Dresden Dolls: The odd couple

The gothic-punk-cabaret-rock duo Dresden Dolls talk to Chris Mugan about their mutual passions and the limits of irony
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The Independent Culture

A sun-soaked Brighton feels unsuited for an audience with a band whose lyrics take in confused transsexuals, Holocaust-deniers and the Janjaweed militias of Sudan. Especially since tonight's venue, the Concorde 2, faces the beach, a mere pebble's throw from the shore. The Dresden Dolls' odd subject matter would be more suited to a deserted theatre, especially as the songs come wrapped in what they call Brechtian cabaret punk.

It is a fitting term for a mix of thundering drumrolls and rousing piano that owes as much to Tori Amos's more cathartic moments as Weimar vaudeville. However, the singer Amanda Palmer's first words are: "Can we do this on the beach?" As she and the drummer/guitarist Brian Viglione stretch out, it is clear that weeks on the road are taking their toll.

The Dolls are justly famed for their engrossing live performances, in which the pair camp themselves up in theatrical make-up and seedy costumes. Today, though, they are in rock T-shirts and combat boots; the only sign of their distinctive style is Palmer's ornate eyeliner over tweezered brows that constantly distract attention.

If it is not hard enough working as a twosome, Palmer and Viglione also contend with their army of sideshow performers, The Brigade. Wherever the duo play, they invite local people to show off their own skills: magicians, living statues or just oddballs with strange dress sense. It says a lot about their combative relationship that the pair fail to agree on how this started.

Viglione remembers the launch party for 2004's eponymous debut album and further back to Palmer's salons, where the pair met. The singer herself looks back to that year's cancelled Lollapalooza tour when the group asked for funds to bring in performance artists, describing this as a key inspiration.

"Lollapalooza was trying to be an event and I realised we could arrange a whole different atmosphere, a group of people from circuses and burlesque," she says in a deep, throaty, voice. "Now I want to make sure standards don't remain completely amateur, though it is meant to be a democratic thing where anyone can dress up."

Although from the performance art scene, she is wary of being lumped in with the trendy return of burlesque that has been catching on in London, at least.

"I was aware of it, but not really involved," Palmer explains. "Most of the acts were really poor. A lot of people in the scene say it's great to see the revival, but depressing to see a whole slew of girls say, I can take my clothes off, that sounds like fun."

Palmer and Viglione met in Boston, where the drummer had arrived from a small New Hampshire town, working his way through a variety of bands: rock, punk and jazz. Palmer, although writing for a while, had only just started to perform songs live. He saw her perform solo at the piano during a Halloween party at the house she shared with a bunch of other creative types.

"A mutual friend invited me, so I put on the make up and outfit I'd been wearing when my punk band played the night before," the younger member says in his high, enthused pitch. "The door opened and this ghostly woman in white beckoned us in."

Palmer still lives in the same house with its support network of artists that have continued to play a part in the Dolls' output, with a film director to devise promo videos and designers that have contributed to their album sleeves. Before that, though, Viglione had to be blown away by her performance.

"First and foremost, I recognised a kindred spirit, someone that needed to play music as much as I did. And it was the most beautiful, unsettling music I'd heard, theatrical and vulnerable. It incorporated all the elements I had been seeking, all the other bands I'd played in were so limited."

On paper it was a bizarre match, like matching Kate Bush with John Bonham, but an odd chemistry emerged. They hit it off on their first jam, when their intuitive understanding was immediately apparent, as Palmer explains.

"I didn't know what was missing until I met Brian, because I couldn't articulate to others what to do - I didn't understand the language of drums. I wanted to find someone as crazed as I was."

Their propensity for dressing up, the dramatic piano and Palmer's bevy of disturbed characters come from her years in performance, even travelling to Europe to work as a living statue. Though she first came across the delicate porcelain figures that inspired the band's name in Virginia Andrews's Gothic horror novel Flowers in the Attic.

"It is about a brother and sister that have an incestuous relationship," she says with a smile, something we will come back to later. "I loved the combination of the firebombed city and the dolls, a great contrast of aggression and vulnerability."

Palmer is also only starting to admit the influence her theatrical days had on her music, possibly because the singer worked by herself for so long. "I always had a very self-conscious sense of myself as an incubating songwriter when I was a teenager. I knew it was what I wanted to do, but I knew I wasn't ready.

"At school and whenever, I was always in plays, musicals and community theatre, but I saw that as just occupying my time, while my writing was something different. It's only now I can see the effect it had."

Having said that, she is just as happy to talk about Matt Johnson's dour vehicle The The and The Doors, the Sixties band being particularly important for the role of drummer John Densmore. "He didn't just carry the beat, he responded to what Jim Morrison sang, and that's the kind of thing I wanted, but no one knew how to manage."

Aged nine, Viglione was given his first drum kit and when he saw rock stars on album covers, knew that was what he wanted to do.

"We share this profound sense of inevitability, that we both knew this was what we wanted to do," Palmer says.

Viglione's father steered him towards jazz, and it is the combination of that style with rock drumming that means he can keep up with Palmer

"The rock guys were about putting on a show, but the jazz players informed more how I developed as a musician," he explains. "I considered myself more as a voice than a back-up percussionist."

So Viglione not only responds to Palmer's rhythms punched out on piano, but also accentuates her colourful lyrics. On stage in London the next night, the pair were faced by mirror images of themselves: young lads sporting the drummer's trademark bowler hat and girls in all manner of frills and vintage gear.

They could not miss the twosome's instinctive, call-and-response relationship. That intuition has also impacted on the breakthrough record Yes, Virginia. While their debut album was dominated by Palmer hammering her keyboard, here there is much more subtlety. Viglione agrees this makes it more of a rock record.

"Amanda's earlier songs were all der-der-der," he says, miming her bashing out a beat. "Now the drums have become more integrated into the backbone of the songs."

Another difference is that the Dolls were able to work with proper producers. Since their first album came out, the duo have signed to Roadrunner, the heavy rock label that is home to death metal outfit Cradle Of Filth, tedious post-grungers Nickelback and the masked outfit Slipknot. They may share make up tips with some of their peers, but Viglione sees a more productive relationship with the label, after more likely contenders turned them down.

"All these indie labels would brush us off as an idiotic goth band, but Roadrunner had faith and let us continue the way we were working. At the live show, they realised we had a lot of rock energy."

Eventually, though, his and Palmer's creative relationship spilled over into something more romantic. They soon decided this could be more destructive, he admits.

"We came together for music and it was simpler to leave it like that."

"There are a lot of parallels with a marriage, like love at first sight," Palmer admits. "We both remember that first night we met. We screamed and yelled in joy and thought, I can't believe it."

Only later do I think back to the brother and sister locked in Andrews's attic. For a while, the Dolls continued a fairy-tale existence, though things got tough once they tried to establish themselves as a group. It was difficult handling bookings and recording when there were only two of them, Palmer remembers.

"Most of the musical world ignored us for a long time, because they just couldn't contextualise us. It was very taxing, because the only way to make people understand was to play for them."

At least Palmer was able to channel her frustration into writing. One highlight from the new album is "Mrs O", a song about a Santa Claus and Holocaust denier: "The world is really all in love," she sings.

"It is about how history gets distorted, even when intentions are good, like when parents protect their children from the harsh realities of life," Palmer explains. "And denying the Holocaust is the most obvious example of denying history. To deny that I found as hard to believe as some people find it hard to believe in the afterlife."

Many tracks drip with similar irony. "Sex Changes" is a letter from a company that provides such services: "There is no money back once you've been ripped off," should bring a tear to the eye.

Nothing, though, prepares you for the disarming positivity of "Sing", where Palmer praises the power of music to solve the world's problems. "Life is no cabaret/We don't care what you say," Palmer warns, before encouraging her audience to sing for the president and the terrorists.

"Sometimes you gotta do that. That song came very easy, but our fans initially had a very negative reaction to it. They've been raised on irony."

The Dolls hoped it would become a swelling anthem in live sets, but have been let down. "Our crowd are introverted," Viglione admits

Fans are gathering along Madeira Drive. They wear the black outfits of any disaffected small-town teens. Except they are not sulking. If the Dolls can put smiles on their faces, they are doing something impressive.