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Dillinger Escape Plan: Make or Break

Originally printed in Guitar World, February 2008

Ire Works could be the album that puts Dillinger Escape Plan over the top. If they don’t kill themselves first.

If suffering for your art is a worn-out cliché, no one’s told New Jersey’s Dillinger Escape Plan. Over the past 10 years, the band’s performances have become legendary for the self-inflicted injuries suffered by its members. Broken bones, bloody gashes and concussions are the norm. So fraught with peril are their shows that one of the first things guitarist Jeff Tuttle did after joining Dillinger in 2007 was purchase health insurance.

“I know the stories; I know the band; I know I’m going to be hurt,” he says. “There’s just no way around it.”

Call them insane, call them suicidal, call them out of control, but don’t call Dillinger Escape Plan lazy. The band’s members get hurt because they don’t know how to do anything but put 100 percent into every performance, says guitarist and founder Ben Weinman. “We let go completely, we don’t hold back. Sometimes, that leads to accidents. Most of the time, anyway.”

But there is more to the band than its zealously dangerous performances. Dillinger Escape Plan have pioneered “mathcore,” a style of extreme music that’s defined as much by its odd time signatures and jazzy, complicated structures as it is by its pure, unadulterated, hardcore brutality. Newcomers might think they’re listening to a bunch of hyperactive kids destroying a musical instrument store. More attentive listeners, however, will soon discover intricately constructed slices of angular, razor-sharp guitar riffs, polyrhythmic beats and surprisingly subtle layers of tone and musical texture. Chaotic? Yes. But also entirely calculated.

“Our music isn’t easy, and it’s never going to be mainstream,” Weinman says in a moment of understatement on par with “Houston, we have a problem.” “There are a lot of bands we like, bands who are just as aggressive, that we’ll never be able to tour with because we sound so completely different. We simply don’t fit in.”

Dillinger continue the tradition with Ire Works (Relapse), an album that, as far as Weinman is concerned, is the most important of their career. All bands say that, of course, but in this case, it’s probably true. Dillinger’s last album, Miss Machine, sold more than 80,000 copies, making it their best-selling record to date. That helped bring them mainstream media attention and critical acclaim. Unfortunately, it also created a rift among fans, many of whom chaffed at some of the more conventional—that is, listenable—elements that crept into the band’s songs.

Ire Works is also the first time that Weinman has written an entire album for the band without the assistance of drummer Chris Pennie, who left earlier this year to join Coheed and Cambria. And while it is his chance to shine as a songwriter, it includes the very real chance of personal failure.

It’s a lot for any band to absorb, and there’s no telling whether the record will build on Miss Machine’s momentum or kill it completely. “Every record’s important,” Weinman says. “Each one determines the future and your band’s relevance. If nobody cares, you’ve got to make some serious decisions.”

In Dillinger’s case, chances are good that someone will care. Over the past eight years, the band has sold a combined total of more than a quarter of a million albums. That’s hardly a Metallica-sized number, but it’s respectable for a band that, Weinman says, marked its first big milestone when it signed a deal with “a tiny grindcore label who’s biggest band until then had sold only 5,000 records.”

So call it grass-roots success. On one hand, that’s an admirable accomplishment for any band dreaming of longevity. With a career built on a foundation of rabid fan loyalty—the grumbles surrounding Miss Machine notwithstanding—the members of Dillinger know that they’ll always find a place to play, they’ll always sell their merch and someone out there will always want to listen to their music. It’s a far cry from the flash-in-the-pan success of groups like Limp Bizkit who, despite selling millions of records and playing to sold-out stadiums, achieved lasting notoriety as the punch line to “where are they now” jokes. Or, as Weinman so philosophically puts it, “Your band might have a million friends on MySpace, but how many of them will come to your show?”

But underground success also means no fancy cars, big houses or lines of designer clothing. Weinman says that the band has accepted the idea of never going mainstream and doesn’t care about the traditional trappings of rock stardom. But there are still concerns like dinner and rent: for many bands, allegiance to the DIY ethic also means a steady diet of ramen noodles and a room in their parents’ basements.

“Believe me, we think about the future, especially as we get older,” says the guitarist. “I’d like music to be my only career; no one wants to work a day job. Our trick is figuring out how to keep the band moving forward, keep it growing, but not lose sight of what’s important on a personal and artistic level.”

And in a roundabout way, this takes us right back to the band members’ tendency toward breaking themselves. As Weinman says, it’s all about dedication—to their art, to their fans and, most of all, to themselves. Talk is cheap; if putting on a good show is that important to you, then you’d better be prepared to bleed for it. “There are a lot of legends out there about this band,” says Tuttle, who was a fan even before joining. “Most of them are true.”

For instance, when Weinman felt a pain in his shoulder, he assumed that he pulled a muscle and continued playing shows. Then he discovered that he’d actually torn his rotator cuff. Still, he kept playing, until the pain was so great he finally gave in and got surgery. “That was supposed to keep me out for a year, but I went back to touring in about six months,” he says. “Which was probably pretty stupid. I’ve got this thing where I can’t stand the thought of letting people down. That’s what I’d be doing if I took more time off to heal.”

It can become a trap, he says. The guitarist once played a show while suffering two herniated disks and broken bone in his neck, plus a herniated disk in his back. “Ten years ago, we started acting like this onstage, and now people expect me to jump around like a monkey. It’s become an important part of our show, but sometimes I envy those guys who are allowed to heal up and just concentrate on the music.”

He’s silent for a moment. “Did you know there’s no fluid in my neck vertebra? I can’t move it around the way I used to, no matter how hard I try.”

Earlier this year, Dillinger Escape Plan’s drummer, cofounder and cowriter Chris Pennie decided to join progressive space-rockers Coheed and Cambria. Fans were shocked when the news hit the internet. So were the guys in Dillinger.

“I didn’t find out about it until [singer] Greg [Puciato] sent me a link to the announcement,” Weinman says. “First, Chris was just helping Coheed and Cambria by sitting in on drums, and then, the next thing I knew, he was joining their band.”

Weinman can’t help pointing out that Pennie never actually played on Coheed’s new record; that gig went to Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins. “Chris’ll end up playing live for them, I guess,” he says. “He had always assured us that we were his priority. Then, one day, he stopped talking to us and we ended up hearing from a lawyer. Even though it was a tough situation, I think we’re better off. I hope he’s better off, too—he’s a phenomenal drummer and deserves success.”

Dillinger replaced Pennie with Gil Sharone, who previously played for avant-garde band Stolen Babies. Dillinger sent him a tape so he could learn the parts, but Weinman had never actually heard him play until three days before going into the studio to record Ire Works. “There was some danger there, sure,” he says. “But it worked out great, obviously, and I feel like the band’s the best it’s ever been.”

Lineup changes aren’t new to Dillinger. The band formed in 1996 when members of the hardcore act Arcane—vocalist Dimitri Minakakis, guitarists Weinman and Derek Brantley, drummer Pennie and bassist Adam Doll—recorded a demo for Now or Never Records under the name Dillinger Escape Plan. Shortly thereafter, John Fulton replaced Brantley, officially kicking off the band’s lifelong game of musical chairs.

Dillinger’s most tragic loss came on the heels of their 1999 full-length debut, Calculating Infinity. Doll was involved in a car accident and was paralyzed from the chest down. The band made the difficult decision to keep going, deciding that “if Adam did get better, we wanted him to have something to come back to,” Weinman says. Jeff Wood from New York thrash act M.O.D. took over bass duties, though Liam Wilson, of the band Starkweather, in turn, eventually replaced him.

After wrapping up the sessions for Calculating Infinity, Dillinger suffered a dual blow with the loss of their guitarist, John Fulton, and their vocalist, Dimitri Minakakis. The band quickly replaced Fulton with Jesuit axman Brian Benoit, but finding a new singer required extra effort. There’s nothing easy about becoming the face of a band like Dillinger Escape Plan, and Weinman wanted to avoid hiring someone who he’d end up having to replace again.

Deciding to take advantage of the internet, the band posted an instrumental version of its song “43% Burnt” on its web site and invited prospective singers to submit their own versions of the track. One of the best entries came from Greg Puciato, who impressed Dillinger with his broad vocal abilities and heated intensity. After two practices, they invited him to join up.

Dillinger’s membership problems continued in 2004 when guitarist Brian Benoit was forced into early retirement by nerve damage to his left hand. He was replaced on tour by James Love, formerly of the pop-punk band Fenix*TX. When it became apparent that Benoit was gone for good, Dillinger hired Jeff Tuttle, who the band found out about via a mutual friend. They took Tuttle’s band out on the road for a month, “to scout me out,” Tuttle says. “It took another year before they called me to say that I was hired. I was actually surprised. In the music industry, you’ve got a lot of people telling you a lot of different things. And most of the time they never pan out.”

Tuttle knew exactly what to expect when he joined, and he was confident of his ability to keep up both musically and physically. At the same time, he was concerned about joining such an established act. He was also worried about Dillinger’s willingness to let him contribute as more than just a hired hand. His fears, he says, were quickly forgotten. “From day one, they told me that if I wanted to be irreplaceable in the band, I’d have to make myself irreplaceable,” Tuttle says. “So that’s what I’ve tried to do. I’m not just along for the ride; I’m coming into something that’s become legendary, and I feel compelled to up the ante.”

Tuttle’s says Dillinger greeted his arrival with smiles and encouragement, but he also says that it wasn’t long before things turned dicey. “I was hazed big time,” he says, laughing. “They posted my phone number on their MySpace page. I was getting calls from people who told me that Greg told them to say, ‘Bitch, I’m the boss!’ ” Shortly afterward, Tuttle had the statement emblazoned on his ESP LTD.

Puciato, of course, claimed no prior knowledge, and the calls continued for more than three weeks. “It was cool, though. I didn’t care,” Tuttle says. “I love talking to the fans when they call. I can talk forever. In fact, they’re more likely to hang up on me than I am on them.”

Weinman admits that the lineup changes are enough to leave most people—himself included—a little dizzy. (For those trying to keep score at home, Dillinger Escape Plan’s current lineup features guitarists Weinman—the only original member—and Tuttle, bassist Liam Wilson, vocalist Greg Puciato and drummer Gil Sharone.) Few groups can limp forward after replacing even one guitarist. But bringing in multiple guitarists, plus drummers, bass players and singers? That’s generally a recipe for disaster. “It’s the hardest thing about this band,” he says. “I feel like we have to move backward in order to move forward. I’ve taught these songs to so many people, I’ve practiced them from scratch a million times.

“You never know if they’re going to be the right person, you’ve just got to throw them into the fire. Almost no one we’ve brought in has been immediately right for the job. When Gil joined, he was a great drummer, but he’d never played something that was 400 beats per minute. Brian, he’d never played more than four power chords in his old group. And the first time Greg went onstage, he was shaking like a leaf! But that dude put on the best show ever. This band has become such a monster of its own, it’s great to see new people get absorbed by it.”

Weinman knows how difficult a task it can be to learn Dillinger’s complex arrangements. Being a self-described perfectionist and slave driver, he’s devised an effective method for getting everyone up to speed. “We created a chart,” he says. “Labeled down the side are every song the band plays, and labeled across the top are different categories: ‘Not Embarrassing,’ ‘Dillinger Level,’ ‘Kicking Ass’ and ‘Bow to Us!’ Whenever someone new comes in, we won’t play live until we’ve checked every column for every song.”

Today, it’s sometimes hard to fully appreciate how different the musical landscape was 10 years ago. Back then, there was no YouTube or MySpace. The very notion of using the internet to promote a band would have seemed like science fiction; MP3s and internet radio were still relatively new. Ozzfest was still in its infancy, and metal bands had just begun to garner any sort of mainstream acceptance, much less actual respect.

At the time, underground bands still relied on word of mouth, mix tapes, and local ’zines to promote their music. Kids would staple photocopied fliers all around town to announce gigs.

For bands like Dillinger Escape Plan, who were underground by even the underground’s standards, the road was particularly difficult to travel. However, they landed gigs playing at house parties and barbecues, as well as small shows put together by a tightly knit network of hardcore and post-hardcore fans who were used to doing everything themselves. It was DIY at its finest, and Dillinger took advantage of whatever resources were available.

Things began to take off for the band when Weinman and a friend used an illegal phone dialer and a payphone to make calls up and down the east coast. The result was their first tour, which lasted two weeks. It was hardly what you’d call glamorous; Weinman recalls sleeping in a 24-hour Kmart when no one was around to offer crash space. Eventually, contacts on the road lead to more and, relatively speaking, better gigs.

“We played an auto-body shop once,” he remembers. “We were on this floor just covered with grease stains, surrounded by kids. Afterward, this guy from Philly came up to us and said, ‘A piece of ceiling broke and hit me on the head. That was the most amazing show I’ve ever seen! You’ve got to play at my place.’ ”

“His place” was Stalag 13 in West Philadelphia. Pretty much just a squat, the venue was nonetheless a notorious proving ground for up and coming metal and hardcore groups. Dillinger gladly set up a gig, along with the band Brutal Truth. “It was amazing,” Weinman says. “The lights were off, and there was only a strobe going the whole time. Kids were all around us, and I swear, it was the scariest thing ever. For us, too.”

Eventually, tours with Jesuit and mathcore act Botch lead to time out on the road with Converge, and the rest, says Weinman, is history. “It was just a gradual thing. There wasn’t one moment where we suddenly burst out on the scene. Maybe that happens for bands now, but back then, it was slow and steady. You paid your dues.”

As you read this, Weinman, Tuttle and the rest of Dillinger Escape Plan are supposed to be on tour. It would have been Tuttle’s first time out with the band—his first opportunity to demonstrate that he’s got what it takes to put on the kind of show that fans have come to expect. Unfortunately, Weinman is hobbling around on crutches, his foot in a cast. He broke it during a video shoot when his guitar strap snapped and his instrument crashed down on him. Despite his reputation for never holding back, this time the guitarist has decided to let himself heal up properly before hitting the road.

“It’s disappointing,” Weinman says, “but it’s actually not so terrible. We needed more practice with the new guys, anyway, and it moves the tour closer to the record release date.”

These are practical concerns for a band that, to many, seems anything but practical, but Weinman insists Dillinger are in it for the long haul. “We never had any idea that the band could be this big, or that we could do it for a living,” he says. “I was in school for psychology—I was going to get my masters. But now, we’re a career band. Assuming we don’t accidentally kill ourselves, we’re going to be around for a long time.”