"I was trying on my outfit earlier [for the video release party], which is why I have on a crazy outfit right now. This is not my day wear," Kristin Dennis of Née reassures me about her purple one piece jumpsuit with gold buckled belt as we walked into Native Sound Studio. Dennis is lively as her music and speaks with such inflection and theatrics that she takes on different voices and almost, different personalities in order to get her stories across. It's no wonder that she fronts a pop band designed to enrapture you with epic movements, both musically and physically.
Dennis and bandmate David Beeman talked about their upcoming release, Finches and the single "Pretty Girls," which was featured in that video premiere, while studio cat Gray Boy licked everyone's ankles and snatched what attention he could. There's a chemistry between Dennis and Beeman that couldn't be denied though their conversation. They joke with one another in ways that only two people who have known each other for quite sometime could get away with. Finches release date is still uncertain, but that's not slowing down the band at all. Dennis has big pop plans stemming from her Michigan background.
Cassie Kohler: What was the goal on Finches? How did you want it to be different from the Hands of Thieves EP?
Kristin Dennis: So the first record, I made by myself on my computer in our bedroom studio in Oregon. I wanted to make pop music. For the most part, that was just a total solo thing. Then last fall, Mic [Boshans of Humdrum and Union Electric], Lex [Herbert] and David [Beeman of Old Lights] joined the band and we were really able to get rid of the sampler and play everything live. For me personally, that's been an interesting process, and it's been really good for me as a person. The guys have been very patient with me. I want it to be perfect, and I think if I don't do everything then there's no way it could be perfect. Then we do it and it's better than if I was just doing everything on my own. So that's really guided the sound of the record. It's a lot fuller -- there's room for parts that wouldn't have been there because I wouldn't have been able to play them.
Was the final outcome what you expected going into the project?
How did things morph?
What I expected was basically to continue the style and sound platform of what I had done before. Before, I was just making shit and putting it out there. I would have however many tracks on the song because I don't have to play it. I expected it [the new album] to be stripped down in a sense. As we got deeper into the recording process, the songs started turning out like songs I was writing before. All these melodies, those huge epic soaring melodies and the old timey harmonies of gospel music with female choruses actually came through the record way more than I expected. I'm really happy about it.
What were you listening to while you were writing and recording? Audio books, to be perfectly honest. I listen to audio books all the time. I'm listening to the Wheel of Time right now, which is the most epic series ever. I'm twelve books into the series, and I listen to it constantly. There are definitely some echoes and lyrics from these books. Musically, I love Peaches. I'll never be able to do what she does, that's her thing and nobody can do it. But I love listening to her and being like, "Yeah I can be a bad ass, too!" I love LCD Soundsystem, the Bloody Beetroots and MSTRKRFT, these bands that are really putting it out there with party music. Oh, and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's Howl, which is a very out there [album] to listen to for making a pop album, but man, that record is so good. Oh, YACHT, that's another record that came out recently.
Where did the idea for the single, "Pretty Girls" come from?
[David Beeman joined us at this point in the studio after running to get Jimmy John's. The soda cup is still in his hands, but the sandwich has been demolished at this point.]
KD: I think there are a lot of pieces to that. But the relatable narrative would be you break up with somebody and then all of a sudden they start dating a million people and the pretty girl comes back into their life. I think it's funny because you always want what you can't have and as soon as you don't have it you're like, "Uh, shit."
So, why did you decided to collaborate with Ryan McNeely of Adult Fur on a "Pretty Girls" remix? KD: I've known Ryan for a long time; I think he was probably my first friend in Missouri. He and I did a bunch of weird basement electronic music together. He is awesome at what he does. We were thinking about the single and what we should do on the b-side. We were like, "Let's just go total pop and do a remix for the b-side." Ryan was the first person I thought of. He is so excellent at taking something and making it something else, making it weird. He just has his own particular style.
Did you guys do any new recording techniques with this album? KD: David, did we do any new recording techniques with this album?
David Beeman: No. No, lots of old techniques.
KD: This is now what we recorded it on. [pointing to gear in the studio].
So everything was done in here?
KD: Yeah. So not new, but definitely different from the last record in a major way. Rather than starting on Pro Tools, we started on that machine called an HD24. It isn't a visual interface, which was kind of hard for me to get used to.
DB: Well, we recorded drums to tape, like a rock & roll band.
KD: Recording an electronic pop band to tape, I guess that was pretty novel. Also, we didn't use any computer instruments. We used real synthesizers, real drums, guitars. All the arpeggios are actually triggered. We triggered the synthesizers from a click track coming out of the HG24 so even that duddudduddudu, coming out on "Pretty Girls" is actually a real synthesizer. That's not sequenced at all.
DB: The point of it is so that we can play it live. We don't play with tracks; we play it all live. If you just sequence everything on a computer you can't do that, you're just singing karaoke. Everything that we recorded we can perform as a band.
Kristin was telling me that was really big part of making that album. What do you think that brought to the music?
DB: It just makes it so that it has life: real humans making real performances. That's the main difference.
If someone were going to ask you to give a summary of the new album, what would you say to them? What can people expect when they pick it up? KD: It's definitely still a pop record. I feel like the songs are stronger for me. There's a stronger presence, it's a little bolder and the instrumentation is bolder too, like the gnarly distorted guitars. I think we had a foundation and now we are really moving in a solid direction. I know where we are going, and we know where we are going because we are a band now. It's an evolution into something that I think is more what I've always wanted it to be. Don't you think?
DB: Yeah there's really focused pop hooks both musically and vocally in every song. But the songs are not similar to each other at all. There is slow building stuff that hits really hard and then has a big drop. There's stuff immediately, like super distorted guitars and huge hits that somehow make their way into a dance beat even though they are off time. It's kind of all over the place and every song comes back to this really focused dance-y pop hook, which is kind of cool.
KD: I'm excited about this record and I can't wait to have it done. But I'm even more excited about the next one. We've worked so hard on this. I know where we are going, and I know what kind of songs we are going to write. I'm really looking forward to it.
DB: I don't think we are ever going to make a record after this. [with some slight sarcasm] We are just going to do singles.
KD: Just singles?
DB: Yeah, fuck yeah.
KD: Not another full-length record. We are just going to make a million EPs.
So, just a whole record of singles? Just on the Top 40 charts all the time? [laughs from both]
KD: Just all Top 40, all the time.
Where did the name, Née, come from? KD: Oh god, well, Wikipedia. I mean no, well, yes.
DB: Don't tell lies! [laughs]
KD: I'm not going to tell lies. I just wanted to think of a name for the project because I had already started working on it. I was like, I'm not going to call it Kristin Dennis.
DB: That would be really lame.
KD: That would be so lame. But when I had an office job during my lunch [whispers] or not during lunch, during my shift [end whisper], I used to just go on Wikipedia. I would go on bunny trails forever. So I started reading all these articles and I came across "née." I clicked on the link to see more about it. [Née] is the French word "to be born as" and also colloquially, indicating a women's maiden name. At the time, I felt like I had lost a sense of self and it was a really hard time in my life. I thought that might be a good name for the project because it was a rebirth of my musical ambition and a totally different musical self to put out there. It really conceptualized the project and spoke to me.
So I have to ask you. After talking to you about your angle for the "Pretty Girls" video and then talking to you today as well, what draws you to pop music? You really keep bring up what pop is to you and trying to fulfill the pop genre criteria to the maximum in your own way.
KD: I always played in rock bands or tried to do a folk project. That's where I was stuck. I tended to write something on the guitar, something on the piano, these super simple drums and then sing over it. I was just frankly super bored by that.
DB: She used to play in my band Old Lights, and I don't think she ever liked being the girl in the band that just plays keys and sings pretty. I think it was really empowering for you [Kristin] and matches your personality better. You're a very type A leader. So, to make loud dance music...
KD: ...and the clothes...
DB: ... and [to be] really powerful. As opposed to just the cute little red head singing harmony and playing some keys. This [Née] is who you are.
KD: That was a frustrating stereotype for me. "Oh you're the girl in the band, so you play keys and sing harmony or you play bass," and it was, "Ugh, I play keys and sing harmony." I never settled on a style that was engaging to me. I'm not trying to be Britney Spears. I was in high school in the '90s and pop music with female singers was just out there and everywhere. [Puts on Valley Girl accent] and my friends and I would lay out on the trampoline tanning before cheerleading practice and we'd be like, "Oh my god 'Genie in a bottle.'" That makes me sound really dorky, but I just always loved that, and I still love that. When were in Oregon, I started listening to pop radio and that's when Lady Gaga was really coming out. "Bad Romance" came out and I hadn't heard anything from her. Pop music is still cool. I want to do that. Do it in our own way.
So are you a Gaga fan?
KD: Um, I don't know. I think she is a little too over the top for me. She is really young, and I find her to be somewhat pretentious and that is a little bit of a turn off. But also, she has the best outfits and writes her own songs which I think is awesome. I totally respect her, and I definitely think some of her songs are righteous. Mad props.
So, when you are writing your songs, where do you say you find your inspiration? What do you like to write about? Lyrically and musically? Are there things you find yourself being drawn to?
KD: I got in this conversation with my friend. She was like "'Absalom,' what is that?" I was like, "Oh, you know, It's a bible story, but it's this really gnarly bible story." For some reason, I guess it's my upbringing and the fact that I was raised really conservatively and in this gospel tradition. I'm not really into that tradition anymore, but the stories stick with me. In the sense that [the Bible] is a really epic narrative, and it's a historical collection of pretty much the craziest shit ever. My mom would kill me if she heard me say that.
I like how epic that is, using the story of this person from thousands of years ago that's lasted this long to talk about pride in this song. I'm not looking at this from the religious sense at all, that's not who I am. It has been a tradition for thousands of years, and I love the symbolism of something like that. Certain things from certain stories really resonate with me. Of course, there's the whole other side of the coin. Some of the things I write about are incredibly super personal and have happened to me in my life. I think that maybe balancing it with these huge epic story lines makes me feel a part of the pattern, in a way.
Can you tell me about the music you listened to as a child? KD: I grew up listening to gospel music because I wasn't allowed to listen to anything expect gospel music and, uh, Queen. I don't know how that slipped through. I don't think my parents understood anything about Queen. I think they just thought they were funny. You know, what's wrong with a song about a bicycle?
Oh, little did they know.
KD: I know, and I didn't know better either. There was the Beatles. We could listen to the Beatles somewhat. My parents were super conservative. I'm the oldest of five kids. We couldn't even say "Oh my gosh," I mean that was pretty naughty. We were just really restricted on music. My grandpa loved barber shop music and a capella groups and stuff like that. Everybody in my family pretty much sings and [my parents] would harmonize with each other all the time in the car. All the gospel music that we listen to at home and somehow sneaking in the Beatles and Queen built this weird fabric of songs that were very wholesome and very beautifully crafted. We could listen to some of the Beatles' early stuff because later they got into [whispers sarcastically] drugs, and that was bad. When their hair got long, no more Beatles. It's the weirdest upbringing. I remember, this is the worst, the first song I heard on non-Christian radio was Chumbawamba's "Tubthumbing". I was like, "This is what I was missing? Oh my god!" Then my boyfriend in high school gave me the Pixies' Doolittle. That was the first CD that was really out of the box for me. I put it on and turned it way down and I had my ear right next to the stereo because I didn't want my parents to know I was listening to the most awesome satanic thing I had ever heard up to that point in my life. I was like "Wave of... Mutilation!?, Nooo." I loved it. The stuff I listen to now, really it just came from very strict censor on what I could listen to, which I think made me listen even harder.
I heard an interesting fact about your day job. Do you harvest eye balls? KD: We don't like to use the word harvest, because it makes it seem like I'm going to go in there with a sickle and a black cloak.
DB: ...which is actually how you do it.
KD: [laughs] Yeah which is actually how I do it, just with a small sickle and it's more of a hood. [laughs] I work for an eye bank. I'm an ocular recovery technician. It's a delicate job. We are working with people at a time of loss and grief. It can be somewhat hard to be around, especially when it's a tragedy or someone young. But also, the surgery to me is totally fascinating, I love it.
When I came into the studio you told me you had been printing a stack of posters. So, you do all of your own screen printing and artwork? KD: Yeah, I design everything for the band. That stack of 200 posters took me six hours to print them. It's 200 posters and I don't have a crew. It would have been nice if I just could have been working on the record for those 6 hours. Being an indie band you have to do everything yourself and one thing always suffers and it sucks if it's the music. You're updating your website, you're making t-shirts, your setting up a Facebook event and you're booking your own tour. I'm happy to do the art work, I love doing it, but eventually it would be really awesome to not have to do that all ourselves.
So my final question for you guys, where is Née going from here? KD: As soon as this [the record] is done, we are going to shop the hell out of it. I like the whole sentiment of being an indie artist and doing things for yourself. But if we want to do the things we want with this record, which is get it into a bunch of peoples' hands and go on tour and make music something we can sustain ourselves with, we need support from a label or a booking agent.
DB: Yeah we need a bank, a.k.a. a label. We want to work with a label. We want someone to give us a bunch of money that we can do really cool shit with.
KD: We can only do so much with the record without a label backing it and having networks and having the money to put it in the right places. Any band is stuck that way. For some people, that's their whole thing and that's fine. But for us, I want everyone have this record, and I want everyone to have the next record. There's no way I can do that without a wider network of support.
DB: In the mean time, we are going to be booking our own shows. We have a sweet light show in the works. You know, have a big record release show, tour and keep writing songs.
KD: We're just going to continue to do what we do and spend our own money like we have been and do everything we can and just keep making music. It's all you can do, I guess.