20 years ago, Dillinger Four redefined Minneapolis punk with ‘Midwestern Songs of the Americas’

Dillinger Four onstage at the Triple Rock in 2013.

Dillinger Four onstage at the Triple Rock in 2013. Eric Hess

After almost 25 years, a common thread of infamy continues to define the public perception of Dillinger Four.

The band, whose latest incarnation of their annual “D4th of July” show takes place outdoors at Grumpy’s Downtown tomorrow, is often described by fans and critics alike as joyously drunken and eternally uninterested in anything resembling serious effort. People focus on how rarely the band plays out locally, how infrequently (outside of occasional festival appearances) they tour, and their legitimate but overhyped reputation for antics.

But that perception belies the reality of Dillinger Four’s two-decade-plus history. They are, and always have been, a band that is decidedly full-assed about the stuff they choose to care about, and fuck the extra credit. And there’s no greater illustration of this concept than Midwestern Songs of the Americas, their debut album, released 20 years ago this month.

As the alternative feeding frenzy hit Minneapolis in the early 1990s, Twin Cities punk acts of the ’70s and ’80s either atomized under the weight of their own success, moved out of town, or graduated to the status of elder statesmen. Catchy but undeniably raw, Midwestern Songs came from a completely different place.

The underground punk scene of that time—primarily located in basements, living rooms, and occasionally bigger shows at the U of M’s Whole Music Club—seemed to have little connection to the bands that came before, but the younger bands were plenty connected to each other, regardless of the style of musical they played. And right at the center was Dillinger Four, who by 1998 had multiple 7-inch recordings and several tours under their belt, all completely under the radar.

“The mid-90s in Minneapolis was a unique thing in American punk,” says D4 guitarist Erik Funk. “Not everybody had what we had going on here as far as cross-pollination. We’re on tour and half our merch table is Havoc Records and Profane Existence stuff. But then we did the record release show with Lifter Puller and no one thought that was weird.”

“We’d play a show with Assrash one week and a show with Lifter Puller a couple weeks later,” says bassist Patrick Costello.

As Nicole Matuska, former booker of the Whole, recalls, “The uniqueness of the punk scene was the close knit nature of those involved—not a scene, but a community. Even to this day, I could go years without seeing people in person and pick up where I left off. D4 were at the epicenter.”

“In the mid to late ’80s the Libido Boyz and Blind Approach ruled,” says Jason Parker, who ran THD Records out of his house. “People forget this. They were both great bands and great people, at their height both bands could sell out the Entry, and later the Mainroom. Then they broke up and suddenly the big clubs and bars weren't as interested anymore. Things went underground in the early ’90s, in basements. D4 came around along with a ton of other great bands—the Strike, Quincy Punx, Misery, Kung Fools, Salteens, Destroy—that were ignored by aforementioned big rock clubs and bars. They were us.”

“We had been putting out 7-inches with our friends, so we knew we wanted a real label that was more established,” Funk says. “We were all involved with Extreme Noise so we knew which labels had their act together. Hopeless was a serious, well-run label.”

Costello had some minor reservations. “The only thing I knew about Hopeless was that their logo was a spoon with alphabet soup letters spelling out ‘hopeless,’ and for some reason that stuck in my craw. But they seemed on the ball and not sleazy.”

“We didn’t sound like those bands [on Hopeless], but we brought bands to them,” says guitarist Billy Morrisette. “Scared of Chaka and our friends Selby Tigers, they both signed to Hopeless.”

With Hopeless in the mix, the band went into the studio with Dave “Davey G” Gardner. Gardner, who now works for Instasound in Los Angeles, had started recording bands in the underground punk scene in his basement and eventually worked in Amphetamine Reptile’s studio and the Terrarium, where the album was recorded.

“We never had a meeting to decide what it was going to sound like,” says drummer Lane Pederson.

“We didn’t bring in records of what we sounded like,” says Funk. “We just came in and let Davey G try things out.”

The band looked to members of the scene to help out with album art as well: Bloodline vocalist Bill Boulger provided the design and Lifter Puller’s Dan Monick shot the photos, including the iconic cover.

“Paddy and I had been hanging out and talking about shooting photos that embodied the title,” Monick remembers. “Some I had, some I shot specific for that. I hadn't hung out with D4 a ton at that time, like I might have met Lane when we went to take his photo. I showed them that flag photo and Lord knows Paddy always loved a good raggedy American flag so I think it was an instant contender.”

“During the design process, there were quite a few iterations and many late night conversations,” Boulger recalls. “I did a lot of the layout and image prep on my own, then would spend a good amount of time coaxing handwritten lyrics out of Patrick. Working with Dan Monick's amazing photos added another dimension and was something new and exciting in the mix. Dan opened up his books and we spent hours looking through his work. He was extremely generous and, as I recall, let us pick what we wanted.”

The finished art was the ideal packaging for a record that sounded light years beyond D4’s previous recordings—still raw as hell, but unlike any big pop-punk record of the time.

“The guitars sounded like a safe falling down the stairs,” remembers Mike Rose, a veteran of several local bands, including the Dirty Hits, who was in high school when Midwestern Songs came out. “The vocals were at times an atonal distorted scream, and then melodic and catchy as hell. They found a way to be both tight and loose at the same time, following up playful samples and interludes with opening riffs and lines that grabbed you in an instant. The lyrics were witty and smart in a way I’d never encountered in melodic punk rock. Midwestern Songs changed my entire idea of what it could mean to be a punk band. It was like these guys were all in on a joke that I instantly knew I wanted to be in on too.”

To celebrate the release of the record, the band threw an invitation-only show on a Mississippi riverboat, with Lifter Puller opening. “As long as we got away from the shore, I thought we’d be okay,” says Funk.

“I figured we just needed to get halfway through before the wheels fell off,” says Pederson. “I mean, once we got that far, what were they going to do, turn the boat around?”

The crowd—loyal devotees old and new of the underground scene that birthed the band—drank the boat dry, but the wheels stayed on, for the most part. Soon after, D4 was packing venues like the Turf Club and First Avenue—places that they’d had a hard time being booked before.

Still, they didn’t try anything that didn’t come natural to them. “It never occurred to us that bands that were our contemporaries had agents or publicists,” says Funk.

“I would get calls for interviews and I’d say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do it, I gotta work,’” says Costello. “I didn’t know anybody who put ‘being in a band’ on their W-2.”

Package tours didn’t fit in with the distinctly naturalistic approach the band took to everything from their songwriting to their business. “We got offered Warped Tour but it didn’t seem fun,” says Morrisette. “I’d rather play rad tours with our friends to fewer people.”

“I’d put us up against any band of our era as far as diverse bills, playing with brother bands and sister bands,” says Costello.

While many of the band’s new contemporaries sold a lot more records, Dillinger Four has never broken up, never quit playing, and Midwestern Songs has a staying power and influence that’s far beyond many of those better selling and now forgotten records. And in the meantime, “success”—as fleeting as it’s been for many bands—is less important than staying power.

“Who knows if we’d made different business decisions if we’d be sitting here doing this interview,” says Funk. “Of course, we might be sitting on a yacht.”

“I get to hang out with my best friends and play awesome shows in front of awesome people,” says Morrisette. “After all this time, who wouldn’t want to still be doing that?”

D4th of July
With: Boris the Sprinkler, Off With Their Heads, Murf, Speedweed     
Where: Grumpy’s Bar & Grill (Downtown)
When: 2 p.m. Sat. June 30
Tickets: $20; more info here