Written By: Chad Berndtson
:: The Art Of The Sit-In - Mike Dillon ::
Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the
scene’s most adventurous
players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews
Chimenti and others.
Mike Dillon gets around.
As a highly-in-demand percussionist and vibraphonist, he’s played with everyone from
Critters Buggin and Les Claypool
to Garage a Trois, Hairy Apes BMX, the Dead Kenny Gs, Galactic, Ani DiFranco and countless
others who have embraced
his crazy-like-a-fox approach to playing and reveled in both its order and chaos.
But it’s the current Mike Dillon Band – Dillon, trombonist Carly Meyers, bassist Patrick
McDevitt, drummer Adam Gertner
– that might be the purest expression yet of what makes Mike Dillon Mike Dillon, and the
same goes for the band’s new
album, Band of Outsiders.
“Maybe we should call it New Orleans punk jazz Brazilian math rock?” asks Dillon in the
press notes, tongue only
partially in cheek. The point is made: the sooner you try to pigeonhole a sound like this
one – vibraphone and trombone
front-and-center – the sooner you’re dancing about architecture. Yield to this strange,
but potent stuff and be
JamBase caught up with Dillon as the band was kicking off a set of dates with Jacob Fred
Jazz Odyssey and a full tour
behind Band of Outsiders.
JAMBASE: So Mike there are plenty of musicians on this scene who sit in frequently,
but you play with a lot of
What do you look for in a collaborative situation?
MIKE DILLON: Obviously there’s a sort of chemistry that develops, and that
sometimes comes from hanging
festivals, getting to know the other musicians. That’s how it started for me with
Galactic, or Claypool too. Galactic, here
we are years later, and whenever I’m available and they’re there I’ll do a whole set with
To do these, I think you always have to be very conscious of what a band like Galactic
does without you. If I’m in there,
it can’t be all about me, I have to be icing on the cake – a little something that makes
it taste even better. That’s the way
I was taught.
The best sit-in guests, you watch amazing players, they’re not up there soloing the whole
time. I’m lucky in that I’m a
percussionist so it’s easy to add. I mean, Jam Cruise, I just played with everyone,
whether it’s Anders or the New
Mastersounds or whoever. And with Les I’ve played with a bunch of his bands.
Musicians like us, we get to be kids our whole lives. I want to preserve the excitement of
what it was like to play my
drums at night when I was young. Shit, I started touring in ’84 – I’ve been gigging for
like 30 years – so I’m always trying
to keep some of the excitement from those early jam sessions.
JAMBASE: You’ve played straight-ahead stuff, very out stuff and covered all points
in between. Clearly you
but have you ever been in a sit-in or jam situation where it was just really tough to get
MD: The first time I played with Critters Buggin, I knew Matt Chamberlain but I
didn’t know Skerik. I remember
and hearing it and thinking wow, this is a really different kind of stuff – forms and
arrangements and these guys
speaking their own language. It’s a bit more challenging to come up with stuff in that
situation. But you don’t force it.
There are times when you know it’s not working, and you don’t force it. Like Miles Davis
did, just take the horn out of
your mouth for a second, you know? Get out of the way and see what’s there.
I actually think one of the hardest situations I had was with Ani DiFranco. Some people
saw me at that gig and they
thought I was bored or something because I played so minimally with Ani. But that’s what
she wanted. Learning to play
her music was tough, because we started rehearsing and I had all these preconceived ideas
of what I could put in there,
and at the beginning it was almost a trainwreck because of that.
We tried a few things and we went to dinner one night and she was like, man, Mike, I don’t
know. I laugh thinking about
it now. But she and I went back into rehearsal and I had a vibraphone, a very simple setup
and I approached it very
simplified. That saved the gig, and I ended up playing with her for three years.
That’s the gig that really taught me how to be sympathetic to the artist you’re working
with. Some people want tons of
stuff. But Ani told me, that first tour, if you end up only playing one note that whole
song and it’s a beautiful note, it’s
good. Think about what a classical percussionist does, whether it’s a Stravinsky piece or
whatever. Your big part is
counting your rests and coming in for your triangle hit at exactly the right moment. You
don’t play all the time, you play
at the right time.
JAMBASE: And it’s crucial you nail it.
MD: Yes. Many musicians, when they’re sitting in, they just play all the time. Some
don’t play enough. I don’t
a gripe with the approach on an individual basis – people should do what they want to and
play to their liking. But I tell
my people space is the place. Leave space for the music to develop and grow. Lay back and
don’t play anything if you’re
JAMBASE: Do you think you’re pigeonholed as an “out” player?
MD: It does come up. But I’ve played with people like Ani, and I play with a lot of
jazz groups – straight ahead
That’s why I went to college: to become a well-rounded player. Going into that education
setting as a percussion player
is always a weird thing, but you’re going to learn to play rock and jazz and tympani and
mallets and classical – you play
it all and you don’t limit yourself, and I take pride knowing I can step into a lot of
different situations, from a singer-
songwriter gig to a New Orleans jazz or something closer to Sun Ra.
I love Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble [of Chicago], free jazz, all of it. But a lot of people
think that’s just blowing and
going crazy the whole time. The best guys at that, they’re well rounded. Albert Ayler was
a Charlie Parker freak. Ornette
Coleman, I mean he could play Blues for Alice in all 12 keys. So why do people assume that
if you love out or
improvisational music, for some reason you don’t like blues or more composed stuff?
In truth, jazz from the golden era is what I love the most. And when I started playing
vibes, my goal was to have a
straight-ahead gig and not just go crazy and fake my way through it. There’s a lot of free
jazz-leaning stuff in the
jamband scene but the best of it is with musicians who understand how to approach that. If
you’re playing with Les, for
example, you’ve got to listen, listen, listen and hear what he’s doing. What’s not always
evident in free jazz is that it’s
good based not on the noise but on where everyone is going together. Your ear has to be
going, and you have to be
able to listen to the other musicians and pick out things.
I started playing vibes heavily in 1996 and it took me a while to develop my ear for that.
It’s never-ending, though –
your goal is to grow. So yeah you’re going to get pigeonholed and someone might see you
and they’ll say, wow, this guy
plays a lot of notes. But if you’re doing your job and they stick with you, they’ll start
to hear not only the notes but also
the spaces you’re leaving and how you’re interacting with the others.
[Photo By: Tom Dellinger]
JAMBASE: How does this approach inform your style as a bandleader? How much coaxing
of your players do
versus letting them experiment?
MD: All of these kids have great foundations and two were my students. It’s
interesting, I didn’t want to be
one of those
hard-ass or super negative teachers. But at the same time, when I was coming up I loved
having the kinds of teachers
that made you cry – really made you work for it.
But I think it’s the example you show them. Les and Ani are two musicians that have really
good careers because they’re
not just good musicians, they aren’t afraid to do what they do. Ani writes, constantly.
When you’re on tour with her, at
least in my experience, she’ll be bringing in new songs and you’ve never heard them before
and suddenly you’re doing
them that same night in front of 2,000 people – stuff you’d learned 20 minutes earlier.
So maybe that’s it: don’t be afraid to suck. At the beginning of any band, it’s a little
rough. Whenever we’d start a Les
tour with a new lineup, we had to talk about things and work through it – even great
musicians aren’t just going to get
rolling together. So I teach Carly and these guys to write a lot of music, leave space for
one another, and embrace that
they’re a little raw and they’re just going to get better and better.
And they have gotten better and better. It was all there, but now, I don’t have to carry
the load every night. Now, we can
play all over the place, whether it’s opening for Clutch or playing dates with Fishbone.
These musicians have my back.
Now I’m the one who’ll make a mistake and catch a look from one of them!
JAMBASE: But at the same time, you’re not just letting them run wild – you saw
something in each of these
fits into the approach you want. So what’s the common thread between the players in your
MD: We’re all people who grew up on jazz and wanted to be jazz kids. Patrick, Carly
and Adam were all
groomed to be
jazz musicians and somewhere along the way they had other conversions. Me, I stumbled into
a Bad Brains show in
1986, and I had never seen a punk rock show. Jazz – and music school – can be very
intellectual and you might spend a
lot of time wondering if you’re doing everything right. But then you see a guy like [Bad
Brains leader] H.R. do a flip and
start slam-dancing in the crowd and you’re like, yeah. So we’re all jazz kids who had
something like that – jazz kids
who discovered rock and punk and all kinds of stuff.
On the road Carly plays Minor Threat, Cro-Mags, Sonic Youth – golden age stuff from 25
years ago. I think that she, like
many of the people I love to play with, love jazz and want to play jazz and also realize
that’s it 2014, not 1955, and rock
‘n’ roll and funk and all of these elements are part of the vocabulary. Whether you’re
into Bad Brains or Bill Frisell or
whoever, you’re weaving it in – you’re part of the American music vocabulary.
JAMBASE: But you do think it’s fair to describe your band’s instrumentation and
approach as unusual.
MD: Well yeah, there’s that. I’m a vibraphonist – that’s the principal instrument
where most bands have a
keyboard as the principal instrument. But you’re writing songs with that principal
instrument in mind. Les Claypool is a
songwriter, but he writes with bass in mind – bass is the instrument that drives what he
does. So I wanted to become a
better songwriter on vibraphone, and have a lot more principal focus on vibes and marimba.
JAMBASE: How would you describe the music on Band of Outsiders based on that?
MD: All the musicians I love, whether it’s punk, or jazz, or rock ‘n’ roll, whether
it’s the Melvins or Deerhoof
speak their own language. That’s what they do. Me and my little band of outsiders, we
speak the language that we hear,
and that language has a big focus on vibraphone and trombone.
People see that and they go yeah, wow, you guys are different and weird. Well, sure we’re
weird. But when we hit you,
you’re weird too. And we can hit you. I used to worry a lot about whether I had the chops
to carry a band like this
without at least a guitar for a full gig. But we’ve learned how to hit you and you’re
JAMBASE: So what else are you working on right now?
MD: I have a couple of things in the works. I’ll be doing some jazz festivals this
summer with James Singleton.
have a new project with James, Eddie Roberts and Stanton [Moore] that we’re really excited
about. But most of my focus
is with this band. I’ll take a break in the fall and do some jazz gigs and other stuff.
JAMBASE: Do you think you’ll play with Les again soon?
MD: I know Les and I like playing music together, and Skerik and I augmented Primus
on New Year’s Eve and
really fun. You never know with Les. I might get a call tomorrow saying let’s go do this,
and he’s one of the few guys I’d
go and play with based on that alone. With him it’s an open book. I definitely know there
will be stuff in the future.
JAMBASE: What about your other past adventures, particularly Critters Buggin and
Garage a Trois?
MD: Critters…well, it’s weird, you work for a while and then suddenly it’s like you
can’t get into a room
anymore. Critters Buggin made some of my favorite instrumental records of all time.
There’s no animosity among the
members of the band, people just change. That’s the reason why most bands break up – it’s
not anger or frustration,
it’s just you find different things fulfilling.
That said, I’ll work through anything I need to to play in these situations again. We are
going to do Garage a Trois as a
trio for Jazz Fest. I don’t know if we’ll tour, but this is one of those situations where
we still want to play this music.
Marco [Benevento] and Stanton and I still want to do this. Skerik doesn’t. Bands go
through changes, and none of us
want to disrespect Skerik by going forward with it, but I also think we still have good
music to make in this format.
Maybe there will be some awkwardness with that. But you know, there was awkwardness in
Garage a Trois already. Some
people love it with Marco, and some people still wish Charlie [Hunter] was part of it.
I read something about Faulkner and As I Lay Dying and I think he was saying that
wasn’t him that wrote that
book, someone else would have written it. Good ideas come forth. Music wants to be played.
You go on, you change,
you write a different book or a different variation. Some people like it. Some people
It’s not like we’re doing this for the money. Hopefully you hang on to the friendships
you’ve made, and I have. Skerik
has been in my life since I was still strung out on heroin. He was so intense and such a
badass and a huge influence for
me getting my shit together. I could have died 20 years ago. He wasn’t judgmental, his
influence was that he’s a hugely
dedicated and together musician even though people have this image of him as a crazy guy.
You find that in the best of
Here are four Mike Dillon appearances from the past year well worth your listening space.
Mike Dillon Band at Gratwick Park, North Tonawanda, NY, 6/9/2013
A reviewer on Archive.org describes this one as “like FZ, ska, and punk met in a basement
for some heavy petting.”
That’s a good way to start to describe it; intense is another. Jay Lane sneaks in midway
through for “So Long Pal.”
moe. with Mike Dillon, “Buster,” moe.down, 8/11/2013
The first set-closer of this day’s moe. headliner features a vibes/percussion duel for the
ages between Dillon and Jim
Loughlin. (Check out the whole set, in fact; Carly Meyers joins several tunes earlier for
Mike Dillon Band at Bear Creek Music Festival, 11/16/2013
The giddy joy of this one is hearing other players join the action, with mixed musical
results but not for lack of trying.
Half straight Dillon Band freakout, half guest pile-on, with Weedie Braimah, Lucas Ellman,
Nikki Glaspie, Stanton Moore
and Roosevelt Collier all joining the fray.
Mike Dillon Band at The Blind Tiger, Maplewood, MO, 1/26/2014
A show not lacking for “inspired crazy” and a nice example of what the current Dillon band
can do. Stick with it all the
way through the Stooges cover at the end.