Who are the Dum Dum Girls? That's the question the L.A. underground has been asking since the band's fuzzed-up retro rock first leaked onto the scene, but the answer keeps shifting.
When the name materialized in early 2009, it was an alias for a woman with yet another alias — a solo project credited to "Dee Dee," masked protagonist of the garage-pop sound. But within months, Dum Dum Girls morphed into an all-female four-piece whose black outfits and offhand cool seemed to settle the debate: They are women, they do roar, tights and leather they adore.
So then, perhaps the better question is, who is Dee Dee?
"I've always been kind of a loner," she says over the phone from Austin, partway through the Dum Dums' well-reviewed series of appearances at SXSW. "Very much in my own head, though always with great ideas of things I wanted to do. It was just a really slow process figuring out that I could do them on my own."
Despite having a bang-up band involved — with Vivian Girls' Frankie Rose on drums, no less — Dee Dee is clearly the leader of her pack.
The other Dum Dums came along after she finished recording the songs on the band's debut LP, I Will Be (out this week), after it had been decided that Sub Pop would release said LP, and after Brill Building songwriter Richard Gottehrer came on as co-producer. Over the past five decades, Gottehrer's been a go-to boards man for female-fronted pop outfits like the Go-Gos and Blondie, as well as for contemporary groups pursuing the sound he helped pioneer (e.g., the Raveonettes).
"The first thing that strikes you is how terrific the songs are," says Gottehrer, speaking from New York. (His own writing credits include the massive hits "My Boyfriend's Back" and "I Want Candy.") "Dee Dee's success is based in understanding the roots of this music, and being able to translate that in a modern way. It's not an accident that the record sounds the way that it does. Dee Dee gets it."
At just less than 30 minutes, I Will Be is divided into 11 digestible bits — catchy little amalgams of punk-rock grit and girl-group swoon. Opener "It Only Takes One Night" balances noirish urgency against sunny harmonies. Single "Jail La La" is simultaneously dingy and pretty. "Yours Alone" is a clarion call to bop on the dance floor amid the angular grind of guest guitarist Nick Zinner. The drums go dum-dum, cha! Dum-dum, cha! The voice says dee-dee-dee-dee. And heaping spoonfuls of reverb help the bubblegum go down.
But though Dee Dee discovered the sounds of the '60s at a young age, when her father showed her how to use the family phonograph, she wasn't always making music that looked to that era, or that name-checked Iggy Pop ("Dum Dum Boys") and the Ramones (that other Dee Dee). Her given name is Kristin Gundred, and if that rings a bell, it's because she was once the singer and drummer of San Diego blues-rock trio Grand Ole Party, technically only rumored to have broken up.
"Honestly, that's not really something I like to talk about," says Dee Dee flatly. "So draw from that what you will."
A Grand Ole Party press release from last May touts a "forthcoming record ... produced by Ben H. Allen (Animal Collective, Gnarls Barkley) at Sweet Tea studios in Oxford, Mississippi," but when asked whether she can confirm or deny the album's existence, Dee Dee seems shaken as she replies, "I ... don't live in that world anymore." It's unclear whether or not her former bandmates do. After a few June dates with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Grand Ole Party's activity just ceased.
The timing seems to coincide with Dee Dee firming up her deal with Sub Pop, but Dum Dum Girls was, in her words, "a long time coming." By the beginning of 2009, she'd begun recording some of the songs that would end up on I Will Be, though Dee Dee didn't know it at the time. Frustrated with the folksiness of her solo material played acoustically, she moved over to electric guitar, which resuscitated the idea of playing in a band — or at least sounding like it.
"There was really no room for anybody else to have any say," Dee Dee says. "I was taking these songs and mapping out exactly what I wanted for every part. It was thrilling to have that kind of control over it. It was so foreign a concept to me to be making music on my own terms."
A simple e-mail from Sub Pop to Gottehrer brought the legendary producer onboard, and it was decided that rather than re-record Dee Dee's new songs, he'd work from her "weird little home demos" (her words, not his), mixing and adding effects according to the blueprint she'd laid out. Gottehrer produced the Raveonettes' first two albums, so it's no surprise that he has a genuine appreciation for the scratchy timbre of the raw Dum Dums sound.
"I'd love to say that if we went into the studio to record, it'd be that much better, but I don't know that it would be," says Gottehrer. "Dee Dee captured a moment, and I was able to clarify it for her, but truthfully it comes from her."
Dee Dee played a few shows backed by friends — including her husband, Brandon Welchez, singer for the Crocodiles — but it was important to her that the final lineup be all female. She assembled the gang from a continent-spanning network of like-minded players: drummer Frankie Rose from New York, bassist Bambi from Austin and guitarist Jules from San Diego.
The L.A. Times and others have reported that Dee Dee moved to L.A. in order to start anew — the band's MySpace page designates its location as Los Angeles — but this is an unexpected sticking point during the interview:
"When exactly did you move to Los Angeles?"
"Well, I'm kind of transient, so that's the ... issue. I'm in San Diego a lot, I'm in L.A. a lot, and I'm traveling a lot, so we're kind of a cityless band."
"But you're married, so there must be a place you call home."
"[Pause.] I spend the most time in San Diego."
Don't fault Dee Dee for being eager to put the past behind her, even if the move comes with its marketing benefits (L.A. being the new home of noise-pop and all). In past interviews, she's mentioned the frustrations of being a woman in a man's world, musically speaking, and when she's asked about the challenges she has faced in that role, Dee Dee finally opens up a little about her old band.
"It was isolating and incredibly frustrating," she says. The other two members of Grand Ole Party were men. "I can't elaborate on it, but I was burned, which is entirely why I needed to do everything on my own terms. And why it's only now that I'm able to enjoy working with other people again."
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Dee Dee's lyrics mimic the dark/light dynamic of her sound: Listen to "Bhang Bhang, I'm a Burnout," about the wonders and bummers of smoking too much pot, or "Blank Girl," a sweet duet with her husband about coming out of her shell, or the numerous covers she has recorded. One of those, the Rolling Stones classic "Play With Fire," is more than a little misogynist.
"It's fun to take something back like that," she says. "I like owning the power, being the person that would deal out the fire."
So who is Dee Dee? She's a cat owner, a former theater geek, a krautrock fan, the type of person who uses eyeliner to turn the occasional zit into a beauty mark, and also the type to put a stunning photo of her mother on the cover of her debut album.
But when all's said and done, it might be easiest to say that "Dee Dee," the Dum Dum Girl formerly known as Kristin Gundred, is not someone who gets burned.