Ever since their resurrection with 2011's Born Again album, The Dwarves have been getting leaner and meaner. 2014's Invented Rock & Roll found the band stripping back to their hardcore and pop-punk aspects and blasting through a 25 minute album. Now, their new album, The Dwarves Take Back the Night, is even more primal, more savage, more vicious.
It opens with the slamming "Forget Me Not" and gets more crazed from there. "Take Back the Night" is a sinister, swaggering slash. "Everything and more" is 44 seconds of violent aggression. Of course, the band does slip in a few sweets here and there- with its bubblegum hook, "Trace Amounts," which is about OD-ing on coke, is downright cheery.
Because the band is coming out swinging on their latest LP (out February 9 via Burger/Greedy), Punknews' John Gentile spoke to frontman Blag Dahlia about how he is perceived, how he perceives himself, and drugs, of course.
Blag, today there was a missile alert in Hawaii!
I wouldn’t be surprised if it was some kind of cyber terrorism shit. It could have just been a mistake that some defense department official did, but I would not be surprised if it was a cyber terror attack fucking around with us.
If it was a real missile strike, would you be like, “well, I did what I wanted to do. This is how it’s gonna be.” Or, would you be like, “Not yet! Not yet!”
No, I’m good with death. Now that I’m starting to get fat, I think that death might be a good alternative. I shouldn’t even say “starting.” Now that I’m fat, death is a good alternative.
Are you self-conscious? Are you vain?
Yes and yes. I was one of those lucky people. I was able to eat whatever I wanted- I could smoke a joint and eat a pint of ice cream. It was that way for 45 years. Then, one day and you turn around! But, there is the Tony Soprano effect. Good looking girls will still fuck a fat guy. I don’t know why it works, but I am lucky that way.
The new album- I dig it, I dig it. I was surprised at how hardcore and savage it is. I had always thought that you personally were more a fan of the bubble gum type songs. But here, there are a a lot of hardcore smashers.
Yeah, that’s kind of true. Though, the opening track, “Forget Me Not,” where I trade off vocals with Nick Oliveri, I kind of consider that to be more surf, garagey. Most of my songs are the poppy, bubblegum ones, but the rest of the band came in with the hardcore ones, which was great. Nick has a couple of songs that are extremely hardcore. Fresh Prince of Darkness wrote the title track, which is kind of a straight up rock n roll song. Josh Freese wrote a bunch of stuff that was kind of hardcore. It was an interesting record that way. The other guys came in with the hardcore, but I wrote the kinder, gentler stuff.
What does it say that you write the kinder, gentler songs, but you are seen as this international terror of sex, drugs, and rock and roll?
I think it says to me that hardcore and punk were always just a form of rock n roll. At its best, punk is just fast rock n roll. I think you write different things at different times when things strike you. I wrote most of Blood, Guts & Pussy at a time when I was listening to the Misfits and Motorhead. Now, I don’t listen to much except public radio or my podcast, so I just kind of reverted to music that I liked when I was a little kid in the ‘70s. Bubblegum and all that. To me, there’s a real through line between rock and punk and hip hop and whatever. It’s all rock n roll, to me.
When you’ve got the right attitude, it doesn’t matter what genre you go into. It’s my job to kind of make all the different songs be Dwarves songs. How poppy can you go and still be Dwarves? How hardcore can you be and still be Dwarves? A song like “Blast” from Dwarves Must Die was something like 400 beats per minute and you’d have to call it grindcore or death metal or something like that. We keep trying to expand the limits of what we are doing, but always keeping it Dwarves. That has something to do with lyrics, but also the intensity in which you play it. You can play bubblegum with more intensity that it usually gets. You can play pop punk with an intensity that makes it hardcore. Sometimes, it’s just in the way you approach it.
Along those lines, the Dwarves have been doing the Dwarves thing about 35 years. There are lots of different types of Dwarves songs- hardcore, pop punk, lounge music, acoustic stuff, experimental noise. However, what you’ve never done is go the boring singer-songwriter thing where every song so sooooo emotional. Most of your contemporaries have gotten softer- but you, while having gotten more varied, have never turned in a soft record. Why is there still that fire in your belly? Are you angry? Are you happy?
I appreciate that someone notices something like that. What motivated me to be in a rock band was to be that. I look at other people. There are people who I admire who I think are good- like Bruce Springsteen. But, I never wanted to do that. “I’m sincere. I’m a good guy and I play rock and roll. I’m wearing a white hat.” To me, the fun was being the bad guy. Dressing up and being Darth Vader, not Luke Skywalker. I always wanted to maintain the fun of that. I never wanted to be the guy that goes to his audience that says, “I did the rock and roll thing, and that’s one thing, but now I’m a serious guy. “ I always hated it when people did that. I’m a huge John Lennon fan, but I never gave a fuck about him crying about his son or talking about how great his untalented wife is. I know to him, it was “this is me being sincere. This is the real me.” But, I don’t like the real you. I like the fake you. I like the “I wanna hold your hand” you. I don’t really want to be buddies with everybody in my audience. I don’t want to play that game. That never interested me.
You talk about how you want to be the bad guy in music. We’ve got this song on the new record, “Here’s looking at you kid.” Most modern bands seem to treat their lyrics as rule books. You seem to give the audience the benefit by saying, “here’s a subject of this song. It’s up to you to interpret and contemplate this character as an interesting study.”
Look, if I was a child molester, I wouldn’t blame people for hating me. But, are you going to hate me for writing a song about a child molester or a peeping tom? It really gets to the heart of what’s going on. I’m not conflicted about it at all. It’s a question of singing about things on one side and on the other side is actually doing things. There’s no one who is accusing me of mistreating female employees or manipulating women into having sex with me, because that’s not my style. But, I would sing a song about that. But, it makes people furious. They say, “you’re singing a song about that, so it MUST be you!”
It’s funny you bring up “Here’s looking at you, kid” because Fat Wreck Chords was going to do another 7-inch for us. Fat Mike specifically asked for the song because it was a pop jam, but when people at the label heard the song, they got all up in arms, and thought it was very horrible and wrong. So, all of a sudden, there was this controversy over there. Of course, no one had the guts to actually call me up and say “we don’t want to put out this song. Can you give us another one?” So, I’m in this awkward position of them asking me for this song because it’s a good poppy jam, now you are specifically rejecting because it signified that I’m an immoral bad, bad person. To me it’s a bunch of phony bullshit. It’s a song. It didn’t actually happen. It’s just a fuckin’ song. That’s one side of it.
I think the other side is that one thing that really frustrates people about the Dwarves, is that we let our actions do the talking for us. So, we don’t need to get up there and say we are good moral people. I don’t care if you think I’m a good moral person. I don’t think it should make a difference about if you buy my record.
I’ve known a lot of people in the record business, John. The people that bring up how they are kind, how they are charitable, how they’re religious, how they’re not racist, now they are non-sexist, I’ve seen them do all of those things. I’ve seen them be racist and be sexist and misogynist. I’ve seen them lie and cheat and steal. If there’s one thing that you can take from the Dwarves, it’s to not confuse who people are with their lyrics. I’m not going to sit here and say “I write bad lyrics, but I’m a perfect person.” That doesn’t matter. That doesn’t fuckin’ matter. The part that matters is the music, the art, the thing itself.
I wouldn’t blame people if I actually did something horrible and then you didn’t want to listen to my music anymore. Look at Bill Cosby. He’s actually a rapist. I don’t blame for people not wanting to listen to Bill Cosby anymore or celebrate his comedy. I get that. But, it doesn’t escape me that Bill Cosby never did rape jokes. A lot of people have paid the penalty of doing rape jokes. Bill Cosby actually raped people. Are we capable of drawing the lines between these things? Are we capable of understanding the difference between a song and reality?
One of the blandest, lamest bands I ever heard was Lost Prophets. They were this band from Wales that did the most bland, do nothing, say nothing, inoffensive music. It turns out that the guy was a dyed in the wool child molester. He’s doing 25 years in jail for all these heinous crimes. You never would have guessed it from his music, what is clean and proper.
Are you going to stand there and pick at people for saying things? Are you going to pick at the Dickies because they have a song about young girls or something? Or, are you really going to separate people’s actions from the songs that they write? I think people in punk rock are so stupid right now that not only do the fans not have the power to differentiate anymore, but people from labels like Fat Wreck Chords or Epitaph records. You have these people that purport to have moral lessons in their music or whatever. Really? Even the people who are running the show. Even the people that are rich capitalists from punk rock don’t seem to have the power to separate reality from fiction, and you would think they would.
Then, let’s further look into a song like “Here’s lookin’ at you.” What is it that we are supposed to take from it? Is it a character study? Is it a sort of lesson? Is it something that’s open ended and you take from it what you will?
I think you hit on an interesting thing about art. Is art exactly what the artist intended or is art how it strikes people? Some people would make the argument that “you hear a song like that and then you think it’s okay to be a peeping tom.” I don’t believe that at all. If you’re an actor, and then you play Richard III, does that mean you are a horrible killer? If you are an actor and you play Hamlet’s dad, does that mean you are a murderer? No. We should trust the audience to interpret the material and to not inhabit the material. Jodie Foster inspired a guy to go shoot the president. Do you blame Jodie Foster for that? Her actions had an effect. If she hadn’t been in that movie, maybe he wouldn’t have done that, or had done it in someone else’s name.
I don’t mean to cop out on it. It’s an interesting question. The way I look at that song, and I should give credit to Saltpeter, my good friend since High School who started the Dwarves with me, who helped me write that song- I modified the lyrics to make it skirt the line even more. He wrote it to be about just a regular peeping tom looking at a woman. I said the phrase is “here’s lookin’ at you, kid.” Everybody’s going to assume it’s about a kid anyway, so we might as well go the distance. So, it was a collaborative effort. It’s a good question that you ask. I look at it like I am embodying this bad guy’s personality who is pathetic. He doesn’t have a sex life. He gets his thrills from peeping. It’s a sad way to be, but it’s also exploitative and bad towards women if you do that in reality.
But the question is, if you sing a song about it, what does that mean? To me, that’s exactly the kind of thing punk rock is supposed to be able to explore and it’s fucking sad that people who write their own offensive lyrics or do offensive things, get to pick and choose. “Oh, my music is offensive towards religious people and republicans, and that’s okay. But, you’re being offensive towards whatever at large. So, that kind of offensive is wrong.” Punk rock has become a very safe thing. You can trample on the cross. You can piss on a picture of Jesus Christ, and everybody would be fine with it. But, if you mention that maybe the women who got Al Franken kicked out of the senate might not have been telling the truth, all of a sudden you’re a horrible person. It’s very interesting to me that this is what the conversation has come to.
I was speaking to my friend who is in a band of some renown that might fall into the class of people that you are describing. He surprised me by saying that he was a Dwarves fan. He stated that he was worried that you might get drawn into a “fake cultural war.” That is, you might have certain attributes assigned to you simply because you criticize one aspect of a political position, or that you would be forced to choose “a side” even though you don’t agree with all, or even most, of the stances of that side.
I’m honored that any musician would take the time to think about my music. It’s easy to dismiss out of hand. Listen, there are many ways in which I’m a PC guy. People have a hard time wrapping their head around that. For instance, I believe in paying your bills. A lot of guys talk shit about how PC they are, but they don’t pay their bills, or they fuck over this person. There are a lot of ways to be a moral person.
I subscribe to a lot of the socialist left wing politics of a lot of the left wing people who attack me think I would be opposed to. It always gratifies me when I meet people like Laura Jane Grace. I wasn’t really familiar with Against Me!’s music. I don’t really keep up with punk bands that much. Most of the punk bands I know are the ones I listened to in high school.
I became aware of Against Me! during the whole Transgender Dysphoria Blues thing because a lot of people were talking about it. When I met Laura Jane Grace, she was very nice to me. She said, “I’m a Dwarves fan.” I said “I’m glad!”
To me, the Dwarves were not supposed to be misogynist, or hateful towards women, or unwelcoming of homosexuals. Just the opposite. For me, we were for all the freaks. All the people that didn’t fit in. all the people that had trouble staying within the lines. So, when I meet someone that is coming from a different perspective, and writes different lyrical style, and maybe subscribes to a lot of the modern ideas on gender, I’m glad that they get when I’m not their enemy.
In most cases, I agree with them. I’ve been in the entertainment industry for a long time. I’ve lived in San Francisco for 30 years. Gay people are a basic part of my life. So, it always bothers me when people would accuse me of being homophobic or misogynist, or any of these things that people think I am. My music was supposed to be a cry from the Id. It wasn’t supposed to be a lesson of how you should live your life or how you should think about things. I’m gratified when I hear someone who doesn’t judge things that way.
Like, if I heard your friend, the first thing I would think of is, “does it rock?” Then I would start listening to some of the lyrics. Maybe I agree with, or am convinced by some of the things he says. For instance, I remember hearing Bikini Kill and saying, “this is great! These women are throwing some man hatred out and calling out some dudes on some shit!” But then, when I met them, they were like, “we don’t like you. We can’t like you.” I went from being friendly with all of the girl bands from my era to supposedly being an enemy of women.
It hurt me. L7 stayed at my house. I was buddies with Babes in Toyland. I knew Courtney Love. I’m not looking for brownie points. I admired their music and thought they were cool people. But then it became, “The Lunachicks are a cool band. We want to play with them.” “Oh, well the Lunachicks won’t play with you.” It was like “Fuck! I smoke weed with one of them! What happened?” “Oh, well, it was a political thing.”
This started to happen in the 1990s and it horrified me. I thought I was a nice guy, but then I was an image. I’m still an image to this day to a lot of people. I get that. A lot of people don’t know you personally. But, if you’re going to treat me as an image, at least learn what the image is. There’s nothing in the Dwarves that is misogynist. There is nothing in the Dwarves that is exploitative, What there is, is this cry from a very juvenile group of men- it’s about violence, it’s about sex, it’s about mayhem, it’s about chaos.
Maybe it’s a distinction without a difference. Maybe I’m just a clueless old man that doesn’t get it. But, that’s the way I see it. I don’t look at Tom Petty and pretend I know who Tom Petty is just because he wrote a song that I like. I know that there are two different people there.
What’s interesting about the last track on the album, “Trace Amounts (of cocaine),” is that it’s almost an anti-drug warning. But, the Dwarves have a lot of songs like “Drug Store” and “The Dwarves are still the best band ever” which seem to be saying, “drugs are great! Drugs are awesome!” Is there a conflict in messages there, and if so, does that conflict even need to be resolved?”
There’s a lot of ways to answer that. “Trace amounts” is a cautionary tale about people that I’ve known. I don’t paint a rosy depiction of what drug abuse does to people. If you look at “the Dwarves are still the best band ever,” that song has the dichotomy right inside it. It contrasts my own PC politics, “to save the ozone and the earth, and all the creatures sand and earth,” or “a cure for cancer and one for aids, to volunteer in fire brigades,” which are things which I aspire to. But then, it asks the question, why is my brain so mired in things like “let’s just get high and fuck some sluts.”
One of my favorite songs is “All you need is love.” What’s so great about that song, is that the verse is always negative. “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done. There’s nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.” And then the chorus is overwhelmingly positive. So, “let’s get high and fuck some sluts” is my “all you need is love.” It expresses utopia in the verses and a hedonistic piece of shit in the chorus. But, when you are pushing people’s buttons in a certain way, they almost never think of it like I would think of it. They would think that “you’re just making fun of people that are trying to do something good while you just want to get high.” So, immediately you would turn off to that if you don’t like “sluts” or “fuck.”
I never had a positive attitude about drugs. I got addicted to marijuana when I was very young. I was able to escape being addicted to alcohol and coke or speed and heroin like a lot of people I’ve known who have died. I don’t have a positive view of those things. You wouldn’t guess that from my songs. But then again, that’s a cry from the Id. I get a great feeling from doing cocaine. But, I was able to just do one hit and let it go. But, I had a lot of friends who weren’t and I watched them fiend out and flame out. It’s a gray area. I don’t have an easy time with it. But, I wouldn’t consider the Dwarves a pro-drug band.
Let’s wrap up with this: The future, is it looking bright or is it looking bleak?
The future looks great for a lot of reasons- if you’re talking about the Dwarves specifically. If you are talking about the country, I think we’re in a bad place. I think we’re more divided than ever. I think it’s more and more difficult to have a reasonable discussion with people who disagree. I think our president is a narcissistic madman.
Blag, I have to interrupt you. In your band, you’ve dealt with a lot of maniacs first hand and have experience in that area. Trump, is he stupid, insane, or a tactical genius?
No, he’s not a genius. He’s kind of like Chauncey Gardner. He’s the lucky guy that walked into the right situation. The Democrats abandoned working class people. The working class people are looking for somewhere to go. They haven’t gotten anything from either party for a long time. They glommed on to this TV celebrity guy. They didn’t know that he was laundering petro-chemical money through the Deutsche bank. They didn’t know the things that are now being revealed. He’s a horrible person. He’s an ignoramus. He’s gone bankrupt. The idea of a businessman who goes bankrupt in Casinos, you almost have to be unthinkably stupid and bad in business. The only thing that saved him was taking dirty Russian money. I think there’s a Russian agent in the White House, personally. I think that’s gonna come out.
If you’re asking about me, and how the future looks for me, it looks great. The Dwarves never got the major label deal that everybody else got. The Dwarves never got the “you’re a good moral person” pat on the head. The climate gets more and more hostile. Good. I’m a hostile person. The money gets tighter and tighter in the music business. Good. They never gave me any.
So, I feel better than ever. My music is great. My new record is great. My friends are with me. My friends are an integral part of the band and write the songs with me. We just made a great video… if I was a religious person, I’d say I feel blessed! It’s great to be in the Dwarves and I think we’re gonna live forever!