Houston Press: MYDOLLS WILL NEVER GO OUT OF STYLE
First festering in the musical mélange of 1978, when the death of disco was imminent and the blank generation sought a second life, Mydolls became the South’s ambassadors of artful, anarchic, antsy, and angular sonic territory. Borrowing tendencies from No Wave, darkwave, and year zero punk while forging their own brand of genre free meanderings, Mydolls made tunes that seemed spectral and poetic, unscripted and highly esoteric.
After releasing seminal recordings on CIA Records (Really Red, Culturcide), touring the East Coast, and appearing in Wim Wenders’ film Paris, Texas, which won the Palme d’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, they disappeared into the black hole of history.
Over the last the decade, though, Mydolls have emerged from their mythic underground status to resurrect their unique style and gain new notoriety. Gigging frequently, revisiting their catalog, and forging fresh tunes that feel as ambitious, haunting, and unhinged as ever, they have just released the album It’s Too Hot For Revolution, were recently inducted into the Houston Music Hall of Fame, and forged friendships with other vanguard ladypunk units like Frightwig and the Avengers.
David Ensminger tracked down band members Dianna Ray, Trish Herrera, Linda Younger and George Reyes to discuss their newest efforts, explore their spirit, and probe their past.
Houston Press: The new album seems to balance a sense of grief and rejuvenation, past and present, hope and tribute. What were the creative forces that led to creating the new tunes?
Linda Younger: To coin a Really Red phrase, it’s more like “New Strings for Old Puppets” rather than new tunes. It’s a wonderful collection of our music over time. I love having Kathy Johnston [former Mydolls guitarist] and Phil Davis [engineer] on two of the songs from 1982. The only new tune is “Don’t Fucking Die.” However, some of the original songs were re-recorded at Big Door Studio, and others were re-engineered by Andy Bradley. All were mastered by Christopher Longwood at Sugar Hill Recording Studio. So, it becomes a wonderful anthology of Mydolls music over time.
It is amazing how some of the lyrics stood the test of time and are as relevant now as when they were written over 30 years ago. Oh, and having Amos the howling dog on “Politician” adds the perfect finishing touch. The music captures many emotions…anger, apathy, sadness, acceptance, gratitude, compassion, paying it forward, and frustration. It is a labor of love, and I am thrilled that it is finally available after so many years. I would be remiss if I failed to mention the countless hours spent by Jack Livingston on the artwork. It is a beautiful depiction of the music as only Jack can create.
George Reyes: Can’t really speak to the creation of new tunes as much as a reflection of the tunes that make up the new release. It really represents the many journeys that Mydolls has traveled. We have songs about cancer, disabilities, war, and several reflections on relationships. I’m glad we were finally able to get “Fair Stands the Fields of France” in a studio format. It’s a powerful song and also reflects our creative take on a great piece of poetry.
Trish Herrera: There was a lot of emotion when the song “Don’t Fucking Die” was written — Linda was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Kathy had long-term illness and battle with leukemia, so sadness and frustration and the fear of losing our beloveds drove us to plug away at a new song. It was inspired by me writing in Linda’s memory book, “Don’t fucking die.” She and Kathy made a song out of that call to the universe for my loved ones to “please live.” On songs recorded with Phil Davis in [the] mid-’80s, we found lost tracks of Kathy’s guitar on echo, which was a chilling and wonderful surprise.
Dianna Ray: Time, age, and circumstance have ushered in a different set of priorities in my life. I am still very much moved by social and global injustices, but the focus of my life has drawn itself into a much tighter circle. I have had a lot more experience with loss and grief than when we wrote our music in the 1970s and 1980s. Some of our early songs, while they themselves haven’t changed, have new meanings for me now. That is one of the things I love about music, about poetry and art: it is so subjective.??
Since the album also revisits/re-records old songs, like “I Used to Not Read,” about dyslexia; and others, how did the band cull through the catalog and choose?
Linda: As always, Mydolls music just happens…the message of the songs is as true now as it was back in the day. The selection happened as it was meant to be. Incorporating songs recorded by Phil Davis in 1982 and lyrics by Rachel Hecker and Charles Bukowski, guitars by Kathy Johnston and Dan Workman, and masterfully engineered by Andy Bradley and mixed by Christopher Longwood, resulted in a wonderful representation of songs old and new.
George: I’m happy with the choices and the great find of the master tapes from Phil Davis’s recordings. As we went through the sessions at Big Door, I constantly kept saying that I really missed Phil and his unique understanding of our music. It’s great that he was with us on this journey. It’s a legacy.
Trish: Songs like “I Used to Not Read,” “Walls of Tunisia,” “Politician” [and] “Fair Stands the Fields of France” are songs that we always wanted to record but never had the money to do so in the 1980s, so we took this opportunity to record them. We are a democratic band, and we all put in a hat what we loved the most, and from that we chose these tracks, which we are all really happy with.
Dianna: The life shifts we have experienced are Part 1 of the reasons to do studio recordings of our old songs — to put today’s Mydolls’ imprint on them, to reclaim them. We each came up with a list of songs from our catalog we would like to record and came together to make a collaborative choice. I love listening to “Echo,” where the lyrics speak to my older self as imagined by my 23-year-old self. And our newest song, “Don’t Fucking Die” is very personal to all of us. Linda and I are both breast-cancer survivors, and my wife Kathy Johnston, who was also a member of Mydolls, died four years ago from a blood cancer. Living through a cancer diagnosis was nothing compared to living through the grief of losing Kathy.
After three decades, you joined forces again with engineer Andy Bradley, formerly of SugarHill, to help shape the sonic landscape. What kind of insight, input or vision does Bradley embody that is so appealing?
George: Andy was with us from our early attempts at recording. He provided us guidance then, and continued to utilize his unique talents and new technology to bring out the best in our music.
Trish: Andy speaks Mydolls. He just gets us. We’ve had the most amazing non-verbal conversations with Andy throughout the years. He is a genius, plain and simple. We are so lucky to have him in our lives. In 1980, when Mydolls was recording at ACA studios with Andy, Really Red, and artists that Andy had a special connection to joined us. I sang back up on one of Deniz Tek’s songs “RPM” during that time. Andy and Mydolls connect, and it’s joy, pure joy.
Linda: Andy does speak Mydolls. He gets it. He knows what sound quality we want, and he makes it happen.
Dianna: Andy has been recording and mixing our work since Mydolls’ very first single. We grew up together! He is like a friend from the old neighborhood. He knows our sound, he has oodles of experience, and a great ear and intuition. Plus, he speaks Mydolls. We can tell him we want a guitar part to sound more crunchy like an almond, not like a peanut, and he totally gets it. He can mix synesthestically!
“Don’t Fucking Die” seems not only to evoke the spirit of Kathy Johnston, the lost member of Mydolls, but also the fight others in the band have experienced in the face of illness. Is music a way to navigate the trauma, a way to find hope in the middle of hopelessness?
Linda: This may be much more than you wanted to know…however, this is a song that is near and dear to my heart. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer on June 30, 2006 at 3 p.m., my life was changed. A dear friend at St. Joseph hospital made a quilt for me. However, it wasn’t finished in time for me to use for my first session of chemotherapy. I chose to take the quilt and the journal that accompanied it with me and use it as a way to find support from friends and family The quilt was appropriately named “Bound by Friendship” because friends and family were asked to help stitch a portion of the border and write a note in the journal.
Most of the notes were encouraging, like, “I know you can do it” or “Lets kick some cancer ass!” However, when I brought it to Mydolls practice, Trish wrote “Don’t Fucking Die,” and then a tear fell on the journal page and smeared her entry. Immediately, a new Mydolls song was born. It became even more relevant when Kathy Johnston wrote much of the music with Trish and more and more friends were diagnosed with cancer. It is truly a labor of love. We swore to record it in Kathy’s memory. Since then, Dianna was diagnosed with breast cancer. We dedicate this song to all who struggle with this devastating disease.
George: This was a real struggle to get this right. There were a lot of emotions at work here. We took a considerable amount of time crafting this out. I know I am still working with it in our live set.
Trish: “Don’t fucking die” is a highly spiritual message to send to the public.
Dianna: Those were very dark days for me, after Kathy died. We had a 27-year relationship, which was most of my adult life. When you lose the love of your life, everything changes, everything. Playing music was a ballast for me then. It allowed me to have some equilibrium and focus, and since it was something we had shared in our relationship, it also helped me to have a feeling of connection with Kathy. On some days, though, even music was bittersweet because of her absence. I felt this very keenly when we accepted the Houston Music Hall of Fame award, when we played at MEOWcon, and when we recently played in California, Kathy’s home state. I love you sweet angel girl.
Come back next week for Part 2 of our Mydolls interview. Go to mydollsmusic.com for more about the band.