Vintage Interview with Deke Dickerson!

26 Aug

Deke Dickerson at Rudyards in Houston, TX

Previously unpublished.

Interview with David Ensminger, early 2000s,  photos by David Ensminger

You’ve said that the first two shows you saw were Willie Dixon and Bill Monroe, but do the impressions of those show stay with you?

Yeah, totally. The thing is that I think I essentially play rockabilly, but as a whole I don’t listen to that much rockabilly.  I listen to a lot of country, old r&b, jazz, blues and stuff like that. Sorta just like the old guys in the 1950s did, who weren’t really listening to rockabilly when they were making rockabilly. There were a lot of deeper influences. I’m really happy in that regard…That I was at where I was at during that time and could see guys like Bill Monroe and Willie Dixon.

In Missouri?

In Columbia, Missouri. There was great club that’s still there called the Blue Note, but it was at a smaller location then, and they used to get all the acts that would come through St. Louis and Kansas City. I mean, I saw everybody.

Do you feel that the Midwest had an entirely different vibe than the coasts or the South, so when you to California you knew you came from a very different place?

 Oh totally. I’ll just skip to one sort of specific thing about it. I agree with you that’s it’s a different frame of mind. In California, there was this thing with bands where one minute they’d be in the garage, the next minute they’re picked up by major labels and have videos and big promotion, then the next thing you know the band would just like quit. But where I come from in Missouri, no one gets record deals, nobody even gets paid shit for their music. To me, the idea of playing in a band and getting paid for it was an amazing idea. When I moved out to California, there were people who were essentially getting handed gold bricks on a plate, and then they’d complain about it.

 When you’re in a bar and hear James Brown or Johnny Cash, the music transcends musical categories, and you want to be like those artists. You don’t want to be pegged as a rockabilly guy, but it happens anyway. How do you get away from that?

 That’s a good question.  There’s a pretty amazing rockabilly network across the U.S., it’s a real underground sort of thing. A band can exist for years and years by touring with a cult following, but you know, it only goes so far because those people don’t really like anything other than rockabilly, you know what I mean.

So when you do bluegrass, they veer away?

Well, with this band here, we do rockabilly, country, jump blues, some surfy stuff, and Link Ray 1960’s sounding garage stuff. I know a lot of times the real hardcore rockabilly types don’t really appreciate it that much, but to me it’s not bad music, it’s not like I’m wearing bellbottoms and playing with wa-wa on my guitar. What I’m doing is good music.

From the very beginning of your career, what is the one thing you think you have been consistent about?

 The thing is, I don’t think I’m that good of a guitar player, I don’t think I’m that good of a musician, or singer. When you hear people play rockabilly, and they overplay it, they bring in 70’s licks, and they bring in flangers and choruses, it’s just inappropriate stuff.

But what about Brian Seltzer, who seems to lean towards a little bit of that tendency?

I’m not going to get into Brian Seltzer.

But he is bringing non-traditional stuff…

I’ll say he’s a phenomenal musician that goes for the most cheesy element. It’s got a real cartoony sort of angle to it.

But does anyone who plays rockabilly, including yourself, get lumped into that type or caricature? Eventually, if you stick around long enough, do you outgrow the niche?

 It’s hard to say … either you’re an innovator or a regurgitator. I don’t think of myself as a regurgitator, like re-doing a perfect 1956 concert you could have seen.

 But don’t some people want that?

 Oh absolutely.

 So if you’re disappointing people, it’s because you are not a perfect reflection off what they want?

It’s hard to say what people want, especially with this band. Because one night we’ll be playing in front of the whole alt country crowd, and they’ll be disappointed that we’re doing rock n roll. Then the next night we’ll play in front of a bunch of Social Distortion rockabilly greasers, and they’ll be bummed out that we’re playing country.

You played with Social Distortion for three months on the road?

 Yep.  And that was great.

 You feel it was a positive experience?

Yeah, because literally every night for three months we would go out in front of huge angry crowds, you know people who were pissed off that they had to sit through an opening band. hen we took the stage, it was like, “Who are these fucking guys on stage? I want Mike Ness on stage.” You know? But they ended up going crazy. Every night we won them over.

 What was the nicest thing Mike Ness said about your band?

The very last date we did with them, at the end of the night he always introduces his band, and he said, “let’s hear it for Deke Dickerson and the guys, they did three months all over America in a van, and that takes balls,” or something like that. I thought that was pretty cool.

What is it about roots music that turns on punk kids?

Well, when you hear Kenny G or something it’s really over-produced, it offends our ears. I think kids who grew up on punk, when they hear rockabilly or country or stuff like that, it has the same elements: it’s direct, it’s to the point, it’s in your face a lot of the times. It’s fast.

What’s the most challenging thing for gay in and day out while touring?

Physical comfort. When you’re twenty years old and driving around in a van for six weeks at a time, it’s great. We’ve done about 450 shows in the last two years…

Which is totally like Black Flag throughout their span.

Yeah, yeah. But if you read that book on them, which I have read, by the end of the Black Flag touring days, he is so burned out. That’s just the way I feel right now.

 So in the end, it’s almost just about physical endurance?

Pretty much. Everything becomes, what’s the word I’m looking for, the point of no return. After five weeks on the road, you just want to go home. But after about six or seven weeks…

You get beyond the threshold.

Yep.

You have a following in Europe.

But this band hasn’t been to Europe. But I’ve been over there five times, with the Deke and Dave Duo, and other things.

 But why not this band?

I think that whole scene over there has kind of shrunk a little bit, whole the American scene has grown.

It used to be that a lot of bands actually did better in Europe, like in Spain.

Well, we keep getting phone calls, so it’s about time to go over there, but it’s for total shit money.

 Really?

I’m not going to go over there for six weeks and spend money, you know?

 What exactly are Europeans seeing in the music? What did they see in the Deke and Dave Combo?

The main thing about Europeans that make them totally different then Americans is that they treat it like a textbook, like this is the proper way to do. If you don’t do it that way, it’s not the proper way to do it. Like the first time I was in England visiting my girlfriend, I looked in the paper and saw that Joe Clay, an old rockabilly guy, was playing there. I was like, holy shit, Joe Clay is playing. I went there in normal street clothes, not like rockabilly clothes, so I go in this place, and it’s all rockabilly dudes, everybody is dressed to the nines. I seriously thought I was going to get the shit beat out of me, just because I wasn’t conforming to the dress code.

 But don’t you feel the same weirdness here sometimes?

Some bands, you know when you go to see them, you have to wear that uniform. I love playing for audiences that appreciate the music, whether it’s the people who are wearing vintage clothing or…

 The Gap?

Exactly.

Some people seem to follow you around to many different shows.

Yeah, they do, and it’s kinda weird. It’s like, dude, I’m not a rock star. It’s strange. There were some guys in particular from Pittsburgh, they came and saw us in Nashville, and and I can’t remember somewhere else.

Like the Grateful Dead or something.

We got booked in Missoula, MO, and we thought, this is going to be a bomb, but is was on the way to Seattle and Salt Lake City. So, we show up, and there were like 6-10 guys with Dave and Deke records waiting for me to sign them. A really good crowd showed up.

But what makes those eager kids show up, and even follow you?

I guess I understand it because when I was growing up people would come through, bands I really liked, and I was the total autograph geek guy. Like when the Blasters came through.

 And you still have that stuff?

Oh yeah. And I still do. When I found out that we were going to be backing Billy Lee Riley and Sonny Burgess on tour, I brought all my records on the road, so I could have them autographed. So, I totally identify with that. A lot of times the guys in the band or the guys that are hanging out with us are like, man, those guys are geeks. But they are exactly like me, so I’m not going to snub them. I mean, I totally appreciate those guys. The only thing that I wish was that there were really cute girls instead of pasty-faced white guys in their 30s, you know what I mean? Wait, you can leave that out of the interview…(laughs).

Do you feel that sooner rather than later you’re going to pack thing up and say, I’d rather buy records rather than make ‘em?

The whole reason I started touring full time was…Well, Dave and Deke was never a full time band, we only did two national tours the five years we were together. When I formed this band, I was okay, this is all I am doing, and I’m touring until I just can’t take it anymore.  I just got to get it out of my system.  It might be that I continue to have success and make more money. And that would be great, but if it trails off, and people aren’t interested anymore, and I’ve probably gotten it out of my system, maybe I’ll get a real job and make some money.

When’s the last time you had a real job?

Two years ago, I was working for a record label in L.A. In LA it’s pretty expensive. I had to work to make ends meet.

 Why not ever simply go back to Missouri?

I love LA, man. It’s hard to explain to people who automatically assume that L.A. sucks, because I really like that place.

 Can you summarize your feelings about it?

It’s warm all the time.

 Okay, you’ve won me over.

In Missouri, the summers and winters are brutal, man. There’s really pretty girls and a good music scene. And no hippies.

 How do you feel you are received critically?

Our write-ups are great; that’s one thing I really like about Hightone. There’s so many good interviews, but at the same time I am kinda frustrated because the more serious writers, like the guy who writes for Billboard, and the guys who write for the Americana and alternative country type things, and because we’re like light-hearted and have a sense of humor, they consider us a novelty act. It pisses me off.

 They are dismissive?

Yeah, but I think when you get to the bottom of it, I think we have a lot more soul than the college boy, alternative bands that are out there.

Like Reckless Kelly or some others.

 I’m not going to name any. There’s some of those bands that are really good, but at the same time a lot of them started listening to country music about two months ago and decided to go start a band.

 Are you going to stick to Hightone?

Well, I got a three record deal with them. Obviously, everybody wants to make money.

 What’s one thing keeping you from a larger audience?

Good looks.

 Well, there’s people like Lyle Lovett.

It’s hard to say, because literally every audience this band has played to, punk rockers or whatever, we win them over, so it makes me wonder. If we had enough advertising and publicity dollars, how far could we take this thing. I don’t know.

 But again, Brian Seltzer has gold records and is playing Vegas.

But he received insane promotion from Interscope, there was even friggin television commercials for the record.

 Where will alt country go in the new millineum, on past Whiskeytown or back to Bill Monroe?

I don’t know, because that whole alt country thing baffles me, I guess because I grew up listening to country music when all those people despised it.

 Were you really listening to Merle Haggard and Ray Price?

Oh yeah, I listened to nothing but the old shit. I remember when  Uncle Tupelo came around, I mean I liked what they were doing but at the same time I was so distrustful of  all the college kids that were into them. Because I was like, the only reason you guys like them is because they wear combat boots. If these guys were real backwoods Missouri hillbilly guys, you wouldn’t give them the fucking time of day.  Just because they look like alternative college guy musicians…

Well, Billy Joe Shaver would come down and play to a handful of devotees, and you have to ask, “Whose got the real shit?’ Shaver or the Uncle Tupelo offshoots? Do you mistrust the sincerity behind it all?

Yeah, unfortunately, of music listening and music buying people, about 3 percent are educated and have an actual musical taste, 97 percent just look at the big ads in the papers and let MTV or whatever else define them.

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