Dash Rip Rock holds many distinctions, one of which is that they’re reported to be the band that has played every South By Southwest. It might not be true, but it’s a good legend. Dash has been on the verge of something bigger, then it became the cult band whose diehards reunite once a year to see them in Austin, and in recent years, they’ve been a part of Mojo Nixon’s raucous Saturday afternoon party at the Continental Club, where they one year played a Battle of the Bands against Mojo. Another year, they debuted their Hee Haw Hell album there with guests—including me—doing the spoken word spots between songs.
The band will return to Austin and SXSW, but it’s not as easy as it used to be, says Bill Davis, the one common thread in the band since day one in 1984. “If it weren’t for couch surfing, we couldn’t afford to go,” he says. “There are no suites in the Hilton on Mammoth Records anymore.”
What does SXSW offer you in 2012?
We’re trying something new. We signed up for every party we can get on. I’m actually on a panel this year [with OffBeat consulting editor John Swenson]. Usually, we go in and do our gig as quickly as possible, hang out with a few buddies and then blow out. This year we’re taking advantage of what SXSW has to offer.
It definitely has been hit and miss every year that we’ve done it. Sometimes we’ve gotten these amazing offers and amazing deals, and others we’ve played some horrible little barbeque joint where nobody saw us. Now, I think we’ve got the leverage that we’re able to go in and make a difference. We’ve got two records. We’ve finished one that we did with Tab [Benoit] that’s a Billy Joe Shaver tribute record, and then we’ve got a record we’re doing with Ben Mumphrey up in Studio in the Country. So this year, I’m looking for a record label. Jello [Biafra] still wants to put out our records [on his Alternative Tentacles label], but I don’t think Jello is going to put out our country records because Jello’s not too keen on the country unless it’s super weird country.
We never expect anything from SXSW, but there’s always a call that comes in after we play it that is a great thing, like a tour of Europe, or a new booking agent, or management, or a publicist. Everything good that’s happened to Dash Rip Rock, I can trace back to SXSW. When we were interviewed for Musician Magazine or when we were reviewed for High Times Magazine, it was through a meeting at SXSW. Every booking agent we’ve had. Every record deal we’ve been offered, it came because of a showcase that we played there.
I’d imagine that by now, you’ve got some idea how to improve the odds of something happening at SXSW.
You have to plan ahead, and this year we’ve definitely planned ahead. We’ve got meetings planned, and we’ve got these private parties planned, and we’ve got some great stuff lined up. In the years that we don’t get anything happening, it’s when we don’t plan anything.
I feel sorry for the young bands. They’re like, “We really want to get into SXSW this year. What can we expect?” Probably not a whole lot. If you’re going in as a brand new band without a record out, without any sort of touring history—if you’re just going to pop in and expect something glamorous to happen, it’s not. It’s certainly not. Bands should be together three to four years before they even bother.
Dreams can be shattered at SXSW because the buildup for it is amazing. You’re going, “Wow, Iggy Pop is playing it. Cheap Trick is playing it. New York Dolls are playing it, so it’s definitely going to be a good thing for us.” You know that every A&R guy from every label is there, and every EA Sports game programmer is there picking music for the next big video game, but those people all have their schedules set, and they know what they’re seeing. They rarely venture out to try to see anything new.
What happened in between the beginning of Dash and the Dash of now—through the ‘90s and ‘00s—we were going for fun. We were going because we knew Mojo was having this party and we knew we were going to get to see our friends in Southern Culture on the Skids or Rev. Horton Heat. When you meet up with them in Austin at SXSW, everybody’s in a good mood, everybody’s got a nice hotel, and it’s a great party. I promise you, 15 years of the middle part of Dash Rip Rock playing SXSW was mainly social.
Was there a point where Dash was—not just going to SXSW but in general—going through a period of—
Lapse? There’s no question about it. Two of the big milestones in the band were when Hoaky Hickel quit because he was such a major part of the band, and then I moved to Nashville in the same year. It took us a little while to climb out of it, and it took me a while to gain the confidence to know that I can actively be Dash Rip Rock. I thought Dash Rip Rock had to be Hoaky, it had to be Fred [LeBlanc]. I’ve learned that Dash Rip Rock can be Bill.
That was a time that the band was still together, but I was concentrating on things in Nashville like songwriting.
It seemed like even after you moved back here, Dash was playing, but it wasn’t clear exactly why except that you didn’t have other marketable skills.
I think that we all went through career questions, then we always come back to “We just have to be musicians.”
A major change this year is Kyle Melancon is back as drummer. He’s still the stage drummer for the Imagination Movers, but when he got back in the band, it really lit a fire under us and made me feel like it was the old Dash. He was with us through the “Let’s Go Smoke Some Pot” craze. Now that he’s back, I feel like I’m not just using sidemen; I’ve got an actual, true member back.
When I first saw the Replacements, they came out and played a bunch of covers, and I went “That’s brilliant.” We were so impressed with how Paul Westerberg could write brilliant songs and then toss them aside to play Foreigner covers. Now, when I look back, that wasn’t quite the model that we should have followed.
I’ve been working really hard on writing songs, but I went back—I have 40 or 50 four-track cassette tapes that I started in ’85 when Kelly Keller was managing us. I pulled them out this year and started going through them looking for songs that we could record. I’ve never done that. I always thought, “I’m never going to go back to that stuff. I don’t need to,” but I’m glad I went back. It’s stuff I was writing when the band was just taking off.
What did you find?
Some really cool garage stuff. When we started Dash and when Kelly was managing us, we were really trying to be garage-y, but we were also being drawn to bands from Austin and bands from Athens. We loved R.E.M. and we loved the LeRoi Brothers and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. We were hooked between all these different styles, but we were trying to do a synthesis of all that.
Are you able to pick up the thread from back there as a writer?
I was just tossing songs out and writing them in five minutes. Now I’m working a lot harder on the songs. If there’s one thing I learned in Nashville, you can’t just spit out songs unless you’re Bob Dylan. Crafting songs has become my interest of late. I’ve got people like Ben Mumphrey helping me craft these songs. Ben worked with the Pixies and Frank Black.
Is there a craft to writing songs about large-breasted women and getting loaded?
We’re trying to leave behind some of that stereotype of the drinking song and the chasing-the-hot-chick song, even though there are drinking songs on the new record. We’re not running away from that Dash era, but I guess we’re trying to reinvent ourselves.
Are you going to be able to stay with this? I ran into you before you were scheduled to play the Gentilly Stage at Jazz Fest around the time of Sonic Boom, and you planned to focus on the album. Two songs in, you went for “DMZ” and “Liquor Store.” It was almost like, without a laugh, you weren’t sure what to do with the crowd.
That was 10 years ago. That show taught me a lesson because I showed up with my acoustic guitar and was like “Man, we’re going to play some country.” Lucinda [Williams] had just put out that awesome record and we were thinking, “Let’s be a country band.” But you’re right, we got out there and it just exploded. We did our Dash Rip Rock bar show, but this time it was on that giant stage with 10,000 people and it didn’t work at all. We used to think, “Either you get us or you don’t. Too bad. We’re going to be obnoxious.” Since then we’ve learned to be a little more political.
You’ve been at this long enough that your initial fans and the next generation of fans have got jobs, had kids and settled down. Is it hard to feel like you’re connecting when you’re playing for people half your age?
I think the Internet is introducing us to a whole new audience. The other night we backed up Blowfly at Siberia, and there were so many people there and they had gotten connected to Dash Rip Rock because they saw that I was playing in Blowfly’s band.
Kids love punk rock. Kids love the Dead Kennedys, so we’ve made a lot of fans being associated with Jello Biafra.
Aging punk rockers and some of the aging people that loved Rank and File, Jason and the Scorchers, Dash Rip Rock, the Long Ryders—I think a lot of the people that listened to that are now turning their kids onto it. Whenever we see a crowd of five or six twentysomethings, we’re like, “Why are y’all here?” They’ll say, “Because we got hooked up with you through Mojo Nixon on Sirius Satellite Radio” or through Alternative Tentacles. I love it, because they’re the ones that are enthusiastic about the music and they’re the ones that are buying drinks.
When you were in your twenties playing for an audience that’s in their twenties, you could look at the people and you know what’s going on in their skulls. When you’re looking at people who are half of your age, is it harder for you to be on stage and connect to the person right in front of you?
That’s a really good question. I don’t think I’ve pondered it that much. You know the Internet and everything that they’re into, they’ve got so many more choices than we had when it comes to music or bands or the videos you can watch. I’m happy that they’re at our shows because there’s a million other things they could be doing. When I was 20, you could go to Jimmy’s or you could go to Tip’s. You could see the Replacements or you could see Tabula Rasa. You could listen to ‘TUL and you could read whatever punk magazine at the time. When we draw them, I’m thinking, “We must be doing something right.”