It’s been 25 years since the Dwarves began terrorizing the punk scene. Known as much for their genre-bending music as their vitriol-inspired live shows, Dwarves have gone on lengthy breaks, but they have never stopped pushing boundaries. Time spent on distinguished labels such as Sub Pop and Epitaph Records didn’t soften the group, and the former even released Dwarves’ most recognizable album—the hardcore-tinged Blood, Guts & Pussy—at a time when hardcore had become stagnant.
Through it all, Dwarves have maintained a solid core, consisting of singer Blag Dahlia and the masked guitarist HeWhoCannotBeNamed. (HeWho’s faked death in the early ’90s led to the group being dropped from Sub Pop’s roster.) With new album The Dwarves Are Born Again in tow, the group is doing back-to-back local dates—Thursday, Sept. 22 at Black Sheep and Friday, Sept. 23 at Bluebird Theater—to celebrate the album’s release and to commemorate 25 years of fights, stabbings, and nudity. The A.V. Club talked to Dahlia about the band’s early days, its struggles with being labeled a “shock rock” band, and the trouble with becoming stuck in such a dangerous lifestyle.
The A.V. Club: It’s the Dwarves 25th anniversary. You guys started in Chicago as more of a garage-punk band…
Blag Dahlia: My first show was at The Cubby Bear lounge in probably 1982 or ’83, something like that. We played with a weird, new-wave band called The Occupants, but we were like a ’60s garage band, you know? We covered The Seeds, and The Chocolate Watchband, and the 13th Floor Elevators; we didn’t know that anybody else had ever heard of that. It was pre-Internet, and we just kind of stumbled onto these weird records, so you know, we knew we had to go downtown and do a show. So The Cubby Bear lounge was the spot. Yeah, that was how it started, you know?
AVC: You’ve said before that the garage sound wasn’t really embraced by people in Chicago at that time.
BD: It wasn’t embraced by anybody, anywhere. I mean, nobody really seemed to know about ’60s punk, and it was still right in the middle of punk and hardcore, so that was kind of the new thing. People didn’t really see the connection, and anything that was supposed to be ’60s was suspect.
AVC: The Chicago punk scene was pretty divided back then. Did this resistance to your style help push you toward the more nihilistic tendencies that Dwarves fans are accustomed to?
BD: That was always the real basic part of the Dwarves. It’s funny, I mean, we moved to California in the mid-’80s, and that to me has always been the difference—California has always been like a scene, you know? There’s 5,000 kids that are all getting into whatever is happening this week, and when you come from Illinois there’s none of that shit. There’s some guy who works at a hardware store telling you to get a job, you know what I mean? You experience it in a different way. It’s not like you get any love from the people. You just do what you do. That’s kind of the beauty of the Illinois thing: It keeps it smaller and more gut-level, and at least you know what you’re getting.
AVC: Did that make it easier for you to reinvent the band when you moved, since there were no preconceived notions of Dwarves?
BD: I mean, to us, it was more like we thought the girls were better looking in California. That’s why we left. [Laughs.] Then what happened in Chicago in the early ’90s is they actually got a scene for bands like Urge Overkill, or the Smashing Pumpkins, or whatever. Chicago was always a place that was kind of always locked in this war with New York [City], and it wasn’t really interested in having a cool punk scene or doing something like that. It took Chicago about a decade to figure out like, “Oh, hey, we have people here too. And we can have bands and people that do something.” Once they figured that out, then Chicago became a great town, and there were a bunch of cool bands from there and a bunch of cool places to play. But the ’80s was a real wasteland in Chicago. It was like a bunch of people with new-wave haircuts trying to pretend they were in New York and failing pretty miserably at it.
AVC: Even back then you guys had a pretty combative relationship with your audience.
BD: [Laughs.] That was the weird thing about the Dwarves, and that’s why we’re like a real punk band. Because even though I had no interest in [that] sort of punk music … I mean, what we liked was rock ’n’ roll. I liked everything from the oldies station to obscure ’60s garage groups and rockabilly, and I really didn’t have much use for most punk records. I liked going to those shows because they were exciting and it was the new thing, but musically we were really more like a retro thing. But what happened was, every time we would try to play with bands like that—those sort of paisley-revival bands—we’d get in a fight, or we got in fights with venues. We got in a fight at the Metro when we played with The Cramps, and they threw us out. We got in fights when we played with Savage Belief and 007. We played with them at a place called Ruts, and we got in a fight. So it was like, even though we would always wear paisley shirts and shit, we were like a punk band. We would get into shit everywhere we went. [Laughs.] So we just had to admit that this is actually a punk band.
AVC: Punk does have a lot of bands that have a very politically correct ideology. Did you decide to be a bit more shocking just to get a rise out of people?
BD: Well, it’s hard for me to answer that. I would say maybe, but that was never the way I felt about it. The way I felt about it was that we were expressing something real, and when we did that it pissed people off. And a lot of times shit would break out and it wasn’t anything explosive that had happened, it was just the feeling people got from hearing our music: It made shit erupt in clubs and made shit get weird. I’ve watched this sort of other presence take over when the Dwarves play, and it doesn’t even have to be anybody’s fault. It’s just that things kind of erupt, you know?
AVC: Did your stage show slowly escalate, or was HeWhoCannotBeNamed getting naked onstage and wearing that mask from the get-go?
BD: It evolved over time. I think the nudity started when Salt Peter started wearing women’s lingerie. And, as far as I can tell, we were one of the first punk bands to do that shit. Then you started seeing grunge guys dressed up like women, and they were supposed to be making a political statement, but for us it was more, like, just to freak people out. So it kind of started like that, and then I went completely naked, and that was pretty heavy. Then when HeWho would do it—that was really the visual thing. I mean, a guy with a mask on who was naked was so much cooler than the singer being naked, you know? Just something about it worked.
But again, we would pick up bits and pieces from different acts. The Butthole Surfers were really the best group of the 1980’s. I remember the first time I saw them—I think it was in New York—within five minutes, Gibby [Haynes] came out with like a paper dress on, and he just ripped it down the front and did the whole rest of the show naked. It was so anticlimactic, and yet it was interesting. You just couldn’t take your eyes off of it. We started to realize that there was this vibe out there of real insanity at shows, but you could only get to it if you had a crowd that was being egged on and music that made it work. There were always people that got real crazy backstage, but then when they were out onstage they didn’t really seem to be conjuring anything up. So I think for the Dwarves, it was this combination of the more popular we got, the more people were really interested in seeing something, the easier it was to bust it wide open. But it wasn’t a planned thing. It was more just like, you get this feeling at certain shows like, “Wow, that was really explosive and chaotic.” And, more and more, that would be what we were striving for, and the music kind of came to sum that up.
It was sort of a whole process, and we all went down into it at once. HeWho would kind of escalate things and get more insane, and it just snowballed.
AVC: Was it the kind of confidence that the Butthole Surfers had that inspired your aesthetic?
BD: Right, exactly. It was different than the traditional rock ’n’ roll posturing of “I’m big and strong and I will crush you,” which is kind of the jock side of it, and the other side of it was like, “I just don’t give a fuck; I don’t care if I’m naked, I don’t care if everybody knows that I’m spilling my heart out onstage, I don’t care if we get shot. We’re here and we’re making our statement.” I think it was kind of more of an outgrowth of that.
AVC: Did these intense live experiences give you a way to keep things exciting for yourself and keep from stagnating?
BD: Yeah, I think so. It made a statement. We became aware of other guys like GG Allin, and he was somebody who—we really liked his songs, we thought they were funny—but then you heard about his performance, and it was taking it to this other level that was just unrecognizable. Things were just kind of pushing forward, and you had this idea that you could be part of something so chaotic and huge.
Then, in my mind, there was this other thing of making records, because I always loved records. I was fascinated by this idea of, on one hand you could conjure up this chaos live that just seemed like a complete mess, and on the other hand you could make this record that would last forever that people would listen to. Again, the Buttholes were amazing for that, because it was this sort of combination of—live it was this sort-of chaotic mess, and then you get the record and it was like, “Wow, these guys are processing drums, and they’re doing all these strange things that nobody does in punk.” Slowly this idea came about of, “Can you make amazing records that stand on their own and also make these chaotic, wild punk rock shows. Can those things coexist?” And that, for me, has kind of been the work of the Dwarves all down the line.
People would get a record of ours, and think it was a great record and come check us out, and then they’d see the show and it’s just a complete mess. On the other hand, people would be like, “Oh, man. I saw this crazy-ass band, and it was so wild and I’m gonna get this record, but I know it’s going to suck.” And then the record would be some kind of interesting, poppy kind of thing. And then you’d be like, “Wait a minute, where do these things meet?” And they just meet in this amalgam of what the Dwarves are.
And that’s where the whole Born Again thing is making everybody so happy now. Everybody’s reviewing this record and saying how great it is, and it’s back to our punk rock roots. But for me, it’s like, it’s got everybody who was ever in the band. All the guys who were in the early garage days, and the Blood, Guts & Pussy days, and in the poppier records in the ’90s, like Rex Everything and Wholly Smokes, and the newest guys who have been on these crazy, cross-genre records that the Dwarves have made. This record was like, “What would happen if we bring everybody together from every era, and we actually try to make some garage songs again like we did in the ’80s? And we keep making hardcore songs, but let’s make some total pop jams.” And that’s what came out. That, to me, is like the whole thing of the Dwarves: It’s the alpha and the omega. You can’t just say, “Well, they’re a punk band, ” or, “They’re just a wild live band.” It’s all of these things.
AVC: You’ve done various projects outside of the Dwarves. How important is it for you to have that other creative life?
BD: The Dwarves, while on the one hand it’s really freeing and there’s a lot of different stuff to it, it’s also constricting in the sense of you have to put on this huge event. But yeah, doing other things is real important to me. If you get stuck in the world of being Blag, you can get really stuck there. I’ve gotten stuck in there for years at a time. [Laughs.] It depends [on] if you want to have an existence or not, you know what I mean? You can get pretty crazy with this stuff.
But my mind just wanders. I think the thing that has been confusing for people is that most times when somebody in a band’s mind wanders, they wind up coming to a conclusion like, “I don’t want to do punk anymore; I don’t like punk. I’m going to do this.” That’s not me. I love punk rock, and I’ll love it ’til the day I die, but I’ve always loved other things at the same time. Doing other things has just been essential to the whole thing, and it gets more wide open—like where I’ve written a couple books, or you work on other people’s records and really get pulled out of your own head and into a different context.
AVC: You said that you can get caught up in being Blag. How are you able to distance yourself from this?
BD: Being Blag really fucks with your head. [Laughs.] I think the more you believe it, the crazier it gets. I’ve never been a great believer or a great joiner, you know? So the Dwarves have been a great organization for me, because you don’t have to believe in anything; you can come and go. It isn’t like being in the Knights Of Columbus or the 4-H club or something. [Laughs.] You get to be all things if you want to.
But, yeah, you’ve got to mix it up. I think most people have tunnel vision on their art. Mainly because that’s how a lot of peoples’ brains work, but also because it’s easier to market things that way—the music business would rather have you do one thing and come off as having a lot of integrity with your one thing. But to me, that kind of integrity just spells boredom. I’m not interested in that. I never signed up to just be one thing.
AVC: Was it hard to deal with getting labeled as a shock band? Did it feel like you were instantly being discredited from an artistic standpoint?
BD: I really appreciate you asking that, because that, to me, is the essence of it. To this day, if you mention the Dwarves to people, they either laugh it off and say, “Oh yeah, I saw that guy’s dick,” or, “Oh yeah, wasn’t that a punk band?” A lot of music consumers just like whatever is new, and that’s how they’re consuming things. It’s very hard for a band like the Dwarves in that kind of context, because we change around and take new forms, and we’ve stayed around for 25 years, so fitting into the marketing scheme of product has always been the hardest part. It’s been great to come back around after all these years and say, “We never went anywhere. We kept making cool records, we kept doing different things, we kept embracing new genres, and we didn’t let ourselves be influenced by trying to succeed in the music business.”
But along the way, it was a very hard band to be in. Between the fights, the stabbings, winding up at the hospital, being banned places … it was difficult when I would say to somebody, “Hey, I really like your record. I think you’re great!” And I could just tell they didn’t understand my record, or they didn’t like my record. I would say to be people that I respected—whether it was a musician, or a photographer, or a painter—that I really liked their thing, and they would kind of look at my thing and be like, “But you just have a punk band and say ‘fuck.’” They weren’t able to penetrate it and understand why it’s interesting. It’s nice when people come around 25 years later and see that it was an art form and there was a lot in there that was interesting. And to the people that didn’t get that, it wasn’t so much that the band wasn’t interesting, or that there wasn’t anything there, as much as it was people [who were] not really capable of understanding what was happening here.
AVC: Is it easier now that you guys aren’t on labels like Sub Pop, where you aren’t compared to bands like Nirvana that were able to cross over?
BD: I would say yes and no. Yes, because actual music fans can come out of the woodwork after 15 years, reevaluate our records, and say, “It turns out the Dwarves really were better than Generic Punk Band No. 57 that had a record deal,” and that’s nice. But it’s still difficult, because the more things change the more they stay the same. People are still scared to death to play with this band or, if they only consume new products, they think we’re old and boring, and [they] don’t want to have anything to do with it. And we still strike fear in people who do things like book shows or put together gigs. People in the music business are still as timorous as ever and, in fact, they’re more scared than ever to do things and stretch out because the business has contracted so much. At least when we started there was a lot more money in it, and people were willing to take chances on us doing things. Now that there’s so little [money], people aren’t ever willing. It still means it might be hard to fill a venue in Pasadena, and it might be hard to get your song on a soundtrack for a movie, because people are still as chickenshit as they ever were about this stuff.
When I signed up to be an artist, I signed up to do interesting things, and I feel really blessed that I’ve been able to do that. That’s what most artists never get to do, because they self-censor themselves; they put themselves in a box and they shoot for success. Whether they get success or they don’t, they never get to know if they made some interesting art or not, because if somebody at the label tells them to do something more commercial, then they do something more commercial. We’ve just never been part of that.
AVC: You did a Halloween show in Chicago a few years back where a freak show opened for you, and you had women suspended from the ceiling as you played.
BD: Yeah, this girl hung from the ceiling by her knees, and she was bleeding all over the place. She was very gorgeous. It was one of those acts like, well, how many times are you going to do that? [Laughs.]
AVC: How do you find ways to take an already infamous stage show into even crazier realms?
BD: We were in France last month, and there were some gorgeous girls from England doing a fire-breathing act so we brought them up onstage, and then I wound up stage diving into … it’s the middle of the day; it’s 1 o’clock at a heavy metal festival in France, where almost no one has heard of us, and it’s raining out. By all accounts, this show is supposed to suck. But by the end of it I’m crowd surfing over 2,000 people, and there’s a bunch of gorgeous women blowing fire onstage. I just think, “This is the Dwarves. This is what it’s about.”
We can make something work in the right context. That’s what I learned about original punk, like, “Tonight is the night, and we can make chaos happen.” When you’re too contrived with everything, you can no longer make that stuff happen.
AVC: Do you ever see the Dwarves ending? Will there ever be a day when you just can’t do it anymore?
BD: Maybe, but look—a couple of years ago, I was in Chicago and wound up having sex with two girls whose combined ages were lower than mine. At the end of the day, if I can keep pulling off shit like that, then I’ll keep doing this forever.
AVC: It allows you to continue living dangerously no matter how old you get.
BD: Of course! It’s the only way middle-aged guys can get laid. [Laughs.]