Toward the end of the Dum Dum Girls’ garage-rock reign, founder Kristin Welchez lost control of her own artistic identity, folding deeper into the shell of her stage character, Dee Dee: a stone-cold punk archetype that restricted her from exploring her natural creative intuition. By stripping away Dee Dee’s fabricated layers, Kristin was able to search herself for truth, thawing away the illusive Ice Queen to take her sound from ’60s nostalgia to ’80s pop and unearth the more dreamy, anthemic project, Kristin Kontrol.
Her debut album, X-Communicate, provides a strong introduction to Kristin’s new moniker, nailing that hard-to-find soft spot between bright, fiery guitars, glistening synths and immediate radio hooks. Much like Gwen Stefani’s first solo effort, Love Angel Music Baby, Kristin’s managed to create an accessible, radio-friendly LP without losing the subversive undertones of her previous work—not that the two draw any sonic similarities. Kristin Kontrol rides in a lane of her own, though critics have lazily compared the project to Madonna, Carly Rae Jepsen and Tegan and Sara, all of which ignore the complexity of Kristin’s solo breakout.
Album opener, “Show Me,” sounds like an instant classic, best suited for a big band, arena-style performance, though her current live show’s horn section will suffice for now. “There’s no need to change ourselves,” she repeats above loaded pop production—a line I’ll admit has taken my casual city stroll to a full-blown strut when listening in headphones. This sparkling strength continues with key songs, like “White Street” and lead single, “X-Communicate.” On “Skin Shed,” Kristin successfully tackles ’90s-imbued house and with “What Is Love,” she proves syrupy simplicity is a perfect backdrop for her fluttering vocals.
We recently caught up with Kristin Kontrol to talk about her new album, which we’ve already deemed one of 2016’s strongest releases to date.
Why did you decide to end Dum Dum Girls?
The archetype of the band started working against where I wanted to go. In that sense, I realized I lost authority over my art because I couldn’t do what I wanted to do in a way that made sense in the context that people see Dum Dum Girls as. So I was like, ‘Okay, well I’m not going to waste time trying to figure out how I fit whatever square of music in my circle box. Instead, I just opened the floodgates.
How have you changed since introducing Dee Dee to the world?
I’ve grown up quite a bit and my intentions have changed significantly. When I perform, I don’t want to be the stoic archetype ice queen that people understand Dee Dee as. So I was trying to thaw out in the last bit of touring with the Dum Dum Girls and it just felt, not unnatural, but there was tension. It wasn’t feeling natural because I [was] trying to be honest, but I [was] doing it within the confines of something that [was] artificial. It all solidified in my head. Like, I don’t feel like this is me and this is not the way I can grow for the next 15 years. I’m not a girl—it doesn’t feel like home anymore.
What was your escape plan to launch Kristin Kontrol?
If Dum Dum Girls is whittled down into this focused niche [of] various guitar-based references, whether it was the ’60s, ’70s stuff when I started, or later ’80s ’90s UK indie thing, it’s a small little corner to be in and that maybe represents 10 percent of what I love and have always loved musically. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m just going to like reel it back with all 90 percent of the other stuff that doesn’t make sense with Dum Dum Girls and let that be a part of not only the writing process, but the production process.’ And I [hoped] that by the time I [was] done, [I’d] say to my label, like ‘I’m too weird to be Dum Dum Girls. I’m too much of what is outside the box for this to go over well.’
So Kristin Kontrol is about breaking free of Dee Dee?
Six years in, I was more concerned with honesty and being direct and authentic in my music. It was like, how can I expect to have really vulnerable performances—the type of performances I respond to—if i’m doing it within a character. Now it’s unbecoming all the facade. All the artifice stuff I made up, that were for good reasons and made sense artistically, but it’s arriving back at a comfort level with myself where I don’t need any training wheels.
How does X-Communicate compare to previous albums?
In terms of songwriting, I initially abandoned guitar completely because I was trying to change every area of how I did things as Dum Dum Girls to try and bring in new results. How can you expect the end result to be different if you don’t change how you get to it? But I had to bring it back because I’m just not a good songwriter on the piano. I also tried to write in a way that I hadn’t before, in terms of using my full vocal range. I wanted to sing really high and low and have it be much more expressive. I come from a classical singing background. I used to sing opera and I was in choir forever; I studied voice and did music in college, but I never felt like, ‘Oh, I can just sing.’ I was like, ‘I’m not cool enough to hone that fuller picture.’ But is Kate Bush not the coolest musician ever and does she not do the craziest shit? Aren’t her songs not the hardest songs to [sing on] karaoke? That’s what I’m going to let be my compass.
Lyrically, what was your focus for this project?
I didn’t have any intention when I started writing other than to write naturally and get back to where I first started writing. I’d be walking around and see something and jot it down, then draft some story around that. I think I was trying to be direct, honest and have a little fun because yeah, I’ve been a goth since I was 12 and obviously I write lots of sad songs, but I’m also pretty silly and there’s no reason why I can’t represent the full me. I’m not one-dimensional, so I don’t want my record to reinforce anything that would apply that.
Visually, what’re your plans for packaging Kristin Kontrol?
I haven’t set anything as a template because I want there to be room to explore, but I’ve tried to not wear red lipstick or fishnets, not that I do that on my day-to-day basis. I am looking to have more fun with everything. I was obsessed with Thin White Duke-era bowie for a long time and I want to have a lot of matching looks and maybe a pantsuit. Who knows? I’ll stick the band in all dark and wear silver lamé. It’s going to be fabulous.
Do you have any fears embarking on this new project?
My initial concern was, ‘Will my existing fans follow me?’ Aside from maybe five negative reactions I’ve received personally, it’s been overwhelmingly supportive. Dum Dum Girls is very precious to a small group of people and a lot of them are young women. I was really concerned I was disbanding this feminist art piece, and that they’d feel disrespected. But they all kind of rallied and were like, ‘No, we’re so stoked for you.’ So I feel like most Dum Dum Girls fans are open to giving me the opportunity to show them what I’m capable of.