Music Monday: An Interview with Kristin Kontrol

The former frontwoman of Dum Dum Girls on embracing reinvention through persona.

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Over the course of three albums and four EPs, Dum Dum Girls established a potent identity: gothic, dreamy rock music laced with girl-group backing vocals courtesy of four gimlet-eyed gals in laddered black nylons and fire-engine-red lipstick. It became their calling card but also a constriction. When Kristin Welchez — known back then as Dee Dee — started to write what might have become the California group's fourth record (following 2014's Too True), she realized that her creative desires lay beyond the group's consummately drawn bounds.

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What happened next was less reinvention than skin-shedding: she ended the band and reemerged as Kristin Kontrol, a sleeker incarnation that lets her love of '80s and '90s pop color her natural rock inclinations. The album she was writing became the brilliant X-Communicate, whose arpeggiated synths evoke the Human League, Bauhaus, super-early Madonna, and soft Italo disco. Given that Kristin was Dum Dum Girls' sole songwriter, she's not really "going solo" in the traditional sense. Instead, she says, Kristin Kontrol "is just an easy way to reestablish that there is definitely no vagueness about this project."

As MTV News critic Hazel Cills recently wrote about the power of female artists' adopting personae, Kristin's shift in name and presentation feels like a "bold step toward mere recognition of [her] art and all it contains." The opening track on X-Communicate could be a love song, but it could just as easily be the mantra behind the project. "Show me what you're capable of," Kristin sings on "Show Me," before promising, "There's no need to change yourself." We hear her singing freely as Kristin Kontrol about the anxieties of love and aging. I Skyped with Kristin in early April, where she spoke from her bed at home in Spanish Harlem, New York.

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Laura Snapes: When artists reinvent themselves, people always focus on the external presentation, but I'm always curious about the impact of those changes on your personal life.

Kristin Kontrol: Rather than feeling like I'm adopting something new, it really just felt like I'd finally gotten to a place where I felt comfortable being myself. Dum Dum Girls and Dee Dee were very much creative and curated things. I'd grow a bit with them, then they'd grow a bit on their own with the momentum of having created a very aesthetic-based band. For me, Kristin Kontrol was less about creating a new character and more about finally letting in the things that had felt very off-limits, not only in the context of Dum Dum Girls as a band, but in this Dee Dee persona I'd worked tirelessly to establish. I was like, It's not all of me, and this is frustrating.

LS: What had felt off-limits? Why?

KK: It wasn't that it always felt like that. With my first couple records I felt I had a lot of room to grow. I'm not the kind of person who sits down and conceptualizes where I'm going. It's much more natural than that. But I think it became apparent to me on my last record that where I was trying to go musically wasn't quite coming off right under the guise of Dum Dum Girls. It started feeling like I'd hit a ceiling, and we'd hit a ceiling as a band. Regardless of the kind of record I put out next, it was still going to wash back through the understanding of us being a very established band. I'm pretty convinced that if I put this exact record out as Dum Dum Girls, it would be received very differently, which is not why I changed it, but that is something I thought about. I wanted to have a vehicle to put out whatever music I was into without a template that preemptively gave people a way to evaluate it.

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LS: Compared to when you first came out with Dum Dum Girls eight or so years ago, the alternative-music scene now is much more welcoming of pop. Was that on your mind?

KK: No, it wasn't anything like "Sweet, I have permission to do this now." But I will say that I find the lack of genre loyalty or snobbery really inspiring. Probably the moment I appreciated it most was when I heard the Weeknd's song that sampled Siouxsie Sioux, like: This is exactly what I want right now.

LS: On the bonus track, you sing, "This is not where I thought I would be / Dazed in confusion at 33." What fed that transitionary feeling?

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KK: I think on the bigger scale, it's that very true cliché that the older you get, the faster time passes. That line probably has roots in something I got in my head when I was much younger. When I was 23, I got an IUD, which is good for ten years. In my still-quite-bohemian, just-out-of-college head, I was thinking, If I'm having children, it'll probably be around then. All the plans you make [when] you're starting something — I think about when I started Dum Dum Girls and wondering what the next five years of my life would be.

Anyway, 2015 rolled around. I toyed with the idea of writing a funny little piece about celebrating my ten-year anniversary child-free. It definitely caused a snap in my perspective where I was like, "OK, those ten years have gone by. I clearly have a lot to show for it: I've worked really hard, I established this whole thing. Now I'm really unclear with what I'm doing, how this is going to come out." I'm clearly not having a child right now. I just made my appointment to get a replacement IUD.

It was the contrast of the younger me envisioning the current me. "Does this match up? Have I really gained any clarity?" I think that's something I've enjoyed about being in my 30s — not so much that I make better decisions or gained some sort of intrinsic knowledge, but through a lot of experience, good and bad, I've at least become slightly more self-aware. But that doesn't prevent the random overwhelming feeling of What the fuck? I still have no fucking idea what I'm doing!

LS: Dum Dum Girls were always active, and you released records pretty regularly. You took all of 2015 off to write this album, which made me think about the lyrics on "What is Love," where you sing, "Today I kept busy, so I felt OK / God bless the mania." When you've been on tour for so much of your life, is it weird to readjust to what, for most people, is normality?

KK: It totally is weird. I don't take it for granted at all, that I have the ability to take off this much time. I definitely experienced more frustration than I ever have musically in writing this record. At a certain point, I just started being like, Fuck, I don't know how to write songs anymore. What the hell? I've never struggled so much. There was a bit of tension between me feeling like, There's value in this, I just need to figure out how to do it, and the moments where it was like, No, this is shit. It's so frustrating to have something you can, depending on your mood or perspective, feel like you've lost or is fleeting. It's not a guarantee.

LS: Did you ever feel like giving up?

KK: Oh, no, but I definitely had a couple of meltdowns. I had one major meltdown, at the fourth or fifth time of having almost ten new songs and my mentor not feeling them. It got to me one day, and it was also a day where I think I realized my rent was going up $500 so I needed to find a new place. I felt beaten. Dying in New York specifically and generally as well. There's something to be said for struggling and frustration and how that kind of formed, in a desperate way, something good. I'm glad I didn't put out any of those early songs. They sucked. I can objectively see that now. It was just part of the growing pains, trying to do something I knew I could do but I wasn't totally sure how yet.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Laura Snapes is a journalist and critic swingin' on the flippity-flop in London, UK.

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