No Time For Lollygagging: An Interview With The New York Dolls

Valerie Siebert talks to David Johansen about the New York Dolls' latest album Dancing Backward In High Heels and Malcolm McLaren and Morrissey. Main photo by Yoni Goldberg

In early 1975 the New York Dolls were on the verge of splitting. Infighting, drug abuse and being dropped by their label had left them discouraged and despairing of the future. Suddenly, they found themselves in the peripheries of visiting English fashion designer Malcolm McLaren, who decided to take on management of the band with a bigger-is-better approach to their dissolute reputation. A whirlwind of Soviet flags, red leather jumpsuits and communist-chic flirtations later, the Dolls lay shattered mid-tour in Florida. McLaren would flee back to England to lick his wounds and rethink his dogma – later using the experience to catalyze a subculture that would grant his former wards a Van Goghish posthumous appreciation.

After the split, Dolls frontman David Johansen – taking along guitarist Sylvain Sylvain – released some ramshackle rockers, gained commercial success with his calypso-lounge singing alter-ego Buster Poindexter, acted as Bill Murray’s Ghost of Christmas Past in Scrooged and fronted country blues outfit The Harry Smiths.

To see the jowly singer now is to believe that the other incarnations of David Johansen never happened – as if the early Dolls never split, having bore the ages in as graceful a manner as the gods of pre-punk drag and debauchery would allow. Though there remains the stinging absence of members Jerry Nolan, Johnny Thunders and Arthur Kane – who have all since passed – the sins of Red Patent Leather are forgot and the New York Dolls live again. Once more a wolf in women’s clothing, Johansen prowls the stage spitting angst and posturing Jagger in equal amounts.

However, listening to Dancing Backward In High Heels is to forget such stasis. Recorded in Newcastle, the latest album brings to the fore a myriad of unexpected influences – as if one had requisitioned the corner table at every dingy New York club since 1955 and held post there until the present – absorbing everything from Murray the K’s Peppermint Lounge to CBGB’s to Studio 54. It’s equal parts Phil Spector, The Boss, and Bowie.

Everything about it screams experience, and the same is revealed by a DVD accompanying the album and documenting the recording of it. Though far from being a well-oiled machine, it seems, the recording of the Dolls is no longer a matter of "herding cats" – as two-time Dolls producer Todd Rundgren so deftly put it in a 2009 Quietus interview – but rather that of a wild west cattle drive: still fast and furious, but far more together. We got the chance to have a chat with David Johansen about the new record, its inception, recording, legacies, and life.

Speaking about the new record, why did you choose to record in England, and why Newcastle in particular?

David Johansen: It’s always good to go somewhere different to make a record than the record before – at least for us I think. I mean, you certainly don’t want to have the same experience over and over again, so a foreign locale is always preferable and these guys who had this record label up in Newcastle, they were following us around for a while and trying to convince to come and use their studio. So eventually… we… I hate to use the word acquiesced, but yes we did. When you’re verging on making a record, it’s always about the unknown. And so we showed up at Newcastle and did the recording and it went really great.

Listening to Dancing Backward… you can hear influence from ’60s girl groups, to Phil Spector, to 50s rock & roll, but it still holds up fairly modern – what sort of records were you all listening to during the writing of this record?

DJ: Oh, I wasn’t listening to any records because when we came in we didn’t have much of anything written and then three weeks later we had a record, so you can imagine we were just concentrating on what we were doing the whole time – there wasn’t much time for lollygagging. I think it’s always subconscious. I mean, as you explore music that had been filtered through us, it just kind of comes out… you know, people always say ‘What’s the new record going to be?’ We can’t really say what it will be, but we know that it’s in our heads and what it will take to record it.

I would say there are probably thousands of influences. One is conditioned as a human being in a certain way and those influences are always kind of going through whatever we’re doing.

And how about influences on the subject matter – are you referring to anyone in particular with songs like ‘I’m So Fabulous’ or ‘Kids Like You’?

DJ: Me and Them, in that order [laughs]. ‘I’m So Fabulous’ is about me and ‘Kids Like You’ is about the philosophical and artistic kids that are embarking on… the world of dreams… Ha! It may be someone in particular for one line or something… but it always starts with something particular and then it turns into something totally different from when you started. You have to let them take you where they want to go. You can’t make them into something they’re not.

Along with the new direction on the album, there’s a whole new level of instrumentation for the Dolls – how will you be reproducing this live on your upcoming tour? Are you bringing brass and backing singers?

DJ: I have no idea. [Laughs] No idea whatsoever; we’ll see what that’s all about. I haven’t thought about it – we don’t start rehearsing for a few weeks yet and then we’ll sit down and play the songs and, I’m sure it will sound great. We just haven’t gotten to that yet.

You’ve managed to pick up Earl Slick [of David Bowie fame] for the UK dates coming up – how did you rope him in?

DJ: Oh geez, I know him from Staten Island way back. I probably met him in some guy’s garage. It was a long time ago, I don’t remember exactly. We probably went to someone’s garage who had some drums in there and then just started playing with some cats.

We were thinking about who we were going to get in for this tour and I have a friend who said ‘You should check out Earl, I was talking to him the other day and he was saying how he’d like to play with you guys.’ So I did.

Photo by Anna Victoria Best

Adding Earl Slick in, along with yourself and Sylvain and guys like Frank Infante from Blondie – the new Dolls are really a band of icons. Is there ever too much experience or many egos in the room?

DJ: Nah. I mean, you never think of yourself being the only person in the room. What are you gonna do? Everyone’s got an ego. It’s just a part of existing. Well I suppose there are times… but I haven’t really considered that. Everyone comes in and does what they do and we put it all together and as they say: bippity boppity boo.

On your last two records you went with some tried and true producers who you’ve worked with previously and were established in the 70s. How did the decision come about this time to go with such a young producer in Jason Hill?

DJ: We knew Jason, we met him on the road several times – showing up and playing at the same places when he had the Louis XIV thing going on. And so we were considering producers for the new record – and the record company and people will send you a reel from a producer they’re recommending and you’ll listen to it and think ‘Oh my god, that’s horrible!’ Stuff just piled together. Someone suggested Jason. I didn’t even know that he was producing, but we thought it would be good as we already knew what he was like as a person which is so important. ‘Cos you can sign on with a producer and then get into a room with them and realize that person is either insufferable or perhaps just operating from a small sphere, but Jason has got a good psychological cue and he’s a can-do kind of guy and he’s a pleasure to be with in creative situations. So that would be the most important element and everything just evolves from there.

How did the experience compare with Jason as opposed to recording with veterans Todd Rundgren and Jack Douglas on your last albums?

DJ: It’s difficult to compare. I mean, you can compare personalities as they all have their ways of doing things and looking at the world. When you’re making records you don’t want to have the same experience over and over again or else it will become a job, you don’t want it to knock you out.

Jason had this open-minded sort of thing which was good. We definitely were just creating stuff, and it wasn’t about ‘We’re going to run this through my factory and put my stamp on it,’ you know? It was something that we all kind of grooved on together.

You say that it’s important in the studio to not have the same experience repeatedly, but you did bring in Todd Rundgren on the last album and you’d worked with him before.

DJ: Ah well no, that was completely different. We did that record at Todd’s house in Hawaii. And to be in Hawaii in January when you’re a New Yorker is just heaven. So it was miles away from the last one we did with him in New York. It was like recording in paradise.

I was doing some reading recently and came across an interview you did in 1978 where you made some less-than-amicable remarks about Todd Rungren. But you had changed your tune when you brought him in for Cause I Sez So in 2006… what happened?

DJ: What exactly did I say in 1978?

I think your exact words were: ‘He’s a cunt. But it only took six days to make that album so I didn’t have to get on with him.’

DJ: [Laughs] I was probably drunk. Jesus, I don’t remember. I mean, the thing is, when we were working with Todd, we only had one month to make a record and you figure, well, Todd’s definitely gonna come through with his end of things and everyone’s gotta come through with their end, and in that prescribed time, we’re gonna have a record. You know, a lot of people make records for forever. They go into the studio and, like, live there, but it’s not the way we do it. We say, ‘We’re gonna make a record’ and make one essentially very quickly. We don’t sit around thinking about it so much. It’s much more instinctual.

I suppose the Dolls are known for being quite visceral. Is this reputation something you keep in mind, or is it just the way it is?

DJ: All I know is that when we say we’re making a record, we just get together and say ‘Whaddya got?’ and you’ll say, ‘Okay I can play this’ or ‘I can sing that’ and that goes on for long days, but they don’t feel long because the creative fluid is flowing and it’s an intensive period of time, which I think is fascinating and fun.

Has the process evolved at all from the early days?

DJ: I don’t think it has, really. Usually Sylvain comes up with some music and shows it to me and has some working title for it, for me to work off of. On this album I guess, what we do is record music and as we were working on a song, I would be writing words to it. The lyrics are being written simultaneously and then I might go back to that song and work on them, because after the melody develops and it’s been playing then I can really hear what’s happening.

So that’s the way it’s been going, whereas the last time, we showed up in Hawaii for Todd and he was saying ‘What have you got?’, and we had a couple of things that we played for him and he was like ‘Aw, gimme a break you guys.’ He made us go to some house and sit down and write the songs, and then the next week we rehearsed them, and then the third week we recorded them, so it was almost like a live record in a way. Whereas with this one, we just started recording and building the songs so it was like totally a different experience. As far as the writing was concerned but the music was the same in the sense that… well I don’t know, I can’t explain it, but it has a certain quality.

Yeah, I feel that’s partly down to your personal contribution as I think that over the career of the New York Dolls, the thing that has remained the most consistent are your lyrics. Because they’re still quite raw and instinctual while the music has evolved into more of a large production.

DJ: Well they come from my basic philosophical ideas about things, you know, which grow, but come from a common root.

Is this the same case with Sylvain?

DJ: Sylvain is like a conduit of music. He’s got this magical capacity to say ‘OK, now. Let’s make a song.’ And then Sylvain will pick up the guitar or play a keyboard or something and then, without any preconceived notion, just start to play and all of this music that was buried in his subconscious just comes out. And at the end of three minutes, hopefully you’ve recorded it, because it’ll be gone and he’ll be on to something else. He’s got this magical capacity to make these brilliant little pop songs.

It’s really interesting to hear you speak of it like that – the musical partnership between the two of you is one of the most enduring in popular music. What do you think has made it work for so long?

DJ: We each know the other one is going to get it done. And so there’s never any thinking about – you know, ‘Can we do it?’ – because we know that we always can. So we always know where we are and here is the song we wrote at this moment in time. It’s not like we’re thinking whether this song sounds like any other song, or whether it sounds the way we were planning it to – there’s none of that stuff going on. We just get together and say ‘Here we are, let’s make a song’ and that’s who we are. We never let anyone else or any market dictate what we do.

Is that the key to being a successful song writing team? Does pandering to other people cause partnerships to fail?

DJ: Well we’ve got the love thing going on. We just love each other as human beings. When you collaborate, it’s a beautiful thing because, first of all, you respect what each other does and, second of all, you do that thing together. It’s a beautiful thing.

It’s been nearly a year on since Malcolm McLaren died, what are your thoughts on his legacy and the part that the Dolls played in it?

DJ: I haven’t really thought about it. I don’t know what that is really. I think that’s for someone else to decide… someone who creates legacies [laughs]. I just know that we had a good thing going and we had a good time. I dug his head and where he was coming from. I dug his energy and point of view and shit like that.

And how about your own legacy – particularly in the New York scene? What do you see when you survey your kingdom these days – with the new New York scene bands like The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs who seem quite at home on the cover of fashion mags?

DJ: I think they’re great. Whenever I see them on TV or we’re on a bill together or something, I think that they’re really good and they’re good rock’n’roll bands.

Have you met any of them? Have any come forward as fans?

DJ: Yeah, sure I’ve met them, but I’m sure they wouldn’t come forward as fans because that would just make things weird. Don’t you think that would be weird? Like if someone comes and says to you ‘Wow I’m such a big fan of you’ wouldn’t you think ‘Wow, that’s weird?’

Really? But what about Morrissey? He’s a massive fan and is very vocal about it and brought you all together in 2004… so obviously he’s door-stepped you to that effect – did that make things weird?

DJ: Uh. Well I don’t remember… but it probably was, yeah.

But it is still weird if you see him now?

DJ: Well no, I mean, I haven’t really thought about it. I just think ‘Oh, there’s Morrissey, OK cool.’ He’s not going to be like going gaga or anything.

Going back to the new record, I noticed that you and Sylvain revived ‘Funky, But Chic’ from your solo career for the new record and you’ve also been playing solo shows. Would you be considering another David Johansen album?

DJ: I haven’t really thought about it because the Dolls thing is really time consuming and the only time I really think about doing anything else is when there’s nothing to do. Right now with the Dolls, we’re gearing up for just going out and we won’t be coming home until next January.

Despite the fact that both you and Sylvain have dabbled in many other genres since the early days of the Dolls, some of the hardcore fans might be riled by your latest direction. What would you say to these people who want you to stay exactly the same?

DJ: Well it’s cool that people like listening to the old records man, but we’re humans and we’re evolving and we’re very forward-looking people. If we were just doing what other people prescribed for us, it wouldn’t be very satisfying.

Dancing Backwards In High Heels is released by Blast Records on March 14. New York Dolls tour the UK: O2 Academy Newcastle (March 27), Manchester Club Academy (March 29), London The Old Vic Tunnels (March 30-31). Further info: on the New York Dolls website.

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