Interview: Brian Viglione of The Dresden Dolls

With their eponymous debut album garnering national attention, and a recent US tour hot on the heels of a European one, one might have assumed that Amanda Palmer (piano, vocals) and Brian Viglione (drums) of The Dresden Dolls had finally outgrown Boston. Then they go and win “Best Local Act,” “Best Live Act,” and “Best Female Vocalist” in the Phoenix’s Best Music Poll. To convince you, we even tracked down the affable and articulate Viglione en route to South Carolina to explain his cross-dressing, the real meaning of “punk cabaret,” and why the duduk is “righteous.” Enjoy.

I: How has it been interacting with fans across the nation? Are you seen as a novelty act or do people know your music?

BV: We get the same overwhelmingly positive and heartfelt response wherever we go. Like last night, there were kids who were crying at the show, hugging us. We dole out more hugs than Mr. Rogers. It is pretty ridiculous at times, and pretty beautiful… and we are traveling with a fantastic band from Boston, Count Zero, who we love dearly…

I: I think that what makes your live show one of the best I have seen in recent years is the element of theater, and I was wondering how you saw that fitting into your music.

BV: It’s definitely an integral part of who we are as people. And the music is really a vehicle to be able to express all those different sides of us…Acting is something that has been with both of us since we were little. We both love theatrics and getting dressed up in costumes and makeup and playing with images. We were extremely fortunate to have found in each other the ability to play around and manipulate these looks and roles and to find that sort of central duality that we are involved with….We used to just get up and play in our street clothes and let the passion and energy speak for itself. We’ve found that the passion and energy can still hold their own without our being seen as pretentious in having a look. It’s only an enhancement and not a crutch.

I: No, it seems completely organic. That’s what is so powerful.

BV: Yeah, absolutely. It’s great to see people turned on by that. We are lucky that the climate right now is very conducive to playing with image. Bands like Slipknot, Britney Spears, whatever, are all very much into that kind of play. So for us, we’ve always seen this look as a neutral, traditional kind of look. We perform wearing suits and striped stockings, which we see as a timeless, classic look….People ask us, “How do you feel about kids coming to the shows dressed up as the two of you?” Well, if that is a starting point, then so be it. But we hope that it carries on beyond the Robert Smith phenomenon of everyone coming in white face and big hair and the same kind of makeup. We hope that kids really take this and run with it to their own punk shows, their own creative outlets. It’s more of an idea and a spirit than a look that needs to be copied.

I: Your music is characterized as “punk cabaret.” Do you think having this terminology that people aren’t necessarily familiar with has helped you?

BV: Absolutely. We saw that as an empowering move, to label our own music before the press did…. We said, it’s definitely punk in the spirit and energy of it, as well as the rebelliousness of saying that this is absolutely our own thing that sprung from pure energy and ambition. There is no conforming to any preconception…A really fun aspect of the show is that people come and say, “Okay, I see a girl on piano and this guy drummer in a suit and I know what this is going to be,” and then, by the end of the show, these people say, “God, I had no fucking idea.” The cabaret aspect is there in the very intimate atmosphere, the intimate connection with the audience, and the very vulnerable open lyrics. We hope for the audience to have the same sort of release that we are afforded ourselves as performers. That’s very much what cabaret was: to hold up this mirror for people to take a look at their own lives, you know, through parody or satire or drama or comedy or whatever, and that is something that we definitely hope to provide for our audience as well. Joni Mitchell said she felt that in recent times there have been a severe lack of role models for young performers to try and emulate or glean ideas from for direction and I sort of agree. I definitely have found myself looking back for inspiration to these jazz drummers from the 1940s and 1950s, and performers like Billie Holliday, Louie Armstrong. We definitely have a lot of inspiration from that kind of dedication to art and the delivery of the performance.

I: Is there a role for politics in your art?

BV: Hopefully it’s again that we can challenge people to think for themselves…. I think that is the greatest thing that an artist can offer the public: the chance to challenge your preconceptions and perspective…

I: [rambling question about creative energy, influences, and lynchpins]

BV: I have been listening to a lot of weird world music, a lot of jazz stuff recently.

I: Like what?

BV: Well there is this amazing group of gypsy musicians who put out a CD called “Taras de haïdouks.” and another one called “Armenian Lullabies” which is beautiful stuff, all sort of traditional lullabies from Armenia with the duduk. It’s totally righteous….Another great woman called Iva Bittova who’s got a record called “Bile Inferno.” And so that stuff, mood-wise, has absolutely influenced the stuff I play…And Amanda keeps me in touch with the newer stuff, like The Decemberists…we have a lot of different stuff.

I: I know you guys are working on a new album. Do you see it as going in more of a rock kind of direction?

BV: There is always a natural sort of mix of moods. The last record had “Coin-Operated Boy” and “Miss Me,” and this record may have “Amsterdam” and “Pierre.” There is a lot of driving material on this record…. Sean Slade is a great Boston rock producer and has worked with bands like Dinosaur Jr and the Pixies and Radiohead and Hole, so he has a real handle on what we are trying to do and I think we are going to really try and harness the energy from the live show….It is going to be very stripped-down, only drums and piano and just really to keep straight on record what we do live.

I: I’ll look forward to hearing the new stuff on Saturday.

BV: We have some surprises planned. It should be cool.

Justine Nagurney ’06 (nagurney@fas) landed so many kick-ass interviews in her time. And this, my friends, is one of them.