Ben Weinman of Dillinger Escape Plan Talks Odd Time Signatures and Colombian Drug Cartels Before His Band's 2015 Debut at Rock on The Range
Dillinger Escape Plan isn't the most crowd-pleasing of options for the typical rock festival but they keep getting calls to perform, somewhat to the confusion of guitarist and founder Ben Weinman. He spoke to Music Times about writing music in 15/16, destroying both equipment and bodies on stage, and run ins with Colombian drug cartels in advance of his band appearing at Rock On The Range in Columbus, Ohio.
Music Times: For the record, it seems kind of messed up to refer to a member of Dillinger Escape Plan as "mister," but I try to be polite.
Ben Weinman: I don't think I'll ever be a "mister" but I'll take it. Whenever somebody calls me like that I get scared it's a credit card company or something.
Not today. Having seen you guys twice in different sized venues, the only thing that was the same was the general stage-abuse going on. Do you scout out a venue before you play to plan out what your attack's going to be?
Absolutely not. We've been touring actively for so long...all the festivals look exactly the same to me. I don't even remember one from the other really. We've been touring so long and so many clubs, it just becomes a huge blur. Often I don't even know where I am the next day or where I'm going to be. Sometimes I remember it by the bathroom. "Wait a minute...I remember this bathroom! Oh yeah, we've played here before." The idea is to kind of forget about anything you've done in the past and try to make it fresh and maintain some level of unpredictability. That's really what it's all about for us.
Well I mean, the example that comes to mind, you guys played a joint called The Basement in Ohio, which has very low ceilings. At one point you were hanging from the rafter playing upside-down. That seems to me like it would need some sort of insane contemplation.
No, I definitely wouldn't do that stuff if I really contemplated it (chuckles). I will say that sometimes when we soundcheck and the ceilings are really low, it concerns me. I think it restricts the ability to not think, as opposed to the other way around. The idea is to not have too think about it and to just have completely uninhibited free expression. When it's a confining area it's a bit concerning, like I'm about to hit the ceiling with my guitar. I can't really be as unaware of my surroundings as I might be in another place. Other than that we don't really think about it.
As you said, most festivals have pretty much the same set-up onstage...has there been anything particularly crazy in the past that's happened at a festival?
Yeah, totes. Like I said, so many shows in so many years. I can tell you that the first time we played in Colombia...we played a festival [Rock al Parque in 2012] and it was pretty amazing. We were playing with bands like Blonde Redhead, really eclectic lineup. The sun went down and it was really beautiful, and we looked out over this crowd of people and it was really amazing, we kind of let go a little bit and had a good show. Typical for Dillinger I guess. There were a few pieces of backline that were damaged...very minor...I think a hi-hat stand was bent and maybe a scratch on the bass drum...no big deal, we'll pay for whatever's damaged. Whatever. They informed us that they wouldn't let us leave until we paid for the entire backline of gear, which cost $7,000. Which we didn't have, we didn't have that in pesos or whatever and we'd already been paid in full so there was no way for us to pay them. Just sitting there like what do you want us to do? We'll pay for what we broke but we're not paying for all this stuff. They informed us that they "did things differently" and that the owner was also a drug cartel guy and even if they let us go, the chances of us making it to the airport alive were very slim.
That was an interesting scenario that we ended up getting through. That was a memorable festival.
I imagine. Going along with that, not only breaking equipment but you guys have a history of breaking yourselves as well. I'm curious how much you know about your insurance policy when you travel?
Like health insurance?
Yeah. Or some policy if your gear gets stolen or destroyed.
Well no insurance policy is going to cover us intentionally breaking equipment (laughs) but it's been tough throughout the years being a musician and not having the kind of healthcare you'd get being in a more typical occupation. I've particularly have had a lot of injuries, that have made things a little difficult. It's just the way we've done things. No point in looking back I guess.
Fair enough. When you talk about going to festivals, you guys are a bit more off the wall. The more typical fan at Rock on The Range is going to be into Papa Roach, if anything...
I don't even know who's playing. Who's playing?
Headliners are Slipknot, Judas Priest and Linkin Park. So that's what you're looking at.
Most people there aren't going to latch onto Dillinger Escape Plan as easily...
They're not going to like us is what you're saying.
Pretty used to that. I don't know why any of these festivals even ask us to play. It always boggles my mind. We've played with Slipknot millions and billion and trillions of times...that's a little exaggeration...but we've played with them a lot. We've played with all these bands. For some reason we get asked. We just toured with Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails. We've done tours with Deftones, we've done tours with System of A Down. We're used to being an odd-ball. We're used to being the band that other bands dig, more than the average person. For us it's about a small percentage of those people getting turned onto something new. If that's the case then we did something good.
So you're not frustrated with the majority of viewers not getting it?
To us, if everybody likes you, you're doing something wrong. I think that's a Larry David quote actually. For us, that's just not what we do. We're not creating consumer music. We're not creating white bread for the masses. We're the dark chocolate of music. It's not for everybody and that's something we've intentionally done. Even when we enter more melodic grounds, which we do a lot, it tends to be popular even amongst our core fanbase, there's always going to be something that smacks someone upside the head, that they don't find comfortable. That's our role in the music scene. That's why we're still here, to provide that.
Theoretically, could you play something straightforward like "Pride and Joy"?
I grew up on Stevie Ray and actually I soundcheck with that all the time. So I suppose I "could" play it.
Well I mean...looking at some of the time signatures you guys bust out...it's very difficult for a guitarist used to 4/4 and 2/4 to play. Does it work in reverse? Does it become difficult to shift back into "normal"?
I think the idea is just to have an open palette and not feel confined by the restraints of what we're taught is normal. In different cultures different time signatures are much more common...in an African culture 4/4 would be odd to them. To me it's about being comfortable in any scenario. I think there are a lot of people who can do the off-time stuff but can they do it with any passion or soul? I've always tried to bring emotion and energy into any kind of format. That's always been the goal for me. It's interesting because right now I'm working on a project with Brent Hinds from Mastodon—we're actually in the studio as we speak—it's cool because he does some things that blow my mind, totally uncommon for me and then I'll do some off-time signature and he'll look at me like "what the fu*k?" It's really interesting to collaborate because we do push each other. That's what it's all about for me.
When you go about writing your own stuff for Dillinger, what's the thought process? Is it a high-minded numbers game, like how Tool does its conceptual schemes, or is it just what sounds good?
There's very little thought-out conceptualization going on when we write music. What we find out later once we've created a body of work is that it's kind of clear where we were at, where our heads were at when we were making it. I'm often going back and listening to music I enjoyed when I was younger, and I get into little phases, like listening to old hardcore again or I'm listening to '80s music or I'm listening to old death metal bands that I used to like. Looking back, it's Dillinger but there are certain note choices or things that have been influenced by what I've been listening to or we've been listening to, or Greg's [vocalist Greg Puciato] been listening to. As far as premeditation, there typically isn't a lot of that going on. We just go for it.
So for as complex as Dillinger sounds, the writing process is actually rather simple?
It's very draining, there's a lot of work that goes into it but there isn't a lot of theory that goes into it. We don't sit there and say it'd be cool if we did this concept or if we did this time signature...it would be cool if we did this thing with these numbers. We don't think like that. We just go for it and just start making music. But we do spend a lot of time on it. We spend more on ten seconds of music than most people spend on an entire song or even record sometimes.