Mike Dillon may not be from New Orleans originally, but he loves it like home. After first experiencing Jazz Fest in 1999, the percussionist was hooked and eventually moved from Texas to the Big Easy and hasn’t looked back. During the recent 50-year celebration of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Dillon played in over 30 shows throughout the two-week celebration.
While he may be best known for his eclectic, energetic and enigmatic work with his own solo bands and supergroups like Garage A Trois and Nolatet, Dillon has also backed up the likes of Ani DiFranco and is currently in the midst of a spring and summer of touring with singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones. Just before heading to Japan for a run of shows with Jones, Dillon recaps his impossibly busy Jazz Fest, talks about his musical history with fellow weirdo Les Claypool, expresses his love for the unique qualities of New Orleans, explains why he’s all about “playing for the music” no matter who you’re with and hints at what sort of music he has in store for the world later this year and next (including some more Elliott Smith marimba covers).
You just got done with a very busy Jazz Fest with a ton of shows. Do you remember how many?
Yeah I started in on the Tuesday before Jazz Fest and my last Jazz Fest gig was this past Monday, and counting sit ins with Claypool Lennon [Delirium] and String Cheese and one with Anders [Osborne], I did 31 all together. And one of those was the Megalomaniacs Ball, three complete sets where I was involved with each set. So a lot of music, but it’s always fun
There’s some point, where you think, “Oh my god, why did I take this many gigs?” This last weekend was really crazy, like four a day. Like [Les Claypool’s] Bastard Jazz started a three in the morning, played until four-thirty, got out of the venue, got to sleep at six, woke up at noon and went right to the Fairgrounds to play with Galactic. That’s the way it’s always been. The energy comes from the fans, and everyone in the city is so alive and excited about the music. The first time I’d seen Jazz Fest was 20 years ago 1999. I sat in with Galactic at House of Blues, then Stanton and I went to see Zig [Modeliste] play down the street. And I was hooked. Then the next year it was like three gigs and then after that it was more.
Did you even get a chance to rest or eat with all those shows?
I did eat. I actually even got some jogs in in the morning. I have to train for my touring and my gig schedule. I can’t party too much; it’s a full commitment.
Any specific highlights from the 31 shows?
Well, I do so many different kinds of music, from the more creative, jazzy things we do at the SideBar with James Singleton and Steven Bernstein. That’s like our version of The Stone, or what Tonic used to be in New York City. So it’s a lot of improvising. And when I say improvise, I mean we have no roles, and we’re not doing a set of specific songs to get through the night. We start playing and see where it goes and there’s the magic there. So pretty much all those nights were incredible. And then on the first Friday, my percussion ensemble played the Music Box Village with Martín Perna from Antibalas, and we had a wonderful collaboration that was amazing. Such a special, unique musical art installation. Then as far as my band, we had an amazing set at Crawfish Fest Tuesday.
Just so much. And every one of them, literally every little thing, even my one-minute sit in with Anders Osborne, playing congas, was just amazing. And I know that sounds maybe cliché or something, but that really is the power of music. Everyone’s so pumped and excited. I played with Cha Wa and Galactic out on the Fairgrounds, and both those sets were incredible. And the Bastard Jazz thing, there was a lot of hype and excitement about that gig, and that was my only gig with Skerik the whole Jazz Fest. I play with Stanton all the time, and there is that history with Skerik and with Les of course. When we get on stage together and we just start playing it’s like, “Wow.” I mean, rehearsal that day was even amazing, and we played for 45 minutes—songs were being composed on the spot. And then Steven Bernstein was in town with Little Feat. I’ve always been such a fan, whether its Sex Mob or anything he’s done with Henry Butler or going back to The Lounge Lizards. So to get to close it off with him was a great way to go out. And then there’s Frasco! I mean I sat in with Frasco and literally staged dived during his set, which I used to do that in the ‘90s with my old funk-punk band all the time, but the spirit just grabbed me, and next thing you know I’m stage diving and hitting my head on a monitor, like, “Wait, I’m not 23, I’m 53!” But that’s the power of music; it just grabs you. Whether it’s making you stage dive, or a group improvising and playing some amazing music that you’ve never done before, that’s what we’re all looking for, the fans and the musicians.
Could you talk about your musical relationship with Les Claypool?
Well, I first started playing with Les back in 2002, and I did all his solo bands with the exception of Bucket of Bernie Brains, so I did a lot of touring with him for like 10 years. This was like our third Bastard Jazz gig where. He just felt like he wanted to get together with a group of players he really likes playing with, to improvise and see what happens. Some nights he might quote a Primus tune or we’ll go into “Dee’s Diner,” and I think he quoted a part of a Claypool Lennon Delirium song the other night when Sean [Lennon] sat in with us. It’s very free and very open. You play so many gigs together, there’s a language that you develop over the years. It really is that cliché of just getting on a bike again. It always feels good. There are those times when you get together with people and you play and there’s no magic left, but I’m grateful that it still feels magical when I play with those guys. They’re all such great players. Stanton and I live here in New Orleans, so it’s easy to go play a gig—I sit in with Galactic all the time, so he and I have developed a language.
This was our first Bastard Jazz gig with Stanton on the drums, and I think it was the first official gig that Stanton played with Les. And Stanton’s concept of funk is coming more from The Meters and the Mardi Gras Indian traditions, and of course he’s a student of James Brown and all the other great Funkateers. Stanton is a student and he studies all the music diligently. And Les is like a West Coast, Tower of Power kind of guy—super tight funk. But I thought it really worked together. They were dynamite, so it was easy to play over them. The thing about playing with Les and Stanton, they know how to build a solo and make you sound amazing. That’s what a great rhythm section does, and that’s why great a rhythm sections are sough out. Otherwise, everyone would just get a drum machine. Even like bands like Pretty Lights hiring Adam Deitch, because he’s such a bad motherfucker you know? I mean, the drum goes back to Africa, India—it goes back. And that’s what moves us all… I’m rambling now.
Did you get to see any Jazz Fest music that you weren’t playing in?
Well, I watched a bit of the Claypool Lennon Delirium while I was sitting to wait for soundcheck, and they sounded amazing. I saw some of Corey Henry when I was waiting to play—not the Snarky Puppy Cory, but the New Orleans Corey. A little bit of Tank and the Bangas when I got to Jazz Fest—they played right before Galactic, and they sounded amazing. I did see some improvised stuff that was really good. I heard a bit of Jeff Coffin and Helen Gillet; that was really good. I do try to watch other bands play to get out of myself and get inspired, but the short answer is that this year I did so many gigs and didn’t get to see enough other bands play. I was playing on Karl Denson’s Aretha Franklin tribute, playing congas and percussion, and it was like having the best seat in the house. Same thing with Galactic, they were playing their new music at Tip’s and they had that artist Boyfriend come up and sit in with them. And it was really my first time seeing Boyfriend. I’ve known about her, living in New Orleans, and she’s freaking awesome. And then I hadn’t seen String Cheese in ages, and my buddy Jason Hann had me come up and sit in with those guys. Especially when you’re waiting to sit in and you have the in-ears, if you take a second as a musician to listen to what every band is doing, you can go, “Oh wow, I never thought of it that way.” Whether it’s life or music, we all get into our tunnel vision, you know, and that’s what someone like Trump counts on.
Last night I saw this amazing poet named Kalamu ya Salaam speak right before I played this gig. He’s an activist, probably in his sixties, and he was really calling us out to think about what we’re doing. Like are we really doing something new or are we just regurgitating? Are we being ourselves or are we being what we’re taught to be? All that stuff was in his poetry, and it was really cool to hear an elder like that make me sit there and think about it, like, “Yeah, what am I doing here? Am I really trying to get to know myself and to dig deeper as a musician, as an artist?” And I think when you’re digging deeper and trying to be a better musician, sometimes you have these blinders on and you’re just digging deeper. You don’t take time to check out what everyone else around you is doing. I’m always listening to music in my van, and [New Orleans radio station] WWOZ is amazing. I was listening last night and I heard this old blues track with this killer vibraphonist. There’s so much music out there to check out, it’s never freaking ending.
I went to Festival International and played, that’s this festival that they do in Lafayette where they have all these amazing bands from all over the world, and right before we played there was this amazing Morrocan band. Two years in a row I’ve seen these amazing Morrocan, Northern African bands, almost like Tinariwen, along those lines. I didn’t get the name of them; I just sat there with my jaw on the ground.
You live in New Orleans now, but you came from Texas originally. When did you move?
August 29th, 2006, is when I moved my stuff here, but starting right around Jazz Fest 2006, after Katrina I was sort of couch-surfing at Stanton’s house. Then I was leaving Texas and wanted to move to New York, and then all of a sudden I got offered a place in New Orleans and that’s when I moved here. I was playing with Johnny V[idacovich] and George Porter and folks like that. I got offered a cheap apartment, so I decided I was gonna go do the New Orleans thing and become immersed in the culture here. My music is weird with the Mike Dillon Band, but it’s all firmly based in rhythmic music, whether it’s salsa or cumbia or the music of Fela [Kuti] or good ol’ funk. And for groove music, there’s no better place to be than New Orleans.
Had you had much experience with New Orleans before that first Jazz Fest in ’99?
My old band Billy Goat that used to play Wetlands in New York, we toured nonstop in the ‘90s and we would play Baton Rouge and New Orleans; that would be a weekend trip from Texas, because that was when I was in Dallas. So, we had amazing shows starting in 1990. Baton Rouge would always be sold out, packed, everyone going crazy. And we would come over and play the old Howlin’ Wolf or the old Jimmy’s and have really good shows in New Orleans, but for me at the time it seemed like our shows in Baton Rouge were always more well received. But I was still intrigued by New Orleans. I read a lot about it. Confederacy of Dunces is still one of my favorite books. New Orleans is just magical. Baton Rouge, Lafayette, all this part of southern Louisiana—there’s just a magical thing, and I learned real quick that people love music. Back in the early ‘90s, people were like, “Aw man, you gotta go to Jazz Fest sometime and check it out.” So that’s how you get an itch. And I remember a promoter saying to me, “You gotta see this drummer Johnny Vidacovich play.” So I was hearing about Johnny and then I was starting to get into jazz again.
I moved up to Kansas City in the mid-‘90s and based our band there, because it was essential to touring. It was great—you could be in Chicago in three hours or be in Ohio in eight hours and over in New York or to Denver in eight hours. Johnny V and James Singleton’s Astral Project came up to play the Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival, and I remember thinking, “Wow, I want to play with those guys someday.” And then that second Jazz Fest I came, to I remember seeing James Singleton walking around Jazz Fest with his bass and, you know, his really colorful pants and crazy ties—he always dressed very eccentric. I would go see him play and I was always just like,”God, I love this guy.” Then eventually our paths crossed and we started playing. Five of my gigs at Jazz Fest were with him, and I had one with Johnny V this year. On Tuesday night after Jazz Fest, which is still sort of Jazz Fest, I saw Johnny play a duet with this guitar player I think he’s from Tangier or somewhere in Northern Africa—Morocco maybe. He was incredible. New Orleans is great.
I’ve also been working with Rickie Lee Jones for the past three years—great singer-songwriter, and she lives in New Orleans now. She’s from LA, but she’s lived all over. In the late ‘70s her first record broke big with that song “Chuck E.’s in Love,” and she and Tom Waits were dating back then and writing songs together. She’s got an amazing voice. Just the other day, we were at a gig and she was singing on her and Dr. John’s song, “Makin’ Whoopee.” We did her new record back in the fall last year, October/November, and it’s coming out June 1. I’m getting ready to go to Japan with her, then we’re gonna tour all summer, going to Europe and playing festivals there.
You know, she talks about it on stage: It’s walking down the street seeing kids with horns and tubas. I don’t know anywhere else in America that’s like this. And the whole Mardi Gras Indian thing is a whole other depth of music. As a percussionist, it really has started to make me appreciate Mardi Gras and that tradition. Because for years, I would just get out of town during Mardi Gras. Just a bunch of drunk tourists coming in to toss beads and see tits or whatever. Then one day, Stanton took me over to Big Chief Monk Boudreaux’s house, and we walked behind him, and there’s just that one tambourine rhythm that everyone plays. There’s an encyclopedia of drumming parts—everything from Earl Palmer to even John Bonham or Elvin Jones, to Zigaboo, to Stanton and on and on—that people have taken from that rhythm, knowing or not knowing. I love it.