Nearly everything about the Dwarves, the infamous punk band that emerged in mid-’80s Chicago, seemed calculated to offend. The band’s early specialty was to catch audiences by surprise, and, basically, disgust and exhaust as many of them as possible.
If an early Dwarves show lasted past 15 minutes, then you were lucky (or, unlucky, depending on your perspective). The ringleader of the gang, Blag Dahlia, let it all out from the first second. The Dwarves went for the viscera, pantomiming sex, violence, and happily shredding through any other taboo they could, at least quasi-legally. It wasn’t unusual, and still isn’t, for shows to end with either an ambulance or the police showing up.
In fact, the entire Dwarves m.o. could be summed up by the group’s most infamous album, and its equally infamous cover: Blood Guts & Pussy. That’s the one, you know, featuring two naked women and a naked dwarf man, all soaked, Carrie-style, in blood. If you were a kid in the ’90s who ever wandered into an indie record shop, this was the kind of thing you glanced at, then quickly put back because it was fucking scary.
The thing with the Dwarves, though, was that though the band scored a reputation for insanity, it never seemed quite as self-destructive or even mean-spirited as, say, G.G. Allin or the Mentors. Instead, the group seemed more about a certain gross theatricality and transgressive humor.
That becomes more clear once you find out that yes, once upon a time, Blag Dahlia was seriously into musical theater. And the group’s actual musical skill, underneath all the surface stuff, was actually on point, too. That’s also become more clear over the years as the Dwarves have musically evolved from a one-two-three-go-style punk to something a little bit more neurotic. The past handful of Dwarves albums have often skipped across multiple genres within single songs, comprising everything from grindcore to sugary pop-punk.
Luckily for South Florida fans, Blag tells us to expect a show this Saturday, when the band plays Churchill’s, to hark back to vintage Dwarves. In (ostensibly) mature age, as a live act they’ve refused to mature. There’s actually a lot more Blag refuses to do, and he laid some of it out for us during a long conversation that also touched on cats and his love of Glee. Scroll down to read the whole Q&A.
The Dwarves. With The Ruins, Pool Party, Flees, Enough!, and Severe Disappointments. Presented by Idle Hands. Saturday, October 27. Churchill’s Pub, 5501 NE Second Ave., Miami. The show starts at 8 p.m. and admission costs $15. Call 305-757-1807 or visit churchillspub.com.
Salty Eggs: What are you up to right now?
Blag Dahlia: I’m doing a little editing for my podcast, which is called Radio Like You Want, and I’m staring at my cat. I spend a lot of my time staring at my cat. Actually I have two; they’re named Sherman and Lucy.
What kind of cats are they?
Crazy. They’re crazy cats.
What makes you a cat person rather than a dog person?
That’s an interesting question, and the kind of question that a dog person would usually pose. Cat people love dogs. It’s dog people that don’t love cats. I love dogs! I just like cats better because they don’t stink. I don’t like things that stink, which makes it strange that I went into punk rock music. I think cats are more like people, you know? They’re truly fucked up and irredeemably bizarre.
I think people might be surprised to hear you don’t like things that stink.
I know, right? I mean, I had G.G. Allin in my house once! Punks aren’t really known for their hygiene, for the most part, so I probably should have picked a different line of work.
So what appeals to you about doing a podcast? There are so many out there, so how do you keep yours interesting and fresh?
Well, what appeals to me really is doing a big TV show where I do hundreds of thousands of dollars per episode, or doing radio and making thousands of dollars per show. So on that level, there’s nothing appealing to me about doing a podcast. As far as the one that I do, I do it with a great partner, a guy named Mike Routhier, and I have a lot of fun because I get to interview people. I’ve been around a lot of cool people in music in my life, and I’ve never really thought about interviewing them.
I’ve gotten to talk to a bunch of musicians, filmmakers, writers, and transgressive kinds of people, and that’s the most interesting part for me. Plus I get to hang out with my friend Mike and listen to cool songs. He’s always surprising me with something new.
Why do you like actually doing interviews yourself rather than just being on the receiving end like usual?
Well I like being on the receiving end of them. Again, I’m not like most people in bands who pretend to be shy or modest. I know that I’m in the best rock and roll band of all time, and I don’t mind telling whoever asks me that that’s the case.
It’s a different mindset doing interviews. I guess then you have to be a little more transparent and let the other person put their stuff across. They’re both interesting things to do, and they’re both better than having a day job.
Are you making any money off the podcast? Why is it worthwhile to keep doing?
I don’t know, honestly. The money is the worst part of the podcast, but I guess my hope is that I’ll get better at it eventually, and then be able to do this in some other realm like TV or radio or whatever. I’ve always enjoyed broadcasting in general, and podcasting is cool because you can do it on your own. It’s fun to do — if it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t bother.
Are you hoping this will be a vehicle to get on a more professional show of some kind?
I’m always professional. You know, I started singing songs by screaming, “Fuck,” and ripping my clothes off, hoping that would make me rich and famous, but that didn’t really work out. The podcast is in the same spirit as my band — we do it because it’s fun, because we’re good at it, and because the culture needs it. And if people take to it, then that’s great, and if they don’t, that’s fine too.
Do you think the culture still needs the Dwarves?
The culture definitely needs the Dwarves. Rock and roll is largely dead as a genre, and the people who around who play it are mostly bad at it. Punk rock is just a mess of horrible players and really boring bands. So yeah, the Dwarves are more important than ever in that sense — in making punk rock, and rock and roll, competently and interestingly, with a show that’s very anarchistic and chaotic that calls to mind the punk shows I saw when I was a kid. That was when punk rock was interesting, before it was a very circumscribed genre where people knew what exactly to do.
Was there a particular artist back then who really inspired you to do it yourself and get onstage?
It was probably Frank Zappa who made me want to play the most. But I always liked musical theater. I did musical theater when I was younger, and I was very influenced by early Monty Python and Saturday Night Live. That type of more transgressive, mainstream entertainment brought me into the punk rock subculture when I was in high school, and then I saw the possibilities of it.
I saw a lot of great punk rock bands when I was in high school. I saw the Misfits, the Cramps, the Ramones, and Iggy, so I’ve gotten to witness a lot of amazing rock and roll singers and bands. I always knew that was what I wanted to do.
Does that mean you’re really a Glee fan like you said in a recent interview?
Yes, I’m a huge Glee fan. I watch it every week.
The interesting thing about your transition from musical theater to punk rock is that musical theater prizes technical ability in singing, while punk rock does not.
Well that’s the problem with both of those things. Musical theater winds up being a little bit bloodless and boring a lot of the time, and punk rock ends up being untalented and shitty a lot of time. So if you could add some technical expertise to that — and I believe I and the guys in my band have some — it would be great.
You can’t let the pursuit of technical expertise and playing get in the way of having spirit and being fun and rock and roll. At the same time, you can’t let fun get int he way of doing it correctly. I don’t want to go watch somebody who sucks on drums or can’t sing.
Now, there are some bands defined by their lack of ability and it works. Usually it’s some cool, obscure record. Like, people always go back to the Shaggs, a girl group from the ’60s. It’s their horribleness that makes them so great.
But the Dwarves were never one of those bands. We always knew how to play, which is one thing that confused people — it didn’t fit with the image.
I saw this band recently called double X? The xx, whatever. Here’s a band that’s being treated that they’re very intelligent and very deep. But just watching them for 10 seconds I could tell that nobody in the band was talented, that they were all hopeless and couldn’t play to save their ass. But some white A&R guy from England randomly decided that they were talented.
A lot of what makes people perceive talent is image. The Dwarves’ image is that we wouldn’t be talented.
How did you end up at a show by the xx?
I didn’t. I saw them on television, and I was amazed at how horrible they were. I mean, there are so many bands who are bloodless and boring and don’t play well, but they’re lauded by indie rock fans, and you just have to laugh your ass off. I mean, that’s anything from, I don’t know, the Polyphonic Spree — that was a hopelessly horrible band — to the Arcade Fire, who has a wonderful image that makes you believe they might be talented, but they’re atrocious.
This isn’t me hating on their style. It’s me, straight up as a musician, saying, “Wow, what a hopeless bunch of terrible players.” You see this all the time in music, and punk rock is certainly no exception. There are tons of hopeless bands.
At the same time, with the Dwarves, because of the chaos level and the lack of production value of our shows sometimes, you’ll hear a fucked up Dwarves show where you can’t hear anything and it’s terrible. But I’m floored at how weak indie rock in general is. It’s such a joke. It shouldn’t even be called a genre. It’s not rock and roll, and it’s not punk rock. It’s just white people who went to college.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about technique and horrible players, because some people would argue that punk rock is defined by a lack of technical ability.
Well, they’re wrong. That’s a classic trope of music critics, and they just got it wrong. If you go back and listen to a Ramones record or a Sex Pistols record or a Gang of Four record or a Devo record, I would defy you to find one wrong note or beat or anything.
At the same time, I don’t want to listen to jazz with endless solos for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. That music didn’t do anything for me. So it’s not like what I look for in punk rock is great technique. I just don’t like the fact that it’s assumed you have none if you play punk rock, or that it’s assumed you do have some if you’re boring and stand there gazing at your feet.
At the end of the day, if you listen to the Dwarves records, especially the last few, these are examples of some of the best-produced and best-played rock and roll records in history.
People also talk about those recent albums as being more experimental. Do you still consider those to be “punk rock” albums, per se?
Yeah, that’s the other thing. That’s the other level of the game. It’s great to deliver a spirited, modern rendition of what the Ramones did 30 years ago, but it’s a little more interesting to think about stretching out on the record. Again, I got pretty lucky because I had talented players. I also lucked into meeting Eric Valentine in the mid-’90s, who was a big, top ten producer who taught me a lot.
The kind of theme on the last few Dwarves records was, “Let’s play hardcore for 60 seconds, then play pop-punk for 60 seconds, then play garage for 60 seconds, then noise for 60 seconds. Let’s see if we can mix it up and make these intensely strange collections of modern, American hard music.”
Again, I look to these other bands who are supposed to be so interesting and so experimental, and they define one sound on the first song of their record, and then do it 12 more times. There’s something to be said for that if you’re the early Ramones, or the Dwarves, putting a lot of passion into it.
What we do now is essentially two different things. Live, it’s a loud punk rock show that’s pretty chaotic, and there’s not a lot of art to it. In the studio, we make these really intensely produced records.
In your live shows, obviously a lot of fans want to hear your old stuff. How do you strike a balance for yourself between that material and the newer material?
First of all, what most bands do as they evolve is leave their past behind. but that’s not evolution to me. I never want to get rid of the old Dwarves who made Blood Guts & Pussy. I love that genre, and I’ll always love it and put some of it on every record.
The standard thing for most bands is that they put out a decent record, then put out a mellower one, then a mellower one, then a mellower one in the hopes of getting a record deal. For us, it was, “Okay, can we make a hardcore record, then follow it up with grindcore, then with a blast beat, then follow that with a pop-punk jam that would embarrass Blink-182?”
I’ll never leave behind hardcore or forget what it meant to me as a kid. I’ll always believe in punk rock. But I also believe in hip-hop and surf music and experimental music. So whatever kind of music I like, I’m going to try to do, and really try to get it. I think that goes for everybody in the band, which is why it’s been such a big collection of guys. You might find one guy who’s amazing at surf guitar, and another one who’s really good at grindcore.
The Dwarves are Born Again was interesting because it had all the new guys — Chip Fracture, the Fresh Prince of Darkness, Gregory Pecker, all the guys who are going to be with me in Florida. But it also had all the old guys from Blood Guts & Pussy — Salt Peter, Vadge Moore — and all the middle-period guys from The Dwarves are Young and Good-Looking. It was a really cool record because I got to see all my old friends and get everybody’s style in there.
I was going to ask you about the lineup. When you’re switching the lineup around again, how does that happen? Do you actively decide you’re going to change things up and go looking for new people, or does it naturally happen over time?
People get sick of me.
Are you very hard to work with?
Well I don’t think so. But part of it is just inevitable with time. And as you can see, everybody comes back and continues to play with me, so I can’t be that bad.
Playing with the Dwarves is very intense, so if you do it for too long, you can kind of lose your mind. For me it’s hopeless, but for everybody else, every once in a while they have to drop out and try to save themselves.
What makes people really lose their minds? Obviously, your shows are super-intense, but what else?
That’s a big part of it. The shows are really intense, and they bring about extreme emotional reactions in both yourself and other people. And there’s shit with cops, shit with irate fans, shit with angry drunks. Everybody’s wound up in the hospital or at a police station.
Sometimes it’s the opposite of that, and nobody shows up. There are any number of things that could happen. The Dwarves have always been a really chaotic group, and just when people think, “Oh, things have mellowed out now, and nothing crazy’s gonna happen,” then something crazy happens.
I’ve been stabbed onstage, I’ve been attacked. The stories are endless, so I don’t blame anybody for not being able to do it any more. But it’s also such an emotional high that it draws people back in. For me, this is just my life and I’m stuck with it, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Do you think the shows have gotten crazier over the years in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy? People now expect Dwarves shows to be a certain way, so do you think that draws out even more bizarre or aggressive behavior?
That’s a hard question. I think it was more chaotic in the old days, partly because rock in general was more chaotic, and rock was not such a mainstream preoccupation. Secondly, young people now would rather hold their phones up and take my picture than take part in the show. That’s how young people now register their approval of you — they take your picture and put your picture on Facebook. But when I started out, they would register their approval by beating you over the head or sucking your dick. So rock audiences are dramatically different.
Also, the cat’s out of the bag, so if you come to a show expecting chaos, that’s one thing. But in the old days, we’d show up and people thought we were gonna be like Soundgarden or be like Green Day or whatever it was. Then we would be us, and it would elicit these really strong emotional responses.
Having said all that, crazy shit still happens. I witness it all the time, so that’s part of the beauty of rock and roll. It keeps you coming back because you don’t know what’s going to happen.
Why do you like to still deal with that stuff after so many years — the unpredictability and potential for violence?
Because that’s the essence of rock and roll. That’s what always appealed to me about it. When I went and saw the early punk shows, nobody had ever slam-danced, and there it was. Nobody had ever stage-dived or crowd-surfed, and there it was. I saw this subculture unfold in front of me.
Then throughout the years you occasionally see things that resuscitate that spirit. The Butthole Surfers in the ’80s were amazing like that. You just witness amazing things by brilliant bands, and great live shows, and that’s what continually wakes it up and makes it interesting.
I have a different relationship with it now, though. I’ve written a couple novels, and I do my podcast, and I don’t really live for rock and roll in the way I did. But I still can’t live without it.
Is it true you still have an hour upper limit for your shows?
I don’t like to play for more than an hour. I don’t like to play for more than 45 minutes, really. This is one of those interesting questions. If you go to Germany and play, they’re looking at their watch, like, “Where is my show?” Rock and roll is not something you sell by the pound. Would you rather see something wild and chaotic for half an hour, or would you rather see something boring and bloodless that takes a sip of water and asks, “How are you doing, Toledo,” for two hours.
Personally, I’ll take the first one, and I think rock and roll shows are structured all wrong. There are too many bands, and it takes too long. Everybody should share the gear, which makes the most sense. Half of what happens at rock shows is you watch some dummy move some Marshall amp off so another guy can move a different Marshall amp on. Rock and roll has become a bunch of stupid roadies running around and carrying things.
If you go back to early rock and roll, you used to be able to see a show that would last for an hour and a half or two hours, and it would have Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, and Marvin Gaye on it. They would play six or seven hits apiece, then get offstage. Now I’ve got to watch Retarded Band X from Miami playing every song they ever rehearsed in their rehearsal space for an hour and a half. It’s stupid.
I was going to say, it’s a little ironic you’re saying all this because the shows at the venue you’re playing in Miami, Churchill’s, are famously long.
Well, that’s fucking stupid. You won’t catch me sitting around. I’m not gonna sit around a fucking rock club all day. I’ve never payed to go to a rock festival in my entire life. What a colossal waste of time.
When was the last time you put on rock and roll records for three hours? Nobody does it. People listen to a couple songs, then they’re done and they watch ‘The Daily Show’ or something. Where did this idea come out that people need an eight-hour day of rock and roll, or a three-hour evening of rock and roll, or any of that shit? It’s bad music that takes too long. People should come out for half an hour, give it their all, and get the fuck offstage, and then the next people should come onstage and use the same equipment and show what they can do.
You don’t have a lot of intermediaries working with you. I got your cell phone number, texted you to set up a time for the interview, and now we’re talking. Do you also do your own Facebook and Twitter?
We have a buddy in England who does our Facebook, but we also go on it. That’s probably just a function of being old people and not liking computers that much. But yeah, we’re directly involved in our shit. We have a great booking agent, but we don’t have managers or record labels.
It’s a double-edged sword. Most of the big, successful people have a management company and label behind them, and I get that, but people don’t understand that most of the people with management companies and labels are not successful. I was never in this game to win a Grammy or get a gold record.
If you’re shooting for a Grammy or gold record, then by all means, suck every manager’s dick and kiss the ass of every label, because you’re going to need that. If, on the other hand, you’ve got a little initiative and believe in entrepreneurship, why waste your career? I’ve seen a lot of people lose hope because of a stupid record label they were on doing nothing for them, or their mindless manager doing nothing for them.
That’s part of the beauty of punk rock. You can avoid that stuff if you have the mind for it and your heart’s in the right place and you understand some basic things. But like you said, you called me on the phone and we’re having a conversation and I’m not hiding anything. That’s what makes the Dwarves different from 99 percent of bands who are trying to sell you some bullshit idea of what they are and going through a bunch of publicists. That’s largely because bands are afraid. It’s ridiculous.
Do you ever get so tired of being so hands-on?
Oh yeah, absolutely. But the thing is we don’t have some Protestant work ethic about it. There are some bands that go out there for eight, 10 months of the year and live and breathe it, but fuck that. I’d rather go out for a weekend and have fun with it. Again, it all depends what you’re trying to do. It’s not that hard for me to be hands-on for three shows, but it would be hard to be hands-on for 50.
In a perfect world, we’d be selling so many records and playing such huge shows that there would be no way to handle it ourselves. But that perfect world doesn’t exist. I put the onus on what I thought was important — playing great shows and making great records. So I did hook up with a top-ten producer, but he did it because we were friends, and not because a label or manager put it together.
How active are the Dwarves as a project when you’re not playing shows?
I don’t think about it at all if I’m not playing a show or making a record. In fact, I’m writing a musical now, so it’s interesting, because I’ve kind of come back around.
But it goes through phases. Some years we’ll play 60 or 70 shows, and it’ll take it a lot out of you, or I’ll make a record, and that takes a lot out of you, so I’ll be thinking about the Dwarves 24 hours a day. But for the last year-and-a-half or two years, I’ve just stuck it on a shelf and let other people think about it if they wanted to.
It pays my bills, and I don’t have to do other distasteful things, so that’s good. I can pay my guys well, which is really important. At the end of the day, the Dwarves will live forever. We’re just rock legends, and there are no two ways about it. It’s unassailable that we are one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time.
What’s the story with the musical?
It’s similar to different projects I’ve liked, like This is Spinal Tap or the Rutles. It’s humorous and pokes fun at punk rock, things which resist having fun poked at them. It’s got me writing again, and has got me enthused about stuff. Who knows what’ll happen? Maybe it’ll never be performed, and maybe it’ll be a huge Broadway hit. I hope it’s the latter.
Green Day had a Broadway hit, so why not.
Well, Green Day made a really good album, American Idiot. I thought it was their best record. The musical was pretty darn underwhelming from my point of view. I didn’t think it hit many of the points that musicals are supposed to. But God bless ‘em, because maybe they’ll open up the way for other people to make musicals that have some punk rock in them.
To me, Green Day is an example of the mainstream actually getting it right. I like Green Day, and the Offspring, and a lot of what is considered to be mainstream punk, because it’s well done and well played. But I don’t swallow all the hype. Just because a publicist said American Idiot was a concept album doesn’t make it a concept album. I judge everything on its own merits.
But I hope musicals become more standard, and I think they’ve become more standard over the last 10 years. Whether that means anyone will care about mine or not, I don’t know.
Do you have any kind of projected completion date for it, or title, or anything?
I have a title, but I wouldn’t want to let that out. There’s no completion date, as it kind of depends on who I can get behind me. Musicals are very complicated in that it depends whether you want to get it filmed, or performed onstage. The structure of it would really be different depending upon who does it with me in the initial stages.
The writing part is really only the beginning with a musical. There’s a lot of complicated stuff that has to happen, and it’s really daunting. But I’m enjoying the process, so who knows. Maybe I can use it to fuck one of those girls from Glee.
Which one is your favorite?
I like the really mean, blond one. But I guess my favorite would have to be Santana, because she’s a lesbo, too. She would probably take the cake.