Dan Kurtz & Martina Sorbara of Dragonette
Initially formed at a folk festival in Canada in 2005, Dragonette moved to London where they were welcomed by the land of club kids and queens. Dragonette is a riotous time-warp into the 80s new wave-pop realm, the infectious group makes even the most reluctant listener dance, or at least whirl about a bit, mesmerized by the flashing lights and Martina’s cheekbones.
Having been featured on TV shows including “The Hills,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Vampire Diaries,” Dragonette is beginning to finally garner the attention they deserve. The band is wrapping up their US tour and soon off to Europe and Australia to perform more killer shows. TheyWillRockYou.com sat down with Dan Kurtz and were later joined by Martina Sorbara before their show at Great Scott in Allston, MA, where they pumped energy to the crowd of excited fans.
Interviewed by: Sally Feller | November 2009
So let’s start at the beginning, how did you all meet?
Dan: I married Martina and we started a band because I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life on two separate tour schedules. So from there we met Joel and then Chris, our guitar player is our most recent addition when we found him on Craigslist…looking for someone tall, dark, and handsome.
That was my posting actually.
Dan: Really? You look nothing like the ad. He is very tall, very dark, and very handsome. And he didn’t even put it in the ad, so Chris joined us a couple months ago.
What made you decide to move from Canada to London?
Dan: Adventure and a record deal. Adventure, being me and Martina were going to move somewhere anyway, as we’re terrified of the quicksand that is Toronto, which is a very slow quicksand. It’s so slow that you don’t even know it’s taking you over, but the next thing you know you are more than middle-aged and still in Toronto.
Way to try to backpedal on the joys of living in Toronto.
Dan: No, I love it. An example of the quicksand is that Tina and I have a house in London which already is a dumb thing to have when you’re a musician—a house anywhere because all you do is, like…I paid for a roof and an alarm system on a house that I’ve never really lived in. We’ve had it for about a month and already I was like, fuck this, this is an albatross around my neck. And sure enough, when we were in Toronto for like three weeks and I said, “god, I’d really love to buy a house here right now because it would be so great to just have a place in Toronto.” And then I said (facepalms), “What are you doing?” But Toronto’s got that kind of appeal. It’s really good for lattes and prams. Sorry, bugaboos, they’re not prams anymore.
I first heard of you guys when I heard “Pick Up the Phone” on the indiefeed podcast and I was like, holy crap, there’s dance music with a beat that I haven’t heard for the past decade or so. There just seems to be a dearth of good dance music. How would you describe Dragonette’s sound?
Dan: Thanks. I think it’s pop music, first and foremost, and then I think the sound is most of the time at least reliable beats-driven as opposed to like exemplary amazing beats-driven. It’s get-the-job-done beats and I think it’s aggressive when it needs to be and…we’ve had to find the balance between my inclination which is to make really hard, tough tracks and having this very small girl’s voice on top of it and we’ve always subjugated the music to the vocal and I think that’s probably what a pop song is more than anything.
I have conflicting research here. I read that you opened for New Order, but another site said it was Duran Duran.
Dan: The answer is both.
Really? So is it true that when you opened for New Order it was only your second live performance? How was that?
Dan: It was a fucking disaster. Because we sucked and we were not meant for their crowd, which Martina’s got great descriptions for them, but basically it’s like a bunch of 45-year-old guys who wanted to be angry. It was at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York and there were guys emerging from, like, the mosh pit with fine merino wool and cotton shirts that they were wearing from work. And fucking bloody noses because they were getting into fights, just to pretend like they were back in high school or something.
For New Order? But they’re 80s new wave pop….
Dan: It was tough.
So tell me about Duran Duran then.
Dan: Duran Duran was really cool. They were really nice guys. Simon Le Bon told me and Martina that he loved watching her from behind. Um, which is a compliment for a girl
It might be a dream. A creepy dream, but a dream nonetheless.
Dan: Yeah. That was really cool because they were really welcoming and the crowds were great with the exception of a couple who were like midwestern, religious folk who thought that our song “Jesus Doesn’t Love Me Anymore” was actually blasphemy and it was a little too much mixing of sex and religion for them. I know a lot of gay guys because that’s what London is made of, and this guy named Johnny Blue Eyes—he’s incredibly gay and incredibly Irish and incredibly Catholic—and he said that “Jesus Doesn’t Love Me Anymore” made him feel redeemed. That song saved his soul. He was like, “A song, for me. A queer, the youngest of nine.”
Your music was clearly influenced by that 80s dance electro-pop scene of Depeche Mode, The Eurythmics, and you guys even remind me a little of The Human League. Ever thought of doing a whole album of 80s covers? Specifically, would you please do a cover of “Don’t You Want Me, Baby?”
Dan: I gotta tell you that for me that would be one of the easiest things in the world. Only because I played for a band called the Space Invaders and we played exclusively that music. I was dressed in parachute pants and a pink beret driving all over northern Ontario, playing all manner of places. Including a native reserve where they totally didn’t get it. But I think I’ve played all the bands that you mentioned, including “Don’t You Want Me, Baby?” and I sang all the high notes.
Martina would be killer singing that.
Dan: Wouldn’t that be fun? The only problem is the eighties is so fucking eighties now, you know?
Yeah, and it’s also so trendy right now.
Dan: And Calvin Harris has said that he invented the 80s, didn’t he? And he invented disco in the 70s.
Well, doesn’t someone say that about every decade though?
Dan: True. Well they played fucking fantastic music in the 80s. And when I was growing up then I hated all of it. I was listening to The Beatles and Janis Joplin and Zepplin and Boston. A lot of Boston.
Yeah, the 80s music always seemed fluffy to me, so I thought the stuff from the 70s was cooler and more “intense” when I was a kid.
Dan: I couldn’t do the clothes. That was the problem. And guys looked like fucking weirdos. And whenever I flash forward to the pink berets and parachute pants, it’s embarassing.
“Fixin to Thrill” was released in October in the U.S. If you had to pick one song on the album that really defines your sound, which one would it be?
Dan: Good question. I think there isn’t one song on that record that defines the sound. I would say somewhere between “Fixin to Thrill” and “Pick Up the Phone” lies a song like “Gone Too Far” that’s, you know, edgy but not hard and more songy than shouty. I dunno. I think somewhere in there. I really look forward to playing “Pick Up the Phone” because it’s a songy song and still has a beat to it. And people in the audience sing along to it even if they’ve never heard it. And then I’m really proud of, like “Easy” is a song that I don’t think we would’ve done before this album. We haven’t done a song like that before and I really like the fact that we did a song like that because the chord structure is really plain and last record I refused to do anything [like that] but it works and it’s a really beautiful melody. That song took like ten minutes to write and so I really like that one, too. And we play it live, and for a band playing ballads on their first tour in a country is really ballsy of Martina, especially, to just be up there and be legitamately heartfelt.
(Martina joins Dan and I at this point)
This album definitely offers up some diversity soundwise by appropriating a lot of different styles. So is that something you planned from the start or did it just kind of happen?
Dan: No, we’re just not very good at being consistent.
Martina: The way that we write is that we just kind of start something and we have no idea where it’s going to go, so it’s just kind of an adventure. What is this song going to be? What the hell is it going to sound like? And it reveals itself and that’s what makes it fun. We’re not intellectual musicians who sit down and are like, “okay, so we need to have this and this.”Dan: On the subject of professional musicians, I just have to say that level of…there are guys who write perfect songs, you know? Like the guy who wrote the songs with and for Barry Manilow. We were talking about how some chords imply a 5% sunnier moment as opposed to a 50% sunnier moment. You know, I’m going to control exactly what I need with these chords. But we were doing a thing at CDC radio in Toronto, which is like NPR here, and they had these blow up images of scripts for radio plays so it was 1932 and the description was “music enters. Music sounds like a pleasant day, but with the hint of a faraway storm.” How the fuck do you write that? You’re like, “Oh hey, it’s like this!” It’s a nice day but then what’s the thing that you do to say “I think there’s a storm coming!”? Anyway, that subtlety and we’re not good at that. We’re like fingernails holding on for dear life kind of writing songs.
Martina: It’s fun. I enjoy it. Sometimes it’s really hard work to get to the point where you know what the song is really going to sound like. But that’s the best feeling when you can say, “Oh, that’s the song!”
What’s the most unique sample you’ve ever used and what’s the process for deciding what sounds go into your songs?
Dan: Never used a sample because they’re a fucking pain to clear. I don’t even know how to do that; the clearing samples part. There are some really definitive sounds that you go, “Oh, well that wrote the song” like in “I Get Around” we were like, “whoa, check out this sound” and about five minutes later it became the song. And same thing with “Fixin to Thrill.” The process for writing a song before was really accidental…it’s like, “I need a drum and this is a drum,” but now it’s like “Oh that snare isn’t quite long enough and it’s a little too airy.” Most of the time, it’s about creating a space, I think, and what kind of space is that…is it like moody and believable, like real drum sounds and a lot of the time that stuff doesn’t get decided until we’re almost mixing the song. Half of the time, we’re flying in new snare drum sounds or kick drum sounds while we’re mixing the song just so that it does the right thing. It’s also about a beat and what can fit around the vocals and whether it sounds like angry or happy or sad, and how subtle you want to get with it.
Let’s talk about your video for “Fixin to Thrill.” Who came up with the idea for the video where you’re a robot being assembled by children and then you all break into a dance party, sort of a twisted version of “Frosty the Snowman?”
Martina: Me and my friend. We made the video and we did the whole thing. It was an extension of what we normally do in our free time, like what we normally do when we’re not making videos together. We just imagine this totally hilarious shit we could do. And in this case it was like, “AND we get to make it and we get this much money and we actually got to hire people.”
Were the kids weirded out by the video concept?
Martina: No. They were super into it. Their parents were into it. I think it was after the fact that some of the parents were like, “huh, wait.” I dunno. To me it’s just funny, but some people are like, “Oh, that video’s scary” and I’m like “really?” But they all had fun, they were really great. They were mostly my nieces and nephews and friends.
You worked with Cyndi Lauper on her 2008 album. Can you tell us about that and what you took away from the experience?
Dan: She had blue highlights.
Martina: She’s the real deal. She’s just really powerful and exactly the way you’d imagine her. And really intense *mimics Lauper’s thick Queens accent* “I need to tell you this. And you’re gonna remember this when I tell you that…” However you imagine Cyndi Lauper by listening to her music and looking at her, that is just how she is. It was the opposite of meeting your childhood hero and having them be boring; it was meeting your childhood hero and having her be exactly what you expected her to be.
What’s next for Dragonette?
Martina: A whole lot of highways and clubs.
You’re going to Europe to tour, right?
Martina: Yeah. That’s only a couple shows, five shows or so. And then we go to Australia, which will be fun. We’re kind of doing a different kind of show over there. It’s a bit more retro, a bit more DJ-ish. We’re playing at an electronic DJ festival.
Dan: It’s like karaoke, but cool. I’m the karaoke machine. I’m the Wizard of Oz.
For more info on Dragonette:
Their official Website