INTERVIEW WITH TALL DARK STRANGER FRONTMAN DEE ALLEN
Date: September 1, 2018
Interviewer: Greg Troyan of Lipstick
TALL DARK STRANGER HAVE RETURNED ONTO THE SCENE WITH THEIR FIRST NEW ALBUM IN SIX YEARS — ‘CONTRA MUNDUM.’ THE MELODIC ROCK BAND HAS MIXED EQUAL PARTS KING’S X AND TODD RUNDGREN IN THE PAST TO CREATE SOME FANTASTIC AOR MUSIC. SLEAZE ROXX SAT DOWN WITH THE BAND’S FRONTMAN, DEE ALLEN, TO TALK ABOUT THE NEW RECORD.
Sleaze Roxx: Can you please describe Tall Dark Stranger for the readers and how it came to be?
Dee Allen: Tall Dark Stranger is a vehicle for whatever inspires me at any given time. I think the initial burst of inspiration that leads to a new song is a gift, and should be treated respectfully. So my job is not to shoehorn each new idea into one tiny box that’s easily marketed, but to recreate what I heard when the idea first gave me goosebumps, as faithfully as possible. Each song gets to be what it wants to be. The result is that our albums include a lot of flavors within the pop/rock umbrella. We started out as a trio — myself, Will Allen, and David Younger — in 1998, and played as many writer’s rounds as possible for a few years as an acoustic/vocal act. After a hiatus, we re-formed in 2012, with Brian Smith on guitar and Ben Harper on bass.
Sleaze Roxx: Who are some of your influences as a songwriter and as a player?
Dee Allen: KISS has been an enormous influence ever since I saw ‘KISS Meets The Phantom Of The Park.’ A rock band with superpowers? Sign me up! The rock side of our stuff includes elements of the Stones and King’s X as well. On the pop side, I grew up a fan of Rick Springfield, Duran Duran and Prince. Once I got into Todd Rundgren, he became my spirit animal and biggest influence. His arrangements and background vocals are without peer. Paul Stanley is probably my biggest influence as a guitar player. Early on, that was due to his solos being easier to learn than Ace Frehley’s, but later I learned to appreciate his melodic sense and note selection. He plays like a writer, which I mean as a compliment.
Sleaze Roxx: Talk to us a little bit about ‘There It Is.’
Dee Allen: ‘There It Is’ was the first proper Tall Dark Stranger album, after releasing a few collections of demos. It took a long time to finish, not only due to computer failures that required two complete rebuilds of my system, but also because I wasn’t always sure it was intended to be an album. The usual routine is, I record new songs with no goal in mind, and once there are six or seven tracks finished, I realize “I’ve almost got an album here!”, and then begin thinking of it as a coherent project. Most of the songs were recorded when I lived in Missouri and didn’t have a band together. I played quite a bit of lead guitar on that album, for better or worse. Overall, I’m proud of it and still enjoy listening to it. “Lost Horizon” — a Todd Rundgren song mashed up with a Prince-style sex groove — remains one of my crowning achievements.
Sleaze Roxx: The first album came out in 2012. Why was the wait so long for a follow up?
Dee Allen: It takes a while after finishing an album for me to start putting real work into new songs. There’s a part of my brain that doesn’t want to let go of the previous album’s life cycle, and moving on to the next thing can feel like you’re giving up on the one before it. But there’s only so long a writer can go before there’s a backlog of ideas that need to be birthed. Sometimes, the first new thing I’ll record is a cover song, since that’s a quicker process as with “Shine” on the new album. Then the enjoyment of the work takes over, and the pace picks up. I also had to go through a near complete re-education on the mixing process, since my tracks weren’t sounding as good in other places as they did in the studio. Luckily, I found Gary Dales [mastering engineer], who was patient enough to help me figure out what needed to be improved, and took the time to get it right. We worked half-days for about six weeks, so I could go home each night and make more tweaks. I really had to dig into the dirt of why things are done a certain way, rather than relying on presets or guesswork. It was a Herculean task, but should make future projects go much faster and easier.
Sleaze Roxx: Tell us about the new record.
Dee Allen: I’m happy to say that ‘Contra Mundum’ is an ideal representation of what this band was designed to be. Some hard rockers, some acoustic tracks, a couple of pretty ballads, and some pop grooves. Really a snapshot of my tastes as a music fan. I wanted the rockers to have a certain swagger, and the ballads to be the saddest thing you’ve ever heard. The contributions from the band, as well as all my friends who made guest appearances, paint a picture of the last few years of my life, as an album should. The songs are shorter than the ones I used to write, which reflects my increased confidence as a writer. If the verse and chorus are strong enough, do we really need a bridge? These days I’ve got more of a “stick & move” approach — hit ‘em hard and get out. Don’t wear out your welcome. But maybe that will be different on the next project. We shall see.
Sleaze Roxx: On both the new record and the first album, you chose to program drums yourself rather than have a drummer play. What led you to that decision?
Dee Allen: A lot of it has to do with the portable nature of my studio. Given all the different places I’ve lived, tuning a room for live tracking or mixing with speakers hasn’t been a viable option. So “going direct” including using MIDI drums, has always been the better approach for me. Also, I’ve had mixed results over the years when hiring studio drummers. A lot of guys just want to give you one take and expect you to be happy with it. That approach can work for the average Nashville country demo session, but not for my stuff, in which every part is arranged to fit “just so” with the other parts. On ‘There It Is’, I did track a couple of songs with live drums, but because the drummer asked zero questions, I ultimately had to redo the tracks myself. Why waste the money when I could have done it in the first place? On some tracks, I had drummers play through the song with as many fills as they could think of, which I transcribed into MIDI parts, so there is still an element of a live performance.
Sleaze Roxx: You play guitar, bass, keyboards, sing, program drums, and write songs. What’s your favorite of the bunch to do and what’s your least favorite?
Dee Allen: Writing is the thing I put the most of my soul into, and none of the rest matters without a great song, so I take the most pride in that. Bass is probably my favorite instrument to play. It bridges the gap between the intricacies of guitar, and the physicality of drums. Background vocals are my favorite thing to record, because that’s when the song really comes to life for me. My least favorite right now would be lead guitar, since I’m out of practice and my fingers are as agile as Vienna sausages. Plus, Brian is so good at leads, it allows me to focus on connecting with the audience as a frontman.
Sleaze Roxx: You come from a different lyrical direction than most of the artists covered on Sleaze Roxx. Tell us a bit about the kind of lyrics you write.
Dee Allen: The lyrics on ‘Contra Mundum’ are primarily about communication, and how people use it to flee from understanding, rather than to embrace it. I’d say that’s a big preoccupation for me at this stage of my life. So many of the songs had a similar lyrical theme, that on the last two songs to be finished — “Electrons” and “Tear This Castle Down” — I was able to lift an entire verse from one song and transfer it to the other, and it fit just fine.
Sleaze Roxx: What is your songwriting process like?
Dee Allen: Typically, a complete chunk of music pops into my head all at once, like the main guitar riff in “Electrons” or the string part in “Love In Chernobyl.” Then that chunk will lie dormant until I write a lyric that seems to fit with it. Once that happens, it’s a matter of filling in the blanks. Many of these songs took years and years to finish, because I was trying to find the right co-writer to finish them with. The riff for “Right To Be Wrong” sat unfinished for maybe eight or nine years, because I knew I wanted the verse to be totally different than the chorus, and I wasn’t getting that from any of the writers I showed it to. If I had tried to rush it, or was on a publishing company’s clock, the song likely would have ended up very dull and forgettable. By being patient, I ultimately met Joe Sax, who said “I’ve had a verse sitting around for a while, let’s see if they fit together.” As soon as we sang the lyrics over his chords, we both got huge grins on our faces. When something is magic, you know it instantly. Inspiration cannot and must not be rushed.
Sleaze Roxx: What does the future hold in store for Tall Dark Stranger? What’s next?
Dee Allen: We intend to do a few showcases to promote the album, and then return to some kind of regular performing schedule. We did a simple promo video for “Electrons” and will release more in the coming weeks, including a full production video for “Was What It Was.” We’ll have a European radio promotion as well as blog and zine coverage. I’ve got a huge list of cover songs I’m interested in recording, so I may plan on doing a covers EP next, rather than having another long delay between projects.
Sleaze Roxx: Any advice for the kids out there in bands just getting started?
Dee Allen: The most important thing in my opinion is to be honest with yourself about what will make you happy in a musical career. If you just enjoy performing on stage, and aren’t concerned with sharing your soul through original songs, then there will be many paths available to you, and it will be a lot easier to make money. Or, you can be an original act who follows current trends, and exists only to “give the people what they want.” If that makes you happy, then by all means pursue it. Personally, I’ve been down that road as a theater performer in Branson, Missouri, and for me it wasn’t satisfying. I felt that I was only doing a small fraction of what I’m capable of, and even if I was contributing my all, the audience wouldn’t have appreciated it. The best one can say about that lifestyle is it’s more fun than the typical office job. But that’s nothing compared to changing the world, which is what great original music can do. Everyone saw how the world mourned when Prince passed on. It’s hard to imagine a one-hit wonder affecting the world so profoundly. Isn’t it worth taking the greater risk, and walking the narrower path, for the chance to leave that kind of legacy? If so, then it’s not enough to say, “My stuff is as good as the weakest song in the Top 100.” You need to strive to be as good as the best artists in your collection. Do you listen to popular music and feel that your interests are being represented? I certainly don’t, therefore it falls to me to write the songs I’m not hearing. Great artists don’t ask the audience what’s cool, they SHOW the audience what’s cool.
Sleaze Roxx: Thanks for talking with us, Dee. Cheers!
Dee Allen: Thank you for having me. Cheers!