Dance student Melanie Campbell Coats and drama student Dimitri Coats met at Juilliard, but their lives afterward took a distinctly non-conservatory turn: They became heavy metal rockers.
For Melanie (B.F.A. ’95, dance), who started studying ballet at age 5, Juilliard opened her eyes to modern dance, independence, city life—and the lure of rock ’n’ roll. Dimitri’s stint at the School (in Group 24) was more of a fluke. He’d been invited to audition here as a fledgling drama student N.Y.U., but dropped out after two years. The couple formed a band called the Burning Brides in 1999, eventually releasing four albums, touring extensively, and performing with such high-profile names as Marilyn Manson and the White Stripes. In 2004, Stylus reviewer Bjorn Randolph noted that the Brides had “quite a package: boundless energy, killer riffs, shaggy hair and hot-chick bassist.” And WalrusComix reviewer Brant Miles said Dimitri’s voice had “the kind of range that enables him to evoke ear-bleeding howls that would make Linda Blair blush.”
Seems pretty far afield from Juilliard, yet the two have found that their experience here has served them well. The Journal recently chatted with each of them as they branched out on new ventures.
The band is now on hiatus following the birth of the couple’s second child, Charles, and Melanie is taking a moment to enjoy being a stay-at-home mom to him and his 2-year-old sister, Veronica.
“When I came to Juilliard I had that stereotypical bunhead idea that ballet was the only type of dance, but I was also intimidated that everyone else knew all this dance that I didn’t,” Melanie recalled. But if she came in with an attitude, she came out of that first year wondering if she could finish at all. “I call my Juilliard training a boot camp for artists—we’re stretched to our limits, at times maddeningly.”
In ballet, the Dallas native said, “there’s a prescribed way of doing things, but modern dance in particular is so based on finding the creativity within you.” Before long, however, Melanie was tapping into what it meant to be an artist—and being exhilarated by her surroundings. “I got introduced to alternative rock music by just living in New York City. Those two things kind of pushed me into doing what I ended up doing.”
Another push was the fact that she had met Dimitri. His path to Juilliard was far less conventional than Melanie’s. “I was a late bloomer to everything,” he said. He didn’t start studying acting until he was at N.Y.U., and at that point, he recalled, “I felt like I was behind everyone else, not in capability but in experience.” To catch up, he enrolled in a Shakespeare camp, and it was there that he was invited to try out for Juilliard.
Dmitri survived his first year, but then, in his second year, he recalled, “I was playing Torvald in A Doll’s House. I was in the final scene, and all of a sudden I kind of left my body—I felt like I didn’t belong there. And rather than fit a square peg in a round hole, I answered the call of rock ’n’ roll.” (He had started playing the guitar in seventh grade.)
After Melanie graduated—and gave herself a year to figure out what to do next—they moved to Jersey City, where she worked in restaurants and he worked in record stores. “We had a killer stereo and a mattress—no other furniture,” she recalled. Their entertainment was buying records (one a week) and seeing bands perform. By the end of the year, Melanie had gotten a bass at a pawn shop and started learning to play it.
At Juilliard Melanie had hung out with a lot of music students and was struck by their commitment to practicing. “I remember thinking, I don’t know if I could do that. I’m very social, and being a musician is really lonely.” But she drew on her own Juilliard-honed reservoirs of discipline when she started exploring the bass—and discovered that her schooling was helping her in other ways, too. “One great thing is that the dancers were required to take piano class. And we also took music theory for dance and basic ear training. It was enough that when I finally picked up the bass, which is the heartbeat of music, especially in rock, I was able to perform,” she said. “The way I play is to find the rhythm and the dance in the music and play around that.”
Melanie acknowledges that while playing the bass in a band is nothing like being a Juilliard musician, it was difficult to perform at first: “I was coming from being so trained at what I did to getting on stage as a total hack,” she said. “Eventually I learned that if you know what you’re doing enough—and you commit to the performance 100 percent—it works. But it’s the opposite of classical music or dance technique.”
The Burning Brides spent the next decade recording, performing, and touring, even after Veronica was born, in 2009. (Melanie’s mom came along to help out with the baby.) But when Melanie became pregnant with Charles, the couple decided it was time for the band to take a break. “I know I’m going to perform again, I just don’t know when,” Melanie said.
Since Dimitri was nowhere near ready to stop playing, he formed a punk band (“just boys”) called Off! with the lead singer of Black Flag, Keith Morris. “We sing really charming songs, like [unprintable title] and [unprintable title],” Dimitri said. About to start on a short tour with Off!, he said, “I’m not going to jump in a van and tour nonstop like I’m 23 anymore, but I would go crazy if I were in an office.
In the meantime, his career has taken a surprising turn. “Some younger directors who are fans of the band found out about my past and put me in their films—so I’m acting a bit.” As for combining acting and playing music, “I can do a lot of things other people can’t because of my training,” Dimitri said. “I can play any character I want to play believably. If I were onstage with Anthony Hopkins and my role was to kill him, I would look him dead in the eye and suck his eyeballs out of his brain.”
Dimitri’s first movie, Suck, came out this fall. While double-entendres are undoubtedly intended, the title refers to the fact that his character is a vampire. “I got to hang out with [co-stars] Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Malcolm McDowell—that was a real thrill for me,” he said.
At Juilliard, Dimitri noted, “I wasn’t mature enough to embrace the life of the actor; I needed to get rock 'n' roll out of my system,” conceding “I still haven’t done that.” But now he feels like he can appreciate some of what Juilliard had to offer him. “I had a great couple of years and I learned a lot about technique. And you know what was else was special? I used to sneak into the master classes, and see Wynton Marsalis or Steve Martin or Dustin Hoffman.”
As for life on the road, Dimitri said, “Our job was to throw a party every night, and all the goings-on backstage and wild adventures—we’ve done it all.” So it undoubtedly came as a surprise to many fans when the couple decided to pursue another dream—having a family. “It makes you kind of grow up pretty fast,” Dimitri admitted. “Having kids is like someone putting some smelling salts under your nose and saying, wake up.”
But the Burning Brides will probably start touring again before long. Or maybe they’ll do something else. After all, Melanie said, “one of the great things about being an artist is that you can always start over and reinvent yourself.”