DAVE HIMELFIELD MEETS THE AMAZING AMANDA PALMER
WORDS : Dave Himelfield
PICS : Courtesy Amanda Palmer / Roadrunner
(c) (p) mybigmouth for manchestermusic.co.uk 2008
Amanda Palmer and her band the Dresden Dolls shot to an uneasy place somewhere between cult status and mainstream fame in the early noughties. The Boston-based duo, featuring Amanda on piano and lead vocals together with Brian Viglione on drums, fused 1920s cabaret, punk and pop into a mix that was as likely to bemuse as it was to enthral.
But enthral the Dolls did, with unique singles “Coin-Operated Boy” and “Backstabber” to name but a few, critically acclaimed albums and blinding live performances.
But all’s been quite on the Dresden front since their sophomore “Yes, Virginia” album was released in 2006. Brian has been touring behind the drums for swing-punk orchestra, The World/Inferno Friendship Society. Amanda meanwhile has just released her debut solo album “Who Killed Amanda Palmer” – an unabashed Twin Peaks reference – with Ben Folds of the legendary ivory-bashing trio Ben Folds Five.
I meet Amanda backstage in a cramped dressing room in early October. She’s flustered. So far her tour hasn’t gone well. Her tour manager has quit, leaving her diary in chaos and three days ago, in Belfast, a car drove over her foot crushing it. Her right tootsie is in plaster but – never one to pull a gig at the last minute – she’s performing on crutches.
“Were you drunk when that happened?” I ask.
“No,” she replies in a deep voice, “It was nine in the morning and I was stone cold sober.”
Extended “side projects” from both Amanda and Brian suggest the Dolls could be over. I ask Amanda to set the record straight.
“We’re on hiatus right now. Brian’s in a fantastic band right now. I think we’re just waiting and seeing for a while. We’ve pretty much burned each other out completely (so) we’re taking a rest.”
While Amanda, 32, was born in New York and raised near Boston, her solo debut has more than a British flavour to it. There are songs called “Leeds United” with reference to Sainsbury’s supermarkets and “Oasis” about sending a letter to Liam, Noel et al, but also, in typical Palmer style, crack cocaine and sexually transmitted diseases.
I ask: “Is it fair to say you’ve got quite an interest in this country?”
Amanda says: “I’ve definitely spent a lot of time in this country by default, especially recently, especially Scotland and London. It’s starting to feel second home-y.”
DH: “I went on your website and looked at the page for Leeds United and there was map of London. What’s that got to do with Leeds United?”
AP: “That map of London is taken from Google Maps and it actually pinpoints the site of every Sainbury’s.”
DH: “How did you find Sainbury’s?”
AP: “The sandwiches are good. They do a good couscous salad.”
We move on from Sainsbury’s and the UK back to Amanda’s home country. The US presidential election is only one month away and Americans like her (and the rest of world) are holding their breath.
It’s a tenuous link but track “Blake Says” mentions Alaska half a dozen times, so I ask Amanda about the state’s ultra-conservative governor Sarah Palin.
Amanda says: “I don’t really care if she’s the governor of Alaska but the thought of someone like that being a heartbeat away from the president is terrifying. And it makes me want to leave (America).”
DH: “She’s against teaching sex education in schools, do you she got a taste of her own medicine with her teenage daughter getting pregnant?”
AP: “Oh God! The whole thing is just so pathetic. I don’t really know where to start. I’m ashamed of my country that that’s even the dialogue at the moment.”
DH: “How do you fell about Barack Obama?”
AP: “I just hope he wins.”
DH: “Is that just because you don’t want John McCain?”
AP: “No. I think for better or worse in terms of Obama’s experience and his view, I think he represents a force that the country could get behind. And I think this is our last shot. If we fuck this one up, it’s over.”
Down to business, we talk about “Who Killed Amanda Palmer”. Essentially it’s the Amanda Palmer we’ve come to love and fear, but what does she think is the difference?
Amanda: “There isn’t a fundamental difference in the songs. The songs that wound up on the solo record probably would have been Dresden Dolls songs had they not just been in the pipeline at the time when I made the solo record.
“But the production is vastly different. The Dresden Dolls have never used orchestration. And I’ve also evolved a little bit; my singing to me sounds a little bit different and my approach to the piano playing is a little different.
But to me it’s not a different world. It’s still the same world with a different approach.
DH: “How was working with Ben Folds?”
AP: “Brilliant; he’s a genius.”
DH: “Who would win a piano duel?”
AP: “He would – by a long fucking shot.
In between songs there’s a creepy, barely audible voice.
Amanda explains calmly: “It’s an old, dead boyfriend of mine.”
DH: “It sounds creepy – is it meant to be?”
AP: “It is.”
DH: “Was he creepy?”
We finish our chat with some abstract discussions about the past and the future.
DH: “What did you do
before Dresden Dolls took off?”
DH: “Would you be doing that again if you weren’t doing this?”
AP: “Hopefully. I don’t know – that’s like getting into quantum physics.”
DH: “Ever said something stupid then instantly regretted it?”
AP: “More times than I could possibly count.”
DH: “Such as?”
AP: “Well I don’t want to do it again!”
DH: “How long can
Amanda Palmer last?”