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?
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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.
In doing my research, I found it sad to hear about Dave's suicide. Do you remember getting the news?
I was at work, and I remember I got a call from Dean, and he said he had some sad news. I remember it very clearly. I had to call my boss and say, "sorry, it's just too much for me to deal with." Two days after that, the obituary was in the paper, and I just started getting lots of phone calls from people who, I guess, just then heard the news, and I again became overwhelmed, and I had to duck out of work that day too.
It was tough take at the time, as you can imagine, not just for me, but for the family and for the fans of the band and the friends.
What do you remember about Dave best?
We had just as fun a time as you can imagine making music and writing songs with him. I never had a songwriting partner quite like Dave. During the main years, like '81 though '88, we wrote hundreds of songs together. I never had someone else like that, that I could just sit down with and have fun and that spark would happen.
So it would really be like ten years before you got together after the breakup. Was the band on hiatus? Did you ever just get back together?
We only got back together, the four of us -- Dean, Dave, Rodney and I -- in 2003. That was to sign a deal with Rykodisc to put out the DVD called Philadelphia in Love and Now We Are 20 compilation. Then they had a studio in Bryn Mawr, which is not too far from Philly. We went there to record a commentary on the DVD, which is basically commentary over all our music videos that the record companies made for MTV. That was the last time all four of us were together.
I wished, looking back, I spent more time with him. I always looked forward to times that we could look back together and here it is, can't do that. Be careful about living in the future too much. It's not good.
Eventually, the band did come back together. I was wondering what drew you guys together as a band?
Well, his death brought us back together. Dave's brother's Kurt wanted to put together a memorial benefit show, and he asked us to play. So we got together and played that show. I was in a band called The Low Budgets and we used the bass player, Dan [Stevens], thinking this was a one-time thing. We re-learned the songs. It was interesting.
The show raised a lot of money for suicide awareness. But there was also a monastery in Serbia that Dave liked, and that he put in his will. It was filmed at the Trocadero in Philly, which actually got back together in 2004 for that. Two shows, a Sunday and a Monday, and that was that. I didn't ever think we'd get back together again.
Four years later, in 2008, we got a call from a guy named Graham in Austin, Texas, and he does this festival there every year called Fun Fun Fun Fest. He asked us to play that show. The formula for that show is they have a lot of bands. It's a festival with three stages, but they always try to have at least one band that is like a surprise, a band that comes back together or doesn't do shows very often. He wanted us to be that band that year. We declined a few times. [Laughs] But he was very persistent about it.
So we played that show, thinking it was going to be another one-off, and it was a fun experience. We decided, at the end of the year, we would have a meeting. Actually, it was at the beginning of the next year, January 1 of 2009, to have a meeting. And at the meeting, we decided, "Yeah, it was fun. Let's keep doing things like that." Because, by playing that show, we sort of opened the door for offers from other events, and they were pretty good offers. So we decided, maybe we can play a half-dozen shows and be selective about it, if they offer us this much money for a single show, more than any single show earned us on our last tour, in '94. Why not? [Laughs] We could sustain our day jobs and be the Dead Milkmen by night. It would give us an excuse to get together on a regular basis to stay sharp for these six shows or so.
Also, we said, if we're gonna do this anyway, we might as well come up with some new material, and why not make a new album. So we did. And that's how The King in Yellow came out in 2011. The idea of that came about in that 2009 meeting. What we did was we formed a new company with Dan Stevens, and made a record company to release new stuff by us.
In your FAQ, Dean says it's unlikely the band would tour again, but here you are going on tour. When was the last tour you did?
What I think is the last tour is '94 ... If you consider a tour to be three days in a row, then we've done a couple.
How many days is this tour?
Two. [Laughs] We got Miami, and we got Tampa. Flying into Miami, renting a van, driving to Tampa, and flying back. Very efficient, get in, get out.
So you can get back to your day job.
Yeah. Don't tell my employer, but I would love get back on the touring circuit. I watch documentaries every now and then. I've been watching this Martin Scorsese blues series thing. I saw Richard Pearce's The Road to Memphis and it gave me a little wanderlust. It gave me tour-lust. Bobby Rush is on the road for like 360 days out of the year. [Laughs] I don't know if I want to be that dedicated, but that's the kind of life I love.
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Dead Milkmen. With Sandratz and Humbert. Friday, April 11. Grand Central, 697 N. Miami Ave., Miami. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets cost $18 plus fees via ticketfly.com. All ages. Call 305-377-2277 or visit grandcentralmiami.com.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.