San Diego garage-pop duo The Dabbers are picking up where the Pixies left off—both in their lilting garage pop jams, and, more literally, as the soundtrack to the trailer for Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club 2 comics collection.
That the author has cosigned the outfit, who are also collaborating with him on the film adaptation of his novel Lullaby, isn't suprising: the pair are something of a creative force to be reckoned with. Back in the 90s and 00s, Wentz played in the celebrated cyber-punk band Kill Me Tomorrow, and in more recent years, he and his wife Shelby Wentz, a.k.a. Shelby Gubba, have gotten weird in the experimental pop project (Charles)Book&Record. Zack’s also a published novelist, while Shelby runs an online quarterly arts and culture journal called Goblin Reservation, and works as an illustrator specializing in cartoons and drawings of anthropomorphic pizzas, monsters and other whimsical creations.
The Wentzes have been playing the San Diego scene as The Dabbers for the past several years, and their recently-released album, I Am Alien Now, strikes a nice balance between sweet and savory. One of the best songs on the album is “Hidden Tin,” an ode to childhood memories and hidden spaces that balances Zack’s muscular drumming and Shelby’s gnarly overdriven bass with intimate lyrics and shoegaze-y vocal melodies.
The song recalls the little personal items and illegal contraband that Shelby and her mom and brother stowed away in their cramped apartment growing up—but it also speaks to a deeper set of feelings. “When I sing it live, I picture very fuzzy, melancholic details of my childhood,” she explains. “It's a funny song, really, about associations, misunderstandings, naiveté.” The song's Grant Reinero-directed music video, which we're pleased to premiere below, pits the two up against stark framing and slo-mo distortion as they pummel through a live performance of the song. There are some cool Twin Peaks-style Black Lodge drapery thrown in, too.
We hit up The Dabbers over e-mail to talk about the tune, Palahniuk, San Diego, and more. Read on and watch the video premiere of "Hidden Tin" below.
NOISEY: Where does The Dabbers fit in within your respective creative enterprises?
Zack Wentz: There's definitely no shortage of creative people in San Diego, but I suppose the rest of the world might not notice very often since there’s a lot less of the sort of urban compression and pressure to “make it” here than there is in some other major cities. The weather has a lot to do with it, I suppose. [Comedian/circus artist] Scot Nery made a joke about San Diego recently, how in LA people have “careers,” but San Diegans are merely “happy.”
Anyhoo, we're always doing a bit of everything, although sometimes the shifts between projects in terms of concentration seem seasonal. The different musical projects always feel like soundtracks to to the non-audible ones, for me. Although now we're getting busy making actual soundtracks for other people, so that’s kind of different. The Dabbers has come to the fore lately because of some of our work being used in several Chuck Palahniuk projects by Mindpollen studios. Since that happened, we decided to finally drop the album we’d been sitting on, and start playing out again. Now we’re making a lot of videos. We'd like to make one for every song on the album, if possible.
So tell me about “Hidden Tin.” What’s the story behind it?
Shelby Wentz: When I sing it live, I picture very fuzzy, melancholic details of my childhood. It's a funny song, really, about associations, misunderstandings, naiveté. I grew up in a one-bedroom apartment with my mother and brother up until I was 15 years old. There was not much privacy, as we shared a very compact space. Each in our own way, we managed to make room for solitude. I found mine in music (I've played bass since about twelve years old), art, and our Sega Genesis. My brother has always been very social, friendly, gregarious. We played a lot of "007" and "Sonic the Hedgehog" together. Hidden tins can be anything you cherish, covet, treasure, and put away in a secret place physically, mentally, or emotionally. We had to make spaces like that, which is why there is something magical about this song, something I want to keep for myself. But I think the emotion of it comes out when I sing, and I think that's why it's one of the most well-received songs when we play live. It's very real, very honest.
Photo by Cari Veach
What I really like about The Dabbers, and this song in particular, is that you’ve always struck this balance between grizzled, gnarly punk energy and very sweet melody. For this album you sing lead vocals, Shelby, so what made you want to take them on?
SW: I don't know if I really wanted to take them on! We played out for about five years before I started singing anything more than an "Oooh" or "Aahhh" in the background. I get incredible stage fright. Even when we wrote songs with just the two of us in our practice space, I was too shy to sing loud enough in the mic for Zack to even hear me. Really, what pushed it forward was the response we got from the crowd at live shows when we played songs with my stronger backup vocals. People constantly told me they wanted more of my vocals. I guess if there was a defining moment of making this transition, it was when I started using a reverb pedal to sing through during practices. I slowly came out of my shell because the reverb was so dreamy and lush, it made me feel less self-conscious. Zack's trust in me and encouragement was definitely the guiding light to taking over that leading lady space. Over the past few years I've grown more confident, understanding my own limits and which tones that just feel good to sing in (and which don't). Even then, the stage fright is very real. But I'm working on that, too.
Zack, you are also a novelist—writing fiction can be very grueling and frustrating. Does music and the Dabbers give you a different outlet that’s maybe more… cathartic?
ZW: I actually love all the re-writing. Possibly more than the rest. I'm an editor, and the son of an editor, so revision seems to run in my inky blood. I enjoy tinkering on pieces so much, that's often the reason they never get out there. I'll make numerous versions, and chew on them for so long I eventually don't know what to do with them, or where they could even go. Or I'm just done. Grown out of the project. Music is much more immediate, especially live. It is cathartic. The Dabbers in particular is something I get to really check out with. There’s nothing like being completely absorbed into a percussive trance. You can really not be there anymore. Just this thunderous wad of flailing racket with a rhythm breathing through. Of course sometimes I'll feel it differently the next day. I often hurt myself.
A lot of people have been mourning the recent closure of Other Music in NYC, and San Diego recently lost a landmark record store of its own, Off the Record, where you used to work Zack. How did Off the Record shape your outlook on music, and on life in general?
ZW: Man... yeah, that was a really major blow. We still have some independent music stores left, but Off the Record was more than just a store. It was an institution. Still, respect and patronage are not tokens of seniority, or having a storied history. Things change. North Park changed. San Diego changed. The way people consume music and the kinds of music they consume has changed. I was there for seven years or so, I think. I can't remember. Long enough that the place changed me in so many ways that I can't even begin to track them all, much less untangle. Overall, I heard a lot of music I would have never heard otherwise, met a lot of people I never would have met otherwise, and actually learned to love being behind a register. I was scared of that when I started.
What was the experience like actually recording the album?
SW: High five! Recording for me was like going into PeeWee's Playhouse, except PeeWee is Rafter [Roberts—local musician and producer who recorded the album] and the Playhouse is a really, really fancy recording studio. We had so much fun mixing the album. The three of us sat in a small room, surrounded by blinking lights, a wall of keyboards, synths, weird masks, a blurry TV that radiated lights coordinated to the sound of music, and a little cot I sometimes fell asleep on when Rafter and Zack got stuck on mixing something just right. It was fun and dreamy and weird.
Peter Holslin is a journalist based in LA. Follow him on Twitter.