The station was WQsomething-something in Albany, N.Y. It was a good one too, introducing me to everybody from the Bangles and Tommy Keene to the Rainmakers and Guadalcanal Diary during my eight years in Albany in the ’80s. It was on that station I heard a song about a praying mantis, and I still recall thinking how cool it was, in a bouncy, spousicidal, secret-life-of-insects kind of way. I also remember my reaction when the deejay announced that the singer was Don Dixon. “The producer guy?” I thought to myself. “He makes records?”
Please forgive my Arrogance ignorance. It’s fair to call Arrogance (a band whose seed was planted when Dixon and cofounder Robert Kirkland were freshmen at UNC-Chapel Hill) a regional outfit, and their region was some 600 miles from mine. It took “Praying Mantis”–the lead-off cut, as it turned out, from his solo debut Most of the Girls Like to Dance But Only Some of the Boys Like To–to clue me in on the fact that Dixon, in addition to being an in-demand producer, was also a first-rate vocalist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. It’s something that I haven’t had to be reminded of since.
In the 18 years since “Praying Mantis” careened out of my cheap speakers, Dixon put together an impressive, apparently boundless body of work: eight solo albums, including a mid-career retrospective, an odds and ends collection, and a sweaty live set recorded in Chicago; production (for R.E.M., the Smithereens, and Marshall Crenshaw, to name just my three favorites) and session-work credits too numerous to even consider listing; membership in the original cast of the musical King Mackerel & the Blues Are Running; and, most recently, a well-reviewed turn as a cynical, alcoholic visiting composer/director in Todd Graff’s valentine to thespian-club kids, Camp. After being sidelined by a heart attack and bypass surgery in 2001, Dixon has bounced back, if not with a vengeance, at least with vigor.
Lately, he’s produced artists ranging from novelist Madison Smartt Bell and roots poet David Childers to Boston rockers Naked Sams and the Charleston, W.Va.-based R&B outfit Carpenter Ants. He’s currently pitching the idea of a musical based on comic book artist Thomas Ott’s Robert Creep character. And when he’s not working on songs for a new album, he’s preparing for a short tour with a pop-lover’s dream band consisting of him, Bill Lloyd, Jamie Hoover, and Robert Crenshaw that with any luck will whirlwind through our area early in the New Year.
Despite having lived in Canton, Ohio, since 1988, Dixon maintains strong ties to North Carolina, and when the N.C. Entertainers Hall of Fame is built, he deserves an exhibit somewhere between Andy Griffith’s and the late Little Eva’s. Because of Arrogance’s UNC roots, he enjoys an especially close relationship with the Triangle, and he’ll be paying a visit for a pair of concerts on Oct. 18 and 19. We talked about those shows, and a dozen other things, during a recent hour-long phone conversation. Below are some excerpts.
The Independent: I understand that there’s a live recording of yours from 1990, complete with a horn section, that may be coming out on Gaff Music.
Dixon: They really want to put it out. There are some problems with the recording, but I have recently uncovered some technology that’s going to be able to help. What happened is that I used one of the tracks on the end of that record Notepad #38 (a live, horn-drenched take on “Praying Mantis”), and Scott Beal, the guy who owns Gaff, said “We were at that show.” And I said, “Okay, it does exist.” So I sent him the board tapes of the show. It was a pretty good night. I was a little hoarse, but I’m not afraid of not singing that great. I only did 12 or 15 shows, something like that, with the full horn section.
The mention of horns makes me think of Southern soul from the ’60s and ’70s, which I love. And you’ve covered the two pillars of Southern soul, at least in my mind: “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “Dark End of the Street.”
Yeah, those are two great, great songs, and, you know, it’s almost embarrassing to do them because I love the real ones so much. “When a Man Loves a Woman” just was a live tape of an Arrogance show that I just happened to like.
My real, true influences growing up, my three main singing influences were Otis Redding, Lou Rawls, and Peggy Lee, believe it or not… . I listen to Curtis Mayfield and those guys a lot–I love that stuff–but my voice really wasn’t suited to do that smooth, Impressions kind of stuff. It was more suited to do the growlier thing.
We’ve talked about the possible release of the live album, but you’re also working on a new studio recording.
Well, apparently I am. I didn’t realize I was. I had sort of resigned myself to never writing another song with words, and just writing music… [But] I found myself just recently writing a bunch of songs and recording them. Without realizing it, I had written three songs in a row that were all about rooms. So I said, this is some sort of sign. So now I’ve undertaken this project to write a record where all the songs are about rooms.
Does it make it easier for you to start writing songs when you have that type of framework established?
I’ve always used frameworks to create the records around. For years, I’ve always had the title and the painting before I ever made a record. Most of the Girls Like to Dance But Only Some of the Boys Like To was a tinted photo by a friend of mine named Harvey Wang that was about a bar mitzvah. So I sort of created the record knowing that was the title of the album. With Romeo at Julliard, it was a painting that had been done by Ted “Blank Square of Excellence” Lyons and that had been hanging at the Drive In for years. I wrote a song called “Romeo” for that one and kind of built the record around the idea of failing at something you love–a glorious kind of failure.
I want to ask you about the movie Camp, how you got the role, how you prepared for the role, and how much you enjoyed the experience–or, maybe, how much you didn’t enjoy the experience.
The experience was tough. There were really, really enjoyable things about it; a lot of the people I met there, I’ve really become friends with. But it was a hard time for some reason in my life, and I can’t quite figure out why it was. And it was also very hard to stay in the frame of mind of that irritated, drunk character that I played. It made me irritated and hung-over feeling all the time, so I didn’t feel like myself at all. I felt like this other guy. I don’t know how to describe it any better. I guess I’m not a good enough actor to just pretend, so I really felt like that miserable, unhappy guy… I got the movie because the guy (writer/director Todd Graff) is a music fan and had a copy of “Praying Mantis,” and he said he had a dream that I should play the part. The casting agent got in touch with me on the Internet and asked if I wanted to see the script–not knowing that they were going to suck the life out of me (laughs).
You’ve been doing a lot of production work lately, but I wanted to take you back 20 years or so. When I think of you as a producer, Murmur always comes to mind first. I was wondering what your recollections are of working on Murmur.
The Murmur record was memorable on a lot of levels, not the least of which being it was the first time that Mitch [Easter] and I got to crank a record that we knew was going to be on more of a national scale. We did succeed, I think, at preserving the nature of the band, which was our real goal. We liked what this band was trying to do. We wanted to create a unique sound field where you got an impression of what the band was like live, and I think we were able to accomplish those things. Maintain the kind of mystery aspect of them, while keeping all that positive, almost Grateful Dead kind of feeling that their fan base had for them.
This is an intrusive question, but I’m going to ask anyway. It’s been about two years since you had the heart surgery, and I was wondering how you’re feeling these days and what that experience was like for you.
The experience was, it sucked. I would not recommend it to anyone. It’s not at all life affirming. There’s nothing good about it. If you find yourself in a position to do anything about your blood lipids, do something about them. Do not allow yourself to have happen to you what happened to me. I felt great. I was in fine shape, I felt strong. Half an hour before they were rolling me in on a gurney to, you know, die, I had felt fine. This stuff about ‘did it change my life or anything?’– No, not really, except I do try to do what I can to not let my heredity get in the way. But you’re talking to someone who hadn’t had a hamburger in 20 years before having this heart attack; it’s not like I’d been particularly abusive. I don’t drink much, none of that stuff. My lifestyle and diet should not have been a big contributing factor. But there are things that I have been able to do since then with my diet that have helped lower triglycerides and things like that. The boring answer is: All you old men, get your blood checked. If you have high cholesterol, high triglycerides, quit eating the wrong crap.
I was worried about you. It’s strange how someone you’ve never met, but if you’ve been listening to his records and following his career, you feel some kind of connection. I was concerned.
Thank you very much. A lot of people were. I got a tremendous outpouring of support from people, and that part of it was truly something. All of that was countered by this severe sort of depression that I’d never had before. Apparently, it’s something kind of common called post-mutilation depression or something like that, when you’ve been chopped up without any preparation. And I had no preparation for the kind of chopped up that I was. It wasn’t one of these things where you go in and have a bad blood test and they say in two months we’re going to perform your surgery. They had to do it right then. I woke up in the hospital and didn’t really know what had happened. So that depression was no fun, but I got over it. And now I feel just like myself.
Let’s see: singer, songwriter, musician, producer, session guy, theater actor, film actor, inspiration for a character in David Menconi’s Off the Record, grandfather–what role could possibly be next for you?
I guess I should probably mention the sex change.
Here’s Don Dixon…
Arrogance co-founder, solo artist, producer, and a dozen other things–talking about the music world and his place in it: “I don’t feel like a creaky old man, but I understand how I could be conceived as a washed-up, creaky old man. And believe me, nobody appreciates more that this business and pop music is for kids that think they invented it all, because I certainly did.” He continues, a chuckle starting to build in his voice. “I’m all for obnoxious young children getting out there and kicking ass. But basically, they still have to take me down. They have to show me that they’re better than me, and there aren’t a lot of them out there that are.” (A vision of a steel cage match with Ryan Adams flashes in my mind.) Yeah, Don Dixon’s still got it, and you can see for yourself when he does two Triangle shows this weekend. He’s at the Berkeley in Raleigh on Friday, Oct. 17, and the ArtsCenter in Carrboro on Saturday, Oct. 18, promising solo acoustic moments mixed with, in his words, “total rockin’ band stuff.”