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During his 40-plus-year-career, David Johansen has made a name for himself as a sleazy rocker with a taste for lipstick in New York Dolls, as well as the suave, campy crooner Buster Poindexter, whose dark-horse hit in the late ’80s, “Hot Hot Hot,” quickly overshadowed the mighty rush and roar of the Dolls. But not for long: The glammy proto-punk band has enjoyed an ever-increasing rise in critical recognition and popularity over the past few years, culminating in a full-blown Dolls reformation in 2005. The band—featuring the only surviving original members, Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain—recorded the inevitable comeback album in 2007.
What wasn’t inevitable was how good the comeback was. While not on par with the raunchy snarl of the Dolls’ pair of classic studio albums from the early ’70s, the new disc, One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This, was a respectable addition to the catalog of a band that always prided itself on disrespectability. Johansen and Sylvain reconnected with Todd Rundgren, the producer of the Dolls’ 1973 debut, for 2007’s Cause I Sez So, another raw batch of retro-rock that was hastily written, quickly recorded, and sounds like it—in other words, it’s an exhibition of the kind of trashy urgency that made the Dolls so revolutionary in the first place.
But with the group’s third post-reunion album—and fifth overall—Dancing Backward In High Heels, Johansen takes a different direction. With the help of Jason Hill (former frontman of Louis XIV and best known for his production work for The Killers), Dancing Backward is a shimmery, reverb-soaked album that evokes just about every era of Johansen’s career—not to mention ’60s girl groups and a reworked version of the disco-ish “Funky But Chic,” originally released on his self-titled 1978 solo debut. But as Johansen tells The A.V. Club, looking to the past is something that’s as painful as it is inescapable—not to mention occasionally funny.
The A.V. Club: The New York Dolls just released its third album since re-forming, which means the number of new albums now outweighs the band’s original output. Did you intend for the reunion to last so long?
David Johansen: No. I don’t really think about it unless somebody asks me. When we started back up again, we were just going to do play some shows. There was no grand scheme to gear up and make a record and hit the road and all of this kind of stuff. It kind of took off, as opposed to us trying to achieve some prescribed outcome. Essentially, we weren’t trying to achieve anything, which wound up being a lot more pleasant. It was more like, “We’re a good band. Let’s play. Let’s see what happens.”
AVC: Has the length of the band’s second life surprised you?
DJ: I don’t know if it surprises me or not. You’d think it probably means that we’re good enough, that enough people dig us for the band to keep going. Usually we’re just rolling along in a bus, so I try not to think about what the hell I’m doing.
AVC: There’s some thought that’s been put into the new album, though. Dancing Backward In High Heels is a big departure from Cause I Sez So. What led to the shift in direction?
DJ: Well, the difference is, Cause I Sez So was made in a single month, January, two years ago. Someone said Todd Rundgren was available to make a record at his house in Kauai, so we thought that was a capital idea. We flew out there, wrote songs for a week, then rehearsed for a week. And then we recorded for a week. So it’s a very live kind of record, you know what I’m saying? It was recorded with all of us playing the songs together that we’d written the week before. But this time, for Dancing Backward, we showed up with the usual amount of material, which is—how can I put it—highly negligible. [Laughs.]
We just had this attitude that, yes, we should be making this record, but why should we be writing it now, in the present, in advance? We know we’re going to be making it in the future. It’s hard to explain. Anyway, we get to the studio, and instead of doing a lot of rehearsing and playing as a band—we did that for maybe three days—we just started recording. Sometimes we’d record with just a drum or something. So we just started building songs out of that from day one. It wasn’t like we knew how it was going to come out. Even when we were recording, we didn’t know what they were going to sound like. It was just kind of a different technique for writing songs.
AVC: Why the different technique?
DJ: It’s really a drag to do the same project over and over again. We decided to try to clean the slate and say, “Okay, I don’t know how to do this. Let me try to figure out how.” That’s so different from going into a familiar situation and saying, “Bam, bam, bam, I know how to do this. You put this over here and that over there.” That’s when you wind up making the same record you made last time. If you go in and do it a different way, it’s bound to come out different. Not that we knew how it was going to come out. We were just figured, okay, we’re recording. Somebody make some music. [Laughs.] The tape is rolling.
AVC: There’s also a strong ’60s R&B and girl-group feel to a lot of the album, but that’s been a part of the Dolls sound all along, starting back when the band would cover Otis Redding and The Shangri-Las in the ’70s. What made you dig more deeply into those sounds?
DJ: That’s just the music we came up with. Me and Syl were like, “Let’s make a song,” and so he’d play something, and I’d say, “That’s a really good song. Let’s do it.” Then we’d write it and put words to it. It’s not like, “Let’s make a song that sounds like this, that, or the other thing.” It’s me and Syl just doing it. It’s not like we’re trying to recreate something, not even something we already did. You know, you’ve got to be careful in this thing, not to make it a job. I mean, it is a job, but you don’t want it to be like a job where you’re punching the clock and it’s boring. You’ve got to keep it interesting. You’ve got to enrich your life with it, as opposed to doing the same thing over and over again.
AVC: At the same time, Dancing Backward is reminiscent of your solo work from the ’70s, even down to the album’s remake of “Funky But Chic.” Out of your whole catalog—Dolls, solo, and Buster Poindexter—why did you pick that song to bring back?
DJ: Syl and I wrote that song around the time the Dolls ended, so I guess the Dolls would have recorded it if we had made another album at that time. Then I recorded it for my solo album. Before we went into the studio this time, we’d been asked by a lot of people to start doing that song. Agents and stuff were saying, “Oh, we could do a lot with that song. We could put it in a movie or something.” There was a lot of different chatter in the background about that song, so we just played it. When we were recording the new album, we looked at it and said, “Well, there’s a song.” [Laughs.] “There’s one song that’s written.” And so we just redid it.
You know, when you’re making a record, you come up with 15, 20 songs. Then they start to fall by the wayside as your interest wanes. It’s kind of like a process of elimination to determine which songs wind up on the record. I could come in and say, “I’ve got a great song,” and I could play it. And everyone could play along with it. But the next day I’ll come in and say, “Let’s play that song that I brought in yesterday,” and everyone will be looking at their shoes and saying, “Well, let’s do that other one first.” Then after a while, it just isn’t there anymore. It’s not like anybody says, “That song sucks.” It’s more like a lack of interest. You need songs that everyone wants to play. Everyone has to bring something to the picnic.
AVC: Is there an upside to revisiting old songs, too? The new version of “Funky But Chic” is actually a lot funkier than the original.
DJ: Yeah. It’s a distinct version. I think it’s a good song. Maybe it never got heard as much as it could have the first time around.
AVC: Your solo work between the Dolls and Buster Poindexter tends to get overlooked.
DJ: Yeah, yeah. Those albums were made during a time when I was on the road, like, 289 nights in a row. In a van. [Laughs.]
AVC: Sounds like a fertile creative atmosphere.
DJ: In the late ’70s, I was opening for heavy mental [sic] bands in hockey rinks. [Laughs.] So, yeah, very fertile.