Mike Dillon’s ‘Non-Instrumental Improv’
Percussionist/vibes-freak Mike Dillon has clocked in time with a striking number of musicians since first emerging from San Antonio, TX in the late 1980s. Over the past twenty years he’s played crazy jazz with Critters Buggin, Latin influenced funk-rock with Billy Goat, funky—-and crazy—-rock with Les Claypool and even explored his softer side with Ani DiFranco. Of course, he’s also toured with Garage a Trois, led his own trio Hairy Apes BMX and, most recently, released an album with his new group, Go-Go Jungle (in addition to sitting in with just about anyone and everyone featured on the Jambands.com site). Below, the prolific percussionist discusses his new Go-Go Jungle album, Battery Milk, longstanding friendship with Skerik and why how he intends to bring “non-instrumental improv” to the masses.
MG- At what point did you shift your focus from the Hairy Apes to the Go-Go Jungle?
MD- That project started a year ago in March. I was with the Hairy Apes and we just decided we weren’t going to tour anymore as that band. But I had all these songs I’d been working on—-some were earmarked for the Hairy Apes’ next record and that record sort of bogged down. The Hairy Apes was an avenue for me and my little four-track; it was like a garage band. The songs I wrote were a mix of funk, hip-hop and me trying to rap. It is sort of what I’ve always been doing since like 1990 with Billy Goat.
MG- Did you initially hope to hinge Go-Go Jungle on a specific sound?
MD- Yeah, you know, the rockin’ thing, the non-instrumental improv, which is the other half of me. My main thing is definitely the vibraphone. It is basically like writing on a piano, so a lot of it just comes from ideas I come up with on the vibraphone. Usually, when I’m at home, I just sit around, ideas come up and then I’m like “alright, let’s realize this.” You know, J.J. "Jungle" Richards, the Go-Go Jungle’s bass player, and I have been playing together since like 1994. We have a long history and I wanted to keep playing music with him. And the drummer, "Go-Go" Ray Pollard, and I played in Billy Goat together. He was in all these R&B bands. I called him up and was like “Dude, do you want to do a tour with me?”
That’s sort of how the band started, with an initial tour to see if there was any reason to try to do this. The trio format was interesting to me, for the obvious challenge. I don’t have a keyboardist or a guitar player to fall back on, so it’s sort of all on the vibes and the bass. And J.J.’s style is prettyhe can create a nice wall of sound and get the big rock happening. It was really terrifying to step out and try to do it as a trio, but I felt like I was at the point where I was like “Alright, I think I’m going to go for this challenge.”
MG- And you jumped into the studio immediately, right?
MD- Yeah and then we did another leg of the tour and then the next little thing that came up was that Galactic called us about doing a string of dates with them. And we had [bassist] Ron Johnson call us. He’s doing New Monsoon now. He came and did the tour and it was a blast and I was like “Alright, let’s go into the studio and record, right after this tour.” And we did a night of recording with Ron and then in July, the next time I had the time to reconvene with J.J. and Go-Go, we did the same thing. We played a gig and then we went in and we finished the record the next day. While I was on tour this summer, my guy Pat mixed the record and the next thing you know Hyena picked it up. We’re having a good time, it’s been great, so I’m really glad Hyena picked it up.
MG- As a percussionist, what’s your interaction with drummer Ray Pollard like?
MD- We’ve been playing together for like 12 years, so we totally know each other’s worlds and where we’re coming from. He’s coming from that hard-core, P-Funk tradition. It’s all about the groove, but he can pull out like this crazy fucking drum set shit. It’s great playing with him because if the show is sucking, I can just yell out “drum solo!” and he’ll bring us all together. We have a lot of fun in the band.
MG- What initially drew you to the vibraphone? Not many kids wake up and say, “you know, I really want to play vibes when I grow up?”
MD- Well, I played in percussion ensembles, drum-lines and youth-symphonies through high school and college. So it was always sort of in my mind to take the percussion ensemble concept to the rock clubs. With the Black Frames, that was something we tried to do. So, I mean, it all comes from that. When I was at North Texas, we had this great percussion ensemble. The dean of percussion there is really well known and respected in education circles. He was cool because he would do things like Frank Zappa pieces with these giant, 28-person percussion ensembles, which would just rock, and crazy prog-rock pieces and stuff. I played percussion in that ensemble.
So you have a like four drummers, a vibraphonist, a couple of xylophonists, people playing timpani. Just everything was coveredall the parts. It was really well orchestrated. So in my head I was like “man, this is really cool.” So it was in there, the whole vibraphone thing, and then I started paying vibes heavily in about ’94 and when I started getting interested in jazz. I started playing jazz clubs, when I had always been doing gigs at like smoky rock bars.
Bands like Tortoise made everyone think about vibes again. So the vibraphone is pretty out there, but a lot of people are using it. What’s cool about vibes is that you can just hit one note and it sounds so cool, so you can just put the right note on a record and it adds a nice flavor. But playing with Les [Claypool] and a bunch of these other bands, the challenge has always been to somehow make it fit their music. With Les, he wants a certain style. He’s coming from more like a junk-marimba point of view. He wants it to sound as clunky and fucked up as possible. Yet you’re still playing in a big loud rock environment so you’re like “alright, how’s this going to translate?”
MG- You have been playing in Claypool’s Fancy Band’ for some time. How did you first meet him?
MD- In 2002, we did that first record together. One of my bands opened for the Frog Brigade when Skerik was playing with them and he also did a show with Critters Buggin in San Francisco. Les came out and played bass with us and that’s when I first really met him. That was summer of 2001. He played a show with Critters and then I remember my band opened the Malachy Papers opened for him in Cincinnati. We started talking about things, and then next thing you know it didn’t hurt that Skerik was in the band.
He’s my musical partner in crime. We met when we played in Critters Buggin in 1996.
We have this new group called the Illuminasti Trio with a great bass player James Singleton from Astral Project.
It’s sort of like a really creative improv trio. We have songs and it’s got legs and I think it’s going to turn into a band. There are a lot of themes, a concept of not just constantly blowing and being like “hey, look how bad-ass we are.” It’s like every time we play, it’s more about the structural and compositional idea of the piece, of what we’re attacking, so it’s pretty cool. It’s really fun and everyone is so great. Playing with Skerik or James, all these musicians I work with, everyone is at a level it’s like everyone’s a drummer or a percussionist, so everyone’s got great time themselves. So you can stretch out and do things and everyone will hold it for you and whatnot.
MG- You’ve described the Go-Go Jungle as “non-instrumental improv.” Can you talk a little bit about what that phrase means to you?
MD- Well, I mean, the second I said that I realized that with the Go-Go Jungle, we have a lot of instrumentals in the band. When I started the Go-Go Jungle, I wanted it to have some songs with vocals, but I wanted it to focus on bluesy funk—-a vibraphone trio with some weird, wacky, whatever it is we write about. Blues is the root of it. Blues-based stuff is the foundation. Just like any other vibraphone trio, like the Milt Jackson vibraphone trio. But I guess when I said “non-instrumental”
I use a mic with Garage a Trois. It’s all about energy and bringing the crowd into it. That’s the cool thing about improv. It is like when the band and the crowd doesn’t know what’s going to happen, then you’re in it together. I mean, a lot of bands in the world do function that way, so that’s one of the cooler things about the scene that all these musicians inhabit. We don’t do the same set night after night after night. Every night is different, so you never know what you’re getting. It’s like that way with the Go-Go Jungle, too. We mix it up and play the room. Like in Portland with the Illuminasti Trio, everyone was just there and drinking and we played like Black Sabbath riff type stuff and we just rocked all night long. With Skerik man, he’s going to kick into distortion. Being around guys like that, I’ve learned a lot. I feel like with the vibraphone I have a cool pedal trip. That’s one cool thing, just trying to explore that world with a vibraphone and come up with applications that rock on a high energy level.
MG- Do you hope to “settle down” with one band or do you enjoy juggling several different projects at the same time?
MD- That’s one thing I learned, which is probably one of the most important aspects of what’s going on. People ask me “why do you guys play in so many bands?” I had just been playing in like one band for seven years, with the occasional recording project, but I hard really been doing 250 dates a year with one band, from 1990 until ’97. So when I played with Critters Buggin, it was like I had only spoken with one person up on a mountain for seven years and I couldn’t speak. And I felt like those guys had been playing in many bands and spoke many languages.
So it was for musical reasons, being able to play in many different musical landscapes. You know, Skerik is all about the music and that’s why y’all love the guy. Pretty much these days, every band I’m in is a project. You don’t have the commercial success of one band and you know “we’re going to do this all the time and get to where we’re playing, nice big theaters, in a tour bus,” but you know, at the end of every tour, you get a little bit better and the band gets a little bit better.
Pretty much everyone I play with, we have a lot of fun and there’s not a lot of drama. It is all about the music and laughing and enjoying life while we’re here. We try to a different take with the Go-Go, we bring that influence in. We got the name in the band, although we’re not a traditional Go-Go band, the first song on the record is “Go-Go Theme # 1.” So I was like “Alright, I’m going to write this like a Milt Jackson, little bluesy thing, and put it over a Go-Go.” It was that simple of a concept. And then we had some call and response, to go back to the African theme.
MG- The Go-Go name makes you step back and think “Whoa, what kind of music do you guys play?”
MD- Go-Go Ray knows the Go-Go drumming tradition from DC really well and J.J. knows it so at any given point we’re going to bust out some Treble Funk and those bands who have been a big influence on our music. We’re taking it to the clubs, because there’s nothing funkier than Go-Go. And Trouble Funk’s Saturday Night Live is a record that everyone should check out, if you’re not familiar with it.
All of us grew up on like Fishbone and the high-energy stuff of the late 80’s, early 90’s. We were kids seeing Bad Brains and stuff like that, so those bands were like the crossbar of energy for us. That’s where we’re coming from, mixed in with music school nerds.
_Senior Editor Mike Greenhaus blogs at www.greenhauseffect.com