Dillinger Escape Plan: Better Off Dead | Revolver

Dillinger Escape Plan: Better Off Dead

After 11 years of uncompromising extreme music, the spazcore standard bearers are still intent on taking their integrity with them to the great beyond
dillinger escape plan 2008, Justin Borucki
photograph by Justin Borucki

Ben Weinman's mom wants to know whose High School Musical DVD is cluttering up the coffee table in the living room of her suburban New Jersey home. It's a chilly October morning in the Garden State, and the Dillinger Escape Plan guitarist is at his parents' house gathering some items from his gear-choked office upstairs before he and the rest of the band head to a recording studio in Brooklyn to tape a three-song live set for a music website. Weinman tells his mom that the DVD isn't his, but she doesn't seem entirely convinced.

Truth be told, you can't quite blame her. For one thing, Weinman—the only founding member currently playing in Dillinger—seems like the kind of cultural omnivore who might get a kick out of watching High School Musical. Propped up on crutches today as a result of a broken foot sustained during a video shoot in September, Weinman wants to know why people are attracted to what they're attracted to—and that includes kids too young to have been around when Weinman formed Dillinger Escape Plan with ex-singer Dimitri Minakakis and ex-drummer Chris Pennie in 1997.

The other reason you can't blame Mrs. Weinman for thinking the DVD belongs to Ben is because these days Weinman sleeps in a bedroom a few doors down the hall from his office, and if it isn't his, then who the heck's is it? The guitarist isn't particularly proud to be living with his parents at the age of 31, but he doesn't seem especially embarrassed by the situation either. In fact, just a few leafy streets over, he owns his own house, which he rents out to a nice young married couple. He points it out to Revolver through his bedroom window. Looks nice.

So why, then, does the mad-genius mastermind of one of heavy music's most influential outfits—the guy responsible more than anyone else for Ire Works (Relapse), one of last year's most impressive albums—still live with Mom and Dad? Cold, hard economics.

"In a lot of ways we function like a bigger band," Weinman says over the phone in early January, the day before he and his bandmates—singer Greg Puciato, guitarist Jeff Tuttle, bassist Liam Wilson, and drummer Gil Sharone—head out for three months' worth of shows in the United States and Europe. "We tour in a bus, and we have a light show, and we do tons of press. But we're also the band that doesn't have the money to pay for a cab. We have to be frugal and worry about every cent in order to make it work."

Though it earned enthusiastic praise from nearly every publication that reviewed it—including this magazine, which named it the second-best CD of 2007—Ire Works has not sold well. In its first week in stores last November, it sold 7,000 copies, and by press time the total had risen to only 24,000. At a moment of widespread record-industry instability, sales figures aren't what they used to be for any act, even the most popular ones. But Dillinger's problem is unique—and uniquely frustrating: They've become a band that everybody talks about but whose records nobody buys.

Of course, as even a single listen to Ire Works' furious math-metal freak-outs demonstrates, it's not as though they're making music designed to appeal to High School Musical fans. "Dillinger are not the type of band to conform to what the mainstream wants," says AFI frontman Davey Havok, who invited the band to open for AFI on tour in 2006. "There's an honesty and a danger to their music that's all but completely lost today. And right now, unfortunately, it's virtually impossible for anything other than the most homogenized product to get any kind of mainstream push or recognition. The demand in the culture has shifted toward copies of copies of copies, and the media—like radio and MTV—have followed."

Steve Evetts, who produced all three of Dillinger's full-lengths, agrees. "Look at the current climate," he says. "Everybody wants predigested stuff today; no one's into being challenged. At this point it's not even about music—it's about having a cute guy or a cute girl in the band." Though he says he thinks the Dillinger dudes' primary concern has always been "the passion behind what they're doing" as opposed to "making money or whatever rock-star cliché," he also admits, "If I had a magic button to push to make them wildly successful, I'd push it."

So would Ben Weinman. "I do get tired and worn down by this," he says of the band's seemingly permanent most-valuable-bridesmaid status. "It's hard to see other bands who've worked less or who are doing something less important achieve more in a commercial sense than us." The guitarist says his dad will get in touch with him about once a week with news of a mention he saw of the band somewhere. "He was so thrilled when we had a review with a big picture in the New York Times," Weinman laughs. "All his friends saw it and it brought a tear to his eye. He was like, 'This is serious.' But then he was like, 'So, what are you gonna do with your life? You're not so young anymore—it might be time to start thinking about a retirement fund.'"

At the same time, there's a part of Weinman—of everyone in Dillinger Escape Plan—that wonders if the band could still make the remarkable music they make if they didn't keep finding themselves facing obstacles on the road to superstardom. In a way, hardship—or at least inconvenience—appears to have bonded these guys: When Weinman picks up the rest of the band at a seedy, presumably dirt-cheap motel en route to the Brooklyn studio, Wilson and Puciato laugh sympathetically as Sharone recounts a scuffle with a supercilious front-desk attendant; the drummer has only been in the band for a few months, but already he shares the cynical yet strangely hopeful attitude that serves as the basis of the Dillinger Escape Plan worldview.

Most appreciations of the band's music tend to focus on its compositional dexterity—the nearly inhuman way they suture riff to beat. In the New York Times review Weinman's dad read, for example, critic Ben Ratliff hails the band's "extreme musical craft." And while there's no doubting the technical acumen of anything the band have ever done, there's also a surprisingly deep river of emotion flowing through Dillinger's material, one that gives musical form to the frustration and anxiety the members describe grappling with.

 "I remember being on Gigantour in 2005 and someone coming up to me after a show saying, 'Man, you guys need some anger-management classes,'" says Wilson. "I was like, 'This is anger management!'"

Chief among the band's troubles during the making of Ire Works was the sudden and unexpected departure of Chris Pennie, who's currently playing drums with Coheed and Cambria. According to Weinman, Pennie struck up a friendly relationship with Coheed frontman Claudio Sanchez after Dillinger played a series of shows with the prog-metal band in 2006; when Josh Eppard left Coheed, the friendship turned musical, a situation Weinman says he had no problem with. "Here's this awesome drummer," the guitarist says. "Why wouldn't they wanna play with him?"

Things got complicated, Weinman says, when Pennie cut off all communication with everyone else in Dillinger and with Matt Jacobson, founder of Dillinger's label Relapse, to whom Pennie was under contractual obligation to complete Ire Works. "Chris was gonna try to do both our record and Coheed's No World for Tomorrow," Weinman says. "We gave him an ultimatum: 'We're not saying you can't record with them, and we're not saying you can't tour with them, but you can't be a full-time member of both bands.' I don't wanna be a side project for Chris. We needed to finish this record and get on the road so we could make a living. And Chris just never got back to us. He doesn't give a fuck about contracts; he just wants to play drums." (Pennie gave us a somewhat different account of these events when we interviewed him for "Grace Under Pressure," our feature on Coheed and Cambria's new album, which ran in the January 2008 issue of Revolver.)

"The Dillinger Escape Plan record is a really important album to us," says Relapse's Jacobson. "We wanted to make sure it got the right focus and priority from everyone involved, whether that's us at the label or the members of the band. I had heard some rumors here and there that Chris was doing something with Coheed, but I didn't believe them. We hadn't heard from him or Coheed, so I figured they must not be true. Then I learned that actually this had been going on for a while. They didn't approach us till the 11th hour on their end, at which point we were also on top of the Dillinger timetable. That was pretty lame."

Jacobson convinced Coheed's management to honor Pennie's contract with Relapse, which prevented him from appearing on No World for Tomorrow. (Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters played drums for the band in the studio.) "We wanted him to stay on board and focus on making a kick-ass record," Jacobson says. "But if he wants to leave the band, there's nothing we can do to prohibit that. I have the utmost respect for Chris and for all musicians who are trying to do what they want. If he'd come to us six months before, we probably could've worked it out. But what can you do?"

Though Weinman says that relations between him and Pennie were always somewhat strained—lending credence to the idea that Pennie left Dillinger in search of calmer waters—Puciato thinks there might've been a financial aspect to his decision, as well. "Chris turned 30 and freaked out," the singer says, hanging out in the lounge at the Brooklyn studio after Dillinger's taping. "I haven't yet, but I can imagine what was going through his mind. There's no safety net in this band, and that's scary. We're doing pretty well right now, but the bands that make it forever are few and far between—it's, like, the Rolling Stones. I'll probably end up being a garbage man or doing some other job they don't turn you down for."

Ironically, Gil Sharone, the drummer Dillinger hired to replace Pennie, is no stranger to dividing his time between different bands. Recommended to the group by a mutual friend, Chris Hornbook of Poison the Well, Sharone remembers checking his MySpace page shortly after returning home from a tour with +44 in which he filled in for Travis Barker; at the time, the drummer says, he was "trying to get back into the swing of things with Stolen Babies," the L.A.-based cabaret-punk outfit he plays in alongside his brother Rani. "I saw this message and at first I thought it was a fan writing to me with the Dillinger icon," Sharone recalls. "But then I saw that it was this long paragraph and they were asking if I was interested in going on tour with them. I was like, 'Oh shit, this is actually from Dillinger!'"

Sharone says his next thought upon reading the message was, "This is really fucking flattering, but I just don't think I can tour with Dillinger." When he followed up with Weinman and Puciato, though, they told him that now they wanted him to play on Ire Works, as well. "That's when I knew I had to do it. It's one thing to tour, but it's another thing to be on the record. That's permanent."

Though Weinman and Sharone both admit that the drummer's future in Dillinger Escape Plan is uncertain, neither man seems troubled by the idea. "We initially hired Gil as a studio musician, but it grew into something more," says Weinman. "Now we're just taking it day by day, and everything we get from him almost seems like a blessing."

"Things are just rolling really organically," Sharone says. "I'm not gonna leave Stolen Babies, and I don't wanna stop doing appearances at drum clinics or doing session work. But I also don't wanna not play with Dillinger. I'm a professional drummer—this is what I do."

Sharone says he didn't join Dillinger out of a desire to change the band's sound, but on Ire Works he does bring a new sense of groove to the music. "At first I was concerned that they were playing with a new drummer," says Evetts. "But within a matter of days it felt right with Gil. Chris and Gil are both amazing drummers, but they play in a different pocket, which helps make things fresh. When you work with the same people over and over again, you don't really stretch your boundaries. Having something or someone new in there gets you to open up in different areas."

In Brooklyn, as the band tears through one of Ire Works' "different areas," a deliciously twisted blast of mutant cock-rock called "Milk Lizard" that's far from typical Dillinger fare, it's hard to remember for a few minutes how close this band keeps coming to falling apart. Weinman hunches over his instrument like a rogue systems analyst, coaxing shards of noise out of the thing and stomping the foot he hasn't broken (yet). Tuttle flails around the tiny stage with little apparent regard for the structural integrity of Wilson's skull, which he somehow never crashes into. Sharone and Wilson drive the music with insistent muscle, while Puciato leers at the cameras like an unwell game-show host.

After three and a half explosive minutes, "Milk Lizard" careens to an end and Weinman peers through a glass partition at the studio's engineer. "What's next?" he says. He's asking about the set list, but Weinman might as well be wondering out loud about the future of his band. And as the last decade has demonstrated, that's a question that invites no easy answer.