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Escape Velocity

Change Is Hard: Kristin Kontrol Interviewed
Luke Cartledge , September 7th, 2016 11:06

Kristin Welchez has set aside her guise as the Dum Dum Girls' leader Dee Dee in favour of something more direct. She talks to Luke Cartledge about bringing in a positive mental attitude and embracing silliness

Photograph courtesy of Jimmy Fontaine

"I hadn't played to a cold audience in eight or nine years, and you can definitely have bad experiences as the support act – which I had historically only had." Kristin Welchez is musing upon her recent tour with Garbage, before which her new project, Kristin Kontrol, had "only really existed on record. I had no idea how it would translate, but having access to the bigger stages that Garbage play was a really good thing, and I think it was good pairing. We converted a lot of people."

Conversion, progression and liberation are recurrent themes in our conversation. Perhaps best known as Dee Dee, the creative force behind Dum Dum Girls, Welchez is now known to the world as Kristin Kontrol, having traded in her former black-clad image and artfully detached stage persona for something bolder, warmer and, perhaps, more direct. Many of the hallmarks of her previous output – infectious hooks, sideways pop-culture references and effortlessly fluid song structures – remain, but they are reshaped and reapplied to better fit the newfound vitality of her debut release under this guise, X-Communicate.

While much of Dum Dum Girls' appeal lay in their exacting appropriation of a very particular girl-group aesthetic, as Kristin Kontrol, Welchez seems unconcerned by the expectations fans of her previous work might impose upon her. As she says, she "didn't want to be limited anymore. I'm not interested in having a static career". To this end, X-Communicate is an emphatic statement of intent, one where the brazen synth arrangements and coursing rhythm tracks underpin songs whose lyrics are as unabashed as the flamboyant hooks into which they are woven.

You've cited a performance by Perfume Genius as a key inspiration and said that the way in which Mike Hadreas allowed his audience to see "the true him" had a profound impact on the Kristin Kontrol project, and that, as Dum Dum Girls, you had shied away from such transparency. In what ways did you feel you held back while in the band, and how might this have differed on the new project?

KK: Well, it wasn't a calculated thing; it just happened over time. When I started Dum Dum Girls, I was still dealing with a lot of stage fright, so there definitely was an element of having a security blanket, like the stage presence or the attitude or the uniform aesthetic. I established a template for how we performed live – what I felt was appropriate and the emotions I would naturally go towards exhibiting. I started to feel like Dum Dum Girls had this sort of dominating archetype that I wasn't going to be able to shake up at all. Even if I was trying to inch musically away from something that was so overtly retro and '60s girl group-inspired to something less specific, the aesthetic was still following me. So the last bit of touring I did with Dum Dum Girls, for Too True, I was trying to make a more direct connection. I wasn't playing guitar as much, I was trying to just sing, but I still felt like there was some sort of barrier. A lot of it was psychological and of my own making, but it was how I felt when I was doing that. With Kristin Kontrol, it's more direct, it's not being filtered through anything else.

It's interesting that you still perform under a pseudonym. Do you use your stage name in order to retain the kind of "security blanket" you mentioned there?

KK: Well, my name is Kristin, so if anything it's just a more legitimate artistic name. It's been my email address for over ten years. When I started Dum Dum Girls, if I wasn't concerned with keeping myself at arm's length from the internet because I was nervous about that, I probably would have realised that Kristin Kontrol is a pretty great name and I might have used it then. It's about as close as I can get to using my own name without cringing, and has what I like seeing in names. It's assertive, it's powerful, and they were things that I wanted to re-establish in myself, because at a certain point I think I lost the authority over my own music because there was so much expectation for what Dum Dum Girls was.

A lot of the lyrics seem to deal with feelings about moving on, between relationships and identities. Has a change of stage identity helped you express such feelings in ways you might not have been able to under previous guises?

KK: Well, conceptually Kristin Kontrol came much later than the music. I didn't really know what was going to happen when I was starting to write the record. Sub Pop were still expecting a Dum Dum Girls record, but I think on the creative or spiritual side of things I just didn't want to feel like I couldn't do the things I felt compelled to do. At a certain point, I'd find myself writing a song and be like, "I can't use this for Dum Dum Girls because of x, y and z" or, "This song could work but not like I hear it in my head because that wouldn't be appropriate". I had a fair run of making very guitar-driven records, but this is my seventh release for Sub Pop, and I need to be able to incorporate all the other stuff that I've always loved. I don't know that I'm not going to make things that sound closely related, but I want the freedom to do whatever it is I feel like. It was only when the record was done, and we began thinking about how it was going to be released, that I had a conversation about what the most appropriate thing was. Obviously such a transition is hard to orchestrate, and stepping away from a band you've built up for eight years is not necessarily the smartest move, but I didn't feel I could grow if I kept releasing as Dum Dum Girls.

How did your creative relationship with Andrew Miller [the producer of X-Communicate and Dum Dum Girls guitarist] differ between the Dum Dum Girls and Kristin Kontrol projects? Did his having worked on Dum Dum Girls help or hinder you with the transition from one to the other?

KK: Well he played in Dum Dum Girls, but hadn't really worked on the production side. He did some guitar work for me in the very beginning and he joined as the touring auxiliary guitarist during the Too True period, and he's been a very close friend of mine for over ten years. When I was trying to make some changes but wasn't quite sure how to go about them, he was always great as a sounding board. When I decided to make another record, I was very firm in that I didn't want to use [Dum Dum Girls producers] Richard Gottehrer or Sune Wagner. I love them, but we'd done seven records together. If I really wanted to do something different, I needed to change my entire approach. It's not just about how I write songs, demo them, or anticipate performing them – the key element of production also needs to be experimented with. Andrew and I had done some very minor things together over the years and he's gotten much more into production over the last couple of years. And we're so close – he's probably the main person I talk to about music, we play music together and he's one of my best friends. So we thought we'd see if we had the kind of connection than lends itself to collaboration and creating music and it turned out that we did. It was great to recognise in him and in the other producer, Kurt Feldman, that there's a reward in working with other people and letting go of the urge to micro-manage every part of your art. Some things just won't happen if you aren't willing to take a risk and see what someone else can bring.

How did writing the album exclusively using a keyboard affect your compositional process? Did you experiment with any other limitations in your songwriting for the record?

KK: Initially I thought that I would approach this completely differently from how I wrote in the past – that meant using a different producer and not saying no to any crazy idea I had. I did write exclusively on keyboard for quite a few months, and that lent itself to some experimentation that might not otherwise have happened, but it wasn't necessarily the best work I've done. I was trying to also stop fighting my natural voice. I have a much higher natural range than I ever took advantage of in Dum Dum Girls, and in fact singing lower than my natural range caused some vocal strain and tension over the years. I just thought, "OK, I love Kate Bush and Julee Cruise, and they have very singerly voices, and it's totally beautiful and it totally works". I think writing on the keyboard allowed me to explore more of my range because I kind of didn't know what I was doing. But ultimately I was writing shitty songs, so I did go back to the guitar for initial songwriting, but then I would go and demo differently.

The record is full of unifying, positive assertions: "Change is hard, but a change of heart is what we need" and "I wake up every day with my glass half full". Are these intended to be emboldening to yourself or to your listener?

KK: Well, I would hope both! I partly did feel these things myself and felt compelled to express them, but some of the songs were about me wanting to feel a certain way, a fake-it-till-you-make-it kind of thing. I'd never really wanted to put out a song that's positive or reaffirming – not that I'm completely negative or nihilistic all the time – but when I was writing a song like 'Show Me', that was the goal. I wanted to write a song that someone could listen to and feel better afterwards, and not just commiserate with me. Whether it's where I actually am, or was, it's definitely a goal of mine to bring in a more positive mental attitude.

I read a recent interview with you in which you said that silliness is "vital" to you. Did you channel your inner silliness on X-Communicate?

KK: Probably not specifically in the music, but in my life! That was part of the whole dichotomy that was working against me. Dee Dee seemed so stoic and one-dimensional that I could be a cartoon character, and I was tired of feeling I had so little room to move. There's nothing wrong with being serious, as I am 80 per cent of the time, but I also think that the best moments most people have are the lighter ones. Silliness and seriousness aren't mutually exclusive.

X-Communicate is out now on Sub Pop