Mike Dillon: Heavy Vibes From A Free-Jazz Punk

Mike DIllon

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.”

{pagebreak} Mike DIllon

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.”

Mike DIllon

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.”