With many of their record covers featuring images of naked dwarfs and blood-soaked lesbians, one can safely assume that punk rock legends The Dwarves know a thing or two about the art of shock rock.
Having once been dropped by Sub Pop for faking the death of their masked and often naked guitarist, Hewhocannotbenamed, the band have incited chaos worldwide with their violent shows and offensive lyrics. But in today’s world, where porn and terror are just a click away on the internet, is it still possible for rock to shock? If anyone should know the answer it’s Dwarves frontman Blag Dahlia…
“How to shock people in rock ‘n’ roll these days? I think what it comes down to is that rock ‘n’ roll is so dominated by marketing that what’s shocking is when you hear something that hasn’t been shoved down your throat. People do all kinds of shocking things, but if you’ve got your big management and your trust fund lawyer you can push anything through. I think what really shocks people is when you write a catchy song that everybody winds up liking.”
So that’s a no, then? But what about Pussy Riot getting themselves arrested, whipped, pepper sprayed, and thrown in jail for protesting Putin?
“Well, I think you’ve hit on something there; the way to shock people now is all identity politics. I don’t think there’s anything that a white, male, heterosexual like myself can do that will shock any more, but when women do things, when minorities do things, when gay or disabled people do things, then it shocks people and they rediscover the music or the genre. It’s not being shoved down your throat by another white man. It’s interesting. I mean, I always felt that most musicians self-censor themselves; if a weird or dirty idea occurs to them then they’ll immediately throw that out of their mind, like that’s not a real idea. A real idea is Bruce Springsteen crying over working people, or Billy Joel crying over his girlfriend, but if you say, ‘Let’s get high and fuck some sluts’, it’s like, I’m throwing that away, nobody better hear that! People would say to me, ‘You’re just trying to be shocking,’ but it’s more like it shocks them because everybody else is so self-censoring and so tame. What’s shocking is when people are really a medium for art and a conduit for something that just comes out of them and expresses a bigger idea of any kind. That’s really what’s so lacking in most music.”
As a lyricist, have you ever self-censored?
“When I wrote my Anne Frank song – which wasn’t a Dwarves song, it was just a solo thing – a lot of people got mad at me, like, ‘Oh, that’s not cool!’ But it was funny because I grew up in a very heavily Jewish environment, and the first thing I remember thinking when I learned about Anne Frank was she’s cute, I like girls like that! I always dug Jewish girls! People said I was trying to shock and I knew that it would shock people, but that isn’t why I came up with it. I came up with it because I’m a conduit for interesting ideas, and when they come to me I release them as opposed to being like, ‘Oh, I’d better hide that one!’ So, yeah, shock is a weird one, and The Dwarves have certainly shocked a lot of people, but I remember the old publicist from Sub Pop took me to see Marilyn Manson and it was like the Nuremberg Rally. I thought it was brilliant, but I remember her looking at me and going ‘Wow! This is the band you love to hate!’ But that’s exactly what I was doing at Sub Pop that nobody picked up on, and everybody shit on me for it. As long as you have a couple of million bucks behind you, and big managers, and Trent Reznor producing your record it’s like ‘Oh, this is so shocking and transgressive! I love it!’ But when you do it and it’s just you, then it’s more like ‘They’re just trying to be shocking!’ Marketing really tells the tale! Even if you go back to Greek tragedy, it’s always happening to a king or a goddess, and then you have to watch them fall. That’s what people want: they want a huge marketed thing. What’s transgressive is whatever they’re marketing at your dumb ass!”
So you wouldn’t consider the Peaches video Rub – featuring what’s basically an orgy – to be shocking?
“I haven’t seen that, but I love Peaches. But again, why is the new video transgressive? If I made that video, it wouldn’t be. It’s just another white chauvinist pig doing his patriarchy, but when Peaches does it, it’s shocking because she’s a lesbian, because she’s a woman, and it’s all about identity politics. Now the things that shock people have to do with identity. And The Dwarves identity is still like, ‘Hey I’m a white guy from the suburbs, my parents loved me, and I really had an easy time of it for someone who did so much weird shit!’ There’s nothing very shocking about me; I fucked a lot of girls, did some blow, who cares? But there are some people in the band who did some very shocking things, and we’ll go into that some other time…”