TunesDay: what is, what was and what almost was – the S&R interview with Don Dixon

I’ve been a very big Don Dixon fan since the late ’70s, so when his new CD, The Nu-Look, dropped I was bouncing around the living room like Snoopy doing a happy dance. Sadly, a lot of people don’t know Don’s music – although many know his work as the producer of Murmur and Reckoning by REM and multiple records from The Smithereens and Guadalcanal Diary (as well as stuff from Chris Stamey, Beat Rodeo, Kim Carnes, The Connells, Marshall Crenshaw, Hootie & the Blowfish, Tommy Keene, Let’s Active, James McMurtry, The Pinetops, The Reivers, Matthew Sweet and X-Teens).

The new disc marks something of a departure. Don has been playing live with Jamie Hoover and Jim Brock for a good 20 years, but they’ve never recorded a full disc together as a band. Now, though, they have a name (Don Dixon & the Jump Rabbits) and an outstanding power trio record that does credit to the careers of all three men.

For this edition of TunesDay Dixon agreed to sit down and endure a second interview with me (the first, from 2000, is an absolute must-read if you haven’t seen it already). In this round Don talks about the band, the new record, his first bass, and how he almost wound up as producer of Nevermind.

To honor both his landmark career and his boundless patience, S&R is proud to name him our latest Scrogue. We hope you’ll enjoy his smiling face in our masthead for the next few weeks.

Also, since you can’t really get the sound from reading an interview, you can sample The Nu-Look and download what you like at eMusic.

S&R: In the notes on your Web site you say you’d always wanted to make a record like Disraeli Gears. Of all the power trio records out there, why did that particular one emerged as your inspiration?

Dixon: I discovered Hendrix and Cream about the same time. Disraeli Gears and Are You Experienced? were both on the turntable a lot…I felt like what I wanted to do with The Nu-Look was more like the Cream side of things than Hendrix We’re a more balanced ensemble. So when asked for comparisons early on, I blurted out Disreali Gears as an example of a power trio that I had admired in my youth and it stuck.

S&R: Over half the songs on the new disc are covers, and there’s a real homegrown flavor to these tunes. Matt Barrett, the dBs and Parthenon Huxley are all from North Carolina, while Chris Allen is from Cleveland, not far from where you live now, I believe. And Marti Jones isn’t just close to home, she’s in the home, as it were. These are all great songs, but was there a reason you opted for tunes that are so nearby geographically?

Dixon: There wasn’t a geographical component, simply one of familiarity. I wanted to record naïve songs…youthful songs…songs with terrific melody and clear, simple messages. I didn’t feel capable of writing these songs myself – I was too old, too world weary – without doing anything like research. So I sat down and thought of songs that I liked that fit the mold I was looking for…not a mold of tempo and content but one of feel and freshness. These were the songs that I thought of. The short note on the cover of the CD also explains a little of my thinking at the time…

S&R: Where did the name – The Jump Rabbits – come from?

Dixon: Jamie came up with it, inspired by track 18 of (If) I’m a Ham, Well You’re a Sausage.

S&R: “The Night That Otis Died,” which I’ve said I think may be the most perfect song you’ve ever written, is finally on a CD. Can you tell us how that song got written? It seems like there’s maybe a hell of a real-life story in there.

Dixon: My life is unimaginably boring. Think about it, all I’ve ever done is make up songs and sing them. I write largely about what I’m thinking about or wishing life was like or dreams or things that might happen to interesting people. I usually claw away at the corners of the psyche where self-doubt and failure live and try to make light of it somehow. But I will admit to drawing on memories of my youth when I would sing covers…sometimes at semi-reputable establishments like Club 9, Club Adora or The Hut. I can see the car, the club, the suit clearly in my head. However, this narrator is fictional…he’s more sophisticated than me, more suave. The only thing we really have in common is a love for the Big O…

S&R: I know you had some legal issues with licensing on “Otis,” and am wondering how you were able to get all that ironed out.

Dixon: I decided to let them sue me.

S&R: When I last saw you live you took requests from the audience and I asked for “The Night That Otis Died.” Which you tried and had to abandon because you hadn’t played it in so long you’d forgotten how it went. This seems funny to most folks, I’m sure, but the truth is that you’ve written and learned and performed so many songs through the years that there’s almost no way to remember them all. How many songs have you written and covered, do you think, and if I put a gun to your head right now, how many of them could perform more or less completely?

Dixon: My catalogue of published songs is around 200. I’ve learned a lot of covers, mostly in my youth, and couldn’t begin to give a number…how many songs I can play without notes of some kind (and which ones they are) varies depending on what I’m doing musically at any given period of time. I could get through 50-60 originals pretty easily right now because I’ve played a lot of solo shows since Combustible World. I’ve been doing “Otis” a bunch since you asked for it and would be delighted to do it for you right now! [ed. note: Delighted enough to book show or two out here in Colorado where I live right now?]

S&R: A couple years back I had a little fun putting together my own fantasy tribute to you, which was to be entitled Paying Manti$: A Superstar Tribute to Jangle Pop Legend Don Dixon. Some of the tracks were things I really think would be cool, like Dixie Chicks doing “I Can Hear the River” and a Sarah McLachlan/Paul Carrack duet on “What You Saw.” Other tracks, like Justin Timberlake covering “Most of the Girls Like to Dance” and Madonna, Britney and Christina Aguilera doing “Betty Lou Got a Tattoo Too” were pure silliness. But say we really were going to do a tribute CD to Don Dixon. If you could have any artists you wanted on it, who would you have doing what songs?

Dixon: To give you a true opinion on this would take me weeks so instead I’ll simply list a few singers that are still alive (all of my heroes are dead) who I admire. Although I admire many of these as writers too, remember I’m thinking about their voices right now. No particular order: Elvis Costello, Adam Durwitz, Jane Siberry, Syd Straw, Dave Matheson (Moxy Fruvous), Chris Allen, Butterfly Boucher, Imogen Heap, Paul Carrack, Robert Kirkland (Arrogance), Bjork, Diana Krall, Michael Stipe, Bonnie Raitt, Chris Isaak, Sloan Wainwright, Nick Lowe, Macy Gray, and Loudon Wainwright III.

S&R: You’ve been playing with Jamie Hoover for a long time and obviously the two of you work very well together. As serious aficionados know, he’s also the front man for The Spongetones, a band that’s earned some notoriety of its own. Can you tell us what the dynamic is like when you have two creative leader types collaborating in a band where you’re clearly the star of the show?

Dixon: Hoover and Brock have both been working with me in various combinations for a long time. We all have many projects going on and they know they can count on me. They know it’s a collaborative effort when we play and they also know that I will help them with their projects, usually behind the scenes – or at least I’ll stay out of the way. We play together because we like what happens on stage…it’s really that simple. I’m very lucky and I know it…

S&R: In 2003 you did a turn as an actor in Camp. Any chance you’ll be back on the silver screen anytime soon?

Dixon: Getting work as an actor requires a commitment that I’m not willing to make. You have to “network” and “audition.” If someone calls me again like they did for Camp and says, “You want to be in a movie?” I’ll probably say OK.

S&R: And now, the obligatory “what have you been listening to lately?” question.

Dixon: Yesterday while driving for a few hours: McLemore Avenue – Booker T and the MGs; My Tidy Doily Dream – Marti Jones; The Surface and the Shine – Shalini; Don’t Tell Columbus – Graham Parker; Greatest Hits – Brasil ’66; Something Else – Cannonball Adderly; Live (1966) – Lou Rawls; and a bootleg of the Steve Winwood-Eric Clapton show in NYC in February…

S&R: What’s the last CD you bought that might really surprise us?

Dixon: I don’t think I could surprise you but most people wouldn’t associate me with serious 20th Century composers so Donald Erb’s Five Red Hot Duets for Two Contrabassoons might not be expected.

S&R: We know that kids are influenced by their parents’ music. But sometimes the kids bring home things that mom and dad like, too. You’re a parent. Have the nippers discovered something that you now really like?

Dixon: Each of my three girls, Bonnie (now 31), Sidney (22), and Shane (16) have all brought terrific music to my attention…almost too much to note…

S&R: The last time I interviewed you I asked about your favorite instrument to play, and you were emphatic that you are a bass player. Tell us about buying your first bass.

Dixon: I was in a hurry so I saved my money and bought the cheapest bass I could find…$79.95…a Silvertone from the Sears catalogue. I had to order it. I still remember exactly what the case smelled like when I opened it up for the first time…it was a great bass but what did I know? I sold it. 15 years ago I paid $500 for a vintage one just like it. My first amp was also a classic that I didn’t appreciate at the time…a Supro Thunderbolt…highly collectible now…

S&R: Radiohead, Big Head Todd and Nine Inch Nails have all recently released new CDs free on their Web sites, and everywhere we turn we see artists and independent labels trying to innovate new ways of making the Internet world work to their advantage. Meanwhile, the major labels, which have resolutely refused to acknowledge that the world has changed, carry on like everybody with a broadband connection is trying to steal their babies. I’m sure you have thoughts here. So, this Internets thing: best thing since sliced bread or the end of music as we know it?

Dixon: Music shall not end…music is life…the Internet is a wonderful thing that should not be taken for granted because people are working hard right now trying to figure out how to take it away from you. Delivery via download is the wave of the future no matter what anyone says…them’s is just the facts. Figuring out how to make a living, pay for recording costs and keep quality high is the problem. Writing a good song is a problem. Right now there’s a glut of stuff out there…too much to get through.

I had an epiphany the other day…there isn’t any bad music, only music that any given individual likes or doesn’t like. And there are only two types of music. All the genre stuff is crap…it’s subjective…objectively there is only music with words and music without words.

S&R: Your Wikipedia entry says that Nirvana’s label wanted you to produce Nevermind instead of Butch Vig, but that your agent was asking for too much money. Feel free to amend this account as you like, but: how would that CD have been different had you been at the helm? And how do you think your life today would be different had you wound up with the gig?

Dixon: I’m going to tell you what I remember and what I believe…

I received a message from Gary Gersh asking me if I was interested in working with this band he had just signed. I played the cassette he sent in, heard “Lithium” and immediately called back to say, “Hell yeah.” Shortly I was on a plane to Seattle. Gary picked me up at the airport and we drove to Tacoma to hear the band in their rehearsal space. I loved what I was hearing and after going through a bunch of songs we had dinner at a Japanese restaurant where we talked about all kinds of stuff.

I went home and their manager called and we hammered out a plan where I would record them at Reflection in Charlotte (where I had recorded the REM records) with Butch helping. I liked the sound of the demos he’d done and the band trusted him and wanted him there, too. We booked some time.

I left the negotiations to my manager who asked for an advance that seemed fine to the record company but too large for the band. By the time I got wind that things were going wrong, it was too late. I was a greedy ass in the eyes of the band and they were right. I tried let them know that I liked what they were doing enough to do it for what ever they wanted to pay but the damage was done.

What would’ve been different if I’d done the record? You never know for sure but probably not much. It’s a very effective record and I can’t imagine that I would have improved it. Maybe I would’ve done something that made it less commercial and they wouldn’t have been as successful and that would’ve changed things but like I said, you never know. Fame can be quite destructive…success has a relationship relative to expectation. People have to be careful what they wish for…

7 replies »

  1. Nice work, Dr. S. Eliciting a line like:

    I usually claw away at the corners of the psyche where self-doubt and failure live and try to make light of it somehow.

    And the admission:

    I decided to let them sue me.

    Except for “Murmur” and “Reckoning,” unfamiliar with Dixon’s work. Can’t wait to check him out.