Jacket: We Are Young Jacket by Fringe; Boots: Sigerson Morrison
“I’m very anti-brand.”
No stranger to the concept of “rip it up and start again,” Kristin Welchez has already begun the press cycle for X-Communicate, the first record under her brand new moniker, Kristin Kontrol. The name change dropped on a January evening via Instagram; it’s a short video of her at a photo shoot with the simple caption: “I AM #KRISTINKONTROL.” A song plays in the background. The commanding cry of her voice is recognizable, but the music is unlike anything attached to it before, a driving arpeggiated synth over a sizzling disco beat. No explanation was needed; the record she had been working on and hinting at for the past several months was going to involve a full reinvention.
“I don’t wanna be bored. I like having to work hard.”
For the past seven years or so, we have known Kristin as Dee Dee, the icy femme fatale fronting Dum Dum Girls, easily one of the best groups to come out the small, ‘60s-indebted garage band resurgence that emerged from New York City at the turn of the decade. Fellow comrades like Crystal Stilts and Vivian Girls eventually drifted to implosion, but Dum Dum Girls always had the benefit of being a solo project despite the pluralized name and girl gang press photo image.
Dum Dum Girls’ last album, 2014’s Too True contained some of the best songs Kristin’s ever written—the haunting mid-tempo ballad “Are You Okay?”, the resolute rocker “In the Wake of You,” and the skin-tingling groover “Too True to Be Good.” But it was a record that broke the formula in ways that didn’t land with critics, and subsequently found the band spinning its wheels. “It was very fractured,” Kristin says. “I think I was trying really
hard to sort of mature the Dum Dum Girls thing, and instead of maybe expanding the way I thought I was expanding, I ended up hyper-focusing.” The garage rock elements that had defined the Dum Dums’ early records were toned down in favor of motorik beats and smokey goth rock. Kristin has always been a fan of ornate productions—she’s covered both the Smiths and Strawberry Switchblade on previous records—and her stab at them worked for her. But Too True was a far cry from the beloved “girls in the garage” vibe that had come to be the Dum Dum trademark; and it asked for listeners to appreciate the songwriter over a previously established aesthetic. Fans remained fans, but the band’s appeal seemed to be touching the ceiling.
Jacket: Andrew Marc Leather Jacket; Pants: Jose Duran; Shoes: Ivanka Trump
“I was like, this doesn’t feel like my home anymore. I’ve grown up and out of it and I also don’t want to change what it is, because it is so clearly defined as a thing,” Kristin says. “I don’t wanna be bored. I mean, I like having to work hard.”
Born Kristin Gundred, she fronted indie also-rans Grand Ole Party from 2006-2009, Phil Collins-style, singing from behind the drum kit. They managed to get opening spots for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Spiritualized, and Rilo Kiley, but their strutting garage blues was something best left behind on the cutting floor. As that band wound itself down, Kristin became an unlikely star of the late MySpace era, plucked from obscurity by Sub Pop based on a few home-based uploads, and finding almost immediate success and praise for I Will Be, the band’s 2010 full-length debut.
In other words, Kristin’s latest iteration is her third coming, not her second. But it’s a definitive, much-needed departure from her most recent work. Kristin has been produced almost exclusively since 2011 by the Raveonettes’ Sune Rose Wagner, who was brought in, alongside producer Jorge Elbrecht, to work on her next record. But something was not clicking. “I started writing and I knew I wanted to do something significantly different. I was already toying with the idea of working with different producers because as much as I love and respect Sune and Richard Gottehrer, I was like we’ve done this seven times.”
She returned to the guitar with the mantra of “Okay, let’s write a fucking song that doesn’t suck!”
The results were almost immediate. Having reached out to Pains of Being Pure at Heart drummer and Ice Choir mastermind Kurt Feldman, she decided to start fresh. The first song to really click in the studio was “Show Me,” the life-affirming opener on X-Communicate. It will immediately disarm anyone concerned about this record being a vanity project of all suspicion. “Show Me” is at once wholly different than anything from Dum Dum Girls, but still undeniably Kristin Welchez. Her commanding voice is the most noticeable through line, but it’s her knack for pop songcraft which marries where she’s been and where she’s going, even when a flurry of saxophones comes in like a muscle flexing its newfound confidence. Given the instrument’s unprecedented appearance on any of her records, I ask if they was Kurt’s idea. She smiles with pride, “Nah, that was mine.”
“If the question is: ‘Is Dum Dum Girls done?’
Then the answer is yes,
and Kristin Kontrol is what I’ll do forever.
Until I change my mind and do something else.”
The inner music nerd really comes out of Kristin when we break down the songs; she’s just as into analyzing what makes a song work as a music critic. When we talk about “White Street,” arguably the best track on the album, she puts her hand out and demonstratively sings the cooing “aaaahhhh” backing vocals of the song to me. On “(Don’t) Wannabe,” her personal favorite on the record, she exclaims with genuine excitement when she talks about recording a backwards guitar part, something one might not notice on first or even second listen.
The song on the record that serves as a huge plunge into the unknown is the title track. First appearing as a snippet in her Instagram announcement and later released as the record’s first single, “X-Communicate” is a full-on Italo-disco club banger. A name is always just a name, but the idea of a song like this coming from Dum Dum Girls would definitely have had people scratching their heads—which is exactly why it makes sense that it’s Kristin Kontrol’s first single; she says her motivation behind the choice was because it’s so extreme. “It went off much better than I expected. When we put it out… the end of the day came and Pitchfork still hadn’t even retweeted or whatever. I was like, yeah, I kinda didn’t [expect anything], because it’s the most extreme song on the record and it’s not terribly representative of what the record is as a whole. But then I woke up the next day and it had been named to [Pitchfork’s] Best New Music, so I was like ‘Oh! I guess I was wrong.’”
As to how to define X-Communicate on the whole, it’s a bit difficult. As Kristin says, it’s song to song. It’s not the dance pop record many have believed it was going to be. It’s not a mainstream crossover record either. While there are many delicious hooks and an obvious Charli XCX influence on songs such as “Skin Shed” and “Show Me,” it’s still very much in the indie realm. But its diversity helps make it the most fun and attention grabbing record she’s ever done. The aforementioned “Skin Shed” bounces out like a fashion runway anthem, but was oddly birthed from a cloud of marijuana smoke in Kristin’s music room. “I was just thinking about all the things that I could do that I haven’t been able to do before, and I was going through sort of a heavy dance music phase, where I was listening to a lot of acid house and Ray of Light-era Madonna. So I remember being in the music room and Brandon [Welchez, her husband and lead singer of Crocodiles] was in the living room and I was like, ‘Hey I’m just gonna be working on this song for an hour, I’ll be out and make dinner, whatever.’ And eight hours later, I emerge…” Kristin’s eyes go wide as she imitates herself finishing the demo in the middle of the night, “I just came out, like, insane. I hadn’t eaten or anything, just smoked spliffs. And I was like, I think I wrote a house song!”
Jacket: Old Navy Bomber
Kristin cites the record’s pop influence as from her co-producer Andrew Miller, who has been a friend since 2006 and who played some guitar on I Will Be. Likewise, Kurt Feldman was tapped for production: His synth pop project Ice Choir brings a lush, crystalline structure to the six songs he’s featured on. As Kristin describes Ice Choir, “it’s like Christmas synth music all year round!”
All of this change, though, carries with it a very real factor of risk, dropping the familiar in favor of the unknown. Theoretically, there’d been nothing wrong with Dum Dum Girls’ career; they enjoyed a rapid-fire buzz band kickoff that followed with a steady incline of success over a five year stretch. Even when Kristin took a six month break to recuperate from a vocal issue in 2013, the band returned in the next year, picking up where they’d left off. They had plateaued.
The danger that comes with musical exploration and even changing her name is exciting to Kristin. “It freaks me out, but I feel like I’m on the novel, artistic side of that argument where I’m like ‘I don’t fucking care.’ [Friends were] like ‘I feel like you should take advantage of what you have built up. Like you have all these fans.’ But what [they] don’t understand is that what I’m about to put out and how I’m gonna tour it has so little to do with what they love as Dum Dum Girls. It’s gonna be seen as an affront or something.”
We had no idea we were discussing this on the eve of Prince’s untimely death; he was an artist willing to jettison his birth name for an unpronounceable symbol when his artistic process demanded it. I ask about some of her favorite career switch ups, and despite being a devout Bowie fan (“Heroes” is the ringtone on her phone), she first mentions the Stones and “their wacky album that they self-produced.” She’s referring to Their Satanic Majesty’s Request, their lone psychedelic record which served more or less as a response to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
“Right,” I say, “but they didn’t change their name.”
“Yeah, but I mean, what did they do when that did terribly? They went right back.”
“I feel like I’m on the artistic side of the argument
where I’m like ‘I don’t fucking care.’”
So what will Kristin Kontrol do if people yearn for the days of Dee Dee? “Well, I’m not gonna pull a Stones and flip. And be like ‘I’m cool, I was just totally kidding about that whole thing.’” When the photographer for the magazine shoot asked about Dum Dum Girls, Kristin nonchalantly described the group as being “retired.” Are they?
“I mean, I did use that word.” she says. “I feel like it was an era that I have stepped out of. Retired I think makes sense because it doesn’t tarnish what came before. Maybe in four years I’ll be like, ‘man I miss that,’ and it’ll come out of retirement.
But I don’t have the desire to do two hugely different named things. For me it was like, how do I regain control and establish the thing that is gonna go forward. If the question is: ‘Is Dum Dum Girls done?’ Then the answer is yes, and Kristin Kontrol is what I’ll do forever. Until I change my mind and do something else.” She laughs. “I’m not concerned. It’s all semantics. It’s all my songs. It’s just what makes sense.” ♦
Photos by Andrew Boyle.
Stylist Lauren Abbondola; Stylist Assistant Dante Rosso; Hair Kayo Fujita; Make-up Rie Tsukui