"Jazz Millionaires": Mike Dillon and the Dead Kenny Gs
Mike Dillon is a busy man, who seems to be working 24/7, and then some. Just in the past seven months he’s been either writing, recording or touring with the Dead Kenny Gs, Garage A Trois and with former Billy Goat bandmate Earl Harvin. In the past, as an in-demand drummer/percussionist, he’s been drafted into outfits led by Les Claypool and Ani DiFranco among others.
I ended up interviewing Dillon during two different sessions as we discussed two similar yet different acts. The punk jazz trio of Dillon, saxophonist Skerik and bassist Brad Houser, a.k.a. the Dead Kenny Gs, put out Operation Long Leash last month. That is now followed in April by Always Be Happy, But Stay Evil, the fourth album by Garage A Trois, which features both Dillon and Skerik along with keyboardist Marco Benevento and drummer Stanton Moore.
Both are excellent representations of where jazz can go in the 21st century with an ambitious, exploratory spirit and passion for the art of songwriting, musicianship and improvisation that’s equaled by an attention to melody that allows anyone not riveted by instrumental music to find the material inviting.
During the conversations Dillon’s energetic presence matched his unbridled enthusiasm for his nearly three decades as a student and creator of music. The multitasker remained quite aware of the subject at hand while loading the DKGs van for touring duties, ordering a soy latte for a burst of road refreshment or, later, stepping out prior to playing on the opening night of DiFranco’s current tour for a taxi ride and visit to a local Whole Foods Market in San Diego.
[This conversation focuses on the Dead Kenny Gs, with the Garage A Trois feature to run next week.]
JPG: Let me begin by saying you’re the first, and only interview subject that I can say I’ve seen naked.
MD: Oh, really? The Billy Goat days? When we played at the Grog Shop [in Cleveland]?
JPG: No, I booked you at club, Cedars Lounge, in Youngstown, Ohio.
MD: I remember that place. That was a really fun show. That was the only time we played Youngstown, Ohio, too.
JPG: There was a production of “Oh Calcutta!” a block away from the club and there was all this controversy about the nudity. And then, we not only had nudity with Billy Goat but you brought your dogs out after the show, which was probably another violation. Overall, it made it a fantastic night. Once I discovered that, it all came together.
MD: I know. A lot of people they’ll discover, ‘Oh my God! That’s that dude who was in Billy Goat who used to run around naked all the time.’ It’s always funny when the light bulb goes off. There’s a thread between those bands I’m in now and that stuff. Hopefully, energy and more so with Hairy Apes BMX or Go-Go Jungle. But even in Dead Kenny Gs I’m playing drums and rapping and talking shit on the mic and getting in people’s face. That sort of attitude.
JPG: When I looked at what you’d done since then, you were the frontman jumping and dancing around, singing and playing percussion in Billy Goat but after that you’ve played a lot of supporting or non-frontman roles in other bands. Kind of like the opposite of Phil Collins who went from playing drums to being the frontman. Was it a difficult adjustment?
MD: When Billy Goat happened that band was never ever supposed to be anything other than like a one-time event. It was like, ‘A friend of mine’s got a gig and he needs an opening band.’ So, we did it and the next thing you know people freaked out and within six months we were drawing 1,500 people in Dallas. It was an anomaly. It never happened in my career since. And it was just the time period, being 1990 and there wasn’t the internet to take everyone’s attention span away. There weren’t iPhones for people to look at all the time. They were forced to look for things in their community. And then we started touring.
I had been a classically-trained percussionist. Billy Goat came along and I was always wrestling in my head, ‘Oh man, I’m getting naked and I’m being the fool onstage.’ I never took myself that serious. I was just having fun. ‘This is cool. I’ll go with it.’ I never really aspired to do that. It was a happy accident, but I learned a lot doing it. Whether it’s Garage A Trois or Dead Kennedy Gs at some point in the evening we are here to entertain people and get it going. Miles Davis, he’d have his crowd to his back but he knew how to entertain people. So, no matter what kind of music you’re playing…having that to bring is just another tool, really, whether it’s playing rhythm changes or talking shit on the microphone. It’s all good to me.
JPG: You mentioned about being classically-trained. I saw you play with Garage A Trois last year at All Good Festival and then Dead Kenny Gs open for Primus in Cleveland. What really struck me and made me want to talk to you was when you played the opening of “Computer Crimes” on vibes at All Good.
It was hypnotic. You were like a machine. And I thought at the time that you just had to have a trained musical background. Where did you study and were you thinking of moving on to an orchestra before heading to rock ‘n’ roll?
MD: My mom was school teacher and she got me started with school band when I was 10 years old. Then when I was in high school I was in youth symphony and had good teachers. Then, I went to University of North Texas, and they had a really good music program. I was there three-and-a-half years doing jazz band, drum line, percussion ensembles.
The song you’re talking about there, “Computer Crimes,” funny that you bring that up. The concept on that is very minimalistic Steve Reich where you sit on this one thing to the point of monotony but you don’t move very much ‘til at the very end r when the release. That song definitely comes from that world, classical world.
University of North Texas has a pretty renowned music school. I was in this band called Ten Hands before Billy Goat and we started gigging all the time. The next thing you know, ‘I’m a musician. I don’t need a degree to play music. I might as well just stay on the road.’ That was ’87 or ’88. There was this thing there One O’Clock Lab Band and I was playing percussion. As far as North Texas goes and the jazz club that was sort of like what everyone who went to North Texas wanted to be in. There were guys who got off the road, like Maynard Ferguson’s band that would come play in that band. So, it was a semi-professional band. I did that for like six months and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m just going to play in bands.’ That’s when this all started.
In North Texas they had a really comprehensive jazz program. It was more like the Berklee [School of Music]. You look it up and they’ve got a great jazz program and classical program. And the percussion instructor there, a guy name Dr. Robert Schietroma, he was very well-rounded. A lot of people when they go to school, there like, ‘I just want to play drum set’ or ‘I just want to play mallets.’ But at North Texas he made us take drum set lessons, all the classical stuff. I played hand percussion and steel drum, gamelan. This was in the eighties. He was pretty ahead of the curve. It used to be you’d go to Berkelee to learn jazz. He had you learn everything. He started bringing in the African, Gamelan, Brazilian, Indian. That’s where I first started studying tabla. That was the foundation of the lifelong pursuit of percussion and musical knowledge. He taught us that you’re going to learn for the rest of your life, you’re never done learning. That’s the thing about music that a lot of people don’t understand. It’s not like a degree in economics. This is an ongoing continuing education. Everyone I play with studies and they practice all the time. You look at Coltrane. Coltrane was at the height of his powers and was taking lessons from Ornette Coleman. That’s a big lesson in humility for all of us. That’s where it all it comes from.