Interview with Kristin Kontrol, ex Dum Dum Girls, now synthpopper

by | indieBerlin, Music, music interview

She goes by the name of Kristin Welches or Kristin Kontrol but has long been known in the music world as Dee Dee – the frontwoman of Dum Dum Girls.
However after feeling for a while that she was slowly delving into a new direction with her music she is now called Kristen Kontrol. Releasing her debut album X-Communicate on May 27th on SubPop, indieberlin caught up with Kristen at the famous Ramones Musuem in Berlin.

indieberlin: So basically Dum Dum Girls is an Indie act. However now going solo, you’re releasing a more synth-pop album. What was the motivation behind you deciding to change direction in terms of genre?

Kristin Kontrol: I don’t know that it was as much as wanting to try my hand at something different as to more doing something more inclusive, more reflective of the whole picture of me as an artist. I am not ‘The Ramones’ as much as I love them, I think its a very particular kind of challenge to be such an architect band and have such longevity and have at least a personal fulfilment while retaining a pretty consistent thing.

I counted recently how many songs I’ve released as Dum Dum Girls, and I think it was like 59, which doesn’t sound much till now considering that I wrote 60 songs for Kristin Kontrol. I started Dum Dum Girls in 2008, so it feels like a decade of my life took me from early twenties to my early thirties. When I started Dum Dum Girls it was really an outlet for me to learn how to write songs. I was recording myself, it was very much a learning process that happened to very fortunately being picked up on a real, legitimate record label. Sub-Pop signed me.

So Dum Dum Girls was conceptually a band then a real band. I was recording in my studio-apartment, I wanted some animality cause I was sort of nervous of doing my own thing. I played in a band for years before, but never as a songwriter. There was some element of embracing a song-static but also setting up Austin,Texas, and then an allegorical persona that helps me navigate through insecurities have their own basis . So when I signed, I realised this huge opportunity, to put together a band and really try to take it from just a recording thing to potentially a career. And so in doing that I obviously assembled a band that matched the music at the time, and also an aesthetic and vibe that I wanted.
I think I was really focused on doing something, and maybe I missed the mark
I never played with women in a band before and I think probably my most significant moments of inspiration growing up as a music fan was iconic women like Kate Bush, Tine Turner, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and then later as a teenager, when I went to concerts around the end of high school – beginning of college, whenever it was a woman band it just hit me in a much more powerful way. It was a visceral reaction and I wanted to know what that was like. Record to record I tried to expand on the sound, I didn’t want to be a veteran recording-artist for life, I wanted to be a real musician. So I was definitely eager working in a studio, and working with sound engineers and producers who were good at what they did. And I think with my last two Dum Dum Girls releases – ‘End of days’ EP in particular marked me in trying to loosen up the garage rock. While that was very appropriate when it started, that wasn’t what I wanted to do or what I wanted to be. I think I was really focused on doing something, and maybe I missed the mark. I felt that way because it was the fist time I experiences a kick-back that the record I put, was another record that other people wanted to put out.

So that kind of became what kind of music you should or shouldn’t make, and at the time I was like ‘Oh shit, I’m moving in a direction that the archetype that I established won’t allow me to move in’. Then I became like Dum Dum Girls is very much this established thing in a great way. It was lot of fun, a lot of hard-work, from my band-mates, from the label, from everybody I worked with – a solid eight or nine years. But I just felt like I can’t grow any more. I felt that I hit a ceiling, and I didn’t want to put out music, that I didn’t know how it would be reflected back through pre-conception. Like if I put an exact record of a Dum Dum Girls record, it would be all of the things I’m not doing vs all the things I’m doing. I didn’t want to have something that would be measured against like a template, “Oh how does this fit into the guaranteed template of Dum Dum Girls?” I was also twenty-four, and now I’m thirty-four, I need a vehicle that I can grow with, that is not going to dictate the kind of music I can make because I just started feeling that tension.
I was like taking back the authority of my music
Like what I want to do is, get away from something that’s niche. Its not that I felt that I wasn’t doing that anymore, but I recognised that it was still how it was seen. So I was like taking back the authority of my music, I was like ‘OK you’re stepping outside of that, I’ve gone off, I’ve grown out of it, this is something new, you have no idea what it is’. And for me it was really freeing, because instead of writing a song and then saying ‘Oh wait, this is not a Dum Dum Girls song, because of whatever reason’ now it doesn’t matter how I write. Now I can write a song and then approach or produce it in any number of ways that none of them are wrong, and that was really exciting and it was fun, it was really fun again!

indieberlin: Wise and mature thing you did, by stepping aside and not ruining the Dum Dum Girls legacy.

Kristin Kontrol: Yeah this was a long and superficial conversation that I had with Sub-Pop for a while. It was unclear if I’m going to do another record with them. So yeah I did not want to dismantle all of the Dum Dum girls work. And I get it with having a huge discography and fan-base, it’s not that I’m starting over, but I’ve stepped to the right, and I’ve stepped back. Of course there is obvious risks to that.

indieberlin: Yeah like maybe losing some of your loyal Dum Dum Girls fans?

Kristin Kontrol: Yeah, I definitely knew that Dum Dum Girls fans would not be overwhelmingly receptive to this. I was not sure it would translate. I was like ‘Well if you like Dum Dum Girls, then you like me, you like what I do, the songs I write, you like how I sing them, you like the ideas that I have. So its really not any different from that. So those are the reasons why you love Dum Dum Girls, because its an all-girl band, its a mind-territory that you already really love, like the earlier stuff which was more Ramonsey, and the later stuff that was 80’s and 90’s and guitar stuff, so yeah maybe you’re going to follow me into this. Its been relatively seamless.
The die-hard traditionalists aren’t with me any more
The people who hate Kristin Kontrol probably already checked out with Dum Dum Girls, they probably hated the last few records. The die-hard traditionalists aren’t with me any more. Its actually really nice to see how much positive feedback I have and I’ve been a little more engaged in social-media world, looking and seeing what peoples actual responses are. The most part it has been really positive or there have been a couple of funny things where people were like “I don’t know about this, Oh OK now I really like this”.

Then of course there is the really obnoxious and amusing, actually I’m going to read you one right now. “ Please don’t do this, this top-40 pop, they’re never going to love you, like we love you. How much of your own life have you given up for commercial success?” I was like are you kidding me? Not successful at all, less successful now, totally broke now, have nothing to do with that. It’s just been a direction I’ve been moving for anyway.

indieberlin: In fact I wanted to ask you about this direction you took, as you said that it was weird that you kept out so much of what you were doing creatively. You felt constrained to your own music.

Kristin Kontrol: I think it wasn’t something I was fully aware of, until recently. It was more like in the last 3 years, that there was quite a divide in my life. And whether it was obvious and humorous that half of my colleagues and friends call me Dee Dee and the other half call me Kristin, and that’s kind of weird. Or it was just being I love so much music, that people will have no idea, because there is no room for it in the set-up I work. A point I like to clarify is not that I’m moving from one point to another. It’s really that I just shed the one, and now I feel I’m comfortable and reflecting on lots of cool stuff that I love.

indieberlin: You went back to your roots right? Like you felt there was a reconnection to your older self even with picking ‘Kristin Kontrol’ as a name from an email you’ve used for the past ten years.

Kristin Kontrol: Yeah it just took me a long time to get full awareness of that. It also took me a long time to warm up to the idea that I can see Kristin in myself. I was putting our records, with the elements kind of missing which I felt a lot, that my band mates probably saw, that there was indeed a distance. It wasn’t because of a lack of trying. It was just like the basic premise of having a persona of being a very established artist. It just all hit me at once.

indieberlin: Well you were quite young, and would you say you were moulded immediately into ‘Dee Dee’?

Kristin Kontrol: It was funny, this is my thing, this my punk-band, this is Dee Dee Ramone. Then I kind of went through of various phases of like recognising that people don’t know that this is my project. They assume that we all write together, there is a lot of vagueness to the band. So then I wanted to re-establish that this is my thing, and a thing I pushed at which didn’t really hit or land anywhere. “Oh shit, I kind of don’t have control over this any more” is kind of a funny Kristin Kontrol thing -an email address which I had for 12 years, and it was sort of a last minute thing struggle, what the hell are we going to release this record as? It just dawned on me that I was sitting on it the whole time, and didn’t realise it, because I wasn’t comfortable being myself.

indieberlin: Do you have plans to continue Kristin Kontrol or would you go back to Dum Dum Girls?

Kristin Kontrol: I don’ t see myself crossing territories in an official way. I don’t really miss what it was like writing and playing as Dum Dum Girls, so I can’t foresee that. But for me this is really like I need to go to the one way I’ve done music into the new way I’m going to do music. And with Kristin Kontrol I can see it taking me to the remainder of my career, just because its not cut down to anything.

indieberlin: You worked with Kurt Feldman and Andrew Miller on your album. They’re both coming from an alternative background. So did they effect the sound of the album that you initially you wanted to put out?

Kristin Kontrol: As far as we concerned we were making a Dum Dum Girls record. It was i’m not tied down to anything, so we can move forward in any way. The reason I chose them, personally was wanting to work with people outside of the Dum Dum Girls records. As proud and happy of the work I did, I also didn’t want to work in familiar territories. So I cant expect to get out of that if I don’t change some of the producers. I had a few people in mind. With Kurt, that made him a very obvious choice to me. One of them was that I had done a Christmas single with him a couple of years ago, he used to drum in ‘The pains of being pure at heart’.
Maybe its tongue in cheek, but his music is like 80s Christmas music all year round
Maybe its tongue in cheek, but his music is like 80s Christmas music all year round. He also reworked a couple of Dum Dum Girls songs, so I wanted to see what we could with songs coming from my world, entering his world. And the single I put out a couple of days ago,  ‘Show Me’, when I was demoing it, before I had even talked to him about working together, I was using a drum track made with his remix of the song called ‘Lord Knows’. So when I started thinking about it, it was funny that I’m already using drums he programmed, and I love these little elements that he did, and he remixed Dum Dum Girls songs, and he’s a killer synth guy.

Andrew Miller who is an old friend of mine, I met him through my husband, they were playing in a band together at the time. I knew what he would bring was the funky stuff, the drake-loving understanding of music. So we had to figure out to balance everything. So in a conversation I had with them separately, as we didn’t work collaboratively, I gave Kurt songs and I gave Andrew songs. We wanted to put a record that is very modern, but I was like ‘We put this out, it gets labelled as a synth-pop record’ which is kind of did, but not in a bad way. I think the record itself is pretty varied. Part of the excitement which kind of a counter-part to the fear of doing something totally different was to take what I was doing, and my explanation of what I wanted to the best of my ability, and just wanting to go super-far with in any direction I felt appropriate. And that was really cool, it was very spot on.

indieberlin: When you were making this record, you said you were in no way concerned how you will do this or live or what’s the next phase.

Kristin Kontrol: I wasn’t concerned on how I’m going to play this. Sometimes when you make a record, you say could I play this live? How complicated is this going to be? I just didn’t have an opinion it. I will figure it out later.

indieberlin: You said you started the cliché djing purely to make money.
That was little bit tongue and cheek
Kristin Kontrol: That was little bit tongue and cheek. Yeah I love djing, I’ve done it over the years but this was the first time where It feels more like a job, as I’m doing it once or twice a week. Its something to do, and it just made sense. If I’m not playing records in my house, I can at least play them in a bar.

indieberlin: So you do prefer djing more?

Kristin Kontrol: I like doing both. They’re not mutually exclusive yet. I like djing and I have friends who have done it for years and years, so I’m part of that culture. Its very natural to me, so yeah its been fun to step on the other side!

Thanks Kristin for your time.

Interview by Shawn James


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