New York Dolls Interview

New York Dolls Interview

New York Dolls Interview

Punk rock pioneers the New York Dolls, have released their fifth full-length album, Dancing Backward in High Heels!

Featuring original members, David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain, and with new guitarist Frank Infante (formerly of Blondie) on board, the album was recorded in England over a three-week period in September 2010 with producer Jason Hill, best known for his work with The Killers, and his own band Louis XIV. Says Johansen "We were working long hours, but it was a very intensive, creative time. We had a lot of laughs and nothing but fun with it."

The New York Times have said that the New York Dolls are "credited with inspiring if not inventing punk rock" and USA Today says they produce "passionate, power-chord driven music". Originally formed in 1971, the New York Dolls are best known for influencing a generation of artists in New York and London who went on to form the first punk rock and heavy metal bands. Largely influenced themselves by the rock & roll of the Rolling Stones and the Stooges as well as the glam rock made by David Bowie and T. Rex, the legendary original Dolls lineup only recorded two albums, New York Dolls and Too Much Too Soon, before breaking up in 1976. After reuniting in 2004 (at the behest of Morrissey, the head of the band's U.K. fan club in the `70s), the band went on to record a pair of records-2006's One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This and 2009's 'Cause I Sez So.

Dancing Backward in High Heels is packed full of memorable tunes including the album's one cover, Patti LaBelle & the Blue Bells' 1962 hit, I Sold My Heart to the Junkman; the pure territorial orneriness of I'm So Fabulous which has Johansen defending his native city against the homogenous number crunchers who infiltrate and bivouac in New York; riotous come-ons in the bakery-and-sex-themed Streetcake; the swinging, T. Rex-esque Talk to Me Baby; Johansen's advice-for-the-young-'uns ballad, Kids Like You. Things get heavier in the late-night, reggae-like Baby Tell Me What I'm On and moods range from the Gene Krupa-meets-Bo Diddley percussive ecstasy of Round and Round She Goes to the closing ruefulness of End of the Summer which, true to its title, belies a hint of Brian Wilson's bittersweet side. A cycle comes complete with the inclusion of the first official band recording of Funky But Chic. The song became an FM radio hit in 1978 upon its inclusion on Johansen's first solo album, but it was hard to escape the feeling that it was the Dolls anthem that got away.

Sylvain's familiar electric guitar riffing is sporadic instead of omnipresent, with more emphasis on sax and harmonica as rhythm instruments, keyboards in heightened roles, and even strings on a couple of tracks. Brian Delaney's drums also play an even more prominent part in the Dolls' new wall of sound.

Dancing Backward in High Heels is nothing if not shifty-as rocking and earthy as the blues it occasionally references, as otherworldly as the spooky sounds you'd hear coming out of an old AM radio, and as forward-looking as you'd expect from a summit meeting between a visionary band and thoroughly zeitgeisty producer.

Interview with New York Dolls

Question: How did "Dancing Backward in High Heels" come about? What was the inspiration?

David Johansen: Well, first can I say this is positively 'Orwellian'. And second of all, the inspiration behind this was… ohh! I know what the inspiration was, we got a phone call from our management, and they said, you guys have to make a record now. Then we thought ooh-, so then we busily got to work, at least Syl did, and then came up with some really beautiful melodies and arrangements. Then we went into the studio in Newcastle England and started recording them. After three weeks of intensive, creative working, we came out with the masterpiece.

Question: Has the songwriting process remained the same throughout your career? Or did it change at all for the new record?

David Johansen: It's similar the way it always was with me and Syl.

Sylvain Sylvain: Yes, but it's also different too, we don't hold ourselves into any particular way to do it. It's always open and creativeness is just a flowing thing, we're not trying to put borders on ourselves. It's a pretty organic process going about things, what gives us a headache we kind of put aside, we like easy, when it's easy man it's fun… not premeditated.

Question: Are there any moments from this past album that stood out? Like one of those nights where you wake up and an idea is in your head, and you just write the song.

Sylvain Sylvain: You know what, my first song that I came up with was 'The End of the Summer', and I think that kind of kicked it all off… not a theme but at least a subject to stick by. And it sort of went like that.

David Johansen: Which I took to mean the end of the world, when I was writing the lyrics. (Syl laughs) I found out now that it's not the end of the world but it could be…

Sylvain Sylvain: Here it's murder but everywhere else it's suicide.

Question: Obviously you guys write songs together, what's that process like? Do throw ideas back and forth?

Sylvain Sylvain: Yeah, you know we really don't have a set pattern, we do the creative thing, we try to you know. We try to stay clean to any sort of premeditated thing, set by the audience or ourselves. We just kind of keep the creative process open and we usually don't have anything ready 'til we go to the studio, we procrastinate up to the last minute and tell our managers and record companies "oh man we were so ready" but we're usually not. It's so much better, this way you just create and it's not like "ok man, show me the demos", you know.

David Johansen: Well 'USA Today' reported today that your album is a masterpiece.

Sylvain Sylvain: (slightly grinning) Oh…

Question: So sometimes it pays off not to be ready right…

Sylvain Sylvain: It always pays off not to be ready.

David Johansen: And if you're ready, you're not going to do what you were ready to do anyways. The studio is like another element that takes you with it, so whatever's happening you start following that, and if you don't follow that and you stick to what you planned out you're never going to find magic that way. You're just going to like re-create your demo.

Question: So it sounds like it's more in the moment for you guys.

Sylvain Sylvain: Oh definitely, it's spontaneous, to say the least.

Question: Some groups enjoy recording in a studio, other groups enjoy touring, what do you guys prefer?

David Johansen: Well, if you're in the studio and you're not at home it's kind of like touring… and being in the studio. So I don't know as long as you're some place that's fun.

Sylvain Sylvain: Both very different, but we put both together. On our past record we did it kind of live, this particular record started off from the demos, and that was like our track #1 , and everything else was sort of layered on top of it. We really made magic that way, we had an incredible producer (Jason Hill) who really understood what was to be. He could sort of hear the tracks finished in his head. And our drummer Ryan was just perfect, they both sat there for days trying to get a certain sound on the snare and kick drum.

David Johansen: We made them sound like cardboard boxes, which is the sound I like. (Syl starts cracking up)

Sylvain Sylvain: We tweak the piano 'til it starts sounding like a guitar then we know we're ready.

David Johansen: Get the saxophone sounding like an automobile.

Sylvain Sylvain: Exactly. Like David said cardboard boxes was the inspiration for this album.

Question: Do you prefer the smaller venues, or the larger festivals?

Sylvain Sylvain: We just like to work.

David Johansen: It doesn't matter if it's a big place or a little place we just like playing, although the big places are good because you make more money.

Question: You guys have two nights coming up at the Bowery Ballroom, are you excited about that?

David Johansen: (lightly sarcastic) We are thrilled!

Sylvain Sylvain: David actually went shopping for this whole thing, so he's very excited. He hasn't been shopping since 1978 so..

David Johansen: Yeah, I think I bought a pack of cigarettes, and a large coffee.

Question: So you're not revealing anything you're wearing for those two nights …

David Johansen: Oh, what I'm going to wear, I'm going to wear a pair of pants and a shirt and some shoes.

Sylvain Sylvain: Also a boa, that cost $18,ooo dollars.

David Johansen: Yes, it was a $700 boa.

Question: So the Dolls are this legendary, iconic band, and you've been credited with inspiring so many artists, what does that mean to you guys? Is it something you embrace and are proud or? Do you not like to be labeled?

David Johansen: I think you know, for us because we're artists, if we inspire people that's really gratifying.

Sylvain Sylvain: That's the job of an artist, to inspire and turn on, it's subconscious but something we hold deep inside

David Johansen: Especially the people we appeal to, they have mega-existential angst. Any little thing that will help them, aid them get up in the morning or the afternoon is a good thing.

Question: What are some of the artists that inspired you when you first started?

David Johansen: You know we were inspired by anything we ever dug, so it would be really hard to mention it all. But when we were kids we liked soul music like Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding, and we liked girl group music and doo-wop music, and we liked British invasion music…

Sylvain Sylvain: (interjects) rockabilly

David Johansen: Put all that together… a lot of stuff

Sylvain Sylvain: We threw it all together, and that was when It was all about stadium rock, and rock song what twenty minutes long, and we had a 'little rascals' approach to show business. We thought the industry was really mundane at that time, and said hey! Let's put on a show (pause) But where are we going to get a curtain? Well, I think my mom has one…

David Johansen: But where are we going to get a dress? Wait… I think you're mom has that too.

Question: A fan submitted question, one of my favorite songs on the new album is 'Funky But Chic', do you go into the studio with the lyrics set, or do you improvise some of them while recording off the groove, this song alone feels like you're in the moment.

David Johansen: I think I'm qualified to answer that. That particular song 'Funky But Chic' we had completely written before we went into the studio, like professionals. But that's the only one that was completely written. The other songs we pretty much created in the studio. Mostly they'd be recording and I'd be sitting there scribbling out lyrics and by the end of the day we'd have a song.

Question: Our last question, what was your favorite song off the new album?

David Johansen: (long pause) 'End of the Summer' (starts laughing)

Sylvain Sylvain: I say 'Funky but Chic'

Question: Why those?

David Johansen: Oh now another question! See how he did that, because Sylvain and I belong to the mutual admiration society.

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