By Jarrod Dicker
New Brunswick, NJ, USA
I was lucky enough to catch Garage A Trois at Brooklyn Bowl back in May. It was the fifth time I’ve seen the group with Marco Benevento in the band. Ever since he’s hopped onboard, there’s been this noticeable surge of energy within the band.
THIRSTY: How, personally, has Marco brought Garage A Trois to a whole ‘nother level?
Skerik: Every player is different. We’re just really lucky that we get to play with super talented and, more importantly, individualistic musicians like Charlie Hunter, John Medeski and now, Marco Benevento. It’s like we’re spoiled, you know [laughs]? Each player has a lot of power. And it’s great because each guy is so different in the position they play; they’re playing bass and creating harmonic movements, texture, sound and have a big part in how the rhythm works as well. So, essentially, they drive the band a lot. Not just dynamically, but in so many other ways. It’s so different but so great. It’s also very fun right now because I’m into exploring rock and loud music and the energy you can get from that kind of style. Marco’s not afraid of that stuff, so it’s good.
Mike Dillon: Like Skerik said, it’s different. When Charlie Hunter was in the band, we were on a whole different writing agenda altogether. It was based on the rhythm section that he and Stanton would do, which would always be amazing and super fun to play with. He had a very distinct concept of what he wanted to do. There wouldn’t be any implied formality for songwriting though, per se. But when he left the band and Marco came in, I knew we were going to start to explore something new. Charlie’s thing was James Brown, organ trio, jazz. When Marco came in, everyone was like, “Alright, let’s be a rock band!” It was that enthusiasm, I know for me, which really gave the feeling that we could be onto something new. There were no judgments or anything. Sometimes you get in these bands and everyone is saying, “let’s not do that”, or, “this sounds too much like that.” It was none of that. It was just cool.
THIRSTY: Being an instrumental band, was Benevento the perfect replacement for Hunter? Is everyone in the band still as into it as they were when Charlie Hunter was around?
Mike Dillon: Well yes, we are an instrumental band and that’s a fun part of it. Lets cover a song from Queens of the Stone Age, but since we don’t have a vocalist, let’s replace it with sax and a vibraphone. That’s why Marco is a great fit. There’s mystery in this music. And sure, we cover some songs or do a Ween song like we did at Brooklyn Bowl where I sing because sometimes I like to get on the mic and go crazy [laughs]. But that’s one great thing about this band, that we’re an instrumental rock band. We went from being a groove funk band to a rock band that still holds the power of Stanton Moore. He brings the funk to everything he does. At the end of the day you have to live with yourself. That’s another good thing about Garage A Trois is that we’re all really into it and that’s what’s got us through the whole, “Hey man, what happened to Charlie,” thing. Yeah, we’re different but life is always different. We’re into it. That’s probably why Garage A Trois is still going. If none of us were into it, we’d just move on to something else.
The Dead Kenny Gs
Operation Long Leash (2011)
Garage A Trois
Always Be Happy , But Stay Evil (2011)
THIRSTY: Do any members of the band still have a relationship with Charlie Hunter?
Mike Dillon: Oh, hell yeah! He’s my brother, one of the funniest human beings on the planet. We talk all the time. I stopped by his place the day after the Garage A Trois Brooklyn Bowl show. He’s still one of my mentors. I love the guy so much. Every time I talk to him, I learn something new. I want to play more music with Charlie and have a good feeling I will. He played on the track, “Black Truman” on the new Dead Kenny Gs record, Operation Long Leash. Charlie is family, you know? He’s definitely a huge influence on my vibraphone playing. We call him, “Uncle Sid”! He’s our Uncle Sid.
THIRSTY: While we’re on the subject of Garage A Trois, Charlie Hunter, and Marco Benevento, has there ever been a discussion of expanding the group beyond the traditional foursome? Maybe adding a bassist, guitarist, etc.?
Skerik: I don’t know, we haven’t really thought about that before. There’s never really been a need. Necessity is the mother of invention, so unless we need it, I can’t really imagine it happening. But I’m sure it would be a lot of fun if we did.
Mike Dillon: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t think there’s a hard rule with that. If the right person came along, or if we wrote some music that needed more players, it could definitely happen. The other night we had Nigel Hall on stage with us and it was amazing. I could see some stuff happening, but it really depends on what we do with our next record.
THIRSTY: Cool. On that note, let’s focus on your other current project, The Dead Kenny Gs. You released Operation Long Leash just a month prior to the new Garage A Trois album, Always Be Happy, But Stay Evil. How do you approach songwriting for The Dead Kenny Gs? Is it different from how you approach the creative process of a Garage A Trois record?
Mike Dillon: Well, Skerik and I have been working together for a long time. The way it often works is that Skerik and I will like an idea - or maybe we’ll even have an entire song - and will need to work it to make it stronger. I’ll just start playing something and Skerik will be like, “that sounds really cool” and add to each section. That was the way we originally started writing; come to the table with ideas and work through them. I think lately everyone is pretty busy, but speaking for myself, I love sitting around and writing songs. “Lets see if this sucks or if it’s good. Oh it sucks? Ok then I’ll get back at it.” So that’s how it works. I learned that from Mike Watt, he would write a song a day. It works well when you have three days in the studio because you’re pushed to make the record and then someone has to mix it.
THIRSTY: Meaning that when you schedule record time, it’s better because it forces you to lay down tracks, produce, and move quickly?
Mike Dillon: Exactly, that’s the thing about scheduling record time; it forces you to create up front. Or it forces you to have rehearsals. We’ll rehearse for two weeks, play gigs on the weekends, and then bang it out in the studio. I guess what I’m saying with all of this is that there are no rules. Everyone is in the process of creating.
THIRSTY: And back to the last part of that question, how does the creative process differ from The Dead Kenny Gs to Garage A Trois?
Skerik: They’re different in that we have certain limitations we work within. So when you’re writing for Garage A Trois and the Dead Kenny Gs you have to think what’s going to work within the both of them. There are the obvious limitations in that one band has four people and the other has three. The Dead Kenny Gs is unique because the drummer also plays vibraphone. So we get extra little voices there but not all the time. Both bands have limitations that you work within so when you get a musical idea and you bring it out, it becomes clear where it should go.
Garage A Trois (credit: Michael Weintrob)
THIRSTY: Is there a preference to create music for Garage A Trois or The Dead Kenny Gs? Is there one you look forward to more than the other?
Skerik: They’re all your children. There isn’t some plan or anything fancy going on. There isn’t any kind of prioritization going on.
THIRSTY: As mentioned before, the Garage A Trois and Dead Kenny Gs records’ released a month apart. Was this a strategy?
Mike Dillon: Well, it was really because we wanted to work with Randall Dunn and he was available to do The Dead Kenny Gs record in December. And with Garage A Trois, we already decided we wanted to record in January ‘11. Having two records come out within a month apart isn’t always a great idea. But the fact that we tour and we can tour on both is beneficial. Due to the fact that Skerik and I are willing to tour all the time, we’re able to cover all necessary dates for both bands. Right now it seems like having two bands is manageable. And I’m always thinking about my next move and which band I’ll want to make a record with next. So I’m getting into that writing phase again and we’ll see.
THIRSTY: Both bands fuse elements of polarizing genres that incorporate jazz, funk, classical, rock, metal, etc. How did you guys come to create this unique fusion of sound? Was it accidental?
Skerik: Well, the drummer of Critters Buggin, Matt Chamberlain, used to say, “Play your record collection.” So that’s kind of what happened. If you like all this different kind of music, it becomes very simple what you should do. If you’re being honest with yourself and you’re writing music that you believe in and really like, it works. If you’re moved by it, its going to reflect what you’ve been listening to and what you’ve been exposed to in your life. That’s what goes on with me.
THIRSTY: Mike, you currently live in New Orleans and have lived all over the country, namely Austin and Kansas City. How does the environment you live in affect your song writing?
Mike Dillon: Oh, big time! I first moved to New Orleans right after the storm. And where I live, I don’t have any distractions. This city, this environment, it definitely brings out my creativity. It influences me in so many ways. Not only is there groove music, but there’s a lot of heavy, dark music that happens here as well. This life absolutely influences the writing. If I’m out in the country and there’s a different type of solitude, you’d hear it through the music. I find peace and solitude wherever I go. There’s a lot of peace and beauty here in New Orleans, one of the most beautiful and amazing cities on the planet. So the answer is, yes. At the same time, we travel and are on the road so much that it’s like the whole world is shrinking. Literally, I was just on the road for four months doing laps around the country and it basically becomes one city; pretty homogenized.
THIRSTY: And Skerik, the same question to you. You spent your childhood in Seattle and currently reside there. How has the city affected your songwriting?
Skerik: Well, as you said, I’m from Seattle where Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Lee are from. So, I’m very much influenced by Kung Fu rock [laughs]. And King Fu blues [laughs]. I don’t think it really matters where someone grows up in a modern sense. I think if someone grows up in an African American Baptist church community, it will affect you musically. But if you’re just growing up in a white suburb in Seattle, you kind of have a blank slate. Whereas, like Mike said, in New Orleans there isn’t much of a blank slate. There are some very well-defined cultural influences there. Stanton and I both grew up in suburbs, but when he went to a parade as a kid, they were playing “second line” and all those amazing brass band melodies. When I went to a parade, there was nothing [laughs]. There was no parade most of the time.
The Dead Kenny Gs (credit: Zack Smith)
But my dad would listen to a lot of jazz at home. He was a jazz freak. So I got turned on to Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Gerry Mulligan and all this great music. I was really lucky because he listened to symphonic music too. I didn’t get into rock until much later. I had a neighbor that had amazing taste in music and he had every Hendrix tape, Zeppelin tape, Skynard, you name it; now they call it “classic rock”. But they didn’t call it that then. So I was incredulous when that radio format came out in the 80s. In high school, I looked for new music. So I just associated all that classic rock music with my youth. I already checked that out and I wanted to hear new stuff. Later in my life, I was like, “Hold on, I have to go check that shit out again [laughs].” There is some amazing songwriting there, some amazing sounds and playing all around. Because now when we check out this “classic rock” we’re looking at it as musicologists. Were obsessed with music. We get super microscopic and dissect John Bonham, Keith Moon, music from Bulgaria, Persian music, contemporary, rock, all that stuff. We’re looking for song writing information now. Before when we used to listen to music it was just for pleasure. Now I’m listening to that same music in a whole different way and learning from it. I can listen to it for fun, too, but the other side of my brain is scanning it trying to hear something new. That’s the yin and yang of music. Music only exists in the moment its being played, but it also gives you something different every time it’s played. It’s something that isn’t permanently there in front of you all the time, and that’s how it makes up for it not being there all the time through the yin and yang. It gives you something different each time you hear it. It’s these fleeting moments that keep you checking in over time.
THIRSTY: You guys are pretty active on the festival and live music circuit. Who else on the scene can you see yourself collaborating with?
Mike Dillon: You never know. Some people I make music with I never thought in a million years I would. I never thought I’d make music and tour with Les Claypool for all these years. You never know what’s going to happen. I definitely never thought I’d make music with Ani DiFranco. She has an apartment in New Orleans, I live in New Orleans and BOOM we’re collaborating. There are a lot of bands I love. I love the guys from Ween. I’ve been pretty lucky, playing with Steven Bernstein from Sex Mob. And there are more guys that come from the experimental jazz side of things I’d like to play with. Glenn Kotche from Wilco and I have discussed doing a percussion record. There are guys that are more tangible; it’s just a matter of taking time out to do it. And there are a lot of guys around here in New Orleans too that I’d be excited to work with.
THIRSTY: What can we expect from Skerik and Mike Dillon in the near future?
Skerik: Well, just doing more touring with The Dead Kenny Gs and Garage A Trois this year to promote the two new records. We’re really excited about them. And then doing other little side projects here in Seattle, playing with some amazing players in the northwest. I’m always keeping time open for other things. I’m doing a gig in August with John Medeski and Adam Deitch which I’m really excited about at the Royal Family Affair up in Vermont and I’m really excited about that.
Mike Dillon: As Skerik said, we still have Garage a Trois touring and really just pushing myself to keep going. As long as I do that, everything takes care of itself. I’m hungry to do more stuff. It’s all about music for me…and an occasional snowboarding journey [laughs].