In Dillinger Four We Trust
Three days on the road with America’s greatest living punk band.
At the explosion of Avril Lavigne's career in 2002, when her song "Complicated" was quickly becoming the most popular song in the world, a reporter from Rolling Stone asked the 17-year-old Canadian pop star what music she'd heard recently that she liked. "Do you know Dillinger Four?" she answered. "They're punk." A few weeks later, on a night when Dillinger Four was playing the Troubadour in Los Angeles, a knock came at the band's green room door. Bassist Paddy Costello answered. "Avril Lavigne is outside," a security guard told him. "She would like to meet you." It's hard to say how a reasonable group of humans would've handled this situation, but here's what Dillinger Four did. Costello looked the guy straight in the eye and said, with absolutely no hint of sarcasm, "Who's April Lavigne?" Then he shut the door.
That's D4. Any opportunity that's come along that might in some way further their career, they've taken off running in the opposite direction. They are music's underachiever laureates—either dumb geniuses or genius dummies. But despite their slacker approach, or perhaps because of it, while they may not be a household name like some of their contemporaries, they somehow became what is quite possibly the most beloved, most influential punk band of their generation.
"Every band likes to think that they're influenced by Dillinger Four, but Dillinger Four is doing more weird, subversive things than people are capable of," says Brendan Kelly, whose band The Lawrence Arms opened that show at the Troubadour in '02. The band ushered in a new era of plainclothes punk, putting the emphasis back on substance over style—still fast and abrasive, but with a wiseass edge to it. Their four albums are brilliant, but their productions are so distorted and odd that it's like they're deliberately trying to turn people off—an open challenge to discover the perfect songs buried underneath the mess. "D4 is influential in thought, not in deed. Not a lot of people can actually pull that shit off."
You wouldn't know it to look at them, though. What you'd see is exactly what they are: four working class, often intoxicated, self-professed fat guys from Minneapolis. It's a carefully crafted image they work hard to maintain. Everything about Dillinger Four comes off as one big shoulder shrug. Hell, their official website is still hosted on Angelfire and their Wikipedia page is only three sentences long. Two decades of history condensed into fewer words than in this paragraph.
Now in their early forties, the members routinely pass up offers to play tours and festivals that their peers would kill for. Sometimes it's due to work obligations—they all own, manage, or work at bars in Minnesota, with the exception of drummer Lane Pederson who, somewhat miraculously, is a successful clinical psychologist with three books under his belt. Other times, they refuse to miss family obligations like their kids' or wives' birthdays. But most times, they just plain ol' don't feel like it.
On this particular weekend, though, they're making a very rare, very brief appearance in the Northeast, their first trip here in… oh, they're not sure, really, but it's been years. (Seven, to be exact.) But they're not hitting the road to promote a new album. In fact, most fans have long abandoned hope of them actually releasing a follow-up to their 2008 record, Civil War. Nor is the band supporting a big headlining act, something they hate doing. No, they're here celebrating an anniversary—20 years of Dillinger Four, a band that has done every single thing wrong and has still managed to come out on top.
Well, technically, they've been together for 21 years but they didn't get around to it last year.
"Just waiting on Paddy, as usual," says Dillinger Four's tour manager, Logan, checking his phone. "I'll bet you anything the first words out of his mouth are 'I feel weeeeird today.'"
It's just past 11:30 in the morning and Pederson and guitarist Billy Morrisette stroll out of the lobby bar of a fairly nice Philadelphia Hilton and join guitarist Erik Funk who is finishing a cigarette out front. The band played a sold out show at the First Unitarian Church last night and are onto two more in New York, the second of which sold out in just a few minutes, faster than any show in their history. In the world of D4, a band whose schedule has been less active than most coma victims', three consecutive shows might as well be a world tour.
"Wow, eight whole shows this year," I joke with Pederson. "That must be a record for you guys."
"Well," he shrugs, "we still have to play two of them so let's not get ahead of ourselves."
After a few more cigarettes, Paddy emerges, sipping from a Coke can. He is the shortest of the group, with a round, distinctly Irish face and a belly of honor. Logan loses the bet, though. Paddy's first words of the day are actually "Sorry I'm late but I had to masturbate. Just being honest here."
We can finally go now.
"You know what I realized when I woke up?" Costello asks as he slams the van door shut behind him. "Remember those posters we had made for the show last night? We forgot to sell them." But the band has a bigger problem to deal with than a now worthless stack of screenprinted posters. We're headed to the busiest, most expensive city in the country and they still don't have a place to stay.
As they thumb through their phones looking for last-minute leads on places to crash, we start talking about the band's long, often mythologized career. None of the members, it becomes quickly obvious, is much of a band historian. They're fuzzy with details when recalling dates or places or basically anything that's ever happened after midnight. They remember their influences, though. They remember bands they saw, records they bought. They remember riffs. "Strutter" comes on the van's stereo and the guys spend the next seven miles air guitaring and arguing over the ten best KISS songs.
"I wanted to do a band that was fun," recalls Funk when asked about the formation of Dillinger Four back in 1994. He and Costello met in college and had played together in a hardcore band called Angerhouse. "Paddy and I sat down in this restaurant in St. Paul. We had a conversation about what the band could be. We said, 'Let's be catchy, but let's say political stuff.' No one was doing that in Minneapolis."
Their songs, which they say have more in common structurally with 80s straight edge hardcore than anything else, are righteous and scathing, but still feel fun and inclusive. They get their message across through perfectly crafted hooks belted out in their signature gravelly, three-part gang vocals, a style which, if they didn't invent, they damn sure perfected.
Their dry humor bleeds through in their song titles, each a funny non-sequitur like "Mosh for Jesus," "D4 = Putting the 'F' Back in 'Art'," or the understated classic "Music Is None of My Business," a song which captures the band's ethos in a single line: "And if this thing stops breathing, if this thing blew up today, we did it our way."
For their first four years, Dillinger Four didn't even release an album, getting by with a few EPs and touring on those. "A lot of bands get together, make two full-lengths, and break up in four years. We were just getting started," jokes Funk.
When they were finally courted by a record label, Hopeless Records, they were skeptical. Hopeless was then home to mostly pop punk and ska bands they felt were corny and didn't fit their vibe. They didn't even like the label's logo—a cartoon soup spoon. The band knew they were never destined to make any money, though, they just wanted a label that wouldn't screw them. So they signed on with Hopeless to release their 1998 debut, Midwestern Songs for the Americas.
Morrisette remembers recording the 13 songs and sending them to the label: "They were like, 'These demos sound great!' And we were like, 'Uh... no, that's the record.'"
"I don't remember that, but then again, that might be right," Hopeless founder Louis Posen would later tell me. "I know their sound is definitely more lo-fi than other bands, they always wanted to have a feel that wasn't over-produced. But that is a record that will stand the test of time. Some albums sell better but get forgotten about within a year, but that album is iconic."
While Midwestern Songs was a critical hit in the punk community, and became a darling among countless bands who started to heavily "borrow" influence from the D4 sound—a trend that continues to this day—it sold only moderately well—17,000 copies in the US to date, a drop in the ocean compared to modern MTV-friendly punk mega-sellers like, say, Green Day's American Idiot. That album's title track, the one that was heard on every radio station and commercial for two solid years, it's worth noting, bears a striking resemblance to Dillinger's "Doublewhiskeycokenoice," leading to the two bands allegedly settling out of court for an undisclosed amount, though when asked about this rumor, every D4 member responded with a dutiful "no comment."
After their second album with Hopeless, 2000's Versus God, they moved over to Fat Wreck Chords for their next two releases, Situationist Comedy in 2002 and Civil War, each seeing the same humble level of success, give or take some. Civil War, whose recording took place over several years, was a clusterfuck that only could've happened to D4. It was the first substantial punk record to get leaked on the internet where the source was able to be tracked. It caused headaches for the label, the producer, and everyone involved, though the band, of course, didn't find out until a week later. As a result, the leaker, Aaron Hale-Williams, a writer for the online publication Racket Magazine, was fired.
"He even apologized to us personally," says Costello. "I remember doing an interview in Toronto and someone asked how we felt about it, and I was like, 'Honestly? I feel like a dick. I'm sorry the dude lost his fucking job.'"
But even at their highest point, commercial success always seemed to elude them. "We were just never one of those bands that sold a lot of records," Funk says, citing acts like Hot Water Music, Good Riddance, and Anti-Flag. "All those bands have slightly more commercial sensibility that translates more. It's more accessible than us. We're definitely a band's band. Band guys are always our biggest champions."
Before we throw a pity party, it should be noted that Dillinger Four are not exactly advocates of their own potential. Anytime the band has picked up momentum, they've seemed intent to slam the brakes. "A lot of the things that maybe would've legitimized us, we didn't do. Like, we never did Warped Tour. Even when we finally had the opportunity to do Warped Tour, we didn't want it," says Funk, making a point to mention how much they hate playing outdoors. "Things like that that might've put us more in that lump of bands at the time that sold more records, we avoided them."
"I remember asking them about their Warped Tour offer the day they got it," Dave Hause of the band the Loved Ones confirms for me later. "Erik started to dig out the contract to show me. Then he realized he'd already thrown it out, like there wasn't a single second where they even entertained the idea."
"The thinking was always: Why would we play a show that we wouldn't go to?" explains Pederson.
Eventually their schedule slowed down to where they stopped touring heavily, and then pretty much stopped all together. "When people began to give a shit who we were, that's exactly when we stopped touring," says Costello. "Because you see, Dan," he deadpans, "we're businessmen."
Though he's being sarcastic, there is some truth to them benefitting from the model of supply and demand, albeit unintentionally. While other bands with D4's longevity have leveraged long hiatuses into opportunities to cash in on big reunion tours or high-paid festival appearances, Dillinger Four never made any official break-up announcements. The band is a walking corpse, a ghost in the night. Every show feels like a reunion, every song sounds like their last.
The band rarely does interviews anymore, mainly because they never have anything new to promote. But anytime someone has stuck a recorder in front of their faces over the last seven years, the question that always comes up is: Are you ever going to make a new record?
"We are. We definitely are," Funk said in his most recent interview. That was three years ago. So I do my duty and ask.
"Oh yeah, definitely," assures Funk.
"We've always got some songs," adds Costello.
This would be exciting news if they didn't deliver these answers with the conviction of a person in front of the mirror on New Year's Day, assuring themselves that this is the year they'll finally get that six-pack. They like writing songs, but that's about all they enjoy about making albums. They hate recording them, they hate doing press, and they hate photoshoots. My god do they hate that last one.
They also love playing shows, despite how rarely they actually do it. It's fairly obvious that they love to play from watching them. D4 performances are legendary for their drunken debauchery. Costello is usually the ringleader and it's not out of the ordinary for him to strip down and play in his underwear or even completely naked, giving the audience a full view of the most recognizable penis in punk and his famous chest tattoo—huge block letters printed squarely across what he calls his bourbon boobs, posing the question: HOW MUCH ART CAN YOU TAKE?
We reminisce about their stage antics for a while and laugh. One time Costello wrapped his naked body up in the American flag. One time he shaved the crown of his head. One time Morrisette blew him on stage. ("That's stupid," Morrisette protests. "I just gave it a lick.") Last year, the band played a notorious shitshow in Denver. A blacked out, naked Costello only got through a couple of songs before realizing his bass wasn't plugged in. He took some sips from the beers that were being hurled at him from the crowd and dove headfirst through the drumkit, ending the show after only a few minutes. I try to keep the tall tales going by asking about it. But I've stepped on a landmine.
Costello's face grows dark. "I don't want to talk about Denver," he says, turning away to look out the van's window. "We can't talk about that."
Denver seems to have been a wake-up call for the band, particularly Costello. Since D4 plays so infrequently these days, it's not uncommon for people to travel from as far as Japan for a rare chance to catch them at some dingy mid-sized club. For a band that's carried their entire career on their own terms, this is the closest thing to expectations that they've ever allowed themselves to deal with.
"Being a little or a lot drunk and playing a show can be a lot of fun. Being too drunk and playing a show is no fucking fun," Pederson tells me.
"The worst is actually not waking up after playing blacked out, the worst is when you're sober enough to know you suck," notes Costello. "You look at your instrument and you're just like a baby on a treadmill. Like, I don't know how to work this."
I ask if, from a fan's perspective, seeing a drunk and sloppy Dillinger Four is part of the band's appeal, like having GG Allin hurl shit at you.
"Look, I don't want to become something I'm not. That is who I am, I'm a Midwestern bartender," says Costello of his onstage persona. "There's a small contingent of people who want to get annihilated with you and that's fun, but there's all these other people there who really just wanna see you play the music."
"Our shows are not cheap anymore," adds Funk. "People pay 15, 20 bucks to come see us. It's not like we're in a basement show, passing the hat here."
The van gets quiet as Costello starts talking about Shane McGowan, the Pogues frontman who is infamous for often being too fucked up to stand, let alone perform. "Years ago, Billy and I went to see Shane McGowan. Shane McGowan has a whole catalog that I fucking love. And he just kind of blew his scene. It was lousy. About a year ago, I sat and thought about that. Like, fuck, I've been people's Shane McGowan. I'm sure you know people who've come to see us and I've been that way. And that fucking sucks."
Since then, the guys have set a few pre-show rules for themselves, primarily, that they be sober enough to get through the set, fully clothed and coherent. Afterwards, they're free to go out and get shitfaced, buck naked, or, as Costello might call it, weeeeird. But at least make sure people get their 20 bucks' worth.
"We set the bar so low that now people are like, 'Wow, they played the whole set? Wow, they played every song they were supposed to and they played them right?'" Costello scoffs. "It only took 21 years."
When we all crowd into the band's loud and smoky green room after one of their Brooklyn shows, there isn't room for a single other person. A fresh case of beer gets cracked open and passed around as the guys catch up with old friends, many of whom have spilled out into the hallway.
D4 made it through their East Coast weekend tour. No nudity, no blackouts, and save for a couple of times when they gave up on songs midway through, they played their whole sets as intended. For as long as they'd been away, it didn't sound like they missed a single step—an impressive feat considering they mostly didn't soundcheck for the shows, which is appropriate since they didn't practice for the tour.
Costello, whose speaking voice bears an uncanny resemblance to that of conservative radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh, spent much of his time in front of his Brooklyn audience poking fun at the borough's cultural obsession with "making it." At one point he told everyone that the only way someone from the Midwest "was gonna make mortgage payments was either Americana or you rap," and, since he can't rap, he proceeded to riff for two minutes in the voice of a patriotism-pandering folk troubadour.
"I was wearing a pair of dungarees and a flannel shirt, as a gentleman does, and I was thinking, this America, I love it so much. There's two things that I love most about America and that's Chinese-made tennis shoes and people getting shot in public," he went on in character. The audience began to laugh. The laughter rolled into applause. The applause erupted into outright cheering. This right here, this was everything that made D4 the kings of their little world—a brilliant reminder of the band's sarcastic wit and low tolerance for bullshit. They're clever, alright, maybe even too clever for their own good. Morrisette started to noodle around on his Les Paul, signaling that he was itching to go, and Costello wrapped up the bit. "And then I sat down and I wrote this country number, and with any luck, it's gonna make me a shit-ton of money," he said, giving way to the thick distortion of "Let Them Eat Thomas Paine."
As we filter out of the green room, a group decision is made to head a few blocks up the road to their friend's bar which has, very appropriately, a Midwestern motif. An employee sweeps up a small mountain of empty plastic cups as we all kick around the lobby of the empty venue awhile, ready to leave.
Just waiting on Paddy, as usual.
As we're hanging there, I ask Funk one last question: How do you hope the band's legacy will be remembered?
"There is a little part of me that thinks we've contributed," he says. "In the last 20 years of underground music culture, I think we have a legit place." He stops for a second as someone interrupts to thank him for the playing show, for coming to New York, for everything. He gets hugged so hard that beer is squeezed out of his can and runs down his hand. He smiles and continues, unphased. "If someone's writing a story in ten years about what American punk rock was like from the mid-90s through the 2000s, I just hope we're considered. I hope our name is in it."
Then I hear a voice from behind me. "I'm about to do something weeeird!" Costello emerges, sipping from a Miller Lite can, wide-eyed and grinning, clearly enjoying his post-gig freedom.
He clenches the pocket of my jacket and yanks me towards him, almost tearing through the denim. "John!" he slurs in my face ecstatically.
"Dan," I correct him.
"Look, Dan, John, Joe. It doesn't matter. What matters is, I'm gonna fart in your mouth. I'm literally gonna fart in your fuckin' mouth."
Someone shouts from outside the venue, "Paddy-too-fatty, let's go!" He releases me from his iron Irish grip to hug someone else. He hugs them all the way out of the venue and right into the back seat of a cab, where the rest of the band is waiting for him.
The car speeds away and just like that, they're gone, sneaking off gracelessly into the night. Dillinger Four, America's greatest living punk band, for better or worse.
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter - @danozzi
All photos by Rebecca Reed