"Jazz Millionaires": Mike Dillon and the Dead Kenny Gs
JPG: Back to the new album, Operation Long Leash, there are elements of funk, Steve Reich, but I also hear Frank Zappa and, maybe because I was listening to them lately, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Todd Rundgren in there. Just wondering if I’m going in the right direction or if that’s just my frame of mind.
MD: I think you’re completely on the right track. The way I look at it is like, my tabla teacher he always said, ‘You’re not in this business to manufacture a feeling. You just the best job that you can. When the painter painted his painting he’s not telling the people what they’re supposed to do when they look at it. He’s just painting a painting.’ He was driving that into my head for a long time. When we first started recording music 20 years ago I was always in the studio going, ‘I want people to feel like this when they hear this song.’ That’s just absurd! I really enjoy hearing whatever influence people are drawing from our songs. Truthfully, like rock bands I’ve been into like Queens of the Stone Age and Black Flag, and you said Zappa. So, I love that it ended up you heard that connection because Zappa was the first guy I heard who was doing cool stuff with odd times – “Black 5” it starts off at five and goes to six. And it goes back and forth between that.
I’ve been really into Elliott Smith as a songwriter and Todd Rundgren’s a great songwriter. Elliott’s been my main influence, learning his songs.
JPG: That’s real interesting. I wouldn’t think that such a singer-songwriter type such as Elliott Smith would have such an influence over this type of mainly instrumental music. Is it the idea of melodies?
MD: Exactly. I just really like the melodies that guy writes. Works out really well on the vibes. It’s like Miles [Davis] was with Sinatra. Something about Elliott’s phrasing that I love.
JPG: Now, when you are writing, are you using a piano, guitar, vibes?
MD: I mainly write on piano. Vibes are on my keyboard that I have in my room.
JPG: Now, the song “Black Death,” I imagine it’s a result of you living in New Orleans.
MD: It was really hard this summer. I remember the town post-JazzFest. I did a gig with James Singleton, Brian Coogan and Johnny Vidacovich. These guys have been there forever. Johnny grew up in New Orleans. And we were talking about how the city’s on the rebound, everything’s on the up-and-up. That was about two weeks after the oil spill. Just a week later, while in the van, when the first thing they tried, the cap didn’t work, the depression level in the van and in the city it was really bad. Obliterated that city again. I would say it’s rebounded. I don’t know if it’s denial in the seafood industry. Everyone’s saying, ‘Everything’s great.’ Whatever they did, it’s pretty amazing with the general population. ‘Oh, they capped it. Everything’s fine.’ To me the thing’s absurd. I go to restaurants, the only meat I eat is fish, whether that’s a good thing or bad thing I don’t know, but occasionally I eat fish and I’ll say, ‘Is this Gulf fish?’ And the chef will be offended. And I’m like, ‘What?! There’s like five gazillion gallons of dispersant and oil in the water and you’re looking at me like I’m an asshole for asking you that?’
So, that song we were on tour with Primus and we wrote it as a group effort. That was really cool because there were quite a few songs that were written as a band. That’s what I love the most about Dead Kenny Gs and Garage A Trois is that everyone in the songwriting and has come full circle as far as where they are. It used to be like, ‘Aw man, I’m a special musician. We don’t need to rehearse. We don’t need to practice.’ And our whole ethic has been. ‘Let’s take this back to the garage.’ The way we were when we first started playing music and you’d get together and rehearse for a few weeks before your gig. That ethic’s been around for the Dead Kenny Gs. Getting back to your question of why this sounds tighter we actually rehearsed for a couple weeks and played gigs. Based ourselves out of Austin. We were writing a tribute to the Bad Brains, and this is the way that the record ended up coming out, balanced. You know, a lot of bands don’t practice anymore. If you don’t get together until you’re in the studio it’s going to sound like that.
JPG: “Jazz Millionaire,” the title sounds satirical as far as the name but the song itself isn’t a take on smooth jazz. It’s much better.
MD: That’s a Brad Houser composition. That was a song that he had. He brought to rehearsal. We played it a few times. I think there was some reticence, ‘Why are we playing this song?’ a lot between Skerik and I. And then just being open-minded and we’re like, ‘No, let’s be just do it and see how it sounds.’ Randall really made it sound like an old smoky recording. The title is a reference to the joke that there aren’t a lot of jazz millionaires. When you’re playing jazz or instrumental music you make a hundred bucks a night and you’re stoked. So, for a long time, the original Dead Kenny Gs keyboardist, Brian Haas, he was always going around saying, ‘Jazz millions. Let go make some jazz millions.’ There are some jazz millionaires out there, who will be nameless, and I’m not talking smooth jazz millionaires. I’m talking about there are some jazz millionaires who make lots of money playing jazz. So yeah, it is a satirical title.
JPG: Just to make sure, are the Dead Kenny Gs playing Jazzfest in order to purify the atmosphere of Kenny G’s performance?
MD: We’re going to have the banishing ritual, the pentagram in the Dragon’s Den the night before he plays so, hopefully, we can disperse the antimatter will be enough to counter…We’re going to play the night before but not the night of. We were trying to line up a show the night he played but Skerik’s got a gig booked he couldn’t get out of.
JPG: For yourself, playing with Dead Kenny Gs, Garage A Trois and so many other bands, getting things straight. Do compositions or solos sometimes blend together or do you a system where you can completely focus on the current project and be in the present moment?
MD: Yes. Exactly. It’s all about the Moment, going from one tour to another. I leave a Les Claypool tour and go right to an Ani DiFranco tour, completely different. If play what I play with Les with her then I’ll get fired. You have to play for the gig. If you stay in the moment then right away you’re listening to the music and what the musicians around you are playing. It’s real natural. That’s the best thing about touring and probably why I’m addicted to fossil fuels and the Black Death because the music gets better every night. Three people are up on stage giving it their heart and soul, and you find that magic you’re seeking. It’s inexplicable. Still amazing.
I was listening to Dr. John talk in this interview from ‘73, ‘If you don’t think the way that we think, that’s cool but come on over here and listen to some music, man. Free your mind a little.’ That’s just the whole free your mind and your ass will follow thing that he’s talking about. They’re playing music for reasons other than the dollar bill and keep doing it because there is that moment when everyone in the room, hopefully, forgets the life situation we have. Everybody’s got life situations they’ve got to deal with. Music helps.