Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman

Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman - May 2012

Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman Session
Violitionist Sessions

Session Date: April 16, 2012
Posting Date: May 7, 2012
Artist Hometown: Boston, MA
Links:, AFP Bandcamp, AFP Facebook, AFP Twitter,, NG Twitter
Recorded by: Michael Briggs

Video Games (Lana Del Rey)
Psycho (Leon Payne)
In My Mind
ONE: As you both have successful careers that demand a lot of your time, how difficult is it to find time to get together like this?
Amanda Palmer: It’s pretty difficult.
Neil Gaiman: It takes work.
DJ: How does that affect the dynamic of your relationship?
Neil: It is the dynamic of our relationship! It’s ‘How do we find the time?’ and ‘How do we make the time?’
Amanda: Yeah, I think the hardest thing about being in a relationship like this is that none of the rules and the assumptions that seem to apply to everybody else’s relationships really work for our relationship. So, talking to other people about it and expecting to grab rules and regulations from other people’s lives and relationships, which is the way most people do it— Most people who get married or have relationships kind of look around and say, ‘Well, this has worked for everyone else in the world. Let’s do it like this!’ And, you know, not to say that people who have day jobs and live together and do more of the ‘traditional’ marriage aren’t creative. I know many people who are. But, we have to be especially creative because we don’t live together, we don’t even have a home together, and we both have lived the kind of lives up until this point where we prioritize our career, and so balancing all of that out, there’s pretty much no one I can ask and say, ‘So, how did you do it?’ Those people are really hard to find. So, you end up trying to find out for yourself, which is…
Neil: A lot of trial and error, and a lot of error in trial and error. In the beginning, we used to try to do a lot of vacations, only neither of us vacation terribly well. Neither of us take holidays for pleasure.
Amanda: We only take them for pain.
Neil: Well, we just don’t do them. For pleasure, we work.
Amanda: Yeah.
Neil: So, we’d wind up in fancy-ass hotels, in the middle of nowhere, going nuts. We both sort of learned that we actually get on a lot better if we’re both working.
Amanda: Which is what most people’s normal relationships are. There aren’t that many relationships out there where two people are just together all day, all the time, trying to figure out what to do with each other. Usually, both people have jobs and lives and touch base, so what we’ve learned is…the best manifestation of our relationship is when we can both work near each other, and touch base with each other, because just spending empty, open time with each other…can drive us nuts. As it does most couples, actually. Most couples end up fighting on vacation because they’re like, ‘Oh god! You again?’ Like, ‘We’ve been together for nine hours, and we’ve run out of shit to talk about, and we’re not doing anything!’ So, we’ve just been figuring it out. We like each other. That’s a start.
DJ: Yeah, I think that’s valuable.
Neil: I liked you until you started that weird relationship with that giant sock-horse thing.
Amanda: And then it was all over. That was the beginning of the end.
Neil: All over, all over…sock-horse!
DJ: Do you make your work schedules around each other’s schedules, or do you just hope it comes together?
Neil: Yeah.
Amanda: It’s a little bit of both. Neil’s schedule is a lot more flexible…
Neil: I don’t have to book tours. I just have to write things and get them in more or less on deadline.
Amanda: More or less. I mean, for instance, I’m working on this huge new record, and working on a huge new record with a backup band, with a tour, with a staff, means that my life pretty much has to be scheduled down to the day for a year-and-a-half. It’s just the way it goes. And I’ve had periods of my life where I don’t know what I’m doing next month and I don’t know what I’m doing the month after, and Neil has seen me in those periods, and he’s in one of those periods now, where he doesn’t know what he’s going to be doing next week or the month after or the month after that. He has a vague idea, but his schedule is very, very improvisational right now, whereas mine is super strict. And I have a feeling that’s just going to be a flip-flop, you know? When he puts out the book that he’s writing right now, he’s probably going to have to go do things X, Y, and Z, and work around a schedule, but right now he gets to improv through his life, and I’ve got to be enslaved to the calendar. But, it actually works pretty well when one is improv-ing and one is enslaved, because the improv-ing one can hop over and visit the enslaved one, and then they can switch roles six months later.
TWO: Speaking of the new record, what is your new album going to be like?
Amanda: Amazing. [Laughs] It’s really amazing. I mean, I’ve never actually thought that a record that I’ve made has been this good. I’ve been happy with the records that I’ve made, and I loved both Dresden Dolls records, and I thought that my first solo album was pretty killer, but this is…this feels…This feels different and more special because it really is a record unlike anything that I’ve done before, and also, it’s a record that really is a piece of art created in the studio, as opposed to just documenting of a live band, which is sort of what it felt like with the Dresden Dolls, you know? Our recordings weren’t very surprising. They were great, but if you had seen the band, it was drums and piano and a lot of energy, and you bought the recording and that’s what you got and you were very satisfied. But this record has a lot of surprises on it, and it’s full and layered and beautifully, crazily produced by John Congleton, with a lot of input and programming from my band, who are all weird geniuses in their own right. So, it’s stuffed with great creative energy. It’s a really crazy full record. I’ve never really put out a record like that before so, for me, it’s very exciting.
DJ: You have a steady, consistent band for this album, right?
Amanda: Yeah, the band— I recorded it in Australia last month, and the band that I took to Australia with me is going to be my touring band for the next year or so, so we’re like a band-band.
DJ: How did you get involved with them?
Amanda: Well, it was sort of bit by bit. I knew that I wanted to put a backup band together. I didn’t know who it was going to be, and I was just starting to think about it, and…I was in Boston with my ex-boyfriend Michael McQuilken, who I had originally met because we were going to collaborate on theater stuff together, and then we wound up dating. I was talking to him about my stage show and what I was going to try and create for this upcoming tour, and he said he’d love to help with it, and one thing led to another and he wound up deciding to be the drummer on the record, which I thought was great! I thought it was a great idea, because he’s a good drummer. And like every other project in my life, he’s now going to wear a couple of hats. He’s basically being the tour director, and the drummer, and he had a lot of input in the studio, and then he grabbed a friend of his— he was in Yale School of Drama at the time doing his grad work, and he grabbed a student friend of his Chad Raines, who is in a very 80’s synth-y band called The Simple Pleasure who he knew I would just get on with like a house on fire, and he was right. So, Chad got brought in to play guitar, and then I stole Jason Webley’s bassist Jherek Bischoff, and he ended up being an incredible choice for a lot of reasons, but one of the best reasons was that he and Michael— because Michael McQuilken is Jason’s touring drummer, too, so he and Jherek had toured together and played together for eight or nine years. To have a bassist and a drummer who are already solid and already kind of have a psychic, musical language is really, really key. So, that was it. That’s the band. It’s those three guys, and the chemistry is really incredible. They all cover all bases. Everyone plays at least three instruments, and everyone had a lot of great creative input in the arranging. Jherek is an orchestral arranger and is doing all the strings on the record, and even recording them and sending them over to John, and Chad arranged all the horns and conducted the horns in the studio. Everyone had a really big ownership of the songs on the record.
DJ: Have you heard the record, Neil?
Neil: I’ve heard, what, about five tracks now? Five or six tracks, and I’m really enjoying it. It’s very different. It’s very weird for me because I’m getting to hear things in…
Amanda: He heard the demos.
Neil: I was going to say, I heard the demos, and heard the early versions of some of the songs, and sometimes I’d go ‘This is great!’ and sometimes I’d go ‘I don’t really know what’s in her head, but she obviously thinks this is interesting.’
Amanda: Oooh.
Neil: But those are the ones where it’s really weird getting to hear the finished song, where you know, you heard a demo and you’re like, ‘Well, okay…’ and then you hear the finished song and it’s this huge, glorious, swooping thing with mad synths and god knows what else on it, and you’re stirred and excited and thrilled and you’re going, ‘Oh okay, I get what was in her head.’ It wasn’t there on the demo, which is why demos are demos.
Amanda: One of the interesting things that we’re seeing right now is the similarities, the really huge similarities between his process and my process. He’s working on a book right now that he had in manuscript form and draft form that he’s now typing up and putting into a real second draft, and we’re just looking at all of the parallels between record-making and book-making and how the steps are actually kind of the same. I mean, the medium is different, but the steps and the drafts and the demoing, and the editing and the finalizing…for every step I’m going through with the record, he pretty much has an analogue with the book writing. It’s kind of fun. It’s a fun thing about having a creative partner. They sort of get what you’re doing, as opposed to someone who just has no clue about the creative process and you say, “I’m going off to the studio!” and they look at you, puzzled, and say, “Go do…that thing you do!”
Neil: Actually, the most fun that I’m having now is the equivalent of…you know, every day right now she’ll play me a song, and every day I read her two-and-a-half or three thousand words of more or less finished story, so we’re actually…I read it to her at night, and then normally she falls asleep right at the end, so in the morning when she wakes up I start from the beginning and read her the whole thing again. I never mind you falling asleep!
Amanda: I get sleepy. He’s got a lulling voice.
Neil: I have a lulling voice. But, it’s really fun. And also, both of us actually know the response that is needed from the other one, which is more or less…
Amanda: ‘Sounds great!’ [Laughs]
Neil: ‘Sounds great! Thank you! I can’t wait to hear the next one!’ That’s really all you want when you’re in that putting-stuff-together position.
Amanda: Yeah, you’re so sensitive. There’s a thing about sharing— Like, I never play demos for people when I’m working on…not really, unless I’m really really proud of a certain demo, because you don’t really want feedback, you know? You want feedback from your band and from your producers, but when your shit’s unfinished, the kind of feedback you’re going to get is the kind of feedback you don’t want. It’s an unfinished thing, and you haven’t created a presentable product yet.
Neil: It would be like letting somebody rid a bit of completely rough, handwritten manuscript. You don’t want feedback on it.
Amanda: Yeah, you know it’s not done. But it’s interesting playing the stuff for Neil because in the course of my relationship with him, I get now what he likes. I know— I mean, with other music, too, I kind of know what his taste is, and that’s a pro and a con, getting to know someone’s taste well enough to know ahead of time what they’re going to like, what they’re not going to like, what sounds they like, what sounds they don’t like, what genre they like, what genre they don’t like…
Neil: She emailed me one song with a note saying, ‘You won’t like this.’
Amanda: I was right.
Neil: But I liked the song! I didn’t like the arrangement.
Amanda: Yeah. And I knew that. I mean, I know enough about him to know…he has an allergy to New Wave, not really post-punk but basically New Wave. Like, what we would consider standard New Wave, he thought was the devil.
Neil: I was just really pleased when it was over.
Amanda: Yeah, but it’s like the way I feel, probably, about certain 70’s music or disco. Even if the songs are good, the sound of it totally turns me off, and I see that same reaction in him to that early-mid eighties synth-driven stuff. I’ve played him stuff, and I see him just…I see his taste.
Neil: That moment my eyes glaze over when Flock of Seagulls is on, or Human League…
Amanda: Gah! And that was like the soundtrack to my life! So that’s…It’s kind of cute, but it’s kind of hard. It’s hard to have a musical palette for a lot of this record that I know isn’t his thing whatsoever, and I know he’ll just smile and say, [affecting a British accent] ‘Oh, it sounds very nice, dear. Lots of synthesizers. Oh, it just sounds great!’ But also, for the people who love that…there were things that I was really, really quoting on this record. The soundtrack of my teenage-hood, The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Cars, the really synthy stuff that was my diet, that’s all over this record. If you speak that language you’ll probably love this record, and if that isn’t really your thing, you’ll probably think the record’s good and you’ll like the songs, but you won’t really get turned on by the production, and that was just a choice where I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t fucking care.’ I love the way this sounds. I love it. These sounds speak to my inner teenager and make me cry, so I’m just going to use them. Everyone else can fuck off.
THREE: You often perform unscheduled shows in unusual places, informing your fans only hours before via social networking. What motivates you to do that?
Amanda: It’s fun.
Neil: It’s only fun until somebody gets hurt.
Amanda: No one’s ever gotten hurt.
MB: Or arrested.
Amanda: I’ve gotten arrested!
Neil: She has! She got arrested in Amsterdam.
Amanda: I think a lot of the decisions that I make, and a lot of things that I do, and my choices, can be traced directly back to the fact that I like being in control and I don’t like being told what to do. I love touring, but I also hate how complicated and over-organized shows have to be, and that I can’t…Like, I have to book it months and months in advance, and I can’t control it, and it doesn’t really feel like it’s mine or the fans’. It feels like there’s this big machine that has to engage and work in order for me to be with other people. The thing I love so much about doing ninja gigs, which is what I call them, is it’s just me and them and that’s it. There’s literally no one else fucking involved at all, and there’s something so pleasurable about that, as a musician, to just say, ‘Everybody meet me here. Let’s be together and make music.’ There are no tickets, there’s no merch, there’s no sales, there’s no expectations, there’s nothing. There’s no press. There’s no cloud of anything around it.
Neil: There’s nobody telling you when to get offstage.
Amanda: There’s nobody telling me when to get on stage, off the stage, what to play, how to play, how loud I can play, when I have to end, what I should be doing, you know? But the flip side of that is also like, no one takes care of me, no one does it, I have to do it. That’s kind of the problem with DIY— you have to do it yourself! And you know, I’ll disappoint fans by announcing that I might do something, and then I’ll wake up that morning and be like, ‘Ah, you know what? I’m tired, I’m dizzy, I’m not going to do this.’ And then they all go, ‘Oh, we thought…’ Well, actually, that’s the point of it. It’s a round…it’s a spontaneous way of making music. It’s not all just organized.
DJ: When you do these shows, do people always show up? Has there ever been a time when nobody did?
Amanda: Hmm…There’s never been a time when nobody showed up, but there was a time in Byron Bay, Australia when I announced a ninja gig on the beach for like 6 or 7 at night, and my fan base in Australia is pretty big, and Byron Bay is a bustling beach town, but I learned that no one in Byron Bay is on the Internet. And a lot of Australians concurred, ‘Yeah, people in Byron Bay are just surfing and being stoned.’ They do not have…they don’t care. They’re not on Twitter. So, eight people, maybe a dozen people showed up, and they were all from out of town. They all drove two or three hours to Byron Bay, and no locals came. But, I learned a lot about the town itself. It’s really just like this lazy surfer-touristy town where no one was plugged in. Usually, if I Twitter it around, I’ll get the Twitter people in the area, but then they’ll text their friends and the word will just spread like wildfire. It’s not like everybody has to be online, but you have to have a critical mass of people to spread the word for you. In contrast to that, I’ve done ninja gigs where— like, I did one in Sydney that same tour and something like five hundred people came out, so…
DJ: Since you’re without amplification, how do all of those people hear you?
Amanda: Sometimes it just sucks and people can’t hear. I mean, Brian [Viglione] and I, when the Dolls just toured Australia, we did some ninja gigs where we were outside in fucking Perth and we had probably three or four hundred people, and we dealt with it creatively by running around in the crowd. Brian would play guitar and I had my ukulele, and we would just do a song here and then run through the crowd and do the second half of the song on the other side of the crowd, and just play around with it. And sometimes people can help out. Like the ninja gig that I’m going to do in Texas, I asked Twitter where a good spot was. I got a hundred recommendations for the Grassy Knoll, and then a hundred recommendations that said ‘Do not fucking play on the Grassy Knoll!’ But then Good Records put up their hand and said, ‘You can come play here.’ And I was like, ‘Good. Done. Easy. Then I’ll be amplified.’ That, of course, un-does all of the spontaneity and freedom of it, because now I have to fucking be there tomorrow at six, but I can still probably pretty much play however long I want and it’s all pretty casual. So, like everything else in life, it’s like a balance between being organized and disorganized and not feeling chained.
DJ: Considering how some people interact with you online, and how many people are willing to come to these shows at the last minute, it’s obvious that a lot of your fans really look up to you. Does that affect how you see yourself as an artist?
Amanda: Probably. I mean, it probably gives me more confidence to do whatever I feel like doing. When you have a fan base like that, it can be comforting. I don’t know how big pop artists like Britney Spears or whoever, when everyone is just waiting for you to fuck up or waiting for you to suck, I don’t— I can’t imagine how that would feel. I would hate it. I would want to curl up and die. It is really nice that, you know, I have the kind of fan base that’s not just…they’re not universally supportive, which I actually really appreciate. Like, I think the most respectful thing they can do is just be honest with me. So, even when they look up to me, they’re not afraid to say, ‘Ah, but I hate your ukulele songs! Get back to playing piano!’ There’s a very open conversation, but that feels supportive in that I feel like people are really listening. I don’t feel like they’re just blindly following. And I definitely do weird stuff, and I go off on side projects and I go off on tangents and I do what I fucking feel like, but I think that’s also what keeps people interested. I’m not really interested in just pleasing them and giving them what they want, because that would get really boring really fast.
DJ: Do you ever feel that you’re trying to send a message to your audience through your music? Has your perspective changed since you were first writing music?
Amanda: When I first started writing music, all I cared about was putting my pain, basically, into music and words. There was nothing positive about it whatsoever. It was just angsty, angsty, angsty shit from beginning to end— This is when I’m like a teenager. And also, even back then, there was humor in my music. I wrote parody 50’s doo-wop about Starbucks and how fantastic it was when I was like 16 that was just really, really cruel and mean. I can look back at my early songwriting and see all of the divergent ways that it wound up developing. But, since I didn’t have an audience, it was hard for me to conceive of how the songs that I was writing would actually fall on anyone’s ears. Like, I hadn’t had any feedback, and I didn’t get any feedback about my music really, from crowds, until I was in my mid-twenties, because I was a very shy performer. I didn’t play out a lot, I didn’t have a band. I kept everything to myself. But, I think things probably started to change as soon as I had an audience, and I got all of the really dark teenage angsty stuff out of my system. I think it just freed me up to broaden the palette of what I was writing about and working with. It kind of takes it back to this record. This record, I feel, is actually…It sounds to me like a record that I always would’ve made, and wanted to make, but I had to get to this point in my career to give myself permission to make it, if that makes sense, and I think the audience is a big part of that. I don’t think that would have happened in a vacuum. I think I had to know that there were people out there listening.
– Interview and transcription by Dale Jones