Doll Baby

Interview by Jesse Hooper
Issue 59 • January 2018 • Richmond

Fresh off an East Coast tour and their second EP release, this indie punk band celebrates everything it means to be in the Richmond scene—from supporting marginalized artists to burning couches.

Virginia’s capital has played host to a seemingly unthrottled explosion of new bands in recent years, including a slew of original femme-fronted projects. Many of these groups will be performing at Be Bad Weekend 2018, the fifth annual installment of Richmond’s unofficial showcase for leading women in local music. Presented in its first years as Bad Girls Revue, this year’s incarnation is the second under its new moniker, and will once again come to Richmond’s dearest underground music venue and culture incubator Strange Matter. The event takes place January 19–20 and all proceeds will go to Girls Rock! RVA, an organization dedicated to empowering girls, gender non-conforming, and trans youth through music and arts activism.

In the past five years, the organizers of BBW have seen a marked increase in the diversity of Richmond’s music scene. As a result, though it began as an essential endeavor to showcase underrepresented classes of artists in a male-dominated arena, the event has become more of a labor of love. Without taking credit for this cultural shift (or suggesting that there isn’t still progress to be made), event creator Rachel Sparkman explained with a laugh, “It may not be as critical now, but it’s something that we can just do for fun and it’s always really positive. There’s lots of hugging normally.”

Whereas BBW2017 saw an array of bands traveling to Richmond from other East Coast cities, Sparkman and crew decided to bring it home again for this year’s “locals only” event. While the lineup tends to focus on aurally-aggressive music, Sparkman explains that the 2018 bill is different. “This year it’s a lot more musically diverse—there’s literally something for everyone!” BBW2018 will feature 18 killer Richmond-based artists in a machine-gun onslaught of nine bands per night. Each act will share as much gear as possible to blast through their sets without delay, none of which can last longer than 20 minutes. Sparkman warned us against doubting the schedule, “This is real—the show will run on time!” In other words, if you want to see a particular set, don’t fool yourself with the common live-music trope “the band starts half an hour later than they said they would,” or you will miss what you came to see.

Eric Kelly, Julie Storey, and Dan Kelly of Doll Baby

One local favorite joining BBW2018 is Doll Baby, scheduled to play on Friday, January 19. I sat down with guitarist/vocalist Julie Storey, drummer Dan Kelly, and guitarist Eric Kelly to talk about their music and upcoming events. After initial pleasantries and a brief but intense foray into the world of Tomagotchi (the band recently adopted new incarnations of the 1990’s-era digital egg pets to kill time on their recent tour with Bat Boy), we arrived at our intended topic. Although I’m somewhat familiar with the band’s music, having caught their recent EP release show at Richmond’s historic Gallery 5, I wanted to know how they would describe their sound. In an elevator-pitch attempt to keep things simple, Eric replied “alternative punk,” but everyone agreed that’s somewhat of an oversimplification. The band draws from their punk, hardcore, metal, alt rock, indie, and grunge roots. It’s worth mentioning that, though hardly apparent when listening to their new music, Julie and Dan previously started, performed, and recorded with a serious folk project, Haints in the Holler. While Haints eventually fizzled, that gentler-sounding precursor led to the formation of Doll Baby, an unconventional but wholly welcome result.

Joined by Dan’s brother Eric and bassist Jake Guralnik, the group now sets out to conquer a bigger, louder, and more gutturally charged soundstage. Of their music and motivation, Julie said, “We go to work and we do the best we can, but we’d rather be playing music.” Unexpectedly, I was informed that drummer Dan Kelly is the primary lyricist, while Storey creates the musical underpinnings for the songs. Guitarist Eric Kelly then applies careful vibey textures and licks, Jake provides the groove, and they’re on their way. Storey added, “My goal is to try to make each song sound as unique and different as possible.” She doesn’t mean that they’re genre-jumping song to song, just that while the band has a particular aesthetic that pervades all of their music, they also pay particular attention to thematic and structural diversity within that construct. Influences range from John Prine, to Basement, to Backtrack and everywhere else, and the result (notably on their recordings, but also present in their spirited live performances) is eminently listenable.

Doll Baby’s latest EP, Hell Block

Doll Baby worked with producer Bryan Walthall at Stereo Image Productions for their debut EP Polliwog in mid-2016. Building on that relationship, this year saw a repeat of that collaboration for their newest EP, Hell Block—a reference to the now-defunct but always legendary VCU party block of 1100 Grace Street. A bit of historical context: in addition to the standard college antics, Hell-Blockian exploits typically include such nightly displays of excess and debauchery as mid-street drunken fisticuffs, cringe-inducing but joyous acts of pantslessness, and the cultishly customary but ill-advised Burning of the Couches to end the school year (pro tip: don’t burn couches in the street. Even if you survive the fumes, you’ll still have to deal with the police). For most onlookers, this all tends to be pure entertainment, the stuff of timeless memories safely kept for fond retelling to a future generation. Such was the impetus for the memorialization with Doll Baby’s Hell Block EP, which was tracked under the careful supervision of Rusty Scott and Ricky Olsen at The Ward recording studio, and subsequently released through Egghunt Records.

Also on the horizon for Doll Baby this month is the final release of their much-anticipated music video for “Silver Stars,” the final track on Hell Block. I’ve seen a sneak peek, and can confirm that you can afford to spend three minutes watching it (and then another three minutes watching it again—it’s that great). The video tells the story of a pizza delivery job gone awry and features as its protagonist local indie artist Sammi Lanzetta. She struggles to make sense of rampant absurdities on her first day slinging pies for Richmond’s beloved Belmont Pizzeria. Storey summarized the plot for me, including the ending which I won’t spoil here, but which she described as “just beautiful.” The video, directed by Allie Smith (of RVA’s Blush Face) and filmed by Hugh Burruss, should be online this month.

Doll Baby will be performing at Be Bad Weekend 2018 on Friday, January 19 at Strange Matter. The Hell Block EP is available on cassette from Egghunt Records. Follow them at facebook.com/dollbabyrva.

Photography by Brian Brown

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