Mike Dillon: Heavy Vibes From A Free-Jazz Punk
Training Wheels Come Off
Dillon’s search for musical knowledge started when he was a child. “I was fascinated by Jackson 5 cartoons, my mom’s collection of Beatles albums, and big band music, especially Buddy Rich. I was obsessed with drummers. I got my first drum set from the next-door neighbor when I was around ten.
“My mom had me take drum lessons from a teacher who introduced me to mallets. I needed to know how to use them to march in the high school drum line, but I was more interested in playing progressive rock. I never thought it would be a skill that would translate, but here I am, years later, playing mallets in a rock band.
“I liked Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Rush. In the school band I had to play a melody instrument. I chose the trombone, but I broke it and used that to manipulate my way into playing drums, wood blocks, snare, and triangle in the school symphony. We were good enough to tour the states and Canada. On our day off in Toronto, I went to the offices of Rush and hung out. I was hoping Neil Peart would come in. Last March, when I was playing with Les Claypool, we covered ‘Spirit Of Radio.’ After the show, Neil Peart walks up to me backstage in an Armani suit and I realized I could still go from a professional musician to a slobbering music fan in an instant.”
Dillon never wavered from his dedication to the drum kit and developed his own approach. “You have to study rolls and have good ear training, which I didn’t realize till I got to college. You have to be able to hear the changes and translate it [to music] on the spot. You have to pay attention to what you’re doing. I spend a lot of time practicing tabla and vibes every day. Playing tabla demystified the process of keeping time. In Indian music, it’s all in circles; it’s not linear. Before I studied tabla, I’d sweat when I was asked to play odd meters. I’d have to watch the drummer I was playing with to find the 1. I’m more fluid now.”
In 1984, Dillon went to the University Of North Texas to study with Robert Schietroma, dean of percussion. “He was one of the first educators to incorporate hand percussion, steel drums, gamelan, tabla, and African percussion into the curriculum. He was way ahead of his time in bringing in world music to the classical paradigm. He got me started on tabla and planted a lot of seeds that came to fruition years later. I got a well-rounded education that opened the whole world of percussion up to me.”
It was also a challenge. The class started out with 100 drummers, which got steadily whittled down as the weeks progressed. “I had people telling me I wouldn’t make the cut. I wasn’t going to be the next Gene Krupa, but nobody talks about the long road. Mingus saw friends making a lot of money when he was delivering mail, but being an economic success doesn’t mean you’re a successful musician.”
Disillusioned by his classmates’ tendency to imitate famous drummers, Dillon dropped out. “UNT is in Denton, where there’s a strong anti-establishment feel in the air. A lot of experimental music was going down in the clubs every night. I played the late-night parties where they’d lay out drugs. I’d do anything to free my mind. I thought drugs were a part of being an artist, but I got addicted to morphine. I pawned and sold a lot of instruments, including an old marimba for 40 dollars. I even pawned my vibes. But one day I realized I’d have to choose between being a drug addict or cleaning up and dedicating my life to music. I quit drugs, got my vibes out of pawn, and started playing them.”
Back To The Beat
Once he decided to give his life over to music, Dillon developed rapidly. Seeing Bad Brains started him on a quest to play classical percussion and vibes with a punk edge. He began developing his trademark attack in a series of multi-genre bands. “Ten Hands was a Peter Gabriel–meets–Frank Zappa–meets–Fishbone outfit. We made a living touring Texas and put out one live album. I reconnected with the vibes when I was in Billy Goat. We played rock, funk, and Latin and used to appear on stage naked. We made three albums including Bush Roaming Mammals with Jerry Harrison producing. In ’94 I started Malachy Papers, my ongoing crazy free-jazz band. I put together Hairy Apes BMX in ’99 to play rock, funk, Latin, punk, hip-hop, Afro-funk, and Afro-beat. The band also gave me the opportunity to rap and rant and talk s__t on the mike. We made Out Demons and Beautiful Seizure, records that were big on college radio. Around the same time, I joined Critters Buggin with Matt [Chamberlain], Skerik, and Brad Houser. I was playing vibes and percussion and our combination of jazz, rock, and world music led to a lot of the stuff I’m still doing, although Critters has a little more polish than some of the punk/jazz bands I’m in.”
As the new century dawned, Dillon was busy as a sideman with Karl Denson, Les Claypool, and Ani DiFranco, but still found time to launch projects of his own. “I put together Black Frames, a post-modern-rock instrumental band with Earl Harvin, Skerik, and Brad [Houser]. We toured and made the Solarallergy album. Then Harvin and I made a percussion duo album called People Gardens, which was a lot of fun. We used plenty of vibes, tympani, and marimba.” The next year, Dillon started Go-Go Jungle, a quintet with Mark Southerland on tenor saxophone, JJ “Jungle” Richards, and Ron Johnson on bass guitar, and “Go-Go” Ray Pollard on drums. “We use the go-go rhythms of Washington, D.C., as the foundation for our blend of R&B, rock, and beatnik jazz. It’s the first time I’ve taken on the role of bandleader. I’m booking gigs and hotel rooms and making sure everyone is taken care of.”
When Dillon and Skerik aren’t touring with Garage Á Trois , they play improvised music with bassist James Singleton as The Illuminasti Trio. Dillon and Skerik are also the backbone of The Dead Kenny Gs, a band that bends punk and free-jazz into all kinds of interesting shapes. “Jello Biafra loves our name, but we’ve been expecting a cease-and-desist letter from the real Kenny G for years,” Dillon says. “It’s never come, so maybe he doesn’t want to give us any press,” he adds, laughing.
“Skerik hates Kenny G and what he stands for: commercial and economic pandering. I never listen to his songs and don’t have an opinion on him, but Brad and Skerik just rant about him. On stage, I play drums with my right hand and vibes with my left. I like to go into a super-fast punk-rock beat and see where we can go. When we opened some dates with Primus last year, we only got 30-minute sets, so we did our tunes Minuteman style, every song in three minutes. It’s a great feeling to go balls-out for 30 minutes.”