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An Interview With The Dead Milkmen

An Interview With The Dead Milkmen

The Dead Milkmen live in Portland at The Wonder Ballroom April 19, 2015. Photo by Michael Reiersgaard

You are either a long term fan or… what do you mean “Who are The Dead Milkmen?” Then allow us to introduce you. Starting in the late 70s, some guys from Philly were the satirical, silly, slightly pissed band playing in a raging punk and grindcore scene.

Throughout the years they gained a following, had lots of side projects, and lost a member. For a while they cooled off while new generations sprung up. A few years ago they reunited and started touring again and have since released two new albums. For their recent, completely sold out show at The Wonder Ballroom, Rodney (Anonymous), Guitarist and vocalist Joe (Jack Talcum) drummer Dean (Clean) and bassist Dan Stevens (replacing Dave Blood) went far beyond hits like “Punk Rock Girl” and “Bitchin Camaro” to play 23 songs and a 4 song sing-along encore complete with crowd-surfing cows. We are talking “Life Is Shit,” “Taco Land,” “Meaningless, Upbeat, Happy Song” and “If You Love Somebody Set Them On Fire.” And they did it with pretty fucking flawless execution, save for distorted vocals. But it’s a punk show! A classic show. Joe Talcum was playing with his eyes closed and a smile on his face. Dean hammered away, and the youngster in the band, Dan, was on point. The crowd and Rodney Anonymous ate each other up, and Rodney downed a couple of Red Bulls with a mischevious grin so he could pull off a DJ Set at the Lovecraft after. As Anonymous made his way with an entourage to a waiting car,  a guy in a cow-suit saluted him and yelled “MY WORK HERE IS DONE!” before coasting away on a bike.

What’s that? You want to know more? Pfft. Fine. Here’s an interview:

11: For all of the babies that haven’t heard you, tell us about The Dead Milkmen?

Dean: We have been playing shows since 2008, well two shows in 2004 in memoriam for our original bassist Dave. Then in 2008 we played the Fun Fun Fun festival in Texas. We decided it was Fun Fun Fun, and so we have been playing ever since.

We also wanted to write new material. Since then we have released two new albums and playing sporadically. This is actually the longest stretch of touring in a while.

11: So you guys formed in the late 1970’s?

Dean: I was the last member to join in 1983. We played for a year or two and recorded the first album which was the Big Lizard album. We toured pretty solidly for about ten years.

11: Were you playing a different style among other hardcore bands?

 Dean: It was much cleaner sounding. We played on the same bill as those kinds of bands, but we didn’t really sound like them. I guess it is kind of unusual how we got lumped into that group.

Dean to Dan: do you remember who was on the bill when you met us? We played a show in Northeast Philly.

Dan: Well I seen you at The Troc [The Trocadero], and there was a singer in the other band, that just insulted the entire audience for coming to see The Dead Milkmen. Just trying to get everyone riled up. I also seen you at Touch Me Zoo show, in the nineties, at a YMCA. Touch Me Zoo is another one of Joe’s other bands.

11: So why do you call yourselves The Dead Milkmen, anyway? [Joe walks in]

Dean: Hahaha, Jooooe is to blame for that.

Joe: The name?

Dean: What story do you want to tell today? Joe had the concept for a band, before the actual band existed. We had this board game.

Joe: It was called Billboard Top 200. I was obsessed with charts and stuff. There was a game where you tried to put songs off the charts. It involved charts and cards. The cards represented stuff that happened to fictional bands, and there was monopoly money. I came up with the Jack Talcum character, and you could actually make up song titles. Way too much detail. But then we actually started writing songs.

Dan: Is there any truth to that Song of Solomon story? Rodney tells that all the time.

Joe: There is absolutely no truth to that story.

Dean: Tony Morrison wrote a book called The Song Of Solomon, and there is a character in the book called “Milkmen Dead.” But it’s a total coincidence.

Joe: And I was in the Wings Fun Club, and they sent out a newsletter four times a year–that is Paul McCartney’s Wings–and I was making fun of the Fun Club with the Jack Talcum Fan Club Newsletter. If you look at the early ones, they are online now, it sort of has the story of how this character merged in with this band called The Dead Milkmen.

Dean: So the band existed on paper before a live band actually existed.

Joe: To make the newsletter more interesting, I made tapes to go along with them. My neighbor Garth, my brothers and sister, a church youth director. Strange but we made this tape called The Dead Milkmen-So Long Seventies. The very last part of the tape was recorded on New Year’s Eve 1979. I was into punk music, and the idea, a funny concept, was that this was a punk-folk band. So Garth was passing this tape around at school, and Rodney heard it.

11: This Garth guy sounds interesting. How old were you guys?

Joe: 15 and 16. Rodney wanted to be on the next tape. So that’s how he came in.

11: So you say it’s all about having fun. How seriously do you take yourselves as a band?

Dan: We practice for two hours, two nights a week, weeks before we have a show. We play from beginning to end. That’s pretty serious. We all get along too, so we have fun.

Dean: But we all enjoy it. When we aren’t playing we also like to write and it’s fun to go in and learn new songs. When we are done with this bout of shows we will probably start in on that again if everyone is into it.

11: What do you think of new punk? Do you think punk is dead?

Dean: I don’t know, there are so many bands now, and people have access to so many bands. With the internet, it’s not like when we started with college radio or underground radio or one show a week. We would all listen to what the DJ’s had access to, from England or Southern California. But now anyone can go and Google any band name that they hear and have instant gratification. I think there is still plenty of good quote-un-quote punk out there.

Dan: I think punk was a natural progression from The Kinks or The Sonics. And then it was actually named punk, and for me, I was born in 1978, and it seemed new and rebellious, experimental. Back then the punk bands don’t all sound the same, but I feel like now it seems they all sound the same. It’s like a cartoon or a parody of  the original movement. Now the old punk bands are touring, but aren’t necessarily writing new material.

11: Are you listening to or following any new music?

Dean: We think our opening band Lié is amazing.

11: Any collaborations?

Joe: The Shaking Through session was a collaboration with a band called Hot Breakfast. A band from Delaware. Rodney had the idea for the song, “Prisoner’s Cinema,” it’s weird he grafted what he calls a folk song, but it reprises a couple of times throughout.

Dan: He said he wanted folk, industrial, and trip-hop? So we blended it all, then he had this idea for the folk melody, so he invited his friend Jill and Matt. Our friends from Hot Breakfast. Jill did like 6 or 8 vocal harmonies. It was a lot.

We are open to all kinds of ideas. We all have varied musical tastes. We have had a lot of different projects. All kinds of influences and outside influences.

11: You guys have gone through some times, you have lost a band member. How has that influenced your music?

Dan: A lot of people say The King In Yellow has a lot of themes of death. But I dont think it was intentional at all.

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11: Do you think as a band, you were processing some things?

Joe: I thought that album was more inspired by various books that Rodney read. he was reading about thirteenth century, medieval times, when everyone was dying anyway.

11: What about the new album, Pretty Music For Pretty People? It seems fluffy and jingly.

Dean: It’s pretty dark, too. The song is upbeat, like “Anthropology Days” content is about the darkest of dark histories that people probably don’t know about, but Rodney does. What did Rodney say the next theme for the next album will be? Somehow in his mind he connects the songs, we don’t necessarily understand all of it, but he does.

11: So Rodney has a lot of the creative drive with the songwriting?

Dean: We all do collaborate on the songs, though, which I think is really cool.

Joe: I do some of the songwriting, but it’s more like Rodney pointing me in a direction, like  “why don’t you write a song about this,” or “I bet you can’t write a song about that.” Like he told me a story about something he read about how people used to entomb dead bodies with electrical plating so they would become statues. So thats where the song “Sanitary Times” comes from.

11: And with that, would you ever play a concert in a cemetery, again?

Dean: Yeah I think we will probably do that again, that was a lot of  fun. But we werent sure if it was going to happen. It was a lot of stress to pull it off.

Dan: And it was a beautiful cemetery.

11: How bitchin’ is that Camaro?

Dean: I don’t think I have actually ever been in a Camaro.

11: My friend Larry wants to know if you want to live in his basement, for free, forever?

Dean: How big is it?

Joe: Does it have plumbing?

Dan: Can I bring my kids? »

– interview by Brandy Crowe

More photos of The Dead Milkmen’s Wonder Ballroom set by Michael Reiersgaard below: