Song Writing

Mallet Master Mike Dillon

by April Fox

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It almost sounds like the setup for a joke: "A guy with a vibraphone starts a punk band..."

It's no joke, and believe it or not, this guy Mike Dillon has taken mallet instruments and made them cooler than anyone ever thought they could be. With his tattooed forearms and shredded voice, high-voltage energy and shouting into the microphone, Mike Dillon comes off like the spokesman for the AARP's Hardcore division. If he ever slows down, it sure isn't while he's on stage with the Mike Dillon Band.

And then this year, he threw his fans for a loop when he did tone it down just a little, and built an entire record out of mallet instruments and covers of songs by Elliott Smith, Neil Young, and Martin Denny, along with four brand new original compositions. The aptly named Functioning Broke, released in April 2016, is a melodic journey through the halls of Dillon's life, as he strives to become the best he can musically and continues to leave the trials of addiction far in his wake.

Dillon's kinetic presence doesn't stop when he walks off the stage, and even though I was sitting still for our conversation, I was left breathless as he jumped back and forth between politics, music, religion, and the importance of coming together to combat the hate in the world (the interview took place shortly before Donald Trump was elected president). From the hard-edged punk sound of the Mike Dillon Band to his haunting instrumental cover of Neil Young's "The Needle and the Damage Done" to his near-manic rants about politics, Mike Dillon is a powerful voice in a world of stale pop complacence.
Mike with Jim Loughlin of Moe

April Fox (Songfacts): We need to talk about your songs, but first I want to hear what you have to say about the election. You mentioned Donald Trump the other night [at a show at Altamont Brewing in Asheville, North Carolina]. What do you think of him?

Mike Dillon: I don't think highly of him. He's a misogynistic pig, a racist bastard. I don't think he's a millionaire, either. I think he's one of those cash-poor guys. There's a reason he's not releasing his tax returns. He keeps going bankrupt, I think he needs money. He probably just wants another gig; running for president is just another gig to feed the egomaniacal, narcissistic way he thinks. Hopefully, the Bernie supporters like myself will see that even though Bernie didn't win, it's important that we get behind Hillary, whether we like everything she does or not. She's an intelligent woman, she can be level-headed, and she'll do way better for the country than that Donald Trump guy would do. We'll be shot straight to hell with Trump.

The rhetoric on that side: they have all the anti-gay stuff, anti-immigration stuff, that's their platform. We need social programs, we have the marriage equality act now; I want Hillary to nominate the next Supreme Court justice. I don't want it to be some Trump-nominated crony. That's where we'd go really backwards: women's rights.

A friend of mine, a big feminist, I'll leave her name out, but she's a pretty popular singer, her daughter is about 9, and she's only known Barack Obama as president. She goes, "If my daughter knows that an African-American man can be president and a woman can be president, that's one of the most amazing gifts that she's had."

Songfacts: Because she won't doubt that she can do it.

Mike: Exactly. The sky's the limit. The other thing is, I listened to the DNC one night as I was driving, and I listened to the Republican National Convention one night, and I have to say, just the hate and the fear, it's undeniable what you heard coming out of the Republicans. It's pessimism vs. optimism. I think it's better to side with optimism.

Songfacts: I'm not an optimist by any means, but yeah, it's probably good to have one eye on where you are and one on where you want to be, rather than on what could go wrong.

Mike: Yeah. One of my friends reminded me when we were playing a gig together. It was right after those cops got killed in Baton Rouge, and he said, "I want to say something: As bad as things seem right now, in the history of mankind, we still live in the safest and most peaceful time in history."

Sometimes it's hard to see with all this stuff happening, but we are evolving as a people. That's what we have to keep remembering. You can't evolve through fear. It's easy to get into fear. We all have fear, but it's a daily choice not to live in fear but to live in love - not to live in hate or resentment or anger. I get pissed off at things, and I take it out on my drums and my vibes, and then move on.

Songfacts: I do the same thing with my writing: get mad, write it out, get back to life. We should probably talk about your music a little bit.

Mike: And it all ties in with the music, especially with the Mike Dillon Band. A lot of political stuff fuels my songwriting. I grew up liking bands - I still like the Dead Kennedys, I like the way Jello Biafra wrote the songs. And the Minutemen - they were a huge inspiration. Things seem way more screwed up than they did in the Reagan era, but all the punk bands, even the bands that didn't get famous, it was part of the collective consciousness of the songwriting process.

All the underground bands in Dallas, there was always something being said about the government that was screwed up. No government, no matter what end of the political spectrum you're on, is going to be perfect. It's our job to all be involved in it. Even if you're a songwriter, just say something. I like what Obama said the other night, like, "Alright, you want change? You gotta get in there and be a participant, not just a spectator talking shit about it all the time."

That made me think about the songwriting thing. If you're just writing songs about it, are you a participant or are you just sitting there bitching? Because now we have Facebook. Back in the old days, we didn't have Facebook to bitch about the politics. You wrote a song about it, you talked about it with your friends at the bar or whatever, but I still think it's important.

To me, Bob Marley was one of the most eloquently gifted writers, with his songs and the issues he touched. My friend Ani DiFranco, who I worked with for years, that's such a part of it, bringing people together with the music being sung, people leaving the gigs feeling fired up, to take it out into their lives. So yeah, I think music can be part of the activism process. I got to do one gig with Pete Seeger. He was 90-something years old and he was telling me about the history of the song we did at this big benefit to clean up the Hudson river. It was a huge thing that he was a part of for many years of his life, and here he was 90 years old, telling me about the history of that song "Guantanamera." It was amazing, the enthusiasm and the life he had, at 90. Dude is playing guitar and singing, and after soundcheck he came back to my bongos and starts playing. He knows so much about songwriting and the labor movement, fighting the good fight, and at the end of the day he just wants to keep playing his guitar and have fun. That really taught me a lot about keeping that childlike spirit in me. That's what music does for all of us.

Songfacts: I agree, it is important to have those political songs out there. My dad listened to a lot of politically-charged music, and he would talk to me about it. It opened up that dialogue, and I do the same thing now, with my kids. It's just another avenue to get that information, especially with punk, bands like the Dead Kennedys.

Mike: We do "Kill the Poor" [by the Dead Kennedys] with The Mike Dillon Band, and every night I sing those lyrics, I'm like, "Man, nothing's changed!" That seems to be the mindset more than ever, with Donald Trump and his folks. We just need to kill the poor. And if they could invent some sort of bomb that was able to just eradicate you based on your financial status, I'm sure they would do it in a heartbeat.

And it pisses me off, you know? I have a lot of friends who I would consider more on the liberal, progressive side of things, and as they hit their 40s and have a little money in the bank, they mysteriously turn into Libertarians. And while there are a lot of things about the Libertarian party that I like, I'm always like, we have to have a social net for those that weren't able to do what you did with your life and make the money. I don't buy that private donations are going to take care of everybody. I'm sorry, but people are greedy.Everything we have going on now is ancient - it's part of our cellular memory. It's locked into our DNA. Man is a killing machine, and certain groups think they're superior to others, and it's all coming to the forefront. But it's old, it's stuff that was taught and passed on, both by what people said and their actions, and then in their cellular memory. It's up to us to wake up and try to evolve past all that. I'm sounding like a hippie right now, but it really is true. We have to do it on an individual level, person to person.

What it comes down to is that the face of this, the entitled white man, is realizing that his days are numbered. And whenever the white man's back is against the wall, it's ugly. That's what scares me about what's happening right now. Throughout history - my mom is a history teacher, I like to read history books - it hasn't been pretty whenever the white man has started feeling his back against the wall. Trump is sort of the face of that right now. I don't think he's going to win. Most women are disgusted by his misogyny.

Songfacts: You touched on some of that at your show at The Altamont Theatre recently, where you played in a style very different than what I saw with The Mike Dillon Band.

Mike: What you saw before with The Mike Dillon Band was very high energy. We probably had a little jumping bean on trombone named Carly Meyers who was ripping it up, and what you saw the other night with my [other] band was about bringing it all together: the mallet instruments, the vibraphone, the marimba, getting those out of the background and building music around the percussion. I play melodic percussion instruments, so it's really no different than a guitar or a piano, but I happen to do it with four mallets.

Songfacts: How did you get started playing the vibraphone?

Mike: I started playing percussion when I was ten years old. When I was young, they had school bands at all the elementaries, all the junior highs, all the high schools - it's something that a lot of states have cut out of their budgets now. I got into mallet instruments at a young age. I was in the youth symphony and then I went to college and was in the jazz band and percussion ensembles, marching band - we had a great marching band. Because I could play marimba, I always got put in the mallets. I was always playing mallets.

When I was in college, I studied classical mallet methods and got a lot out of that for a couple years. Then I started getting into playing Latin percussion, and African. And the next thing I know, I'm in a rock band, playing percussion. It was like a Talking Heads, Frank Zappa, Peter Gabriel kind of band, back in the '80s. Around '86 it started getting popular. It was a band called Ten Hands. We were a five-piece band and that was our clever little name. It was all original, so I tell people like some of the young guys in my band, back in the late '80s, it wasn't like it is now, where every city has a few clubs that had original music. Like in Dallas, where I lived at the time, pretty much the only gigs were like copy band gigs. Every band was a copy band. Musicians played in copy bands until one of the big stars saw you play or you auditioned and got a gig with someone big. You just learned Top 40 and did those kind of gigs. That was just the way it was until you got into a really big band.

But there was a little scene there in Dallas, Texas, some punk rock clubs had opened up and you could go down and sometimes you had to bring your own PA, but we just started playing around and getting gigs. From that whole scene, it was just part of that movement in the mid-'80s that blew up until the day that Nirvana blew up and all of a sudden every city had a club, and most of the bands played original music.

I got in a band called Billy Goat after Ten Hands, in '89, and we started touring. I was pretty much the lead singer and I played percussion. We had a Red Hot Chili Peppers kind of vibe. We were in that scene, with Fishbone and Primus and all those guys - we opened for them back in the day. In that band, I pretty much just wrote the lyrics, but I wanted to start writing songs, so I did a record called Black and White back in 1994, and it was the first time I'd played vibraphone on one of my records. I really didn't know what I was doing because I'd been mainly a classical player, and with classical music, you just play the parts from the symphony that you're doing. Whatever is written, you learn. But with rock n' roll, you have to use your ear, figure it out by the record, and it was a different thing.

I saw a Thelonius Monk movie one night at a hotel, back in '93 or '94, and I was like, "I want to play vibes! I want to play jazz." I got really obsessed with Thelonius Monk. I was still in Billy Goat and I started to transition from being the lead singer/percussionist guy to playing the vibes, because that was the melodic instrument that I played. I wrote a couple songs for that record and then the next band I started after that, Hairy Apes, everything was written on vibes. I made the vibes a part of the band full time. I started focusing on the vibes and the percussion was always there because I still loved the power of tribal drumming, and the energy of two drummers playing together.

With Claude Coleman, Jr. and Jim Loughlin
Billy Goat broke up in '97, and from '98 till now, I've just grown by learning the instrument and by playing it around the country. I have to admit when I first made the jump to vibraphone, even though I had chops and I could play the instrument, as far as on a musical level, I had a lot of growth to do. I've never been afraid to suck, so I got out there and sucked at it, but I had a lot of energy and luckily the people I played with were very tolerant and forgiving. They knew the work ethic I had and I could always just turn over to my drums. I was always a good drummer, and even if the vibraphone is a melodic instrument, if you're a good drummer with good rhythm, you can go far with it. You don't have to know a lot, but play the fuck out of what you know.

I was listening to some Elliott Smith songs the other day - I just did that tour that you saw where I played a bunch of Elliott Smith songs - and there's a solo in this one song, where he just plays one note. But the rhythm, and the way he plays that one note for a guitar solo, it's so powerful. So to me, that was always my fallback, and it still is, as I grow up musically and harmonically: not to forget that I'm a drummer, and to use that to write things that are a little different and use that as a screen.

All the guitar players, and the guys that aren't drummers, a lot of them want to be drummers. Look at David Bowie, Stevie Wonder or Prince. Claude [Coleman, Jr. of Ween and the Mike Dillon Band] and I were talking about that the other night. Some of our favorite Stevie songs, Stevie plays drums on them. The way he plays drums is so amazing, and he's not thinking like a drummer, he's thinking like a musician.

That's the other part of it, just playing music instead of being a drummer who just sits around and thinks about licks, or like "I'm the most amazing drummer!" or whatever, I just think about playing the best music that I can. Even if it's a little different than what people consider to be normal music, whatever that means, it's still all about the music that I'm hearing in my head. That's the one thing I've learned after playing music for 30 years, is that it's all rhythm. The best jazz guys, John Coltrane, Miles, Monk, it's all about how they deliver their notes with their rhythm and their phrasing.

So I just happened to play vibraphone, and I put pickups on it back in 2001. That was when I started to explore the sonic boundaries of my instrument. Because for the most part, the vibraphone is just an acoustic instrument used in the jazz and classical world, or if it's in a rock environment, you put a couple mics over it and you're stuck with that one sound. It's like a piano: it sounds like it sounds. But I run mine through all kinds of effects and fuzzes, and even though I don't have a guitar player, sometimes I'm like, "Ooh, I want to sound like Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age, or sound like Dr. No from Bad Brains," as far as the tone, and the next thing I know because it's a vibraphone, I'm thinking I need to get a thick fuzz, I'm hitting like a low F on my instrument and on a vibraphone, that low F is like two-and-a-half inches wide and like 14 inches long. There's a lot of metal there vibrating. So I'm still trying to figure out how to get the most obnoxious, guttural, pits-of-hell sound and get it recorded and do it live. There are definitely times where I'm like, "Wow, that shit is low, low and heavy, I love it."

Songfacts: I was amazed to see what you could do with that one instrument, because I really only knew it from high school bands and things like that. The sounds you make with it are pretty spectacular.

Mike: Thank you. I'm really happy that everyone on the planet doesn't play vibraphone. The guitar is the most popular instrument for many reasons. It's an instrument that anyone can carry to campfires and sit around strumming, and do their thing and sing. It's cool.

So I did this whole record, the Elliott record, and I put all my different mallet instruments into it: the marimba, the bass marimba, the vibes, the xylophone, the glockenspiel. There was a timpani, but there was no actual drum set, it was all just percussion and the mallet instruments, and it still sounded really thick and beautiful. It was fun, just using those instruments as my canvas, to paint that sonic picture I was going for.

With The Mike Dillon Band, we bring out all the stops. I have a guitarist in my band, I have Claude beating the shit out of the drums, an upright bass player, I'm screaming at the top of my lungs, we're super high-energy. It has its own unique little sound as well.

Songfacts: It is definitely unique. I was listening to the song "Carly Hates the Dubstep" and my son was there. He just turned 18, and I said, "Come listen to this, this is the guy I'm going to be interviewing soon." At the very beginning, he's watching you on the video, and he goes, "This guy's crazy." And he watches for another second, and he goes, "I think he's got issues." And then he goes, "Oh my God, this is amazing," and he wanted to hear more. I think it's the kind of thing that it hits everybody, no matter how old you are, because it is so different from anything else, but it has enough of those familiar elements that it draws us in and makes us pay attention and want to hear more.

Mike: Yeah, it's that energy. I call it punk rock, it's such a primal thing. Whether you're our age or your son's age, when something is raw and has that energy, it can transcend all the barriers, race or age or sex, whatever. If you're open to it, it will bring you in. I love it. Some people will walk in and they'll see it and they're like, "What is this?" and they'll walk right back out. I'm like, "Alright, you left, good for you." They don't need to hear it, I guess.

My girlfriend always gives me a hard time because I talk about drugs a lot through the night [on stage]. I'm sober now, and I don't talk about it all the time, but at the same time, like 80 percent of the population is addicted to something. Pharmaceuticals or street drugs or all these other things, it doesn't matter what it is, we're all addicted to something, even if it's not drugs. Cell phones, man. I was sitting on the subway the other day, I looked around and everyone on the F train except for like two people had their heads buried in their phones. I'm guilty and I'm trying not to be that guy. I have to look at my phone enough for business, tour managing and all that, making sure I don't miss something, but why not look at the people you're riding around in the subway with? Make eye contact.

I got in the elevator today with a lady, we said hello and looked at each other, and I could tell she just got uncomfortable and then she just reached for her phone and started looking at it. We didn't even have to talk. Once you start looking at your phone, you don't have to engage with other people. So I don't know. I remember when I was really into William S. Burroughs, he said addiction is just part of the human condition, so get used to it. We're all addicted to something, whether it's crystal meth or sugar.

But you have to write what you believe in, and what your experience is. You have to share your experience. Write what you know, be an artist, not give a fuck about what people think. That's the best thing about being 50 now. I can really write the music I want, and I'm not trying to impress anyone other than myself.

Songfacts: I've found that as I've gotten older too, it's easier for me to just way what I want to. I don't talk much in person, but when I'm writing, I can put myself out there. You have to do it for you, whether it's music or writing or anything else.

Mike: The internet has really changed how we talk to each other. It allows us to be confrontational and to say what we want to. A couple people I know, who are the quietest, sweetest people in person, they get on the internet and it all comes out. It's like the comedy section sometimes. People can say anything now, and isn't it crazy some of the silly beliefs people get? Like where did the whole "Gays are going to burn in hell" thing come from? Where did that actually come from?

Songfacts: That's a good question.

Mike: It all starts with religion. Somewhere along the way, someone told us that if you do this, this, and this, you'll make it to heaven, and get eternal salvation. Being raised Catholic, all through school you're told all this stuff. Back in high school, they would talk about sex. You shouldn't have sex, you couldn't have sex before you were married, because premarital sex is like masturbation with a partner. I remember our theology teacher telling us that. So right there, what he's saying is masturbation is wrong too. You should only do it within God's covenant.

And this is all under the auspices of like, how do you avoid burning in hell forever? I remember the first time I had sex in high school, because of my Catholic upbringing, I remember that moment afterward, going "Oh yeah... I'm going to burn in hell now." I went to church every Sunday for 18 years, and my parents weren't crazy about it, but we were Catholic and that's what you do. They imprint you with all this shit.

Two-thirds of the country identifies themselves as Christian, and a huge amount of Christianity is telling you to deny your sexuality. It's huge that we have marriage equality in this country, and that high schools have gay support groups and kids are taught not to call each other names all the time. From the time I was about ten years old and started thinking about this stuff to now, things have progressed a lot. Think about when Prince first showed up with his dirty mind, breaking ground. All of his music back then said, "Look, we're having a sexual revolution, it's okay to have sex, to hell with what the religious stuff said."

At the end of the day, I feel like with the gay thing, religion was trying to keep the species going. It was like pork. I don't think they really thought pork was bad, but back in the old days they didn't know how to handle trichinosis, the parasite that was in pork that could kill you. Instead of saying "Hey, you need to prepare your meat right so it doesn't kill you," they just said not to eat pork and God was going to send you to hell if you did. Maybe there's a lot of that going on with the gay thing too. They knew they had to keep the population growing, they needed women and men having sex with each other, so they just decided to tell people that God doesn't like homosexuality. I don't know if that makes sense... I like to rant about stuff when I'm high on coffee.

It's that fear. Fear keeps people from doing things. Like they say, spirituality is for people who have been through hell, religion is for people who don't want to go to hell.

We haven't talked much about music, have we? But we talked about life a lot.

It may seem like an odd style match, the frenetic and bouncing-off-the-walls Mike Dillon and the mournful and morose Elliott Smith, but Dillon proves on his album Functioning Broke that it's a mating of styles that works at a much deeper level than simple instrumentation.

Elliott Smith rose to fame in the late '90s and early 2000s. His songs were featured in the hit films American Beauty and Good Will Hunting; one of his songs from the latter movie, "Miss Misery," earned him an Academy Award nomination in 1997. Smith performed an abridged version of "Miss Misery" on stage at the Oscars, but lost the award to Celine Dion and "My Heart Will Go On," from the movie Titanic.

Despite his commercial success and the legion of fans who fell in love with Smith's introspective lyrics, he continued to fight a raging battle with depression and addiction. On October 21, 2003, Elliott Smith died of two stab wounds to the chest. His death was originally reported as a suicide, but the coroner's report could not rule out homicide. Smith was cremated, and his family has never revealed where they laid his remains to rest.

Elliott Smith fought his demons as hard as he could, and ultimately lost. On Functioning Broke, Dillon pays homage to the fallen star, covering six of Smith's songs using a variety of percussion instruments. The result is almost eerie, as if the reality of Dillon's and Smith's addictions are coming to life through the music.
Songfacts: It's all connected, anyway. I think we got a little bit about music in there, but let me just ask you a couple more things. When I saw you last, you were playing a lot of songs by Elliott Smith, and you also covered the Neil Young song "The Needle and the Damage Done." I have to say I was skeptical because I love everything about Neil Young, but you blew me away with that. It was like you were singing it, but with your instruments. How did you decide to cover those particular songs?

Mike: You know, with my addiction, that's a huge part of where I'm at: keeping that door closed. With the Elliott stuff and that song, "The Needle and the Damage Done," I had a friend who said, "Why don't you do something different?" He wanted something different from my normal high-energy crazy shit. "Why don't you try to do the soft side of Mike Dillon, whatever that might be?"

I had a buddy who had done a cool version of "The Needle and the Damage Done," and I had messed around with it, and also that Jane's Addiction song "Summertime Rolls," a handful of songs that I wanted to do on the vibraphone if I can keep the chords and the rhythms going, and play the melody with my right hand, like a piano chord.

A lot of times it just started off as a way to practice my instrument and to sound more lyrical. When you said, "You were singing it on your instrument," that is exactly why I started doing it in the first place, not just to play that crazy badass stuff like a ripping guitarist or whatever. I want to make my instrument sing, and what better way to do that than to take your favorite songs and learn them on your instrument? Miles Davis did that with Frank Sinatra. Miles loved Frank Sinatra. I don't know if he actually learned, but he said Sinatra was a huge influence on the lyrical side of his playing.

So I picked songs that meant something to me, and "The Needle and the Damage Done," after years of hell and addiction, the title says it all. It's such a beautiful song.

And with Elliott Smith, I love his songwriting and the chords. His songs are very grim. It's intense music. And one day I learned one of his songs on the vibes, and I sort of got obsessed with his stuff and learning them on the vibes. In the process of trying to become a more lyrical player, I ended up making a cool record. I think I spent three days making that record.

After I made that record, I was getting together with my percussionist friends and I had Jimmy [Loughlin] and Otto [Schrang] there with me. Getting together with a bunch of percussionists and being able to tour and make music was another reward of that process, and creating an environment where we can be inclusive and bring people into it, instead of hating on each other.

Sometimes I'll have as many as 10 to 12 different drummers together playing music, and it's not like a drum circle, it's my songs, and Elliott's songs, and whatever. You can take the power of something that's usually only heard in classical or in jazz situations, and go do it at a music festival. We played Summer Camp music festival with a percussion ensemble, we had 12 people on stage, and the thousands of people in front of us, they were grinning ear to ear, being hit with so much energy. There wasn't a single guitar on stage. That's sort of my mission: rocking out with the vibraphone.

November 17, 2016.
Mike's website is mikedillonvibes.com.

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