“The main thing is I just assumed that when you are a rockstar, that’s what you GET to do. You GET to do everything. You get to make books, create music, dance around on stage!” – Amanda F***ing Palmer
Interview by Bradley Stier
She’s coming. In just two short weeks, Amanda Palmer’s much discussed crowd sourced new studio album, Theatre Is Evil, will be upon us. Unlike any of her other work, the world will be watching and surely discussing this release. She took some time out of her insane promotional schedule and wandering around NYC looking for a place for her and Neil Gaiman, her husband, to live to speak with me.
I wondered specifically how she was dealing with the added pressure of releasing this album under such intense scrutiny from the mainstream media. Considering that she has been profiled in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The New York Times and many other publications that probably wouldn’t usually take an interest in her art. She was quite clear that it doesn’t much matter to her what they think:
“All of the increased attention only makes me happy because I am insanely proud of this record. I cannot tell you how proud I am of the fucking record. I think it’s incredible.
Any attention that I am getting from these publications is just icing. I’m not expecting that 99.9% of the people who have read about me in the Wall Street Journal will check out my record, but for the handful that do, I am grateful for that.
Anything that helps bring attention to the record, I am a fan of because the record is just fantastic.”
I was interested if there was any particular narrative thread that weaves through Theatre Is Evil’s song cycle. With the stylistic leaps in the four preview tracks Palmer has released in promoting the album, it seemed that the songs would run the gamut from “Trout Heart Replica” and its desolate view of a relationship’s end to the ecstatic burst of “Want It Back.”
She opened up to me about her songwriting process and the place she finds herself in when looking back on these songs:
“I always make every record fundamentally the same way in that I am always writing songs and I always have a pile of them at any given time that I consider the best of them that I haven’t released. I put my bundle of songs into my bag and take them into the studio and kind of do a “best-of” the last few years of songwriting. I’ve never written a song in the studio. I was just talking to Ben Folds about this. He literally goes into a studio and writes a record. I’ve never done that before in my entire life. I just don’t work that way.
So I don’t usually don’t figure out what the themes of an album are until after I’ve done it. An interesting part about recording this recording this record was reading all of the lyrics and attacking all of these songs at the same time going, “Oh, a lot of these songs are really similar!” And there are definitely themes that pop out that make sense to me for where I was personally at between 2008 and 2011, which is when the bulk of this album was written. I was dealing a lot with coming to terms with losing things and people and redefining myself.
I think it’s a really positive record, even though there are some really heartbreaking songs on it. It feels like the most empowered set of songs I’ve ever set to record. It’s not as angsty or if it is angsty, it’s angsty with fuck-you-it’s-fine icing on top, which is in line with what my personal development has been. I’ve learned to work through my angst and use it as modeling clay for stairs to a better place.”
Amanda first came to prominence as one half of the punk cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls. Fans know intimately the tumultuous relationship between her and Brian Viglione, the other member. I wondered how working with a new band related to her work with Brian. Amanda positively glowed when talking about her experience working with her new band, the Grand Theft Orchestra.
“The band is such a huge positive force in my life!
Brian and I made incredible music together, but we also had an extremely fraught relationship. There is an inherent kind-of pained beauty to The Dresden Dolls that I don’t think you can ever hear anywhere else because Brian and I were just this collision with each other. It worked really well on stage and really well on record. But it definitely had an emotional tone of its own and its own four walls it had to stay within.
My relationship with my new band is so easy and positive and non-dramatic in comparison. I feel like you can hear it in the production of the music. It’s a bunch of people just working hard together to put out this product.
Just having the ability to arrange these songs differently and to step away from the piano front a band and collaborate has been so liberating. I loved being able to explain a beat to a drummer and bass line to a guitarist. It opened up a whole new world for me as far as creating music. You can totally hear that new liberation on the record and I am so thankful to the Grand Theft Orchestra for helping me realize that.
I feel really lucky because when I decided that I needed a band for the record I was terrified that I was going to wind up with a lot of pain and drama and strangers. Instead, it just feels like I made a fantastic new family and we all get to travel together.”
We talked a bit more about the band and I found out that, in addition to all three of them being quite easy on the eyes, they all have brought multiple things to the table.
“Each member of my band wears a couple of different hats and they all seem to possess their own superpowers.
Michael McQuilken was the first to come on board. He’s actually my ex-boyfriend which is a little ironic because there are songs on the record that are about him. [laughs] Wasn’t awkward at all!
We had initially gotten together because he was a director and we wanted to explore him directing the upcoming tour. He also just happens to be a drummer and a damn good one, so when he volunteered to come on as my drummer, I said sure!
He brought in Chad Raines who is a multi-instrumentalist genius. He plays synthesizer, guitar and trumpet. He did all of the horn arrangements for the record and when we play live, conducts the horn section.
Jherek Bischoff is an astounding bass player. He is making a name for himself independently as an avant garde classical composer. He did all of the string and orchestral arrangements for the record and conducts the string sections live.
So, everyone are complete renaissance freaks and all of them are fantastic, theatrical performers. It’s just a joy to play with them on stage and we have so much fun every night.”
One of the things I have always loved about Amanda’s output is that it is never singular. Each album release coincides with a book of art somehow inspired by the music, a fully realized theatrical tour, all new merchandise, and so much more, all at once. I asked her where the drive comes from to take on so much at once.
“To me that seems normal! The main thing is I just assumed that when you are a rockstar, that’s what you GET to do. You GET to do everything. You get to make books, create music, dance around on stage! You get to do whatever the fuck you want! I’m almost upset that I don’t have time to do more because I want to do everything!
An album is a great excuse to hang a whole bunch of other artistic expressions, mine and others. I love the idea of an art explosion where everyone gets to express themselves. It’s why it has always been so important to me to help and spotlight the fans of mine that are art makers, painters, and performers. I want to share the spotlight more than I want to be in it most of the time. That’s what vitalizes me and keeps me interested in being alive. I don’t want to sit on the stage alone wanking.
I think from the dawn of The Dresden Dolls that’s what I’ve been trying to do is create the biggest party possible with the biggest number of creative attendees at any given time.”
Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra are currently touring the US behind Theatre is Evil, which is due out on September 11th. Catch her at Variety Playhouse in Atlanta on September 15.