As I type this, more headlines announce another episode in an ongoing saga involving thespian-troubadour Amanda Palmer, hard-nosed mammoth producer Steve Albini, musicians and music websites, all of the Internet, fundraising service Kickstarter.com and opinionated music fans worldwide. The former Dresden Doll's latest tour — and a book, and a stadium-sized, beefed-up soul-bearing album Theatre Is Evil accompanied by her band The Grand Theft Orchestra — is the result of the artist's Kickstarter campaign, a massive success that yielded more than 17,000 donations totaling more than $1 million (of an anticipated $100,000).
Palmer opted for a DIY deal, using fan support, to put together the album, her first since 2008 and the first on her own label 8 Ft. Records. For the tour, she solicited musicians to participate at each gig — they would be compensated in booze, or merchandise, or hugs, or high fives. The New York Times asked if being paid in beer is kosher. Palmer said she would never be able to afford the thousands of dollars to compensate each player. Albini said, "If your position is that you aren't able to figure out how to do that, that you are forced by your ignorance into pleading for donations and charity work, you are then publicly admitting you are an idiot."
Palmer's spirit of collaboration was aimed at her fellow musician fans. Her call to arms wasn't posted to aspiring freelancers a la Huffington Post who are given chump change or "experience" as compensation. But the "fairness" question lingered — Palmer responded in detail to a lot of questions on her blog. (Likewise, Albini elaborated to the U.K.'s The Stool Pigeon, saying, "It’s cheapness repainted as generosity and it’s gross. Using people in this way, exploiting their good nature for one’s own benefit, is a cancer that taints many enterprises and it always reflects poorly on the exploiter.")
As the debate raged, Palmer talked to Gambit about her new album, her thespian-like approach to performance, and what the tour brings to New Orleans — Palmer performs tonight at 8 p.m. at Tipitina's.
"My fanbase is generally a very online bunch. We do what we can to reach out to the people online to spread the word about stuff," she tells Gambit. "We're sourcing local horn players and local string players to jump onstage with us and be our orchestra. There was a moment where we were looking at cutting down the workload and making things simpler. We did a potential horn budget cut, and stripping the show down in certain cities, but the entire band agreed it would be sacrilegious to not have horns in New Orleans. So we're gonna."
(Download the track "The Killing Type" here)
"It's a total mystery every night," Palmer says. The guest players run through a rehearsal and then it's showtime.
GAMBIT: How important is that? A lot of artists try to separate themselves from the audience and not want to lift that veil.
AP: I think it's really important to keep live shows organic and as local as possible. We're not having local openers on this tour because everybody in the band has a band (laughs). Since the dawn of the Dresden Dolls I've always really loved the idea that we function as a traveling circus but it's the local sideshow acts that give the show the real flavor. I'm fundamentally more party thrower than actual musician. I know how I feel when I'm at an event or at a party, I feel the most fulfilled when I think what's happened is totally unique. Nothing bums me out more when going to a rock show you know you got delivered the same show the city before got, and the city after you is gonna get. It just feels too boring. ... I actually prefer switching things up externally and using whatever resources I can in whatever city we're going to, to keep things interesting. It's also a good way of making friends. (laughs) So we win all around.
Do you feel like you want to perform more, despite playing a show like that?
Yeah, especially when you're on a long tour, and our shows run close to two, two and half hours, and that's just our set. That doesn't include openers. ... We want our life to be colorful, and weird and risky and interesting. We don't get that without throwing something together like this.
How did you put together The Grand Theft Orchestra?
Michael McQuilken, he's also a theater director, so he's been helping me put together the stage show. He's my ex-boyfriend. We were together right before I put out Who Killed Amanda Palmer? He joined the band first when still in grad school at Yale School of Drama. Chad Raines, a genius guitar player, synth player, trumpet player, wearer of many hats in the band. And the last person to join the band was Jherek Bischoff, who is an astounding bass player but he's also the orchestral and string arranger and conductor for the album and the stage.
So there's a consistency from the album to the performance.
Absolutely. Every person is translating it live. ... They're all willing performers. ... Michael, like me, used to be a street performer. We're a posse of extroverts.
The album has an intentional contemporary influence, especially with synthesizers.
Chad rounded up and built all the synthesizers. He speaks fluent New Wave. He was the perfect collaborator.
What inspired you to use those sounds in the album?
I don't know. (laughs) Really, it's more like the songs came that way. I wrote them and they cried out for certain sounds. It wasn't like I sat down and said, "OK, I'm going to write a really late-'80s synth song." They just came that way.
It's pretty huge-sounding. Were they written with the intent you'd be performing them in front of larger crowds, like arenas?
It's not something I think about, honestly. I don't write songs and think about manifesting them on stage with lights and people. I just try to write good songs. Everything else comes later.
So those are separate.
The more I tour, the more I become, whether I want to or not, aware of the fact that when I write a song I have to sing it a bunch of times. That never used to be the case. When I was writing when I was 16, it never occurred to me that song would have a touring life. Nowadays the songs are kind of hard to avoid. Still I think I'm pretty good at thinking about that, in spite of the fact I can't sing half the fucking songs on the record. That means I'm on the right track.
Are there any specifics of this tour you'd like to mention for the New Orleans crowd?
People in New Orleans are really good at dressing up. I would encourage people to go into their closets and drag out their glitzy costume jewelery and their finery for this show. We're really trying to encourage people to come full-glammed.
Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra performs at 8 p.m. tonight at Tipitina's (501 Napoleon Ave). Tickets are $22.