As the cacophony of some 50 bands filled a massive rehearsal space in an Austin industrial park six miles away from the action at the South by Southwest conference last month, Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione of The Dresden Dolls pondered their food options.
Forget the barbecue, Palmer wearily told Pollstar. "This could by Anyplace, America. There's not a Denny's, or even a Jiffy Lube, around here."
The Dresden Dolls, at first glance, might seem out of place in Anyplace, America. But despite the duo's affinity for theatrical makeup and a sound they describe as "Brechtian Punk Cabaret" in a nod to German playwright Bertolt Brecht, they are drawing devoted fans from St. Louis to their hometown of Boston, and beyond.
"Yeah, well that's kind of a cheap trick," Palmer said of the "Brechtian Punk Cabaret" appellation. "I just wrote that on our first press release because I didn't want the press to have to come up with a name for us. I was terrified that it would involve the word "gothic."
While there are definitely some dark elements to the Dolls' music, it isn't easily pinned down.
The opening strains of "Sex Changes," the first track on their upcoming album Yes, Virginia ... , is a raucous mash-up of styles from punkabilly to polka to even klezmer. And the Dolls have a surprisingly fat sound for comprising Palmer on piano and Viglione on drums.
But it makes a sort of cosmic sense for this undefinable duo to record on an indie label known for its roster of hard rock and metal acts (Roadrunner), and yet be booked and managed by two companies usually identified with the jam band scene (High Road and Madison House, respectively).
"That's the thing we thought was totally hilarious!" Palmer said. "That's the kind of band we are. We're on a metal label with a jam band manager. It's about as schizophrenic as you could possibly get.
"But the interesting thing is the way Roadrunner markets their bands. They know they can't just attack the mainstream; it works from the bottom up. The way (manager) Mike Luba deals with String Cheese Incident which, once again, is not a mainstream band, they're working from the bottom up," Palmer explained.
"That they basically just deal directly with the fans makes a ton of sense for this band. Both of these things play to our strength. We came to Roadrunner, and to Luba, as a finished product with a really hardcore, devoted fan base."
If The Dresden Dolls have an unconventional professional team behind them, they also developed their early following in a very non-traditional way.
"One of the interesting things about the band is we didn't start playing in nightclubs, because I didn't come from the world of nightclubs," Palmer said. "I didn't hang out in nightclubs and I didn't go to see local Boston bands because I wasn't really interested. Boston's really a rock town, with lots of bar bands.
"Basically I booked the band where I had connections, which was in the art galleries and lofts, and parties, fund-raisers, stuff like that. That's where my networking skills were."
Her gift for the highly theatrical has rubbed off on the band's fans
who have an extensive Internet network and are invited to Dresden Dolls concerts to perform, literally, as part of the live show.
"A key part of our live show is 'The Brigade.' It's basically our name for the group of performance artists that come and do their stuff at every show. We have an open invitation to any local performance artists who want to come perform on stage, in the lobby, in the balcony, the bathrooms, out in the street.
"We usually get a lot of circus and burlesque people but we've also had other musicians and street performers, belly dancers and basically you name it. We've had some of the weirdest shit. And that's become a well-known element of our live shows.
"If you show up at the door, there's going to be something interesting between doors and the time the first band hits the stage," Palmer said.
But a Dresden Dolls show is about much more than human statues in the lobby, belly dancers on the bar, or the theatrical face paint, Roadrunner Records VP of touring / artist development Harlan Frey told Pollstar.
"They are pure entertainers and that is what drew us to the band. The beautiful music that they make, plus the fact that they know how to impact live," Frey said. "It's a great combination and one you rarely get so early on. We knew we could put them out there and they would win."
When Frey and Roadrunner took on the band in 2004, however, they were acutely aware that the Dolls' image could be unintentionally shaped in the public's mind by the fact they were on a "metal" label.
"We signed the band as we would any band but, when we put the record out, we created an imprint called Eight Foot Records, which is actually the Dolls' imprint. We put it out under that name, and took the Roadrunner logo off so there wouldn't be any preconceived notion about the band based on our name, and our association with hard rock and heavy metal as well as with radio bands," Frey explained of the unusual arrangement.
"It's an indie project and it should be judged on the merit of the band and the vibe and the music."
The Dresden Dolls are spending most of the spring on an extensive European tour, hitting theatres and festivals including Rock am Ring and Rock im Park, before returning Stateside for the jammish Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee - and Anyplace, America. -