The Dresden Dolls: Art Brats & Rock Theatrics

By: Sarah Hagerman

The Dresden Dolls
Standing in line for my first Dresden Dolls show outside the Astoria on Charing Cross Road in London, I remember looking around at the huddled mass of striped tights, ornate dresses and homemade costumes made out of everything from lace and velvet to headless Barbie Dolls and thinking to myself, "What am I doing here?" As someone whose musical education was forged in classic and alternative rock as a pre-teen, cultivated at Phish shows throughout high school, and then advanced during Higher Ground's formative years while attending UVM, I would not have seen myself as a Dresden Dolls fan if I based my idea of their music on superficial assumptions alone. But, I took a step back and thought, "This really isn't any more ridiculous than the massive patchwork pants, fairy wings, hula hoops and messy attempted dreads I'm used to surrounding myself with – it's simply outside my usual comfort zone." But luckily, I know a solid rock band when I see one and the Dresden Dolls rock hard.

I certainly wasn't alone in my initial judgments. It goes without saying that the music industry is driven by image - and don't you think the jam band scene is totally immune my heady readers - and a lot of folks took one look at the Dresden Dolls and thought they had 'em figured out. As Brian Viglione (drums, guitar, vocals) put it, "They would look and jump to conclusions that we were something they had seen before. I think initially people didn't understand it, and wanted to condemn it and write it off.'"

Amanda Palmer (keyboard, vocals) interjects, "As if it's really just a gimmick."

Viglione continues, "And most people didn't even know, they were just like, 'Oh, you are a Goth band right?'"

"In the early days, I sort of got off on that, though. That's the art brat in me, saying, 'Oh you think I'm this, I'll show you.' I love the idea of defeating people's expectations, just like I love the idea of wearing a really slinky dress and lipstick and heels with these insanely hairy legs and having people going, 'Ah! My brain is exploding!' I love fucking with people that way," says Palmer. "There's a constant push and pull, and you don't want to get stuck in a demanding paradox all the time either. It's like being an uber feminist. It certainly doesn't mean you have to start drawing lines in the sand. Then you're just going to the other extreme and it's just as bad. So, we had to grapple with that, and that means just ignoring everything outside and tuning in to what feels natural."

The Dresden Dolls by Kenneth Thomas
"People go, 'Oh we have the Dresden Dolls pegged. They're a chick singer on the piano with a sidekick drummer, right? Seen it a million times before,'" Viglione explains, "And then by the end of the show they are like, 'Holy fuck I didn't know that was what they are like. Jesus they make a lot of noise for two people.'"

Musically, Palmer and Viglione both surpass the perceived limitations of their instruments. Viglione possesses the chops of the best rock drummers, equally able to step into the background with whispery mallets or pound out antagonistic beats with ferocity and speed. He has drummed on tracks for Nine Inch Nails and HUMANWINE, as well as toured with Jesse Malin, to name a few of his side contributions. Palmer's keyboard is whatever she wants it to be. It can be soft and soaring, or it can be played with the violent catharsis associated with big screaming guitars. Both have a magnetic stage presence. Palmer is easily up there with the greatest badass rock women. She oozes self-confidence through her throaty voice and I-don't-give-a-fuck stage attitude, but always balances this with a boisterous and slightly self-deprecating sense of humor. She also commands a high level of respect from the audience – the sea parts when she wanders out into the crowd during shows. Meanwhile, Viglione is an energetic storm behind the kit, and the two have an onstage dynamic that can mimic the unsaid energy of lovers fighting or of friends sharing a private joke.

But, the mark of any great band is that whenever someone puts a track on, no matter how disparate their influences are, you always know exactly who it's by, and the Dresden Dolls sound is nothing if not distinct. You can't quite pin their music down. Palmer's songwriting runs the gamut. Some tunes glow with a pop heart, while others thrash with heavy metal aggression. Some show shades of the musical theater influences that Palmer grew up with, while others fall more along the lines of singer-songwriter self-reflection and storytelling. All display a ballsy level of honesty and a sharp lyrical wit that takes turns cutting, hilarious and heart wrenching. Palmer's work draws on a life of creative aspirations.

Continue reading for more on The Dresden Dolls...

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