For over a decade, singer Blag Dahlia and the band he fronts, the Dwarves, have done a good job of rattling the cages of rock-music fans. Since its 1986 debut, the group's players (currently Dahlia, guitarist Whslley Smskes, bassist Gash Money and drummer Vadge Moore) have offered up a blistering, full-tilt brand of racket that's endeared them to a loyal legion of hardcore types even as it's pissed off plenty of others with blink-and-you'll-miss-it live shows, tasteless song titles and album covers, and offensive promotional schemes. But in conversation, Dahlia is hardly the wildman you'd expect--and his list of musical influences is unexpectedly wholesome.
"I like Cab Calloway and Bill Monroe," he admits, "and I like Julie London a lot. I like those early Sinatra records with the Dorsey band, too, and Ukulele Ike. He's one of my big favorites."
What is the link between these artists and the Dwarves? According to Dahlia, "It's a continuum, you know. It starts with those people and then it ends with us. It's American music that's on the edge of acceptability. There's X amount of people who understand it and X amount of people who, for them, it's out of their realm of comprehension for the moment. But then a few years down the line, everybody gets it.
"At the time that those people were making their records, people thought it was all a passing fad," he continues. "But it turned out to be something that was real. Like now--everybody's telling me that our older records are great, but at the time we put them out, people said it was just noise and didn't make any sense."
Listeners weren't the only ones confused. Also baffled by some of the Dwarves' behavior were representatives of its previous imprint, a famous, well-regarded Seattle company described by Dahlia as "this really boring record label called Sub Pop." Specifically, the act claimed in 1993 that a sometime member, a guitarist with the apt name HeWhoCannotBeNamed, died as the result of injuries suffered in a Philadelphia bar fight. In fact, the alleged cadaver was very much alive, and when the folks at Sub Pop found out, they were less than amused. Shortly after learning the truth, the firm issued a press release that announced, "The Dwarves have been officially dropped." The document is reproduced on the liner of the Dwarves' latest disc, The Dwarves Are Young and Good Looking (issued by Theologian Records), albeit with one minor alteration: The word "greedy" replaces the Sub Pop logo. Still, Dahlia does not seem angry about the way the controversy played out. "People take this stuff too seriously," he says with a laugh. "I mean, it's supposed to be fun."
Appropriately, there's loads of adolescent pleasure to be had on Good Looking. A hearty slab of guitar-fueled, overdriven punk mischief, the new disc continues the Dwarves' in-depth exploration of faith ("Unrepentant," "We Must Have Blood"), romance ("Pimp," "Demonica") and optimism ("You Gotta Burn," "Throw That World Away"). These anthems are bashed out in a hemi-powered sonic assault that combines equal parts Ramones-style pop, speedy hardcore and head-banging hard rock. Sprinkle in Dahlia's Alice-Cooper-meets-Iggy-Pop vocals, and the result is a platter that's sure to please visitors to mosh pits everywhere.
Purists may not be as positive. The combination of the new album's more refined production approach and Dahlia's straightforward explanation about why the Dwarves have returned after a three-year absence ("Money, with the punk-rock thing coming back") suggests that the band's credibility may be slamming on shaky ground. For his part, Dahlia finds this suggestion ludicrous. "This is the best-sounding record that we've done, but the performances are just as hardcore as ever," he says defensively. "At least they sound that way to me. My feeling is that you can do the same thing over and over or you can get better at it. So if I was going to take three years off and come back with a record, it had better be pretty rippin'. What would be the point of making another low-budget-sounding record?"
Likewise, Dahlia doesn't feel the need to apologize for trying to make a living. He concedes that "being smart and working it at the right time is better than being dumb and working it at the wrong time." But, he adds, "anybody who questions my integrity doesn't have any themselves and doesn't understand. I've been a part of this scene before most of these motherfuckers ever had any kind of a clue about it. I've been making punk records for fifteen years, and my integrity is 100 percent and unassailable. And there's nothing wrong with making money on my music, either. It's about time."
Mohawked teenagers who might criticize such sentiments from the safety of their suburban couches "have no knowledge about real life yet, because they're still insulated from that," Dahlia goes on. "But if you put it on the level of 'Do you think that people that play music should be allowed to eat and pay their rent?' maybe they might be able to understand it a little better. When I was in high school I played punk rock for free, and I played it for free for a good five years after that, so I've definitely done my time. If you're a kid who's been around for a year or two and you talk as though you know, that's fine. But I'm a big boy, and I'm not beholden to those rules and regulations."
A case in point are the Dwarves' trademark whiz-bang live shows, which eschew an evening's worth of entertainment in favor of a veritable explosion of feedback, destroyed equipment, nudity and blood-spilling dance-floor mayhem that generally implodes after about thirty minutes. And that's an improvement. In the beginning the sets were only about half that long.
According to Dahlia, Dwarves concerts "used to be short because we'd get in a fight with somebody in the audience, or something would break, or we'd be too wasted to continue. Or we couldn't hear anything. The short set used to be more organic. We were trying to play a regular-length set, but we just couldn't do it." Today, however, the abbreviated appearances are by design: "I realized that if I tacked another hour on, it wouldn't be better--it would just be more. It's the age-old thing between quantity and quality. If you see someone play for fifteen or twenty minutes with amazing conviction and really put on a show and rock the house, why would you need anymore? Whereas, if someone's mediocre, why would you want to see an hour and a half of that? I'd rather see three or four good bands on a bill and everybody rocks out for half an hour.
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"People have these old-fashioned notions about getting their 'money's worth,'" he sniffs, "and personally, I really don't care about giving people their money's worth. I don't see that as my job." Furthermore, by putting in less time on stage, "you get paid more per hour."
Still, few people have ever accused the Dwarves of selling their audiences short. "We're the band that does things that other bands have to call in the stunt guys to do," he boasts. "I don't want to blow my own horn or anything, but we are a wild rock-and-roll band, and crazy things happen. Wild women running around...insanity, nudity, rock and roll. All the things you want in a show--all the things you pay to see."
Of course, not everyone thinks that mayhem like this equals a good time--and that's fine by Dahlia. "As soon as the majority of people understand it," he says, "it either means that you've watered it down to some incredible degree, or suddenly everybody got real perceptive all of a sudden. And I don't see any chance of that happening."
The Dwarves, with Damnation, Steer Jockey and Hell's Half Acre. 9 p.m. Thursday, April 24, the Raven, 2217 Welton Street, $7, 830-2525.