Dead Milkmen: "We're Not Much More Politically Correct Than We Used to Be"
To hear Dead Milkmen guitarist/vocalist Joe Genaro tell the story about the rise, breakup, and reunion of his Philly-based pop-punk crew, the basis of a successful band is not an interest for fame and fortune, but friendship.
It was friendship that drove Joe and the Dead Milkmen's creativity, including their often twisted sense of humor, which only close friends truly understood. It was also a devotion to their camaraderie that broke the band up. And finally, as tragedy struck with the suicide of a former bandmate, it was friendship that brought them back together.
The shared creative intimacy of Genaro, vocalist/keyboarist Rodney Linderman, bassist Dave Schulthise, and drummer Dean Sabatino was undeniable when this Crossfade writer first met the quartet at the now long-gone Button South in Fort Lauderdale, back in 1993. (Read that vintage and admittedly amateurish article here.)
The Milkmen's rapport, then going on ten years was clear. Adding more distance between them and any outsider was the fact that they played under a range of ever-changing pseudonyms from album to album. To top it off, their songs defied any notion of political correctness, a new concept for the early 1990s.
More recently, speaking from his Philadelphia home, Genaro racked his brain to recall that moment in '93, when he sat around a table with his three other bandmates. So we helped out with some of the same dumb questions that we asked the band back then.
Crossfade: Have you ever gotten in trouble for any of the themes you explore in your songs?
Joe Genaro: No, I think we've been flying under the radar pretty well.
Should people be offended by your music?
Um, the musically inclined might. [Laughs] "Let's get the Baby High" can be offensive. Looking back on it, I wonder how we got away with singing a song called "Takin' Retards to the Zoo," but it was a different era. We're not much more politically correct now than we used to be. [Laughs]
Do you still change your names from release to release?
No, we stopped doing that. I think maybe Dave may have changed his name the most, and I may have changed my name the second most.
Do you remember what name you were going under when I met you in '93?
I think I was Butterfly Fairweather. Jasper Thread before that. Then Joe Jack Talcum before that. And then, on our very last album, I went back to Joe Jack Talcum. I think Dave was 11070 and then he became Stash. And then did he become Lord Maniac? I don't remember the order.
I remember meeting Dave as 11070. And then Rodney was Arr. Trad.
Arr. Trad. [Laughs] Arranged Trad. That was Rodney Anonymous, who also became Rodney Anonymous Mellancamp. [Laughs] Arr. Trad, I forgot about that one. Dean started it by becoming Mallory for our third album.
Yeah. He became Mallory, and then we thought: He can change his name, why can't we?
It must have been confusing for people.
I remember getting fan mail, when it was real letters. There was two types. Like, "I really like the new drummer, Mallory. He's great." Or, "You guys should have never gotten rid of Dean."
What keeps you guys together?
"Vodka Keeps Band Singing" was the headline of my piece.
Actually, at that point, we were about to split up for a while. We made that decision after the '93 tour and before the '94 tour. We had a sort of break around Christmas and Dean announced that this would be his last tour, and he wanted to take a break from the band and not be in the band anymore. We were beginning to think about replacing him with another drummer. But ultimately, we decided we would not replace him and continue without him. We would just hang it up. So, in '94, we knew it was the last tour we would do. The other thing is we didn't want to tell anybody. For one, we didn't want the record company to know. [Laughs]
Yeah, very practical. [Laughs] At that point in time, we also didn't want it to be one of these things, where, this is the end. It wasn't gonna cause the shows to sell out. I think it was pretty much a sellout tour because we were playing clubs.
Did Dean give a concrete reason why he didn't want to play anymore?
Well, he got married and he wanted to raise a family. He went to school for design. He designed all our albums. And the Internet was coming around that time. It was an interesting thing, and he wanted to go back to school for web design and do that for his career rather than music. I think it was the general getting tired of the same old thing, and we really did some expensive touring for the eight years we were on the road. We started touring in '85 and never really let up.
Was the major label deal a bad thing for your career? How did you feel about it then and now?
I don't think it had anything to do with being on a "major label." Definitely, we were smaller fish in a bigger pond. Maybe that's the way to put it, getting less attention. What happened with Hollywood [Records] was that I think we delivered a product -- Soul Rotation -- and they didn't know what to do with it by the time we gave it to them. The person that brought us in, he got let go. He wasn't with the company but for a short while. Then we really didn't have anybody. I think they would have been happy with a more punk rock album, and we gave them the exact opposite, and we also, I think, surprised our fans.
I'm not upset that we did it. We made the album that we wanted to make. They didn't put any pressure for us to do it that way. We did it that way. We spent a lot of money making it. They gave us a lot of money. They didn't recoup that money, and yet they gave us a second chance with the Not Richard But Dick album, which was a much more low-budget album. We did that one the way we wanted. They cringed at the title of "Let's Get the Baby High." They are a company owned by Disney. [Laughs] We did everything we were told to do, but it still didn't sell.
After that, it was kind of discouraging. I personally still wanted to keep doing records and being in the band, but it wasn't to be. I understand if you're not continually improving on what you did in the past. I stand by those Hollywood albums myself. I think that they're good albums, and I'm happy that they were put back into at least digital distribution, so you can get them on iTunes. But for a long time, they were just not available.