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 with Eric Krasno,Tom Hamilton, Jeff 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 rewarded.
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 people. 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 out at 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 them.
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 can adapt, but have you ever been in a sit-in or jam situation where it was just really tough to get something going?
MD: The first time I played with Critters Buggin, I knew Matt Chamberlain but I didn’t know Skerik. I remember going in 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 really have 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 not contributing.
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 groups. 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.
JAMBASE: How does this approach inform your style as a bandleader? How much coaxing of your players do you 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 players that fits into the approach you want. So what’s the common thread between the players in your band?
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 guitar or 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 or whoever, 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 hearing that.
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. I also 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 that was 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 together 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 if it 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 don’t.
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 these guys.
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 “Bearsong”)
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.