8 Questions for Mike Dillon of Garage A Trois (and beyond)

Mike Dillon is a hardworking man of many hats. The songwriter, percussionist, vibraphonist and bandleader has a lengthy resume displaying a vast list of projects spanning genres of rock, punk, jazz, afro-funk and hip-hop. Dillon has played with Ani DiFranco, Karl Denson, Les Claypool, James Singleton and Ten Hands. In addition to Garage A Trois, he currently stays busy with his various projects including Mike Dillon’s Go Go Jungle, The Dead Kenny G’s, The Mike Dillon Band and his latest project MC Silver Ice. To put it mildly, Dillon is a workhorse. Currently touring behind GAT’s latest release Always Be Happy, But Stay Evil, Dillon took some time out to discuss songwriting, group dynamics and things to come.

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GW: How did you guys come up with the name for the new album, Always Be Happy, But Stay Evil?

MD: Well, we were tossin’ around some names for the new record and we had one that was sort of an inside joke and we came up with some album artwork and I liked it but no one else liked it. Well no, two of us liked it but two didn’t like it. I said “what about that picture your daughter drew, Skerik?” We were sort of using it already; someone had made a sticker of it, Always Be Happy, Stay Evil- his daughter drew that when she was nine, a few years back. And so Skerik sent an email out and everyone was like “yeah, that’s awesome,” so we went with it. A lot of people really liked that title. I think we gave her $50 and bought her a pizza.

GW: You seem to have written the bulk of the originals on the new album. Did you come to the table with a lot of those ideas or were they more so developed in the studio?

MD: We had a rehearsal the day before we went into the studio, GAT style, and we rehearsed all day long. I had more songs going because I had been off the road for a month- I was out with Ani DiFranco and she lost her voice and cancelled the tour. Whenever I’m at home I just write songs. I don’t have kids or anything so I think just by default I had more songs. The great thing about being in a band is that the guys can make just one little suggestion about a song and it takes on a whole new life. Stanton (Moore) was going “why don’t we put a break in here” in that song “Shooting Breaks” and just making that suggestion to the melodic and the harmonic idea gave the song the space it needed and it took on a whole new thing. That’s what’s great about being in a band with Marco (Benevento) or Skerik. If they don’t like, your songs aren’t going to get past them either. A lot of my songs have been shot down. What I mean by that is something I write for the Hairy Apes (BMX) isn’t going to be the best thing for Garage A Trois. The songs seem to find the band they need to find and sometime they lay around for a while and all of the sudden you’re hanging out at rehearsal or sound check and it’ll just come to you, like “check out this little bit I have.” Sometimes Skerik and I will just put two different parts together and then it’s really fun. I like bringing in parts too. For this record a lot of the things that I brought were fully realized and the guys gave me arrangement ideas.

GW: How did you originally get into playing music?

MD: I can remember being fascinated by watching music videos- but it wasn’t videos back then, it was more like TV show or drums or the Jackson Five cartoon or the Grand Ole Opry or listening to my mom play big band. (It was) just always being fascinated by drummers and by rhythm and by music, and from a young age wanting to play; if we were on vacation and we were at a hotel and there was a drummer, before I ever had drums, just wanting to do that. My mom wasn’t a professional musician or anything, but she played music in high school and in college. She was a flutist, and my grandmother played organ. There’s been music in the family.

GW: How would you compare the chemistry with Marco being in the band to when Charlie Hunter was in the band? I know it’s kind of apples to oranges.

MD: Apples to oranges. Playing with Charlie was such a great experience and he is such a great guy. They’re both just really funny. Charlie’s got a darker sense of humor. He’s such a great musician, oh my god! I remember when I first started playing with him, I’d been a fan for so long, and all of the sudden I’m sitting in with the guy and I’m like “man, you’re amazing.” Marco is like the little brother. The (Benevento/Russo) duo opened for GAT some, and for Claypool, and I’d been a fan of his. So when Charlie left the band it was a total bummer, but I understood where he was coming from artistically. That’s always been his concept, always moving forward. Then we did a gig with Medeski and that was really fun, and then we did a gig with Marco. (At) the first rehearsal in his basement in Brooklyn, we wrote a few songs for the gig that night, and that was like taking it back to the garage band, like your first few bands; you get together and play and instead of playing Led Zeppelin songs, you write a song and you’re like “that’s our song, we wrote it,” and even if it may totally suck, it’s your song, and being a good little narcissist, you enjoy hearing it. With Charlie, he was really forthright about the direction, and had a big say in it, and from tour to tour it would change. With Marco, you know, it’s Marco. You hear what he’s into now compared to what he was doing with the duo maybe five or six years ago. He’s doing Deerhoof songs and writing weird poppy jazz songs, rocky jazz, whatever you want to call it. He’s covering Deerhoof, he’s not covering Larry Young. There’s a difference where he’s at aesthetically. It was on par- Skerik and I are really getting into punk-rock again and having our punk/jazz fantasy with the Dead Kenny G’s and lovin’ on The Melvins and harder stuff, and Stanton was ready- he always beats the hell out of his drums- he’s right there with us.

GW: Does Charlie ever sit in with you now that he’s not in the band anymore?

MD: He hasn’t sat in with us, but it’s funny, Charlie called me last night and I talked to him earlier this week too…

GW: GAT has always been composed of some pretty cutting edge, innovative, top-notch guys. Are you ever like, “shit, pinch me, I can’t believe I get to make music with these guys?”

MD: Yeah, but nowadays I get stuck loading the gear all the time. No matter what situation you get into, at first you’re like “wow, this is unbelievable,” but then I think you have to really work to keep gratitude going. That’s why so many bands start hating each other; maybe they don’t keep the gratitude and that initial feeling going from when they started playing together. Then the next thing you know they’re riding in different busses. It’s like “what the fuck, this is music; it’s not like international finance or something. We’re supposed to be making the world a better place.” Generally, man, I’m always grateful for the guys I’m playing with, whether it’s Stanton and Marco and Skerik or like tonight with Mark and Jeff Harshbarger. Sometimes I get to play with older guys, and that’s when I really pinch myself. I play with this guys James Singleton in New Orleans all of the time and he’s played with everybody in the jazz world and he’ll tell me stories. This guy’s played with James Black and Ed Blackwell, all of my heroes. So yeah, I will gush over the guys I’m playing with. It’s always humbling; you always learn something new from them. That’s the best thing about playing with people in my eyes that are better than me, is that they teach me stuff. But then at the same time, James is playing with us, we’re younger than him, and I’m starting to feel like it’s my time to play with some younger musicians too. I’m playing with some young guys on my tour in Colorado in February and I’m really excited about that.

GW: Any highlights of the tour this year?

MD: I felt like this years Megalomaniacs Ball was really great. A lot of different people showed up and sat in with us. Like Nigel Hall showed up. It’s cool when people from different worlds cross-pollinate.

GW: You guys have a five night run in Colorado next week, followed by Jam Cruise in January. What’s on your schedule for after Jam Cruise?

MD: Stanton has a Galactic record coming out and Marco has his Trio record coming out so those two guys are going to be busy. I know we’ll do some stuff around Jazz Fest. I’m going to be doing some different things next year. We’ve got one Dead Kenny G’s tour right after Jazz Fest, then I’m touring with The Mike Dillon Band in February and I’ve also been working on a hip-hop record- MC Silver Ice- look for that record to drop- that’s my new hip-hop project- MC Silver Ice in 2012! I’m playing Cervantes in February, going all through Colorado between the 3rd and the 11th, so yeah, I’ll be out there again, and I love to snowboard! Hope you get some snow, thanks for calling me.

GW: We look forward to seeing you next week!

MD: Bye-bye.

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