I could tell that Rose was pained that I went home with the engineer a few days into tracking, even though he was cool and never mentioned it to our producer, John Villiers. I was thankful for that, because it turned out John Villiers was exactly my type: steady blue eyes, able forearms, faded flannel shirts, kids, divorce pending. He winked at me when I accidentally dropped my Coke all over the floor and from that moment on he was a marked man. (If you’ve bought our albums you’ll have sung along to my exaltations to John Villiers on ‘Svengali’ and ‘El Capitan’, and been none the wiser as to who they were about.)
He was inside the studio as I faced Rose and I could practically feel the heat through four inches of brick wall. One acquired a certain studied indifference towards recording studios over time, but at first Rose and I had been cripplingly shy around the moody engineers and mysterious bands passing in and out. We’d head straight for the safety of the couch of Studio A and sit staring at our phones like Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
‘Bring some things in from home to help you relax,’ Alannah had suggested, down the line from somewhere glittery on the Gold Coast where she lived these days. Alannah once caused massive fire damage to a studio in Sydney while tripping heavily. Legend had it a tapestry draped on the wall for ambience was ignited by a candle. ‘Make it your space. Candles, incense, wine; whatever it takes.’
John Villiers (no-one ever said ‘John’; it was always ‘John Villiers’) had his name on the back of every great Australian album since the late eighties, including my aunt’s last ever release before she disappeared from public view. I’d been working on him all week, leaning against the vocal booth with my back arched between takes or folding languidly over the desk next to him, letting my curtain of hair drop.
John Villiers was doing incredible things with The Dolls’ songs, preserving their vim while revving them up like a Mack truck. He said it was all about capturing the unbearable urgency of being a teenager; that sense that everything comes in limited supply with a short window of opportunity. He said it revolved around the cause and effect of hormonal impulses and bad decisions. Since the fifties, old songwriter creeps had tried to bottle it, but it came most authentically from the horse’s mouth, he said: ‘Teenage Kicks’ by The Undertones, ‘We Are Young’ by Supergrass, ‘Can’t Say No’ by The Dolls.
John Villiers remembered that urgency, and he reckoned we had it locked deep inside us, like a glowing gemstone in our bellies. He actually got us to touch our bellies as we sang, to feel our diaphragms expanding. Between takes of ‘Bad Influence’ he put his hand on my throat and got me to drop my larynx.
An hour before the biggest gig of our career, we sent a roadie on stage and instructed him to stretch a silver line of gaffer tape down the centre of it.
Rose and I watched from the wings.
‘That’s my side,’ she said pointing to the left, which was always her side. ‘Do not come over that line.’
Less than forty-five minutes after that I tried to strangle her in the people mover. Then I strapped on my guitar and walked out into the lights.
I knew that everyone in the music scene wanted me to admit the Dall connection, so I’d just come right out and say it.
Mum’s older sister was Alannah Dall. Everyone knew who Alannah Dall was when you started singing one of her songs or pulled out your iPod. Everyone had heard the smash hits about Pink Camaros and High Maintenance, which was actually about drugs. Everyone knew she’d dated the dude in Roxy Music, and was arrested for indecent exposure in Toronto, and flew into Drought Aid in a helicopter with her own wind machine in tow.
I could pull out my wallet and show you a family snap to prove it, of Rose and me at just five years old, with our mothers frowsy and tight-lipped next to this exotic bird with the big hair. When we got studio time with someone as hot as our producer as young as we did, people wanted an admission of nepotism.
Marcus became the new object of our obnoxiousness. We started by changing his name to Ian Essence, because he started every sentence with ‘In essence …’ – the perfect bullshit expression.
In reality, Ian Essence was doing a very bad job of managing us. For instance, by day two of The Dummies tour I had rooted their tour manager and our chaperone had no clue.
It was easy to separate Damien from the pack as we watched The Dummies side of stage. Divide and conquer. It was child’s play to brush up against him, as I made observations in his ear about the sound levels and lightly touched his back. By the time it came to loading the van it was like there was a bungee cord between us that only we could see.
When Rose went to the toilet I asked him if he had anything to drink back at the hotel and he said he did. We made the ride back in silence as Rose held court with the band: ‘Our aunt had affairs with all your favourite musicians. Name one . . . Yes.’
She and I were supposed to sleep on the floor of Bruce’s room that night, but I never showed up.
Damien’s room, when he opened the door with some kind of look on his face, was corporate chic like Bruce’s would have been. I scanned it as I slung my purse on the bed.
‘Let’s get you over there too,’ he said in his sex voice, manoeuvring me awkwardly away from the TV. He moved in, his lips hot and rubbery on mine.
I’m a good kisser. I go in softly, then press more urgently. Then I lightly touch my tongue against theirs, two or three times. Then there’s more of a tonguing that might go on for a minute or so, then back to a chaste one again. Then repeat. But I only kiss men I like.
‘Get us a whisky,’ I said sharply, leaning away. I sat down on the edge of the bed, on its crazy coral-and-mauve cover. Alannah wore coral lipstick in the ‘So Sue Me’ video back in 1987 and that was its last legitimate sighting. I was wearing my new Ksubi jeans and they took so long to take off I thought I might have to just yank them back up and walk out to save further embarrassment.
Damien laughed like it was cute, and flicked aside his fringe as he reclined next to me, holding a tumbler with a trickle in it.
We had a month of US promo before the tour started. While we were in LA, Elementary had us on an endless treadmill of radio-station phoners, feeding us only Starbucks muffins and coffee.
I wished we could hand journalists a list of meaningful questions. It would save them the five minutes of Wiki research they did, or from sticking a question mark at the end of each paragraph of our album bio.
Album bio: The Dolls are the first to admit the recording of It’s Not All Ponies and Unicorns was an unsettling time.
Journo: Did you find the recording of It’s Not All Ponies and Unicorns unsettling in any way?
The first wave of shysters were trundled in and presented to us, all alike with their record bags, the recorders they always had to fiddle with and the notepads held protectively out of reach on their laps. Lazier journalists had ten minutes on the phone.
This was how ten-minute interviews panned out.
– Journalist sympathises that we must be doing a lot of press.
– We report that it’s quite exhausting.
– Journalist acknowledges we must get sick of answering the same questions all the time.
– We laugh.
– Journalist starts with something safe, like our experience of working with John Villiers.
– Rose cuts in before I can answer and responds with something equally safe.
– Journalist wonders what we think of other journalists comparing us to ___.
– We respond that this is a new one to us but we grew up listening to ___’s music and certainly respect them as an artist.
– Journalist hypothesises we must be tired of people bringing up the Alannah Dall connection.
– We protest that no, Alannah has been and remains a huge influence on our work and we have learned so much from her.
– Operator cuts in on the line to tell us we have one minute remaining.
– Journalist asks something really personal that might potentially make us hang up. Possibly: a) how do we respond to criticism that we are using shock tactics to sell our record, b) is it true that our former manager is suing us for unfair dismissal, or, c) are we likely to play the Woop Woop Ute Muster again.
– One of us laughs benevolently and replies: ‘What a good question; we’ll have to come back to that one, [insert name here].’
These journos were smiling assassins. Some bitches would make out we were the worst thing to happen to women since Tony Abbott, while the men would go home and bash out meaningless clichés like ‘and therein lies the rub’ on their grimy laptops, just so they could hear themselves say it. They’d describe us as bruised, ruined, fallen, wasted, damaged, or they’d review our show like it was a hate fuck.
For the rest of my adult life, every time I’d see someone with a laptop in a Starbucks I’d have to fight the urge to dump my caramel latte on their keyboard.