You've probably heard very little that could compare with The Dresden Dolls. This mesmerizing duo have caught many listeners off guard with their colorful stage presence (goth meets burlesque), manic musical aesthetic (punk meets cabaret) and edgy songwriting (romantic sentiments and deep thoughts doused with biting sarcasm and extremely frank observations). The group's latest album, Yes, Virginia…, features performances that are fiery, furious and spontaneous — indeed, the twosome's raw energy proved an asset when they were touring last year with Nine Inch Nails, of all bands.
On hearing Yes, Virginia…, the listener is immediately struck by how powerful the sound of just two musicians can be. It may just be piano and vocals (Amanda Palmer) and drums (Brian Viglione) — okay, there's a little more hiding in the background — but the Boston-based Dolls create a surprisingly full and gripping sound. The songs on the new album — which was co-produced and mixed by Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie — range from the thought-provoking ballad “Sing” to the thrash cabaret of “Modern Moonlight,” and lyricist Palmer tackles everything from relationship manipulation to transgender operations to abortion.
Slade discovered this most unusual duo two years ago when a mutual friend suggested he catch their live show at the Middle East club in Boston. “I went, and halfway through the first song, I said, ‘Oh my God, this is the next big thing,’” he recalls. “At the time that was not the conventional wisdom in Boston. They were considered way too weird — a woman playing piano and singing the songs with a drummer, and that's the whole band. And they sound like they're straight out of the Weimar Republic.”
After that show, Slade and Palmer chatted and hit it off, and he later cut a couple of demos with them as an experiment at Camp Street Studio. After the Dolls signed with Roadrunner for their sophomore album, they asked to work with Slade and Kolderie, who had championed them when others had not.
Initially Palmer wanted to go to a studio in Ireland, but Slade had read about Allaire Studios in Mix and convinced the Dolls to work there. The location in the Catskill Mountains of New York was intriguing, and he knew and respected studio manager Mark McKenna, who used to manage Bearsville Studios, where Slade and Kolderie had cut several albums and even lived for one year.
“[Allaire's] in this huge old house that's been completely refurbished,” Slade says. “The playing room is the old ballroom of the house. It's all wood, with two huge fireplaces, 40-foot ceilings and just amazing ambience. They had two iso booths. They had a side room where we could set up the 1893 Steinway grand for Amanda to play on solo stuff, and then they had an iso booth between the [large] playing room and the control room, which is where we cut the live tracks. That worked out perfectly because she could sit there [in the smaller booth] and play her Yamaha grand, and then we set up Brian so that they were facing each other. Their interaction is so much a part of the music, and for them to have sightlines like that was just ideal. We actually got basics very quickly. We were there for nine or ten days to get as much as we possibly could, and then we retired to Camp Street to do further overdubs and mix on the Neve board.”
Palmer admits that she felt a little claustrophobic in the small iso booth between the control and playing room, viewing it more as a hallway. She only recorded a couple of songs (“First Orgasm” and “Me & the Minibar”) in the larger side room, while Viglione recorded all his drum parts in the large main room. Palmer was set up mainly in the smaller room because of its visual connection to Viglione.
“I realized at one point, too, that because she's so particular about the piano she plays, which I really admire, it would be cheaper just to ship her piano to the studio,” explains Slade. “She has a Yamaha grand, and piano movers can work miracles. They shipped it out of her window of her apartment on a crane, drove it down to upstate New York and had it set up. Allaire was really, really good about keeping the piano tuner schedule happening. I can't say enough good things about Allaire. It's one of the finest recording facilities I've ever set foot in.”
Slade and Kolderie have worked together on numerous albums. Twenty years ago they opened up the now legendary Fort Apache Studios in the Roxbury section of Boston. The duo worked on Radiohead's first two albums, the first two Uncle Tupelo albums, Live Through This by Hole, The Burdens of Being Upright by Tracy Bonham and several albums by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, starting with 1997's Let's Face It. Even with that extensive resume, the pair found something new with the Dresden Dolls.
“Most of the bands we've worked with have been guitar bands,” says Kolderie, “so the biggest challenge was trying to turn the piano into a whole band basically, so you could cover all the jobs that drums, bass and guitar normally do.” Yes, Virginia… took 14 days to record, with overdubs requiring an additional 21 days. The whole creation process, from recording to mixing, took two months. Most of the album was recorded using Neve and API mic preamps to a Studer 827 analog 2-inch through an SSL board. Later the tracks were dumped into Pro Tools HD for editing and fixes.
For recording the pianos, the producers generally used a Telefunken 251 on the bridge end of the strings and an AKG C 24 stereo mic over the hammers. “You have to be careful of phasing when you're overdubbing piano, but some of the songs have three or even four passes,” says Kolderie. “They're not all doing the same thing all the time.” Vocals were recorded with Slade's personal Klaus Heyne-modified Telefunken U47, including the yodeling of singers Whitney Moses, Mali Sastri and Holly Brewer on “Delilah” (all recorded separately), and the background vocals by Brewer and Mat McNiss on “Sing.”
Drumwise, Kolderie experimented with a pair of Schoeps C-5 overhead mics to get the right cymbal sound. He used Neumann U87s on the toms. “For the snare, we taped a Shure 57 and an AKG 451 with a 20dB pad together on the top, and then we used a Sennheiser 441 underneath,” he reports. “We had probably 10 or 12 channels [for the drums]. It was such a big, crazy room, we put a lot of room mics up. It might have been five or six.”
The main room had such a booming sound that Slade and Kolderie did not need to use processing. “The sound of the drums is very much the sound of that giant room that we were in,” notes Kolderie. “Cutting it to tape gave us that big bottom end.” The album was mixed at Kolderie and Slade's Camp Street Studio in Cambridge, Mass., through a unique Neve Tweed console. “It was the last board on the Neve assembly line when they went bankrupt in the late '70s,” Kolderie says. “The employees formed a company called Tweed to finish it. Also, we're big fans of the Alan Smart C2 mix compressor, which we use religiously.”
Viglione reports that all of the drum takes were full takes and that he strove to maintain the integrity of each song with one continuous performance. The vocals, on the other hand, were almost all overdubs. “There is one song that is a completely unadulterated live take, and that's ‘Me & the Minibar,’” says Palmer. “The vocal and piano were done straight onto tape and mixed straight down. I didn't do any of the other vocals live. I did scratch vocals for most of them, and I don't think there's a single take on there where I did the vocal in one take. It took two or three takes. I could have done the vocals live, but it was a mix issue because we recorded on an acoustic piano.” Beyond drumming, Viglione also plays guitar and bass. His acoustic guitar playing opens up the single “Sing” before the piano comes in.
Palmer says that the Dolls tried to do a minimal amount of extra overdubs on Yes, Virginia…, preferring to keep the sound design simple. While there are plenty of vocal harmonies, and some bass and guitar in spots, most of the added extra ingredients are subliminal in their integration. “One of the things that was the strong point of Sean Slade is that he was a master of sneaking in these hidden textures that you really don't notice,” observes Palmer. “For instance, on ‘Sing’ there is a Mellotron, and you can just barely hear it, even if you're listening for it. It's just this little, warbly texture that opens everything up just a little bit. On a few other songs, we added one of those old-school church organs and [used] bass pedal here and there just to flesh it out a little bit. I was really skeptical of all that stuff at first, but almost everything we tried we kept.”
“We wanted you to get the impression that you were listening to just two people playing,” adds Kolderie, “and then if you listen closely, you'll realize that there's more there.”