The only time Mike Dillon was nervous before a gig ended with the crowd making bird noises. Primus' Les Claypool asked Dillon to open a show in Hawaii with a set of "Hawaiian music." Dillon fired up one of Martin Denny's tropical "exotica" compositions and asked the crowd to fill in the requisite bird calls and jungle sounds.
"I got to the gig — 'Oh my god, I'm playing with a drum machine in front of 800 Primus fans in a small club,'" Dillon says. "It was really hilarious and really terrifying."
Dillon has an unpredictable, octopus-like control of his mallets and sticks, orchestrating his percussion-only wall of sound, the New Orleans Punk Rock Percussion Consortium, or his Minutemen jazz-punk and sledgehammer funk with the Mike Dillon Band, or as a secret weapon in Primus' live arsenal.
"I talk about punk rock — punk rock is giving everything you have on the stage, whether you're a singer-songwriter or jazz," he says. "When I saw punk rock shows in the '80s, these guys weren't doing this stale, contrived music thing the industry was presenting. It was something real and gritty and everyone was sweaty in the club. My first punk rock show was Bad Brains in '86. I remember being there and all of a sudden they came on, H.R. did a flip into the crowd, and the place erupted. I'd never seen anything like that in my life."
But with his new album, following the February release of Dogs from his new jazz quartet Nolatet, Dillon takes another stab at pushing percussion's melodic boundaries with delicate, meditative arrangements (Dillon says Anders Osborne suggested he show off "a soft, gentle side of Mike Dillon").
On Functioning Broke, Dillon transforms several songs from Elliott Smith, the singer-songwriter whose heart-on-sleeve confessionals delivered earnest folk from his darkest edges, and Denny's "The Enchanted Sea." Dillon performed a set of their music at Preservation Hall last year after working on arrangements between tours, laying them down in the studio and gradually adding to what would become an album he never intended to release (to the public, at least).
"I wasn't intending on putting it out," he says. "I just wanted to hear how it sounds, have it in my car, give it to my girlfriend."
Dillon's Smith arrangements highlight the singer-songwriter's playful vocal delivery, performed here on vibraphones and xylophones singing above their percussive echoes and a handful of other percussion instruments (and only percussion instruments — marimba, xylophone, timpani, bells, tabla, congas).
"I like playing those songs as an exercise in becoming more lyrical on the vibraphone," he says. "You come up with harmony and melody, it's just natural. ... It taught me a lot about harmony. I've learned a lot from Elliott — not just talking about his lyrics. He's simple and complicated. The little things he does, you can tell he studies music. He knows the Beatles inside and out. There's a lot of depth to what he's playing. ... It really shows the childlike nature, the innocent nature, of a lot of those songs."
Dillon borrows a tropical arrangement for "Needle and the Damage Done" (the only song on the album Dillon didn't arrange) and includes several original compositions — the relative chaos of "Bachelor Pad" mellows to a tropical "Martin Denny/Les Baxter vibe," Dillon says. "We're in the jungle, running away from King Kong or whatever." The album closer is a mantra-like, minute-long "Tabla Goodnight."
"That's the other thing I was enjoying," Dillon says, "building songs with my percussionists, my mallet family I've been building."