The scene on Doll Skin’s tour bus is one of controlled chaos as last-minute interior scrubbing is momentarily halted to squeeze in an interview between bouts of packing, celebrating drummer Meghan Herring’s 21st birthday at La Grande Orange, saying goodbye to their collective families, and then embarking on a five-week tour with One-Eyed Doll that will bring them back to Club Red in Tempe on Halloween night.
Excitement is running exceedingly high. So if something is mentioned that gets the Doll Skin seal of approval, you might hear a muted, high-pitch squeal while the band members maintain a rock-star veneer. This becomes evident when Herring’s mom delivers a case of juice boxes to be consumed on the road. Although they are clearly pleased, everyone doesn’t go apeshit like kids in a Sunny D commercial.
But they won’t hit the road until tomorrow in the early morning hours. So the conversation veers from favorite foods, candy (they love and crave candy, and want it thrown onstage), and funny meme characters to Halloween costume ideas. The foursome is on a roll of unbridled enthusiasm that, in a few short hours, will be applied to delighting over clubs with a working shower, truck stops with a microwave, and the availability of veggie platters and more candy. The good kind.
Right now, they are deciding what to dress up as for the band’s Halloween show.
Bassist Nicole Rich is threatening to wear a scary rat costume from IKEA. Herring and guitarist Alex Snowden rattle off a couple character names I don’t recognize. I suggest that given the group’s youthfulness and unity, the Golden Girls might be a funny idea. Herring, the grand dame of the band who would be stuck playing Sophia, surprisingly likes this idea. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d get the short end of the Halloween stick. Rich brings up last year’s passed-over choice, the Powerpuff Girls. Which would be great for a trio. “But Meghan has to be the transvestite lobster — it’s not a bad idea!”
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Spice Girls are considered, but then singer Sydney Dolezal suggests Gwen Stefani in various stages of her career. This gets high-fives all around and is put on the erase board for 2018 consideration.
It’s hard — even for a droll rock writer — not to get caught up in the heady elation of a band in their moment of bliss. But once the talk gets down to band business, you’ll find you’re conversing with seasoned veterans, musicians who have already accrued useful information from every step and misstep on the road.
You have to remember that Dolezal, the singer and youngest member of the group (even saying that makes her sound a little like Cindy Lou Who, sorry) has been seriously plying her stagecraft for rock stardom since the age of 13. And she’s just tipping over the edge of 17 now.
It was roughly two years ago when these four teenage girls from Phoenix signed to Megadeth bassist David Ellefson’s EMP label, an imprint of the metal-centric Megaforce Records, and this crazy upward trajectory began in earnest.
Ellefson was a judge at a Battle of the Bands contest at Desert Mountain High School, which his son was attending. Herring attended that school, too, and recruited her now-bandmates to enter as a group. The girls sang one original called “Family of Strangers,” which Herring wrote the summer before at School of Rock’s songwriting camp the band collectively finished, and two covers, “Uninvited” by Alanis Morisette and “Weatherman” by Dead Sara.
Ellefson was immediately hooked.
“I have to credit Doll Skin for being the impetus for me forming EMP,” Ellefson says. “I wanted to have the necessary forum in place to showcase their talents. And to be able to put the distribution of Megaforce behind it.”
What was it that struck him so immediately about Doll Skin? “They were the whole package, a band that was fully formed. The attitude, the chops, the stage presentation — it was all there the first time I saw them play.”
“That was actually our first gig,” Dolezal admits sheepishly. “It wasn’t our tightest gig, but we made it through all right.”
Lest you think that Doll Skin are some aggregation engineered in a lab or that there is some Svengali behind the scenes calling the shots, one listen to “Boy Band” on their debut album should dispel that notion:
You can’t play songs written for you
You’re so processed
You think you’re a success”
“The thing Dave says about us being the whole package was mainly down to the School of Rock,” Rich says. “They definitely taught us how to play music, and that was a big thing. But they also taught us to perform, work well with other musicians, take influence from other genres, and how shows run.”
Herring signed up for the Scottsdale music school the first day it was available, and she credits it for helping with her timing. “Speeding up and slowing down. People form habits when you aren’t taught how to play in a scene, y’know? And my teacher told me you need to keep on a metronome — it’s super important — and don’t be the drummer who speeds up and ruins everything.”
And Rich and Snowden have taken the school’s mantra of “cable through the strap” to heart.
“When you’re playing an instrument and it’s on a strap, always put your cable through it because you will step on that cable, and it will come out and you will be so shocked you will not be able to put it back in your guitar for like 30 seconds,” Rich says. “And it will be the most embarrassing 30 seconds of your life, so save yourself from that!”
“It never happened to me and I never saw it happen,” Snowden nods, “but Shane, who was one of the directors, if he saw your cable not through the strap, he would come and step on it.”
Dolezal says, “The whole School of Rock experience is almost competitive but in a super-healthy sort of way; you try to better than each other, but at the same time you’re just trying to become better musicians and better performers.”
Snowden agrees. “It introduced me to a lot of technique I never noticed before playing around other musicians that know what they’re doing. They can be older or younger, the diversity in skill level pushed you to be compatible with all sorts of levels. You can play Beatles songs with 8-year-olds but then you can play Dream Theatre with a 19-year-old on an eight-string that shreds your face off. You have to pick up from all of that the technique you get from that broad range of students.There’s nothing like it.”
“I used to watch Alex a lot when we first started playing and I was like ‘Aww, she’s got cool stage moves, I wanna do that,’ not like, ‘I want to be better than Alex,’” says Rich, who then amends her statement. “Okay, I wanna be better than Alex.”
So what was the skill set of 8-year-olds coming in? “You play ‘Seven Nation Army’ and that’s about it,” Dolezal laughs. “But then you got this kid who’s probably better than I’ll ever be my entire life. These kids come in as beginners and wind up surpassing you so quickly.”
Fast forward to last winter, when they recorded Doll Skin’s first full-length, Manic Pixie Dream Girl, with Ellefson producing.
“From then to now, we’ve been really busy, go go go,” Rich says, clearly not complaining. “We released our album, we’ve been on tour with OTEP, we did Warped Tour, then a month headlining, another week and a half of Warped Tour, and two months of headlining stuff after that.”
“What’s cool about Warped Tour is that it’s so diverse now,” says Dolezal, who has been dreaming of being on a Warped Tour since she was 13. “They have the mutant stages which are super-heavy metal, everything from thrash punk to screamo metal, they had rappers on this year, cool solo artists, some ska, hardcore punk; they’re definitely bringing back some of the old-school punk, which was cool.”
Rich agrees. “We were kind of included in their punk group and that was awesome,” she says. “We just fit in really good … We’ve mostly gone out with heavier acts like OTEP for two and a half months, which is very heavy compared to what we are. Heavy metal audiences still liked us, but we’re not metal.”
Not without a little work. “When we get paired with metal bands, people expect us to be not good and then they’re like, ‘You guys blew me away.’”
The association with Megadeth’s Ellefson and Megaforce Records, the 35-year-old label known for housing the output of Metallica, Anthrax, Overkill, Testament, and Manowar, may have a lot to do with that impression, something Ellefson probably realized when coming up with the EMP imprint. Ellefson’s imparted wisdom to the band to “say yes to everything” came into play when the alternative rock band originally balked at the idea of touring with OTEP.
“Say yes to everything — the guys drilled that in our heads. That sounds wrong. Wait. What they mean is, ‘Give everything a chance,’” Dolezal says. “Dave can be really annoying at times, but he’s always right. We said yes to every interview at Warped Tour and we’re still getting ripples of coverage from that. And although we were worried about playing to a metal audience, we toured around the country for two months, thanks to OTEP.”
“Metal fans come in with certain expectations and we’re not what you’d expect, an all-female metal band,” Snowden says. “But we can hold our own.”
Given the general outsider status that heavy metal engenders from the mainstream, it’s not surprising when Herring says, “I feel like metal fans, they don’t come off as accepting of other genres, but seem more open to other music genres.”
So the band has been able to scratch recording an album before turning 18 and doing a Warped Tour off their initial bucket list. But as Rich adds, it’s a list they have to keep amending with recurring frequency. “Next would be doing a Warped Tour all summer. And Europe! It looks like it could be a lot sooner than expected, little talks here and there. Nothing solid at all. We would love to go Europe.”
Then there is breaking through on mainstream media. Locally, the band has gotten support from Heavy Metal Television, which plays its videos in regular rotation and even awarded them “’Best Break-Through Band” in November 2016. They’ve gotten radio love from 93.9 KWSS-FM, and 98 KUPD has played them on their legendary Sunday night punk rock show.
Herring marvels that the song they picked to play was “Shut Up (You Miss Me).” “They played our poppiest song, our radio-friendly anti-punk song,” she says. “But it was cool. That show is the bomb.”
And former Rodney on the ROQ host Rodney Bingenheimer, who supported the first all-girl punk rock band The Runaways lo those many years ago, has been a longtime supporter of Doll Skin.
“I think he’s played us on his new Sirius show,” says Dolezal, who also recalls the thrill of the week they released their second single “Daughter.”
“We were the second-biggest added single on radio in Billboard, right under the Foo Fighters and before a bunch of bands we just love. We’ve gotten a lot of love around the country, especially from a lot of the smaller stations where we’ve gone in and visited.”
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Playing with the big boys in Billboard on record doesn’t mean they’ve escaped creepy guys on the road. At a time when Facebook feeds are covered with “Me Too” statuses from women brave enough to say they’ve been sexually harassed in the workplace, it hardly seems surprising when Rich says that “being young and females that don’t look like they’re young, you get unwanted and extremely inappropriate advances from older people in bars.”
But the clubs all know they are underage, and besides their own chaperones, they are pretty well-protected.
Plus they can hold their own, as they mentioned before. They all laugh recalling a time they were approached by some guy who said he was from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “He didn’t even have a laminate, he just pulls out a lanyard that just says ‘Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,’” Rich laughs. “I mean, he could have bought that at the gift shop.”
Even girls trained to say “yes” to every opportunity would have to balk that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is 25 years too early, anyway. But not off the bucket list.
Doll Skin are scheduled to perform at Club Red with One-Eyed Doll on October 31. Tickets are $15 to $17 via clubredrocks.com.