interview: the new york dolls
The pioneering band The New York Dolls are renowned for pre-empting punk music in the early 1970s and influencing groups such as The Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads, just to name a few. The remaining members including front man David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, recently re-formed and are set to perform at the boutique New York-inspired arts and culture festival, The Boroughs in October this year.
Johansen talks about the band’s origins, his most memorable moments on tour, his solo career, and their new album.
How do you think the New York music scene has changed over the years?
Well, I mean things always change. As far as like the rock and roll/punk side of it is concerned, when we started out, there were really no places to play, so now it’s a whole different world. Having a venue to play at is imperative to even having a band. Similarly if you write classical music and you can’t hire an orchestra because it’s too expensive, the music will just sit in a cabinet – which is the worst kind of music – filing cabinet music.
But today to I would say my favourite new punk band today in New York is called The Make Out. They’ve got some great videos on YouTube. They’re a pretty hot little band.
Where does the name New York Dolls come from?
There used to be this shop in New York City called the New York Doll Hospital, and people used to take their dolls there to be repaired. We used to see that sign all the time – so we probably should have called ourselves New York Doll Hospital!
What was your most memorable moment as a band?
I don’t really think about the past too much. I could probably remember every minute, but I don’t know which one bears repeating. I might remember a time when I lit somebody’s cigarette, or a time when it was raining, but I don’t think there is a particular memory that stands out.
In terms of gigs, last year we played in Nebraska or somewhere like that at this big biker festival and there were about 20,000 bikers there. I was thinking at the time that it was rather sedate. This brought me to recall another gig a couple of years ago when we played in France at a 24 hour motorcycle race. We played right in the middle of the track – it was such an apocalyptic feeling. There were people starting bomb fires, there were people shooting off flares, there were all of these guys with scooter jackets on doing a tribal dance. It was a sight to behold, so that was memorable.
Is there a song that you have written over your career that is the most significant to you?
Not one more than another I don’t think. Because usually when I write a song it’s something that’s compelling me to do it. One reason might be that I just write something down in my head, and then another would be if someone showed me some music and I was going to put words to it. But I have found as a writer, if I just start writing, it’s about how I feel about something at that moment, no matter what it is, like love, or music. So each song is significant to me because that’s how I felt at that moment.
In your solo career, you achieved commercial success with your cover of Hot Hot Hot (1987) as your alter ego – why did you start performing as Buster Poindexter?
I had been travelling around America in a van opening for heavy metal acts and I was doing this for months on end. During that time I started listening to jump blues music, which really appealed to me. I guess you could call it cabaret, but really it was just at a bar on a really small stage and I would set up with a couple of guys and just kind of belt out these songs as a novelty act and decided to use the name Buster Poindexter. This enabled me to explore music that I felt like exploring. I find that if I listen to just the same kind of music all the time, I don’t like music anymore. So then Poindexter and the band became very popular in a very short period of time, so we made a record, and the rest is history.
How does it feel to have re-formed as the New York Dolls after so many years?
On Saturday we just came off a nine week tour. We got this great band together me and Syl – we got Slick [who has collaborated with the likes of David Bowies and Robert Smith] to play guitar in March when the record came out. We started as a sophisticated rock and roll act, but now that we’ve been touring so much, we’re vicious. We are like one of those ‘take no prisoners’ bands! Bands go through cycles like that – it probably has to do with the moon and the tides.
In March you released a fifth studio album Dancing Backwards in High Heels – what’s the significance of the title?
Well Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, except she did it backwards in high heels.
And what are the dominating themes on the album?
It’s about love. I think it’s always love.
Are you looking forward to headlining the Boroughs Festival in Australia this October?
Yes, we’re coming to play at this beautiful Boroughs event – we are being whisked in the highest of style, to Australia where we performed a couple of years ago, and we had such a great time. We really love Australia. I guess it appeals to most people – it’s a great place, a great country.
Don’t miss the New York Dolls at The Boroughs Festival where other bands and DJs will also be performing, along with art installations, galleries, pop-up cinema, market stalls and fashion displays. Dates are below and further information is available at http://theboroughs.com.au
FRIDAY 7 OCTOBER – THE CAPITAL, PERTH, WA *Music Only Event
SATURDAY 8 OCTOBER – GLOBE HEADQUARTERS, MELBOURNE, VIC
SUNDAY 9 OCTOBER – FOWLERS LIVE, ADELAIDE, SA *Music Only Event
THURSDAY 13 OCTOBER – HIFI, BRISBANE, QLD
SATURDAY 15 OCTOBER – MANNING BAR, SYDNEY, NSW