DEP’s principal songwriter and guitarist Ben Weinman jumps from his Mesa/Boogie Mark V and takes aim with his trusty ESP LTD H1001-M … while still managing to look cool for the camera. Photo by Ken Settle
You’ve said that blues-rock guys like Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan had a heavy influence on you as a young player. I’ve always been curious where that influence comes into your playing now, having forged a distinctive voice so removed from that group of players.
At that time, Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan were considered the virtuosos, and SRV played extremely difficult licks, but with a lot of soul. That always stayed in my mind—that you can’t sacrifice soul and feeling for technique and cleverness. I think that’s one of the things that separates us from other more technical bands: We always wrote music we could feel,and over the years we’ve thrown out plenty of stuff that was complex or technically interesting because it didn’t feel like it had any emotion to it, and I think that’s the big thing I took from those blues guys.
King Crimson has also always been a huge deal for myself and Kevin [Antreassian, guitar], too. Hearing that stuff was a total game changer. John McLaughlin was a very big deal for me, too.
What did McLaughlin bring to the table that changed your approach?
He had eclectic influences that had a big impact on me and were inspirational to me. He wasn’t afraid to bring in Middle Eastern and Asian influences, and he always reached deep. He wasn’t technically perfect—his playing was more about emotion, even though he got more technically proficient and precise later in the years when he was working with Miles Davis. But he was always just going for it and more concerned with the music itself than hitting every note and avoiding clams. I like guys like that because I never wanted to sit there with a metronome and play everything perfectly.
Is there anybody in recent years that’s had an impact on how you approach the guitar? Do you feel like you’re still growing as a guitarist at this point?
I think I’m growing as a musician, absolutely. It’s not just about guitar for me anymore—it’s production and songwriting and the big picture. Guitar playing is an outlet, and not to say I don’t care about playing guitar anymore, but I think your peak is typically when you’re a kid and you just want to sit and play all the time. But life gets more important as you get less life to live and that’s just the reality.
I realized by being a touring musician that you need to live in order to write honest music. The guys I came across over the years who just sat in the basement shredding never wrote anything important or challenging in my eyes. They can clock in at a high bpm, but the music that comes from those kinds of players is never going to change the world.
As a dexterous, athletic player, how did you go about developing and maintaining that explosive style?
The big thing was just writing music that called for that kind of playing. I was just a blues-based, punk-hardcore, noisy kind of player. Then I got into electronic music, and King Crimson, and fusion, and Mahavishnu Orchestra, and a lot of challenging stuff at the same time. My background in metal had already kind of run its course by the time this band started and I just wanted to create something within my own underground scene that was as punk as the first bands that turned me on.
I wasn’t there for Black Flag or Bad Brains—I came in at the end of that era—but the stories I heard about those bands were just stories. It wasn’t happening anymore and it wasn’t extreme anymore; it was just new bands mimicking those classic bands. The metal bands at the time that were coming out just sounded like the old bands, too, but there wasn’t anything truly extreme anymore. Metal had hit the radio in an ugly way. Slipknot and Korn were massive when we started and I wanted to create music that would make people turn their heads in the same way as when those first three-chord punk bands were just wrecking shit with a message, but the way we had to do it was to push different kinds of boundaries. So I started writing stuff that felt punk and aggressive, but was absolutely non-conforming to what was happening at the time, even in our small subgenre. It had to be challenging and I had to write things that I couldn’t necessarily play to accomplish that goal.
How did you develop the ability to play the difficult things you do while putting on the intense, volatile shows Dillinger is so well known for?
I think 20 years of playing in this band has been the best practice! When we first started, I didn’t hit any notes—it was just noise. It was a total mess and I didn’t recreate the songs very well—it was all about the pure, unadulterated free expression of it without any responsibility for what would happen after the moment. I would break shit and not care about what was going to happen. That moment was the most important.
Then people started to actually like the band, which was a big surprise and not the intention because we thought it was just going to be a creative outlet to blow off steam on the weekends. As people started to know the music, it was like, “Fuck, I have to actually play these tunes now.” And I started focusing more on pulling things off live.
With the more angular fusion licks and dissonant riffs that are somewhat of a calling card for you, how do you avoid repeating yourself?
I just had to accept that that’s Dillinger and that’s my vocabulary and my thing, and learn not to try to be the best at everything, but know that I’m good at what I do and just be the best at what I do. The variation comes in by allowing disparate influences to emerge within the already existing vocabulary, whether it’s piano stuff or something that’s more traditionally Latin than the stuff most people expect from Latin music—just played at 200 bpm on a China cymbal through our unique sonic filter.
For instance, the song “Fugue” off the new album is electronic-based, and that IDM/intelligent dance music electronic stuff has always been a huge influence on Dillinger since day one. It was just a little less obvious back then. But I think it’s more about being adventurous within the vocabulary, and doing things like having Bowie keyboardist Mike Garson come in and play what was almost classical piano on a track on Option Paralysis. While we’d had many different styles on our stuff at that point, we’d never had anything even remotely classical. But it’s about adding new elements. I’m not sure there’s a science to it beyond that.
Happy accidents and being playful is a huge part of what I do. Creativity is just retaining that childish nature to be able to throw things on the floor and see something in it. We lose it as we get older and I make sure that I maintain that level of playfulness when we make music—like hearing interesting things in our mistakes and then making them intentional. The song “Surrogate” has a part that I recorded wrong. It cut off and sounded like a chicken, so then I started intentionally writing the riff to be more akin to the accident. That’s where it all comes from—being playful and open.