The musical language of Mike Dillon
Music might be the most difficult of human creations to capture in words.
So, it’s understandable that music writers rely on formulas like “This band sounds like that band,” or “These guys are straight out of the (pop-rock-metal-jazz-classical-etc) tradition,” even when the artist has to be squeezed hard to fit into a “sounds like” hole.
Since the perception exists – whether it’s true or not – that lots of music these days does sound the same, when something comes along that is seemingly its “Own Thing,” that possesses its own never-before-heard sound, the writers and fans tend to first apply labels in such profusion that they lose their meaning (these guys are high-energy, hip-hop, freak-out, psychapunkfunk, avant-garde classicists), and then they proceed to say “These guys are original” – or they even apply that dangerous label: genius.
Original, genius: Terms that are generally taken to mean that the creation came from nowhere and terms some might apply to Mike Dillon and his band, which will be playing the Bullfrog Brewery, 229 W. Fourth St., for the third time in four months on Aug. 16.
The music of The Mike Dillon Band moves between harmonic and melodic unity and dissonance. They can play on a heavy metal or dance beat, tamp it back into delicate, tinging notes, and then back into chaos, all in one continuous 20-minute setpiece. Their instrumentation is different from the usual guitar and bass bands: Dillon hammers at the vibraphone, two rows of metal and wood blocks tuned like a piano; Carly Meyers rocks a trombone; Cliff Hines and Adam Gertner drive the beat on bass and drums; Johnny Durkin, once of Deep Banana Blackout, is a recent addition on the congas.
With all that going on, it’s easier to say this music is new and original and forget that this music, which Dillon calls his “language,” comes from a head that’s steeped in tradition.
Dillon places the beginnings of his immersion in jazz, which led to this project, on one day in a hotel room in 1994.
“I was playing in my old band Billy Goat, and I saw the Monk documentary, ‘Straight No Chaser.’ Even though I was a jazzhead growing up, I sort of left that world, even thinking about it for a while. From ’88 to ’94 it was all rock, a different headspace. I saw this beautiful story of Thelonious Monk; I was literally in tears. I said I’m gonna start playing my vibes again. I started studying and teaching myself, getting my ass kicked going and playing jazz with people. Slowly but surely they became my main instrument. I had this desire to play melody and harmony with a percussion instrument.”
Dillon calls Monk “the first punk rocker.”
“He was way before Iggy Pop, who’s my all-time favorite,” he said. “Those old jazz guys, Monk and Mingus, who didn’t get their due were right there on the ground floor, playing that dissonance.”
Influences on Dillon’s vibraphone playing also come out of the bop tradition that grew up in the ’50s: he names Milt Jackson, of Modern Jazz Quartet and Gary Burton, who “invented the four-mallet vibraphone technique – his whole style became part of American jazz language. His records with Cannonball and Wes Montgomery, those records are funky. Pre-James Brown, they knew something was coming.”
Dillon’s current band is funky, among lots and lots of other descriptors.
“We’re about bending genres and making it our own, becoming the language I speak, not just some pedantic music school exercise,” Dillon said. “These kids really embrace it and play the heck out of it.
A lot of it comes across as free – we jump radically between styles, it’s all stuff I understand and dig and it seems normal to us.”
Dillon is based in New Orleans, where this band came together in 2011.
“I’m doing all these gigs in New Orleans and was writing music all the time. I’d start a tune and these jazz guys could just follow. But it never really got tight. I thought I’ll get set music and start touring all the time. The best way to get tight is to tour. And everyone’s in it to win it. These kids, they’re fearless. Whether it’s 15 or 15,000, they get sweaty and go crazy. It’s all about sucking and getting better – you can’t be afraid to suck.”
Dillon calls the live experience “people communicating on stage – making beautiful messes.”
Those younger people who are accustomed to their music always being reproduced perfectly need to develop an ear for those messes, Dillon says
“When the finger hits the string, drumstick hits the head, there’s that little bit of space in the live music experience. The music doesn’t care how many people are there. You’re going places with this real supergalactic relationship, you get real tribal dancey and sweaty.”