bill bodkin interviews Mike Dillon of punk-jazz artists The Dead Kenny G’s …
It shouldn’t make any sense at all. On The Dead Kenny G’s latest album Operation Long Leash, released March 15, the combination of punk and jazz in an instrumental format should not work … ever. However, after listening the album, it just made sense. The aggressive nature of the band’s punk influences combined with improvisational spirit of jazz comes together in a perfect blend of harmony and dissonance. It’s the type of record you go into with an open mind — a mind that you also have to be prepared to have blown away by this trio of veteran musicians.
Pop-Break: I love the name. That’s one of the reasons I actually picked the interview from Kevin’s roster. I think the name The Dead Kenny G’s is a cool play on how you guys do jazz and punk — a cross between Kenny G and The Dead Kennedys. Am I correct in assuming that?
Mike Dillon: Yup, you nailed it. A friend of Skerik came up with the band name, and pretty much the second we heard the name, we’re like, ‘That’s got to be the name of the punk jazz band we’re going to consummate.’ We had done different duo gigs prior to being called The Dead Kenny G’s. Even did one little tour. Soon as we heard that name, we knew that it was meant to be. The name is too good to not love. The process began, and here we are five years later or whatever it is, making records, living in the van, sleeping in hotels and promoting the vision of The Dead Kenny G’s.
PB: What name did you guys perform previously under before?
MD: Well, I mean, we did one tour under the name Hot Bag. And that was sort of a duo tour that was a tribute [to the bands] Lightning Bolt and The Art Ensemble all rolled into one. You know, we were in Critters Buggin’ together and The Black Frames, as well as side men for [Primus'] Les Claypool [in Colonel Les Claypool's Fearless Flying Frog Brigade] and we got our band Garage A Trois that’s been going for like 11, 12 years now, as well.
PB: Fusing punk and jazz isn’t something you see every day. Where did the inspiration come to you that you were like, “Hey, we want to fuse these two genres together and make a band out of it”?
MD: Well, in a lot of ways, it was just a totally natural extension of our playing styles and who we were influenced by, you know, ’80s punk rock bands like: The Minutemen, The Dead Kennedys obviously, Black Flag, Bad Brains — you know, bands that had a social message with their aggressive style of music-playing. To me, that stuff with post-Coltrane and Albert Ayler, some of the more, at the time, avant garde, stuff of the ’60s, the freak jazz, if you will. Coltrane at the end of his life, the music was so ferocious. It just sounded like very punk rock to me, and when I started playing and really getting into instrumental music again in the mid-’90s, all that stuff was all very important. In some of the bands I was playing, right in the middle of some crazy sonic exploration that was going into deep outer space, it was just natural for me to go into a punk-rock beat. And Skerik and this other sax player I worked with always just loved going there. Some of the guys would look me and shake their head and they were too conservative, you know, and say, ‘No, we’re not going to go there.’ But Skerik was always a willing participant.
PB: Your new record, Operation Long Leash, is being released March 15. The story behind the name is pretty crazy. Can you talk about the origin of the name, and how did that name inspire the music created?
MD: For years, there’s been this rumor that the CIA was supporting abstract art and free expression within Europe and different art circles to make the U.S. appear to be this open society as opposed to Communist Russia. So, just on a basic level, we were like, ‘Whoa, this is a trip this really did happen.’ Hundreds of thousands of dollars were going to artists like Jackson Pollock. Pretty unbelievable that the U.S. government thought it was that important that they had to give taxpayer money to these crazy art forms that at the time a lot of people had this disdain for. It was just everyone in the band had a different reaction to the story, and when we were looking for an album title, the concept [of Operation Long Leash] seemed to work.
The theme was based around different stories we heard about that money they [the U.S. government] were spending. We’re all sort of into that crap, all that X-Files hangover. I mean, this idea supported by the CIA, [we're like] “No, that didn’t happen!” Now, we just sort a joke about it — yeah, it’s our humor — like, “We’re agents of the CIA, we’re promoting crazy jazz punk and instead of making a hundred thousand dollars, we’re making maybe $100 a night, if we’re lucky, and we’re stoked to do it. And we keep buying $4 gallons of gas, staying hotels and eating and somehow pay the bills.”
PB: One of the cool things I dug about the record was the wide range of musical styles and instruments that were on it. Like on the track “Melvin Jones” — it had the Klezmer and it also had this Balkan folk thing going on. And then on “Black 5,” the opening growl had this feeling of Motorhead’s “Orgazmitron.” I didn’t know if that was intentional, but where did this wide range, this musical palette come from? I mean, it just blew my mind. “Black Truman” is just this crazy jazz thing that you bop your head to and then “Black 5″ had me going back to my days of jean jackets with a Motorhead patch sewn to it. If you can go into something about that, it’d be awesome.
MD: I’m glad you hear that influence and the palette we have. I’m just so glad it works and it doesn’t sound like two different things, like a Motorhead song that goes to a Klezmer song. On that song ["Black 5"], that riff was inspired by old Jesus Lizard from back in the day that sort dun nun nun nun dun nun. Then I had this weird little be-bop little angular line, and it just seemed like this natural thing to play those two riffs live, and it turned into this free-jazz line.
On that song “Melvin Jones,” it was a very sort of very organic thing that came around live, you know. We rehearsed it one time, learned the line together at practice and then ended up playing it live a hundred times before we recorded that song. It just came together.
PB: Is that a way you write your songs? Is it inspired by live performance, or do you guys actually sit down and have a writing process?
MD: Yeah, a lot of our songs are like…someone will come up with a riff or couple parts and another person will bring something to it and then it comes together supernaturally. And then on a song like “Black 5,” I spent more time on by myself writing it. I was listening to a lost of Queens Of The Stone Age at the time — one of my favorite bands — and then we bring in the double baritone sax and we juxtapose that to this heavy thing.
PB: I read that album was recorded at studio of Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam. Was there any involvement from Stone on this record?
MD: He’s been a spiritual supporter for a long time and he’s good friend of Skerik’s. When we were with Critters Buggin we were on his label Loose Screws, and [over the years] he has been a big supporter of the band.
PB: Like we’ve said already, your band fuses two distinct musical genres. Is tough trying to find niche in music — not from a commercial or promotional standpoint, but in terms of finding audience?
MD: Pretty much our concept has been touring non-step for 20 years in the various bands we’ve been in. The niche … maybe the best way to answer this is, there were two things Stone Gossard told Skerik, “There’s two things in life you don’t have control over: your family and your audience.” You can’t choose your audience, really. I’m finding with some of the bands we’ve toured we can diversify our crowd a little bit. We opened for Primus this summer and I find when we get in front of those crowds they start out like, “What are these jazz dickheads doing?” And then they respond to it. Primus is more of a metal crowd, and their crowds love it. A lot of those guys come to our shows. It’s really cool that that’s been happening. We have a pretty broad audience from kids into heavy music to jazz heads. Like, in Denver, there’s a lot of 20-year-olds that are supporting it. We put it out there, and they can relate on an emotional and spiritual level.
Yeah, opening for Primus was big. Les has been a big supporter of the band. And on this tour, we’ve seen a lot of kids following us up and down the coast coming out to every show. They’re putting gas in their cars to see the fucked-up music we create. To me, that means a lot…taking time out of their life to see us play punk jazz.
PB: Final question. For those who’ve never seen a Dead Kenny G’s show before, what can they expect?
MD: Hey Skerik, what can someone expect? Okay let me think … Skerik says, three people playing music…sounds like an answer from someone who just woke up.
There’s going to be music going from A to B to C to G, yet there’s a cohesion. It’ll be three guys sweating their asses off, beating on and fucking up their instruments, then being soft and gentle with them. It’ll be a crazy roller coaster that all makes sense. We don’t do the same set every night. A lot improvisation is involved, taking chances and sometimes getting great financial reward. Sometimes it’ll be like the stock market and shit might crash. But we’ll pick it up and we have fun playing.
One more thing we wanted to talk about our record. Randall Dunn produced and engineered it. He does a lot with the Southern Lord imprint (Corrosion of Conformity and many other metal bands appear on this imprint) and he works with a lot with a lot of super-heavy shit. He was really good for this record. He was into making big, loud-sounding records, but he understands free jazz craziness.
Also, with us there’s a lot of humor. For instance, the song “Melvin Jones.” Melvin is for The Melvins and Jones is for Elvin Jones, the great jazz drummer. There’s always that little thread people should expect — mixing heavy and light, punk and jazz, ying and yang. When there’s a lot of humor, that’s when we’re at our best.