An excellent talk with the main-man behind the music-project known as The Drama Dolls – come and learn about how the music is put together from the perspective of Mike Cambridge. We’ve reviewed the music from The Drama Dolls EP, The Sublime Art Of Self Importance in the past and it was a complete honor & privilege to be able to discuss these songs in detail with Mike and learn about what has to happen in behind the scenes to bring this music to life. There may/may not even be a moment where I pretty much beg him to be a part of the music – you’ll have to read to find out for certain!
Regardless of whether or not I’m ever allowed entry into the official line-up of The Drama Dolls – I dig this guy. Mike puts a lot of thought into all-things-Drama-Dolls and it really shows here on the page. Incidentally…he’s actually apologized for going on at length, so I figured I’d address this out loud in front of you all – PLEASE DO! If you were to ask me, what Mike has put into this interview is what each and every one of you should be doing when presented with the opportunity to share your sides of the stories…not just here at SBS, but ANYWHERE that you land an interview. In 99% of the cases out there, you’re not going to be edited, muted, or have things chopped out of your articles as an indie-artist…so take the media for a RIDE and make the most out of your moment. The idea is always to help/promote/create awareness for YOUR music…and every time you write an answer that is one, TINY sentence long…it should be a mental trigger for you to WANT MORE FOR YOUR MUSIC and to get in there with more of an answer.
In short – this is exactly the way I like to see these interviews come back to me on my side of the screen, and I couldn’t be more proud to have this interview with Mike up on our pages. I owe him a major thanks for the time & effort put into the responses here – and you’ll see for yourself how a question only becomes a great question with a great response attached to it right here on the page today – read on!
Interview with Mike Cambridge of The Drama Dolls
SBS: Mike – thank you so much for letting us have some of your time! Lots going on with The Drama Dolls I’m sure…and we’ll get to that of course! We’ve had you featured on SBS Live This Week our internet music-show before…but for those that haven’t seen it or have yet to discover The Drama Dolls – from your perspective…what’s the music like and how did The Drama Dolls come to be?
The Drama Dolls: Thanks Jer, it’s a pleasure to answer your questions. To simplify I guess The Drama Dolls music is best described as layered intense and powerful music with dark lyrical themes, delivered with a melodic pop edge. I knew that if the music matched the darkness of the lyrics it could end up sounding too predictable and turgid. The melodic edge belies the seriousness of the lyrics and I like that contradiction. The band started as I had a hard drive full of songs and needed to get them out there.
SBS: As far as I know…you do most of the music-making, production and assembly of these songs of yours…but of course you have other players involved…do you write the lyrics as well, or approve them somehow? You’re the man at the controls Mike – but how do YOU know when a song is REALLY done?
The Drama Dolls: Yes that’s right, essentially I write everything including lyrics as well as play most instruments, produce and mix so I have my hands full – (control freak alert) though Agatha does help edit the lyrics and engineer the recordings.
I see my role as akin to that of a film director/dictator as the band is not a democracy as it is very much my vision but I try and direct the performances or playing that will best convey what I want the song to be. That doesn’t diminish the roles or contributions other performers have made, it is just done within strict guidelines I set. There are exceptions of course, for instance Jon Wright who played some guitar on the EP just played what he wanted and I edited what I needed. Also the vocalist Chris Hodges is based in the USA and records himself and hardly needs any direction, though occasionally I will do an awful guide vocal for him to work with, which he subsequently ignores and produces a magical vocal. I love his voice, it is quite unique, with a great tone and a mixture of power and fragility.
I am a big believer in serving the song and not let egos get in the way, if the songs needs a guitar part I
can’t play I will get someone who can. I am not the best musician in the world but as long as I can deliver what is needed I am happy. Digital multi tracking is perfect for obsessives like me and I am not afraid to hire a session player if needed. It can be like asking a painter to just paint within lines I have drawn and I am aware that can be frustrating for musicians hence for hire is sometimes the most efficient route.
As for knowing when a song is finished, well to be honest I never do. Because I take such a hands on role I have to set a deadline, then record and edit and remix numerous times in the countdown to that date. I then have to force myself to stick to that date (pushed by Agatha) for my own sanity’s sake and then send the song off to be mastered by the mighty Pete Mayer of U2 fame, that way it’s taken out of my hands apart from 3am emails to Pete saying I just need to change that bass drum level (I’m not joking).
In the band my wife Agatha (her nick name) plays an important part in quality control, she isn’t afraid to say something is shite. She is very supportive and helps me keep to deadlines, she is usually the one saying enough is enough – it’s done.
SBS: Let’s get specific…let’s talk about the single we had actually put on our show for a second, the song called “Don’t Waste Your Prayers.” You decided to remix it…was that an example of a song that wasn’t quite done before, or was that simply to hear a different take on it? You added in singer Addie Nicole – how did your paths cross and what did you feel like she added to the remix?
The Drama Dolls: I guess that is an instance where my system breaks down of knowing when a song is done as I revisited that song quite quickly as I couldn’t quite let go. Addie has a superb voice and gave an exceptional performance which gives the song a unique sound from 2 different genders. It is a typical example of how I work as sadly there are various versions that are either acoustic, orchestral or heavy metal. My recording session files are enormous as all these versions exist till the final pre mastering Mix. Even after the CD is recorded I have to stop myself going back and tinkering. That’s why I have to set a deadline otherwise I could be on version 50, in twelve months time. There is even a piano and cello version of I Want More somewhere on my hard drive. Again Agatha plays her part in keeping me focused
SBS: You were also kind enough to mail us out a special copy of The Sublime Art Of Self Importance. It’s an incredibly special gift to me, given that much of this box-set-of-sorts was assembled by hand…a limited-edition run of only 100, of which I have number 58. Since I’ll never be able to properly thank you enough for such an amazing gift to a music-guy like myself…least I can do is ask a couple questions regarding it all! I noticed you mentioned U2/Muse as influences in your music…the answer required doesn’t necessarily have to be one of those two…but the three songs featured on the EP…when YOU listen to them – can you hear the sound of the bands that influence your music? Name some names if you can…I’d be interested to hear what the ‘sounds-like’ comparisons might be from the artist’s perspective rather than my own observations for a change!
The Drama Dolls: Well U2 and Muse are more reference points for listeners, rather than influences to me as a writer. When I hear the 3 songs I hear hints of the dense textures of My Bloody Valentine especially on I Want More, but probably no-one else does. I always maintained I wanted to fill the gaps in my record collection with my own songs so hopefully they have a musical identity of their own. I am too close to the songs to identify influences, but I guess the Killers, Foo Fighters or Muse qualities merit some mention
SBS: The name of the entire EP actually fascinates me…gonna get you to explain that one to us all if you don’t mind! Because of my extremely assumptive/jaded personality…I’m also going to take a shot at seeing if I knew what you meant by that title of The Sublime Art Of Self Importance, even though I’m sure definitions may vary on this highly subjective moniker. Is that title really just an extremely clever way of saying “I’m a musician, I make music?” What did the title of The Sublime Art Of Self Importance mean to you personally and how did it become the fitting name for the EP?
The Drama Dolls: Ha Ha interesting viewpoint Jer, well I was very conscious that as the music is pretty serious and deals with traumatic themes that I wanted to convey a bit of irony and playfulness in the title. That’s not to trivialize the themes explored, I just didn’t want the EP to be perceived as too pretentious, so in short the title is a playful dig at myself as us musicians tend to be rather self-absorbed. But after hearing your view I may adopt that one instead. Just for reference the EP was nearly called The Sublime Art of Self Delusion. I didn’t want it to be just the title of one of the songs.
SBS: In general…when do you personally feel like you do your best writing? What does LIFE have to be like around you to bring out the best in your creativity? In the actual room where you’re recording in – do you set it up in any special way or bring things in to become comfortable & get the best out yourself and your music?
The Drama Dolls: I never stop thinking about songs, I may be thinking of a drumbeat whilst watching TV and tapping on my ipad and scribbling lyrics. My studio is a very tranquil space so I never feel the need to bring in anything else. I am not that kind of musician who sits composing with an acoustic guitar and incense sticks. My songs are all based around characters who have a mission to deliver the message of the song. I build and arrange songs in the studio and very very rarely write music outside of it, Lyrics yes – music no.
SBS: What kind of subjects interest YOU when it comes to lyrical content? Are there certain themes that resonate more strongly with you than others? I know you’ve mentioned some pretty heavy themes of religion, despair, loss, hope and suicide…what’s the attraction to the darker themes in music?
The Drama Dolls: Well this a difficult one to answer, as I rarely talk about the meanings of the songs. In general I seem to tap into themes of despair, hopelessness and religious scepticism quite easily. I am not as dark as the lyrics may suggest and irony and contradiction are always present, I am quite reserved so I like to retain some secrets to myself in the lyrics. I am aware of all these dark themes even If I don’t experience them on a daily basis. I think modern music especially has become a sanctuary of happiness and aspiration and I am happy to explore other themes, much the same way as an author does. I am no Morrissey or Ian Curtis but I think I manage to convey well enough the meanings of the songs.
SBS: Are there any specific ideas that you’d like the music of The Drama Dolls to explore over time, or is there something important that you’d like the music to express over the course of its career that you haven’t yet? Where do you see yourself taking the music in the future to come?
The Drama Dolls: As long as the songs are good, I don’t mind where the music takes me. I am not tied to specific genres or subjects. As long as I feel personally I have delivered the meaning of the song I am not too bothered. As I indicated before the songs exists in various forms anyway so at any point a rocking guitar song could finally end up as just piano and vocals if I thought that worked best. I am not constrained as a single instrument performer so I don’t have to write a song with a great solo or bass line just because that is my instrument. I tend to write and arrange in a very visual sense, and create the songs as almost like a collage, the fact that I am not a traditionally taught player adds to the sound. For example the key change in I want More into the chorus is something players struggled with as it wasn’t standard, but that tension and feel is what makes The Drama Dolls special, well at least to me it does. Though I won’t put something in like that on purpose it’s just how the song develops. I always believe you have to write for yourself and hope others like it.
SBS: There was definitely some cohesion between the songs on the EP…you know what I mean? Even though each track still had its own flavour & sound, you can tell that it’s The Drama Dolls. Was it important to have those three songs possess a stylistic-signature-stamp of sound identifying it to The Drama Dolls on The Sublime Art Of Self Importance? What you feel like a song HAS to have in order to feel like it belongs in The Drama Dolls catalogue?
The Drama Dolls: Yes all 3 songs are based around a concept of suicidal characters standing at a precipice in their lives and each one tells a different part of the story, with a different outcome. They deal with despair and an increased acceptance that suicide is sometimes the only answer. I’ll leave it to the listeners to interpret what outcome each song has – answers on a postcard!!. The videos also help tell the story. Perhaps Jer, I could turn the tables on you and ask what you thought they were about and what outcome??
****Jer @ SBS Editor’s Note*** – Well I gotta be honest on that one, I was sure I had mentioned SOMETHING in the review on the EP lol, but as it turns out I commented more on composition and how the songs made me feel personally! So…to answer the question as best I can…
“Don’t Waste Your Prayers” – I’d say to me this song represents that struggle between finding one’s self outside of religion…or at least the battle to be seen as more than simply part of the machine of religion. As in, ‘don’t waste your prayers on me ’cause I don’t need’em’ kinda thing…
“I Want More” – On this song I would have said this is more of an internal-struggle…battling ego/greed/human-impulses…and perhaps failing overall on this one, as in, I’m not entirely sure that there is any other conclusion but ‘acceptance’ from the main character in the narrative…giving in to being bad…that’d be my interpretation there.
“King For A Day” – I had found to be more of a positive-vibe than perhaps intended lol. I gotta admit Mike…this one’s a tougher one for me to grab the meaning from cause I can’t help but fucking ROCK OUT to this song every time I hear it. BUT…since you’ve asked, I’ll pitch out a perspective… To me, this song sounded based in ideals…and perhaps the struggle between finding the platform to make change versus the ability/courage/responsibility to make it all happen once that platform is achieved. I could be way off on that one…but yeah…it sounds to me like a guy with the right ideas in a massive struggle on what the best way to go about communicating them might be…to get these ideas out of the head and implemented into our world. This could be entirely based from my own projections of the inner-workings of my own mind.
SBS: I’ll pitch one to you as wide-open as a question can get Mike…what are the qualities in a song that lead it to become timeless? You can cite anything/anyone you want to, or reference any time in music’s history…but I’d love to hear your perspective on what the ingredients are that turn songs into legends.
The Drama Dolls: Hmmm , I guess the purpose of any song is to convey the writers feelings or emotions and translating it to the listener as succinctly as possible. To me songs like Joy Divisions’ Love Will Tear Us Apart lets you hear and feel the struggle, pain and turmoil of the writer perfectly. But it can be equally a song like Dolly Parton I Will Always Love You (Not the Houston atrocity) which conveys her message in a heartfelt, direct and simple way, whether you like the song or not you do ‘get it’ .
To be honest Jer, I wish I was that kind of writer, however I tend to compose these dark ‘Drama Dolls’ anthems with layers of metaphors and contradictions. Though In every song I write, the meaning of the songs in a nutshell is usually there in at least one line in the song. For instance as I know you are going to ask me, In Prayers the lines I’ve seen the future, I’ve seen the past , I’ve seen it all going so fast conveys the utter desperation and futility the song’s character feels with the last verse lines Nothing To Live For, Nothing To Last, Nothing to say at all. To me those few lines say all that needs to be said about the song. I could easily quote a couple of lines from the other songs that explain all that needs to be said about them (but I won’t).
What I love about songs, and forgive me for ranting here, Is that the lyrics mean something different to everyone and their own interpretation is just as important. Just because I wrote a line or song and know what it is about, doesn’t and shouldn’t betray that listeners own sense of what it means to them. For example one fan told me they thought I Want More was a love song and it resonated with what they were going through at the time, it isn’t but I can see why they thought it was. That gave me a real buzz and what makes song-writing so special.
SBS: How about line-up switches to the upcoming new songs? I’m presuming you’ve already got a bunch more songs already written and ready to go at your creative-pace…so I’m wondering if you’ve got any new-comers joining you on the new stuff (and when do I get MY shot at rocking one of these songs!)? If you do…how did you find them & what’s the story behind them? In general – how do you go about testing out whether or not these guests are ‘right’ for the sound of The Drama Dolls?
The Drama Dolls: As we discussed the lineup will always change but never just for the sake of it, if people who have played on this EP are available and able to do it then I would use them. For example Alan isn’t available for the next record so it will be me on the drum stool for some tracks and session players for any others.
Till the songs are finished I have no way of knowing what will be required, some songs may just be me – time will tell. As for testing players it’s a simple concept, I give them the track and if they can play it how I want it, they get the gig, if not I will use someone else. Luckily up to now that hasn’t been an issue and most players have been great and then played on the songs, though whether that gets cut out in an edit is another matter. Also if they get the feel and most of the track nailed I can edit and comp if needed- I am not as demanding as I probably sound. One guy played 4 bars that I loved and so I kept that and deleted the rest. If it serves the song then it’s in. One song has only 4 words of a female vocal remaining, but it sounded great so I was happy with that.
Well Jer, I am working on a track at the moment that’s quite angry and self loathing so when it’s past bare bones I’ll send it over and you can have a crack at it.
****Jer @ SBS Editor’s Note*** – This news just made my freakin day! Definitely love to give it a shot!
SBS: I don’t always get to ask this question…but I regret it when I don’t! Mike I want to know about THE MOMENT where things changed for you…when music became EVERYTHING. Don’t spare us any details brother! At some point in time…you saw something live, heard something recorded, met someone in the music business…something somewhere made music become what you wanted to do with your entire LIFE…can you describe what it was and what about it that impacted you so strongly?
The Drama Dolls: I can’t remember a time when music wasn’t important to me, I can pinpoint landmark times in my life and relate it to music in some way. Music is just simply a part of me, whether listening or playing. There was no massive lightbulb moment that said – this is it. After a few near misses and broken promises, I tend to view the industry people with scepticism so they have never played that role. Landmark releases would have to be anything by Joy Division – I love everything about them. My music taste away from creating it, are very diverse and I tend to listen to a lot of David Sylvian, Nick Drake and even Pink Floyd. Music does consume me but I try to ensure I also have a life way from it and Agatha, my daughter and family help with that, otherwise I’d be in a straightjacket (lol).
SBS: Websites brother! You’ve got’em, we want’em! Where do you want people to look for The Drama Dolls online? In terms of support from the fans stopping by…what’s the BEST way that you feel they can support you and the music?
The Drama Dolls: Check out our You Tube channel https://www.youtube.com/c/thedramadollsofficial
SBS: Open floor Mike! You’re probably already expecting that from us…our standard tradition of letting you rant/rave however you’d like to here at the end of the interview with anything else you’d like to add or anything you want to say at all. Thank you SO MUCH for all your time & answers brother – it’s been great getting to know you and music of The Drama Dolls and I’m stoked to hear whatever comes out next from you, whenever it comes out! Be sure to send that our way my friend – thanks again for everything!
The Drama Dolls: Well Jer, I have probably already ranted more than I normally would as I prefer to let the music speak for itself, though I realise that always sounds a little clichéd. The fact we never take band photos is very intentional and part of keeping everything focused on the songs. I loved that whole Factory Records ethos that followed a similar intention. To be honest I had to be convinced to add the lyrics into the CD sleeve at the last minute, so that probably gives you a sense of what this band is about. I accept I am driven, focused and probably bloody minded but I always hope the finished product is better for those qualities.
Besides the songs I am probably most proud of the production and mixing which to me enhance the music, though I accept some production decisions such as a lower vocal level on I Want More are open to discussion. Personally I think it sounds better and suits that dense soundscape I was after. Are there mistakes on the record?, sure, are the sounds too dense at times maybe, but to me that imperfection is magical.
The front sleeve artwork, which I love, was created by a really talented guy I know, Steve Young and was perceived and painted as an oil painting then digitally manipulated for the sleeve. What was really inspiring was that the painting was done by Steve whilst listening to demos of the tracks, so the music influenced the art – I love that!. In some ways the claustrophobic sense of the art in turn influenced some of the decisions made during production, which makes the artwork very special to me.
The painting now hangs pride of place in the studio. Originally I had this wild idea of cutting the painting up into 100 pieces and placing each fragment in the CD sleeves, but soon as I saw the painting there was no way I was going to do that.
So we head to 2016 for the release of the album and who knows what that will bring, death metal with a pedal string guitar maybe (joke!!)
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