“This is bad ass – breaking wine glasses cabaret!” pianist Amanda Palmer laughed. The duo, composed of Amanda Palmer, a siren with a sultry alto voice, and drummer Brian Viglione, a boy next door with a devilish grin, are definitely drumming to a beat of their own. The Dresden Dolls sound like a European flavoured cabaret production gone wild. With hopes to save their unique theatrical style from pigeonhole purgatory, Palmer coined the term punk-cabaret and branded their sound.
The Boston-based pair is fresh off Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Tour and riding the waves of their successful provocative single “Shores of California” (off their second album, Yes, Virginia). The single’s video is a parody of David Lee Roth’s cover of The Beach Boys’ classic “California Girls” and features Margaret Cho. “Shores of California” alone captures Yes, Virginia’s dark humoristic “punk-cabaret” core with banging piano and rocking drum beats.
As unique as their sound, Palmer’s raw perverse lyrics shine a spotlight into the dark corners of the human soul, reminiscent of the old provoking habits of Tori Amos. From themes of masturbation (“First Orgasm”) to transsexuals (“Sex Changes”), alleyway-abortions (“Mandy Goes to Med School”), and Holocaust denial (“Mrs. O”), Yes, Virginia will shamelessly look you in the eye. Should you need a visual aid, the duo released the DVD The Dresden Dolls live at the Roundhouse, London not too far behind Yes, Virginia.
Whether they’re grabbing you by the heart or by the guts, the Dolls have a hold that is steady and unshaken. How do you turn your head from a twosome that hangs their sexual obsessions and human weaknesses out like laundry on a windy day? You can’t help but look.
You define your sound as Brechtian punk cabaret. Can you explain the term?
I thought it would be clever to give us a label before someone else got the chance. This is not Cole Porter showtunes, a chick in a sequence dress and laying on a piano cabaret. This is bad ass – breaking wine glasses cabaret! (Laughs)
What does the band name imply?
The name gives us a little European flavour. The city of Dresden is pretty evocative if you know your history. It’s a really dark name with a paradox. The band has a playful side and also has an aggressive side. Our name ties that up in a nice little box.
Your music is raw and honest, yet you paint your faces and wear theatrical clothing. Can’t this be confused with hiding and masquerading?
I’ve thought a lot about it and I never would have guessed that by putting on costumes and makeup someone would think that I was hiding something. It can almost be the opposite. Putting on a costume can empower you to be more expressive in your role as a performer on stage.
Would the dynamics of the Dolls be different if your counterpart was a woman and not Brian?
Oh God! Absolutely! It would be different if it were another man. Brian is a huge part of why our band has the chemistry and the tension that it does. A live show can be so compelling because we’re out there duking it out; like having a passionate argument on stage every night.
Has music and theatre always been intertwined in your mind?
When I was a kid I listened to music visually. My favourite bands were The Stray Cats, Prince, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. I wasn’t exposed to them through radio; I was exposed to them through MTV. Back then videos were theatrical and suggestive. When I write music I imagine it being performed more than I imagine it on a recording.
How did it feel being on board the True Colors Tour with Cyndi Lauper, someone you grew up admiring?
It was overwhelming! I feel so lucky that everything has worked out the way it has. It’s incredible. Brian and I are in seventh heaven.
What fueled the True Colors Tour?
It’s all Cyndi’s vision. The overall thread that tied the tour together is the Human Rights Campaign and the Matthew Shepard Foundation. The wonderful thing about being a famous rock star is that you can take something that is important, gather people together and demand that it be paid attention to.
Has supporting gay rights provoked the media to question your sexuality?
It did come up. I’m pretty open about everything. I say I’m bisexual not because I consider it to be an important part of my personality, but because I’ve slept with girls and that’s what people call it. It doesn’t interest me to identify myself as Amanda Palmer: Bisexual.
Brian identifies himself as a straight male who loves to occasionally wear women’s clothing! (Laughs)
Has making your sexuality public affected the way people perceive your music?
I doubt it. If you listen closely you may pick up some of that anyway. I don’t see it as something so surprising. It’s not like all of a sudden Britney Spears comes out of the closet! Oh my God!
Do you have any surprising guilty pleasures?
Other than listening to Avril Lavigne? (Laughs) But there’s something wrong the minute I start having guilty pleasures. If it’s a pleasure it shouldn’t be guilty.
Brian, do you have a guilty pleasure?
I can’t really say that I share the Avril Lavigne thing!
What about dressing in women’s clothing? Does your manhood ever take a shot?
(Laughs) Definitely not! It’s fun for me. I get this perverse thrill out of freaking out a lot of the road crew guys. I would step out, no actually skip out on stage wearing this white nightgown and rainbow tights and all the crew guys would say, “Look at this faggot, he’s going to make me puke!” Then we would play, decimate the place and everyone’s mind would be changed. When we set up people think, “Ok, a Tori Amos knock-off with a sidekick drummer” and leave saying, “Oh, I guess I was wrong.”
Has the True Colors Tour provoked the public to question your sexuality as they did Amanda’s?
Not really. I’m not gay and I don’t have a problem with getting out there and championing the cause. I definitely believe in equal rights and I was happy to be a part of it.
Has musical theatre and performance rock always been a part of you?
I discovered the Rocky Horror Picture Show when I was 14. It made such a huge impression. But I got my first taste of being on stage when I was six.
What was it about musical theatre that drew you in?
It’s most satisfying to me when music and theatre are intertwined. It becomes more sensual. Like water doesn’t necessarily have to be the most amazing thing, but when it’s in the right setting it’s a beautiful thing. I’ve always been drawn to things that have a sensual passionate flare to it.
Is there any mental preparation involved before a performance, like stepping into character?
It’s not like I become Alice Cooper! (Laughs) I just do the things I do as they come out and it is certainly not rehearsed. It’s an uninhibited freedom. I lose myself in the music and just go with it. It’s kind of like rebounding off of Amanda and the music. The physicality is just an extension of the music.
You’ve released two live DVDs. What is the importance of witnessing the Dolls in concert?
Getting to see the music live paints the full picture. We’re not the tightest musical unit out there, but the music is benefited by the chemistry that we have on stage and what we put into it. Music and theatricality don’t necessarily have to go hand in hand, but when it’s done well one certainly benefits the other.
The music and Amanda’s lyrics benefit each other. Will you ever share lyric duty?
I’ve never considered myself a songwriter. My creative process is being on stage and when the count off happens, where does it go? I thrive on playing with people that feel comfortable on stage, that express themselves and let go. Maybe one of the reasons why I’m not a solo singer-songwriter is because I get off on the energy and that mix of creativity and imagination between all players.
Do you remember the moment you met Amanda?
It was an extremely powerful epiphany. That evening I discovered the meaning of that word. Amanda was playing solo in front of about 30 people on the top floor of this brownstone building that she lived in. I had never ever seen someone play with such conviction, passion and creativity. The music had a lot of power, drama, finesse and crazy lyrics. It felt like a definite sign and I had to make a connection. It sounds corny, but it was the moment that I realized, “Wow this is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life. I knew I found something special.”