Pillars of the 90s: An Interview With The Dillinger Escape Plan
[This is the 12th installment of the Pillars interview series. You can check out the rest here]
Artist: The Dillinger Escape Plan
Album: Calculating Infinity
Label: Relapse Records / Hydra Head Records
Favorite Song: "4th Grade Dropout"
The Bare Bones: Calculating Infinity is the debut album of New Jersey metalcore/mathcore band The Dillinger Escape Plan.
The Beating Heart: Very few albums have been as influential on modern extreme-music, and even fewer were as genre-bending/defining as Calculating Infinity. Add to that already stacked statement the fact that it was the band's debut and you begin to somewhat understand not only the scope and impact that album had on an endless field of twisted younger minds but also the sheer speed in which that impact took place. Within the first seconds of album opener "Sugar Coated Sour" it was clear that this is not going to be just another album. Within the span of the album's first couple of songs you were already burning down half your record collection. By the end of the album you were burning down your room, re-stringing your guitar and drinking battery acid for breakfast. It was lightning-fast, spastic, unexpected, complex and most importantly it was whip-smart and violently savage. So much so, in fact, that while The Dillinger Escape Plan indeed came up within the context of a wider scene that included like-minded members of this interview series, such as Botch and Coalesce, by the time New Jersey band called it quits in 2017 they laid the foundations for a way of being in music, a new level of mathematical, jazzy intensity. And it is for all these reasons, and more, that adding TDEP to the Pillars series was an absolute no brainer, and I hope you'll enjoy my conversation with the band's guitarist and leader Ben Weinman below.
Before that, however, a few words about what this all is, and what I hope to achieve in an investigation of the great albums of the 1990s. I feel like what happened, inadvertently with the Albums of the Decade project was a documentation and to an extent consolidation of what it is that I have loved an admired about the music of the past 10 years or so. I began writing this blog as a way back into music and heavy music after something of a hiatus from metal in the early 2000s and it was for me an investigation not only of what I love but also why I love it. And those interviews were instrumental in my own understanding of my appreciation of music and, really of art more generally. However, having gone through that series as long as I have has also pitted me face to face with the understanding that the wellspring of my own musical inspiration as well as that of many of the artists I admire today – that weird, unique confluence of inspirations that made up the musical scene of the 1990s – had to be tackled in some way.
So, now that that's out of the way, follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Spotify (now also on Twitter) and support whatever it is that we do on Patreon, and check out our kinda-sorta podcast, MATEKHET (YouTube, Spotify and all that). On to my interview with Ben.
Is there a moment you remember, as a younger person, perhaps, and I realize there may be many of these moments, that you heard a song or an album or saw a band live, and you were confused or shocked, and you felt like you had never experienced music that way before. So, a kind of watershed moment, where your mind was basically blown as a result of listening to music?
As far as growing up listening to music, it's so gradual, and there's so much gray area when you're being flooded with so much stuff. In the 90s you'd wake up to go to school, there would be the radio on and you'd hear every hit there, and then you come home and put MTV on and see every new video. So there was lots of stuff going on, and it was all pretty much curated by “the man,” you saw what was put in front of you at that age. But I can say that an experience that really took me out of that superficial experience of just taking it in was going to see Depeche Mode in concert. So, seeing Depeche Mode during the violator tour was the first time I really got really obsessed with a band. I liked the band before, but when I got back from that, it was like buying the VHS tapes, the concerts, behind the scenes, reading about them everywhere I could. So that that was kind of a changing moment.
How old were you, 15? Or 16?
And can you say what, what was it about that show that did that for you? That had that impact?
Yeah, I remember the production being amazing. Depeche Mode is a band that inspired artists like Nine Inch Nails to do the shows that they do and things like that. And so, yeah, the production was amazing, the sound was amazing. And hearing everybody sing, hearing that many people sing music that sometimes would go in dark places and things like that, in that scale, 15,000- 20,000 people, you couldn’t not feel the amazing energy. And it was a big band, I mean, the Violator had “Personal Jesus” and all those songs, they were pretty big hits. But they weren't a traditional pop band by any means. So that, I think, was a really, really important moment for me.
So, considering the fact that most people – I'm gonna be a cliche dude right now – when they think about your work, they don't necessarily jump to Depeche Mode immediately. I'm not saying that to be like: “Oh my God, I can't believe Ben listens to Depeche Mode,” but more like the connection between the two. And so when you look back at your body of work can you tell if there was something about whatever it was that impacted you in that show – production wise, sound wise, or the emotional impact – that you feel that it was important for you, even in retrospect, to maintain in your own work? Even if you didn’t end up making synth-pop?
Yeah, I can say this: At the time I didn't have access to anything but a guitar and a four-track recorder. And so, you never know, if I had been a little older or had the money for synthesizers and tape machines and things like that, maybe I would have gone in a different direction. But yeah, to create something on the production level of Depeche Mode, at that time was so out of reach for me. There wasn't really software that did that stuff, and the kind of equipment they were using was extremely expensive, and they were recording in really great studios. All I had was a four track and the guitar. I'm sure melodically it inspired me and definitely culturally. I loved everything about them. There was a VHS about Depeche Mode that was kind of the first reality show, and it was a whole documentary about a bunch of Depeche Mode fans who went on the road together on a tour bus and stayed in hotel rooms, following the band. And they show stuff about the band, but those fans were the main part of the documentary. And they got in fights, some of them got involved with each other. But Depeche Mode is what brought them together. They came from all walks of life, but they all had that in common. And I think that getting into underground music and niche music probably stemmed from seeing the diehards like that who were getting so involved in so inspired and influenced by it in their daily lives. So it wasn't long before I started going from Depeche Mode and The Cure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, and things like that, into stuff like Ministry and some of the heavier stuff, Nine Inch Nails, and then I got, probably through skateboarding, into things like Suicidal Tendencies and things that were more punk and thrash. So, yeah, I think the underground culture of it all, and the obsession the fans had, definitely made me want to dig deeper for the music that wasn't so popular.
So, I've had this idea of what I thought the 90s were interesting for and it had something to do with a lot of cross fertilization, multiple influences kind of coming to a head at the same time and people doing creative shit with them. But one of the one of the recurring themes in these interviews has been bands that come from a hardcore, or hardcore-like scene, and then diverging from that scene to do that something that's different. And I wanted to get that topic actually a bit later. But I want to try something in that context right now, which is to say that the hardcore ethic is that you are who you are when you play and write music. That there is no “show.”
And I saw you guys live when you came to Israel, and I'm pretty sure this is a ubiquitous experience for anyone who has ever seen you guys live, is that your live show is a very pronounced event – You go to a show, and you your mind is blown by the energy and you leave and it’s nothing you've ever seen. And so I wonder to what extent were you aware of the showmanship aspect of that energy. I mean, obviously, a lot of that was just you being into what you're playing. But being a person who is appreciative of an engrossing live act, like you saw with Depeche Mode, to what extent was showmanship important for you?
Well, with Dillinger…. I started the band at a time when I thought it was impossible to make it in music. And part of getting into the underground hardcore punk scene, which I think this is a similar situation to a lot of the bands that came from there and diverged and tried to go bigger places, I think the underground punk scene was a place where you could actually play. Here were the kids making the shows themselves, putting the albums out themselves, creating the scenes themselves. It wasn't controlled by corporations, it wasn't controlled by some creepy club owner with a cigar who made you pay to play. It was literally like a group of people getting together making it happen. And that's what was so attractive to musicians and band people who found the scene. The DIY ethic and what was going on in the culture was more important than the music in many ways. A lot of the people I knew just made bands that fit into that culture in order to be a part of it.
But, with us, we weren't interested in necessarily sticking to the guidelines of what was happening. To be quite frank, we wanted to use it. We were using that scene to play shows, and to get to get in front of people, and to be able to vent and do things like that. And so we were playing music that wasn't popular, that was really pushing things, but it also shook things up. And it was polarizing. When we started you didn't have bands as heavy as us with short hair dressed that preppy like we did [laughs], you didn't have people wearing Slayer shirts at hardcore shows, you didn't have people wearing Black Flag shirts at Slayer shows, it just didn't happen. So what we were doing was very polarizing. We wanted to completely vent, and it was a completely selfish thing. Most of the time we were playing In front of 10-20 people, so what happened was, because we wanted to be real, we wanted to be visceral, that it started to resonate with people and 10-20 turned into 20-30, and 20-30 to 30-40. By the time we looked up, not only were there thousands of people, but they all expected us to perform in a certain way.
So what started as a way for us to selfishly vent, and just having a total, free, and uninhibited self expression, eventually turned into something that was expected and was considered a show. And that was the most difficult thing about Dillinger for me, because when everybody joined the band, when all the other original members were gone, and people were joining my band, they were joining the band as fans. They were jumping into the shoes of people who are supposed to be crazy on stage and all that stuff [laughs]. But I found it really hard to be on stage and find myself thinking: “Oh, wait, I have to go crazier, that's what they expect. Oh, wait, they want me to kill myself or jump on something or throw something,” as opposed to just being a natural thing, like it was the beginning. So I had to work really, really hard at keeping it real, to be quite frank, and making sure that it was always really just self expression. And trying to use the natural energy and influence from the music and the crowds to push myself as opposed to the expectation from people. So to answer your question about the showmanship stuff, it certainly didn't start that way. But, you know, it became part of the challenge, as we got bigger and people expected certain things from us.
There was a time when we were doing fire breathing and all kinds of stuff like that, and then we stopped, and people were like, why'd you stop? And we're like: “Because we were not a circus.” We did it because it was like: “This is dangerous, let's just do something crazy.” And I just really do something really irresponsible right now [laughs] in a little small venue. And it made music feel dangerous. We were doing things that felt dangerous, that put us in a place where we had to be on the tip of our toes and be alert and be aware of being in the moment. But then when it became an expectation it became: “Okay, we're not circus, we're not here to spit fire and juggle, we're a band.” So sometimes we did have to kind of counter that stuff, you know?
The latest interview I released from this series was with Brian Cook about Botch’s We are the Romans. So with Botch, if we can do a short version of their story, began in a hardcore scene, they don't feel like they fit in, which is all very congruent with what we've been talking about, and they kind of blew up as this weird violent band, and then they break up. And since I also interviewed Sean from Coalesce, that's pretty much the story there, at least at first.
Yeah, both those bands came from completely different geographical areas in the United States, but we all were coming from the same place. We were definitely on the same page, we were all definitely kind of brothers from another mother, and yet we came from completely different backgrounds and locations. And I really feel like, speaking of the 90s music you mentioned and what was unique about it, some of it was just literally that you were able to be inspired and play shows and sleep on the floor of someone from Botch in Seattle, or Coalesce in Kansas or whoever and kind of share stories and music. But also you had this influence from where you were from that was unique. As things became homogenized, with YouTube and the internet, that kind of went away.
For sure, but what I wanted to ask, and I actually wanted to ask this down the line but, fuck it, it fits here, is that it seemed to me like if I were you, if I was Ben Weinman looking back at his career then I would say that I hit the mother load, right? You made this crazy machine go for the long haul, you decided when it was time to end it, and by the time you did you were basically a household name in terms of heavy music. But the other way to look at that would be to say that there are certain things that are easy about flaming out early, which is that you leave this kind of almost legendary taste for more, as in the case of Botch and Coalesce, and that there's something difficult about keeping steady and staying, keeping the ship kind of rolling. Because at some point, you're not the teenager who started out the band, you're the adult with a business and sometimes with families involved, and you're an artist who's whose tastes are changing. And I was wondering how much of that was a challenge for you, the fact that you didn't break up?
I think the biggest challenge was just being so reliant on the other guys in the band. We all relied on each other so much for our livelihood, our identities became so aligned with the band, that it was very difficult for me at any way to be happy, regardless of how successful you'd get or the different accolades or levels of achievement. Because, at the end of the day, everything relied on that. So when you're at the age that I was getting, and some of the guys were getting, and you have no base and the band is all you have, that's just not healthy. So making the music was always amazing, playing shows was always amazing, but it was the other 23 hours of the day that were difficult. That's one of the reasons why I decided this was a good time to end the band, because we were still old enough to have a certain level of emotional maturity, and knowledge and wisdom, but still young enough to still do new things and expand on what we were doing. And we were also in a place where we still filled our shows, we were still at the top of our game, we felt like our music was still inspired, we still were doing it for the right reasons, and it was a perfect time to quit, while we're ahead and leave it on a good note, like you said,
OK, so speaking of quitting, let's get to the beginning. The topic at hand is Calculating Infinity and I've been racking my brains, I'll be honest with you, trying to find my way into that album. Obviously I've been listening to it my entire adult life, but trying to think about it in terms of questions or ideas. And one of the things that become very apparent is that you're obviously, as a band and as a person and musician, very known for its passion, and that passion, and the kind of visceral aspect of your music. That had a lot to do, I think, also with your relationship with Chris [Pennie] as a songwriter and as a performer. And so that completely makes sense for a late 90s band coming out of the hardcore scene. But Calculating Infinity as an album that doesn't feel hardcore-ish, to that extent that it feels very, very cerebral and very calculated, to the point of being anal. And so I guess I was wondering about that tension. Because there were those bands there were your close cousins, we just mentioned a few, but I think Dillinger, and that album specifically, is unique and how cerebral it got, to what extent it got cerebral. And so where does that tension come from? Or am I just imagining it?
No. I think the relationship with Chris and I, creatively and everything, was a huge part of creating an original sound. Because there were places where we're on the same page, but we’re coming from different places too, creatively. But we're both basically angry, crazy people. I mean, I think we can both probably look back and say: “We’re nuts, we’re both nuts.” We both had mental issues and Dillingers was a way to deal with them. And the analness was definitely coming from Chris, who would sit and read through drum charts and books, and things like that, and then I liked crazy, erratic music that changed a lot and kept you focused on what you were playing, that was meditation for me. I needed all of that to happen in order for me to focus on the moment and not be wandering all over the place. So times when I can stay focused and then feel peace was when I had so much going on musically on stage, and in my hands, whatever, that I couldn't think of my other problems in my life, I couldn't, or you just be lost, you had no choice, there's so much going on, so quickly. But I also really wanted things to be noisy and loud and things like that, and I want to feel that, it wasn't just about technique. For me, it was about being punk and energetic and bringing to people what seemed to be the feeling and experience that people were getting from the original hardcore bands like Bad Brains and Black Flag. And I knew that in order to do that we had to create music that was pushing things way farther than those bands did in order to give people the same feeling that people got when they first saw those bands for the first time. So while Chris was sitting in the basement and going through charts, I just wanted everything to be faster and louder or more aggressive and more violent. That was me. So, the combination of the two of us definitely, is really what created that sound on Calculating.
Yeah, but part of the hardcore thing, as opposed to the metal thing. So, if I may generalize about the metal scene, it’s a space where there's value to skill, right?
Right, but that didn't exist in the punk scene, right?
A hundred percent.
But when you listen to your songs, even though your songs are a product of rage and a short attention span, an onlooker would listen to that and say: “Wow, that's difficult music, that's really smart.” And so there’s a gap there.
Well, I mean, every note had a purpose, and that was another part of it, that it was organized chaos. To a lot of people it just sounded like noise, but every single note, every single hit was intentional. There was nothing left to chance. So, unless it was an improv spot, there were little moments like that, but that was intentional, too. So yeah, that was different, you're right, that didn't really exist in the hardcore scene. We were both into intricate music, we had just gotten into fusion and jazz stuff and complex electronic music and things like that. So, it was all seeping in, it was all going in. And as far as Calculating Infinity is concerned, right before we put the album out, when we were really starting to finish the song, our other guitar player quit the band, and he was a much more technical player than I was, I was more punk and blues. He was the guy who was into really difficult metal. And then our bass player, who was a prodigy bass player, got in a car accident and was paralyzed. So the pressure I had to basically step up to the plate and do all of that, take on all those characteristics of our previous EPs and take it to the next level, was so stressful that I think I probably just pushed it farther than I needed to [laughs] as an attempt to not disappoint, to rise to the occasion. So one of the reasons that that album was just so ahead of its time as far as the amount of notes the density is because I was combining what I was good at with what I needed to learn, in order to fulfill those expectations.
But the way you're describing it, it's almost as if you were trying to be another person. Like you were looking at the past EPs and saying: “Well, people will expect X, and I'm not sure I am X, but the album kind of has to have a relationship with X, otherwise it's weird.” That’s more than just learning a role, right?
I mean I was a songwriter before that and I enjoyed the technical stuff when I wrote it, but a lot of it was me taking influences from John [Fulton], our guitar player, who was learning crazy licks and scales and showing them to me, and then trying to turn it into crazy music. And Chris would add some kind of jazz or fusion thing, drum wise, and me trying to make it sound punk. I had to dig deeper. I really don't know what to say about it, but it’s kind of interesting because, like the live performances, it became an expectation that had just become what I do. It became the vocabulary that we used.
One of the things that's apparent when you listen to Calculating Infinity…. So, the first thing that hits you is like a snowstorm of notes right? And in a way that kind of becomes the white noise of the album – once your ear becomes accustomed to the crazy parts then the crazy parts become, at least for me, very relaxing. Maybe that’s just me.
That’s how it was for me [laughs].
Yeah, I think my mind works in a way that's similar to how you described yours, so there's something very relaxing about it to me.
So, you’re a crazy person? [laughs]
[Laughs] I am, there are many people who will corroborate that.
But, yeah, it takes up a space, it doesn't allow you to wander, there's a lot going on. There's always something new to hear. So yeah, I can understand that.
Exactly. I mean, that's why I listen to heavy music to begin with. I have a PhD in English and I can't read or write if I don't listen to very intricate loud music. And so that's that's how I operate, my brain is shut down if I don't. So, anyway, once you kind of tune in to the frequency that is the crazy parts then the shocking parts are not the crazy parts anymore but the quiet breakdowns.
Right, it’s the calm in the storm.
So, like the breakdown in “Clip the Apex” and that part in “4th Grade Dropout,” and that whole drum n bass type thing in “Weekend Sex Change.” Because I remember listening to later stuff like Ire Works, and thinking “Oh, Dillinger got melodic, that's crazy.” But then you go back to Calculating and you go “Oh, they were melodic there too, it was just in spurts.
And so, other than talking about dynamics in a song, I was wondering where the quiet parts came from? What was the thinking behind putting those parts in, when really what you were trying to do was fuck with people?
Well, I mean, it's a cliche, but without darkness there is no light. So it was really all that craziness around those little catchy hooks that made them so meaningful, like you said. So, that was intentional. But we also didn't want to become a band that was easy to listen to either. So, as soon as we wrote something someone could tap their foot to we changed gears real quick.
It was also an attention deficit thing too. So, when we started writing the songs, the first song we worked out, we would continue working on it until the end, and so they would just evolve and change all the time. So as we got used to them they didn't seem weird anymore or complex or challenging, then we messed them up more, made them more complex and more challenging in order to appease our sense of, I guess, being desensitized to it. Because we want them to feel uncomfortable, we wanted them to feel a feeling of anxiety in music that, again, made us calm and focused.
This is all relative, but do you feel like when you did the more mid-paced stuff then that was because you became desensitized to the crazy parts? Later on?
I think it was because it was unexpected sometimes. I think we started to find more value in that stuff because it was taking us to new places. And to make that stuff interesting was much more difficult than to just make something completely incomprehensible.
That’s interesting, why is that? Why is it more difficult?
Because, to make something simple clever, and still sound like us, without having to make it crazy, off-time all the time, which was becoming our signature sound, was really what I enjoyed the most, in the later parts of our career, making this less-crazy stuff still sound like Dillinger. Because that's what I was always proud of the most is when someone heard Dillinger, they knew it was Dillinger. And in a time when things became playlists and just a mishmash of songs, and when people don’t really listen to albums anymore, I was really proud of the fact that when our song came in a playlist or something like that, it was very identifiable.
This is kind of like a weird question, but did you feel like you had to go through the insanity of Under the Running Board and Calculating Infinity in order to reach a point where you could find value in doing simple things?
I think we had to go through all that in order to find the vocabulary that we could add to the less complex stuff to make it sound like us. Sometimes those little identifiable things we did, those heavy accents we had when we were making crazy music, then became identifiable as Dillinger even when it wasn't as complex. Sounds, harmonies, ways of doing things, stuff like that.
I'm very interested in the concept of style in my life, mostly in how deep that concept really is. Because style is kind of like a weird rhythm that every every person has their own. And if you work hard to find it, and then kind of find it, then there’s this trap that sometimes happens in which artists feel like going as hard as you can is the only way to find it. But I think that if you find that rhythm then you can then use it everywhere or in any thing, since you’ve found your style, which is a very important thing for an artist.
One of the things I was always wondering about is…. And I don’t know if this is an accurate depiction, this is more my perception of the band, and this is given my background as a huge Megadeth fan. I wouldn’t say there’s something Megadeth-like about the band, but you seem to be an almost Mustaine-like figure. At least in that the perception is that you run the show. And that might be true to an extent on the business side, I’m not sure it wasn’t all the way true on the creative side. So, if you were the point man for a lot of what was going on, that seems like a lot of pressure to take in, especially if you're also the business person and because you’re independent then sometimes you're the label person as well.
All I can say is – yes. The guy who owns the business is always the last to be invited to talk at the water cooler [laughs]. I had so much on my plate. But, I mean, I think every artist like that is simultaneously what makes the band and what breaks the band, you know?
I do, and sometimes it’s that you have to be that person, who influences everything. But I wonder if ever there was a moment, when you’re on tour or fighting with the promoter or something, that you wished you were just the guitar player for The Dillinger Escape Plan?
I often did, and I can tell you how it’s like that, from playing with Suicidal Tendencies, and it’s glorious [laughs].
Yeah. It’s nice to be able to just do that. I mean, I wouldn’t have had it any other way with Dillinger, but it is quite nice to be in a band with people that you like and literally just show up and do your job. It’s definitely a nice change of pace.
OK, so one other short question before my kind of set last question, and it’s kind of a selfish question. I know there’s that co-interview you did at the time with Marty Friedman….
Yeah, I love Megadeth.
So, that’s related to the question: I just don’t feel like I meet a lot of musicians who like Megadeth, at least not from the musicians that I like. There’s this sense that it’s not clear whether or not Megadeth influenced a second generation of bands.
Yeah, I can definitely see the guys from Coalesce or Botch never listening to Megadeth.
Yeah, for instance, and that’s even the easier ones. But even in the metal scenes. And, apologies for making this weird connection, but maybe Megadeth were like Dillinger in that they were a very primal, very smart band.
Yeah, they were the band that was smarter than most and watched everyone get bigger than them [laughs]. I can relate.
How come you can relate? I thought you guys were the biggest one out of the bunch?
Yeah, well the thing about Dillinger was that bigger bands liked us, bigger bands thought we were cool, so we were often around bands that were much bigger than us. So, it’s all relative, but we were definitely a band that would be hanging out with big, big bands, and it was very cool that they considered us peers, and I obviously don’t take anything for granted, what we were able to accomplish.
Yeah, I get that for sure. I just wondered what your thoughts were about this, considering everyone was seemingly influenced by Metallica, because they were everyone’s first band, and everyone was influenced by Nirvana, but for whatever reason Megadeth is a very niche influence, considering they were a very big band.
To be honest with you it was Megadeth before Metallica for me. I think it was because I needed something more eclectic, and Marty was going for all those eastern scales, that was similar to that mediation stuff – finding things with enough in them for me to keep focused.
I think that might be the case for me as well. Alright, final question: Looking back at Calculating Infinity, is there anything you’re especially proud of when you think of that record? A song, a decision? The whole thing?
I’m very proud of the impact it had on people, if I’m honest. We were such a small band and for it to hit so many people…. I hear so many people who I respect talk about it. For it to be considered an influential album…. I never thought I would make anything that would be any part of music history like that. For people like you to reach out and want to talk about Calculating Infinity, I’m so proud of that. I’m just so proud that after all these years people still care.