By Dave Constantin Originally published in DRUM! Magazine’s August 2008 Issue
There aren’t a lot of places a guy like Brian Viglione could expect to stumble upon his musical soulmate, but a Halloween party in a Boston artist’s loft seemed a pretty good bet. That was eight years ago, but he recalls the scene as if it were yesterday. “I get down to this house and the door opens and there’s this girl standing there in a white gown with Christmas lights all up inside of it,” Viglione says, speaking in obvious awe of the memory.
The woman in the gown was Amanda Palmer, and that night, as she played a solo set in the attic on an old spinet piano for a gathering of the city’s artist underground, Viglione was transfixed. “I had never seen someone play with so much conviction and passion and such an eclectic musical pairing between sort of theatrics and punk rock and very, sort of, personal, intimate moods, and definitely with a kind of darker side. It was like one of those cliché scenes out of a movie where you get like, a really tight, zoom-in, extreme close-up, and you go like, ’Oh my god, this is the person or the moment I’ve been looking for so desperately to initiate what I want to do with my life.’ I’ve never experienced anything like that before, or since.”
Viglione had spent his childhood feverishly pursuing the drums at the behest of an ultra-supportive father, whose innocent attempt to drum vicariously through his son worked brilliantly – for the son at least. “He always said to me, ’Make the drums talk. When you’ve got something to say, speak it through your instrument. Listen to what’s inside, and play from the heart.’ I think that’s the most important thing my father instilled in me.”
Palmer, it seemed, had been instilled with a similarly expressive inclination. Settling on the moniker The Dresden Dolls, and describing their sound (perfectly) as “Brechtian punk cabaret,” Viglione and Palmer set out to craft a rock duo a la White Stripes in reverse, with Palmer, the singer/songwriter, driving the bus with sensuous, dynamic piano melodies and smoldering lyrical play, while Viglione, often mugging for the audience behind pseudo mime makeup and a bowler hat, would deliver devastating power and endlessly creative concoctions on the kit. The formula was instantly explosive.
But however subversive The Dolls’ dynamic may seem, the music is surprisingly accessible. And despite the theatrics, Viglione’s approach is pretty darn traditional, from his obvious command of classic rudimental chops to his surprisingly un-quirky 4-piece Yamaha kit. For this, he offers an explanation: “The drum kit itself – a bass drum, snare, toms, and cymbals – have so many beautiful sounds in them, and the way to cultivate those sounds and draw them out is so vast, that I would rather rely on my own imagination than another thing to poke and slam to make a noise.”
Then again, some sort of Bozzio-eque “drum set of doom” wouldn’t make much sense for a band that forgoes such minor extravagances as a bassist and guitar player. The duo briefly flirted with an expanded lineup after their eponymous 2003 debut, but quickly abandoned the experiment. “We found that it kind of diluted the chemistry and kind of restricted our roles in a way,” Viglione says. “I started playing from a more conventional rhythm section standpoint, and feeling more locked into that role, as opposed to playing off of the immediacy of Amanda’s charisma on stage and the spontaneity that we share when it’s just a duo. When you just have two instruments you have a lot of room to orchestrate.”
The Dolls’ eight years of near-telepathic chemistry is on full display on their third and most recent studio album, No, Virginia, which Viglione says is mainly spillover from the previous, Yes, Virginia sessions. “There’s a lot of songs about loneliness and questioning because it was a difficult time for Amanda when she was writing that,” he says, expressing his wonderment at what he calls her “endless fountain of ideas.”
But that fountain hasn’t restricted Viglione’s need for extra-Dresden expression. And of all the side projects he has pursued over the years, none were more high profile or more unique than the session he did with Trent Reznor. In late 2005, after The Dresden Dolls had finished a tour opening for Nine Inch Nails, Viglione received an email invitation from Reznor asking him to come out to his house and record on his upcoming instrumental album, Ghosts I—IV.
“He didn’t give me any specific agenda that he was looking for,” says Viglione. “He kept it very open and very ambiguous. And when I got out there he said, ’This is just a very, kind of, open experience, and I thought a fun art project for the day would be to have you build a drum kit out of different found objects.’”
Viglione, his creative juices roiling, zipped over to the hardware store and started loading up a cart with aluminum pipes, washtubs, staple guns, plastic water jugs, trash barrels, a cookie tray and heavy length of chain for a makeshift snare, and anything else that seemed noisy and cool. A rented bass drum and three snare drum stands later, his monster was complete.
“That evening, when the kit was assembled and miked up, [Reznor] said, ’Okay, just go in there and put the headphones on. We’ll give you a tempo and play whatever comes into your head.’” A lot of drummers would find this intimidating. Not Viglione. “It was really liberating and exciting. He’s essentially saying, ’I put my faith in you to come up with something interesting. Go for it. Have fun.’ He was totally open to the moment, totally open to what I was able to bring to the table, which to me is the essence of a strong collaboration.”
Little did Viglione know, Reznor had already orchestrated the rest of the parts. Now it was time to plug in Viglione’s Frankenstein drum set track and see what happened. “So all of a sudden you get this really simple rhythm that I’m playing, but then it’s like this wall of guitar noise that Adrian Belew [of King Crimson] has already created. And then there was this second track that had this cool kind of piano line behind it that was really kind of atmospheric and moody. And that for me was the most exciting moment there, was hearing my little drum part being integrated into a new Nine Inch Nails song. Having been a kid who grew up listening to them, it was really exciting.”
Viglione didn’t say it, but if his purist approach to recording with The Dresden Dolls is any indication, the Nine Inch Nails sessions represented the tolerable extent of the studio trickery he would allow to intrude on his art. “I just kind of have a moral problem with me personally cobbling together drum takes in Pro Tools,” he had said. “It’s not something I believe in, and the music and musicians that I respect never did that. Nor were they afforded the luxury to do that, or to be that lazy. When you went into the studio, you had to know your s**t. And I want to be a musician like that.”