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?
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?
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.
freakers at a Critters Buggin show
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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