Mike Dillon: Heavy Vibes From A Free-Jazz Punk
Percussionist and vibraphone player Mike Dillon never stands still. When DRUM! caught up with him in his adopted hometown of New Orleans, he was helping roadies move a truckload of Garage Á Trois gear into a large warehouse. He’d just finished playing a weeklong flurry of gigs at the New Orleans Heritage And Jazz Festival. He did somewhere between 11 and 13 gigs during the weeklong event; he says he can’t really keep track.
“I played gigs with all the bands I’m in,” Dillon says with unbridled enthusiasm, despite the fact that he hasn’t slept in two days. “I did three with Garage Á Trois and a couple with The Illuminasti Trio, a free-jazz thing with Skerik [aka, sax player Eric Walton], and bass player James Singleton from Astral Project, in which I play drums and vibes at the same time. I did a few with Skerik and The Dead Kenny Gs and one with Hairy Apes BMX, where I play vibes and sing. Billy Martin [Medeski Martin And Wood] sat in with us. That’s the cool thing about Jazz Fest. All the great musicians come out and support each other. Nikki Glaspie from Beyoncé’s band was there, sitting in on a Super Bad set.
“I’ve been doing Jazz Fest for seven years and you meet a lot of people that week. It’s a good time for New Orleans and a good time for the musicians. A lot of them live off the money they make here for the rest of the summer. In New Orleans, it’s part of the tradition to treat musicians with respect, not as second-class citizens. I live here for the music, but it’s for the city too. It’s one of the great American cities that still has its identity. It’s not all Best Buys and Barnes & Nobles.”
Since turning professional in the late ’80s, the Texas-born musician has played in dozens of wide-ranging bands — punk, funk, jazz, and world music — and he’s usually juggling several projects at any given time. “When I was in Critters Buggin with Skerik, I noticed he always had a bunch of projects he was involved in. I liked the idea that you don’t sit around; you’re on the road playing 250 days a year. All my jazz heroes played concerts, practiced all day, then played clubs all night. Eddie Harrison, Nat Adderley, and Joe Henderson played all the time and practiced all the time. That’s the work ethic I have. I went to the University Of North Texas, where you don’t specialize in one instrument. You learn classical stuff, vibes, tabla, drum kit, and world percussion. When I’m playing with Ani DiFranco, I do subtle backup stuff on vibes, and when I’m with Les Claypool, I match his crazy, over-the-top perception of music. I play with a lot of cool friends that do different kinds of music. It keeps me flexible.”
The Garage Door Opens
It was his reputation for versatility that landed Dillon his current high-profile slot with Garage Á Trois, which includes Skerik, pianist Marco Benevento, and drummer Stanton Moore. “I’ve been friends with Stan since I jammed with Galactic in ’98. When Garage Á Trois played Jazz Fest in 2000, I sat in. It went so well, they asked me to join the band. I started off on percussion, then added vibes, and we’ve gone on from there.”
“I first saw Mike playing with Critters Buggin,” says Moore. “I was drawn to his energy, both as a player and as a person. We both have that frenetic punk-rock vibe and I felt like we were brothers in arms right off the bat. We were impressed after he sat in with [GAT] and asked him to join the band. After Charlie [Hunter, guitarist] left, he started playing lead on vibes put though effects and pedals. [His vibes] sound like some kind of distorted guitar.”
Garage Á Trois is a pioneer in a new kind of jazz/rock fusion. Looking back, the fusion bands of the ’70s were more rock-influenced jazz bands. Garage Á Trois pays as much attention to the rock and punk side as it does to the improvisational side. “I come from a punk-rock place and wanted to be in a rock band without a singer. I write rock songs with vibes playing the melody through pedals and effects.”
Garage Á Trois is fiercely aggressive, with none of the players staying in their traditional roles. The shift between ensemble work and solo work is fluid and ever changing. Moore, for example, credits himself with “drum pummeling” on the back of their latest disc, Always Be Happy, But Stay Evil. “We flog the s__t out of the vibes, the drums, and everything else,” Dillon says of his rhythmic collaboration with Moore. “The way we play is pretty organic; we don’t sit around and talk about it. I just stay out of his way and complement what he’s doing. That’s what I learned playing with a lot of different people over the years. You play with empathy. If [Moore] puts up a three-finger sign, I know he wants a triple-note fill. I do collaborative parts and don’t get distracted by what [the other players] are doing. The question is always, are you adding to the music or taking away from it?”
Moore explained that the way GAT is set up lets him share rhythmic duties with Dillon without any musical friction. “I lay down a beat on drum kit and Mike plays vibes, timbales, congas, and tabla, and adds quite a lot to the overall sound. After we’d been playing together a while, I realized I’d seen him back in ’94, with his band Billygoat, when he started playing punk-rock vibes. Picking tabla and vibes was a decision that requires a lot of dedication and practice, but he approaches it with a punk-rock energy that makes him unique.”
Garage Á Trois doesn’t have a bass player, often depending on Benevento’s keyboard pedals for the low end. What are the challenges of playing without a bass man? “Bass players are often into strict time structures, like they’re the time police. In Garage we’re all laid-back and make fun of each other. If someone screws up the time, you just continue. We take the music seriously, but not each other. Stanton has practiced for hours before he leaves the hotel in the morning for coffee. I wake up and play tabla before breakfast. It keeps you humble and reminds you how much you don’t know.”