DANTE VS ZOMBIES: MAYBE I’M NUTS
Watching Dante Vs Zombies play is like an inner out-of-body experience. Dante White Aliano, the head and the heart of DVZ, does rain dances on stage and happily frustrates people who want to put this six-person music machine into some sort of definite genre. They can’t! With members from many of the other bands sharing the roster on their new label, Neurotic Yell—including Jail Weddings and Raw Geronimo—Dante Vs Zombies fill that space in L.A. music previously occupied by bands like Sparks, Deadbeats and Suburban Lawns, who smashed out ferociously iconoclastic songs that matched perfectly only the bizarre soundscapes inside their own minds. I sat down with a bowl of vegetarian chili, a few bottles of beer and Dante himself. This interview by Frankie Alvaro.
What goes on in the mind of Dante?
I’m quite dilettante-ish, probably to a fault. Throughout my life, competing with my would-be utter focus on music has been … writing prose, botany, the occult, various spiritual quests and their opposite—like aggressive atheism—and writing films, editing, production design, acting, sculpture, modern dance, linguistics, hiking, trying really hard to care about sports, trying really hard to have a conspiracy-theory-free interest in politics, emoticons … you name it. Maybe I’m nuts.
Is there any sort of specific mindset or specific process that you need to be in or use to write a song for Dante Vs Zombies?
I have to be in a situation in which even the most ridiculous ideas are worth getting excited about, and that can be achieved through any variety of methods. That kind of overall excessive enthusiasm helps a lot. I talk to myself a lot. I’ll start talking to myself in ridiculous accents that oppose each other and something will have a rhythm to it and it will lead to a song. Laena [Geronimo, bass/violin/vocals]’s and Jada [Wagensomer, bass/vocals]’s cats are really inspiring to me. Pretty much everything they do seems to be from the point-of-view of this absurd eccentric specific kind of character. I find myself—without thinking about it or analyzing it—attempting to express myself from their point-of-view quite a bit. Most of my songs have probably been initially from a cat’s point-of-view and it just gets altered slightly so as not make it so cutesy. I started making up songs for my cats to sing at the age of 8. My brother would sing them with me. When I had a childhood crush on a girl at a PTA potluck or what have you, I would often convince my younger brother to approach her and sing the song to her while I followed several paces behind until the girl hated us both. Sorry, Tobin.
I had a cat that died. I blamed it on myself for years. I thought I could never have another pet because my heart was so broken. Have you ever felt a connection like this with a cat? Or pet? Warm my heart here!
I have felt many connections like this with many cats. Molly, Rufus, Oliver, Ferrari, Tasha, Lula, Vladmir, Max, Warm Soft Moon, Pam, Penelope, Jasper, Foot Foot. You oughta see Jeff [Ehrenberg, drums] and his cat Sam together. I can’t pick a favorite. They are like people to me. The sweetest thing I’ve ever done for a cat would probably be the time that I found one that had been hit by a car in the middle of the road. As far as I could tell, her ribs had been badly shattered and she would not live another day. I didn’t know what to do. I took her home and put her in a spare room on a blanket next to a dish of food and water with some soft classical music playing. She couldn’t move at all. I named her Honey and whispered loving things to her. I also made flyers and put them up around town so as to give her real family a chance to claim her. Something very strange happened. Within a few days, she was walking and jumping up on my bed, purring and meowing! Either I had completely misdiagnosed her injuries—But her body was completely warped! She’d been hit by a car!—or some miracle occurred. And I’m a skeptical guy. Her family saw the flyers, called me and identified her. As a reward they gave me a gift certificate to a sports bar-slash-barbecue restaurant. I believe I ordered the ribs.
Do you have any musical idols?
No one is coming to mind, which is a little embarrassing. I feel that everyone deals with different challenges based on where they’re from, and who they are, and who they know. If someone’s achieved all of these things on one level it doesn’t really feel like it applies to me in the sense where I can emulate this and do the same thing. It’s been proven recently that free will is an illusion so both pride and shame are pretty much irrelevant. There’s no point in being envious of anybody and no point of being proud of your own achievements, so everyone should just feel good about everything and be compassionate towards the people that hurt them. It has nothing to do with religion. It has to do with science. So fuck off. Not you—the people that are judging what I just said!
You’ve been a musician for a long time. Do you feel evolution in your music? Do you feel you are still making strides?
I feel like you might have on one hand a music critic or scholar who’s trying to watch the progress of music from afar—they might see various things happening, like it went from marching band to ragtime to big band to be-bop to rock ‘n’ roll—you know whatever, that’s fine. But as far as musicians are concerned, it’s not about how do we go from this genre to this genre. It’s about ‘How do I get these fucking sounds in my head to be objective so that everyone can understand them and appreciate them?’ And it’s the same whether it’s James Brown or Iggy Pop or Nick Cave or Mr. Gaga or whatever his name is, so in that sense I completely understand the idea of struggling against preconceived notions. But it’s always really been about … how does someone get this idea out of themselves so it’s not an abstract thing? So it’s a reality? It’s on a record, which then influences a bunch of other musicians and then it becomes less of an abstract idea in someone’s head.
John Lennon said that when he wrote ‘In My Life,’ that was the very first song that actually made him consider himself to be an actual songwriter. Was there a song that did that for you?
I have had chapters like that where I’m like, ‘Oh, I finally understand pop.’ When I wrote the first version of ‘Watermelon Iodine,’ which has had a million different titles, I felt like I finally understood this poppy song thing over this kind of rhythm. It doesn’t have to be too intense, but at the same time it can be intense. I’ve had a lot of revelations like that, but I don’t think it ever ends. I don’t think that if John Lennon was still alive today he would wipe his hands and say, ‘Nailed it!’ He would still be trying to figure out ‘How do I become better than that asshole John Lennon that I used to be?’ You’re always trying to destroy your old self and become a better person. A better artist, a better anything than the last version of yourself. I think that’s always the case with anybody who gives a fuck. That’s the case with me, and I’m sure that’s the case with him.
How often do you feel that happens to you—that you get in that mindset of destroying your old self?
It evolves a lot. When it happens, it’s never easy. The last part of yourself dying—which is kind of like part of your ego dying. You have to feel like, ‘I’m on top of the world,’ and then you have to feel like, ‘I’m the biggest piece of shit in the world that ever lived. I am a horrible person. I suck. I have no talent.’ And you just have to kind of go into that. If you come out of it, it’s like a phoenix coming out of the ashes. And I think the Beatle to which we referred to previously went through that. I have as well. It’s not just related to musicians. It’s related to anybody that’s kind of trying to live their life in a way that’s not just trying to take what was given to them. I don’t think I ascribe it to every year or three months or six months, it kind of happens how it happens. Like every record. When a record comes out now—whereas before it used to be a high-five party-time—now it’s more intimidating. ‘Fuck, now I have to make the next one. And I want to make the next better than this one.’
Do you ever hit the wall musically?
All the time. But I’ve hit it and given up and have had the frustration enough times that I know it’s not a permanent thing. So there’s a degree of faith. Although I hate that word, that carries me through it.
What’s the longest period of writer’s block you’ve ever had? Have you had serious long periods of just nothing?
The only time I ever really got scared of that is when I lived in Detroit and I kind of felt that. When you’re new to it, you have a lot of superstitions about what makes it work and what makes it not work. I think the whole time that I lived in Detroit I wrote one, maybe two songs, and only one of them I ended up using and recording. I wrote vocals and parts for other people’s songs, but in terms of writing a song from scratch, I only wrote one and that really bothered me. I don’t think I’ve realized what’s necessary yet to actually see a song through from birth to completion.
Your new record, BUH, is on Neurotic Yell. They seem to have a monopoly on a lot of the good L.A. bands.
It’s a very new relationship. I love the spirit that [label founder Nicole Turley] has going into it. And I think she stands a chance of making a difference—not only for the people that like her music but for the artists and for herself, because the whole label business has changed a lot since a few of us were able to lick the bowl of the early 2000s major label culture. I’m glad she is trying to do something new. Running a label is very difficult. You really have to put a lot into it.
What do you mean by ‘lick the bowl of major label culture’?
I should have said, ‘Lick the bottom of the bowl.’ That period when Starlite Desperation was on Capitol—from 2003 to 2006—was right before a lot of these major labels finally accepted that the lifestyle of excess that their employees and bands were enjoying was no longer economically sustainable on the mass level that it had been previously. They started going under or consolidating and firing their presidents and A&R people, or just freezing their expense accounts so they couldn’t fly from L.A. to New York to see one band play one show at a small club, or dropping bands, or freezing their recording, or touring budgets. Obviously major labels still exist, but they have to be far more fiscally conservative. The idea that Starlite Desperation was ever on a label like Capitol was always strange to me. We enjoyed it while it lasted. They dumped a ton of money into us touring extensively. I loved that. I don’t think it changed the way I looked at music. We didn’t change our sound one iota for Capitol, although in the end some of their top brass made it known that they expected us to.
You’ve risen from the ashes … I’m guessing multiple times over in your life and or your musical career. What kind of person do you see yourself as now? How are you different now than you were back then?
I’m more easygoing. I’m happier. I feel less doomed. I’m less hyper-intense and I’m more comfortable in my own skin. I’m probably more friendly, hopefully. And whereas before I might have indulgently spent thousands of words answering this question, now I’ll only spend a few. And no, I’m not on medication.
You’ve said that you consider DVZ to be the most fun band you’ve ever been in.
I feel that we’re just allowed to be the most little kids than any of the other bands I’ve been in. We’re all free to be little children. Everyone in the band—they’re all great musicians, but at the same time they don’t take themselves too seriously. Everybody is given a fairly simple part to play, but everything combined together is a little bit more than simple. In Starlite Desperation it was me playing the whole song on guitar and singing at the same time. And now everybody is free to have the best time.
Was ‘Yes, I’m Stalking You’ the first song you actually wrote for the band?
Yes. It was actually called ‘Dip It in Ranch’ originally.
Was that your way of saying that Americans—or maybe civilization in general—tend to muddle everything down?
It was based on their need or compulsion to homogenize everything and make it safe and sanitary. Look at contemporary playgrounds. Boring. I broke my arm on one when I was 11, playing an extreme game of tag. So the school banned tag on ‘The Apparatus,’ as they called it, and then all the kids at school hated me. But you couldn’t even skin your knee on a modern-day playground. Look at architecture. Whatever you’re building should be at least as beautiful as what you’re building over or tearing down, but you have this aesthetic genocide going on in which one architectural atrocity after another is plopped down over meadows or beautiful old buildings and we’re all forced to look at them. It’s easy to sound angry when discussing this trend, but I’m really not. There are a lot of wonderful things happening in pop culture and its intersections with the underground. I just have fun doing what I do musically and view that as my contribution to dilute any trends towards homogenization.
It seems that every review about you guys points out that your music is shtick. Are people who say that missing the point?
Well, here’s the thing. People that write those columns have very little time to ingest a lot of information. And they have to kind of come up with something for everything they write about. For one thing, they borrow from other people’s reviews. Whatever you write is going to influence the next hundred things people write. That’s always been the way it is. ‘Alright—I see a muumuu, the girls dress insane, or there’s costumes, and they have a song called “Yes, I’m Stalking You.” And it’s like an anthem, and they call themselves this. We haven’t seen them yet, we don’t have time to, and the record isn’t selling enough for us to get free drinks or whatever so we’ll just make something up.’ So they’re just going to say it’s shtick, which means they have an idea of how to perform. Which is basically what it is. They haven’t seen us, or if they have it was for three minutes. So yeah, if a shtick means we don’t go on stage with an idea of what’s going to happen in the next 20 minutes, then yeah—we have a shtick. But if it means anything else, then no, we don’t.
What about the outfits? Do you make them? Or does one person in the band design them?
People give me mine as gifts. Laena and Jada’s closets are intoxicating kaleidoscopes of theatricality. Matt [Polley, guitar/vocals], Jeff and Gabe [Hart, guitar/vocals] have been eccentrically dapper for as long as I’ve known them.
When you first started playing, you were wearing dashikis or muumuus, and I know you didn’t want it to be the kind of thing where if someone else did you would be like, ‘That was my thing first!’ So have you moved on from dashikis?
They’re really fun, but I don’t want them to be the only thing I ever wear, you know? It’s just a fun thing to wear because it’s free and liberating and flowing and it’s not too tight.
Do you wear underwear underneath them?
Sometimes, but not always!
Did you just feel like free-balling that day or were you having technical difficulties?
Oops—I got pants and underwear mixed up. I don’t always wear pants under them but I’m pretty sure I always wear underwear. I feel it’s safe to say that the majority of the population has zero interest in catching those kinds of glimpses.
DANTE VS ZOMBIES’ BUH IS OUT NOW ON NEUROTIC YELL. VISIT DANTE VS ZOMBIES AT FACEBOOK.COM/DANTEVSZOMBIES.