May 28th, 2013 | Interviews


Dirt Dress are one of those bands that live sweat and dream light years—punk from the cracks in the floorboards, or from another very small kind of place. Like they say in the interview: “We speak for the specks.” Or like they seem to say in every song on their new D.L.V.N.V.N. album on Recess: it’s the little things that mean the most. They meet now to talk with us about scrounging, sawing, buffing and throwing away everything you don’t really need. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

How did you end up with a studio that used to be a skate ramp?
Noah Kwid (vocals, guitar): I worked construction before my job at the record store, so we disassembled the skate ramp and took off the sheeting and salvaged all the 2x4s we could, and then went from there. It’s basically just a box. We went and researched online and found out that if a structure is under 100 square feet, you don’t have to get permits. So it’s just shy. I’d say about an inch shy.
An inch away from breaking the law? Does that indicate anything about the character of the band?
N: We’re pretty upstanding characters.
N: We walk the line.
When you worked construction, what was the scariest tool they had you use?
N: When I worked at the cabinet shop, using the table saw was terrifying. We’d have to cut plywood in such small strips that my fingers would be less than an inch from the blade.
Did you worry you’d end up like Django Reinhardt and be a guitarist who’s a few fingers short?
N: That always crossed my mind when I was cutting a big sheet of plywood. You just gotta block that out!
How much of what Dirt Dress does is based on that scavenger’s mentality?
N: A lot. It comes from necessity. We don’t have much money. Our music is like that in a way, too. It’s very limited because we’re a three piece, so you write stuff you normally wouldn’t do with four or five people. I don’t really have leads in the songs because if I do a lead, then everything else is empty. As we’ve progressed as a band, we’re kind of getting more minimal. Like honing what we do.
Why is that? The further you go, the less you wanna carry?
N: I really want to get a sax player but it’s not gonna happen. I’m a big fan of no wave, so if we had one, it’d be more skronking than smooth. James Chance is incredible. A lot of our sound is like … we try and emulate what we like, but we’re not trained musicians so it comes out in our style rather than their style. There’s a lot to be said for people who play music but who don’t know how to play cuz that also makes you do stuff that anyone else who picks up the guitar wouldn’t be able to do.
What kind of things are you able to do when you don’t know what you’re doing?
N: The great thing is you don’t know what you’re going to do—not that you can do something you normally wouldn’t be able to do, but it’s completely unpredictable. When I write on the guitar, it’s different than like when Keith Richards would write on guitar. Cuz he knew what the fuck he was doing! I like a rhythm section that sounds like it’s gonna fall apart. Television Personalities sound like any moment, it’s gonna crumble to the floor. Or like the Homosexuals. I like music like that. It’s harder to do that if you know what you’re doing.
You seem like you got a real affection for chaos.
N: Yes, I do! It’s a downward spiral!
What’s the happiest a house party ever made you?
N: We played a back house—an abandoned shed—and at one point the power went out. They’d run a power strip from the house, and someone kicked the power strip and all the lights went out and all the music stopped. But everybody was still dancing. Someone fell on Raymond’s drums, I got kocked oveer … it was that chaos, and you realize what the music is doing to people. Cuz when it stops, there’s still that energy, and you could see what it was doing.
Chaos again?
N: It was great! I loved it! I need some grime in my life!
That cassette series you did had a title that translated to ‘lost in the dirt.’ Same impulse?
N: That was three or four years ago when we titled it. It was a friend’s suggestion. The newest album title was a friend’s suggestion, too. But a different person. It kind of captured the feeling we were going for. It was the second thing we released, and we wanted something that wasn’t clean or conventional. It conjured up images of finding like … a record no one has heard before, or like tapes in someone’s garage. That’s what we pictured the record as—a lost treasure.
Are you actually making albums you hope get lost like that?
N: I was actually talking to a friend at a show the other day. We talked about how some bands aren’t recognized until five or ten years after they stop making music. I think I’m one of the only people trying … not necessarily to cultivate that, but I realize that might be what happens to us. Not that we aren’t popular—I don’t even know if we are!—but I accept that maybe that’ll happen and I’m OK with that. I don’t know if a lot of people who play music have that concept. It seems like they think, ‘We’re gonna be a successful band!’ It’ll prove it was somewhat timeless if someone can go back ten years from now and listen. And if you stay true in your musical endeavors, it’s always gonna be timeless. If you’re not influenced by outside music or art, it’ll stand out in ten years cuz it’s gonna sound different.
Which of the following British people means the most to you—Brian Eno, Mark E. Smith or Colin Newman? How have they warped your life?
Jose Bacillo (bass): For me Mark E. Smith. I like the way he approaches music. He’ll hire classically trained musicians and say, ‘OK—everything you’ve learned, forget about that.’ I always think about that. When I’m playing, I wanna do one thing—I ask myself, ‘Why do I want to do this?’ And I work with that.
So you interrogate your every impulse?
J: As much as I can.
Why? To not be lazy?
J: It goes back to being a minimal three piece. If I’m gonna play on stage, I’m gonna have fun doing that. So if I’m not happy playing what I’m playing, I’m gonna rework it til I’m happy. I’m not just doing it cuz I need to follow the guitar.
Who’s someone you think about when you write that never made music at all?
J: Right now—which is weird cuz I never read his actual novels, but just his autobiography—is Louis L’Amour. I really like his autobiography. It’s called Education of a Wandering Man. He went around in his twenties to work his way through college by being a sailor and got to go all over the world. Parts of Asia that a lot of the west didn’t know about. I like his no-bullshit attitude. Kind of the working-man approach. It’s a lot about sticking to your morals and principles. It helps because a lot of times, especially with us, it’s hard … we don’t have a clique. A lot of bands have certain groups, but we’re not quite L.A., not quite O.C. and because of that …
I feel like the record has that kind of disconnection built into it—an outside-looking-in perspective.
J: It works for us cuz we don’t really party. We’re not sharing the same records. We kinda keep our own little bubble. That sounds like a bad thing.
N: The record is like an observation of L.A. I moved here five years ago. It’s my painting or view of Los Angeles life and the city and how people live. It was really hard to adjust. When I first moved, I had a safety bubble around myself. I was only comfortable going four blocks that way and four blocks that way. ‘Maybe tomorrow … I’ll go to CVS!’ Eventually the bubble popped, and I became totally comfortable with the whole city. But I still have moments like, ‘Holy shit! I live in L.A.—I’m such a tiny speck in the huge city!’
Is this album from the perspective of the specks?
N: We speak for the specks!
What are the morals and principles you guys try and stick to?
N: I’d say … a strong work ethic. Keep driving and going.
And didn’t you drive all the way to Texas in a day?
N: We did!
J: One guy did it
N: Thank you, Raymond!
Even though he couldn’t be here today.
J: He’s still resting!
N: We don’t turn down shows, really. We try to write new material constantly. We keep changing and evolving. Like a lot of great band—like Wire, there’s such a strange arc to their career. Each album is a painting. Pere Ubu is like that. I don’t wanna stay static. We do a lot of deconstructing. We’re labeled with ‘surf guitar’ a lot, mostly because the reverb. We just try and go as simple as possible, so we can break away from everything. It’s like unlearning something to create something new. Like making a sculpture out of junk. Creating something new out of something that’s already there.
Like the studio.
N: Exactly! We’ve been played in a lot of skate videos lately. We think building a studio out of the remains of a skate ramp had something to do with it.
You should build a new one out of the remains of a car commercial.
N: We’ve been practicing inside an Econoline van lately!
Where do you write really? And how does the ‘where’ affect what you write about? The Minutemen wrote songs at work—how does it change a song when you’re not writing on your own time?
N: It definitely changes my subject matter. I’m influenced a lot by what’s going on around me. There are lyrics about building and creating something that were probably fueled by being around all that wood and construction and chaos.
Could it work the other way around? What kind of cabinet would someone make if they got inspired by Dirt Dress?
N: I hope so! They’d make something with a lot of echo in it. Open up a cabinet and get natural slapback. Like the Capitol Records echo chamber. I wrote ‘Peter and the Wolf’ on the first record on my way home from working construction. I had a tape recorder before an iPhone, and I spoke the lyrics in the tape on the way home. I write a lot of lyrics now buffing CDs at work. It’s an automatic buffer, so I have 30 seconds from when I press the button to write lyrics. Then I clean the CD and write lyrics and start again. It’s a disjointed collage of a song. 30 second increments of thoughts.
Do all those CDs affect what you think about? You’d be like a used record store come to life.
N: Subconsciously! My songs are ghosts of all these failed musicians.
What were the newest ideas you had when you were making the album?
N: We had a group of songs picked for the record when we went in, but one song in particular—‘Royalty In Exile’—we hadn’t written completely yet. We decided to do it the last day and zipped through it really fast. It didn’t work the first time, and we played it again it was perfect. That might be one of the strong songs? As far as thoughts on how it sounds, the feeling … I wanted it to be desperate sounding.
How do you make yourself feel appropriately desperate?
N: How do I enter the desperate mindset? I’m always there. It’s natural! I like records that set the mood where … the Birthday Party does this well. It’s not really melody but Rowland S. Howard’s disgusting fuzz and reverb. You can’t pick out what he’s doing, but you totally feel it and it’s incredible. I wanna bring some of that to the record.
So you’re writing subliminally?
N: Abstract—and we wanted the artwork to match.
I read a review of you guys that said like, ‘Dirt Dress is from Los Angeles—to their credit, they don’t sound like it.’ Huge dis?
N: I feel totally connected to Los Angeles. I listen to a lot of stuff like X and Gun Club. Put the CDs on when you drive through the giant concrete buildings downtown, and you can picture them in the room thinking of what you’re seeing at that exact moment. Maybe they’re not necessarily singing about L.A., but you can feel it. And there is a large difference with the bands from L.A. than in San Francisco. A lot in the ‘60s—the Doors and Love were still really pretty and poppy, but they had a darkness to them. San Francisco is more dreamy. In L.A. you feel this pent-up tension—you just wanna … I dunno how to describe it. As far as our lyrics … some of them I don’t know if I even completely understand them! But as far as the music, it’s how big L.A. is—that’ll be conveyed through the record. It’s this really giant chaotic record. It kind of portrays L.A. sonically.
Why do you want things so abstract and subliminal?
N: I like to keep my lyrics really vague and open for interpretation. So when people listen they can have their own connection, rather than me telling them what they should feel.
What should they feel? Just tell ‘em in this interview.
N: Never! I never wanna explain my lyrics. It’s like learning a magic trick, or seeing someone in person when you’ve only heard their voice on the radio. There’s a Brian Eno song called ‘Dead Finks Don’t Lie’—I got really obsessed with that song and I’m convinced it’s a fuck you to Bryan Ferry! But I don’t wanna research it cuz that’ll change. I don’t wanna know if it’s not really about what I think it’s about.
What kind of messages do you get back? What do people hear in your songs and then try and talk to you about?
N: I haven’t gotten a lot back. I got a question about ‘Royalty In Exile.’ ‘I’m a trust-fund baby—is that about me?’ I like to give simple general answers. ‘It’s about death.’
What’s the saddest song on the album and what’s the funniest?
J: He never tells me what songs are about!
What if they’re all about YOU?
N: Think about that next time you play a bassline! The funniest on the record for me is ‘Stray Cats.’ Should I say what that’s about? In a general way, it’s about our experience at SXSW. The saddest is ‘Children.’ It’s just a narrative. Figure it out. Cut and dry.
What’s an album you wish you’d never heard? So you could go back knowing what you know now and hear it fresh?
J: For me, probably Tom Waits. I kind of wish I got into him now. When I hear him now, I think of old high school stuff. It’s kinda … lame? It’s hard for me to hear it new again, and now I hardly ever touch his stuff and it bums me out.
You used it all up?
J: Exactly—I got really into him. And now … I’d have a new approach to listening to Tom Waits now, as opposed to 9th-grader me.
N: Steely Dan! My dad was a huge Steely Dan fan, and there was always a Steely Dan cassette in the car. Steely Dan is so attached to my childhood memories. I love the music, but I feel like if I didn’t listen to it as a child I’d not love it, and I’d be totally OK with that.
What will you force your kids to listen to?
N: I know they’ll be listening to lot of Marquee Moon!