This Kansas City punk rocker got famous by taking his clothes off. The pandemic helped him grow up
The classically-trained percussionist has evolved from a punk-funk wild man into an improvisational innovator. This year, Mike Dillon released what may be the best album of his career.
Mike Dillon’s music wasn’t always elegant. But the title track’s opening moments on his sublime new album, “Inflorescence,” are a work of subtle grace. Drawing on classical minimalism and cerebral chamber jazz, Dillon’s unaccompanied mallet work conveys the quiet confidence of a mature musician.
Thirty years ago, Dillon was a Kansas City based punk-funk powerhouse on the rise. After being ousted from the band Ten Hands for his misbehavior, Dillon formed another group on a lark.
“Out of my mind, I started Billy Goat,” Dillon recalls. “It was supposed to be just like a one-time joke band. One of the songs was ‘Everybody Take Your Clothes Off.’”
“So I got naked at the end of the gig, we're jumping around like fools. Within a month … we're getting a record deal. And of course I was 23 or 24, I just thought that was going to happen for the rest of my life,” he says. “Wrong!”
Billy Goat ultimately failed to attain the commercial success of like-minded bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Dillon, now 57, matured — so much he’s learned to keep his clothes on while performing.
Now, at an age when most artists are slowing down, Dillon is in the midst of what’s unexpectedly become the prime of his career.
‘Dirty jazz, ugly jazz’
Dillon’s artistic preferences may have precluded stardom.
A particular form of music he favors isn’t exactly popular: “dirty jazz, ugly jazz,” he calls it.
“I play music I like,” he says, “and I like music that's extreme.”
Dillon has never stopped evolving. He recently added the South Asian tabla drum to the multitude of instruments he’s mastered.
That tremendous musicality sustains his career, and others’. Rickie Lee Jones is among the stars who have come to rely on Dillon as a musician and a friend. Dillon co-produced Jones’ 2019 album "Kicks."
“It was over 30 years of performing before I met Mike Dillon,” Jones told KCUR from this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
“I was doing solo shots for not much money, not much glory, and when I saw Mike play in an improv jazz band here in New Orleans, I was so inspired to imagine I could be on stage with a musician like that,” she said. “He has been a companion to my performances for many years now. He brought me out. Before I had the opportunity to be on stage with his ever-smiling, I’ll-go-anywhere spirit, things had gotten low.”
“Playing with Mike Dillon changed my life, I can’t be any less dramatic than that,” she said.
Dillon understands why stars turn to him for recordings and live performances.
“Because I'm also a band leader,” he explains. “I'm there to support their music.”
Extensive training is also a factor in his popularity as a sideman. Dillon was a member of the renowned One O’Clock Lab Band at the University of North Texas College of Music.
“I'm a personality, obviously, but I'm also a student of the music,” Dillon says. “Music's so spiritual. It's the thing that saved me when I was in the depths of … we'll just call it the 90s. … But it was music that saved me.”
‘It’s still about the music’
Currently working out of New Orleans and Kansas City, Dillon now embraces a healthy lifestyle.
“You take all that energy you put into partying and drug abuse, and then you put it all into the music, and you have unlimited time,” he explains. “You have all this energy.”
The fresh outlook helped him thrive during the pandemic. The moratorium on touring forced a dramatic change on the musician who once played 330 gigs in a year.
“I found out that I liked being at home, that I liked making records,” Dillon marvels. “I started learning how to craft records.”
Finally being able to take his time in a Kansas City recording studio allowed Dillon to create hours of new music. He’s released five albums in the past four years.
“Yeah, it's actually a good record,” Dillon concedes in his raspy voice.
“Because I've kept my mouth shut on it, and I didn't sing,” he jokes. “And it was like an old-school jazz record.”
Dillon’s also touring as a member of Les Claypool’s Flying Frog Brigade. Claypool, the offbeat rock star best known for his band Primus, is a longtime Dillon collaborator on adventurous projects including Bastard Jazz.
“To me, he's the Tom Waits of the punk-funk-thrash generation that we all came out of,” Dillon says.
The collective also includes two notable rock and roll scions: guitarist Sean Lennon, son of John Lennon, and Harry Waters, son of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. The concert will feature an interpretation of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album “Animals.”
“Years later, you know, I think it's less about the craziness and the antics, obviously, but it's still about the music,” Dillon says. “It's outsider music made by a trained insider.”
Mike Dillon will perform with Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade at 7 p.m. on Friday, May 26 at Grinder’s KC, 1826 Locust St., Kansas City, Missouri 64108. General admission tickets start at $55.