Blag Dahlia of Dwarves on kicking ass and not just being old guys going through the motions
Dwarves are one of the most notorious punk bands of all time. In a time when punk rock has become a kind of brand rather than an authentic lifestyle, Dwarves are always dependable to show what the real thing looks, feels and sounds like. With a reputation for dangerously raucous live shows often involving nudity, Dwarves are worthy of inclusion in the same chapter of punk history as GG Allin and Black Lips.
The band's album covers and pranks have offended and shocked those with more delicate sensibilities, those who do not possess the same completely irreverent sense of humor. What can be missed amid all the shenanigans is the fact that Dwarves are a compelling, fun and powerful live band. Yes, the shows are definitely on the brink (even over sometimes) when it comes to the crowd's reactions, but this is one group worthy of that kind of emotional exuberance.
We recently spoke with Dwarves' frontman, the sharp and endlessly humorous Blag Dahlia about a variety of subjects, including his band's reputation for mayhem, how the act unsuccessfully tried to get George W. Bush to use a Dwarves song as an anthem for his 2000 campaign and the mythical Sub Pop situation in which the band allegedly parted ways with the label over a famous incident in which the outfit paid tribute to the deceased He Who Cannot Be Named (who was not really dead, of course) in the liner notes of Sugar Fix.
Westword: In the early '90s, you kind of got more or less banned in certain parts of the country. Was there a show in particular that sparked that trend?
Blag Dahlia: Yeah, well there used to be a lot of violence at Dwarves shows. I think part of it had to do with people not realizing we had a sense of humor and part of it being that people felt very confronted by our music. It didn't really have that warm and fuzzy punk rock quality. That hadn't really come around yet with the pop punk thing. It also didn't have that solidarity/New York City punks bullshit either. We would show up in your town looking kind of scraggly and weird, and people would get really confused and angry when we played.
What did Sub Pop say to you about that prank regarding the "death" of He Who Cannot Be Named?
Well, what did they say? Sub Pop is a really silly label. They were silly then, and they got very lucky. What can you say? They were pretty oblivious to us all down the line. The myth is that they dropped us, but really our deal was done with them. What they did do was send out a letter to everybody in the music business, every distributor and everyone else, saying what horrible people we were. That didn't help us get a new record deal or anything, and it made people perceive that they dropped us.
It's funny, man, you take a scene like that that was just full of junkies and morons, but the one thing they didn't have was a sense of humor. So when you brought in the sense of humor element, boy, that really incensed everybody. That was the one thing they couldn't take in Seattle. It was okay if you wore a flannel shirt, and it was okay if you shot heroin, and it was okay if your girlfriend blew everyone in every band. But if you dared to have a sense of humor in Seattle in the early '90s, that was frowned upon.
It seemed like such an obvious joke, though.
It is, and it isn't. He Who Cannot Be Named is a very mystical character, and, to the best of my knowledge, he had, in fact, died. Sometimes I still think he's dead. There's definitely some moments where I feel that way.
On the history on your website, it mentioned that there was some celebrity imitation that lead to your being asked to leave Illinois. What imitation could that have possible been?
I don't know what that is. I'd have to go back and look at that! Put it this way, we come from Illinois. Very proud of it. It's a great place to leave.
How did you find out about punk early on and then become involved in it?
I think, like most people coming from that time, I saw some stuff on TV. Like Saturday Night Live with Sid Vicious or Devo. Or like Mr. Mike's Mondo Video had Sid Vicious in it. I was big on that stuff. I didn't consider it to be music, you know. I didn't think of it from a musical standpoint. I was big into Frank Zappa and Monty Python and Saturday Night Live. I had different conceptions about what music was, and punk didn't seem like it was real music.
When I was a freshman in high school, I started going down to Chicago, and the first band I saw was the Angelic Upstarts. And then I saw pretty much every band through high school: Dead Kennedys, Misfits, Black Flag, Minor Threat. If you saw these bands live in that era there was no substituting for it. The excitement of it was undeniable to me. What got me into it was really live punk.
Most of the records were pretty bad. A couple of the good records were that first Dead Kennedys record, the first single and EP by Black Flag -- those were some real seminal records that brought me in that way. But for the most part, the records were really bad. You'd go see bands live, and no one had ever seen anything like it at that time. Now things like moshing and stage diving and crowd surfing are standard, but you've got to put yourself back in that timeframe. There was no precedent for it. I think if I was a young person now, I wouldn't be very interested in punk rock because it's pretty fuckin' lame. I don't think I would waste any time on it.
The other thing was I loved the punk bands live, but really, musically, what I liked was the '60s garage bands. It's only in the last ten years or so that people have really come to see how great that music was. Then you got some bands like White Stripes or the Hives that kind of did a version of '50s and '60s kind of stuff. But that was the music that I loved -- rock and roll.
Did you ever get to see any of those bands like the Sonics or the Wailers?
You know, it's funny: We finally got to play with the Sonics about six months ago in the Netherlands. It was such a thrill for me, and I interviewed them for my podcast, Radio Like You Want, that people can check out. I spoke to them and did a great show that we did with them. That's the weird thing. It can be disappointing to see your idols. It can be a drag because sometimes they're not good anymore.
So with Dwarves it's very important to us that we go out there and we're not just old punk band #57. We go out to be the best one there that night. That's how we do it. So when people go down to see this Summergrind, they're not going to see old guys go through the motions like you sometimes see. They're going to see guys kickin' ass.
When I was a kid, I saw everybody, from Bo Diddley to Chuck Berry and different groups, and it just didn't have the excitement of going to see Minor Threat or the Replacements. A lot of times, I like the music of the older artists a lot better, and I liked their records better. But live, there was no comparison. Punk just upped the ante on the energy. And really, nothing's taken over for it since. The garage scene didn't get it. The garage bands are pretty boring to watch live for the most part.
There's an element of self-effacing humor, as well as the absurd humor, to what you do that maybe some people miss because of the spectacle of the show.
Or self-aggrandizing things, you know.
Two sides of the same coin, really.
Exactly. I think the biggest thing that's afflicted punk rock is that it became just like other forms of rock. It's all about your stage crew and your manager and your tour bus. That was part of the beauty of punk. You could get directly to your fans, and it didn't have all those elements in it. Of course it's many years later and young punk bands have grown up in an environment where you can get rich. They look at Billy Joe Armstrong or Blink-182 and say, "Okay, you can get rich playing punk." They get their managers and their buses.
Rock and roll always makes the same mistakes over and over and taking yourself too seriously is one of them. We don't do that. It's sort of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we know we're the greatest band of all time. That's just how we do it. Otherwise, we wouldn't bother doing it. At the same time, you can still walk up and say "Hi." That's the difference between punk rockers and people who have their head up their ass and play heavy metal.
Do you still get criticism for your cover art these days?
You know, I like when we get criticism because it means somebody noticed. Do records even have covers anymore? I don't think people get criticism for them because people don't notice them anymore. You don't have a cover, you have a thumbnail picture. You don't have a good-sounding sonic slab of wax there. You have an MP3 that sounds kind of dinky. That whole format has changed tremendously.
We were very lucky to meet Eric Valentine who was an up-and-coming producer in the mid-'90s, and he really showed us how to produce records and make amazing sounding drums and guitars and different things. At this point recording music, I have mixed feelings about it. The last record we made, Born Again, was our best received record ever.
The reviews were just over the top everywhere, and yet, within a week, everybody had bitten all the songs and are on to the next thing. It used to be you'd make a record and people would chew on it for the next year or two while you toured on it. Now it's like, "Oh, okay, I've got twenty songs by these guys. It'll take five minutes to rip this to iTunes, and I'm done. What's next?"
Making records is a really different ballgame. But I'm really glad we made Born Again because it brought together all the Dwarves from the last 25 years and had them all on one record, which is really exciting to me. There's been a bunch of different people in the band so it was really cool to get everybody on one.
What got you interested in doing a kind of bluegrass album with Blackgrass?
I've always loved bluegrass music, and I've always liked it better than country music. I really felt a different element to it. Of course they come from the same place: mountain, Appalachian music. To me, bluegrass is much closer to that, shit like Earl Johnson and the Cloghoppers and these '20s and '30s, obscure Appalachian records that have this amazingly interesting sound. Sort of like the blues of white people. People tend to think all rock and roll was stolen from black idioms, but it's not. It's a mixture, as all American music is, of all the cultures.
So I always loved bluegrass, and of course, as usual for us, I made that record in '95 and no one knew it existed. Then five years later Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? came out, and everybody said, "Oh yeah, bluegrass, this is great!" Now everybody listens to bluegrass and loves it.
That's the thing about Dwarves, we're always about five years ahead of our time. When we made Blood Guts & Pussy everybody said, "Aw man, punk's over. This is ridiculous." Then a few years later punk comes back via Green Day and stuff like that. We make The Dwarves Are Young And Good Looking and people say, "What happened to your hardcore, nasty shit like Blood Guts?"
Then we make Dwarves Must Die, which is the most eclectic record we ever made that had every genre. We were like, "Okay, we're going to do punk, hip-hop and experimental and speed metal and everything." Then people said, "Hey what about Young and Good Looking? That was a nice pop punk record."
So we're always just a few years ahead of where we're supposed to be or just a few years behind. The retro catch-up of it is kinda weird. If you want to know where not to go, look at the Dwarves. That would be my advice.
How did you get involved in singing a song for the SpongeBob SquarePants show? Especially considering the reputation of your band?
Salt Peter, the original bass player in the Dwarves, and a good friend of mine, wrote a lot of the music for SpongeBob. The first season it was out of necessity. I mean, SpongeBob was a super low budget show. No one knew if it was going to take off or what would happen with it. They didn't really have any budget for songwriters and stuff. And in the most random way, I guess, Peter worked a day job with the wife of the creator of that show. So they were looking for someone to do a cheap, four-track song.
Then there was Salt Peter, a great songwriter and very funny guy. So they wrote this song, "Do the Sponge," and they said, "Oh, it would be great if we could get Lux Interior of the Cramps to do this. But we don't have any budget. Oh, okay, so call Blag." I'd been imitating Lux for twenty years, so there you go. So I came in and imitated Lux, and I'm on the first season of SpongeBob. It makes me very popular with seven-year-olds.
Did you ever get to play shows with the Cramps?
We played one show with the Cramps at the Metro in Chicago. The Metro threw us out before the Cramps played. Again it's just that mindless aggression mixed with sort of confusion. A bunch of not very tough looking, silly guys that put out this very strange, aggressive music, and they didn't know how to handle it. So we didn't get to see the Cramps that night, but I've seen them many times, and I can tell you they were one of the greatest bands of all time. First time I saw them was New Year's Eve '83. Terry Graham from the Gun Club played drums. It was amazing. Kid Congo Powers. It was a trip.
Have you changed how you approach playing shows over the years and do you think that, perhaps, audiences have changed?
We haven't changed our approach. We started making more and more produced records because that seemed like an interesting thing to do. But, even on the records, we try to always keep elements of hardcore and nastiness and stuff. But live we never had any money for a stage show or sound men or lighting people. We just came out and did it. That's remained the same, and I'm glad because it's all about energy.
As far as the audiences, yeah, they're a lot different. Now you play a show and people just hold their cell phone up to you the whole time. "Dude, you're here. Take part!" I think that's the difference. In the '80s and '90s, people took part in the show. They realized that the audience is part of the show. Now they're more spectators. You know, it's all about your cell phone, taking a picture and having to document. I would advise anybody, don't waste your time with that shit. Be part of the show.
Why did you feel that "River City Rapist" was an appropriate campaign song for George W. Bush in 2000?
Well, you know, River City is Austin, Texas so there was a Texas tie-in. Basically it was the one song on the Come Clean record that the people at Epitaph thought, "Wow this is a little too heavy." So we said, "Oh, okay, let's promote this one." Naturally we didn't last very long there either.
Probably not, but did Bush's people get back to you?
No...we never heard from anybody on that one.
What keeps this band fun for you after all these years?
"Young girls with braces. Teenage women and free cocaine." That would be my quote for that one.
SummerGrind, featuring Dwarves, Leftover Crack, Stolen Babies, Speedwolf, Knockout, Potato Pirates, The Atom Age, Frontside Five, Synthetic Elements, The A-OK's, Glass Delirium, Skyfox, Allout Helter, Elway, King Rat, Boldtype, Anchor Point, the Dendrites, Truckasaurus, Loaded 45, Ska Skank Redemption, Sinnin Saints, Orphans, the Ruckus and Captain Blood, 4 p.m. Saturday, September 1, Gothic Theater, 3263 South Broadway, $20GM/$40 VIP, 303-788-0984, 16+.
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