ANTONIA MARSH: This issue feels like the girl power issue with Debbie on the cover and speaking with two all-female bands. Was the choice to be in an all-girl band deliberate? How did you decide this and how do you think it affects the music you make, and the image you purvey?
DEE DEE PENNY: The first few Dum Dum Girls shows weren’t exclusively just “girls” but when I was finally able to assemble the lineup I desired, it was all female. This is partially due to the fact that the music I was writing and recording depended heavily on the female vocal harmonies, and partially due to the fact I’d never played with women before and was interested in participating in that tradition. At this point, I’m much less concerned with sticking to that uniform. I enjoy and respect the example we set, but I serve the songs.
KAY KASPARHAUSER: I’m obsessed and fascinated by pop music and everything it carries, including this aesthetic of three really cute, young, girls on stage that all have long hair and wear dresses. I just like that idea, and so many girl pop bands are iconic.
ANTONIA MARSH: Dee Dee, when I saw the Dum Dum Girls play in Brooklyn last week, the stage décor was particularly feminine, with a big neon heart shining behind all of you, an eye with a flick of eyeliner on the drum kit, and bunches of flowers on each of your microphones. How much does femininity figure in how you visualize yourselves as a band?
DEE DEE PENNY: The neon for me connotes a more general pop aesthetic but I am undoubtedly working the femme edge.
ANTONIA MARSH: The name of your band in itself also strongly conveys that you are all girls. Obviously the first part of “Dum Dum Girls” has certain connotations of its own. Where did this come from?
DEE DEE PENNY: I was staring at my records, saw the Vaselines album Dum-Dum, and thought that sounded and looked good. I was then reminded of the Iggy Pop song “Dum Dum Boys” and I thought the twist was cool.
ANTONIA MARSH: There’s a similar twist to the Prettiots’ name. It’s reflective of what might be understood as a clash of cuteness and toughness, which immediately recalls the feminist punk rock movement riot grrrl and the lyrics of one of its major figureheads, Kathleen Hanna’s band Bikini Kill.
KAY KASPARHAUSER: We’re all secretly punks. We make this very palatable, poppy, indie, quirky, girly, alt, indie, folk – whatever you wanna call it, but Lulu is straight up a punk.
RACHEL TRACHTENBURG: She’s like as punk as it GETS!
KAY KASPARHAUSER: She’s a punk bitch, and lives in a semi-squat in Philly, and when we get together we talk about bands like King Diamond, but then we come out on stage and play poppy songs. We’re like superheroes; the punk side to us is like our secret power.
RACHEL TRACHTENBURG: You can express yourself in so many different ways through music and that’s what’s cool about it.
ANTONIA MARSH: Do you feel that being in a girl band affects your public perception?
DEE DEE PENNY: I don’t identify as such, I’m a singer and songwriter, but I recognize the schtick – it has always worked for and against us. It can be obnoxious how much of a “thing” it is, but it’s also really fulfilling to be doing what we do and trying to perhaps lead by example.
ANTONIA MARSH: Female empowerment and the feminist conversation more generally seems to be very much at the forefront of public discourse at the moment.
KAY KASPARHAUSER: It’s definitely a big part of the artistic creative conversation that’s going on in New York at the moment, in a way that it hasn’t been in a long time. The last time I remember this much active, controversial dialogue about young girls and what they’re doing and what that means, was in the era of Britney Spears.
ANTONIA MARSH: Playing devil’s advocate, it’s important not to make feminism into a trend because it can fall out of fashion just as fast, which could be dangerous for the cause. I say this with difficulty though, because how can more common conversations surrounding these issues be detrimental?
RACHEL TRACHTENBURG: The conversations have to be historical, but not fashionable.
ANTONIA MARSH: In my own work, and I wonder if it’s the same for a girl band, I sometimes worry that excluding men from the conversation, could be potentially problematic and simply serve to reinforce the binary.
KAY KASPARHAUSER: It’s an identity thing. Our identity as a band is female. If we were a country group we wouldn’t have rappers on stage. My songs are about kissing boys, and having crushes on boys. That’s not a binary sexual identification, I’m very aware that people who are not girls like boys. But that’s not what I’m running with. That’s not the aesthetic, or not the image of the band.
ANTONIA MARSH: It’s important to maintain confidence in one’s own identity and think, “well I identify as a girl and that’s that…” it’s a move towards reclaiming girlhood or girly-ness for oneself.
RACHEL TRACHTENBURG: There’s not a thing wrong with being girly or cutesy. People are so concerned with this idea of needing to grow up, or turn into a woman, whatever that even means. But then the image of a female body, or at least what is considered sexy is a hairless, young girl’s body. It’s such a weird double standard that makes me feel as if I shouldn’t wear little buns in my hair.
KAY KASPARHAUSER: You need to be grown up but you need to be my version of grown up – but also don’t have any hair on your body. We play our shows with schoolgirl skirts and dog collars on and we’re thinking “fuck you” if you’re turned on by this and it weirds you out, that’s your own issues!
ANTONIA MARSH: Dee Dee, to what extent do you think your self-image or self-identification as a woman plays into your role as lead singer of a girl band?
DEE DEE PENNY: I think I finally feel comfortable in my own skin; this past year brought on a level of self-awareness and acceptance that evaded me in my 20s.
ANTONIA MARSH: Have there been any women in music that you look up to in particular?
DEE DEE PENNY: So many. Debbie Harry for one! Madonna, Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux, Ronnie Spector, Tina Turner, Grace Slick, Trish Keenan, Nico…
ANTONIA MARSH: A lot of those singers came from the punk era. This reminds me again of the riot grrrl mentality I mentioned. You can wear what you want, but also be tough and not take any shit.
KAY KASPARHAUSER: I’m gonna do exactly what I want to do and if it makes you uncomfortable, guess what?
RACHEL TRACHTENBURG: That’s your problem!
ANTONIA MARSH: There’s no doubt that this defiance screams of rebellious youth, which is mirrored in your age as a band you’re all in your early twenties or late teens. How would you compare this attitude to the Dum Dum Girls and your mission as a band, Dee Dee?
DEE DEE PENNY: A slightly more mature version of that!
ANTONIA MARSH: Kay, I’ve been thinking about one lyric in Dreamboy that spoke to me in particular, and I think it relates to this conversation. You sing, “I want you to make it easy and be my dreamboy so I don’t have to learn to be subtle and coy.” From where did this lyric originate?
KAY KASPARHAUSER: I’m always trip-ping, talking too loud, laughing too loud, my shirt is falling off or my shoes are too big. I have never been that girl who laughs quietly, or giggles, or bats her eyelids. I don’t look good in “boyfriend” jeans, and I don’t ride a bike with a basket attached to the front.
RACHEL TRACHTENBURG: And there’s nothing wrong with that either!
KAY KASPARHAUSER: So I wrote Dreamboy so that I don’t have to pretend to be this cute thing that I’m not, but I can still be me and have food on my face. It doesn’t matter if I wanna wear a vest with no bra and watch Goodfellas nine times in one day because he’s my dreamboy and he loves me regardless.
ANTONIA MARSH: How did you all meet and come together as bands?
DEE DEE PENNY: Essentially everyone was a friend of a friend who I auditioned over the years. We’ve been blessed to fit so well together.
ANTONIA MARSH: How did the Prettiots come together?
KAY KASPARHAUSER: Before I was in the Prettiots, I was performing a lot of the same songs, but with a loop pedal, and I would play my ukulele with a violin bow, it sounded very weird and experimental. I opened for Supercute! for a couple of shows. I needed a drummer and was introduced to Rachel, and we started playing together and then Rachel recommended Lulu who was in her old band for a little while. It’s been amazing being with Rachel and Lulu. I’m the oldest, but they both have much more experience than I do – this is my first band. Rachel has been in music since she was 6 years old and Lulu’s been writing and touring since she was 13. Touring is second nature to the other girls, but it’s another universe for me.
ANTONIA MARSH: I often feel that this kind of support regardless of age and experience is particular to a girl-only environment; power relations don’t seem to exist. You play the ukulele rather than the guitar. I played briefly when I was younger, when I was the only girl in a nine-piece country and western band. It might have been a result of that gender ratio but I always felt that the ukulele had strong feminine connotations as an instrument – its size, its shape, its sound.
KAY KASPARHAUSER: I also feel like it’s a feminine instrument. But it really gets a hard rap, maybe because its not the hardest instrument in the world to pick up. I bought my first ukulele (because I was drunk) on EBay. That’s how I started playing. I love it. I love the sound it has. I’ve only been able to write songs on the ukulele or the bass.
ANTONIA MARSH: The ukulele could act as a metaphor for what seems to be the Prettiots mission more generally: despite the pretty image and poppy sound, you have something much bigger to say. So much of what you’re doing seems to be about reclaiming girly-ness from its connotations, and then reclaiming that instrument as well, saying that the sound it makes can be important too.
KAY KASPARHAUSER: Yes, the ukulele doesn’t force you to take it seriously, but if you make that choice, you are rewarded. It’s the same with the band.