"Jazz Millionaires": Mike Dillon and the Dead Kenny Gs
JPG: Obviously, you play vibes but did you learn to play xylophone with the single mallet?
MD: Oh yeah! That was the first thing. It all started on the glockenspiel and xylophone and then marimba. The jazz side of my playing didn’t really start until the mid-‘90s. When I was in college I took a few classes of jazz improv, just basic. I did learn that when I was in the jazz program. I understood the concept behind 2/5 and all that.
JPG: With music programs you run into a lot of students who are either devoted to classical or jazz only but rarely, at least how it was years ago, were they open to the world of rock music. You seemed to be the exception, using jazz with other elements.
MD: Oh yeah, man. I was 10 years old when I bought my first Led Zeppelin record. A lot of my friends, their parents might have been into big band or jazz but their big brother was into Led Zeppelin or Hendrix. Billy Goat, that drummer you saw, Earl Harvin, was a prime example of that. His dad used to see all the guys back in the day and grew up seeing Count Basie and all that stuff. So, Earl heard that but his sister was into Hendrix. And at a young age he was hearing all that music. This guy is an amazing bebop jazz drummer but he loves Bad Brains and Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and he can play both styles really well. Look at Brian Blade, he plays with Wayne Shorter but he plays with Daniel Lanois and Joni Mitchell…He’s with all these different people. It seems like people of my generation…we want to rock, and especially in a lot of jazz it’s starting to happen.
The Dead Kenny Gs are more or less a poignant statement about Kenny G, just how jazz became this soulless commercial bullshit. It’s not just the smooth jazz but the stuff that they were teaching at the jazz school of music. This is guys in topsiders and khaki pants. It was like, ‘Man, what is this shit?’ The old jazz guys, they were shooting dope, the original punk rockers just getting their asses beat by cops and that was my perspective. I was like, ‘There’s something wrong here.’ Obviously, I was 22. Yeah, you’re glamorizing Charlie Parker’s smack use. He ended up dead at 35. Think of what he would have done without the smack. He was a genius before he got in a car accident and started doing dope. It just seemed like what they were teaching in school everything was becoming homogenized. Tons of great players but it was just conceptually bankrupt. So, I think a lot of people were looking to the eighties punk rock stuff like Bad Brains, just all these bands with energy and it was like, ‘Man, there’s something fresh going on here.’ Glam rock and all that stuff was dead too from my point of view. It was interesting being 20 in the mid-‘80s because there was cool stuff that was coming out of California and there was the Butthole Surfers… Being a guy with a jazz background and classically-trained, in some ways I was an outsider within those guys. I would know a lot of ‘em but…From the beginning all my bands we haven’t been totally accepted by cool punk rock kids like Gibby [Haynes] and his crew [in the Butthole Surfers]. And we were outsiders in the jazz world, obviously, as well. So, we were just some sort of mutant misfits. Pretty funny. Somehow they ended up throwing us into the jamband realm. That’s cool. Whatever. Labels are labels.
JPG: When you mentioned about the early jazz musicians, it reminds me of, I believe it was a live Benny Goodman album. I mentioned to someone that you could hear how it predates hardcore as far as the incredibly fast pace of the music.
MD: I know, it was. Jazz hardcore. That’s cool.
JPG: Speaking of the jazz world, what is the reaction to the Dead Kenny Gs? Are musicians supporting the ideas behind it or…?
MD: Living in New Orleans I’ve become friends with some great musicians. And at the end of the day, it’s all music. What did Thelonius Monk say in that one interview? ‘What kind of music do you like?’ ‘I like good music.’ The guy goes, ‘Even country music?’ ‘I don’t think the man understood me. I said I like good music.’ At the end of the day with all musicians you get to the point you realize, from your perspective, whether it’s good or bad. That being said, when they announced Kenny G at Jazzfest I was actually getting calls from some New Orleans jazz musicians going, ‘You guys have to play late night. I can’t even believe that they’re hiring Kenny G to play New Orleans Jazz Fest. It’s an embarrassment.’ Even New Orleans Jazz Fest, as great as it is and how much love they give to the city of New Orleans, I may be putting my foot in my mouth for saying this but they don’t give a fuck about promoting…everything is just…it’s a bullshit game. That’s all I’ve got to say. They book rock bands and that can draw millions of people and now they’re booking Kenny G. What does Kenny G have to do with New Orleans Jazz Fest other than musical necrophilia with Louis Armstrong in that one video? I’ve seen some great things about that. Go to our website and read that.
Some of ‘em support us, some probably think we’re clowns just like most musicians who are very judgmental. I mean, the Dead Kenny Gs name is a joke in a lot of ways. We don’t take it that serious.
JPG: It’s openly provocative, but if you get the joke….
MD: We love the Dead Kennedys, too. It’s like the Dead Kennedys and Kenny G. A friend ours gave us that band name. We were like, ‘Oh my God! This is perfect!’ So, the punk jazz thing, it just seemed to be the perfect name for our punk jazz project when we started. Of course, our problem has always been that we play too many…we’re all over the map. I love Ween for that reason. They’re all over the map. A lot of people can’t stand them. If anything I would say we don’t just play punk jazz.
The first song on the new record starts off with this weird epic rock styling, Steve Reich themed, and it runs the whole gamut. There’s not as much actual punk jazz on this record as there was on the first record. It’s more like a heavier rock record. We did the record with this guy Randall Dunn who worked with bands like Earth and SUNNO))) [pronounced sun] and he’s a really well-respected black metal, Southern Lord imprint, that label. Have you ever checked out Earth or SUNNO))) ?
JPG: Earth sounds familiar, not SUNNO))) .
MD: Check out SUNNO))) . Super-heavy, no drums just drone. Then, you realize these things are composed and they’re doing these seven-minute pieces of giant quarter/whole notes. It’s a complete different discipline. This guy Randall Dunn, he’s really into sonic textures and he grew up with John Zorn and all that stuff. So, we acquiesced to him. We had a bunch of songs we had written and he listened to everything. He took control of it which was nice. He had a lot of ideas about the recording process. Skerik is very happy with the way the record it turned out. We did the whole thing, recorded it in three days, mixed it in five. That’s the downside of all these kids pirating music and not paying for it anymore.
JPG: This record sounds tighter compared to your debut. Is that a matter of your intent or Randall’s influence?
MD: It was probably us.
JPG: In your press release, it mentioned the Minutemen. I spoke with Mike Watt recently and we discussed the Minutemen ideal, which he used on his new album, of a song just making its mark as quickly as possible, saying what it was to say and then being done.
MD: Is that his concept? Is that what he said?
JPG: I’m paraphrasing but his new album has 30 songs on it and I don’t think of any of them get past two minutes.
MD: I have to say I love that about the Minutemen and Watt. He inspires me on a lot of different levels. I read an interview how he writes songs all the time. It sounds like he’s saying he doesn’t get too precious about it. Write a song. Do it. Write another one. I tell people that all the time, younger musicians, ‘Just write songs. Just do it. Write song and put ‘em out. You’re going to get better as a songwriter.’