen reunion tour and was rewarded with Paul Rodgers out-parodying Spinal Tap. And there's no denying that David Gilmour's new solo album, "On An Island," is a disappointing snoozefest.

Nevertheless, I'm stoked about the veteran Pink Floyd guitarist's two sold-out shows Wednesday and Thursday at the Rosemont Theatre.

For one thing, Gilmour's performance last year at Live 8 and his 2002 DVD "David Gilmour in Concert" found him in top form as a vocalist and a guitar god. For another, he's touring with a top-notch band that includes Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright and Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera. Then there's the fact that Gilmour has long been the most people-pleasing member of a notoriously difficult band. But most of all, there are the set lists as the tour rounds the globe.

Granted, the first half of the evening consists of the new solo album in its entirety. (Come late and beat the crowd in the parking lots.) But after a break, Gilmour returns and really delivers the goods: "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," "Wots ... Uh the Deal" (a rare nugget from "Obscured by Clouds"), Syd Barrett's "Dominoes" or "Fat Old Sun" (he's been alternating the two), "Breathe," "Time" and a 20-minute version of "Echoes." Then there are the encores: "Wish You Were Here" and "Comfortably Numb."

Whoo-hoo! If you ask me, that's better than a flying pig any day.