Four on the Floor: Dillinger Four

To their more attentive fans, Minneapolis’ punk ’n’ roll quartet Dillinger Four is a maverick outfit that manages to combine passion, melody, brute force, integrity, intellect and humor like few groups ever have. To a ton of pedestrian underground scenesters, on the other hand, they’re that band with the long, witty song titles and the crazy fuckin’ fat guy who likes to get naked and tackle people.

Well, not really, but D4 long ago came to realize the Rorschach-esque nature of any combo that can't be handily categorized.

"We don't care so much about why people want to come (to shows)," says guitarist/vocalist Erik Funk. "We're not so pretentious as to think we'd be just as interesting if we stood still and played our music."

Still, the band's live antics — particularly those of bassist/vocalist Patrick Costello — have become so legendary that some folks attend their gigs with the expectation of spectacle. Every night, some cretin may be counted on to demand nudity, whether Costello feels moved by the spirit or not. And D4, being a) of a superior musical caliber and b) somewhat contrary by nature, are ever more happy to disappoint those for whom the show is supposed to be about shock alone.

"This has been going on for a while — people want Paddy to get naked," Funk says. "It's pretty much a sure-fire way for him not to. In fact, it's kind of silly when your reputation precedes you for something like that. We kind of try to avoid it."

So how did Dillinger Four's penchant for raucous onstage behavior get started in the first place, anyway?

"Gas money," he deadpans. "Seriously. For so many of our earlier tours ... it would be eight bands, all of us with just a 7-inch out. We figured out pretty fast that you have to stick out. Between the need for gas money and our alcohol abuse, it came out of that."

Dillinger Four played their first show in the spring of 1994, after Chicago transplants Funk and Costello combed Minneapolis' fertile music scene, recruiting drummer Lane "Monkey Hustle" Pederson and guitarist Billy Morrisette (no relation). Not long after, a couple of 7-inches appeared via renowned Gainesville punk label No Idea (Less Than Jake, Hot Water Music). In the midst of sporadic touring, getting banned from local clubs, and generally establishing themselves as a fiercely uncompromising yet determinedly entertaining act, the quartet signed with the eclectic (read: formerly ska-oriented) Hopeless Records. They released the universally acclaimed Midwestern Songs of the Americas in 1998.

The equally impressive Versus God appeared two years later, solidifying a slow-burn cycle that allows the band's members time for pursuits outside the context of Dillinger Four. Unlike so many punk acts for whom band life is the be-all-end-all of existence, D4 did not get in the van with the intention of never getting out. The standard side projects aside, everybody has something else going on, from Funk's co-ownership of Minneapolis bar the Triple Rock Social Club to Pederson's doctorate in psychology.

"This isn't what we do for a living — we have lives at home and all like to do different stuff," says Funk. "Now that it's so common for punk bands to right away try to make it a career, I could see why they feel that pressure. But we don't really have that, so it's not such a big concern. We have a natural sort of timeline."

The group's comparatively sedate pace and touring schedule frequently engender breakup rumors; occasionally, they start one themselves. It has also kept them together for twice the average lifespan for a road-dogging pop-punk outfit, and allowed them an unheard-of independence from the industry. Dillinger Four has passed on offers that careerist punks would hock their body jewelry for — from the Warped Tour (twice), from Epitaph Records, from the majors — because each had attendant elements that didn't jibe with their vision.

The third D4 long-player, Situationist Comedy, was recently issued by Fat Wreck Chords, and is easily one of the top two or three punk records to come along this year. Its deceptively natural mix of sonic fury, intelligent cynicism and social outcry is very nearly archetypal. The disc eschews the high-end buzz-saw production common to the new school in favor of a thick, gnashing urgency so confrontational that it's scary. And the songs rock, too, not formulated around a familiar hook but blasting through in a masterful example of listenability as a means instead of an end.

Funk says their association with Fat more or less boils down to the imprint's willingness to work a one-record deal, a rarity for any label not run out of a bedroom or basement. That Fat Wreck and Dillinger Four share a notably similar attitude in terms of remaining socially conscious without letting the politics overshadow the rawk is something of a plus. In a climate where the media, promoters and even fans have been bred to encapsulate any and every group as succinctly as possible, D4 has never felt the need to present themselves as a "political band," though their well-crafted lyrics often present such topics.

"We've never felt pressured to make that decision," affirms Funk. "I won't say we'd never do a record that's not political, but we kind of play it by ear. There's no master plan to how or what we want to be."

It's that refusal to be defined or marketed as anything more finite than a great independent rock band that has endeared Dillinger Four to their favorite kind of people — those who live for good, substantial music, whatever the name. And it doesn't matter which of the myriad facets of D4 draw them in to begin with.

"Whatever elements people like about it is great. That's fine. I think the main thing is to try not to go too far off any one way," Funk says. "If you come to one of our shows, they're nothing like the records. Our live shows are pretty much not serious at all."

Music critic Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or via e-mail at [email protected].

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