Thursday, February 24, 2011
Interview with Skerik of The Dead Kenny G's
After my interview with Skerik, I rushed right home and put on Bewildered Herd, the first, and currently only, Dead Kenny G’s album. The Dead Kenny G’s are Skerik (tenor sax and keyboard), Mike Dillon (percussion and Vibraphone), and Brad Houser (bass and baritone sax). With Skerik’s words echoing around my skull, the music seemed transformed from just ordinary awesomeness to an album not truly heard before. It seemed much more revolutionary; full of punk intellectuality, vibrance, and even good old fashioned fun. These guys aren’t just doing something different, they’re doing it well. They utilize music’s traditional role of activism, communication, and solidarity, but translate it into a radical, post-post modern sound. Their new album, Operation Long Leash (wait until you hear the story behind the name!), comes out March 15, 2011 and is set to be an even more mind blowing, substance-oozing experience. More on that below, but first, some basics:
The Way Live Should Be (WLSB): How did the Dead Kenny G’s (DKG’s) come to be? And of course, where did the name come from?
Skerik: Well, Mike D and I have played in a lot of bands together; Critters Buggin and the Black Frames to name a few. Brian Houser was also in Critters Buggin. The DKG’s started with a keyboard player, Brian Haas, and then we switched and had Brad playing. It’s really good because Brad is a great, unique bass player and also plays the baritone saxophone. We each double up on instruments which helps us open up the sound a bit.
The name comes from this artist in Seattle, he told a friend of mine that he had a great band name but that only I could use it. When I heard it, I started the band the next day. It’s a great name because I’ve been a fan of the Dead Kennedys for years; they’re a very important punk rock band. Then Kenny G is just, such a jerk who makes horrible music and who symbolizes the whole commercial music/smooth jazz thing. We just want people to realize that there are options out there; you don’t have to listen to smooth jazz! There is real music with real substance out there that is smooth, but doesn’t pander in this horrible melodramatic way that smooth jazz does. A commercially, financially motivated way.
WLSB: Is Kenny G aware of the band?
Skerik: I don’t know. I think he’s locked away in his million dollar citadel. He probably doesn’t have a lot of incoming information. Otherwise it would make it really hard for him to do what he does considering most of the world is against him critically.
WLSB: Where does the DKG’s ultra unique sound come from?
Skerik: Well, theres the one side of it where you’re playing your record collection. If you’re a musician that is attracted to all kinds of different music it’s going to make the music that you play that much more diverse.
WLSB: Do you think appreciating the DKG’s requires an informed/musically learned listener?
Skerik: I think people should trust their guts more. There’s a great quote by Ornette Coleman that has to do with that. I actually have it here… “With my music I often have people come up to me and say I like it but I don’t really understand it. Many people apparently don’t trust their reaction to art or to music unless there is a verbal explanation for it. You can’t intellectualize music. It is only in terms of emotional response that I can judge whether what we are doing is successful or not. If you are touched in some way then you are in with me.”
He’s such a genius. I don’t think that the music we’re playing is really that challenging, like some of Ornette’s stuff. We’re basically a super party band that’s trying to introduce some interesting harmonic ideas, interesting linear ideas, and rhythmic concepts.
**Now, on to questions about the new album. From a new producer/engineer to an album name that is also the name of a secret CIA operation, the Dead Kenny G’s continue to bring their diverse influences and sounds to the table.**
WLSB: Were the creation processes of Long Leash different from Bewildered Herd in any way?
Skerik: Well the recording was different because we worked with this really great engineer named Randall Dunn. He was really special and had very specific ideas. He gets involved in the processes of recording and choosing what instruments should be overdubbed and what songs we should pick to put on the album. He was much more involved than the engineer of the first record. He’s pretty famous; getting to be a pretty well known engineer and producer. Look him up. He’s been making some really important records the past couple of years. It was a good opportunity for us. He’s been a friend for a long time and he’s really becoming a very special engineer and producer. That dramatically affected the sound of this new record. A lot of people are going to be listening in to the new record because of Randall’s involvement. However, the writing is similar to Bewildered Herd. We wrote the music as a trio and it still has similar ideas.
WLSB: The DKG’s image seems to have a significant political side. For example the song, “Im Your Manager, Im Your Pimp”, the album names; “Bewildered Herd” and “Operation Long Leash”. Is this a sign of the times, or do you guys have any sort of goals/agenda?
Skerik: That’s the punk rock side. We’re very influenced by 80’s punk rock. Like the Minute Men, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks… all that kind of stuff always had a very political message. All that has really disappeared, no one’s really been doing that which is pretty sad. That whole genre just sort of collapsed. On the new record there’s a song called Black Death and it’s about addiction to oil and addiction to drugs. Those are some themes and the kind of stuff that we talk about a lot. That one song sort of encapsulates what we’re trying to do.
WLSB: Should we expect any of the DKG members to be running for political office anytime soon?
Skerik: Ha! No, we’re obsessed with music. Music for us is a full time job, literally 24 hours a day. No time for anything else. The other two guys are sober. I drink a little bit, and maybe snowboarding, but that’s it. But that doesn’t mean we don’t endorse certain candidates and work with people. Mike D plays in Ani DiFranco’s band and she is very politically active and writes a lot of music dealing with politics. They were doing things with Dennis Kucinich when he was running for president. There’s definitely not many candidates like him. He’s a badass.
WLSB: Where does the new album’s name, Operation Long Leash, come from? We’ve read it’s the name of a CIA operation?
Skerik: Yeah, there’s actually a link in the album art work to the article on it. It’s a great story, just really incredible. I hope everyone gets to read about it. It was a CIA operation, but Harry Truman and Congress didn’t want to fund this operation because it involved supporting abstract art. So artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, etc; the CIA wanted to promote their artwork throughout the rest of the world, to show that America was a very free and open place. They couldn’t get public funding for it and there is a famous quote from Harry Truman he says, “If that’s art, I’m a Hottentot”. I looked up Hottentot and it’s a derogatory, European name for a tribe in South Africa. So, here’s this racist old curmudgeon who doesn’t know shit about art in the first place and he feels that his racist opinion is going to have some relevance to the discussion. When there’s all these CIA guys who are all Harvard and Yale graduates that had extensive education in art. They not only saw this as a way to fight the cold war with the USSR, but they were also fans of the art and they actually owned a lot of these paintings. So in the late ‘90s one of these guys was retired and he leaked this story out and it was written in the Independent, an English newspaper. That’s how we found out about it. So anyway, they were secretly promoting this art throughout the rest of the world by setting up tours of the work. They would find an art promoter/collector in New York, for example, and the CIA approached them and said we’ll pay to promote this tour of this Abstract Expressionist art in Europe and we’ll underwrite it. Can you do it and don’t tell anyone where the money is coming from? And they were like, Oh yeah, of course; these people were promoting this artwork on a daily basis.
Its just so amazing; they had these tours and they were doing it covertly. The artists didn’t even know. If you read about it I think there were some rules involved in the USSR and elsewhere; if you were an artist you had to paint in this realist style to highlight the people’s struggle, etc. The CIA was basically like, look, they’re telling artists how to paint and how to work. We aren’t telling our people what to do, we have a freer society, a better society and here is an example. I encourage you to read about it, I’m not a scholar on the subject.
Not to mention it makes a great album title. In instrumental music we put a lot of thought into our song and album titles. Those titles are like our lyrics, like little haikus. It might only be one word or three words, but they can tell a whole story. Like Miles Davis, he used to do that. He was playing instrumental music but his song and album titles would tell a whole story.
**Read the Independent’s article about Operation Long Leash here:
How many album titles can you think of with stories as cool as that? To wrap it up, a few questions particular to the upcoming show and New England.**
WLSB: What can you say about the on stage presence of the band?
Skerik: Oh man, crazy… visceral. In your face. Ready to please.
WLSB: Have you played NH before?
Skerik: Oh yeah, we’ve played the Stone Church a bunch of times. I’ve also played Portland, ME a couple of times with Claypool. I’d really like to get back up there.
WLSB: What do you think of the “East Coast Scene” compared to the “West Coast Scene”?
Skerik: I don’t see differences like that. We did really well the last time we were on the east coast. We haven’t been up north, but people were really supportive with a lot of people coming out to shows. It was really great. A lot of real passionate people everywhere, we are very lucky.
WLSB: Would you guys consider coming to Nateva?
Skerik: Well, the only way we can ever play any shows is if someone invites us. A lot of people come up to us and say why don’t you play here or here. I say well you tell the local clubs to hire us. We can’t just invite ourselves to your house, we have to be invited!
(Let’s work on that folks, ask Nateva to invite the Dead Kenny G’s!!)
WLSB: Anything else you would like to say?
Skerik: Well, we’ve actually been dressing up as dead Kenny G’s, so check it out, it’s going to be really fun!
The Way Live Should Be sends our everlasting thanks to Skerik for the opportunity to speak with one of our musical heroes. The DKG’s show in New Hampshire is March 16, 2011 at the Brick House, Dover, NH. (ONE DAY after the release of the new album… if that’s not an occasion to come party, I don’t know what is!!!) We will absolutely be there, and we hope to see you there too… it’s going to be an unforgettable opportunity to see a truly amazing, substance band, up close and personal.
Written by Heather Omand, Edited by Kim Morrison.
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Dead Kenny G’s site:
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