Dee Dee Penny of Dum Dum Girls on being a shy person in an extroverted profession

As a rare drummer and frontwoman, Dee Dee Penny (aka Kristin Gundred) was part of experimental pop band Grand Ole Party. Once that band split, Gundred took it upon herself to learn how to write songs on an instrument well outside her comfort zone. When that experiment seemed to work out, she pulled together members of a band that would help her actualize the kind of music she wanted to make and evolve: Enter the Dum Dum Girls, whose debut full-length, I Will Be, harks back to an older, garage/'60s girl-group sound, but with an underlying edge and unexpected lyrical sharpness, even amid songs that are clearly focused on love and its travails.

Touring in support of their latest EP, He Gets Me High, Dum Dum Girls bring their sunny but pleasantly dissonant pop show to the hi-dive tonight. We spoke with the charmingly frank and articulate Gundred about the perils of being a shy, sensitive person in the world of public performance, her songwriting and dealing with criticism.

Westword: I've been fortunate enough to get to see both Grand Ole Party and Dum Dum Girls, and I was wondering what the catalyst was for your pursuing an entirely different sound with Dum Dum Girls.

Kristin Gundred: For every recording and every song that sounds perfect, there are usually some noticeable flaws. Realistically, it's what we sound like, in general. I am, by no means, a good guitar player; I'm a singer. I learned guitar and have improved from when I started, but it's not the focus of what I'm doing. It's why I have a lead guitar player who's significantly better than I am.

Typically I write on my nylon string guitar, which is the first guitar I've ever had. I got it in sixth grade, I think, from a friend of my dad's, a music teacher -- my parents were teachers. She passed on her early-'60s nylon string, and I tried to learn Nirvana songs or something. And I failed. It took me ten years to actually play a song. I got frustrated really easily.

In an August 2009 interview with the blog Thee Outer Net, you said how you would probably be "dead or a drug addict or a dead drug addict" if it weren't for music. In what ways does music enrich your life so that you don't have to go that route?

It's really all I know how to do. I spent the majority of my childhood and teenage years being a very serious student. Kind of a typical perfectionist, overachiever type. I came very close to burning out in college, I think, because I had just been so focused when I was young, and I had this startling realization that it didn't mean anything, that it didn't translate. Everything I felt like I wanted to do as a career has been, if not music, it's writing -- something so luck-oriented. You can work so hard and put everything you have into it, and there's an overwhelming chance that nothing will come of it. I don't know: I've always had something inside of me that has helped me to keep going, despite basically failing at what I was trying to do for years.

Sometimes people assume Dum Dum Girls came out of nowhere, and all of a sudden, I've been gifted this Sub Pop silver spoon and didn't do anything to warrant attention at such an early stage. From my perspective, I've been working on my craft, whether it was writing or figuring out how to do music the way I wanted to, for ten-plus years. I feel like I put in a lot of groundwork and failed for much longer than I've had any kind of success.

Basically it's this drive that doesn't let me do anything else. Having gone through some pretty traumatic events in the last two years of my life, it's been a source of comfort to have something to busy my mind with. It's been a source of friendship -- the support system I have with my bandmates and other people I know and work with. It's always been a distraction and a way to sort of healthfully channel negative feelings.

What kind of influence did the music of the Vaselines have on you -- other than the obvious name reference -- and what was it like touring with them?

It was the last tour we did that ended last year. We ended up having to cancel a good portion of it, but we did do the West Coast dates with them. It was really amazing. Aside from the obvious reference in the name, I -- like many other people -- got exposed to them through Nirvana when I was a very young teenager. That's something I love about being an obsessive fan. You learn about what music people listen to that make music you like.

So through Nirvana I found about the Vaselines, which ended up opening this huge door to British music that maybe would have taken me longer to discover in a less direct way. And I thought they were such good songwriters. So simple, but it was distilled down to everything you needed. For a song to hold its own in such simplified terms, that's a great song, a powerful song.

Also the attitude, the topics of songs. I was always amused by what they sang about. Now that I can call them friends, to a certain degree. It's charming to meet them and see the people behind the songs and the topics, and it just made a whole lot of sense. It was definitely inspiring and validating to be able to play shows with them. It was a nice full-circle turn of events for me. I'd never seen them before, so it was also a real treat to see those songs that almost feel like they exist in a time capsule, because they didn't do anything for decades. To see them play those songs so perfectly was really cool.

Why did you cover GG Allin's "Don't Talk to Me"?

When I started recording stuff with Dum Dum Girls and putting a little more time and energy into it -- when it seemed like there was something worth pursuing there -- the way I learned guitar was learning songs by other bands. I found that to be the most rewarding way. You can be frustrated that you can only play three chords, but if you figure out you can play your favorite Ramones song, that's pretty awesome and encouraging.

I think that I was probably just on some poppy, punk kick playing Ramones songs, kids' songs. I don't know why I chose that one. It's obviously a perfect song. I've recorded all kinds of covers that have never seen the light of day and never will. But for whatever reason, I thought that one came out in an interesting way, pretty different from the original.

It was really funny to see how polarizing it was for our small community of listeners. They either thought it was awesome that we covered that song with dream-pop vocals, because it's clearly pretty far from where GG Allin ended up. Obviously, there were peers who called total bullshit on it. That's fine, too, but the point was that it was just an experiment to have fun.

It's a really fun song to play, and it's really validating when we do play it and I look out in the crowd and I see some weird little crust-punk kid stoked that we're playing it. That's great, because he might not have bothered to listen to us had he not known we played an early GG Allin song.

You've said that the songs on your last full-length album are about coming of age in your generation. What forces in society do you feel most influenced your generation, and what do you feel you came to terms with by the time of your late twenties?

I think the overall point I was trying to make is that a lot of times first records -- there's that famous quote about how you have your whole life to write your first record, and so what you draw from is often all-encompassing from childhood to whenever it comes out. So there's a lot of songs on I Will Be that stem from experiences that I had as a small child -- like "Yours Alone" comes to mind.

Or just the various melodramas of being a teenager, which I was really focused on when I was collecting the songs for the record because I was on this trip where a pop song is two minutes long, and I didn't want to write vapid pop songs. I wanted there to be meaning behind them and how you get a point across in three verses and two choruses. You have to have an element of melodrama and go for the meat of your point, or it may not come across how you intended it. I think I was trying to convey the universal things you deal with growing up in an easy-to-listen to way. A lot of hard things, a lot of great things, but everything on the dramatic side.

I think the most shocking thing to me that I've come to terms with is being quite an introverted person always struggling with this weird premonition that I'm destined to be doing something in the public realm but somehow within the context of being extremely shy, really low self-esteem as a teenager -- trying to juggle that and dealing with, not massive exposure, but the mild exposure we had to the general world and trying to handle criticism that I never felt I asked for.

I didn't start this band for everyone else. I'm doing what I'm doing to have fun. You have to remind yourself that for everybody that likes your band, there's somebody that hates your band, and you can't control who hears it or how they receive it. I've definitely written songs about that, but who knows what will happen with them. But just really trying to get behind the mentality that I don't care what you think about my band if you're not into it. I will adore you if you enjoy our music. With the EP, because I wrote the songs on it in such a short period of time, it has a much more focused theme. I wanted it to be almost a concept EP in that the songs had a very linear theme that ran through all the songs.

At the end of the day, you can't control anything and everything. Obviously, some of my favorite bands were critically panned. Some of them are huge; some of them are small. It's really just an issue of taste. It's frustrating that everyone can be a critic at this point because of the Internet and blogs. But at the same time, no one would know that Dum Dum Girls exist if not for those same avenues, so you can't really pick and choose what you're cool with. You just have to get over it.

Are there any rituals you go through in order to overcome stage fright these days or in the past, and has your shyness gotten better than early on in your performance career?

For me it's still very much like a great divide between my real life and my band life. I've been home for a couple of weeks hanging out, and I have a very private life. When I go on tour, I get very much in band mode, and I kind of take on the attitude that I try to project on stage.

That sounds kind of cheesy -- like I'm method acting, when actors take it home with them -- but for me, I'm very aware that I know who I am on a one-to-one basis with my close friends and family, and that doesn't really cut it when I play shows.

I'm not intriguing enough to do the Hope Sandoval thing, where she can just stand there and be completely still and so captivating. I think I have an understanding of how I need to convey what I'm doing in order for it to be as obvious and as accessible as possible.

The video for "Jail La La" reminds me a bit of some of the early films of John Cassavettes had he hired Kenneth Anger to operate the camera and do some editing. Who made the video, and did you give any direction on the visual style for the video?

This girl who's made all of our videos is named Kristin Turner. She's done a lot of my husband's band's videos, and we're all huge Kenneth Anger fans. There was definitely an element of sort of that dramatic oversaturation. Clearly, having us riding a motorcycle with an obviously fake was all very intentional, and I give her a lot of credit because she really has this expansive list of references in her brain that she knows how to home in on what we're trying to do.

It's cool when people identify little things, because scene to scene, there is a little bit of something that either film nerds or whatever can pick up on. That's good. That's what art is in general -- a reference to something that you've loved. It's your own spin on it and turning it into something new. That's all her.

Dum Dum Girls with MINKS and Beaches, 8p.m., Monday, February 21, Hi-Dive, $12, 720-570-4500, 18+

Follow Backbeat on Facebook and on Twitter at @Westword_Music.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.