Band: Mike Dillon Band
Date: Friday, Nov. 29 at 9 p.m.
Venue: Brickyard Dauphin Street, 266 Dauphin St., 251-219-6488
Tickets: Call for more info
One of music’s most innovative artists will be returning to the Azalea City. Percussionist Mike Dillon will be bringing his namesake band for a night of improvisational sonic wonders. Dillon’s weapon of choice is the vibraphone. He takes this instrument into new dimensions by incorporating effects pedals into the mix with astounding results.
Dillon’s talents on the vibraphone and various other percussive instruments has brought him collaborative efforts with Les Claypool, Clutch, Ani DiFranco, The Revivalists and many more.
When Lagniappe music editor Steve Centanni connected with Dillon, he was on tour with Rickie Lee Jones in Europe. Dillon used a conversation with Centanni to fill some time on 13-hour drive between Foggia, Italy, and Vienna, Austria.
Steve Centanni: You’ve been touring around Europe with Rickie Lee Jones. What’s that been like?
Mike Dillon: We have covered nine countries including the U.S. on this tour. Rickie Lee is an amazing singular artist. She is a true artist, who has done things on her terms. After coming to fame in the late ’70s and early ’80s, she retired to France to duck away from fame and to start a family. Nonetheless, she kept writing music.
In some ways, she is the bridge between singers and singer-songwriters. She is able to do covers and still sound like herself, and she came up writing songs with Tom Waits and the troubadour music scene that was happening back then. She was hanging with Lowell George and Dr. John before catching the attention of Warner [Brothers] and making her breakout record with some of the best musicians on the planet. Steve Gadd was her drummer in many records as was Jim Keltner, Peter Erskine, James Gadson and many other heavyweights that I looked up to when I was coming up.
Back in the ’80s, you stayed up late to watch “Saturday Night Live” for the music, as well as the comedy. I remember seeing her play “Chuck E’s in Love” and thinking, “whoa, this is cool!” Then she released “Pirates” that many women from my generation listened to all the time. My ex-wife played that record all the time.
So after she came to a James Singleton gig in NOLA, she asked me to tour with her. I said ‘yes’ immediately. That was back in 2016. My role with her has evolved from vibraphonist to drum set, vibes and percussionist. She constantly pushes you to recreate songs that she has played for 40 years in an organic fashion.
Her dad was a singer, and the first song she leaned was “My Funny Valentine.” On most shows, she will throw a song in on the spot that we haven’t played as a band. Yesterday she texted that she wanted to do a Frank Sinatra song. Just now, she texted me an idea for an arrangement for the song “Nagasaki” off of the new record [“Kicks”]. This text came in on the next to last show of a seven-week tour. She is always searching, and she has taught me so much about playing for the song and not the ego. Working with her or other great storytellers inspires me to try and tell better stories in my music. I go back to MDB [Mike Dillon Band] world with fresh legs.
Centanni: I’ve always been very impressed with your work on the vibraphone. How and when did you start playing this instrument?
Dillon: The vibraphone came back into my life in 1996. My band Billy Goat was nearing the end of a great seven-year run of chaos and musical discord. I was sitting in a hotel in Lexington, Kentucky, and wondering what the hell I was gonna do, when a movie about Thelonious Monk hit the television. It was at that moment that I knew I would not be stage diving in Vegas at the age of 55 trying to relive my punk funk, bloated Red Hot Chili Peppers fantasy.
Don’t get me wrong. I will still stage dive and get my punk on, but by focusing on the vibes, I was not limited to being in a band. I was starting to play with other groups like Critters Buggin.
I had been in the Houston Youth Symphony and studied music at the University of North Texas [formerly North Texas State University]. I excelled in mallets and playing in the drumline and percussion ensembles. Then I discovered Latin percussion and Bad Brains and ended up on this path.
However, I have always hung with great musicians and started bands. I saw Milt Jackson play twice and later studied with Bill Ware. Luckily I have had guys like Skerik [Garage a Trois, Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade] and Brad Houser [Edie Brickell & New Bohemians] point me in the right direction.
When I got effects, I had those two and Matt Chamberlain [David Bowie, Elton John] giving me advice. Pedals are an art, just like learning technique. Those men are sonic virtuosos. So I had a leg up. Plus, not a lot of people were playing vibes in rock back then. I saw an opportunity with pedals to attempt to do something different. Then I met Les Claypool through Skerik, and he taught me a whole other concept with the vibes.
Then I moved to New Orleans in 2006 and started playing with Johnny Vidacovich [Astral Project] and James Singleton [Astral Project]. As a musician that is a student of world music, black American music and hardcore extreme music everywhere, it is easy to have a love affair with the vibes. It is my mission to get the vibraphone out of academia or the jazz clubs. I think the instrument has just as much potential as the guitar, even if it is a bit more cumbersome to move.
Centanni: You mentioned Les Claypool. I consider myself fortunate that I was able to catch you with Les Claypool’s Bastard Jazz back during Jazz Fest in New Orleans. You’ve been a longtime collaborator with him. What is it about Claypool that makes you want to continue to work with him on a regular basis?
Dillon: Bastard Jazz is a blast. With Les, Skerik and Stanton [Moore], we have a language of improvising that is like a language that an anthropologist discovers in some remote part of the planet that not too many of us speak. Most people that improvise either just play changes to a song in the “[Great] American Songbook” or they just jam on a chord.
With Les, he is truly composing and writing a song on the spot. Yeah, the jams are good, but if you ever hang with him, he is one of the funniest humans I have ever met. In fact, it’s hard not to start talking like him. In his life, he sort of has his own dialect and native tongue of the hills of Sonoma spewing forth from the sacred halls of Rancho Relaxo [Claypool’s home]. Throw the mutant Skerik in with him, and the ride is joyous. Stanton is my brother from another, and we have been connecting musically for 20-plus years now. I have a cabin and a flight to Jam Cruise. It will be a blast!
Centanni: Your latest project is Nolatet. How did this project come together?
Dillon: Nolatet is playing another developed language with the longtime ace New Orleans rhythm section of Johnny Vidacovich and James Singleton. It came about through a gig at Jazz Fest with those two and my little pal Brian Haas. I love this band with all my heart.
For this band, we write compositions that serve as springboards to sonic descriptions of life. We had a band of young lions open for us one night, and they played their asses off. We then did our thing, and afterwards we were talking about the gig. James said, “Those youngsters played some good music, but we play life.” My favorite music is playing life.
I don’t believe in genres, just like I don’t believe in race. We are one people and one love, to paraphrase Bob Marley. Science has proven that, genetically speaking, humans are the same. At this point, Spaceship Earth is the biggest melting pot ever! Time to put aside our differences and save the planet, or this whole thing will not matter by the next century anyway.
Centanni: With such a focus on improv, what’s it like going into the studio with Nolatet?
Dillon: The studio with Nolatet is great, because we just set up and play. After a couple of hours, Johnny V. says, “Alright, I am going home to eat some spaghetti. Ain’t nothing but a movie!” And we are finished. We then listen to the songs and the subsequent improvs and generally have a killer record. We did the same thing as a trio at the end of last year in K.C., after we did a trio tour where I played drums and vibes. If I had one more arm, I could really do what I am hearing in my head. That record should be out next year!
Centanni: What’s on the agenda after getting off the road with Rickie Lee Jones?
Dillon: After this tour ends in Germany on Wednesday night, I will fly home and do three nights at the SideBar with Kidd Jordan, James Singleton and Helen Gillet, respectively, before driving over to Mobile to play with James Singleton and Brooks Hubbert III as the Mike Dillon Band.
I will be touring with my band in December, January and February, celebrating 30 years of touring my music. I will be playing music from Billy Goat that I wrote back in ’89 to brand new music I am writing with Brooks. Along the way, I will have various incarnations of MDB utilizing the magical powers of James Singleton, Brad Houser, Norwood Fisher, Nathan Lambertson, John Speice, Brendan Bull, Jean Paul Gaster, Brady Blade, Brooks Hubbert, Brian Haas and Robbie Mangano. I also have a new percussion record that I recorded with the great drummer Earl Harvin coming out in April 2020.
I will hopefully find a grant so that I can get a tour bus to take out the New Orleans Punk Rock Percussion Ensemble for a spin around the States. Twenty percussionists sharing a bus to blow your mind. I want to get a big old, stinky hockey bus and hit the road this summer.
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