BSR EXCLUSIVE: Inside the Recording of the NEW YORK DOLLS’ “Dancing Backwards in High Heels”

It’s not often a friend of yours says to you over email something like this: “Yeah, so I’ll be heading off to England soon because I’m producing and playing bass on the new New York Dolls album.”

Nope. Not often.

So when LouisXIV’s singer, producer, musician-type Jason Hill casually mentioned this, I was all over it like a rash.

Like, Sylvain Sylvain and David Johansen? PERSONALITY CRISIS? Fah reals?

Naturally, I did what only the BackstageRider would do: I sent him off with homework: answer my questions, keep a bit of a diary and send me some photos that nobody else would have.

Here’s my interview with Jason Hill, conducted during the recording of the irreplaceable New York Dolls’ new album Dancing Backwards in High Heels:

What’s it been like recording with the New York Dolls?
It’s been a true pleasure, one of my favorite experiences I’ve ever had. A lot of work. But the kind of work that, after a 16-hour day, you still want to hang around and can’t wait to get back the next day.

Newcastle view, photo by Jason Hill
"The view of Newcastle from my hotel room during our interview"

Where are you recording?
All the recording has been in Newcastle, England at a studio in an area called Stepney Bank. It’s been nice to get away from California for the month and a half. We started in New York, writing with Sylvain and David and I in a rehearsal space for a few days and then came here. We played six shows, with me on bass, in Scotland and a few here in Newcastle down the street from the studio. Just to try out some of the material, although by the time we started recording we completely changed the tracks that we had been performing for the most part.  I’ll end up mixing it here over the next week.

The record label rented us a six-bedroom house with a nice indoor pool and a gorgeous view of the city. The view at night actually looks a lot like the view from Mulhulland Drive into the valley just up the way from my place in Los Angeles. So it actually felt a lot like home.

But it was really such a wonderful time with all of us being around each other all the time along with Mara, David’s girl whom was such a nice stabilizing and relaxing force around us. Because of Mara, we met a few nice girls who ran a bar just down the street called the Ship and they would come around each day to feed us and sort us out with whatever. Without them it would have been like we were sailors out at sea. We so far have worked every day except two in the last six weeks. But, really, the entire record was written and recorded in around three weeks. Ridiculously creative period.  I’ll probably finish mixing the album here but maybe mess about a bit at my studio in LA called Ulysses if need be. But something is telling me to just finish and capture the moment.

What is the band like to work with?
Some of the best fun I’ve ever had making a record. David and Sylvain both have very strong qualities that complement each other, very different strengths. David is so good with words and so funny, and Syl has a very intuitive way with songs.

Most of the songs came from these little demos that Syl made in his basement in Atlanta, where it would be him on a organ and that’s all, or maybe a guitar and just humming out something with a bit of a chorus sort of tag. And then we just came in and made something out of them. A lot of the inspiration came from these demos because they had such a raw and primitive quality that we instantly knew that we had to keep the songs that way while still making them actually into finished thoughts and songs.
New York Dolls Dancing Backwards in High Heels

But nobody was rigid about anything and they let me sort of lead the thing and trusted me very much. So for me, I was able to really feel like we could make something incredible. It can be really uninteresting to produce something that you have no control over, at least for me, it’s not really fun. So with this, I was very much in the band and allowed to build off and bring out the others’ strengths and help create something unique.

How is the music sounding? What did you and the band want to achieve?
I think we all just wanted to have a good time and make something cool. I’ve gotten asked to do a lot of records and most of the time I say no, because you have to really believe in what you are doing or don’t do it, you know.

But when the Dolls asked me I instantly said yes.

I wanted to make the record that I wanted to hear from The New York Dolls, at this place in their lives, after all the drugs and touring, years of living, the make-up and high heels, the big ups and the big downs, find a true place not just posturing…

…which was a bit of an empty canvas, and I think the guys wanted to make the same kind of record. I’m not exactly sure what they wanted aside from making something that was relevant and cool.

I think once we recorded the first song a slow moody track called “Kids Like You” that we all realized we were actually making something important. I say that with humility, knowing the pompous statement that it is but for me something just clicked with that song.

We had spent a couple of days with Brian Delaney (Dolls drummer) and I experimenting with the drums, trying to find out what the sound was going to be and then we just leaped and stumbled into it magically and once he could hear it, I had him play to Syl’s organ from the basement demo he had done in Atlanta and this glorious, lazy Cuban shuffle of the drums came about.

We called in Frank and he picked up a slide and in one take played this incredibly weepy and drugged slide guitar, I then put on the bass in a take and then as I nearly cried pacing around the control room listening to the beauty of the track, David who was sitting quietly in the back of the room, said “I think I have something”.

David Johansen and Jason Hill discuss lyrics, Mara Hennessey photo
David Johansen (lying) and Jason discuss lyrics, pic by Mara Hennessey

To be honest, I was nervous because it sounded so breathtaking I wanted to swim in it for a while without any vocals, just bathe in its sound.

It was so mesmerizing, but he went in and in one take he just laid out the most inspiring vocal performance and words, that just moved me so much. I was floored and at that moment I realized as I think the others did too that we were making was something important. It wasn’t going to be big bash heavy guitars, no World War III that was going to move us, we were going to make beautiful landscapes with grand canyon depth.

I truly was holding back tears at that moment, I was moved so deeply. Now not all of the record is like that, it’s raucous, wild and fun at times, but we started in a true place that made us all raise the bar and see what the record could be and that was a new place, a place that none of us had seen before and we were all excited and felt blessed to be there.

Other places, like the girl-group influence of the 60s like Patti Labelle and the Blubelles or the Ronnettes, that we always heard on the Dolls early stuff, in their scrappy and adoring way, is very much there.

We just went places that turned us on. I certainly didn’t care to do a record, and I know David and Syl felt this way as well, that that was what people expected from The New York Dolls. They’ve already done that, they invented it. So that meant we could do anything. They are refreshingly in love with the process of making a record and just letting what comes out happen. That adventurous spirit is really why we gelled so well. Frankie Infante (original guitarist from Blondie) was also playing for the first time with the Dolls and he’s the same way. He was so funny, always a little spaced out in a very amusing fashion. But a hell of a player, usually his first impression was the best, same with Brian who was so talented that we just hit it off as well. We really spent a long time on making the drums sound unique, which is a big passion of mine, but in that it was so easy to explore with Brian. For such talented guys there hasn’t been a trace of ego around at any time.

NY Dolls' David Johansen, photo by Mara Hennessey
Legendary New York Doll David Johansen fetches a cup of tea, pic by Mara Hennessey

Who’s the most fun out of the band and why?

I love all the guys. Syl is the most social by far. He is always with a glass of wine and no matter whom it is, he loved to just talk with strangers or anyone. He was born in Egypt and then moved to Paris as a kid to escape from anti-Semitism that was sweeping Egypt at the time.

So I would often wake up to him listening to French radio or talking in French with Mara.  He reminds me a lot of Brian from Louis XIV in a lot of ways actually. Very sweet guy. Syl always has a mischievous little smile on his face and when he starts laughing, it’s really great, he’s like a little kid that way.

David, though, is the funniest, he’s quite a comedian and his attitude about life is just contagious. He’s very smart and deep and has a huge knowledge of old music, amazing 50s doo-wap and so much about life.

He’s truly a philosopher, but not in the smug aspect, more in this lust for living and truths of sorts. The guy has been through so much, you can see the hardship in his eyes but there’s always a sparkle in there too that lightens the entire room. I’ve definitely learned a lot from David, mostly about the life I’d like to live. The way he is with Mara, the two of them together is quite inspiring as well, they are always joined at the hip, but it’s a nice thing. We spent a lot of time laughing in the studio and back at the house. He is always spouting out whatever comes to his mind, always with strange and unique references.  His mind is a very fascinating place.

Jason Hill, photo courtesy of Jason Hill
A late night with Jason Hill

Who’s the most intense?
No one is really intense. Not in personality. I think I always take recordings very seriously, this record has reminded me not to be so precious. I mean, it’s always a big fun time, laughing and joking around but there’s a seriousness in me about art and the importance of it when it’s really good.

I am always trying to pursue something that I find interesting and moving, and when it’s not, I can’t rest my mind. I love just making something from nothing, they do as well. When we came here we had next to nothing except a few very raw demos of chords and moods and few phrases, but we made it into something. I love that, I live for that actually. My first conversation with David, he just laughed and said there weren’t any songs yet but they will come. He was right.

This record has proven more to me once more to trust in that.

As David said to me last night around 3am, as we were going back and forth on a line in a song, “It’s just a rock n roll record.” And then he belted out a big David Johansen laugh.  David has taught me a lot just by being around him. But to answer your question, I would probably be the most intense, as I was the whip cracker.

Did you ever stop and think, holy crap, I’m working with the New York Dolls?
Yes, on several occasions. My highschool self that had a Dolls t-shirt and the first Dolls record and a Johnny Thunders bootleg record, thinking I was so cool, I’m sure, would be very jealous but probably insanely proud.

When’s the album meant to be coming out? What’s it called?
Dancing Backwards in High Heels. We finish tracking tomorrow night for the most part, as everyone flyies back to the states. I’ll still be here for a week though mixing it with my assistant at the studio, Adam, who’s been alot of fun to have around as well and a tremendous asset. It’ll be out by next March.

I think a lot of people will be really surprised by this album, its unlike any other New York Dolls album, it’s not just an ordinary record, I think it’s a statement of relevance. And for all of those that think they got the Dolls pegged or the ones that say that it’s not the same without Johnny, they are right, but it doesn’t mean it’s worse. This record some might even say is their best, or an incredible bookend to their first.

In fact what I think might be the first single a song called, “Fool for You Baby” doesn’t even have a guitar, just me playing two basses and a small piano bit, Syl on vox organ, David on vocals and Brian on drums.  So on that one we didn’t even try to fill Johnny’s shoes. I figure Johnny might be up there in the cosmos finding a part to play and we left a hole for him. \m/

Dancing Backwards in High Heels by the New York Dolls is out March 15. Jason Hill will be playing with the band for shows in March, then will return to LA to work on his own Expensive Love album, as well as possibly a new LouisXIV platter.

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