Interview: The Dead Milkmen (& The Unofficial Rodney Anonymous Holiday Buyer’s Guide)

In October, punk legends The Dead Milkmen released Pretty Music For Pretty People, the newest entry in their long and sneering tradition of hammering away at the mainstream. For the most part, I was all about the new album and last week I got the incredible opportunity to throw some questions at Rodney Anonymous, Joe Jack Talcum and Dean Sabatino. Thanks to the miracle of Google Docs and the ample quantities of piss and vinegar these guys still have bubbling inside their guts, Surviving the Golden Age is very happy to present their responses below – including a holiday buyer’s guide to every underground band Rodney Anonymous mentions.

“I have no problem with people being familiar with Chvrches, but when everybody’s heard of them and very few people have heard of Ambassdor21, the system is obviously broken and needs to be fixed right the fuck now.” – Rodney Anonymous

Pretty Music For Pretty People addresses such an incredible range of topics beyond the frustration with pop music outlined in the title track. What is the thesis statement behind Pretty Music For Pretty People as a whole? What fueled the fire for this album?

Dean: Interesting question because the songs were recorded over 2 years in small batches. If anything, I might posit that the world today is as crazy and a mixed up mess as it was years ago when we were in the 80s. Some of the same issues are still raging. I think that despite the fact that the tracks were spread out over time, they hold together as a full LP. A pretty dark LP albeit.

Rodney: For me, it all comes down to three things, “Apok”, wine, and a desire to overthrow Poptimism. If iVardensphere had never released “Apok”, then I would’ve never gone to see the End of Days Tours along with our friend Kyle Cassidy (who took the  cover photo for “Pretty People”, thus bringing everything full-circle), Rebecca Coseboom  (from Stripmall Architecture & DarkDriveClinic), and Rebecca’s cool doctor sister. If it wasn’t for Rebecca’s shock at the absence of coverage of the gig in the Philly press (something I was painfully aware of), I might not have mentioned it to a couple of friends a few nights later over drinks in a club (that sadly closed since we can never have nice things in Philly!). We all started talking about how the music press, for the most part, was unable to write about any of the musicians we enjoyed, yet never ran out of ink for the likes of Mumford & Sons and Lana Del Rey. That’s when one of my friends said “I call that stuff ‘Pretty Music for Pretty People’”.

Now, let me get this straight: I have nothing against Pop, Twee, or Alt-Rock musicians as people. I don’t listen to those genres, but I have plenty of friends who do. Shit Luther, for all I know, at this very moment, Sleigh Bells are plotting to overthrow the Hetronormative Patriarchy. My beef is with the music press for ignoring underground bands like Krystal System and Cease2Xist while overhyping Twee Brooklyn acts. I have no problem with people being familiar with Chvrches, but when everybody’s heard of them and very few people have heard of Ambassdor21, the system is obviously broken and needs to be fixed right the fuck now.

So, I wrote down the words “Pretty Music for Pretty People” and decided to make it a sort of theme for all my contributions to album. There are tons of references, both musical and lyrical to my favorite underground bands. If the music press had been doing their job, I would’ve been free to write about kittens & flowers. I hope that makes sense, as I could write a book about this.

I feel like you guys are some of the only 80’s punks who still know how to create new music with integrity. I never thought I’d see a new Dead Milkmen album, let alone one as good as Pretty Music For Pretty People. What brought you guys back from your hiatus?

Dean: When we got back together in 2008 to play the Fun Fun Fun Fest and had a great time doing it, we decided to return to writing again. We didn’t want to be an oldies act and just playing the old songs or playing shows of “All of Big Lizard” album songs shows. We wanted to write new material and record again.

Joe: I did not think anything would bring us out of hiatus, but Dean is right. It was the offer to play Fun Fun Fun in Austin that did it. I also would have been satisfied to play the odd “oldies act” show, so getting to write and record again was a bonus.

Rodney: Boredom. We were really, really bored. And when we get bored, fires of unknown origin tend to break out (I’m not going to point the finger at any band member in particular). To paraphrase Eddy Haskell from “Leave it to Beaver,” we wanted to mess around and do some neat stuff.

“I don’t think we have a stake in this scene, or want one. We might be the old folks who’ve had some influence on the new scene […] but if so I think it’s best for us to just stay out of their way and continue on our own path.” – Joe Jack Talcum

Your songs have always been smartly composed – the band’s pop sensibility seems to overflow – but what struck me about The King In Yellow and Pretty Music For Pretty People was this new level of complexity in instrumentation. You guys have each kept pretty busy during the break, so what was it like to come back to the Milkmen with that individual growth?

Dean: We have all kept making music in one form or another. Old dogs learning new tricks maybe. One of the things that has fueled us is the advancement in technology. We all have ways of recording at home now and with online sharing tools, it is now easier to collaborate. Also, our differing and wide ranging musical tastes can make for an interesting blend of song styles. We would never want to limit ourselves to a specific “punk rock song formula”.

Joe: To me it didn’t feel like we’d been away long. The old songs came back rather easily. The new songs got developed in home studios prior to the live rehearsing, as Dean mentioned. I don’t think there was a deliberate effort to be more “complex” if you think it came out that way. For me it seemed like we were picking up where we left off.

Rodney: Honestly, I thought “Oh shit. When we broke up, I was listening to the Meat Puppets & The Butthole Surfers, now I’m listening to Rasputina & Hanzel und Gretyl. They’re probably going to hate this stuff.” But they’ve been great. They’ve been a lot more open to the stuff I listen to than I have to the stuff they listen to (of course, I have a medical condition; I suffer from being a jerk). You have no idea how happy it makes me that we can do stuff like cover a ROME (Jerome Reuter, not that guy from Sublime) song. Then again, I don’t think I’ve sprung the band “Santa Hates You” on them yet.

Speaking of The King In Yellow – that was pretty prescient considering the Yellow King wouldn’t enter mainstream consciousness until True Detective, three years later. Did the show’s popularity feel like a weird synchronicity?

Dean: It did to me. I was unaware of the book before Rodney introduced us to it. I laughed to myself thinking that maybe those searching for the book on Amazon after the popularity of that show might get to the Dead Milkmen CD release instead.

Rodney: I was kind of pissed off at the show’s popularity. Don’t get me wrong; I watched the series and really enjoyed it, but for years the book The King in Yellow had been a sort of secret among people I know. I used to always recommend that book to young people whenever they would ask for reading suggestions; when I first told my wife about the King in Yellow, she thought I was making it up. I guess I was just kind of hoping that people would’ve learned about the book by reading the book, not from a reference on a TV show. It’s like learning about David Bowie (and codpieces) by seeing Labyrinth, or discovering Angelspit by Googling autopsy photos.

“[…]some of the same things we might have written about back in the 80’s are still issues today. I try not to get too depressed that things seem to run in cycles and some things never seem to get better…” – Dean Sabatino

From where I stand, Philly is once again leading most of the new music trends. There’s this emerging generation of bands and artists that are attacking all facets of the genre and doing it collectively (Radiator Hospital, the Crutchfield sisters, Alex G). From your perspective, what is the shape of your scene now, 30+ years later? Do you feel like the Dead Milkmen still have stake in it?

Dean: That’s a hard question. I still feel like we’re maybe outsiders a bit? We’re definitely not part of the current “scene”, but I sense that we’re at least “respected” as a band that has represented and championed Philadelphia’s music community over the years. There are plenty of great bands in Philly now that I like.

Joe: I don’t think we have a stake in this scene, or want one. I was not even aware of the bands you mention. I feel out of touch. I know quite a few punk bands though, but I feel that’s a different “scene” altogether. When we were young we did feel part of a scene. Joseph Gervasi has been organizing a history of it through collections of video, photos and recorded interviews in something called Loud! Fast! Philly! We might be the old folks who’ve had some influence on the new scene you mention, but if so I think it’s best for us to just stay out of their way and continue on our own path.

Rodney:  If by “once again leading most of the new music trends” you mean “tragically emulating Brooklyn in a moronic musical arms race to see who can produce the most banal trust fund-financed annoying acts that sing in little children’s voices with which to cram idiots into overpriced clubs”, yes, I agree with your bold statement.

And while there are some excellent new bands like Fight, Fuck or Dance and GASH (what other city would have TWO bands called “GASH”? I’m referring to the BDSM band, GASH) and some great older bands like Live Not On Evil and Decontrol are still around, the huge problem is that most of the more interesting out-of-town acts tend to skip Philly and either play at Asylum 13 in Wilmington or in Lancaster. Wanna see Velvet Acid Christ this January? If you live in Philly, you’d better get ready to trek to Wilmington. And when Skinny Puppy were supposed to come here last year, what happened? A blizzard! And not just any blizzard – a really snowy one! And know we know why MyParasites fled Philly for New Orleans. Why they didn’t take me with them is a mystery.

You’ve always had a sharp understanding of our societal maladies and have shared your findings with an even sharper tongue. How have your opinions of American society changed or stayed the same for you since the Milkmen started?

Dean: I think I touched on it earlier that some of the same things we might have written about back in the 80’s are still issues today. I try not to get too depressed that things seem to run in cycles and some things never seem to get better…

Rodney:  Things never seem to just get better. They tend to get a little better and a little worse. You finally get an African-American president, but he turns out to have pretty much the same policies as Ronald Reagan. Same-Sex marriage is finally being accepted, but Jim Bob Duggar still won’t shut his fucking inbred Hillbilly pie-hole. As a songwriter, I’m happy for such an endless source of material. As a human being, I have to ask “Does anybody really need this much goddamn songwriting material?”

I can imagine that newer and younger audiences will find the Milkmen for the first time through the new album. Where should they go from there to keep feeding dissident thought, either in music or other media?

Dean: I’d like to mention that it has been interesting to see the crowds at our shows now – great to see some new younger fans, plus we get the older long-time devoted fans and their friends as well as parents now bringing their kids.

As for your question – I would encourage everyone that if they hear a reference to something that they are unaware of in our songs to look it up – read about it. There is this amazing resource called the Internet now that I didn’t have access to “back in the day”…do folks stop to realize they have access to more info on their smartphone than ever before? CRAZY!

Rodney: Kids, get the new 3Teeth album.  Both Marco Visconti from XP8 and I think it’s really good, so there must be something to it. I think Caustic likes it too. It’s really loud and angry. Your parents will hate it, as will your older sister – the one who’s really into She & Him.

 THE UNOFFICIAL RODNEY ANONYMOUS HOLIDAY BUYER’S GUIDE

iVardensphere

Ambassador21

Stripmall Architecture

DarkDriveClinic

Krystal System

Cease2Xist

ROME (Jerome Reuter)

Santa Hates You

Fight, Fuck or Dance

GASH (the BDSM band)

GASH (not the BDSM band)

Velvet Acid Christ

3Teeth