Kristin Kontrol Talks ‘X-Communicate,’ Which Might Just Be 2016’s Best Pop Album: Interview

Robbie Daw | June 1, 2016 11:55 am

I didn’t want to go out on the limb and call X-Communicate one of the top pop album’s of the year so far, but you know what? Fuck it — it is one of the best pop albums of 2016.

What you need to know about this record: It’s by Kristin Kontrol, aka Dee Dee from Dum Dum Girls. (Real name: Kristin Welchez.) And it sounds nothing like Dum Dum Girls.

“I was like, ‘I’m just gonna make the record that I wanna make’, which, if anything, it validated my understanding of [Dum Dum Girls],” Kristin says while visiting the Idolator office one afternoon. “I couldn’t move really where I wanted to go, so instead of tempering where I want to go, I did the opposite — I went where I wanted to go and beyond, and worried about how it was going to play out much later.”

That place she wanted to get to was the area where her affection for ’80s and ’90s beats and synths and melodies reside. And, trust, we’re all the better for her making the leap. Because, again, X-Communicate (out now via Sub Pop; grab it off iTunes) truly is a superb pop record.

Below, Kristin gives us the lowdown on all the drama that went into whipping together her solo project with producers Kurt Feldman and Andrew Miller.

First off, X-Communicate sounds like everything from Debbie Gibson to Siouxie to Ace Of Base, while still coming off as totally original. In fact, “Going Thru The Motions,” my favorite track, is the most Ace Of Base of them all. KRISTIN: You got it! That was the first song that I wrote out of this huge string of reject songs. I finally was like, okay, this is a pop song. Prior to that I’d written maybe 40 songs, and I was trying to write on a piano. The results were interesting and there were nuggets of things that were good, but overwhelmingly I’m not as natural in terms of where the songs go, progression-wise. I have a pretty decent pop sensibility that happens quite easily on the guitar. That really wasn’t happening on the piano. So I finally brought the guitar back in, wrote it on the guitar and then pulled the guitar out of it. The song didn’t have the upbeat reggae thing at all [at first]. We were really unsure of what way it would go, and I was like, “Well, we haven’t done anything like this yet. It was a funny thing for [producer] Kurt [Feldman] to wrap his head around, because that’s not his vibe at all. The other producer is like a huge reggae dub head, so he and I are down with the groove in that way. With Kurt, it was like we filtered it through a pop thing — the Madness thing; the UB40 thing; but then, really, let’s keep it in synth land and do the Ace Of Base thing.

Was Sub Pop initially open to you doing a solo project after all the Dum Dum Girls outpout? KRISTIN: This was really, really last minute. I had signed a three-record deal and then I had done the He Gets Me High EP and the End Of Daze EP just out of wanting to put out more music. On top of that I was started to feel growing pains in terms of moving forward. Too True had been delayed quite a bit because I had vocal problems, and so when we finally did our first tour of it, it was a really successful tour because we had been gone for quite awhile and that really played in our favor. Then we did kind of an ill-timed European tour and then we did an ill-timed repeat of the States tour. And that one did not really have the impact. It was one of those things where there were many factors at work.

So how exactly did this album come to be a non-Dum Dum Girls project? KRISTIN: Finally [the label and I] arrived at a general understanding that, yes, I would put out another Dum Dum Girls record, and we would deal with all of these concerns. But I didn’t really get into that, so I just ignored it. I was like, “I’m just gonna make the record that I wanna make” —  which, if anything, it validated my understanding of the band. So I went into writing and recording under the impression that it was a Dum Dum Girls record. But in the back of my mind I felt like it was going to be so different that it wasn’t going to make sense. I felt like when it was done, we would be able to figure out what to do with it, that it would so obvious what to do with it. When I did finally finish the record and turned it in, I was like, okay, maybe I have the leverage I need now to be like, “You guys have all these concerns about how we’re going to move forward on the live side. I don’t think it’s going to do Dum Dum Girls a service to change the whole thing and present this very different record. I feel like it’s going to almost be offensive to fans.

On the press cycle for Too True I tried to establish that, yes, it’s a band, but really it’s always been me. If you’re slightly more than a casual fan, you know that. But a lot of people don’t know that. There’s something super cool about an all-female band. That’s why I laid it out the way I laid it out. But at a certain point I outgrew needing that scenario; it was more about the songs.

Why didn’t you put out X-Communicate as Dee Dee, your Dum Dum Girls nom de plume? KRISTIN: While that seems like a good solution, [Sub Pop was] really concerned on the legal side because there have been a number of — not Dee Dees, but Dee Dee-something. They were like, “It’s a two-prong issue, also in terms of searching for you on iTunes and streaming services.” On top of that, there’s a Belgian dance group called Dee Dee. It’s not even a person, but they put out a remix in 2002 or something. The label was like, “If you want to go through with this, we’re going to have to do some pre-emptive legal work and make sure we get clearance, and make sure we don’t get cease and desists.” I was like, “Fuck that,” because there’s already so much time built in to the record cycles. I happened to take the longest time I’ve ever taken to write and record, but even if I had written the whole record in a month [and] recorded in a three months, it still would have been a year before things really happened.

Let’s clear up the misconception that your last name is actually “Penny.” KRISTIN: There was this whole ridiculous issue where I have never had a last name. I was very Madonna about it. But in the first press we ever got, which was NME covering CMJ, they just made it up. They fact-checked — I got an email that was like, “Hey, what do we refer to you as? Do you have a last name?” I was like, “No, it’s just Dee Dee, like Cher.” I think maybe they put Penny as a place holder or a joke or something didn’t get pulled out. And so that stuck, and then it was a funny thing where my management would delete it off the Wiki monthly.

So Kristin is obviously your legit first name. Why “Kontrol”? KONTROL: I was drinking beers at a bar and reminiscing with my friend Mario and my husband Brandon. When I first met them they had a really sweet DJ night called Skull Kontrol, with a K. I started seeing Brandon and someone had called bullshit on me, like, “Oh, now you’re part of this cool scene, like Kristin Kontrol.” I was like, that’s so stupid…and that’s such a good name. So I made it my email address. I’m reminiscing about this name while emailing with Jonathan [Poneman] at Sub Pop, and he had just written me like, “I’m starting to get cold feet, as well. I’m worried. I think maybe you should just do [the album] as Dum Dum Girls.” So this was me coming to the conclusion of, “I guess I’ll do the Penny thing.” But then as I’m talking to my friend Mario, I’m like, “Is Kristin Kontrol the solution?” I’d been sitting on the perfect project name. I had a running text poll with like Mike Sniper, who put out my first record as Dum Dum Girls, Alex from Dirty Beaches, Brandon and Chuck from Crocodiles and a few other musicians who know me well. Kind of overwhelmingly, they were like, “I think you should just put it out as yourself. It’s time. Do your name.”

Congratulations on finding that freedom. It doesn’t sound like it came easily. KRISTIN: It was one of those things where it was a really frustrating five or six months writing for the album because I knew I wanted to do something drastic. Not drastic like crazy-different, but I wanted to just open everything because it was becoming increasingly more obvious to me that I had painted myself into a corner, both in terms of how I performed as Dee Dee and the kind of influences that were allowed to be explored. Just like I’m fairly convinced that if I had put this album out as Dum Dum Girls, the way it would have been received and critiqued would have been in relation to what Dum Dum Girls should or has sounded like. It might have been negatively received. Which is obnoxious, that you can be made to feel like you’ve lost the authority of your own art.

Now X-Communicate is finally out there. How does it feel to be “out on your own,” so to speak? KRISTIN: It’s not like I’ve created a second persona, which is a question I keep getting that I have to keep clarifying. It’s like, no, I’ve removed it; I’ve un-become the thing that I was so desperately trying to establish. It all clicked one day, where I was like, “God, it’s really been difficult to make this stick. I don’t think I can go anywhere.” [Dum Dum Girls] became too one-dimensional in terms of what I want to do for the next 15 years. I need something that doesn’t have a template — that’s very obviously just me, that’s not gonna rely on other components as to whether it’s authentic to what it is or not — and something that, you know, maybe I put out this record and maybe I do the next record as something else. That’s the appeal of the classic solo artist: The heart of it is their songwriting and their performance. They have the freedom to do the acoustic and do the reggae album or whatever.

X-Communicate is out now. Grab it on iTunes or stream the album on Spotify.