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Growing pains

The Dresden Dolls try to balance life and art
By MATT ASHARE  |  May 17, 2006

ROAD WARRIORS: "The realities of touring life have been harder to deal with than I expected," says Palmer.

So much has happened for the Dresden Dolls over the past year — a year in which the lead-in to the release of their sophomore album, Yes, Virginia . . . (Roadrunner), just a few weeks ago almost seemed choreographed by a higher power — that it’s no surprise the duo fared so well in this year’s Best Music Poll. The signing to Roadrunner, who reissued the band’s 2003 homonymous debut two years ago, got the ball rolling on the national level. But when Perry Farrell went out of his way last year to endorse the duo of Amanda Palmer, the piano-pounding frontwoman, and Brian Viglione, the forceful yet swinging drummer, and then secure for them a coveted spot at the Coachella festival, you could feel the ground shift ever so slightly. Being asked by Trent Reznor to join Nine Inch Nails on his first tour in years was more than just a breakthrough; it was just the opportunity Palmer and Viglione needed to show us all that they’d graduated from hometown favorites to something more significant. Since then, they’ve been out there representing for Boston, or, at least, a large and still growing segment of the local scene. No, they’re not the biggest band from Mass: the very same week Yes, Virginia . . . hit stores, Godsmack nailed the number-one spot on the Billboard 200. But, like Morphine in the ’90s, the Dresden Dolls stand out as a unique presence with an international profile and a style — call it art-skewed cabaret pop — that’s alternative in the truest, clearest, most visceral sense of the word.

This year’s votes were tallied before the release of the new album, yet the Dolls still triumphed in Best Local Live Act, and Palmer dominated Best Local Female Vocalist. By that point, the duo had already departed for Europe. I caught up with Palmer via phone in rainy Sheffield, England, where she’d walked out of a bad movie for the relative comfort of the dressing room at the club they’d be headlining that night. Here’s what she had to say before signing off with “Give my love to Harvard Square.”

MATT ASHARE: So, how's touring?
AMANDA PALMER: Fantastic. One great thing about this band is that we almost never have a musically bad show. And the audiences are never less than enthusiastic. Plus, we’ve never had expectations. We’ve just followed our impulses and done what seemed natural. Of course, we always hoped that the band would do well and sell out shows, but behind that was always this understanding that we’re a strange band, so you can’t expect those things to happen, you can only be excited when they do. Every time I meet a fan, I take it as a compliment that they’ve taken that leap of faith. Having one really excited fan is an accomplishment; having a lot of them feels like a gift.

MA: Have things changed for the band as you've grown, or is it business as usual for the Dresden Dolls?
AP: Everything seems pretty normal, actually. I actually feel grateful for how slowly the band has grown. Because I don’t know if we would have been able to handle it if we had suddenly skyrocketed in popularity, and hadn’t taken these long and sometimes painful steps to get where we are.

I’m also really grateful that we didn’t start the band until I was 25. Because I look around at bands who go straight from high school to the road, and in one way that’s really wonderful — it’s a fantasy. But, on the other hand, you can never go back to that period of life where you’re on your own, experiencing turning into an adult without all this fucked-up shit going on around you. I mean, there’s going to be fucked-up shit anyway, but I think there’s something important about living a normal life first so that you then appreciate how abnormal touring life really is.

MA: From what I gather, you've got a lot of touring ahead of you. Are you feeling the strain?
AP: We’re hitting that wall of abnormality right now. For a while you can sort of laugh at it. But then the joke stops being funny. All of the wonderful things that are happening with the band on the outside, they’re all really hard to experience from the inside while you’re touring. I know bands go through this all the time. I talk with other artists and it’s the ultimate mystery: how do you balance the ability to enjoy yourself while all this crazy stuff is happening around you? The realities of touring life have been harder to deal with than I expected. It’s posed some interesting challenges. There’s a real blessing and a curse to it. You have to negotiate the process of being an artistic human being while living a life of total routine and lack of privacy. Everything that I’ve come to rely on to feel like a complete human being and an artist has just been stripped away.

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