Refused progress: how Dillinger Escape Plan carry a torch for New Noise
Almost nine years ago to the day, on October 6 1998, a hardcore basement show in Harrisonburg, Virginia, was broken up by the police after the headline band had only played four songs. The band had been in the midst of a lengthy US tour only to cancel after playing half the dates, issuing a press release that announced their split with immediate effect – the basement show wasn’t even meant as a farewell, merely a one-off gesture. The band was Refused.
Even though it has become de rigueur to namedrop the Umeå quartet when discussing any band that has heavy riffs / screaming / an electronic bleep or two / the odd throwaway political lyrical couplet, there is an infinitesimally small number of bands who might actually deserve to be mentioned as continuing Refused’s legacy. Without a doubt, one such band is Dillinger Escape Plan. While there are clearly some differences – DEP have steered clear of any political commentary and have actually achieved notable commercial and critical success during the lifetime of the band – the fact remains that both bands emerged from small, insular, resolutely non-mainstream scenes but have managed to reach well further than one might reasonably think possible.
“I like to think that we’ve made a mark, even though we’ve come from a similar place to Refused, a small scene,” says Ben Weinman, guitarist/producer supreme who, alongside vocalist/man-monster Greg Puciato, bassist Liam Wilson and new drummer Gil Sharone, makes up the permanent members of DEP. Brian Benoit, who was a semi-permanent member and constant live presence (the tall blond guy whose fingers moved so fast they looked like liquid) bowed out of the group in August (link to MySpace blog here) after sustaining nerve damage which prevents him from bringing the necessary riffing power, at least for the foreseeable future.
“It is interesting because it’s a tough situation to be specific to a sub-genre and in a position to be influencing a whole bunch of other people,” continues Weinman. “It is weird to think that there are people who don’t initially get our music the way we intend it to be, but in general our goal and our purpose is just to open minds. We want to push people and make them expand what they consider to be acceptable in music.” In that sense, the DEP/Refused link is strongest. Refused 1996’s full-length Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent (their second following the now out of print This Just Might Be The Truth) was a compact, tightly-focused blast of intensity, but the record that is today hailed as a modern masterpiece (and indubitably so), 1998’s The Shape of Punk to Come, is still just as genre-subverting as anything released in the last decade.
Refused live, 'Circle Pit'
Consider: the integration of techno and jazz influences in Refused’s music and the way DEP have seamlessly merged jazz, metal, hardcore and electronica. Yeah, ‘Bruitist Pome #5’ can feel like an exercise in unsophisticated dance, but place it next to ‘New Noise’ and it becomes something wholly different. And their use of a blinkin’ cello and melodica on ‘Tannhäuser/Derivè’ might sound fairly standard in 2007, but back then it was unheard of for what was ostensibly a hardcore band to experiment in such a fashion. The album wasn’t saying what punk was going to turn into, simply what it could be like if more bands took as many risks as they had, a statement made all the more helplessly poignant by the fact that the truly execrable Enter Shikari are allowed to exploit John Peel’s name by being awarded a gong in his honour for innovation when they’re almost a decade too late. And shit.
With the imminent release of DEP’s third album Ire Works, the boundaries between natural and synthetic will be blurred yet further. “Interestingly enough, the album sounds more organic than anything we’ve done, but there is a lot more electronics at the same time,” says Weinman. “The combination of what we do and how we put it all together is all based on energy and a release of some kind of tension. For this record, more than any other record, even the songs that aren’t very aggressive are really energetic. It’s noisier and louder and more aggressive, a big influence on it was the idea of how the computer age has been a big influence on people. We’ve come from a time where we’ve tried to make computers act like humans, we try to make computers win a chess game against a human, we try to make computers sound like a human playing a violin, we try to create algorithms that can write songs in the same way humans write songs.
“For years and years we’ve been trying to make computers like humans, but in the last five years humans have been actually growing up and being influenced by a great deal of technology. We’re starting to develop not only by the physical make-up of our genes and our parents’ influence, but also by the way technology is affecting us. I used a lot of technology to influence the writing: some of the riffs were completely influenced by electronics but played on an organic instrument. When we did the Aphex Twin cover [‘Come To Daddy’ on 2002’s Irony Is A Dead Scene EP, featuring the vocal styles of Mike Patton] that was the first time we took something totally electronic and sequenced and let it influence us as players.”
Refused, 'New Noise'
Arguably the most startling thing about DEP’s continued assault on the ears of anyone who comes into contact with their music is the fact that, despite existing alongside a mainstream where the saccharine pop song is king, they have managed to grow exponentially with each release and have even escaped being marginalised as “that band who shat on Reading’s main stage”. In an age where punk and rock are becoming insidiously similar to sterile, cynical pop, DEP remain aggressively opposed to compromise. Hell, there’s even a song on Ire Works that Weinman describes as almost latin jazz while being, in his own words, “still recognisably Dillinger”. Even the less-teethgrinding moments on album two Miss Machine, a record criticised by fools for being too light and which Weinman says was “really good at weeding out the people that weren’t real fans”, are still subtitled by a disquieting approach to melody and a truly unnerving sense that anything from a face-raping riff to a playful jangle can lie around each corner. This is music with the power to actually scare.
DEP’s postponed November dates (news) would have seen them playing their biggest venues yet. Plainly, they’re doing what Refused never really did – gaining measurable success before imploding. But a straight link with Refused continues to nag at the one major contrast: politics.
“We came from the underground hardcore and punk scene, and at that time in the late ‘90s every band had a cause,” says Weinman. “It got to a point where that was more important than the music. The singer would talk between each song for longer than they’d play music, whether it was about being vegetarian or politics or the left or religion, and we purposely decided to be selfish. This band is totally an outlet for us. We didn’t think anyone would ever like us, we didn’t start the band to get fans, and we had no intentions of coming even half as far as we have when we started writing this music. We were sick of a lot of the bullshit that came with bands thinking, ‘How can we get an automatic fanbase? Well, veganism is pretty popular, I’ll put Vegan Hardcore on the back of our T-shirts – hey, guitar player, stop eating meat!’ We had voter registration booths at our shows and Liam Wilson, our bass player, is a pretty strict vegan and he’s done interviews with PETA about how he handles eating when he’s on the road. That wasn’t as a representative of the band, but just a personal thing. They’re not going to hear him talk about veganism on our records or on stage. Just because someone’s in a band doesn’t mean they should have an opinion, we’re people individually but as a band we don’t stand for anything specific. We never said, ‘Vote for this person’; we just wanted people to vote.”
DEP at Virgin Megastore, 2005 - mind your heads!
It appears that the question of whether or not DEP are a political band is immaterial, because they represent a coherent attempt to stick out like a sore thumb, rather than try to slip into a particular scene. Their avoidance of politics is due to a conscious effort to be heard on their own merits, and because Refused arguably re-legitimised political commentary for modern punk bands by the time DEP blossomed, they were surrounded by the tail-end of a trend that started out underground and fresh, but had devolved into another processed ideology. So they kicked out, hard, and started something new. If there is any coherent ideology behind Dillinger Escape Plan it is that it exists solely as a conduit for their music and not as something with any message behind it. Paradoxically, only by making music that is pitched so violently away from mainstream tastes have they been able to be successful enough to cultivate a loyal fanbase across the world.
Trouble is, they’ll always be marginalised as noise-mongers or bracketed as another hardcore band by those who only come into contact with their music on a casual basis. For better or for worse, DEP’s vicious opuses can require time and dedication before finding acceptance, and that can mean that they are destined to be forever misunderstood.
“Although there are a lot of bands doing similar things to what we’re doing, I think the bottom line is that I don’t think people get how we’re completely different to other bands we might sound like,” says Weinman. “Like Meshuggah: when we played with them in the States, we’d go on before them and then when they went on they’d maybe be a bit more energetic because that’s what we were like, so we’d influenced them in that way. But then when we sat down to do more writing we’d try more off-timing because we saw Meshuggah doing it well. So we’re totally different to other bands that we might appear similar to but a lot of people just don’t get that. They don’t understand. It pisses the shit out of me because there are too many bands out there and there’s no quality control.”
It’s not a straight comparison, and for some people DEP’s refusal to take on any kind of political and social commentary could well be a bar to their being considered keepers of Refused’s flame, but it’s their unwillingness to compromise in any way that makes them such an exciting band to watch grow. Only time can decide whether or not they’ll be as influential to a new generation as Dennis Lyxzen and company were, in an age where the number of new bands available to listeners practically reaches overflow. Weinman agrees:
“I recently got the new Paul McCartney record and I think that’s amazing, that this guy is this old and has been playing music for this long, and he still has fire in his voice. You don’t hear that in the new singers, even the younger guys who are singer-songwriters, they might write a good pop song but they’re still not Paul McCartney or Elton John or Billy Joel. I wonder who is going to be those guys in 20 years – will it still be Elton John and Billy Joel?”
You heard it here first. Billy Joel is the future of music.
More on Refused at Wikipedia.org, here. An interview with the band's Kristofer Steen can be read here. The DVD Refused Are Fucking Dead, focusing on the collapse of the band, is out now on Burning Heart.
Dillinger Escape Plan’s Ire Works is released on November 12 via Relapse, and a more typical Q&A with Ben Weinman, and an album review, can be read on DiS next week. DEP’s MySpace page can be found here.
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