Feature Stories

Mike Dillon, a Local Legend with a Complicated Dallas History

Mike Dillon sounds weary but resilient. It's inevitable when he comes back to Dallas. His memories of the city and Deep Ellum in the 1980s haunt him like the ghosts of old relatives. Back then, when the neighborhood was in its heyday, he played in two of the scene's most renowned bands as the frontman for Billy Goat and percussionist for Ten Hands. He even flipped burgers at the Prophet Bar. But his bizarre stage antics and a nasty heroin addiction were to spell the end of his time with both bands and set him off on a tortuous journey, one that saw him leave Dallas and never look back. Clean of his addiction for some time now, Dillon is both wary and anxious of returning.

"It is hard to go back to Dallas and play music and not feel a sense of remorse for the whole heroin thing," Dillon says from somewhere on the road in Idaho. Last weekend, he did come back, playing a solo set at Three Links as part of the Elm Street Music and Tattoo Festival. "When I left Dallas, I left a lot of people disappointed. I knew that I had hurt people. I lost a lot of friends."

Dillon's departure was more than two decades ago, but those memories remain vivid. Perhaps the fact that Dillon was such a major player in the North Texas music scene, and potentially a player at the national level, still fills him with regret.

"It was a low point for me when I left Dallas 22 years ago," Dillon says. "I look back at it and realize that I was in my 20s and I wasn't taking things seriously." His voice trails off as though his memories of those times have become clearer with sobriety -- perhaps too clear. Although Dillon is proud of what he has accomplished since leaving Dallas, he can't help but wonder how things would have gone if he had acted differently.

"Things were coming at me -- record deals and that kind of stuff," he says. "I thought that there would be another one right around the corner. Billy Goat had a lot of opportunities and the drugs definitely made things go sour for a long time."

Yet many of his friends stuck by Dillon. One of those is Paul Slavens, the leader of Ten Hands. When the band decided to do a reunion show last January, Slavens didn't hesitate to contact Dillon about taking part in the event.

"I met Paul Slavens while I was attending college and that really changed how I felt about music," Dillon says. "Paul is one of those guys that I will play with whenever I get a chance and I would love to write and record with him again."

Along with Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians, Ten Hands were the backbone of the Deep Ellum music scene of the '80s. Slavens, Dillon and a host of talented musicians helped make Ten Hands one of the most popular bands of the day.

"Ten Hands was one of those bands that had a really strong following," Dillon says. "People who were into Ten Hands were really into Ten Hands. We had our own little scene. Back in the day, people did come every week. People related to it. People responded to us like we were the Grateful Dead, but on a smaller scale of course."

The Ten Hands reunion show was a huge success, and if anyone still had hard feelings concerning Dillon, none were expressed. Immediately after the show, many fans were asking when another would occur. Those Deep Ellum memories of the '80s have staying power.

"We got paid a lot of money for that [reunion] show," Dillon says. "The crowd sang all the songs and it was great. There was a good turnout for that gig because we have loyal fans." Then, as though to not get carried away, he adds, "I wonder if it would still work if we played every week."

Such a prospect is probably something that Dillon won't have to worry about as long as his current project is cranking out albums as interesting as Band of Outsiders. The recently issued full-length combines the funk/punk energy of Billy Goat with the intellectual experimentation of acts such as Frank Zappa, Pere Ubu and The Residents.

"I grew up on Zappa and playing marimba," Dillon says. "When I was in Billy Goat, I really got into studying people like Thelonious Monk, people who were my heroes. I wanted to play that kind of music in a rock environment."

With Band of Outsiders, Dillon has certainly gotten his wish. Songs like "Hand of God," "Homeland Insecurity" and "Carly Hates the Dubstep" are intense and intricate jazz-rock gems. The entire album features an odd, funky groove that never lets up. Bassist Patrick McDevitt and drummer Adam Gertner were wise choices Dillon made for this project.

"I love people who are all over the place musically, people who do their own thing," Dillon says. "I want people to hear my music and whether they like it or not, they say it is interesting. I like to be pushed. I like to go further."

Dillon has always been one for pushing at boundaries. Only now, he can do so without the negative effect of drugs. Dillon, however, sees even his use of heroin as part of an overall learning experience.

"At the end of the day, I feel great about being clean now," Dillon says. "It was all a learning experience so I don't really regret it. I know I could have done some things differently and made some different decisions. I was so hardheaded."

After he'd left Dallas in the early '90s and beaten his heroin addiction, Dillon began exploring many musical options. He first moved to Kansas City, detoured back to North Texas and finally settled for good in New Orleans, where he played with everyone from Primus' Les Claypool to singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco.

"I decided to do a lot of projects," he explains. "That was my mentality. It was being musically all over the map. That was what I wanted to do. I wanted to work with new people onstage in order to learn from them. It was amazing. I wanted to expand musically. I wanted to learn how to do different things."

Dillon says that his time with artists as disparate as Claypool and DiFranco was a real learning experience.

"I played with Les and Ani at the same time," Dillon says. "Les' music is wild and crazy and intense and Ani's is more about the song and coming from the folk tradition. I learned a lot from both of them."

Dillon was also inspired by his new Louisiana surroundings. Before he'd moved there in 2006, he'd mostly laid low musically, but the city helped get his creative juices flowing once more.

"The lure of music, the ability to play with all these great musicians drew me to New Orleans," Dillon says. "That's why I relocated there. Plus it's a great town to live in. The music thing is crazy. People really support music. One night you might see Ivan Neville playing with the Meters or Professor Longhair, people like that. Music is everywhere. It's crazy."

Yet even though Dillon loves New Orleans, he will always have a soft spot for Dallas and the North Texas music scene.

"Dallas is like family to me," Dillon says. "My musical brothers like Paul Slavens and [Ten Hands and Billy Goat bandmate] Earl Harvin were always there for me. We never got famous, but we were always creating art."

Dillon is especially glad to see the resurgence of the Deep Ellum music scene.

"It's great to see Deep Ellum coming back," he says. "It's great to come back and see Dada, just to see it open. I was there playing Deep Ellum in the '80s. I was having a blast. We were young and we were experimenting. We were thinking what didn't kill us made us stronger." Looking back from a distance, Dillon can even see parallels between his own life and the fortunes of his old stomping grounds. "Like Deep Ellum, you go through periods, high and low. Now, the scene is in resurgence. I am just glad to see it happening. It's good for musicians like myself."

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Darryl Smyers
Contact: Darryl Smyers