‘Not I,’ said the Beatings
The Dresden Dolls may remind you of a bygone era, but not like that
Lead singer Keith Wallen and bass player Brad Reynolds enlighten us on their “anti-rock star” status, their gig on FUSE’s Daily Download, oh yeah, and to brag a bit about their amplifying success
by Leslie Wylie
Sometimes you give up on the system. Sometimes the system gives up on you. Boston’s noise-rock avatar the Beatings has experienced a little bit of both.
“It seems like a thousand years ago,” Beatings guitarist Tony Skalicky says, recalling the band’s more idealistic youth. It was ’round about 2001 when a review of the Beatings’ first EP, 6HZ , swaggered its way into the pages of The Village Voice . Laced with headstrong guitars and belligerent, if endearingly desperate, vocals, it was a worthy precursor for the band’s later work. “These guys (and girl) fucking rock!” the famed NYC rag gushed, leaving the band to conclude that it had a halfway decent shot at getting signed—a reasonable supposition.
The Beatings’ musical inclinations may be wayward, spiraling in and out of abstract, noise-ridden tangents, but habit-forming melodies and piecemeal lyrics manage to keep the sound approachable.
Record labels presented their offers but, Skalicky explains, they all seemed a little shady—weird distribution, uncomfortable vibes, the kind of stuff that only bands with nothing to lose but their shirts fall for. So the Beatings turned to the next best option when capitalistic piggybacking fails. “Screw it,” Skalicky says. “We sucked it up and pinched our pennies and released it ourselves.”
In the process, the Beatings founded its own label, Midriff Records, which now serves as a kind of playground for the band, a slew of its members’ side-projects, and a choice selection of other Boston bands. “It’s really just us being impatient and stubborn,” Skalicky says. “We’re not trying to be DIY in a pretentious kind of way. We just want to release a lot of records, and we don’t have time to wait. When we can afford to, we press a CD.”
Since 6HZ , Midriff has released two more Beatings EPs and another two full-length discs. And stiff-collar label or no, the accolades kept coming. “Fifth best album of the year,” declared the Washington Post of The Beatings’ next album, Italiano , effectively bumping ’02 masterpieces like Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the Roots’ Phrenology into the latter half of the paper’s top 10. “Flawless,” Magnet wrote of the band’s 2004 EP, The Heart, the Product, the Machine and the Asshole .
Listening to the band’s newest album, Holding on to Hand Grenades , it’s easy to appreciate the clamor. Bands like the Beatings are hard to come across these days, hailing back instead to, as Skalicky puts it, “those 12 hours or so in the late ’80s, early ’90s, before ‘alternative’ became a catchall marketing phrase,” he explains. “We grew up on all those bands: the Pixies, Sonic Youth, Pavement, R.E.M… guitar-based hard rock.”
It’s loud, sure, with layers upon layers of dirty, driving guitars and frantic vocals, alternately yowled by Frank Black sound-alike E.R., belted out by female bassist Erin Dalbec à la Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or shouted in chorus by the whole band. Drummer Dennis Grabowski brings up the rear with brink-of-chaos percussion that erupts at all the right moments.
“We’re just really fascinated with making as much noise and possible but still keeping it interesting,” Skalicky says. “It’s fun and noisy, but in a cerebral, primal kind of way.”
Aggression has its place in the Beatings’ sound, but more often than not it’s counterbalanced by introspective lyrics and heartening melodic recoveries. And in contrast to the band’s punk forbearers, most of the time its aggression is directed inward rather than toward any external source of frustration. “I’m going to put in my time tomorrow/ I’m going to make up my mind tomorrow/ and I will pull myself together if I can,” E.R. sings in the opening track to Holding on to Hand Grenades , “Intro to a Responsible Person.” For the most part, it’s more personal than political, Skalicky says.
“I guess you’ve got to be angry about something, but there’s no one driving nemesis that forces us to write the songs,” he explains. “I wish we were more involved in the world around us, but we’re really out here to please ourselves.”
And nothing makes the Beatings happier than having the freedom to create at will. Several albums are in the hole to be released through Midriff as soon as they can afford it; as for the Beatings, Skalicky says the band is sitting on an armful of new tunes in addition to some rougher sketches. “We want to get in the studio and see what happens there,” he says. “No one wants to think too much about anything.”
What: The Beatings
by Kevin Crowe
In a sense —
The two first met at a Halloween party at an old brownstone in Boston. There was a strange interpretation of the Odyssey that night, Viglione recalls, among many other avant-performances. It may have been one of the hippest house parties in Boston; all the sophisticated freaks and weirdoes were there. Later, up in a geodesic dome where Palmer would play six songs on an old, beat-up piano, the brainstorming began:
“She put so much energy into these songs. To see someone put so much energy into a beat up piano…,” Viglione says. It’s been five years, and he’s still remembers that night, still in awe of Palmer’s raw, visceral performance. “Just phenomenal songwriting,” he says. “Great magnitude of conviction in her playing… It didn’t allude to any one specific thing. It wasn’t trying to sound hip and over-conceptualized. There was no element of predictability.”
When they got together for an early jam session, they knew that had something. “I said, ‘Well, just go ahead and play something. And I’ll just follow along,’” he remembers. “What this girl offers as a songwriter is just a perfect match to create some exciting music.”
In the beginning, the duet played with a stripped-down, punk rock kind of ethic. Nothing distracted audiences from the music, at least that was the hope. But after getting dolled up for a performance at a Burlesque show, the spectacle seemed to work. And their live shows became increasingly theatrical, like Japanese Noh Theater with a punk aesthetic, in a sense .
Their hypnotic, dark, haunting lyrics combine with a Vaudevillian-noir stage presence. The spectacle may have you thinking of Josephine Baker, if her cabaret had inspired early apocalyptic folk, such as Nico’s The End in 1974. It’s a useful comparison, if you’re hoping to get a feel for The Dresden Dolls. Useful, but not precise.
It is , but it also ain’t .
They’ve called their sound “Brechtian Punk Cabaret,” but even that’s not very fitting. “When we were first thinking of ways to describe our music,” Viglione says. “It seemed like a way to stir up conversations. It was vague enough to let people draw their own conclusions. It also summed up the ethos, a theatrical DIY-attitude.”
Biting sarcasm and a manic demeanor only highlight the frank subject matter. The lyrics, more often than not, take strange ironic twists, weaving layer upon layer of meaning. Some of it is circular in scope and, at the same time, its themes can be Joycean with their irreverence and dark humor.
“Those meanings can change day to day,” Viglione explains. “That’s kind of the nice thing about not having concrete meaning. Hopefully people will listen to our music and start thinking on a different level, become more compassionate and open-minded, demonstrate a respect towards each other that you don’t feel comfortable demonstrating on the street.”
He’s been trying with limited success , Palmer sings on “Shores of California.” To get this girl to let him get into her pants/ But every time he thinks he’s getting close/ She threatens death before he gets a chance
And that’s the way it is in Minnesota/ And that’s the way it is in Oklahoma/ That’s the way it’s been since protozoa/ First climbed onto the shores of California .
“The act of engaging yourself on a deeper level,” he says, “you have to be able to commit yourself to going there. You can’t be inhibited. The best thing you can do to serve the music is to follow it, to honor it and see where it takes you.
“Sometimes it’s just great to escape, or access a certain emotion that you’re not able to access on your own.”
Who: The Dresden Dolls
Q&A with Copper
So you guys aren’t the typical drug-wired, AA skipping, taking-groupies-for-granted rock band?
Nice guys are usually diehard for their fans. Are you?
You’ve opened for bands like Seether, Crossfade, Breaking Benjamin, 30 Seconds to Mars and Saliva. Who’s your fave to tour with?
Y ou’ve been labeled rock, alternative and indie. Which fits you best?
You guys both have spiffy degrees from the University of Tennessee. So Keith, why didn’t you fall back on English? And Brad, why not pursue finance?
What does music do for you?
How did it feel to be on FUSE’s Daily Download this year?
Any advice for musician wannabes?
While growing up, what influential bands played on your radio?
Your first single “By Now” from your 2004 album Fragile Fall reached the Top 50 on modern rock radio within nine weeks of release. Did you expect it?
Where stems your lyrical inspiration?
Any inside jokes between the band?
What have you been doing since your last album release?
Is Knoxville just another notch in your belt?
You’re also Vol fans?
You’re playing at Blue Cats Tuesday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. What do you want to tell those who are interested?
KW : Yeah, and you can pretty much expect a lot of badassness.