Life is No Cabaret
The Dresden Dolls duo invites you anyway
By Marisa Demarco
Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione met at a costume party—a fitting beginning for a band that's sprouted stage makeup, painted-on eyebrows, thick eyeliner, striped stockings and a black bowler hat. More than that, the Dresden Dolls cultivated tendrils of thorny but beautiful lyrics and shoots of surprising and precise rhythmic sensibilities.
The Dresden Dolls released No, Virginia, the follow-up to 2006's Yes, Virginia, on May 20 along with a songbook called The Virginia Companion.
Drummer Viglione provides the tick-tock to Palmer's brutal vocal and piano stylings. And it only takes the two of them to start the carnival ride that is their punkish cabaret. They're both hams, Viglione says, and they love the theatrical side of performance. Still, at its essence, Dresden Dolls is a rock band, and when Viglione takes the stage, he's on it to rock some heads.
In addition to working with Palmer, he'll also tour with the World Inferno Friendship Society and appear on recording projects with a variety of songwriters. He recorded tracks in December for the latest Nine Inch Nails album Ghosts I-IV.
Was it crazy to be asked to work on a Nine Inch Nails record?
Trent was very ambiguous or vague and casual in his approach to me. He said, Yeah, I'm just working on a record. If you have time and want to come out, you're welcome to it. I'm like, Yeah, if I have time! I'll drop everything and come out because this will be fucking awesome! When I got out there, he basically said, I want you to go build a drum kit out of whatever you want.
It was incredibly tumultuous, extremely difficult, mind-bogglingly complex and complicated, and frustrating and annoying and confusing and painful. It's a miracle that we're still together.
Brian Viglione, drummer for the Dresden Dolls
What did you make your kit out of?
Everything from trash cans to emptied water jugs to bits of wood and plastic barrels and staple guns and nails. I made a snare out of a cookie sheet with a piece of chain bolted to it.
Did you ever know that Dresden Dolls was going to blow up the way it has?
We didn't think in terms of how far have we come and where are we going. We just worked steadily, nose to the grindstone, from 2001 until 2006, when we looked up and said, OK, cool. We're getting a little bit burnt, but damn we did some great stuff and let's take some time off. There was not a whole lot of back-patting and Oh! Har har! We're doing so good! It was like, OK good. We have a good tour? Awesome. Let's go. I don't feel like I'm that much of a different person when it comes to how I view myself professionally or artistically, other than I think I'm a better player. Maybe I have a better understanding of the kinds of things to expect in this business.
With both of you usually seated at instruments, was there ever a time when you worried that you wouldn't be able to provide enough of a stage show?
It sort of evolved from a very small and intimate setting where we were playing for 30 people in a little bar or a house party. As the size of the audiences grew, so did our gesticulations. I just seized the opportunity with a lot of the characters and imagery in the songs to flesh out live. Amanda and I have a very Abbott and Costello visual relationship where she's very often the straight man and I'm clowning around and illustrating what's going on through the music and through the drum set.
The piano's already a percussive instrument, and Amanda plays it really percussively. Does that present any challenges?
It simplified things in a nice way. I noticed Amanda composed her songs as if she were composing for a full band. There was not a lot of wishy-washy timing or phrasing. She has a very persistent and bold rhythmic sensibility when she writes. It gave me something really concrete to latch onto. We're always playing with different volume shifts. Oftentimes, we cue into how she's going to hold something vocally or lyrically. It plays off a lot of visual contact as well. There's a lot of eye contact and a lot of listening, and a lot of telepathy that's developed over the years of playing together.
Tell me the story of when you met Amanda and decided you wanted to start playing with her.
It was a fateful Halloween Eve when a mutual friend invited me to her house. Amanda played six songs that evening, and it was one of those life-altering epiphanies where I realized that everything I had been hoping for in my life in terms of direction and somebody to team up with musically was there before my eyes. It really shook me to my core. And I asked her to play. Being in a band is a difficult thing with different people—insecurities, egos and conflicting agendas; musical differences, relationships. I feel fortunate with Amanda. We've always really loved what we do onstage together and had a very natural chemistry.
And has it always been so easy for you to work together?
No, never. It was almost impossible from the start. However, the joy of playing music, the actual result from all of our hard work, is what saw us through. And a deep friendship, too. It was incredibly tumultuous, extremely difficult, mind-bogglingly complex and complicated, and frustrating and annoying and confusing and painful. It's a miracle that we're still together. I'm not joking. But it's a testament to the kind of satisfaction you can get when you find someone you connect with to play music. It makes all the other bullshit of everyday life and the petty fighting and artistic differences fall by the wayside. When you share a passion with somebody, it is the thing that will ground you and see you through and make all the hard times worth it.
The Dresden Dolls perform Saturday, May 24, with Smoosh at the Sunshine Theater. Doors open at 7 p.m., and the show is all-ages. Tickets are $22 and available through TicketMaster.
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