In the fall of 2008, Denver band Dressy Bessy set out on tour to support its fifth album, Holler and Stomp. Shortly after the tour began, the U.S. economy collapsed. The group was suddenly paying four dollars a gallon for gas to drive to empty venues and play to a few fans who hadn’t even heard of the new record. The members of Dressy Bessy found themselves run off the road by an economic catastrophe that the country is still grappling with eight years later.
“Basically, we couldn’t afford to do any more touring right after that,” says lead singer and guitar player Tammy Ealom. “It was just the circumstances. Aerosmith canceled tours that year. A lot of people didn’t even hear about that record, and that can make or break you.”
Slowed down by circumstance, the band decided to take a hiatus. Ealom and her spouse, lead guitarist John Hill, adopted a dog. They went on road trips. Ealom dove into her art and photography, and Hill stayed busy with his other project, the Apples in Stereo. Every once in a while, Dressy Bessy would play a show or release a digital single. Bassist Rob Greene left the band. And at some point, Hill and Ealom realized that it had been nearly seven years since they had released a full-length album.
Flash-forward to a few weeks ago. Ealom and Hill are sitting in their basement-turned-home studio. The walls are bright red, mostly covered with paintings and posters created by Ealom. Daisy Rocket, the couple’s adorable dog, is lying next to Ealom, recovering from a spinal injury that left her hind legs temporarily paralyzed. Both humans are hung over from a night of band practice/partying. They’re tired, but exhaustion is the norm now. For years they’ve been working nonstop on their newest release, KINGSIZED, and getting ready to return to music full-time.
While promoting an album and booking a cross-country tour is hardly uncharted territory for the two, these are waters they haven’t crossed in a long time. But don’t call it a comeback.
“One thing with me, I never one hundred-percent stepped away,” Ealom says. “Even if I’m not recording or writing, it’s constantly in my head. So it’s not like we stepped away, per se. In my mind, we never took a break. People might think that, but I never take a break from it. It’s who I am.”
Hill says KINGSIZED has been three or four years in the making. For Ealom, it was the departure of bassist Greene that gave her a sense of urgency with regard to the new album.
“I sensed that [he was ready to leave], and it inspired some songwriting on my part, because it was an emotional move,” Ealom says. “It was better for him and better for the band. Then after he left, it was like, ‘Let’s get this going.’”
The going, at first, was slow and casual. Just Ealom and drummer Craig Gilbert, then the addition of Hill. Then recording bass parts between Ealom, Hill and various friends. The album features guest appearances from R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Wild Flag’s Rebecca Cole, the Apples in Stereo’s Eric Allen and the Polyphonic Spree’s Jason Garner, to name a few.
“There wasn’t a day that we sat down and did it,” Ealom says. “We recorded at home, so we recorded a few songs at a time. It was just Craig and I.” Ealom says they would practice and lay down the guitar and drum tracks for a couple of songs. Then the next week they would record a couple more.
For most bands, a year like 2008 would be a career-ender, with the botched tour, the lack of promotion and the less-than-stellar press. In his review of Holler and Stomp, Pitchfork writer David Raposa wrote: “Dressy Bessy turns themselves into everything critics think they were — amateurish, tuneless, puerile, purveyors of the sort of ‘catchy’ song that spring the CDC into action.”
While that take was particularly harsh, other outlets were also unkind. Yet here the bandmembers are today, working around the clock booking shows, approving art and continually discussing how “fucking excited” they are. They do this all while emphasizing that they have not spent the better part of a decade hiding out in a basement, licking their wounds.
“We’ve moved on,” Ealom insists. “We didn’t take a break because we were defeated; we just took a break. It was time. Life fucking happens.”
The result of years of meditation and months of recording is KINGSIZED. The album is heavier than past efforts and, in a few instances, considerably more political.
The opening song, “Lady Liberty,” features the following: “If only Lady Liberty could say it all, I bet she would…letting them know there’s average people trying hard to play along, there’s still hope for us redeemers.” Another track, “These Modern Guns,” reeks of tension with the lyrics “These modern guns don’t fool around.”
“They aren’t intentionally political,” Ealom says of the songs. “The current state of the world is pretty fucked up, and that’s going to come through somehow.”
While those two tracks are more pointed, the rest of the album comprises the high-energy mix of rock and pop that fans have come to expect from Dressy Bessy. But it’s not a regurgitation of the past: Dressy Bessy is older and wiser. The band has toured the country countless times and taken some licks along the way. Just a few minutes in, KINGSIZED recalls releases from such female-fronted bands as Tacocat, Childbirth and Slutever. Oddly enough, those bands were probably influenced by Dressy Bessy and its peers.
“In 2008 we were in this position where rock and roll for some years was starting to be a bad word, and now it’s good timing, because it’s coming back around,” Hill says of the comparison.
While Dressy Bessy certainly sees its influence and power as a female-fronted band, gender isn’t the driving force behind its art. “I write what I write; it’s not gender-specific at all,” Ealom says. “I think men can relate, and I want everyone to relate. It’s no-nonsense. We aren’t up there ‘playing’ band; we are a band.”
“I think people who haven’t seen us, though, they come and think, ‘Cute name, girl-fronted band,’ and they don’t expect us to blow their head off,” Hill says with a laugh. “We’ve gotten more and more rocking over the years, but we’ve always been high-energy. But it was a boys’ world back then, and it still is, and there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Besides the lingering riot-grrrl legacy, Dressy Bessy has also had to reconcile with another prominent definer of the past: the Elephant 6 collective. Elephant 6, which most famously spawned Neutral Milk Hotel along with Dressy Bessy and many others, more or less put Denver on the map as a place where the music was — but Dressy Bessy doesn’t see Denver, or its scene, that way.
“I don’t jibe with that term, making a ‘scene’ or being a part of a ‘scene,’” Ealom says. “It’s not taking away from anything in Denver.... Denver has way more expectations than when we started our band. Part of the reason we stayed here is that the rent was cheap, there weren’t as many people or bands, and you could make an album that’s all yours.”
Colorado, especially Denver, is no longer a hideaway for musicians, with its ever-growing national profile. Still, the band isn’t concerned about the city’s reputation, or expectations, following them around the country.
“A lot of people, historically, think we’re from Athens, Georgia,” Hill says. “Our label [Kindercore] was there, and Elephant 6 was partially based there.”
“Back in the day, you’d be surprised how many people hadn’t been to Colorado or even heard of it,” Ealom adds. “Everyone only knew of Boulder. That was pretty funny. The late ’90s and early 2000s, we got that a lot: ‘Colorado — where is that?’”
Discussions of gender and locale aside, the question remains: What awaits Dressy Bessy this time around?
“We have no fears. We have absolutely no fear,” Ealom says. “What is there to be afraid of? We have no expectations, and as far as the last album goes, it came out on a label that had kind of given up on us. It wasn’t our fault, it wasn’t a shitty album; things just happened that way.”
Hill says it’s more about the art this time. “At the root of it, we just want to make our music and have fun. It was always push forward, push forward — and it’s not that we aren’t trying to do that now, but there’s less expectation,” he says.
But art isn’t their only goal.
“I’d love to go on Conan again,” Ealom says. “Are you kidding me? It’s so fun.”
Dressy Bessy album release
With the Born Readies and Kissing Party, 9:30 p.m. Saturday, February 6, hi-dive, 7 South Broadway, $12-$15, 303-733-0230.