Mike Dillon: Deep Grooves Meet Punk Rock
It was in October 2012 that Mike Dillon was inspired to revisit a rhythmic approach to playing – that is, the groove-oriented approach one brings to drumming, as somewhat distinct from the melodic approach one brings to playing a mallet instrument, in his case a vibraphone.
During a string of gigs in Mexico City that fall, Dillon found himself listening to a lot of Brazilian music, including recordings by such artists as Arto Lindsay and Tom Zé, as well as an influential album titled Fantastica Batucada by Escola De Samba Mocidade Independente De Padre Miguel.
“I’m going to remember that I’m a percussionist,” Dillon recalls telling himself in the sort of way that begs to be brought to some sort of fruition.
In the context of playing vibraphone, the distinction between a rhythmic and a melodic or harmonic approach is subtle. Each tends to exist unless both are being intentionally ignored. And that’s not Dillon’s bag.
What Dillon was getting at with that comment was an interest in starting with rhythm, as much as melody, when it came time to write and record the new self-titled CD by his Band Of Outsiders, slated for an April release.
A follow-up to his 2012 album, Urn, Dillon’s new record features 13 songs that are as groove-driven as they are in-your-face punk anthems with lyrics that reflect the unrepentant streams of Dillon’s wired consciousness.
“Celebrate The Hate,” for example, is the result of a salsa feel being put through a punk-rock filter. With that in mind, Dillon’s quick to point out that there’s a difference between trying to be clever and aspiring to have something sound like a language. For the uninitiated, Dillon’s not at all interested in trying to be clever.
He simply wants his music to sound like nothing else. In explaining that, he pointed to his friend Les Claypool’s music as an example of that which is as unique as it is inimitable.
During a recent telephone conversation, Dillon’s drummer, Adam Gertner, says Dillon’s vision for Band Of Outsiders was to make a “Brazilian punk-rock record.” In retrospect, Gertner says the band did a good job of doing just that.
Beyond the styles at play on the album, the music absolutely reflects the kind of unbridled energy that those seemingly disparate genres share. And anyone who’s seen Dillon and his band perform can vouch for the abundant energy they generate and feed off. (Even the videos one can easily find on YouTube capture that contagious aspect of their live shows.)
If being steeped in a broad range of musical traditions has allowed Dillon to bust through all sorts of boundaries put in place by stylistic purists, his punk-rock delivery challenges audiences to let go of their own musical prejudices and bang their heads without apology or shame.
With regard to their live shows, Dillon says, the band’s goal is for the music they’re making to be so infectious that it sets audiences on fire – figuratively speaking, of course. (Remember, he’s not trying to be clever.) From “adventurous jazz aficionados” to folks who are “more liberal” in what their definition of what jazz is, “overwhelmingly, the energy gets to everybody,” Dillon says, proudly.
While he admits that “you’ve always got to play the room a little bit,” it’s probably fair to say that Dillon has become quite adept at assessing what it’s going to take to bring an audience where he wants to go.
And just as he makes no bones about loving “jazz more than any other music on the planet,” Dillon explained that punk rock represents the spirit of what he wants to do, musically.
Band Of Outsiders was recorded in three tracking sessions – in January, May, and August 2013 – at Studio Center Miami, and engineered chiefly by Gary Vandy, “an old-school guy” who was determined to make the album sound like an early Frank Zappa record, Dillon says.
It’s definitely got that vibe (pun unintended) in places, in part, perhaps, because a mallet instrument plays a prominent role in the music. Dillon, in fact, says that a lot of people compare his band to those Zappa headed, primarily because the instrumentation includes a vibraphone. “Most people don’t know who Milt Jackson [was],” Dillon says with due sarcasm.
While he’s appreciative and respectful of what players like Jackson and Gary Burton have done with and for the vibraphone, in terms of its place in the jazz world, Dillon is honest about how he uses the instrument to express his personality. Attaching a few pickups to the thing enables him to “rock as hard as anyone.”
Prior to recording Band Of Outsiders, Dillon had been working with Gertner and trombonist Carly Meyers for about a year and a half. Bassist Patrick McDevitt joined the band in June 2013 and recorded his tracks in September. The songs on the new album were written on tour – road-tested during soundchecks and in the course of the shows themselves – and recorded live in the studio, with overdubs added thereafter. Whereas Urn features more instrumentals than vocal tunes, all but two of the songs on Band Of Outsiders are instrumentals.
The concept, Dillon says, was to write very succinct songs, and to focus more on the songwriting itself than on the improvisational aspect of the music. Still, Dillon says, modestly, “I think our improvisation as a group has gotten a lot better.”
For a drummer in his early twenties, Dillon says, Gertner “has a very mature outlook. He’s not just thinking about chops. Adam is always looking at the big picture, as far as drum-set playing. He wants to be the guy that no one notices.” When he first met Gertner, Dillon says, “everything was jazz in his world.” Obviously, that’s changed.
As much as he can appreciate players with great chops, Dillon’s primary interest is in a drummer’s time. Beyond that, he’s into compositional drum-set playing. “Watching [Gertner] grow as a drummer the past two years has probably been one of the [most fun] aspects of this band,” Dillon says. “Adam and I have really become a lot more cohesive. It goes back to playing all the time.” The Band Of Outsiders played more than 200 gigs in 2013.
One can’t really talk about the Band of Outsiders without acknowledging Dillon’s enthusiasm for mentoring younger musicians. Gertner, who’s studied with Stanton Moore – with whom Dillon has worked in Garage À Trois – is happy to lay down grooves over which Dillon and the band can play. “I definitely like to let [Dillon] shine through,” Gertner says. “I try to approach the drums as melodic accompaniment to what he’s doing.”
Learning Dillon’s language has been a big part of Gertner’s experience playing with the Band Of Outsiders. “I didn’t even know what punk rock was until I joined Mike Dillon’s band,” he readily admits.
While Gertner’s always been a fan of Tony Williams’ playing and has also enjoyed music by such groups as Modest Mouse, Wilco, and Radiohead, he’s more recently become (necessarily) acquainted with Black Sabbath and the punk-rock canon. “It’s definitely just an entirely different way of drumming ... [and] a touch thing, too,” he says. “I needed to step up to the plate almost immediately.” Clearly, Tony Williams’ touch and approach to the drums was different than Bill Ward’s.
Still, Gertner says, talking about his bandmates, “we all come from a jazz base,” which translated, in part, to “the Blue Note style of recording in one room” when it came time to track the new album.