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By Reed Fischer
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It was all good, clean fun until the guy in the koala suit showed up. On the evening of March 29, 1999, Minneapolis pop-punkers Dillinger Four played their first headlining gig at First Avenue, recruited as a replacement for the canceled Sleater-Kinney. For at least a few unsuspecting fans of the waylaid post-riot-grrrl trio, Dillinger Four must have felt something like finding your little brother's muddy footprints and green army men all over your white canopy bed. The boys had been singing their winningly snotty three-part harmonies fully clothed until a man in a ratty, cream-yellow bear suit barreled onstage to tackle burly bass player "St. Patrick" Costello, wrestling him to the floor. Soon the singer from the Murder City Devils was holding Costello's bass, attacking the strings with drum sticks and yelling, "I'm Kim Gordon!"
Forty-five minutes later, some 50 people spilled off the stage, including members of Lifter Puller and the Strike, sending empty beer bottles rolling to the floor after screaming a cover of the Pogues' "Sally Maclennane." Costello shuffled off more slowly with his pants around his ankles and that koala bear's head covering his noggin like a battle trophy. Guitarists Erik Funk and Billy Morrisette just ambled off shaking their heads. The house lights came up. And as the club's video screen descended, drummer Lane "Monkey Hustle" Pederson howled something everyone in the audience might have agreed with: "THEY'RE NEVER GONNA LET US BACK!"
Though that show assumed a prominence in D4 lore, it was not a radical departure from the usual routine, which includes shows such as the one where Pederson invited a stocky audience member to sumo-wrestle onstage ("He took umbrage at that," he says; "I only meant it as a gesture of goodwill!"). Or the one where the D4 rhythm section was booted out of the Entry in the middle of its own set (the band was subsequently banned). Or the one where Costello spontaneously disrobed (choose your gig). No one denies that booze-fueled mayhem is what gets D4 expelled from even hardcore havens such as the Coffman Union--yet perversely, they've been invited to the Weisman Art Museum and the Loring Bar.
"Our history is a history of being asked not to come back," says guitarist Erik Funk, sitting with his three bandmates around a beat-up conference table in the bike-cluttered meeting room of the Triple Rock Social Club, which Funk co-owns. "When we play a basically normal type of show people [say], 'Whoa! That's weird! You just got up there and played!' We had so many shows that were extreme that it just seemed to be spiraling out of control. But it's not a goal."
Still, Costello remembers what he says a First Avenue employee told him after the Entry ban: "What you were doing will probably be the exact same reason why they ask you back.'" Now, keeping with tradition, the Four are again headlining the Mainroom on Sunday, supporting their second, modestly titled longplayer, Dillinger Four Versus God (Hopeless).
Looking at the guys in their "office," they seem pretty much like the twentysomething all-ages-punk-bred kids they are, adorned in army jackets, a few tattoos, and slowly growing-out buzz cuts. But their humor and personality is harder to peg. One minute the boys are recounting past scatological horseplay with a hearty glee, the next they're carefully and thoughtfully articulating why they attack issues instead of love songs. Usually bands who cut loose onstage as freely as D4 tend to devote what brain cells they haven't killed toward writing songs about cars, women, and killing even more brain cells. But Versus God takes a listen or two to sink in, not because the music is hookless and loud (try the big riff on the opener "Who Didn't Kill Bambi?"), but because the surprisingly subtle lyrics take time to work their way through the muscle.
Dillinger Four's recurring theme is a bit more predictable: the co-option of mainstream punk. "We'll fan it while it's burning," Funk rails, assuming the voice of some imagined sellout on "Music Is None of My Business." "Then look for something else to blame/We'll take what's left and sell it/As little souvenirs of what before was here."
Thing is, unlike bands who can sleep soundly knowing that obscurity is its own purity, Dillinger Four have realistic concerns about selling out. For one, they've sold more than 15,000 copies of their debut, 1998's Midwestern Songs of the Americas, on Hopeless, a specialty punk label. Now industry types and big tours have come calling. Yet since forming in 1994, D4 have stayed active in the local punk community, volunteering every week at Extreme Noise, and keeping the Triple Rock punk-friendly. The band remains committed to playing basement and all-ages shows. The guys even declined an invitation to join the Vans Warped Tour, worrying that the prices were too high, although they remain friendly with some of the bands on the program (Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong is a confirmed D4 fan).
Their conditions for accepting an invitation to play this year's South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, were similarly exacting: It had to be an inexpensive show that didn't require participation in the industry conference. By all accounts, the gig was a success, although D4 members still think it was kind of corny, and they probably won't repeat the experience. The night before they played a more typical gig in a friend's basement in Warrensburg, Missouri, using borrowed gear. "We got 50 bucks or something," says Costello, "And they hooked us up [drink-ticket wise] better in the basement than they did at goddamn South by Southwest!"
Clearly, there's a grassroots political spirit at work here beneath the hedonism. "It would be a lot easier to get up on the mic and go, 'Free Mumia now!'" says Costello. "I guess I would rather be considered political in the early Bruce Springsteen sense than the later period Crass sense."
Adds Morrisette: "Poll tax! Oi!'"