Sound Track web extra: Mike Dillon

Percussionist/vibraphonist/bandleader/vocalist Mike Dillon has a long resume. He’s a member of Critters Buggin, Les Claypool’s Fancy Band, Garage A Trois, Billy Goat, Malachy Papers and Hairy Apes BMX; he’s performed with Ani DiFranco, Galactic, Brave Combo, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Marco Benevento and others.

Dillon’s current project, The Mike Dillon Band, includes Carly Meyers (trombone, Moog Taurus pedals), Adam Gertner (drums), and Cliff Hines (guitar, bass and keys). They’ll open for Fishbone at The Grey Eagle on Wednesday, Feb. 20. 9 p.m., $12 advance / $15 day of show.

The Mike Dillon Band will be back in Asheville on Thursday, March 14, to play The One Stop. DrFameus shares the bill. 9 p.m., $6 advance /$8 day of show.

In advance of those show, Dillon spoke to Xpress about his most recent album Urn, about constant touring, living in two states, and writing “crazy music for crazy people.”

Mountain Xpress: How are you today?
Mike Dillon: I’m good. We’re on a long drive to Denver. We played this weekend in Austin, had a great show there. We had a couple of days off. Now we’re actually going to jump on a plane tomorrow in Denver, fly out to the West Coast, do a couple of days with our friend Marco Benevento, then fly back to Denver and route all the way across the country, up through Asheville and New York City and back around.

Do you enjoy long trip like that, or does it get pretty old?
Before I get in the van, I’m like, “I don’t want to do it.” Once I get into the van or on a plane, it’s fine. I’m going to be playing some music soon. That’s the end result of all this traveling and driving. Looking for those little moments of magic on stage where everything comes together.

My understanding of the life of a traveling musician is that the majority of the day is spent in a car or loading or unloading equipment and there’s just a tiny little piece of the day where you’re doing the thing that it’s all leading up to.
That’s really it. I think about it. Some of it is total insanity on so many levels. I’m so used to it at this point. My grandmother, who is 92, is like, “You still like doing this?” Then she’s like, “Well, guess you love it.” That’s what it comes down to. You love playing music. I think I have a bit of nomadic spirit in me. I’ve been on tour since 1990. Before that I was touring weekends for a good couple of years all around the Texas area.

Are you based in New Orleans these days, or are you back in Texas?
As of last weekend, I just moved all my stuff back to Texas to be closer to my family.

Do you identify as being a Texas musician?
I’m on the road literally 300 days a year. For awhile there, I was doing two weeks on and two weeks off in New Orleans when I was touring with Les Claypool and Ani DiFranco. Even then, sometimes I’d be out for two months straight. Throw in a tour of mine on either end, and I’d be gone three months. Since this band started, we’ve just been touring non-stop. I have a place in Texas that’s my family’s. It’s an old farmhouse that my great-grandfather built 120 years ago. I don’t have to pay rent on it. My apartment scene in New Orleans had run its course. But having a band based out of New Orleans, I still have a room there I can stay at whenever I’m in town.

Yes, the music you write when you have days off and can spend time… For years, that’s been my thing. Either hanging out in New Orleans or going back to my place in the country, on 135 acres. It’s two different kinds of environments. The place I lived [in New Orleans], rumor has it everyone from Tom Waits to Rickie Lee Jones lived in my apartment. That place was always great for writing music. Walking outside at any hour of the night and hearing a brass band is like the polar opposite of walking outside at three in the morning [in Texas] and having to watch out for rattlesnakes.

How did you end up choosing the vibraphone as your instrument?
I think the vibraphone chose me. I always wanted to be the drummer. I started off playing drum set in fifth grade, but I also was a classically-trained percussionist. I always liked playing marimba — marimba is the wooden version of the vibes. I did a lot of classical pieces on it. One day, I had a set of vibes. I was in a hotel room on tour and I saw that movie about Thelonious Monk. It was so beautiful. I was like, “I want to play vibes!” At that time, I was playing a lot of hand percussion, but I started practicing vibes all the time, to where I have to remind myself to play drums. Now it’s a little bit more balanced, but there was a time when all I wanted to do was play vibes.

Not a lot of people were doing it in the ‘90s, either. A lot more people now are playing vibes in the rock ‘n’ roll arena. It used to be limited to jazz and classical. All the bands I was in were like, “Let’s see what you can do with it!” They were really supportive. It gave me a chance to develop my thing. Next thing you know, I was like, “I’m going to lead my own band, be a lead vibraphonist, but have it be a rock band.”

It all sort of came out of necessity. I really wanted to learn how to write songs and play melodic. The cool thing about playing a melodic percussion instrument, for young drummers, is it makes your drumming better. I didn’t get this when I was in high school, but I figured out later that all my favorite drummers are great pianists or awesome on the guitar. They understand melody and harmony.

The liner notes for Urn talks about how that album can be a party starter, or it can be the album for after everybody has gone home. Was that your intention?
At the time, I really wasn’t thinking that. It was a very spontaneous decision to record those songs. We did it all in one day. It was done like an old jazz record. It was recorded to tape, using old vintage gear. I don’t think there was any digital except for one overdub done in New Orleans. It was a happy accident in a lot of ways. The first song is a dancey New Orleans funk thing.

A lot of it had to do with the environment we were in, and the fact that I write music, even if we only have three days off. One day, I might write a crazy Latin sort of punk rock piece. A couple of days ago, I wrote a waltz that I’m really into. The new record is even crazier than the last one. A lot of it has to do with my musical ADD. It’s affected my career, back when there were record companies. “Hey, we love this one song, can you give us three more that sound like it and we’ll give you a load of money?” That was in 1993. I was like, “I can’t do that. No one tells me what to write.” Now, looking back, I should have just written three more songs.

I really just play the music that I like playing. Sometimes it’s a good collection of happy songs. We’d been touring for two months. That was sort of the music I’d been writing. Those are the songs that sounded best together that day.

When you’re writing music, or when you go in to record, do you have an audience in mind?
You know, speaking of Ani DiFranco, she’s told me that I write crazy music for crazy people. I really write for myself, to deal with my own demons and whatnot. But I’ll definitely go through periods. Like right now I’ve been listening to a lot of Brazilian music again. One aspect of Brazil and the Carnival Samba stuff is the giant bass orchestras. You have these bass drums that are sort of like a heart-beat pulse that makes everyone dance and move. I can take that one aspect and try to write lots of different songs around that one theme and bring that influence into a punk rock song. That’s what I like to do when I write — think of different ways that things can be combined and hopefully create something for the listener that’s a little bit more challenging.

I was listening to Stravinsky a little bit earlier on the drive. A lot of people I love, love Stravinsky. When I talk to Trey from Mr. Bungle, he’s like, “We were just Slayer kids who grew up on Stravinsky.” You know? Zappa, one of his presents was he got to call Igor Stravinsky for Christmas or his birthday.

If anything, I just want to write something that’s weird and challenging. I love Deerhoof. They’re a band with a couple of amazing composers. They write this really weird music that people who want to hear something different listen to. I think that’s how I try to push myself, and I think that I have a long way to go. Ultimately, it’s just being yourself. I’ve been doing it long enough that I think my music is just starting to sound like me. My process is definitely very organic. Some people just sit around at their computer and sculpt. For me, it’s write a bunch of songs, go make the record, play [the songs], then go make another record.

I wanted to ask you about the song “Saturn Returns.” I feel like there’s a lot of humor in it, but I wondered if it’s also about the aging process.
All of the above. A lot of it has to do with, as you get older… I was talking to my acupuncturist about something. Relationships. She said age doesn’t matter as long as Saturn returns. Around 27, 28 years Saturn does a return around the sun and most people people are pretty crazy. You look at all the rockstars who died. It’s also about just doing the same thing over and over. Some people get it faster than others. That’s what maturity is. I’m from the school of hard knocks. It takes me a lot of learn certain things. But other things, like music and stuff that I love, I pick up fast. 

That song was also loosely inspired by a friend of mine who was real young and died of a heroin overdose. She really wanted to get it together. [I’ve] been through addiction, myself. My parents love me dearly and I have tons of family support. When I was going through that stuff, 20 years ago, they begged me but nothing made me stop until the one day. That’s what I’m talking about with being a hardhead. Until I got deep down and hit rock bottom, I wasn’t willing to change. It doesn’t matter how you end up there. You get there and you’re caught in this loop of doing the same thing over and over. In the song, “Saturn returns, you’ll never learn,” some people are like, “What the hell are you talking about?” They’re sort of nonsensical lyrics, but if you really listen, it’s about growing up and not doing the same stupid shit. I like to talk serious and make fun of things, too.

I know you’ve played Asheville a bunchy of times. It’s great that you’re coming back here.
Asheville is one of those places that I would move to. I love that city, always have. Every time we come there, people are really supportive. We’ll be opening for Fishbone — that’s one of my all-time favorite bands. They sound great these days.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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