The fact that the Dead Milkmen are back, touring again with a new album, gives me hope for the future. Many might not share my opinion, but then again they're probably too serious to have a good time.
Started in Philadelphia in the early '80s, cutting their teeth playing with the angry, break-neck fast hardcore bands of the day, the Dead Milkmen couldn't have been more of an anomaly; they had no distortion, and their lyrics were funny and decipherable. But they found a following among the punks and even "normal people," especially after the release of their first album, the punk rock classic Big Lizard in My Backyard.
As the '80s went on, the Dead Milkmen would inspire smiles and guffaws from college radio listeners all over the nation with hits likes "Bitchin' Camaro," "Beach Party Vietnam" and, of course, "Punk Rock Girl." These four scrawny punching bags would even find themselves on MTV -- multiple times, mind you -- and end their career (the first time) after releasing two albums on a major label.
And now they're back, having reunited a second time -- the first time was a one-off at the memorial for their bass player Dave "Blood" Schulthise, who committed suicide in 2004 -- and with the second album since their return, Pretty Music for Pretty People. We caught up with drummer Dean "Clean" Sabatino before their show at Slim's in order to dispel some rumors and learn the truth about the band, since their official bio is practically useless.
After the band broke up in 1995, most of you kept playing music -- I remember seeing that Rodney ("Anonymous" Linderman, the singer) was in a bluegrass band. What did everyone else do musically?
Rodney had a kind of bluegrass band called Burn Witch Burn. It was somewhat Pogues-inspired. Joe ("Jack Talcum" Genaro, the guitarist) had a project he called Butterfly Joe, which was basically his solo stuff and which I actually played on; he released one album that way. Dave got out of the music business and he went back to college.
You guys don't really have a set "sound" per se, but the songs still sound like the Dead Milkmen. How do you guys ensure a song sounds like the Dead Milkmen when your influences are so diverse? For example, I've been reading about how Rodney is really into techno and industrial music. Will the Milkmen try to do a song like that?
Rodney is definitely into industrial goth-type stuff now, but no, we don't have a set of rules or guidelines or anything. The songs come in and are somehow magically formed into Dead Milkmen songs. It happens and I don't think we can stop it. And as you mentioned, we never really had a set sound. We sounded like the Dead Milkmen but each song might have a different style to it. That's what we continue to do -- to not say, "Okay, this is going to be a fast, 4-4 punk rock song." It's just like this song is going to be what it's going to be.
Big Lizard sounds almost hardcore, especially since so many songs are break-neck fast. But there's also some undeniable grooves in there, like "Serrated Edge." Did you guys play so fast in the beginning because you were starting off in the Philly hardcore scene?
That's right, we got our start in the Philly hardcore scene, playing all-ages shows with hardcore bands. But if anything, we went for a cleaner sound in order to sound different from them. Some of the humor was that these hardcore bands back in the day took themselves way too seriously. We wanted to sound different, and I think we succeeded.
Could you hold your own when playing with such fast, intense hardcore bands like Flag of Democracy (F.O.D.)?
Yeah, we became pretty popular and we didn't have a problem; we enjoyed being on those bills and there were plenty of great bands to play with. People seemed to accept us.
Early on we had a champion in Philly with the Penn radio station WXPN, and they picked up a homemade recording of "Bitchin' Camaro" and it kind of took off from there. We played a couple of hardcore shows and the people had really identified with that song; they knew all the words already.
When you went pro, did you depend more on touring or album sales?
We were definitely a touring band. We made our money touring and we toured relentlessly. I used to joke that we used to do two laps around the country every year. And we also did a couple tours of Europe. But that's how we survived; we toured a lot and we did well on the road.
We had a big seller with Big Lizard and "Punk Rock Girl" certainly helped us, especially with the exposure on MTV when it really took off. But touring is how we survived.
In an interview with Razorcake back in 2010, Joe mentioned that after the success of "Punk Rock Girl," the label pushed him to write more songs that he sang. What was that like to have that interference from a label?
Yeah, we fought against all that kind of stuff. We fought hard against playing on MTV and we tried to do things as much as possible on our own terms. Maybe Joe felt the pressure more than the rest of us did, but I guess once they saw the success of "Punk Rock Girl," typical of labels they'd want another single that sounds just like that, or close enough to that so people would buy it again. But as you can tell, we just do what we do.
Even though you fought it, you ended up on MTV a few times anyways?
We did 120 Minutes and we played acoustically on there, which was interesting -- I'm curious to know whether or not it was before the Unplugged stuff. Then we did that dance show with Downtown Julie Brown, which was hilarious. We played "Punk Rock Girl" and we had wanted to play it live -- that would've been better in our minds to actually play the song -- but they wouldn't let us; they forced us to lip sync it. So, we wanted to do it on our own terms, so we made a list of demands, which they met. I had a humongous drum kit, which was not my kit, and I didn't pretend to play the song. And Rodney played a tuba because he doesn't even sing on the song. You can find the footage on YouTube; it's pretty hilarious.
Do you miss MTV at all? Do you miss those opportunities to have that one out-of-the-blue hit?
Not really. The landscape is totally different now with the internet and it's just a lot more wide open; you're competing with a lot more bands now then you used to, I think. The barrier to recording and releasing is a lot lower than it used to be. That being said, you have to sort through a lot to find the good stuff; that's the hard part.
You've recorded a lot of demos over the years -- are you guys sitting on a vault of unreleased material?
Not really. There's a couple of things but not a huge amount. I'm actually in the process of going through some old 4-track demos to see if there's anything worthwhile. I haven't found too much that hasn't already been released. Hopefully there's a few gems in there.
Finally, what happened with that fake breakup in Norway?
A short while before that, I think Camper Van Beethoven broke up there, so we wanted to confuse the Norwegian audience and make them think they cause bands to break up when they play there.
How did you stage it? Did you fight during your set?
Yeah, Joe and Rodney pretended to argue and fight on stage, and I think Rodney stormed off stage and that was the end of the set. Then they pretended to work it out and we played a few more songs. It was pretty funny.