Q&A: New York Dolls Guitarist Sylvain Sylvain On His Twin Fascinations With Bo Diddley And Michelle Obama

"We live in the present. And we're digging it."

Sylvain Sylvain (left) and David Johansen, actually requesting "Pills," not pills, for once. PIc by Anna Victoria.
Sylvain Sylvain (left) and David Johansen, actually requesting "Pills," not pills, for once. PIc by Anna Victoria.

Sylvain Sylvain is an enchanting mix of contradictions. He's a founding member of wildly attired proto-punks the New York Dolls, and also a "nice Jewish boy." He and fellow Doll Johnny Thunders pretty much invented the sloppy, minimalist bursts of guitar that define modern music, yet he worships at the altar of doo wop and Diddley. Though he isn't exactly a household name, he's definitely a legend. And this week, the man who use to dress like a peacock has good reason to crow. The Dolls' new album, Dancing Backwards In High Heels, is their best since reforming in 2004, and thus their best since 1974. Unworried about having to live up to their legend as New York Noise Merchants, Syl and Dolls lead singer David Johansen (alongside fine sideman doing their best to fill the hole left by the passing of core founding members Johnny Thunders and Arthur Kane) have made a catchy, conceptually unified record, full of Johansen's typically sardonic lyrics and guitarist Sylvain's unforgettable melodies, all wrapped up in Farfisa organs and hooks aplenty, Syl, the ultimate New Yawka, recently rang in from Atlanta to talk about it all.

You guys really threw caution to the wind on the new record: pop touches, falsetto background vocals, acoustic guitars. How preconceived was this? Since the band began, we've always flown by the seat of our pants in the studio. We've always worked quickly. Of course, with our budgets, we've had to! (Laughs.) Since we reformed, we've made some good tracks, but we've never taken things to the magic stage. On this album, I didn't want hit-and-miss, so I came prepared. I brought (producer/bass player) Jason Hill my homemade demos, my tunes, and we tried to get the vibe of the arrangements onto the record. It's a deliberate, thought-out album. If I know anything, it's that I'm a nice Jewish boy and I know how to arrange stuff.

When did you first realize that? The arranging part, I mean. When the Dolls first began. David brought "Looking for a Kiss" with him when he joined the band. It was actually kind of a slow tune. I'm into rock 'n' roll, body music, and I heard in my head how it was supposed to be. So me and Johnny, we took that thing apart and T Rexed it!

What's a good example of this idea on the new record? The first thing I gave to Jason was, ironically, the last thing on the record, "End of the Summer." I worked that up at home: the toy keyboard and the background vocals, which are sort of doo wop-y. Then David added that great lyric about the sadness and beauty of summer ending. But unlike (previous album) Cause I Sez So -- which was, basically, just us live -- the tracks on this record were really worked on.

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Also here is a surprisingly faithful cover of the old Patti Labelle tune, "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman." That was David's idea. I had to be dragged to that one, but now I love it. In fact, Jason had access to Amy Winehouse's background singers, so he got them in, one by one, to sing. It was like that movie The Commitments. Scamming people to work on your record.

You're more of a Bo Diddley kind of dude, right? Baby, you have no idea. In 1972, David and I went to (legendary L.I. nightclub) My Father's Place to see Bo. We were such rabid fans that we kept screaming out for "Pills," which we covered the next year. We're shouting, "Pills! Pills!" Bo had no idea why we were screaming this. David and I nearly got thrown out. People thought we were asking Bo if he had any drugs!

And there's a new version of "Funky But Chic" on the record. What's up with that? I love David's solo version, but that was supposed to be a Dolls song all along. And now, it is. And, uh, it's a bit funkier than it once was. Which is fitting.

There's a wonderful chemistry between you and (former Blondie member/fill-in guitarist) Frank Infante on the record. Like days of yore with you and Johnny. How do you account for that? Despite the fact that Frank is more fluid, like a lot of players, he had enormous respect for what Johnny did. He wasn't trying to copy that sort of anarchic style, but he must have passed through it at some point. So, when you have a current guitarist who loved your former partner, you're in a good place. If you listen to the songs, there's a lot of rhythmic interplay between the guitars on songs like "Streetcake" and "I'm So Fabulous." Frank totally got it. We locked in well together.

Since Morrissey reformed you guys for the Meltdown Festival, you've gone from merely legendary to being a working, in-demand band. In the '90s, could you have foreseen all the attention? Honestly? No. I was out in L.A., gigging sporadically, and it was tough times. But I was always writing. I have my little song threads, and I refer to all these threads I've woven as my "curtain of songs." So, whether it was back then or for the new album, I could always look at my curtain and say, "I've got some good shit here. Whatever happens to it." I had a bunch of these melodies just hanging around and thought they could come in handy.

You know who always knew there was a future for this band? (Bassist) Arthur Kane. He was always praying for us to get together. And Morrissey. He told us there was love for the Dolls out there. Morrissey was right, man.

When I asked David if he cared about being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he said, "I only care because Syl wants it. So, I want it for Syl." Do you want it and do you think you'll get it? I suppose it would be nice, but I'm not dusting off my tux. Let me tell you about how the Dolls were treated back then: So many critics, as well as musicians, said we sucked! That we couldn't play, couldn't sing, couldn't dance sideways. Much less backwards in high heels. So, I wonder if that bad, early reception didn't hurt us indefinitely. Plus, we never made any money. That never helps your rep. But we should get some kind of award from somebody!

The Jean Herscholt Humanitarian Award! (Laughs.) Well, David and I are nice guys, so maybe. I actually have a cool tribute in mind that would suit me fine.

It Is....? If Michelle Obama could get up somewhere and sing "Personality Crisis." Man, that would be the shit!

When you and David are onstage, do you think about your fallen Doll comrades? Yeah, John and Arthur, often. But you know things keep changing. Sammy Yaffa (from Hanoi Rocks) was a Doll for a a few years, but wasn't able to play on the record. And even Frank can't tour with us. So, the band is always me and David, and otherwise, we're in flux. But things are cool. We're going back to the U.K., we're playing Japan, lots of gigs. Plus, I have a new album coming out with (side project) the Batusis. Dancing Backwards is really strong, and David are getting along great. Whatever may have gone down before doesn't matter that much. We live in the present. And we're digging it.

The New York Dolls play Bowery Ballroom Wednesday and Thursday, March 16-17.


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