Former Dum Dum Girl Kristin Welchez embraces pop as Kristin Kontrol
The second song on Kristin Welchez’s debut album as Kristin Kontrol is a matter-of-fact tale recounting a party she DJed at a hotel in New York City.
At first, “White Street” sounds like a pretty humdrum night out, especially for a musician who for years fronted the venomous noise-pop group Dum Dum Girls, which formed in L.A. in the late 2000s and released three albums to wide acclaim.
But something about the song – the clattering New Order drum machines, the big scars of distorted bass – make it clear that there are stranger and more powerful concepts going on in her head. The lyrics hint at a resuscitation or reinvention.
“The night’s young but it’s gonna run long / I walked the length of four Eno songs,” she sings. “You’ll get your fifth chance to make it right / Like a lost patient shocked back to life.”
For a few hours punching the clock behind the decks, the night stuck with her.
“At the hotel, absolutely nobody gave a [care] what I was playing at all,” she said. “But another DJ played this dance remix of ‘Jolene’ and everyone went crazy for it and I remember thinking: ‘So Dolly Parton has been quantized.’”
How apropos: That’s the kind of dramatic transformation that’s all over “X-Communicate,” Welchez’s first LP since retiring her old band’s moniker and reinventing herself with a new sonic palette, one that swaps distorted, heavily layered guitars for pounding, danceable beats.
While it’s no radical act for a rock ‘n’ roll singer to embrace electronic music today, “X-Communicate” is such an arresting mix of synthetic post-punk attitude and buoyant melodies that it might make her the pop singer she always (kinda, sorta) wanted to be.
Though Welchez’s old project was often identified with the female-led L.A. noise-pop scene of the 2010’s, she’s lived in New York for the last five years. Her LPs had steady evolved from scrims of guitars and washed-out vocals to bigger, steelier ideas about songwriting and production.
She’d always written and demoed her records on her own, and by the time “X-Communicate” took shape as an arena-sized, definitely quantized pop album, she made a hard call to dissolve her old band name just before delivering the record to her label, the respected indie stalwart Sub Pop.
“It would have meant changing the whole infrastructure of the band, and I didn’t want to disrespect the work. It wouldn’t have been Dum Dum Girls it if was a bunch of different people onstage playing electronic music,” Welchez said. “The Ramones made a record with Phil Spector, but they didn’t become the Beatles.”
The move made sense – “X-Communicate” has so many ideas that it almost obviously warranted a new name. “Face 2 Face” has a demented dub-reggae feel that harks back to Public Image LTD; “Skin Shed” is languid house music shot through with late-night melancholy.
There are sparkly synth ballads and icy New Wave tunes, and Welchez found her inner Kate Bush behind the microphone. But it all makes sense because the whole record is so relentlessly, meticulously catchy that it coheres in ways few albums this varied could.
“We were going for a big radio pop record. And that’s always the hope, to reach as many people as you can when you’re making pop music,” said Kurt Feldman, one of two main producers on the album. “Kylie Minogue came up a lot. We wanted it synthy and dancey, but also to have some real muscle to it.”
It’s both a great and a trying time to be making pop records like this. The gulf between actual, Taylor Swift-sized pop stars and their aspiring indie counterparts has never been wider, especially when it comes to getting paid (hence the necessity of that DJ gig in New York). But acts like Grimes can make truly weird, contrarian pop music and command a sizable audience and influence on their own terms.
Welchez knows that starting her public persona over again will be a big risk. But the payoffs – creative and, hey, perhaps otherwise as well – might be much bigger than any weird DJ gig could ever offer.
“There really is a shortened attention span these days,” she said. “Dum Dum Girls came up in a scene that was on-trend at the time, but we put in a lot of work and touring to survive outside the hype. Now we’re much farther back down the ladder; we’ve never even played a show yet. But it’s really exciting.”
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