Talking 'punk jazz' and the Dead Kenny Gs with genre-defying saxophonist Skerik
Ever since sometime in the mid-'90s, a wild-eyed saxophonist who calls himself Skerik has seemed the center of a particularly rambunctious and unclassifiable corner of the jazz universe. Born Eric Walton, the busy Seattle-based musician is co-leader of the influential freak-jazz combo Critters Buggin as well as the more rock-oriented Garage a Trois and the Dead Kenny Gs, a provocatively named "punk jazz" trio with Critters Buggin members Brad Houser and Mike Dillon that touches on elements of funk, metal and Gypsy music. The band released the raucous "Operation Long Leash" this spring and performs Sunday at the Del Monte Speakeasy in Venice (a show at Long Beach's DiPiazza's follows Monday).
Though Skerik has collaborated with a wide array of musicians including drummer Bobby Previte, eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter, bassist Todd Sickafoose and Primus' Les Claypool, his style-hopping music is often dismissed as part of the Phish-adjacent "jam band" scene. But in terms of sonic inventiveness as well as drawing a new audience to jazz and jazz-adjacent instrumental music, Skerik is one of the most significant West Coast saxophonists of the past 15 years.
We talked with Skerik about his band's confrontational name, the perils of musical labels and a brief reminiscence about a national tour that was scheduled in the days surrounding Sept. 11, 2001.
So, about that name, the Dead Kenny Gs. It definitely makes a statement.
Well, we’re as equal fans of the Dead Kennedys as we are vehemently opposed to the proliferation and existence of smooth jazz. Poor Kenny is kind of a figurehead in this whole deal.
Are you guys pretty much running opposed to all that smooth jazz stands for you?
You know, it’s hard playing instrumental music in contemporary times. In the early '90s everyone was asking, “Oh are you guys acid jazz?” No. And then in the 2000s it was like, “Are you guys a jam band?” No. It’s just always something, and then for this whole genre to creep up, smooth jazz, it’s just really sad. And of course saxophone takes a big hit.
Well, we’re like punk-jazz. That’s a term that I think was made popular by Jaco Pastorius. He’s someone that used distortion and didn’t follow ideological divisions in music, whereas other people have made careers off the ideological subdividing of genre, like Wynton Marsalis. “You have to play this kind of music, you can’t like this kind of music.” I mean it was just absurd.
So I think there’s a much greater spirit that really needs to be respected, and I think Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane, they were all very revolutionary, just as some of the political music from the punk movement of the '80s was very revolutionary. To me there’s no difference between Charlie Parker, Jaco Pastorius, John Coltrane or Jello Biafra. They’re all just free thinkers, you know.
Is the jam band label something that bothers you when it gets applied to what you do?
I remember John Medeski [of Medeski Martin and Wood] saying once that he thought it describes the audience better than the music. Because with the bands it’s like, what does Ween have to do with Del McCoury? Or Femi Kuti and Neko Case? Well, they both play at the same jam band-oriented festival, does that make them jam bands? Genres in general are really stupid, they’re stereotypes that just don’t work.
When you were first starting out, did you ever play straight jazz or was it always an amalgamation of styles?
I just kind of came up through school -- big band, stuff like that. And then you start getting older you start seeing the "jazz arms race" is what we called it, where there’s more of a priority on the accumulation of jazz knowledge than actual pursuing of yourself and the spirituality of the music and the greater message that it has. And I got really turned off by that so I went into rock music.
Occupying this kind of no-man's land musically, do you have a hard time finding the right sort of room to play, such as jazz clubs versus rock clubs?
Yeah, we kind of default to rock clubs just because it’s a little more understanding I think, there’s a little more flexibility there. But it’s frustrating sometimes because you do want to use the dynamics of a jazz club, where people are seated and quiet and it’s really nice. Sometimes it’s a real blessing when a lot of people don’t show up because it does increase your ability to use just a broader spectrum and that’s definitely something that’s really important for us.
We just got off tour opening for Primus for like two to four thousand people a night. But sometimes they were seated, we were playing in performing arts centers so we could get real quiet.
Ten years ago you were on tour with Critters Buggin and the Master Musicians of Jajouka right after Sept. 11. What was it like being on the road then?
We were touring on the East Coast right when that happened. We were supposed to play the final shows at the Wetlands, it was supposed to be this big thing but of course Manhattan was closed. Our show in New York was canceled and our show in Washington, D.C., was canceled. And we’re driving on the East Coast going into the South and every truck stop we pull into there’s 8 ½ by 11 printouts of targets with Bin Laden’s face on it wearing a turban. And the guys that we’re touring with are Muslims who were dressed like that. So there’s all this jingoistic nationalism going on and Arab-bashing hatred so we were pretty concerned about their safety. We almost canceled the tour, but I'm glad we didn't.
We had a day off in New Orleans and [percussionist] Mike Dillon and I actually flew to New York to do a Garage a Trois show that had been previously booked at B.B. King's in Times Square. I just remember sitting on the sidewalk kind of like, "God, is this a good idea that we’re here? Should we just leave these people alone?" And people that I didn’t even know were coming up to me, looking me straight in the eye saying, “Thank you for coming.” You know, they needed a break, they’d just been in it for four or five days. They needed a diversion so I felt a lot better about playing the show that night.
During the show you played in Santa Monica for that tour, you took a solo at one point and it sounded as if you were screaming through your horn. It was one of the most cathartic things I’d ever seen.
Yeah, it’s good when the influence of Pharoah Sanders comes through.
-- Chris Barton
Photo: Top, Mike Dillon, left, Skerik and Brad Houser of the Dead Kenny Gs. Credit: Zack Smith. Jaco Pastorius photo by Shigeru Uchiyama / Warner Bros.