Alexandra Richards 19/10/2008
From her early beginnings as an 8ft 'living statue' in Harvard square, Amanda Palmer has always done far than simply stand on the stage and sing. Early Dresden Dolls shows saw her encouraging drama students from her old high school to perform pieces during the shows and later tours have incorporated large scale circus, burlesque and cabaret performances both on stage and amongst the crowd, giving an unforgettable theatrical experience far beyond that of your every-day gig. Tonight's show aboard Bristol's Thekla is no exception. Amanda has brought with her an Australian performing troupe, the 'Danger Ensemble' as well as a violinist and cellist, 'I could have toured solo and had the nice rider all to myself, and be living an easier life,' she explained, 'But I chose to bring all these people along at my own expense because I want my show to look fabulous, even if we're playing in a club that only fits 300 people.'
Hidden in an upstairs office away from the fans wandering around outside with circus masks, striped stockings and bouquets of flowers, Amanda Palmer is hurriedly trying to draw on her eyebrows before we begin our interview. She looks radiant but admits she's not at her best, gesturing to the large bandage around her leg 'I got run over by a car in Belfast about a week ago. Being an American I forgot to look right and it just ran right over my foot!' Despite being 'a bitch for performing', the crew have managed to adjust the show to accommodate Amanda's injury and members of the troupe carry her to and from her keyboard, 'We haven't had to change too much, we haven't changed the songs, just the choreography'.
This is Amanda's first tour without Dresden Dolls partner, drummer and guitarist Brian Viglione, and has sparked rumours that the 'Dolls might not be getting back together. The duo, have been on something of a hiatus since earlier this year, though Amanda seems unwilling to say anything concrete about the future of the band, 'I don't know, it's a wait-and-see.' She explained, 'Brian is really loving the band he's in right now and they're booking and booking and booking tours and I've just started touring on the solo record, so it would be at least a year and a half, two years 'til we'd start working on a new project. We love playing with each other and we love the band, but we do drive each other nuts so it's kinda finding the balance. I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't just happen naturally.'
The solo album, 'Who Killed Amanda Palmer', released in September to good reviews, makes up the majority of tonight's show, along with a few older Dresden Dolls tracks and covers. I'm curious as to why, as the main lyricist and composer with the 'Dolls, Amanda felt the need to branch out on her own, but Amanda insists that the album isn't embarking on a direction she didn't feel she could take with the band, 'Originally it (the album) was drumless songs but then as the album sort of organically evolved with Ben (Folds) as a producer it was obvious that some of these were songs that would have been Dresden Dolls songs. Then it became a question of coincidence and which songs happened to be on the table at that time. Astronaut, Guitar Hero, Runs In the Family…Runs In The Family was a song that Brian and I played years and years ago, I wrote it around the same time as Girl Anachronism.' . In terms of musical content and the performance, Amanda's solo show isn't a huge departure from that of the band's previous shows 'It's almost the exact same crew. It's almost the exact same thing but without Brian. It is a little weird (being without Brian), but you the last time we were doing extensive touring together was over two years ago so I'm kinda used to it, I've been doing a lot more solo touring.'
The shows have so far been very well received; tonight as Amanda launches into another keyboard frenzy the audience stand transfixed. There are many moments tonight where the audience seems unwilling to speak, even move, and break the atmosphere on stage, standing still in some kind of silent worship. The effect is powerfully moving. Before the gig the venue is surrounded by dressed-up fans that later stay behind: to get their picture with their heroine, give her gifts and get autographs. This kind of attention has become quite normal to Amanda, 'I got a beautiful medallion yesterday in Manchester. He came up to me and said 'Uughla grrlah (she attempts a northern accent)…'…what I gathered from what he told me was that he was a huge fan of the music, my album had helped him through a really hard time, his friend had recently died, this had helped him, here he was giving this to me. So I hung it up in my bunk. It's nice when things like that happen.' Though sometimes she finds it hard having so many people have such a strong emotional response to her music, 'Well, sometimes I feel like I can't do it, like a lot of things go by me, and through me, and I end up giving a lot of stuff away. Life is definitely not boring!'
With the Dresden Dolls Amanda toured almost non-stop for years, and this tour appears to be no exception,'The first real break we've got is Christmas and that's two weeks!'. I wondered if she brings anything with her on tour to keep her sane, 'Oh God yeah! I have a memory-foam pillow, one of those temperature sensitive squishy pillows, I don't go anywhere without it. And I pick up little keep-sakes on the road and decorate my bunk with them. I usually get a lot of weird little gifts from people so I surround myself with them and I shed them at the end of the tour.'
I wondered who had inspired her when she was younger,
Amanda claims she failed to identify with iconic female singers of the time, 'When I was really young I looked up to Prince and Madonna. But then as I grew older I really respected the Legendary Pink Dots, they were my favourite band. And what they did aesthetically and musically was very influential. It's interesting to me, when I look back, as soon as I entered my teen years I didn't really have any female role-models. I didn't get into Siouxie Sioux, I wasn't into Hole, I wasn't a Riot Grrl, it completely passed me by! I was listening to The Cure, Current 93 and Robin Hitchcock and everything was male and British!,' Amanda's never made any secret of her Anglophilia and British influences in her music, touring extensively over in the UK ('It makes sense, it's my people!') and referencing British culture heavily in tracks such as 'Leeds United.'
'I responded to the male voice, and I always hated shrill female singers, that's probably part of the reason why I could never get into Siouxie Sioux, the voice itself just turned me off. I listened to Sinead a lot, I was a huge fan of the Swans, but generally when I looked across my record collection it was mostly men.' When asked who she'd like to do a duet with (after a long pause to rule out non-living possibilities), Amanda gushes with admiration for Sigur Ros and Tegan and Sara; who she claims to have recently discovered. 'I probably shared a common misconception about them, I saw the photos and thought 'oh they're probably an annoying lesbian folk duo', I listened to the music and was like 'oh fuck, this is good'. They're incredible.'
Life's busy for Amanda at the moment. Following extensive European touring 'this tour is an infinite tour!' she's returning home to Massachusetts to start work on a very different project, 'We're stopping(touring) for six weeks in the spring to mount a production. We're writing an original stage show, me, the Danger Ensemble from Australia and my old high school director and his kids are doing an original show at my old high school, so it's their spring play. We've started workshopping ideas. It's gonna be really twisted and dark and bizarre. We used 'In the aeroplane over the sea' by Neutral Milk Hotel as source material in the workshop, and so there's a lot of strange family drama, circus drama, time-space continuum accidents… it's gonna be a very beautiful show.' With the production, Amanda will return to her roots and where she first started performing, 'I come from am experimental theatre background with this director, it's going to be great to go back to it. It's been something I've been wanting to do for years.'
Also due for a Christmas release is Amanda'a new book, a collection of photographs with the same title as her album, 'Who Killed Amanda Palmer', and co-written with Neil Gaiman. Amanda was introduced to the writer through her friend and touring partner Jason Webly, and describes the book as 'They're all (one hundred) pictures of my corpse in different places. And they're all taken at different times in different places, using totally different styles and different photographers.' as she shows off photos of her pale and elegant looking body draped lifelessly across various landscapes and pieces of furniture.
With her striking looks and punk-cabaret style (striped stockings with band t-shirts, corsets and ribbons, painted face and short messy dark hair) and a penchant for saying rather bluntly (or more often, singing) exactly what she thinks, Amanda has become something of an alternative icon, especially amongst gothic crowds, something she finds rather entertaining. ''Goth' is weird because I feel like, much like 'punk' gets banded about, 'goth' gets banded about, and music that actually belongs to the 'goth' genre is all really terrible music! Even when I was a teenager, I assumed the 'goth' crowd would be my people, and then found out very quickly that it wasn't! It wasn't a scene I wanted to hang out in. It wasn't very friendly, it was very dorky, the whole thing seemed so affected, it just bugs me out. It bothers me to know that the Dolls get labelled as a 'goth band'. But also it's a very common, Neil (Gaiman) and I have discussed this a lot. Neil is a 'goth icon'; he doesn't consider himself to be a 'goth'. I've also talked to Peter Murphy from Bauhaus, he hates it when people call Bauhaus a goth band! And they're one of the original 'goth icons'! It might actually be one of those weird things where no one wants to be in the club. I think as soon as you want to fit into a particular group, then your band's not going to be original and then it's not going to be fucking interesting. So, it probably goes without saying, that the minute you can easily stick a genre on your band, you're band's probably not all that hot!' And with that we decide not to discuss the g-word or labels any further. Despite her injuries Amanda went on to perform en energetic stage show which included her being supported by the Danger Ensemble in an impassioned lip-syncing of Rhianna's Umbrella, crutches in the air. The show includes an 'Ask Amanda' section in which the audience submit questions. Asked who would win in a piano-off between her and Regina Spektor, Amanda laughs, 'she's a better player than me, but I'm more punk rock!' at the end of the night the Danger Ensemble carry her off stage to rapturous applause. Ever the independent woman, she doesn't need to fit into media categories, her band or even working legs in order to perform and astound.