The past few years have seen an explosion of retro-leaning, surf-y bands with style for days. But our favorites, bar none, are the Dum Dum Girls. Led by frontwoman Dee Dee Penny, the band is known for its updated girl-group sound and goth-princess stagewear. Think the Shangri-Las (if they smoked a lot more weed) or the Ronettes (if they traded their beehives for black leather jackets.) Their third LP Too True finds the band departing from its ’60s sound in favor of something more ’80s—fewer hooks, slower tempos, and moodier lyrics.
Though the Dum Dums play live as a full band, Penny, a California native, serves as the group’s chief auteur and songwriter. She began the project alone in her room, and with the exception of 2011’s Only in Dreams, has recorded all of the “band's" albums by herself. For Too True (out now on Sub Pop), Penny holed up with her producers in the studio where the Beach Boys recorded Pet Sounds, a work environment that she modestly describes as “encouraging.” I met Penny for a drink in N.Y.C. to talk about her nerd past, her inspirations, and her feelings about Batman.
When did you know you wanted to make music your career?
I was a real nerd in school, with super good grades. I studied literature and music in college, and I thought I was going to go into publishing. But then I went abroad to Germany when I was 19, and I started playing in bands and writing music. I could not play guitar for the life of me, so I’d write really strange pop songs that sounded like deranged Joni Mitchell tracks on the bass. Then I sang on my ex-boyfriend’s hardcore record, started a terrible rock band, and then started another terrible rock band. As I got older, I’d have nine-to-five jobs that paid the bills, but it became clear over time that [music] wouldn’t be something I outgrew.
Too True sounds darker than some of your other work. Was that on purpose?
I definitely had been listening to a lot of the stuff that influenced my End of Daze EP, which was a little bit more on the darker, atmospheric side—Kate Bush, Julee Cruise, the Cure. I was also listening to a lot of English guitar music, like Suede and the Stone Roses.
This album has been in the works for a while. What took so long?
Well, I recorded everything instrumentally in about a week [in 2012], but put off the vocals because I’d been having vocal problems on tour. When I went in to [record] the first song, I literally couldn’t sing, which was really traumatic. I freaked out and saw a doctor, and they came up with a therapy plan. But it was really anticlimactic in the sense that I left [the studio] without being able to finish the record, and I had no idea when I’d be able to finish it.
You recently recorded a theme song for the animated show Beware the Batman. How did you get that gig?
The animator Glen [Murakami, a developer of the show] was just a fan of the band. It was very intimidating because I’m not really into comics or cartoons, but Batman is 100 percent my favorite. I was obsessed with the Adam West show as a kid. Glen was like, “It needs to be dark. Think Siouxsie, think Bauhaus.” It was a challenge.
Alright, time for a hard-hitting question: how do the Dum Dum Girls keep their lipstick looking so good during shows?
I mean, if you zoom in on those photos….
It doesn’t look as good up close?
No! Lipstick is tough for me. My biggest accomplishment makeup-wise was discovering a brand of liquid eyeliner that doesn’t run. I’ve tried them all. Sweating is cool—I think it’s sexy—but it’s not completely cool when your makeup’s on your face or, more importantly, in your eyes, just from a practical perspective. So I found this amazing brand of eyeliner called Milani. It costs $8 at the drugstore. I used to wear it to Bikram yoga and it wouldn’t come off! I’ve been trying to share that discovery for years.