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“My subconscious reveals itself” – The Das Fluff interview

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Dawn Lintern is a 21st century chanteuse. Das Fluff, the band she fronts, her band, produces songs, her songs, of dark beguilement, songs such as “Rage” that lure you in then mesmerize you like you’ve been drugged then drag you with an ecstatic force around the strobing dancefloor then leave you in a thrilled heap under the flashing neon, gasping for more. Their latest album, Meditation and Violence, left an indelible mark on Stereo Embers (witness the review), so much so that an interview was imperative. Forthcoming and unflinching, what followed over a couple months of emails stretched across the holidays, is required reading.

Stereo Embers: If you’ll pardon me asking so bluntly, where did you come from? Only ask because I have a fairly good radar for what’s going on, especially when it comes to anything that sounds remotely post-punk/coldwave/dark electro-pop. So if you could, some background, please, bit of a thumbnail sketch (or more, if you wish) of the sequence of events that led to Das Fluff.

DAWN LINTERN: Interesting you should ask this today as last night one of our big fans dug up and posted a live video of me playing a solo acoustic gig four or five years ago. I watched it as if I was watching and listening to someone else or a distant relative. The lyrics were bitter-sweet, partly vitriolic and dark but the singing and melody line very light and lyrical compared to what I’m doing now. Most significantly, the person singing was hiding behind a somewhat colossal twelve string and was playing to the audience rather than playing at them, which is very much what I do now, demanding attention rather than politely offering something. The music I made before Das Fluff – let’s say from 2006 when I started again after a long break, was restricted by my shyness and lack of confidence and the fact that I was playing (or trying to play), guitar and writing songs with a guitar. You might detect shades of Velvet Underground, Bowie, The Smiths, Mamas and Papas, The Marine Girls, Nina Simone, Billy Holiday, Echo and the Bunnymen, Suede, The Sundays, Cocteau Twins and Radiohead. Lyrics were always painfully honest and seldom expressing happiness or contentment. Always a yearning for something or a critical view of the world and it’s inhabitants but it was a relatively quiet commentary. As I grew more confident as a performer and began to want people to actually pay attention because it was becoming more important to me, the sound got louder, more urgent and more desperate. At that time I was very much seeking collaborators because I felt I needed them. My experience in home-recording and arranging was limited to having a casio and a Tascam 4 track as a teenager, when music was the most important thing in my life for a few years (as is the case with pretty much every teenager).  There were my roots in electronic music, which I grew up with. The ‘New Romantics’ and ‘The Electrics’, as they were known, at least where I grew up, were phenomenally exciting to me and shaped the way I dressed, the kind of people I wanted to hang out with and the vinyl and copies of ‘Smash Hits’ and ‘The Face’ soaked up all the money I made at my ‘Saturday job’.

This influence wasn’t detectable in my music when I went back to making it in 2006 simply because the casio wasn’t working anymore (though I still had it).

I then met someone who hadn’t stopped making electronic music. Our record collections were largely replicas. We started writing together. I learned how to write songs with big beats and bass lines. I didn’t have to play the guitar anymore. I no longer had something to hide behind. I had to learn to be at ease with myself on stage. Our sounds and my voice became bigger and my desperation to get through to an audience and be heard forced me or enabled me to gradually morph into the ‘terrifying’, ‘formidable’, ‘scary’, ‘mesmerising’, ‘deranged’ front-woman I now find myself being described as.

My relationships and friendships have always been intense.  I am hyper-sensitive to any pain inflicted upon me by someone else and by the ‘damage’ I see people causing each other and the world as a whole. This feeds into my lyrics and music. This has become a dark and dangerous cycle because that’s what I write about. Without it I wouldn’t know what to write or have the need to write. I’ve become dependent on my own ‘pain’ and ‘rage’. Perhaps I seek it out and attract it. The pain is part of the music. It’s what I am offering. At the same time the struggle, as a driven maker-of music, to get people to not just listen to your music, but love it and pay for it, also brings it’s own string of misery, disappointment, anger, frustration and heart-ache. Coming back into music, teenage years ancient history, there is also a sense of time running out. Of acute urgency, which brings its own pressure and desperation to create and get as much music out there and as many gigs in as possible.

The intense relationships can filter into band relationships and this has led to a string of band ‘break-ups’ (which in turn have lead to albums full of songs). The break-ups ultimately forced me to become totally independent. Now I only write on my own and do all the electronic arrangements. This is a learning experience (a difficult one as I am technophobic) but also a big adventure. Much more demanding than just strumming a few made-up chords on a guitar along with a universe of sounds to play with.

SE: Strumming solo acoustic only “four or five years ago.” Aside from trying (and mostly failing) to square that image with what I know of your live performance now, how did that growth in confidence come about? I mean, meeting someone simpatico with whom you can collaborate is certainly a catalyst but no guarantee. As well, many can fantasize about becoming the dynamic front person for a band but very few find a way. Most all of us have our stories of how we went from shy and self-conscious to being, well, the relative opposite of those things but yours seems a particularly dramatic shift. Anything specific in your background, your DNA, your, I dunno, astrological chart, that accounts for that drive?

DL: I was a quiet, shy rather lonely only child, however a desire to get on stage and direct people and create some kind of performance, started when I was in infants school when I would ‘direct’ and be in silly little shows. The first time I sang publicly was at one of these (I sang ‘Sunny’). I was ten. It was an unremarkable performance and I accidentally skipped a whole verse, much to the consternation of the girl on stage who was doing a tap dance to it (really).

I also used to ‘choreograph’ and create little dance performances. Again I was not a natural and the shows were not by any stretch of the imagination remotely impressive. Still there was some desire to create and perform.

I started writing songs as a teenager. These were really poems about my heartache set to a few easy, made-up chords. I then met a ‘musician’ who became my boyfriend (much to the dismay of my parents. He was 24 and I was 16). We formed a ‘band’. Electronic backing (on a reel to reel machine). He played guitar and I ‘sang’. After I got off stage the first time I heard one of his friends say ‘Dawn was awful’. I never considered myself to have a ‘good voice’.  I don’t know why I carried on but there was a compulsion. I went on to form a band with friends from college where were doing A level Theatre Studies. I got the lead parts and the praise so I guess the confidence began to grow from there. I went on to University studying English Literature and Drama and again I got the leads, got a First and started directing. Directing is probably where my sense of theatricality and aesthetics found itself and this eventually filtered into Das Fluff. I was awe-inspired particularly by Pina Bausch. I still consider her to be the greatest artist of all time and the depth, power, intense pain and darkness – coupled with humour and exquisite beauty, encompasses everything I could possibly want from a performance. I feel her influence in my movements in some of the videos we have made (though I could never in a million years come anywhere near to the physical performances of her or her company members). I’ve collected vintage clothes since I was fourteen and again, that shared aesthetic is very much part of what I do.

Then there is yoga. I’ve been teaching it for about fourteen years now. This has been useful in many ways in relation to performing. Most importantly its impact on my voice. The breathing I do in yoga which is now ingrained in me whether I’m doing the postures or just walking down the street, has fed power and control into my voice and widened its range. Standing and demonstrating postures and movements in front of people who are studying your body and obeying your instructions is also, strangely, good training for being on stage.

Lastly being a woman (hard to get respect from any sound engineer and people will generally assume that the guitarist is your boyfriend and the keyboard player writes all the songs and does the arrangements), you have to fight for the right to be on stage. Even more so when you are not in your twenties.

Being in a band has resulted in a lot of new contacts and close friendships but it has also alienated a few of my old established friends. They perhaps disapprove or don’t like the music, some are jealous or don’t understand it or think I am having some excrutiatingly embarrassing mid-life-crisis. I’m sure some are terrified I might write a song about them.  I think I feel obliged to justify what I’m doing  by trying to do the best and biggest performance I possibly can.  There’s also an element of ‘I’m experiencing the most amazing thing imaginable performing on stage. Better than any drug, better than anything, while you are winding yourself down and preparing for old age so FUCK YOU.’  Again, more angry material for songs.

I don’t want to get old. I don’t want to stop doing this. The time is fast approaching when doing this, no matter how well I may be able to, it will be seen as embarrassing by the majority of people because rock stars are generally bright, beautiful young things and the best ones don’t even experience old age. Again, urgency and pain. So it’s ‘watch me, listen to me now. I haven’t got long’.

SE: That urgency is readily apparent in your work, and if anything Meditation & Violence is fiercer than Would You Die For Me?. I’m interested in digging a bit deeper into the gender aspect. It’s come up frequently when you and I have chatted and while I clearly understand the issues and am sympathetic to them in the extreme – and in terms of aging, even having the xy chromosome set-up doesn’t protect one from getting double takes at clubs and shows (must be one of the musicians’ dad) – the fact I’m not female and not a performer sets me outside it regardless how strong my understanding might be. Has it surprised you at all how much sexism still persists in the otherwise liberal ‘rock’ world, and has it gotten any better since you’ve started performing?

DL: I’ll answer by way of an example: I’ve spent every spare moment over the last two weeks grappling with using a piece of equipment that grown men drool over. When I told the salesman in the shop I was interested in buying a Virus TI2, his face lit up. He said ‘I’ve got one, honestly I have, I can show you a photo of it on my phone’.

He clearly felt as much love for his digital synthisiser as any mother could be expected to have for her child.

Linking this magnificent piece of kit up with my Logic software proved to be something of a challenge.  The specific problems I had, other (men) had also had – the evidence was on the forum sites but either my brain doesn’t work in the right way to deal with this geekery and it shuts off, or I just can’t be arsed to apply myself and resolve issues.  I work quickly and want immediate results. I’m also not motivated by wanting to show off the most impressive and coveted tools on-stage. Likewise I wouldn’t choose to drive a sports car.

When I called the salesman and told him all about my ongoing problems with the Virus, he said ‘oh you poor thing’, as if he was talking to a child who’d just grazed their knee. That just about did it for me. It’s back in it’s box.

Women buying this kind of equipment are something of a novelty and even when I’ve been looking for something as simple as a guitar, if I go into a shop accompanied by a male and ask questions about an instrument, or anything else, for that matter, the (male) shop assistant will invariably address the man I might happen to be with when answering my questions.

Generally people are taken aback to learn that I don’t just sing and write the songs, but also do the electronic arrangements.  Soundmen (there are a few women popping up now), are mostly dismissive or patronising. I recall going to an open-mic night quite early on in my ‘career’ . A revered female jazz singer was playing that night, doing a line-check in front of the audience. By the end of the line-check she was telling the soundman he was behaving like ‘a total asshole’ and informed him she’d been doing this for twenty years and could show him how to do his job properly. At the time I found her behaviour quite shocking and embarrassing but now, many soundchecks later, I totally understand her frustration and anger and need to stand up for herself.

When I went back to playing music in 2006, the charts were dominated by blokey-bands with guitars. There has since been a proliferation of female singers and female-fronted bands and I have several hugely talented female singer friends. It feels less daunting knowing there is a ‘market’ for the female within music now – but I think it will always be more of a struggle for a woman to ‘succeed’  in the music business  than for a man.  If not exceptionally beautiful, prepared to get your kit off, going out with someone famous or regularly getting in the tabloids by making a drugged-crazed spectacle of yourself, it’s going to be a battle for attention. I’d like to think that pure talent shines through but I listen to the radio and know that is not the case.

SE: Let’s dig a little deeper into process. How do the songs tend to come about? Words first? Snippet of melody? Concept? Once begun, how long generally from initial spark to full flame? Do they come together fairly easily once they’ve begun to emerge or is it more of a wrestling match? Always interested in this kind of thing, I’m sort of collecting ‘musician’s process’ answers.

DL: When I started writing songs they generally began with guitar chord sequences. Then the words and melody would emerge.

Lyrics generally come swiftly and easily to me once I have an idea/theme/subject or stream of consciousness going.

Now that I mainly work with electronics, my starting point for a song tends to be a bass line or a simple synth line with a particular rhythm.  Occasionally a lyric with a melody line will come to me – perhaps an idea for a chorus – sometimes when I’m walking down the street. When that happens I surreptitiously pretend to make a phone call and record the idea on my phone so as not to forget it.

It is quite rare for me to not see ideas for songs through. I have hardly any ‘unfinished’ songs, though I have a couple which have been abandoned because I think they are not good enough.  I won’t consider a song finished or good enough unless it really conveys my gut feeling or my deepest – or previously unconscious, thoughts. When it comes to writing lyrics, the subject often surprises me. My subconsciousness reveals itself – very similar to the way in which dreams reveal emotions, fears and anxieties we may not have been aware of.

If I have a melody line, very often it is the ‘shape’ of the word  – the way I feel that  the mouth should open and move, which leads to finding the words. This probably relates to the way the vocal chords, the body, the mouth, all work and coordinate in particular emotional states – crying, laughing, shouting, whispering, screaming. Facial expressions have become quite important in my live performances and that is very much to do with the effect of my use of the voice and the emotions behind it.

My song-writing is generally fairly speedy. What can take more time are the electronic arrangements.  The two are very much integrated within Das Fluff’s sound and I find it much easier to consider a song ‘finished’ in terms of writing the melody and the lyrics than to consider the final arrangement finished and good enough.

I don’t have a lot of control over what I write. I might sit down with the intention of writing a dance track and end up with something quite different. I don’t set down any rules and always have an open mind. If the ideas don’t come, I don’t try and force them. I used to be a little fearful of not being able to keep up the standard of my songwriting once I’d written a few songs that became our fan’s favourites. Now I am quite relaxed about it and trust that my arrangements are getting better and hopefully the songs will get better too.

SE: Finally, for fun, if someone were to rummage through your record collection (the one in your flat or the one in your head), what sorts of artists would they find that would genuinely surprise them?

DL: I have been trying to think of records in my collection that might be a genuine surprise but I’m not sure if there are any real surprises in there …

Oddities tend to be older recordings – Django Reinhardt, The Inkspots, Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, Shirley Bassey, Nina Simone. A couple of show albums – Cabaret and A Chorus Line. I know the lyrics to both of those by heart. The Muppets …Fred Astaire?

All the rest are pretty predictable. Bowie, Velvet Underground, Rolling Stones, Bryan Ferry, stacks of 80’s electro, The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, Cocteau Twins, The Sundays, Lloyd Cole, Bauhaus, New Order, Gary Numan, Lene Lovich, Prefab Sprout, Ricky Lee Jones, Deelite, Soft Cell, Marine Girls, Abba …

Nothing out of the ordinary.

SE: Well thanks, Dawn, ’twas a pleasure. Hope to see Das Fluff back in Portland some time, umm, how about next summer? Thanks again.

DL: Thank you for showing such an interest. It’s been an interesting exercise being asked all of these questions and has made me stop and think about what I’m doing. Something I rarely do. In fact, I very seldom stop. And I’d love to come back to Portland again – if only to buy even more vintage dresses and hats and go back to that lovely old diner for another obscenely big breakfast.

[Need more? Click here for all things Fluff, and read a review of “Meditation and Violence here]