Peter Murphy of Bauhaus Meets Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls
Sep 30, 2006 Fall 2006 - The Decemberists Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern (Peter Murphy photo) & Crackerfarm (Amanda Palmer photo)
Gothic rock, death rock, darkwave...there are countless labels that attempt to pin down a phenomenon in rock music that leans toward the darker side of human nature-thematically, stylistically, lyrically, and melodically. It peeked out at the world at certain moments in music throughout the '60s and '70s with songs like The Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs," David Bowie's "The Bewlay Brothers," and Brian Eno's "Driving Me Backwards." But it didn't really break through the surface in a big way until shortly after the punk movement, and Bauhaus were one of-if not the first-acts to introduce it to a wide audience.
The granddaddies of the goth rock movement, Bauhaus formed in 1979 and lasted for only four short years. But in that time, group members Peter Murphy, Daniel Ash, David J, and Kevin Haskins brought a simple but earnest theatricality to their dark melodies after audiences had been bombarded with soulless, over-the-top stage presentations by '70s arena rock bands. Their return to straightforward stage presentations without props or gimmicks went one step further than the spartan punk ethos of the time. Bauhaus, especially frontman Peter Murphy, believed very much in the mystery and excitement of how music can be presented, not just played. And that presentation drew heavily from bygone times of cabaret, theatre, and even a bit of vaudeville. In the process, Bauhaus were able to cement their legacy as one of the most important bands of the post-punk era; a legacy that propels their work today as a reunified band in the process of touring and recording a new album.
Goths went the way of self-parody after an initial run of vibrant bands in the early-'80s. By the '90s, the sad display of third-rate goth bands was made worse by the inevitable commodification of the genre itself with the rise of mall staple Hot Topic and the packaged presentation of acts like Marilyn Manson. Goths woke up one day to find their band-of-outsiders culture neatly folded into the safe parameters of the wider hipster movement. All of it seemed to be dead in a very un-gothic way until The Dresden Dolls came along in 2001.
Crafting cabaret-like songs and cathartic, melodic ballads, the Boston duo of Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione took their singular viewpoint on life and love and presented it to the world with class, genuineness, and a bit of dark flair. Although their music really sounds nothing like Bauhaus, The Dresden Dolls, whose second album, Yes, Virginia..., was released this past spring, are a return to the classic theatrics of bands like Bauhaus rather than relying on the cheap shock tactics utilized by so-called goth bands today.
"I think they're an indirect influence [on us] just like all of the bands I was inadvertently schooled by growing up as a teenager and finding my own musical and songwriting voice," says Palmer about Bauhaus. "And I think it was just that kind of fearlessness of not being afraid to explore the dark side without really being too pretentious. And I think I learned those things from Bauhaus."
While both bands are heavy on image and presentation, they share a common basis transcending the clichés that have developed around the genre. A casual glance may seem like it's all about doom and gloom, but the music of both bands touches on the genuine nature of humankind and our unquenchable fascination with the dark side of our psyche, an interest that stretches back to Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, and beyond.
Palmer and Murphy have been friends since they both performed at the 2005 Coachella festival, and the two were eager to chat together for Under the Radar. At the time of this conversation, Murphy was in Germany on tour with Bauhaus and Palmer was at her Boston home. The following is a peek into the lives of two artists of different generations who share the same hopes, and daresay, optimism on artistic expression.
Amanda Palmer: Are you headlining right now?
Peter Murphy: Yeah, we're headlining. We're doing just a spattering of festivals. But as we've got an album planned to come out early next year, we're not overdoing the festivals....So this is like the end of the so-called reintroduction to Bauhaus-since the Coachella show, really, that we appeared at in 2005. Yeah, it's the end of that, really, and we're shedding a lot of this skin already of just presenting work that is known. And we're starting to introduce two of the new songs. But we're ready to go with a whole new set of songs on our next round-if we make it that far. [Laughs]
Amanda: We haven't had to deal with this, 'cause we haven't been around for long enough, but do you find yourself banging your head against a wall when people just sort of fundamentally get more excited to hear the songs that they're so familiar with, versus the new songs?
Peter: I'm not too precious about that, 'cause you know what, I use songs as an excuse, as a backdrop to be marvelous on stage. I know that sounds funny, but honestly, I'm more of a theatrical sort I guess, in that sense. Essentially, anything to give me just the opportunity to use the open space for recreating it. I mean, think about an actor, think about having to do God knows how many shows a week for months on end....And it's not just about singing songs and being in a band. Being in a fucking band is so old now, it's so tired and always was when I ever walked on the stage. I didn't want to be in a rock and roll band. I never had those aspirations. I wanted to be a very beautiful sort of a thing. And that was the edict....Neither you or I have been to an academic formal school in that sense. I would say we're much more raw, natural actors.
Amanda: I think it has to do with being driven to perform. That's the thing that I find myself trying to explain to people, is that certain songwriters or musicians say they just feel the need to play music and performing is kind of a hassle. And I look at it the other way around. Music was this thing that I did in order to perform....Did you ever go to a point in your life where...how do I put this? There's a part of me that actually found it sort of hard to accept, because I think I felt sort of ashamed or guilty about it.
Peter: I'm so happy you talked about that. Because there's not many out there who really can understand what it is to be-and I dread the word-the frontman, or the main man. And that's another dreaded word that I can never say around the band. And it's sort of blatantly obvious and it's not like I want the power, but there's a natural hierarchy and a necessary hierarchy. And it's not about better worth, pecking order, la-la-la. And that's why in Bauhaus, from the word go, there's an equal split all the way down the line. Even though we're not all the same, actually. And there isn't that equality. But there is an egalitarian thing. So it cuts out all that pecking order and the problems of the 'I' all the time. But, within that, and actually in this band, it has actually spilt over. They've been spoiled really, because I have to deal with a lot of shit that is so like, an affront to me, it's so disrespectful. But I can take it, it's okay. But it links with what you're talking about. You feel ashamed. You're made to feel ashamed. When you do stand out. And it's not that you're better, but it's like there's on one hand the sort of, "He's solid gold, let's use him." Subconsciously. And then on the other hand, "He's an arsehole 'cause he's the arrogant egocentric singer." And that's such a slight.
Amanda: No, people love to hate it.
Peter: It's such a slight that drives me crazy, honestly.
Amanda: I was talking about something even a little deeper than that, which is not even ashamed of being up there in the front or wanting to, but the idea that most musicians or performers who are musicians give all this lip service to music being the highest truth. Like that's the top of the pyramid and everything else sort of backs up underneath it. Where I looked at music as kind of a necessary side effect for wanting to get up there and perform...if that makes sense. I looked at all the possibilities of my life and I was like, "That's it, that's the easiest way to do it."
Peter: It's like the tea is the excuse for the conversation.
Peter: It's not the aim.
Amanda: Right, but it doesn't mean that the tea isn't fucking fantastic, and you can make a higher art form out of it.
Peter: It's important. No, the formal welcoming, you know, the ceremony, it's all about the welcoming and the preparation. And the form. But then the conversation starts.
Amanda: Oh, that's a perfect fucking metaphor. Absolutely.
Peter: And it is like that, though. It's kind of like the other one, there's another one I like. You know, the master's pointing to the moon. And he'd say, "Look at the moon," the moon being whatever it is he's teaching. Okay? And the students are just looking at the finger that's [pointing], saying, "Yes, what a beautiful finger." [Laughs] "Fuck off, look it's not my finger. The moon, look, the moon, look at what I'm pointing at!" But most people fall in love with the finger and they don't even know what the moon is.
Amanda: Maybe there's something to be learned from this, because maybe there is a freedom in not necessarily making the music the highest truth. And then because of that freedom it becomes whatever it needs to be, whatever it wants to be. Which, as you know, that's the sort of mysterious quality that makes it good.
Peter: Of course. Art has its own life, if you allow it to have it. And you just have to step out of the way. It's like, "Oh I can't bear another concert. Oh, I'm exhausted and all that." Well, I use that. I walk on and let that sort of character come out of it. But that's another thing, actually. But yeah, it's gotta be alive and vital and every ounce of life has its own potential. Every moment is incredibly filled with possibilities. What's appalling to bands that I work with...they sort of become aware that I don't need them. [Laughs] Not in the sense I don't want them. But in that space that you're talking about, it's sort of like they're extras in my film. And it's not like that, but that's their reaction. And I get shit thrown at me for it. And I have to deal with that, too. It's so appalling to me that it drives me insane sometimes. But that's what I've got to control-that disrespect to that and if somebody doesn't understand it, they don't. So you have to accommodate that, and that's fine. I'm talking a little bit on a much less marvelous level this time [than the last time we spoke], because I'm in the thick of it. But I'm still marvelous on stage.
Amanda: So I have one other thing that I remember from our last conversation that I think was fascinating enough to bring up again, which is, you have to get your fangs out. I don't know if you brought them with you on tour. I don't know if you'd leave them at home in your dresser. [Laughs]
Peter: What was that Amanda? Sorry.
Amanda: [Laughs] I said you have to get the fangs out.
Amanda: I had to ask about that G word ['goth'] again. There are very few bands that I think have this curse. And you've got it on the front end, and we've got it on the back end, but it's the curse of the gothic label. And then, like any other genre, it's like this sound that's been bandied about that most everyone says they can agree on but then I remember hearing stories about Bauhaus years ago where it's like "Bauhaus is destroying their gothic status."
Peter: I think I mentioned this to Twiggy who was in Marilyn Manson, and who was on the Nine Inch Nails tour [in the band]. What's his [real] name? Jeordie White. We talked a little bit about this. I said, "Whenever your name in Marilyn Manson came up, amongst all the others, it was never on a personal front that I was criticizing you as artists. It was more from the aggravation that we were being identified under the same parameters as maybe those we've influenced." And there's been a lot. And we can sit here and list all those that we've influenced. And that's from Radiohead to Nirvana to Björk to whomever. To any typical goth band. And that's natural and that's what happens. But I'd rather not-I always find that very distasteful if somebody in a band goes, "Oh we've influenced this and we've influenced that." It's so awful....But you know what, on the other hand, I could walk on, and I have, I could walk on with no makeup, no hair. I did a tour called the Just for Love Tour, which was just me, a violin player and the guitarist, and no lights. A very unusual tour for me. And that was also consciously I wanted to walk on with no decoration. I've also got an idea to do actually in the future just walk on alone and do a whole one-man show, alone. But with that, even when I did that, it was like, "gothic la-la-la."
Amanda: Well I feel like that it's also getting more and more ridiculous. Like all of these classifications and sub-classifications are just getting more and more meaningless as time goes on, especially as styles and things just blend and blend and blend...
Peter: It's a postmodern world, isn't it, now? It's a post-postmodern world where as you say, music amongst all the media-there's such a spew of it. And such access that it's almost, everything is like generic in its impact upon it, if you can just access anything....We're lucky, you and I are lucky in that now the live performance has more currency. For the same reason that people get something out of it, that it's very alive.
Amanda: Well and people I think really need that-especially nowadays. Especially once you turn them on and they feel it, it's almost like sex. [Laughs]
Peter: Yeah, it is theater. It takes you into the imaginal world. And the imaginal world is as real and is the source of a lot of our projections of who we are and reality is another expansion into a wider understanding of life. It is. It's an education, interior education. It's brilliant when it works in that way. But anyway, [the last time we spoke] we were talking about your legs as well weren't we? And my [penis]...I don't want to talk about that bit. Well, I might want to.
Amanda: [Laughs] All right. I think...
Peter: ...we won't.
Amanda: I think we've covered that ground.
Peter: Okay. [Laughs]
Mark Redfern (Under the Radar): Peter, have you guys finished the new Bauhaus album? Are you still working on it?
Peter: All I'll say-I'm confident that it's gonna be done and finished real quickly.
Mark: Can you give any kind of indication of what we can expect it to sound like when compared to the classic Bauhaus albums?
Peter: Twenty-first century bulletproof talent.
Mark: [Laughs] Cool.
Peter: I swear it is.
Mark: Do you think that you two, you and Amanda, would ever want to collaborate together musically on some sort of project?
Peter: "Collaborate" is a horrible word, isn't it, Amanda? But I think we might want to do something marvelous together.
Amanda: We should do some exquisite corpses together; we should just get together for a weekend, put out three albums.
Peter: I think we could do something really great on stage, just to do like an impromptu one-time gig or something like that. Where it's very naked and marvelous you know.
Amanda: Yeah, and David J has to wear nothing but a feather boa.
Peter: Oh, no, not with Bauhaus. I'm not having them in on it.
Mark: Peter, you first saw The Dresden Dolls performing at Coachella, is that correct?
Peter: The only time, yeah.
Mark: And what was your initial reaction to seeing them?
Peter: Well I went along hearing about them through David. And a lot of his bands, some of his choices are sort of miss, some of them hit. And I went along and it was refreshing. David asked me the next morning, "What do you think?" I said, "I just thought thank God for that." I really got into it. I got affected by it, I really wanted to look at it-you know, all the things that you want it to be when you see a show. And I'm not a person who likes sitting in the audience, I'd rather be on the stage. And it's rare that it happens. I could identify a lot with it and I liked it a lot. And Brian's very nice, too. [Laughs]
Mark: And Amanda, you first discovered Bauhaus in high school, is that correct?
Amanda: Yeah, I got my first Bauhaus cassette tape, actually, I think I was 15. And I picked it up just because I recognized the name from my cooler older friends. And it was The Sky's Gone Out. And then I played that tape into the ground for the next couple of years.
Peter: What I liked about that album is that we put some really non-songs on it, which were so sort of open.
Amanda: Yeah, but it was perfect. And I also, back then...I didn't realize it, I realized it more in retrospect, but I was very much into listening to albums all the way through. That's the way I listened to all my music.
Peter: Me too, with the sequence and it's all important.
Amanda: Yeah, and that album really seems to have a perfect flow and a perfect story....the albums I liked most, especially around that age, were the ones that really evoked, like I closed my eyes and I could come up with a totally different piece of theater every time I listened to it.
Peter: That's beautiful, what a lovely criticism. I love that. It is like that with albums. Now you can download tracks, of course, and it's like, "Where's the album, where is the whole experience of owning it? And living as in it, in a sequence." I still work with that in mind. I'm sure you do. The order of tracks is important. And that also affects the creation, the writing of it.
Mark: Do you have a favorite Bauhaus album, Amanda? Is it The Sky's Gone Out?
Amanda: Yeah, it's gotta be that one. I mean there are some other brilliant ones, obviously, but that one is just, it also captured a time for me so perfectly.
Mark: I think you were telling me last time we talked that there was a class in high school that you had where you all had to bring in an album-and you brought in a Bauhaus album, and the whole class didn't know what to make of it.
Amanda: Yeah. It was part of my jazz improv class, and once a semester, we had listening days. And everyone was bringing in mostly pretentious jazz music-trying to impress the teacher. And I brought in Bauhaus. [Laughs]
Peter: [Laughs] Marvelous.
Amanda: Nobody really got it. But, I think I told you before, it was a great experience mostly because there was one other guy in the class who brought in...I forget what it was, it was like Primus or I think it might have even been Death, the original death metal band Death. And he and I were the only people who hadn't brought in pretentious jazz music. [Laughs] So we formed a lasting bond. Even though I'm pretty sure he didn't get into Bauhaus and I didn't get into Death. [Laughs]
Peter: [Laughs] I remember playing my sister when I was about fourteen-I'm the youngest of loads of children and my eldest sister was like my second mother. Anyway, I was at their house every summer I'd stay there. And she'd let me play all my records really loud on a really good system, it was brilliant. She was such a darling. And she said, "So, this Bowie person, you really love him, don't you?" I said, "Yeah." She said, "I'm going to call him and tell him how much you like him." I said, "Oh, that'll be nice." So I said, "Can I play you a song?" So I took them through "The Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud." And I played it to them and they listened, her and her husband, very, very attentively. And I gave them kind of like a lecture on it. [Laughs] And they were brilliant. They were so interested. They said, "You're so artistic, aren't you? I hope you do something like this." That was pretty nice.
Amanda: Fantastic! Well, there is something really kind of beautiful about having music brought to you-someone going through the conversion experience versus just stumbling upon it.
Peter: And hearing it in a good setting. Mark, is there anything else you wanted to know? Have you got penis envy?
Mark: No, I don't. [Laughs]
Peter: That's a shame, 'cause I wanted somebody to ask me about that.
Amanda: I always want someone to ask me about that.
Peter: [Laughs] All right then. Now Amanda, what is penis envy? I don't get that.
Amanda: I don't know exactly. I think it's very complicated, but I'm pretty sure I've got it. [Laughs]
Peter: [Laughs] Well, I do too, sometimes.
Peter: So that's okay.
Mark: Both of you guys seem to kind of play with gender when you're on stage. Can you talk about that?
Peter: There's something very attractive and important about I think a performer or a person in the street, but I think like a performer more so, that somehow transcends gender. And it somehow connects with a transcendence in its purest form. And to, let's say, humanity in its self. And it's almost angelic and very liberating and quite beautiful. And it's kind of like when I hear how ravers talk about when they experience an empathetic experience when they take E-which I've never done-that's the state that I'd like to think that we can take an audience into. The use of beauty is paramount, but "what is beauty" is the question. But that's a great tool, if nothing else is around, to use as a base, a starting point for doing work.
Amanda: Absolutely. And your answer is much more artistic than mine.
Peter: Oh it's not, I'm sure it's marvelous. Well anything in an English accent sounds completely convincing.
Amanda: Yeah, what the fuck is up with that?
Peter: We're so lucky. [Laughs]
Amanda: Brian and I, we both come from different places as far as all the gender-bending is concerned. But it is really interesting, especially since I'm talking to a British male singer, I went through my record collection when I was in my mid-20s-as people were starting to ask me about the music that I'd grown up listening to and who my role models were-and I realized 90 percent of my record collection were British males. And then I think we tend to want to mimic or follow in the footsteps of those we were inspired by.
Peter: Well I think you do have a very European sensibility, Amanda, you and Brian, the Dolls. You do and I like that a lot.
Amanda: Well you should hear the embarrassing demo tape from when I'm 17 and 18 and my English accent that I had deliberately tried to sing in. [Laughs]
Peter: But that's beautiful, that's fantastic, that's you trying out things.
Amanda: Beautiful and humiliating.
Peter: I think it's wonderful that you even had a fucking demo tape at the age of 17. I had no money or anything [at 17]. I didn't know what I would do. I saved it all up and did it all in one go.
Amanda: Yeah, well, luckily this was done when we had 4-tracks and you could buy something for a hundred dollars and do something brilliant. And you know I didn't relate [to most female singers]. I mean the closest thing I think I found was probably Cyndi Lauper, which was came early on, or maybe Laurie Anderson.
Peter: Laurie Anderson, oh, excellent!
Amanda: I missed Kate Bush, 'cause she was a little too early for me. And there really wasn't much. I wasn't listening to any female voices at all. Everything, it was Bauhaus and The Cure and The Legendary Pink Dots and Robyn Hitchcock and Nick Cave and across the board it was all men, men, men, everywhere.
Peter: And you're very welcome.
Amanda: [Laughs] Thank you, by the way. But you know what I'm saying. That's what I had to go on. That's where I looked to.
Peter: But that's your school and that's good.
Amanda: Yeah. But I think that probably has a lot to do with the fact that everyone says there's a lot of male energy in the female delivery that [I give].
Peter: Well there actually is, isn't there. Come on, you've got to agree there is.
Amanda: But that's to me what's ultimately sexy. I didn't really find it sexy to listen to sopranos singing breathily about anything. I always found that kind of a turnoff.
Peter: Yeah, there's something very powerful and very inspiring when the sensuality is also very evident and present. And I think there can be a very clean sexuality, and it echoes the sort of the beauty and sexuality, too....There's something liberating about that too.
Amanda: Well exactly and the wider you go in the spectrum, the more you get to play with.
Peter: Well it's all in you anyway. It's all you. So, it's not acted, actually. The actor isn't acting, he's making himself something [else]. And that has to be in him, otherwise it can't express itself.
Amanda: Wow, we got all profound again.
Peter: No, just marvelous, darling, marvelous.