interview with Michael Gerald of Killdozer
The New Puritan ReView;
Killdozer are a three-piece band hailing from Madison, Wisconsin - the dairy state, of all places. Anyone who has ever seen them perform can bear witness to their awesome bombastic aural onslaught. Vocalist/bass player Michael Gerald innocently jerks thunderous pounding rhythms from his instrument, while letting forth a mighty roar perhaps more startling because of his otherwise unassuming stage presence.
Flanked by Bill and Dan Hobson, respectively on ear-splitting guitar and bone-jarring drums, Michael conveys vivid impersonations of the Great American Dream gone astray, exaggerating in no small detail the potential for existential adventure in the lifestyles of the everyday man. Not to be confused for some trend-kissing band of posing pseudo-intellectuals, Killdozer offsets their warm visions of reality with songs you may remember from your past, bringing you back to those fond memories of jaded youth. Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Z.Z. Top; all have been paid homage to in Killdozer's live shows as well as on vinyl. While many fans tend to over-identify the band with it's influences, there is an undeniable wealth of good old-fashioned common sense stored within their original songs that reflect the irony of the struggle of the working man, while maintaining a low profile and an almost perverted humor.Read more or less
The following interview was held in Minneapolis on the 16th of February, 1990, following a well-attended performance at the 7th Street Entry. Many thanks to Michael for taking the time out of his busy schedule to share with NPR some of his thoughts on the music industry, politics and the working class, and the gentle art of songwriting.
Killdozer plays a number of covers on stage as well as on record, while escaping the restrictions of being a "cover band". Do you feel that you inject a certain identity into the songs you cover or was it there all along, waiting to be discovered and interpreted in your own style?
They're all songs that have something to do with us. I inject myself into them when I sing them. They're songs that are part of us anyway, and I know they were originally sung with some sort of feeling - I sing 'em about the way I feel. I inject into them the meaning I think they should have or the feeling I think they should have.
Do you consider those types of music as being influential in the musical style of Killdozer? It would seem that by the time some of those songs have been reworked they almost become your own originals in a way.
Yeah, definitely. Especially I would say the Skynyrd and the Z.Z. Top.
With such a strong parallel between those points of inspiration and your own original style, it would appear to some critics that you have pigeonholed yourselves into a somewhat obscure genre - almost a novelty in fact. Do you find it frustrating to deal with these misconceptions?
Yep. When we go on tour - even tonight - we find people in the audience shouting out covers that they want us to do. For a little while there, like when we went to Europe with Tom Hazelmeyer, we didn't do any covers, except for one that Tom taught us, and Dan and I still don't know what it's called...something by the MC5 - something he wanted to do, and he sang it. Now and then we take a mind to ourselves to just not do any covers at all. It's really kind of irritating - we get tired of being identified as a cover band... we've done far more originals than we've ever done covers.
Was there any difference in the way European audiences responded to your music as compared to American audiences?
Yeah. In Germany we still got people shouting out covers, but they're much more receptive to the original stuff - although they don't seem to grasp the lyrics. It was explained to us once by some guy in Germany, they listen to it one sentence at a time and they don't put it all together. They listen to it in English, and they translate it to themselves in German - they don't put it all together to be one whole song. In Holland they do a bit better, 'cause they're better skilled with English, and in England they know English, but they're not familiar enough with America to know what we're singing about. It's all very much America, what we're singing about - it's very much embedded in what life in America is.
It would seem that the style of music Killdozer plays is as authentic American as early folk music, which also has in common with your songs the element of storytelling.
Yeah, mostly what they are, are stories. A lot of them are just from my childhood, or maybe my recent past. A lot of them are from newspaper articles I've read - something happened, so I just make a story around it.
Would you say that some particular kinds of stories inspire you more than others?
Yeah - the psychotic. Generally, I choose the psychotic, or just the absolutely absurd... idiocy - acts of idiocy. You know, when I perceive somebody's behavior as being based on absolute brainlessness. Sometimes I just make it up. When I make it up, I'm not making it up out of the blue, I'm just making it up based upon general humanity. Most humanity is generally brainless... well, not neccesarily brainless - just not too bright.
Can you name an example of a situation you've written about that could be considered representational of your perception of humanity?
Well, yeah - the most recent LP, the song "Gates of Heaven". It's kind of a satirical song, it's based somewhat on William Holden and the way he died. More than that, it's just sort of the nobility of the wino. You know - they're not living a worthwhile life, but they're still a human being with some dignity. It's not a song that has anything to do with homeless people, just those people that choose to devote their lives to drink - because for one reason or another, maybe they just don't care for society. It's a hard place to get along.
Given the individual creative aspects of each of the band members involved, do you feel there is a pretty strong chemistry at work or is it more of a chance situation?
Musically, it's all just by chance. One of us will make up something on our particular instrument and show it to the other guys. Maybe it will gel, maybe it won't - usually it does. Maybe we just come up with absolutely nothing, and three months later - lo and behold, this time it gels... because it's a different mood. If we wait three months and forget all about it, then it's new again and we can come up with something better. It works - I think the three of us have a knack for playing together.
Exactly how long have the three of you been playing together?
In this band, about six years. We were in another band, for a year or two. Dan and I have been playing together for ten years, and we started playing with his brother Bill eight years ago. This band has been together for six years.
Does the sibling bond within the band ever create any unique situations?
No. It has in the past - we'd have our fights, which usually involved me siding with one or the other, but now we always get along. We don't care enough about the things we fought about anymore. We're in a band together and we have our own lives apart from each other, so we don't have to agree on opinions about things, although we tend to anyway. The sort of things we used to fight about, we realize now they're really petty. It also helps that we make better money now. When we go on tour and we're making enough money to actually justify doing it, it makes us all quite a bit happier and we don't fight so much.
Are there still things that you haven't acheived within the band that you would like to be doing?
We all have got our own ideas about what we should be doing musically. I'd like to start going into a faster vein, playing more... rock music. Even more than that, I'd like to be doing Country & Western. Now that we’re almost all over thirty... rock music should be for the kids - we should play country & western. It has a lot to do with the fact that I prefer to listen to Country & Western than to other rock bands.
That would certainly alienate your audiences a bit, don't you think?
I think it would alienate the audiences quite a bit. Also, I don't think we'd get any popularity in the Country & Western crowd, because I think to play Country & Western, you've got to be country. We're suburban guys from outside of Minneapolis, now we live in three different cities. At any rate, it's not country. I think it would be pretty contrived for us to start playing Country & Western.
As far as playing faster "rock" music, some of the covers you play have allowed you to experiment in that vein somewhat.
I don't know if it was so much that, it was just getting something off our chest. We kept wanting to do covers - every LP we'd put on a cover - so we did For Ladies Only. We did nine covers - got 'em out of the way. We did 12 Point Buck with no covers at all, and now we don't feel a great need to do covers anymore. It's just a whim - sometimes we don't do any in the live shows. Of those covers we did, we only ever learned half of them. We recorded them, we learned them for the moment, but the next day we could not play them again. Today we can't play them again... we can play about half of them.
With all the sidestepping to shake off your influences, do you remember what the aim of Killdozer was to begin with?
Yeah, we wanted to be something like The Birthday Party or The Gang Of Four... maybe Flipper. I think any band that starts off has in mind another band that they want to be like. Then, the band continues to follow that, and as a result, amounts to nothing because they're just a copycat band - they're just derivative. That was the original inspiration, but we kind of went from there in our own direction.
Do you feel that at this point the band's own identity has been established with your audience?
Yeah. I mean, we started off definitely following in The Birthday Party and Flipper's footsteps, and The Gang Of Four, as far as rhythm was concerned. I would still trace our inspiration back to The Birthday Party and Flipper...
What qualities did those bands possess that provided you with so much inspiration?
The Birthday Party, just fucking great sound. Great rhythm, great bass, great singing, great guitar - just the way they all worked together as a four-piece, instead of being like some bands with a bass and a guitar, together playing this riff. They were like... a bass line, and a guitar line, separate - going together well, but not just following each other. Flipper, they were so slow - so plodding, so obnoxious. Sometimes we still copy some... not copy, but... more than The Birthday Party, Flipper is still something that we come up with, the way we write music.
Speaking of writing, who takes on that responsibility in Killdozer?
Lyrics? Me. Dan's written a couple here and there. A friend of mine in Milwaukee wrote one. Sometimes we just steal lyrics and write them into our own song.
In that the bands which have influenced you are also capable lyricists or storytellers as well as being musically innovative, do you think along similar lines when writing your own lyrics?
I always try to use my intelligence. I try to make 'em clever. As far as I'm concerned, I like to write a song as if it would be worthy of actually just being written. Some of the songs we've written are obviously just songs, and carry no weight on paper, but I like to think that about half of them maybe would be perfectly reasonable to be on paper, and just read without music at all.
Do you ever get caught up in the dichotomy of the medium itself, becoming an entity independent of the message you're actually trying to get across?
Some of the lyrics I write to fit the music we've got. Others, I wrote something and I fit it to music. In other cases, actually, I wrote something to fit the music, but I thought it was so good that there's no reason it couldn't have been just written. Not as poetry - I don't have time for poetry, I just mean something that's worth reading. Like, if you read this, it would be just as good as if you listened to the song.
Referring back to groups you've cited as influences, their lyrics carry a lot of weight in that respect, coming from a sort of political or sociological bent. How do you feel you measure up in that respect?
Musically, we're not involved with politics, which isn't to say we don't think about politics - we are politically-minded guys. I, personally - and I think Dan and Bill would agree with me - think that rock music just isn't the place for politics. I mean, who are you gonna convince of anything, anyway? Even if they're listening to what you're saying - if you're singing politics - they either already agree with you or they think you're fucked. It's not like a political debate, you're not gonna change anybody's mind. It doesn't mean that Gang Of Four was a bad idea - if I was actually against their politics, I might have hated them anyway. I also really like The Pop Group, and again, it's because it was kind of like, in that way of thinking anyway. I mean, I don't like Skrewdriver - I mean, they suck musically anyway - but even if they were any good, I wouldn't like them, because I wouldn't care for what they were trying to say.
It gets to be a bit tedious, kind of like the whole Crass label mentatlity, which becomes it's own genre at a certain point.
Crass - now there's another case. I didn't even begin to care what Crass had to say, because I thought musically they were crap. There you've got some examples of why I think trying to convey politics in music just doesn't work. If your music's crap, nobody listens to what you have to say. I didn't give a damn what Crass had to say, because I didn't like their music. If your music's really good, well, even people who completely disagree with you - like The Gang Of Four - they like to dance, and they dance together.
Our bag is for social commentary. I don't know if we convince anybody of anything - I doubt it. From what I've read of record reviews of us, I think a lot of people don't even get the point of what we're trying to say. Like, when we're being sarcastic, they take us seriously, and think we're assholes. I've read reviews of us that say we're "anti-blue collar" - I don't see that. I have a hard time thinking of where blue collar people even enter into our lyrics. I mean, all of our social commentary, but they don't have anything to do with class.
Do you get the impression that the majority of your audiences might hearken from a largely blue-collar background - the young working class, at least?
I don't know if that's true...
[Dan Hobson enters the room at this point.]
Dan: Is what true?
Michael: Our audience being largely blue collar working class kids?
Dan: Boy, I don't know about that. Blue collar people only listen to retro-rock - all that old stuff on KQ [a typical Mid-western retro-rock FM station], things like that, and they really don't go in for new music at all. Only people who have some intelligence... I'm not saying that blue collar people don't have intelligence, 'cause some of them do, but the majority of them - they're not aware of what's new, I think.
What demogaphic then, do you feel constitutes the social class of the people who make up your audience?
I would say... dropouts from the middle class. People who are born and raised in the middle class, but now have blue collar jobs. They have the middle class education - which generally includes college - and now hold a blue collar job, because they don't care for the middle class lifestyle, but they're not actually part of the blue collar lifestyle either. I don't think a lot of our audience is high-school kids. I think it's people in their twenties - even thirties - who were, as ourselves, born and raised white collar middle class, and now just don't follow the middle class lifestyle anymore. We have the education from the middle class lifestyle, but don't live the middle class lifestyle. We've all got college degrees. We don't neccesarily have blue collar jobs, but we have a blue collar income. We all pretty much work in the service industry, which means retail and food industries. Those are the sort of jobs where either you can take off for a couple of weeks to go on a tour, or if you can't, you really don't mind quitting.
What is the band up to currently?
The new album just came out in January; we released the single on Amphetamine Reptile. I'd say, coming up this summer, we'll be putting out a movie soundtrack - it's called, Pokerface. It's sort of a cinematic re-make of the TV show, Maverick, and all I know about it is they're hoping Nicholas Cage will be in it. I don't know who's directing it - I've been told, but the name doesn't ring a bell. We're hopefully gonna do the soundtrack; apparently, we're gonna be playing a song in a scene in a saloon. We're hoping they'll let us do the whole soundtrack.
Which would be the perfect opportunity to come to grips with that Country & Western infatuation.
Yes, it definitely would be, and if not Country & Western, then some things in the vein of "House of the Rising Sun", that sort of stuff. I mean, I don't know what you call that kind of music - a little bit of country, a little bit of blues, a little bit of folk.
All in all, do you feel comfortable with the niche you've established within the alternative/independent scene, or do you aspire for anything outside of that?
Recently, we read a few magazine things that seemed way off the mark. An interview with another band that said we're smart people who try to be dumb. I have a hard time seeing where we're trying to be dumb. Another record review, the guy actually went and said that he knows people from Madison who know us, and we are in fact dumb. It all leads to my not being able to understand our trying to be dumb in the first place. I like to think we're smart people, and I also like to think we're just trying to be ourselves. Lyrically, it doesn't have anything to do with us.
I think perhaps there is a preconceived notion that intelligent people playing contemporary music are going to be working with sophisticated theory and structure.
I like to think that we're being sophisticated, in breaking away from the aural masturbation that is so much college rock.
Remember, ten years ago, people only applied the term "progressive" to bands like Yes, or Styx, to name but a few examples of groups who were obviously calculated and derivative of proven formulas. Later, the same term was also applied to bands like The Ramones and The B-52's.
Yeah - progressively backwards... I mean, I like to think that we're being sophisticated by breaking away from all this - bass players playing too many notes, guitar players doing too much noodling, drummers playing solos...
Do you feel that those are unneccesary ideas?
Yeah, it's show-off stuff. A song in its' entirety should be good. I don't care if anybody comes off thinking I'm a good bass player - I'd much rather have people think that it's a good song. I don't care if anybody thinks Dan's a good drummer, 'cause he can do some great fills. I just want the song to be good.
Perhaps the quality that sticks in most people's minds after seeing Killdozer is your stage voice, which hardly matches your physical demeanor. Was there any reason for that style, or did it just come about that way?
It worked - something I found. The guys like it, I do it.
Did you try other methods of singing before deciding to stick with what you do now?
Yeah, the guys didn't like it. Every now and then on a recording, I'll like... whisper, and that's okay on a recording, but it doesn't work live. You can't whisper - it won't carry over, the P.A. won't handle it, it gets buried. The songs that I whisper on in a recording... if we do them live, I gotta just... bellow. I mean, if I were to actually try to sing, I can't carry a note anyway.
It would appear that Killdozer's records are pretty carefully thought out for maximum impact.
The packages, very carefully.
Would you say they are thematically tied together as well, conceptually, perhaps?
Not at all. If there's any concept lyrically, it's just because it happens to be the way I'm thinking at the time.
Killdozer can be heard on the following fine recordings:
- Intellectuals Are The Shoe Shine Boys of the Elite
- Little Baby Bunting
- Twelve Point Buck
- For Ladies Only
[originally released as a boxed set of 5 - 7" singles; also available on CD and a vinyl picture disc]
- Lupus b/w Nasty [7" single - B-side is a Janet Jackson cover!]
- Her Mother's Sorrow b/w Short Eyes [7" single]
...and on the following compilation albums:
- Music For Geeks
- God's Favorite Dog
Currently, a live album is also in the works.
© J. Free / New Puritan ReView; 1990; 2014