Mike Dillon’s elegant chaos

Sideman-turned-leader makes music for a deranged New Orleans circus

Mike Dillon, far right, with his band
Dave Kirby | Boulder Weekly

We’re not sure who observed once that “timing is everything,” probably someone somewhere whose timing sucked at exactly the wrong juncture, but Mike Dillon’s timing is pretty good. Not just because he’s a drummer/percussionist/vibraphonist — with a resume that includes Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade, Dead Kenny G’s and Garage A Trois and side stints with Ani DiFranco — but because he’s also a dedicated snowboarder, and his latest tour takes him through Colorado precisely on the heels of a handful of north Pacific storms that have thankfully cured the high country of a month’s worth of the dry ’n’ warms.

“I’m hoping it snows all week,” Dillon says. “I got my snowboarding partner in Denver ready to pick me up Friday morning for a — whaddya call it — a ‘personal mental health day’, he got the tickets and we’re going to head up to Copper [Mountain], I think.”

Mental health is also a prime commodity, and Dillon’s planned day off to regain his comes in the midst of a 10-days-on-one-dayoff type road run with his five-piece band, which has been filling up much of the past year in between his other gigs, vibing/drumming/merry making for Garage A Trois and The Dead Kenny G’s. Late in the spring, he coaxed his outfit — including trombonist Carly Meyers and drummer Adam Gertner, both alumni of The Denver School of the Arts and now anchoring the funked-up New Orleans franchise Yojimbo — into a Kansas City studio and produced Urn, a predictably (if you know Dillon’s aesthetic impulses) gruesome and sublime elixir of stealthy jazz vibes, street poetry raps and post-punk sonic carnage.

The stuff has Dillon’s fingerprints all over it — the languid, vibe-tickled funk of “Leather On” yielding into a thrashy and not-safe-for-work callout chorus, the too-late-for-penance sci-fi death march of “Fluorescent Sunburn” breaking into a Zappa-awakes-in-New-Orleans-from-a meth-bender ride figure, and the skittering, vibe-driven gallop of “Sunny is Drunk,” which collapses into a glorious, tweeter-ripping crush of old-school grey noise feedback. Fervently musical and defiantly grimy, Dillon’s band summons a casual mastery of both absurdist release and mesmerizing precision, steeped in jazz and conjuring the faint aroma of traditional New Orleans atmosphere.

Dillon says that Urn was a first-take record — well, a first take on the second try.

“Yeah, we did it in one take, pretty much,” he says. “We tried to do it on our first tour in February, the results were disastrous. We had a different bass player at the time, and we just weren’t able to pull it off. I think I was asking too much of everyone.

“Then at the end of our East Coast tour, around the end of April, we went in and we had a full day, and tracked everything,” he says. “I think we left at 2 in the morning. Five hours, nine songs,” he tells us, with help from Meyers, who was sitting on the bus next to him during our interview.

Madness and certitude are two faces of the same coin for Dillon.

“As many different musical situations and different landscapes as I’ve been in,” Dillon says, “I’ve learned that each one requires you to play a different way. Y’know, when I’m in my band, I get to do anything I want. When I’m with Ani DiFranco, I know, ‘Alright, these little bitty vibe parts here and there,’ because it’s about her lyrics and her guitar playing. It isn’t about Mike D.

“Or when I’m playing with Claypool, he just wants me to solo until my arms fall off. With that big bass amp of his, he’s always going, ‘c’mon man, gimme more, gimme more’, and I’m like, ‘Hey I’m playing a fuckin’ marimba man! You’re killing me.”

To a large extent, though, it’s the outside groups that give Dillon a perspective and appreciation for playing with, and mentoring, the younger members in his own group.

“That’s what is really cool about this band, though; watching the growth of these young players. Like Adam, our drummer, who went to Denver School of the Arts. He just came into this situation, and I’ve been watching his growth, playin’ every night. And that’s a part of the old jazz tradition, y’know? Guys would do several sets a night, sometimes two or three gigs a night, and that’s why they all played the way they did.”

Dillon references another of his early heroes when he talks about younger players.

“People compare my music to Zappa all the time, but the most important thing about Zappa was that, yeah he was quirky and had a lot of humor in his music, but he also demanded musical excellence from his players.”

Playing Zappa’s charts turned good musicians into great ones.

“Yeah, absolutely right,” he says.

Mike Dillon Band plays the Lazy Dog Sports Bar & Grill Friday, Dec. 14. Henry the Invisibles open. 1346 Pearl St., Boulder. Call 303-440-3355.

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