Mike Dillon: Rhythm Method

Mike Chamberlain By

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You hear people say that jazz is dead or rock is dead, but in some ways I wake up every day more excited than ever about all the possibilities and how good we have it. —Mike Dillon
Percussionist/vibraphonist/bandleader Mike Dillon's music defies easy categorization. It's been called "punk jazz," a term that describes working methods—do it yourself, find your own voice—more than actual sounds.

Dillon sports a wide-ranging musical résumé. He has led or has been a member of outfits such as Critters Buggin', Les Claypool's Fancy Band, The Dead Kenny G's, Mike Dillon's Go-Go Jungle, and Garage a Trois. He led Billy Goat in Dallas, Malachy Papers in Kansas City, and Hairy Apes BMX in Austin at various points over the last two decades. Since moving to New Orleans in 2006, he has performed regularly with New Orleans stalwarts Johnny Vidacovich and James Singleton.

His current project, the Mike Dillon Band, currently on a months-long get-in-the-van-and-go tour of the United States, combines jazz, funk, rap, Afro-Cuban and no-wave, rockin' a happy, bottom-heavy stew.

The band, which released Urn (Royal Potato Family, 2012), is comprised of Dillon on vibes, percussion, and vocals, Carly Meyers on trombone and percussion, Patrick Mcdevitt on bass, Adam Gertner on drums, and Johnny Durkin on congas.

They are a loose and funky outfit, the 47-year-old Dillon leading a group of kids in their early 20s. Meyers, McDevitt, and Gertner, from the Denver area, all went to New Orleans to study music, started hitting jam sessions and taking lessons from older musicians, and eventually dropped out of school, figuring that living the musician life would be the best education.

In conversation with Dillon, the importance of self-education and seeking out good instruction is made clear—not surprisingly, from a son raised by teachers—and Dillon's mentoring of the rest of his band is in the Art Blakey tradition.

Dillon has always been fixated on percussion.

"From a very young age, it was definitely the drum. I was just attracted, whenever I saw music, live with my parents—I'm talking when I was four, five, six—or on TV, I was always fixated on the drummer. From a young age I was always beating on things, so my quest definitely been through the eyes of percussion."

Growing up in Texas in the '70s, the son of high school teachers who moved all around the state, Dillon was fortunate to be exposed to a lot of great drummers and teachers. When he was in sixth grade, by this time with the family settled in Houston, his mother approached the high school band director to find a good drum instructor to get him started on the rudiments.

Dillon played mallets, marimba, and vibes in the Houston Youth Symphony in his high school years and at the same time usually had a little jazz band going, where he played drums. Eventually, he went to North Texas State, where he did three and a half years of classical studies. During that time, he got into Afro-Cuban music, working with congas and timbales, while returning to Houston in the summers and playing jazz, and getting his ass kicked, as he puts it, by the older musicians. But Dillon was also learning from those older musicians, such as Joel Fulsom, who would always tell Dillon to listen to Art Blakey.

After college, Dillon did stints in Austin and Dallas, before ending up in Kansas City, where he found a lively scene, with as he says, lots of great musicians to jam with.

It was in the mid-'90s, when he was living in Kansas City, that he started concentrating most of his energy on the vibraphone. Dillon has cited Milt Jackson as a touchstone jazz vibraphonist, but Tito Puente was also a big influence, Dillon says, less harmonically complex than Jackson, but more interesting from the perspective of a percussionist, and a good starting point.

"Since that time, it's been all about the vibraphone, rather than congas and timbales as it had been, even though I still play them both all the time and I love them."

You wouldn't necessarily suspect it, but initially, Dillon had some trepidation about stepping over certain boundaries.

"I had all the chops from playing classical music, but I had to get over my fear of improv and playing jazz, or whatever they call it these days. Then I realized that so much of that is what is in my head. Whatever your fear is, you have to play through it. Everything is this fear."

"You have to study, and you have to learn the language. And all music, it's like what Miles Davis said, it's about talking. No matter what music form you're playing, it's about talking and saying something. That's really the goal. It's not these genres we're brought up with here because of commercial sales or whatever—really, it's all about learning how to talk."

Dillon loves the stories that older musicians tell him of playing with jazz greats, stories of jazz beat-downs, young musicians getting their asses kicked—learning, always learning. Playing with other musicians came with a history lesson.


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