Johansen and the rest of the New York Dolls spent most of January at producer Todd Rundgren’s Kauai home recording the band’s fourth studio album, Cause I Sez So, and the Hawaiian influence was apparent when the frontman spoke to Pollstar about the record and upcoming tour.
With the release of dates for the Dolls’ spring North American tour, save for an East Coast string of dates soon to be announced, it looks like Johansen gets his wish.
The Dolls hit the road May 20 at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, Calif., before moving up the West Coast through Anaheim, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver.
They’ll veer east to cities including Denver, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta and New Orleans before hitting the Florida sunshine for at least three dates including Orlando’s House of Blues June 11.
The tour comes hot on the heels of the May 5 release of Cause I Sez So, the record that reunites the Dolls and Rundgren, who produced the seminal New York City punk legends’ eponymous debut album in 1973. Tapping Rundgren to produce wasn’t so much about coming full circle as it was simply being an uncomplicated choice to make.
“We were informed we had to make an album and then we started to talk about who was available to produce,” Johansen told Pollstar. “A couple of days later it turned out that Todd was available in January, which was our timeline, in Hawaii. We said ‘OK!’ There wasn’t a lot of discussion – it was pretty instantaneous.”
“I think it was one of those kind of back alley things,” Rundgren joked to Pollstar. “It was one of those brainstorms somebody had come up with when they realized it was time for the band to make another record.
“Somebody called me and I figured, what the heck? Fewer and fewer records are getting made nowadays so when somebody gives you an opportunity to do one, you don’t get coy about it. [I thought] it would be fun for me because I’ll be home. And fun for the band because it’s Hawaii,” Rundgren continued.
“They don’t all live in New York anymore. There’s only two original members left. David Johansen, of course, does live in New York but he travels extensively. Sylvain Sylvain is the other original member, and he lives in Atlanta. So it doesn’t really make any difference where we work, somebody’s going to be traveling. I figure, why don’t I get myself off the hook?” Rundgren said, laughing.
Longtime fans needn’t worry about too much Hawaiian sun permeating the Dolls’ signature style, which has influenced black-clad rockers everywhere from the Ramones to Blondie to R.E.M. But fans should be prepared for some, in keeping with the protean artistic vision of Johansen, who has also been known to dive into tropical soundscapes in the guise of alter ego Buster Poindexter.
For instance, the Dolls and Rundgren revisit the classic “Trash” from the 1973 debut album, and give the gritty number a reggae twist.
“One day, we were recording from noon until 6 p.m. or something. Usually you just start by playing a couple of songs to get your limbs to move. Syl [Sylvain] started playing that groove and we just kind of fell in. Todd came in and taped it. We thought, ‘that sounds good,’ and decided to hang on to it.”
But if Dolls purists are discomfited by the new take on the punk anthem, or Rundgren’s production flourishes on new songs like “Making Rain,” Johansen’s not bothered.
“Do they still have opinions?” Johansen rhetorically asked. “Our attitude is: We are who we are and we do what we do. If we were trying to fit into some kind of limited, preconceived notion of something, we might as well have a job, because we wouldn’t be playin’ what we want to play.
“Our philosophy is we play just what we want to play at this moment in time. So we don’t really consider stuff like that.”
And in an era when an artist can take months – even years – to write, record, dub tracks and mix a record before it drops, Johansen said part of the appeal of working with Rundgren was the knowledge that Cause I Sez So wouldn’t happen that way.
“With Todd, of course, we’re gonna have a record in our hands one month from now. That’s gonna happen. You’re not gonna go off on tangents. You’re gonna do what you’ve gotta do and get the fuck out,” Johansen said.
“We got there and Todd was like, ‘Man, I didn’t think you guys were gonna be here until like next week,’ but there we were. We had some snippets of ideas and stuff so we sat down for a week and kind of worked them out, and the second we rehearsed them. The third week we did the tracks and the fourth week we did the vocals and the overdubs,” Johansen continued.
“Then he mixed it at his leisure – in other words, we were gone when he mixed it. And he has expertise with all those cool little gizmos, anyway,” referring to Rundgren’s well-known interest in technology.
Johansen says the Dolls don’t worry too much about the expectations of fans looking for ’70s punk nostalgia. For one thing, the New York Dolls is, literally, not the same band. Original bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane died shortly after the Dolls’ 2004 reunion. And Johnny Thunders died of a drug overdose in 1991.
Johansen and Sylvain are joined now by guitarist Steve Conte, bassist Sami Yaffa and drummer Brian Delaney. He finds that the Dolls’ audiences trend young, “but there’s some old heads in there as well.”
Though he knows there are plenty of artists who made their bones during that decade who rake in the cash now by playing their old hits for older audiences, that’s just not in the Dolls’ DNA.
“That’s probably because they look at it like it’s a business. But if you look at it as an artist, then you want to be creative, and that’s the most important thing to us,” Johansen says of the Dolls’ approach. “If we were raking in millions of dollars, my attitude would maybe not be so cavalier.
“I wouldn’t know unless it happened, but this way we are we are free to do whatever we want to do. So we do what we do. A record is really just like a moment, a postcard for some place at some time.”
But don’t think the Dolls are depending on just a record and tour for income – the band has made some savvy moves in the media and video game arenas, too. There’s that ubiquitous iPod commercial, and a cover of “Personality Crisis” is included as a playable track on the video game “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith.”
Between the commercial and video game ventures, a South by Southwest showcase appearance with Rachael Ray and a recent taping of the popular “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” on the Travel Channel, the Dolls could be said to be getting their due. (“I did not know about Bourdain and Rachael’s little contretemps at the time,” Johansen snickers of the celeb foodies’ much-publicized rivalry.)
“I don’t really think about any kind of unrequited fulfillment or anything. We’re very much in the present and where it’s at and what’s happening. Let’s play. We get a genuine satisfaction from that and it’s the thing we like to do most.
On tour, Johansen said fans can look forward to “really, really good rock ‘n’ roll music from a good rock ‘n’ roll band. As far as how it’s perceived, I don’t really know. We’ll get together and play and hopefully everybody levitates a little bit.”