“This is a good place to have a train wreck,” shouts Mike Dillon, as he leads his 20- plus piece Punk Rock Percussion Consortium into an unexpected encore at the Music Box Village. Dillon’s shows are an explosion of energy, a mad frenzy with drum sticks shattering into pieces and mallets smashing into vibraphones to produce a chaotic, yet beautiful sound. Surrounded by a variety of structures that double as both art pieces and musical instruments at the Music Box, Dillon rushes across the crowd to thrash his mallets against anything he can reach. At 51 years old, the percussionist and frontman shows no signs of slowing down.
Over the past decade, Dillon has lent his percussion and vibraphone skills to everyone from Primus to Rickie Lee Jones. When not on the road with his band or other collaborators, he performs in Nolatet, alongside keyboardist Brian Haas and Astral Project’s rhythm section (James Singleton and Johnny Vidacovich). He also leads the Punk Rock Percussion Consortium, a rotating group of percussionists that take the classical percussion ensemble concept to a more general audience. Recently, he dedicated his time and energy to Quintron’s Stravinsky-inspired “Wrongs of Spring” performance at the Music Box.
Over the past year, Dillon has released two diverse albums. Last summer, he released Functioning Broke, a solo percussion album. On it, he transforms Elliott Smith’s lyricism into ethereal vibraphone melodies. In April, he released Life is Not a Football, a full-band collision of funk, punk, and jazz. On the autobiographical “Robo Tripping Vikings,” a song about the struggles of touring, Dillon chants “I’m never gonna run! I’m never gonna quit! I’m on the high seas in my pirate ship!” With such a busy schedule, one wonders when Dillon finds time to sleep—to which Dillon replies that he’s set to function on five to six hours of sleep a night. I spoke with Dillon during a rare moment of free time in between two nights of performances for “Wrongs of Spring.” Over coffee, Dillon opened up about long drives in the van, discovering his love for New Orleans, and how punk rock changed his life.
Right now, you’re in the middle of performances at the Music Box Village with Quintron and you’re rehearsing with the Punk Rock Percussion Consortium there. How do you feel about the space?
I think the potential for it is unlimited. I think what a lot of people do is they write music and then they try to incorporate the space with the music that they already have written. I’m writing one piece right now [specifically for the space]. That’s one of the things I was doing late last night. I was really thinking of each house as almost a drum corps section. I’m trying to think about how to write some piece where it shifts from section to section… My concept for my show is the classic percussion orchestra pit meets the Music Box. I’m trying to write some pieces, at least one piece, (and we started it off the other day) that really utilizes the [houses]. [It] begins with the mallets in one thing and one of the houses comes in and there’s that little dialogue between mallets and a house. The next rhythmic figures [in the piece] go to a different house and the mallets. That’s what I’m trying to do because that’s the way I look at playing percussion in general, even when we’re improvising. Improvisation, Wayne Shorter said, is just composition sped up. Composition is just improvisation slowed down, if you really think about it, because when you’re composing it’s the same thing. That’s why the best improvisers are, in my book, the best composers. It goes hand in hand. We all hate noodley, jammy, just wanking off on your instrument, unless it’s an abstract piece and that’s what it calls for. I hate wanking off, but I’m guilty of it. We all wack off from time to time.
What inspired you to start the Punk Rock Percussion Consortium two years ago?
Having all these crazy instruments that I’ve been collecting… I was already doing Jazz Fest so I kept buying all these instruments, and I was in percussion ensemble in college. I did the first Mike Dillon record, which is mainly just, “All right. I’m going to do a rock record but it’s mainly all percussion.” Then that’s sort of been my concept: bringing the vibes and marimba to rock’n’roll clubs. Then, all of a sudden one day, I thought, You know what? I have enough instruments now to do a percussion ensemble. Living here in New Orleans, there’s all these great drummers and we were sitting around talking about it and we just said, “Let’s do this shit.” It was because of my residency. I had those four nights at Gasa Gasa and I approached it like, “I’m going to do something different every night. I’m not just going to do the same band every night and play four weeks in a row,” which is fine, too; but I’m going to try to do a different thing every night. One of them was Nolatet, so that was a new group that came out of that. One of them was my new version of the Mike D band playing with Nathan [Lambertson] and Cliff [Hines] and, at the time, Paul Thibodeaux. Another one was just a freak-out jazz jam with Skerik and Stanton [Moore]. The last thing we did was the percussion ensemble and we rehearsed that whole month for it. It really was, to me, a unity thing between everyone because there were ten or twelve people, [including] three or four different drum set players. We all know each other, but usually there’s one or two percussionists on every gig, so for us all to be in the same room playing together, we were all like “Yeah! This is awesome! We’re a band!” Having Simon [Lott] there freaking out… Simon wasn’t on the first one, but he got in on the second one and he said “I will be in it if I can play marimba,” because he’s a drum set player. That’s the other thing that’s cool about it. There are a lot of drum set players that started playing marimbas… I call it the New Orleans Punk Rock Percussion Consortium mainly because punk rock to me isn’t just all about playing three-riff garage shit. That’s fine, though. I love that: guys that can’t play. I’d rather hear three guys that can’t play doing bad versions of Stooges songs than listen to three guys that can play do three versions of Phish songs (just for my taste, nothing against Phish). So it’s that concept, but with percussion: “All right Simon, you were never a classically trained marimba player, but you’re a great musician, so come in.” I remember on that first gig, he did a few things on marimba and I was like, “Welp, I’ve never heard it that way but awesome, do it.” It’s that spirit.
My mom and dad were like, “You want a drum set? There’s that lawnmower.”
When I first moved to New Orleans, I was going through an Elliott phase. I first did it with that Jane’s Addiction song “Summertime Rolls” and I thought, “That sounds cool. Let’s see how it sounds with a band.” Doing it on vibraphone, not with vocals, just playing the vibes and the melodies and it was cool. So I started doing that with a few Elliott songs and people were like, “Dude! I like the way that sounds.” You’re really getting in dangerous territory when you try to sing someone like Elliott’s songs, because Elliott’s voice is what made those songs. It’s that super sensitive, damaged, I could crack at any moment tone. I’m not even talking about his emotional well-being, just this vulnerability in his voice when he sings. I’ve heard it in Billie Holiday… all the great singers. I like taking singers like that and applying it to my instrument. I just learned so much doing that. “Alameda” is on there; that was the first Elliott song thatI ever learned and then I would just go through [his songs] and go, “Oh! That one’s too hard! I can’t learn that one! All right, ‘Between the Bars!’” and I learned that one… I only had like two songs in the studio over here with Rick Nelson, right around the corner at Marigny Studios. He said “That sounds really cool! You got anything else?” After we did “Alameda” I did “Christian Brothers.” I told him, “I sort of know this [Neil Young] ‘Needle and the Damage Done’ song” and I just did that one part over and over and over again. With Rick [and] most guys, when it gets good, they get a little excited. If they think it sucks, they usually get quiet and don’t say anything. But he was like, “This is fucking cool! Let’s do it!” Originally, I was just sort of doing that record for me. I was touring with Primus and I had a little extra coin on me, so I was like, “You know, what? I’m gonna go into the studio.” I was in between bands and I just felt like doing something creative. Then I gave it to my record label and they said, “We’re putting this out!” Sometimes the best stuff comes when you aren’t really planning on it, because you’ve got the band and think, “We’ve been touring for six months. Let’s go make a record!” And you get there and there are all these expectations. That doesn’t happen for me so much anymore because I’m 51. At this point, it’s like, let’s go have some fun and see what we sound like today.
You’re 51 and I feel like you hit it two or three times as hard as guys who are half your age.
I do hit it hard, but I think a lot of it has to do with me being neurotic… I gotta stay busy or I go crazy.
How do you survive Jazz Fest? I feel like you’re second only to Stanton Moore in the number of gigs you play.
Yeah, and I just added two more this week. This year, he’s pulled it back a little bit and I’ve pulled it back a little bit. It used to be that no matter what, there were always two or three fucking gigs a day. It’s like a sprint, but I’m on the road so much… like 260 days a year. You know what I did yesterday? Before Quintron called me about being a part of this thing and playing marimba for him (which, when he called me I was like, “Yes!” because he’s Quintron. Of course, I’m a huge fan), I knew I had a gig in Asheville on Friday. It was a Ween aftershow. Tickets were already on sale and it was selling well. It ended up selling out before we even played. I knew we couldn’t get out of it. It was pretty far so we drove all the way to Asheville for that one gig. Originally, I was going to go up there, play that gig and take my time coming back, have a nice little weekend, bring the girlfriend, chill. So instead, it became, “Drive there! Play the gig!” [After the gig] we drove through Atlanta… I was in the backseat; I passed out for two hours, woke up at the hotel in Atlanta by the airport… Nathan [Lambertson] and I caught a 9:55 AM flight. I got back yesterday, slept for three hours, and went to the gig last night. That was a lot of driving for one gig. The gig was awesome and it’s always the music that gets me through. I remember, one time, I drove straight to Buffalo from here and, at about Columbus (Ohio), I only had time to sleep maybe three hours at a truck stop. This was 2014, August or September. I literally started going, “Have you lost your fucking mind? What are you doing?” I was freaking out! “You’re crazy, man!” You’re just driving for so long and I’ve been doing this for 30 years. “What the fuck am I doing, driving a van 1,800 miles across the country again?” [screams] I started screaming! I pulled into the festival and everyone was like, “Mike, you made it! We love you!” And then the gig was great! It goes that way so much. The traveling can be gruesome, but then the music is your reward, as cliché as it sounds. That’s the other thing I’ve learned in 51 years. All that shit your grandma says that you think is bullshit and cliché when you’re a kid, you hit that age and you’re like, “Yup. Grandma was right.” That is the reason they call it grandma’s sayings or old wives’ tales. The women always know what’s up. I guess that’s wisdom.
You’ve spent the last decade in New Orleans. How has that shaped you and your music?
I was going to move to New York before I moved here. I was literally moving there. I was divorced and I was dating a woman from New York. I was like, “Yeah. I need a place to live” and was sort of couch surfing. But I was coming here a lot and playing with Stanton and playing with Johnny [Vidacovich], doing Tuesday nights at DBA and Thursday nights at the Maple Leaf. That was in March after the storm. I was coming around here and Ani Difranco asked me to go on tour with her. I went over to her house and she was living above Checkpoint Charlie’s. I went up there, took some tabla, and we jammed. She was like, “All right, cool. You got the gig!” So that’s March, and then by summertime I thought, “You know what? I’m going to move to New York.” Literally, I was talking with Stanton when Ani called me or texted me and said, “Hey, we’re buying a place uptown. Do you want to take over our apartment above Checkpoint’s?” That was July and it was $400 or $500 a month versus $2,000 a month rent. So I thought, “New Orleans is cool! I’ve got tons of friends! Fuck yeah! I’m moving to New Orleans!” …I lived there for about eight years before I got a place over in the Musician’s Village. New Orleans, man. Being a drummer, there’s so many great drummers here and, having all the percussion I have, there’s no way you could live in New York unless you’re a millionaire, and I’m not a millionaire. You’ve got to have a lot of money to have a lot of shit stored in New York. It all worked out great, plus the community here embraced me from the get-go. Playing with James Singleton and Johnny V—two of my heroes—I’ve learned so much from them. That’s come off in my playing. I started off as a funk-punk kind of guy. I saw Bad Brains in the ‘80s, Chili Peppers, Fishbone, all those bands… I would go check out all these shows, but literally seeing Bad Brains in ’86—I talk about it a lot, but it was a life-changing moment because I had never been to a hardcore show. I didn’t know what I was in for. I was 20, stumbled into my first hardcore show and I was actually sitting in on percussion with one of the local openers. We sucked, of course… Greg Ginn’s band Gone played and I was just on the side-stage, smoking a joint with this big rasta dude. I didn’t even know he was in the band. I had no idea what was happening! All of a sudden, that dude walked on, the drums kicked on, and [Bad Brains frontman] H.R., who (I found out his name later) did a fucking flip into the crowd, and the place fucking erupted! That was ’86, so that was over 30 years ago and that’s what I remember—just the energy and the place exploding! I was a drum dork, so I was really watching the drummer. From that point on, it was always about the energy of the hardcore scene for me being a musician and a drummer, whether it was jazz, instrumental, whatever. Or pop music… It was all from the angle of getting a music education degree. I was going to be a band director. So I loved being the nerdy guy in the corner at these shows, where I was like “Woah! What the fuck is going on? This is fucking crazy!” That’s how music changes people’s ideas about things.
So how did it feel to come full circle and actually play with H.R. during Jazz Fest a couple years ago?
Dude! Even though he’s much older now, I saw him when he was in his prime, and he’s been through hell and high water. It feels amazing. Just being on the road, I got to play with [Fishbone bassist] Norwood Fisher in my band. Same thing, man. Norwood’s one of my heroes. It was the same thing. But H.R. is such an innovator… Where would we be without Bad Brains? The only other experience I’ve had like that was when I was just at a festival in Australia with Rickie Lee Jones. When I started playing with Rickie Lee Jones, my ex-wife played her records all the time, so I love playing music with these people but I’m also fans of them. You approach them like, “Wow! I remember we listened to your records all the time! It’s really cool to play with you!” Then you become friends and everything is just normal. I got my first drum set when I was ten. I would look at drum magazines. My mom and dad were like, “You want a drum set? There’s that lawnmower.” I started mowing yards to save up and get it. I learned that first drum beat and just that excitement of being able to [makes drum sounds]. That’s what punk rock is to me. It’s the excitement of first playing your instrument and booking your first gig and just having a shitty P.A.
Anything else you want to say?
We’ve got a bunch of new shit coming out. We’ve got a new Nolatet album coming out that we recorded back in January…I’m really proud of that group. I think it’s probably Johnny [Vidacovich]’s most creative thing since when Astral Project was really making new records and touring back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Those guys play a couple times a year now and they don’t really tour. This is a new project. That’s why I was a little miffed when Jazz Fest didn’t give Nolatet a gig. Not for me, but for fucking Johnny V, man. He’s been giving so much to this city for 70 years.
He also keeps very busy during Jazz Fest.
He keeps busy non-stop. We’re going to have a beautiful gig at the Marigny Opera House. And he does tons of playing with everyone. He’s a drummer’s drummer, but Nolatet features Johnny V. This new record is like Johnny V’s Nefertiti. Nefertiti is a great record by Miles Davis with Tony Williams playing on it that is legendary in the jazz world. To me, that’s what Nolatet’s been about in many ways: Brian Haas, myself, and James [Singleton] getting Johnny to play a certain way he used to play. When you play with Johnny and James as a rhythm section, when you’re improvising, you’re not wacking off at all. They will make you play the most beautiful things and it proves that music doesn’t just come from you. It comes from the giant collective in the musical sky. When you get to play with true masters like that, you always play better. I’m really proud of that group.
There really isn’t a better rhythm section.
It’s incredible what those guys do, but it’s a different thing. A lot of jazz music and instrumental music has always been based on the muscle of the improvisers, whether it’s the conga player who can play the fastest, craziest conga thing and the most intense shit. That’s fucking beautiful. At this point in my life, I can’t play that. There are kids that can way outplay me with their chops and that’s fine. When Johnny’s playing, no one can play like Johnny. There’s not a lot of cats like him left anymore and I want New Orleans to fucking celebrate him while we’ve got him. I’m not trying to be morbid, talking about death and shit, but last year we got freaked out when Bowie died and all these cats died. That’s the thing about life; celebrate and go out and see live music. We know that here in New Orleans. New Orleans is about that. Celebrate Johnny Vidacovich while we’ve got him. I’m happy he’s getting to make records that will stick around.
The Mike Dillon Band plays Tipitina’s on Friday, June 9th with Corey Henry & the Treme Funktet as part of Tipitina’s Foundation Free Fridays concert series; and June 24th at DBA. For more info, check out mikedillonvibes.com
photos Katie Sikora