In the 1950s and ’60s, the government financed a covert CIA program that used American Abstract Expressionist art as Cold War propaganda to play up our country’s intellectual freedoms and cultural clout while undermining the Soviet Union’s rigid artistic confinements and ideals.
The second recording by the Dead Kenny G’s, 2011’s Operation Long Leash (Royal Potato Family), got its name from that little piece of what band member Skerik calls “bizarre history,” which was regarded as an urban myth in the art world until it was confirmed as fact by former CIA operatives in the mid-1990s. “It’s just an interesting story, that the CIA was promoting abstract art in the ’50s and ’60s …” Skerik said in a recent CL phone interview, “and they were spending millions of dollars on it, too, and none of the artists knew. And the people who were paying for it, the U.S. taxpayers, didn’t know about it, either.”
President Truman’s much-quoted comment on the fruits of that particular creative movement echoed through the ages (“If that’s art, I’m a Hottentot”). His flippant racism and philistine disregard inspired “Black Truman (Harry The Hottentot)” because according to Skerik, “it is art, and he was wrong.”
The track opens with staccato bursts of ominous horns carried on marching drumbeats, and segues into a go-go funky groove. [Track at story's end.] This spy film noir-meets-Latinsploitation vibe is re-visited throughout Operation Long Leash, with bright splashes of vibes and heavy doses of world percussion weaved into an aesthetic that also draws on Minuteman-style punk, ’60s avant-garde jazz, ’70s prog-fusion and funk, Klezmer music, modern experimental noise à la Deerhoof and Melt Banana, and whatever else. “There’s no real contrived ideology or pre-conceived notions, it’s just whatever works for us,” Skerik said. “It’s definitely mostly a rock thing. There’s very little what most people would call ‘jazz’ in it.”
Their name fits with their sound as much as with their ideology. “Part of the Dead Kenny G's work is cultural outreach — trying to rehabilitate people who are uneducated about music and actually think that smooth jazz is something they can listen to on a regular basis, or really, any time,” Skerik explained. “We’re here to say, ‘No, it’s not okay to listen to smooth jazz, ever.’ It’s a very toxic dangerous drug. It’s like anything that’s super destructive, you think you want it but you don’t.” But Skerik wants to emphasize: “We’re not gonna play your smooth jazz alternative. We’re smooth-less jazz.”
The three relentlessly active musicians who make up DKGs are leaders in the current trend of highbrow-humored, avant-heady, jazz-fused rock. They originally met and played together in 1990s as instrumental four-piece Critters Buggin with Matt Chamberlain (Edie Brickell & New Bohemians), and after that group dissolved, they continued as a three-piece and formed DKGs in 2007.
Brad Houser (bass, baritone sax) started out with the New Bohemians and has performed with that outfit off and on over the years as well as with a range of Texas indie acts. Mike Dillon is a rhythm master — a drummer well versed in a range of percussive instruments, most notably marimba and vibraphone. His credits include Hairy Apes BMX, Les Claypool’s Fancy Band and Garage A Trois (of which both he and Skerik are still members), and stints with artists like Ani DiFranco, Galactic and Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. Ostensible leader Skerik (born Eric Walton) is an original founding member of Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade and Fancy Band, Garage A Trois and ’90s supergroup Tuatara (with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees). He’s played, toured and recorded with a huge variety of artists — Stanton Moore, Hella, Pearl Jam, Mike Clark and The Headhunters, Roger Waters and Ween among numerous others — and is well-regarded for his revolutionary techniques on tenor and baritone saxophones that completely alter the sound of his instrument. His knack for experimenting with electro effects and pedals typically used on guitar (like a fuzz box for distortion and envelope filter to get that wah-wah sound), ability to make his sax growl or wail or scream in brassy bursts, profuse output and collaborations, and the range of genres he’s explored has earned him comparisons to John Zorn, though you could argue Skerik has a cheekier sense of humor and a greater appreciation of modern advances in weird.
All three are on the road with their various projects almost constantly — “No one thing works all year round, so it’s all about survival and then conceptually keeping things fresh,” Skerik explained — and the majority of the material on Operation Long Leash was conceived when DKGs were touring. He said that inspiration can strike at any time, and pursuing it is vital. “I read a really cool quote by someone the other day, that kind of has to do with that. It was written by this guy, his name was Jesus,” he said, deadpan: “‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.’ To me, it’s like a creative thing. You get all these ideas, and if you’re too lazy and you don’t write them down, they’ll eat you alive. It’s really important for your health to get that stuff out.”
What happens if the real Kenny G actually dies? Does the band have to change its name or retire? “After the parades subside — the international celebration could take years — we’d have to talk about it,” Skerik said.