Critters Buggin. Malachy Papers. Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. Garage A Trois. The Hairy ApesBMX. Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade. The one element in common with all these bands is a man named Mike Dillon. His skill on percussion instruments of many stripes has caught the attention of groups far and wide keeping Mike busy on stages and in studios for many years. His latest project is the marimba and vibe driven instrumental propulsion of the Black Frames, where he performs with his Critters Buggin bandmates Brad Houser and Skerik along with Earl Harvin, a simply fab drummer from the great state of Texas. Their sound is thick and gnarly and all kinds of good as long as you like your water deep rather than shallow.

To watch Mike D. play is quite a thing. His entire body gets involved with the instruments and he rarely stops moving. His arms a blur and his head shaking nearly loose from his frame, Mike seems possessed with a desire to always find something new, something deliciously rhythmic in any piece. And low and behold he usually finds it.

As the Black Frames prepare for a West Coast tour that will run from Friday, December 13th in Seattle and continue through the tour closer at the great Belly Up Tavern in Solano Beach on December 18th. We begin the interview just as Mike is walking into a Petco store in Seattle. He’s a big dog lover and has four canines at his home in the country. [See all West Coast tour dates]

Dennis Cook: What’s it like being away from the dogs so much?

Mike Dillon: It’s hard. I talk to my wife on the phone all the time but you can’t really talk to your dogs.

Dennis Cook: It doesn’t really translate.

Mike Dillon: I can hear them breathing heavily and barking in the background. For me it’s the toughest part of being on the road. So when I’m away I go into places like Petco and look at things like the slingshot action fetch ball. Overpriced but could be fun.

Dennis Cook: Do you feel compelled to bring your dogs souvenirs?

Mike Dillon: Actually I do sometimes. Bring 'em a big ass King Kong or something. My dogs are really into tennis balls. They play king of the tennis ball all day long.

The Black Frames has a pretty similar line-up to Critters Buggin except with Earl [Harvin] sitting in. What’s the main difference between these two bands?

The Black Frames | 05.02.02 NOLA
photo by Hallie Hughes
First of all, a demarcation needs to be made that these ARE two separate bands. It’s not just Critters Buggin with Earl sitting in on drums. It became apparent during the first rehearsal when the writing thing was really flowing that, whoa, we've got something here. I’ve been playing with Earl for like 16 years, maybe more like 18, so there's this great chemistry. We had this concept that was different than Critters. When I stepped into Critters it was a full flowing triangular beast going already.

One of the things I noticed is you have such a strong presence as a composer with the Black Frames. That’s one of the biggest changes for you specifically. How do you approach the two roles of musician versus composer or are they even really two separate roles?

freakers at a Critters Buggin show
It definitely is two roles and I cherish both. Brad [Houser] and I were having breakfast today and discussing how the three components of Critters - Matt [Chamberlain] and Skerik and Brad - are so strong. With that band, as a percussionist, I try to compliment what they're doing without stepping on their thing. I find my own geometric voice within their triangle without stepping all over it. With that band I feel like I’m composing on the spot.

Critters Buggin
It’s two different things. I really love being a percussionist. With Critters I get to be involved in a few writing things. With the Black Frames we all wanted to write songs and bring them in. I feel like the compositional aspects of it are challenging but it’s still fun to sit down and play. The instrumentation alone is so different. I could try and write something where Skerik will be playing marimba and Brad will play tympani and Earl will play a part, to have those parameters to work in. It was full from the get go, I felt like the antenna was up.

I get the sense that it was kind of combustion from the beginning. As each piece unfolds it grows bigger as it goes.

For me, too, it signifies where I'm at in my life. I started playing vibes really heavily back in ’94, though I’ve been a mallet player since I was 10 years old. For me, being a drummer I'd always been intimidated by writing music. I'd have little ideas here and there and I'd be all excited if they used one of them. Now that I've been practicing the vibraphone, which is basically piano you bang on with mallets, my harmonic knowledge has grown and continues to grow everyday. That makes me comfortable with writing in all my projects like the Hairy Apes, Malachy Papers and when Critters Buggin does a new record, I feel more confident in myself to bring ideas to the table.

How’d you get so interested in the marimba? It’s a big part of the Frames’ sound. It’s unique. Not that many people are digging into it and certainly not that many marimbas at the same time.

When I was in college I played in a percussion ensemble for about a year. The Dean of the music school had this thing called the Doc’s Ensemble, which was basically the graduate and doctoral students, and they played Zappa pieces and crazy prog rock pieces in addition to the traditional classical repertoire. The power of it hit you just sitting in the concert hall and seeing 5 marimbas on stage, 3 vibraphones, a glockenspiel, a couple of xylophones, steel drums, the whole stage just full of percussion instruments.

I remember commenting to Earl that it'd be cool to start a percussion ensemble that played rock clubs and toured around. I was finally able to get a marimba last year and get some of these instruments and let that dictate where we go musically. It's been a dream of mind to have a marimba and a vibraphone. I'm grateful that the universe has granted me the license to lease nice instruments.

We digress into a discussion of instrumental music as a viable force in live music.

Mike Dillon: Just seeing what Medeski Martin & Wood did when they came on the scene. It was always like you had to have a singer if you were going to be in a band that makes money. Then we started to see other bands touring the rock markets who were making money. That was the most exciting thing to me. I saw Tortoise in Paris a couple of years ago when I was over there with the Malachy Papers and I’ve always liked what that band’s done.

Dennis Cook: They’ve managed to find a way to translate instrumental music to a new generation of people who are not likely to pick up a jazz record. They’ve found a way to connect with young people.

That’s what cool about Tortoise with all the indy rock people going to their shows. And the jam band kids who see MMW are going to go out and buy a Sun Ra record now. Know what I mean? They’re checking out all the old shit that inspired these guys.

There’s a real power to influence people. That they do jazz standards in a band like Medeski Martin & Wood is a pointer to people to expand their musical world.

I remember when I first got on board with Critters Buggin I was just blown away that there were 400 or 500 people at shows watching three guys make instrumental music. I thought, "This is awesome."

In not so subtle ways it gives you hope that people do want something different than what gets shoved down their throats all the time.

Yeah, yeah. I do think the jam band crowd is intelligent. I talk to kids after shows and they’re into seriously diverse music. They bring up Art Ensemble of Chicago records. Some 20 year-old kid asks me if I’ve heard this particular Art Ensemble album and I think it's cool that they're going back to the real stuff. Have you ever heard of M'Boom?


I think Max Roach was the name behind the band but it’s a percussion ensemble doing songs, [Thelonious] Monk songs with vibes and timpani doing bass lines.

I never cease to be amazed at the incredible recordings I just haven’t discovered yet. There’s always something just around the corner waiting to blow my mind.


I wonder if I can ask you a few questions about the Frog Brigade.

Oh yeah! [His voice jumps with excitement.]

I was so happy the first time I saw you with them. It just seemed like such a perfect fit. How did you end up becoming a member of the Brigade? For a long time the members were rotating heavily and it seems to have solidified finally (with the exception of the drummer position).

Skerik in the Brigade
photo by Jaci Downs
The Malachy Papers opened for the Frog Brigade one summer. Les had also sat in with Critters and I remember that night at soundcheck feeling a connection. Having always been a fan, I felt like he always had his own voice in the music world so I always had a deep respect for him. We kept running into each other and finally we recorded [Purple Onion] back in January. I'd done a few sit-ins with the Frog Brigade. Last New Year's Eve, I ran over to The Fillmore after doing the Karl [Denson] set at the Warfield. It was in my mind that I wanted to be a part of it and it surprised me just how well the marimba and the vibes go with the Colonel’s musical vision. It surprised him but it surprised me too. I knew it was going to be fun but I didn't know it would be this much fun.

Whose idea was it to wear costumes? I love that. I’m a hardcore Funkadelic fan so any band that comes out in freaky clothes is good by me.

Les has been into the whole costume thing for a while. I think he was even doing it with Primus if I remember correctly.

Sure but how do you convince the rest of the band to suit up?

I think that's one of the aspects of being in the Frog Brigade. You have to have a natural love of the costume. I remember seeing pictures of Parliament-Funkadelic when I was in fifth grade and thinking it was cool because they were like Kiss. Wow, these guys are all freaked out, that's rad! In Critters Buggin we always wore costumes and I always like the way the Sun Ra Orchestra dressed up. So I think the Colonel has just attracted people that have a natural love of the costume.

How does it affect the music to wear the costume? Does it?

Oh fuck yeah!!! It frees you up from your ego. When you have a costume on it's almost like you're another person. You can step outside yourself and really hone into the giant musical antenna in the sky. It’s a way to get your own ego out of the way of whatever's supposed to be the collective musical consciousness of the moment.

I personally like wearing costumes. Costumes aren't for everyone. Something we do when we're on the road is go to costume shops. If the Colonel sees a good store he’ll say, “Let’s go check out some costumes!”

We digress into a discussion of quality costume shops in the Bay Area where I suggest Piedmont, a strange shop on Haight Street that caters primarily to exotic dancers and '80s hair metal casualties, and now hopefully Frog Brigade members. Somehow against expectation this avenue leads us to talk of the Tiny Universe.

Dennis Cook: You brought up playing with Karl Denson. I always grinned when I saw you up on stage with them because I knew it’d be good with you there. What’s it like playing with them? In many ways they’re more straight-ahead than many of your other projects.

KDTU | 11.02.01 | Columbia, MO
Photo by Shoji Ichikawa
Mike Dillon: It was a really positive experience on a lot of different levels. Karl is a very inspiring individual. The guy practices non-stop. That’s the tone of that band I really like. Everyone in it, if they had a few hours free, they’d be practicing because the boss man was doing it. I’m the kind of guy who likes to practice a lot, too.

Every musical thing I’m involved with has to be approached differently, the musical slate has to be wiped clean. What was that, an 8- or 9-piece band, so you had to wait for your moments to say something. It’s more than a straight-ahead funk band since it has an edge. That’s what I tried to play up with them. It’s a high-energy band so that was really fun to tap into.

They get a huge crowd reaction when they hit a really good pocket of that energy. I remember seeing you play with them in Las Vegas when the Tiny Universe opened for String Cheese [July 27th and 28th of 2001]. Those shows are amongst my favorites by that band. A big part of that is your presence. You kept locking with Eric Bolivar [former KDTU drummer, now co-leader of Global Funk Council].

Eric is such a great drummer and it was so great to play with him.

He is really powerful. He’s got that kind of Art Blakey thing where it seems like he might break the drum kit because he’s playing so hard.

He’s got a lot of energy in him for sure. I’ll have to play with Bolivar some more. Eric would definitely take the band to some very powerful spots where the energy was crushing. [His voice has a distinct note of glee. This is clearly Mike's kind of place.]

The conversation completely devolves into discussions of musicians we both like including Adrian Belew (who guested with the Frog Brigade in November) and San Francisco’s own keyboard whiz Jeff Chimenti. The talk also turns to Denton, Texas, a small town that has been the home to Mike D. and Brad Houser. And for a couple years long ago, this interviewer made his home there. Woven into all the disparate things being discussed is a tremendous love of all things musical.

Mike Dillon is one of those souls that relates to the world through a filter of notes and sounds and ideas from the great invisible world of music waiting to be heard and transmitted by good souls like him. His enthusiasm for everyone he plays with is palpable and the sheer joy he brings to the making of music is infectious. Spend even a little time in his company and you are bound to walk away feeling more connected with the things you hear. It is a gift and one that I hope we all enjoy for many many more years.

Dennis Cook
JamBase | San Francisco Bay Area
Go See Live Music!

Black Frames West Coast Tour
12.13.02 Crocodile Cafe Seattle, WA
12.14.02 Dante's Portland, OR
12.16.02 Elbo Room San Francisco, CA
12.17.02 Knitting Factory Los Angeles, CA
12.18.02 Belly Up Tavern Solana Beach, CA


[Published on: 12/13/02]

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