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THE BUSINESS OF UNCOMPROMISING ART

Heavy music is best when it’s not quite safe. It’s most authentic when it can’t be controlled. The Dillinger Escape Plan’s new album One Of Us Is The Killer delivers another signature plate of reckless creativity that continues to blur the lines that divide metal from rock, experimental ambience from pop, rigid structure from complete chaos. Anything goes, and no musical style is safe from Dillinger’s strange touch.

The New Jersey-based group made their start in the underground hardcore scene, playing frenetic, insane noise-metal so dense and jarring as to be nearly indigestible. But if you listen close enough, you begin to glimpse the genius behind the madness: time signatures change at the blink of an eye, multiple times in a two-minute song that’s so complex it seems to contain fifteen different songs within itself. Even their simplest rock riffs are filled with subtle fills and staccato flourishes that keep you perpetually off-guard and slightly confused, as every musical rule you took for granted gets torn apart. Since their full-length debut Calculating Infinity in 1999, Dillinger’s refusal to conform to heavy metal standards has infected most every modern metal act today. Emulated by many, The Dillinger Escape Plan still stands worlds apart from their peers.

Most fans divide their lives in two parts: life before seeing Dillinger perform, and life after. There is simply no way to prepare yourself for their live show; they take the energy from 0 to 11 faster than you can say, “Who is this band again?” They’ll jump off tower speakers, they’ll climb on people in the crowd, they’ll breathe fire, and they’ll somehow execute a flawless musical performance along the way.

Founder and principal songwriter Ben Weinman gave me some candid insight recently on music, life and business. He makes for a great interviewee: his answers were clear, thoughtful, and lengthy. The intense passion he brings to the stage showed itself here as a lucid wakefulness—he still believes in what he’s doing, even fifteen years into his career, and he knows more clearly than ever his purpose within it.

What was the most rewarding song to write on the new album?

There are two, for two different reasons. “When I Lost My Bet” was something I immediately wanted to play live. It was written to be played live. Even on the first day we performed it, I felt completely energized by it. Saucy, dark… Immediately brings me to where I need to be when I’m performing.

The other favorite was the title track, “One Of Us Is The Killer,” ‘cause it was so simple. At the very end of making the record, Billy Rymer (drums) and I started jamming; we just pressed “Record,” and wrote it really quickly. When Greg Puciato (vocals) got it, all the lyrics came really naturally. It’s cool to have songs you labor over, agonizing over every detail, then have songs where you can just roll downhill and exhale. I think that’s what I love about the band the most: it’s so dynamic, just like life. It’s not like, “Oh, we have to sound like Slayer, every record, every day.” We have the opportunity to put all the feelings and dynamics into the music that we go through in life.

My first time seeing The Dillinger Escape Plan was on the Miss Machine tour, in SF. There was a moment where you disappeared off the stage; the band didn’t know what was up and just started the next song. You came back a couple measures into the music, like nothing had happened. Later on, I heard a rumor that you had had a metal plate installed in your head the night before…?

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Holy shit, I remember that. That was a tough night for me, man. I didn’t have a metal plate installed in my head, I had seven staples in my head from the night before—in Anaheim I had split my head open; massive concussion; later found out that I’d also broken a bone in my neck. At that show you were at, I didn’t even know about the neck thing yet, I was just really delirious and in a bad place. Sometimes when you have head injuries you just get really angry. I was so out of it… I dunno if you’ve ever had staples, but it’s literally a staple gun shooting into your skull. It’s really violent.

So I was going through a lot, and also just trying to step up; trying to not disappoint the band and the fans; I wanted to play. I just got really frustrated… I walked off and had a temper tantrum. I remember thrashing the backstage area, throwing trash cans, kicking the doors in… then walking back onstage to finish the set [laughs]. That was a tough time.

Well, that show changed my life, especially after I’d heard about that injury. That’s some hero shit.

I didn’t know any of that was made public.

Tell me about your recent Music Business workshop in Sydney, Australia.

It was quite interesting for me; I’m glad people are so receptive to it. The workshops started with universities asking me to speak to their Music Industry classes, being a founder of a more D.I.Y. kind of band; being a self-managed guy.

A lot of what I talk about are business principles that are pretty typical nowadays: Things from marketing books, from strategists who talk to business leaders and founders. They talk a lot about branding. With Dillinger, you’re branding art. How do you become a successful business when you’re an uncompromising artist? A lot of people don’t think they go together, but that’s not the case; we’re proof of that. So my workshops are about the business of being a true artist.

If you know WHY you do what you do, then you’ll be able to figure out WHAT to do to achieve that success. Figure out WHY you do it, HOW you do it, and WHAT it is that you’re giving people. People who start with the “what” before they figure out the “why” aren’t gonna be as impactful.

Businesses or artists who start with the “why” of what they do create a scenario of trust with their fans. You want trust; you want people to believe that you care about what you’re doing, that you believe what you say…

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Dillinger had a cause; a purpose; and it was to NOT be a mass-marketed animal. As soon as we defined that as a product, like, THIS is who we are. We are NOT Limp Bizkit,” it became very easy for us to market it to people who wanted that alternative. Find out what isn’t being offered out there, and be the best at it.

We’ve made it this far; we’re still somewhat relevant, and we’ve been a band since before YouTube and Myspace. We’ve seen all the incarnations of the business. Based on the fact that we have been a D.I.Y. underground band, and have chosen to be more like Vitamin Water than Pepsi, we’ve been able to survive the trends. We’ve never been a part of the big machine.

How exactly did you go from being a full-time student and employee to being a successful musician?

There’s no magic wand for how to do it. I was in bands through high school… I was the guy in the band who would go get a job at Kinko’s so I could use the photocopier to make flyers for the shows; the guy who would take a web-design course ‘cause the band needed a website. That’s what I was good at. I’m not the best guitar player in the world, that wasn’t what I was good at. I was good at making things happen, and focusing on what I wanted.

It became clear early on that no how matter how hard I worked, we were not gonna succeed in making music. It was too hard. We weren’t friends with any record labels or bigger bands; it just wasn’t gonna happen. So I went to college for psychology. I asked myself, “What am I good at? Well, I’m good at daydreaming, pretending I’m paying attention… How do I make money at that? I can be a psychologist—sit and listen to people talk while I daydream about music.” [laughs] I kept playing music throughout school just for fun, and that’s when Dillinger started.

We realized we just had to make something we enjoyed, NOT music we thought would do well. We got involved in the underground punk and hardcore scene, ‘cause the metal scene was too difficult; there were only giant clubs and huge bands. The punk scene was attractive because of all this nostalgia around it; you would hear about all these bands who did it without anybody’s help, without anybody telling them how to do it. The kids were putting on the shows themselves, putting out the records themselves… There was nobody saying, “You can’t do this.” So I’d be at school or working all week, then I’d have a show every couple weeks to vent it all out.

I noticed that all the older punk kids weren’t really paying attention to the bands. There were a lot of bands that sounded like some of the legends, but none of them were really exciting to the older kids, who had been around since it all started.

That bothered me. I wanted to see the Black Flag days, where riots were starting, and people were going crazy. I wanted to see the Bad Brains days; where this black singer’s doing reggae-influenced punk music that no one had ever heard before; he’s going totally crazy, and everyone’s all, “What the fuck? I’ve NEVER seen this before.”

I wanted that feeling to come back, so I knew that with Dillinger, we had to do something completely different: Something that embodied the spirit of the bands in that time, but didn’t sound anything like them. Sounding like them won’t create that spirit. What will create that spirit is having the attitude, but then creating something different, like they did. So Dillinger’s purpose back then was just to vent out the work-week, and create music that polarized people: Stuff that made people say, “Whoa, I dunno if I like this or hate it, but I’m definitely paying attention.”

As soon as we started doing it for those reasons, things started to work out for the first time. At this point I’d already graduated college, had a full-time job at a web company with stock options, and had started a Masters program before I realized, “Man, I’m actually a professional musician. I’ve gotta quit everything. I’m missing school everyday ‘cause we’re getting tour offers, we have a record deal with Relapse… It’s gonna be hard; I’m gonna make less money, I’m gonna sleep on benches, but I have the opportunity now. It’s here. I have to make a choice, and there’s no other choice.” I was probably like 24 years old at that point.

How is life as professional musician now, 15 years later?

Some things are different. Now, there are times when I’m leaving for tour, and I’m less excited than I was when I was 24. Like, “Man I really wish I could stay home and work on my house, hang out with my dogs…” but I have to go on tour instead. On stage though, I still have the same goal, the same feelings, and I still feel just as nervous. Life has changed around the band for sure, but the reasons are still the same.

 

See The Dillinger Escape Plan perform live at Senator Theatre April 22nd, featuring Trash Talk, Retox, and Shining. Tickets are $15 in advance.

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Howl was born in the wastes north of Hithlum, where only beasts and witches dare roam. He was raised by two old hags, Tabby and Wiles, who had an unhealthy fascination towards the literary arts. Howl now resides in a well-furnished cave off South Rim Trail, complete with an old iBook and Wi-Fi.