The brightly colored candies on the front of the Casual Dots’ debut album are not Dots, drummer Steve Dore concedes. “No, they’re gumdrops. The whole dots thing has nothing to do with the cover.”
“We had a really hard time with the cover, but that’s what we came up with,” says guitarist Kathi Wilcox of the bowl full of Technicolor sweets that adorns The Casual Dots. “We wanted it to be really bright, pretty. It was like our first pure collaborative thing. It was tough.”
“It’s always hard to find one thing that everyone can agree on,” Dore adds.
“With the music, we never discussed it,” Wilcox notes. “We just did it. This we had to discuss at length.”
The third person in that discussion would have been singer-guitarist Christina Billotte, who’s not present as Wilcox and Dore recount the Dots’ history at an Adams Morgan eatery. That seems typical for the band: When the trio formed to play Ladyfest DC in the summer of 2002, all three members lived here. But at the end of the band’s April cross-country tour, only Wilcox will remain a Washingtonian. Billotte, a D.C. native, moved to Los Angeles last summer. And Dore is about to spend six months with his girlfriend in Brighton, England—which should facilitate a band visit to the U.K.
In preparation for his departure, the drummer just quit the job he held for five years—as a dog walker, a profession that connects the Dots. Wilcox is now a copy aide at the Washington Post Style section (to which this writer is a freelance contributor). But before joining the Post, Wilcox says, “I walked dogs. And then I got [Dore] a job walking dogs. And then I got Christina a job walking dogs.”
“That’s the best job in this town,” wilcox continues. “Very lucrative. You get to be with dogs all day, set your own hours. And you get to see other people’s stuff.”
It takes a follow-up call to L.A. to learn the full story of the Dots’ name, which begins—where else?—in Olympia, Wash. “It’s actually a name that’s been around for a while,” explains Billotte, who’s also performed with Dischord acts Autoclave and Slant 6 and the on-hold Quix*o*tic. “Steve and I had played together a little bit a long time ago. He told me about that name, but he said, ‘It belongs to Billy Karren and Tobi Vail, so we can’t use it.’”
Karren and Vail were, with Wilcox, members of pioneering riot-grrrl quartet Bikini Kill, a band that formed in Olympia and spent some of its career in Washington. So was Kathleen Hanna, now of Le Tigre, who didn’t join her former bandmates in their post–Bikini Kill project, the Frumpies. Dore, a Connecticut native, also lived in Olympia for a time. He substituted for an ailing Vail at two tumultuous Bikini Kill gigs in 1994 and played with the Corrections and Deep Lust, another group with early-riot-grrrl connections.
As the Ladyfest show approached, the band still lacked an identity. “Someone mentioned the Casual Dots again,” Billotte recalls, “and I’d always liked that name. So we called up Billy and he said, ‘Yeah, sure. No big deal.’”
The name, Vail later told Billotte, referred to “kind of an art project they were doing. They were sticking those office dot stickers everywhere.”
Whatever its origins, the name seems to suit this part-time, soon-to-be-tricoastal band. Billotte even uses its first half to describe the difference between the Dots and Quix*o*tic, another two-women-one-man trio fronted by her and featuring a mix of punky originals and vintage R&B covers. “The whole feel of it is different,” she says. “It has a more casual feel. There’s more freedom.”
The C-word also surfaces when the other two Dots describe how the band coalesced. “Christina and I had been talking about it for years,” says Wilcox, who’s currently on a two-month leave from the Post. “Because we’re both on the same wavelength in some ways. But she was always busy with Quix*o*tic. The Ladyfest thing just came up. She had some time. And then we wrote all these songs.”
“Then it’s time to record, and we realized we have enough for a record,” Dore interjects.
“Yeah, we wrote these songs,” Wilcox continues, “and people were like, ‘You have to come play in New York.’ So like, all right, we played in New York. And then people are like, ‘Well you’ve got to record all your songs.’ All right, we’ll record the songs. ‘And you’ve got to put it out as a record, and then you’re going to have to tour on it.’ It’s kind of like it got dragged out of us. But we liked it.”
“It started off casual,” says Dore, toeing the party line.
“Yeah,” Wilcox agrees. “It wasn’t like we put an ad in the City Paper: ‘Superambitious drummer looking to really make it. You must have your chops together.’ It seems like it’s just a natural progression. I’m not sure we ever got serious about it.”
“I don’t think we’re serious about it now,” Dore adds.
“I’ve never really been serious about any band I’ve been in,” Wilcox acknowledges. “I’ve never been in a band that’s looked more than four months into the future, so I don’t really understand that kind of thinking. I’ve always been in really, like, passive bands.”
In fact, all three Dots remain members of groups that share something of the Dots’ passivity. Billotte says Quix*o*tic doesn’t “have plans to get together at a particular date, but we have a lot of material we’d like to record.” Dore expects that the Corrections will “play again eventually.” And Wilcox, who last toured with the Frumpies in 2000, supposes that further activities are “not totally out of the question.” (Of a Bikini Kill reunion, however, she says, “That won’t happen.”)
Although the trio has some links to a certain D.C. punk label, The Casual Dots was released last month by Olympia’s Kill Rock Stars. “We just wanted to put it out with someone we knew,” Wilcox explains. “It seemed like it should be on Kill Rock Stars. Bikini Kill was on Kill Rock Stars. Frumpies were on Kill Rock Stars. Deep Lust was on Kill Rock Stars. I’m friends with [label owner Slim Moon], so it was easy to call him.”
Recorded in six days at Arlington’s Inner Ear Studios and produced by Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, Wilcox’s longtime paramour, the album features a couple of neo-surf instrumentals, a good bit of Wire-y curtness, and lots of jabbing two-guitar interplay. The bassless lineup “just happened,” Wilcox recalls. “We did sort of discuss bass. But I couldn’t figure out how to play bass to Christina’s guitar-playing. It just sounded fucked-up.”
Amid The Casual Dots’ eight originals are two covers: Etta James’ “I’ll Dry My Tears” and LaVern Baker’s “Bumblebee.” With both Quix*o*tic and the Dots, Billotte has developed a reputation for unearthing forgotten gems, but she says she doesn’t troll for promising oldies. In fact, she credits Dore, the vinyl collector of the group, with introducing her to the Baker tune.
“They’re just songs that come to me,” she says. “‘Bumblebee’ is actually on a mix tape that Steve gave me along time ago….When we first started playing, we would do that song. That sort of broke the ice. ‘I’ll Dry My Tears’ is a song I really liked and I really wanted to cover, but I didn’t quite feel like it fit with Quix*o*tic.”
Dore, who was born in 1975, doesn’t listen to much music released after the ’80s. His taste is for “the classics. You know—Velvets, Ramones, Cramps.” Although it’s not apparent in the Dots’ sound, Dore has also become a big fan of late-’60s bubble gum and early-’70s
glitter—though he recently packed up his records and sent them to his parents for storage.
“It’ll be nice to get away from them,” he says. “I’ve spent most of my life trying to decide what to play.”
Wilcox sings a bit of “That’s Rock and Roll,” Shaun Cassidy’s 1977 hit. “I think I bought my first single in 1980,” she says. “I was 10. I used to walk to the mall and buy them from a singles bin. I got Devo’s ‘Whip It,’ Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass,’ and then another Devo single, from Heavy Metal. I think it was ‘Working in a Coal Mine.’ I was superobsessed with Devo.”
Now, she notes, “I listen to everything. I wasn’t really that up-to-date on modern bands ’til I started to work at the Post. Now it’s like, ‘Oh, so that’s who Spoon is.’”
The Dots’ enthusiasm for music doesn’t extend to the music biz, however. Though none of them have ruled out an actual career in pop, they’re all wary. Asked about the group’s aspirations, Wilcox responds, “We must have some.”
“We’ll probably do something together in November,” Dore suggests.
“I’d like to write more songs and make another record,” says Billotte. “Otherwise, I have no plans.”
“We’re not basing our lives around the band,” Wilcox concludes. “I’m not sure what we’re basing our lives around. It changes.” CP