Anti-Nostalgia: Philly punk vets Dead Milkmen keep looking forward through an array of side projects
When The Dead Milkmen reunited for good more than a decade ago, they could have chosen the option so many bands go with and become sort of a nostalgia act. Nobody would have faulted them for it. Those old songs, the ones people really go wild for, they’re inarguably perfect. So bloviate all day about the nature of nostalgia and authenticity, but it pays the bills.
But this is the Milkmen we’re talking about here! They weren’t some one-hit-wonders trying to recapture past glories. They never had the glory! Sure “Punk Rock Girl” landed then on MTV but watch those videos of them on “Downtown Julie Brown” and you’ll see a bunch of mischievous dorks who know that their dance cards might get punched soon and are going to make the most out of this moment. Which is to say: while they had a few years of pretty constant touring, they eventually came back to their day jobs.
This is a band that has always been moving forward, always trying to find new ways to express themselves. This was especially true when they first started and it was 1982 and only one of the members, drummer Dean Clean, had played in bands before. But it’s still true almost forty years later when you hear songs like “The Brutalist Beat” off of the most recent release, 2017’s Welcome to the End of the World, that owe just as much to new wave and industrial as they do punk rock.
Maybe this seems odd if you’re only familiar with the old stuff — it shouldn’t; they’ve been at this for a long time — but go see them live (seriously; their next gig happens in a month at Underground Arts) and it’ll make more sense. Sure, they still play the hits, but half the set is new songs, and if you’re lucky maybe they’ll throw in a relevant cover, like when they did supreme justice to the 1981 political anthem “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang” by Heaven 17 at Clark Park Fest a couple years back. The fact that singer Rodney Anonymous was sporting a shirt by industrial dance renegades Youth Code and that right after their set ended the park was swarmed by militant Christian protesters made the whole afternoon even more perfect.
What the Dead Milkmen did upon reforming was not picking up where they left off, since that was in many ways a disappointing ending full of contract disputes and health problems. Bassist Dave Blood was suffering from severe tendinitis that would make playing music next to impossible. The band broke up in 1995.
Following Blood’s death from suicide in 2004, the band reunited for two sold-out memorial shows at the Trocadero with Dan “Dandrew” Stevens filling in on bass. They wouldn’t play again for four more years. When they reformed for good, it was not as a legacy act, but as an active band that was recording and playing new songs. Some of that is obviously due to the personalities of those involved — which for the record, are strong — but it’s also a reflection of their spirit as constant and consistent creators.
The original members were always involved in different side projects. Joseph “Joe Jack Talcum” Genaro has been recording sad romantic folk songs — think the Milkmen’s “The Secret of Life” but just on acoustic guitar — for decades. He’s had a few different bands, including some with other members of the Dead Milkmen. Rodney “Anonymous” Linderman was in Philly favorite Burn Witch Burn and now does 7th Victim, an industrial duo. Before Dean “Clean” Sabatino was in instrumental surf rock outfit I Think Like Midnight with Genaro, he played in Baby Flamehead and the Big Mess Orchestra. And prior to being tapped to join the Milkmen, Dandrew was in West Philly’s garage punk freaks The Low Budgets with Joe.
There are countless more. Each of these bands, from the 80s to today, have been part of the Dead Milkmen’s musical legacy, and to know them is to better understand the Milkmen and their impact on the city.
Joe Jack Talcum
Joe Jack Talcum has been Joe Genaro’s alter ego for the past almost four decades. Under that name — and Jasper Thread, Jonk Provuc, Butterfly Fairweather, and a number of others — Genaro has crafted some of the best folk tunes this city has ever seen. Inspired by Bob Dylan and Daniel Johnston, both of whom he’s covered, Genaro’s songs are clever, sad, and achingly romantic. This is no surprise to anyone who’s paid any attention to the Dead Milkmen over the years, where Genaro’s songwriting has been on display in songs like “Punk Rock Girl,” “The Secret of Life”, and many, many others. But solo it all feels like it’s been boiled down to its very sincere and catchy essence.
Joe Jack has recorded and performed those songs with a number of different bands over the years. In the 80s, there was Ornamental Wigwam with Dave Blood. The 90s was Touch Me Zoo, which released a number of fantastic albums, and Butterfly Joe with Dean Clean from the Milkmen as well as a full band including trombone, accordion, and more. Brian from Touch Me Zoo joined Genaro’s next long-term project, The Town Managers, which eventually morphed into garage rockers The Low Budgets. I got to see that band a lot from 2000 to their breakup in 2007 and it was always an incredible and perfectly chaotic fun time. Genaro was on Farfisa organ for the Budgets and would always be somewhere near the front of the stage trying his best not to get knocked over while a million people were pushing their way to the front of the crowd to try and sing along. It ruled.
Around the time of the initial Milkmen reunion — to celebrate the life of Blood, who died in 2004 — Genaro also started playing out solo more often. He’s been a prolific songwriter and was self-releasing tapes of home recordings starting in the 80s. The first of two collections of those songs was released in 2005 and a split LP with Mischief Brew that included him and Erik Petersen covering each other’s songs came out in 2008.
More than a decade later and Joe Jack is still plugging along. In 2017 he toured Australia with fellow Milkman Dandrew Stevens under the portmanteau DanJo, since expanded to DanJoMar with the addition of drummer Marshall Fischer. He plays keyboards in I Think Like Midnight, an instrumental surf rock band, with Dean Sabatino from the Milkmen. More about them later.
There’s also a brand new tape of just Joe Jack Talcum solo tunes coming out on This & That Tapes in May. Asked why he reached out to Genaro, label head and local zine maker Joseph Carlough said, “The DIY spirit of his music was really cool to me and helped mold how I wanted my work to look, sound, and feel. When I thought about This & That Tapes, it felt important to me to keep it closely tied to Philly. And when I think of Philly and music, I think of Joe.”
Genaro’s website, jacktalcum.com, is an incredible resource of all things Milkmen and Joe Jack Talcum. His Bootleg of the Month section has live recordings going back to the early, early days of the band and stretching to the present day.
Rodney Linderman has always been this way. If you’ve seen the Dead Milkmen at any point over the past three plus decades, or just listened to the band, you know what I’m talking about. He’s loud, he’s brash, he’s political, he’s witty and clever. Did I mention loud? Just put on Big Lizard in My Backyard, the first Dead Milkmen album, and listen to Rodney give it his all on tracks like “Bitchin’ Camero” and “Tiny Town” and you’ll understand. You can hear that same glorious take-no-prisoners and give-no-shits Philadelphia approach on the most recent Milkmen release, the absolutely awesome Welcome to the End of the World EP that came out at the end of 2017.
Around the same time the Milkmen initially broke up, Rodney started Burn Witch Burn with a whole cast of characters including his wife Vienna. A bit more dark than the Milkmen — not surprising considering that the name was taken from a 1960s horror film whose tagline was “Do the undead demons of hell still arise to terrorize the world?” — their music, full of mandolins, violins, and even a hurdy gurdy, matched that mood perfectly.
After Burn Witch Burn, there was 25 Cromwell Street, and most recently 7th Victim, an industrial duo with Janet Bressler on vocals and Anonymous on synths, drum machines, and who knows what else. If you’ve gone to a Dead Milkmen show in the last decade, you know just how much Rodney loves industrial goth music. He’s usually wearing a VNV Nation or Angelspit shirt and is definitely going to tell you to listen to those bands during his stage banter. Sometimes he even changes the song lyrics — something he’s been doing throughout the history of the band and is always hilarious — to be about whatever industrial band he’s into at that moment.
Since reforming, the Milkmen have definitely moved in that direction. That’s not to say they’re an industrial band, more that the keyboards and beats have a certain sound and presence these days that they didn’t have before. Listen to “Only The Dead Get Off At Kymlinge” from the recent EP for a good example of that. There’s a direct correlation between all of Rodney’s knob twirling in the Milkmen with everything he’s doing in 7th Victim and vice versa.
On paper it might seem like there’s little in common between the instrumental surf rock stylings of I Think Like Midnight and the bombastic punk of the Dead Milkmen. But listen to the most recent I Think Like Midnight release Kompromat — or better yet, go see them live — and it’s clear that the two bands are obviously related. And I’m not just referring to the fact that half of I Think Like Midnight drummer Dean Sabatino and keyboardist Joe Genaro, are in the Dead Milkmen.
Just like with his main band, there’s a lot going on in I Think Like Midnight. There’s surf, of course, but there’s also elements of jazz, some punk, and definitely a touch of prog. This isn’t simple music, though it’s not difficult to listen to or enjoy.
A multi-instrumentalist who has put out a few solo instrumental albums, Sabatino was also in Baby Flamehead, The Big Mess Orchestra, and Butterfly Joe.
Baby Flamehead was around in the late 80s and put out one record, Life Sandwich, in 1990. If you look them up online, you’ll see them referred to as “indie folk” but there’s so much more going on than that. First of all, it’s very fun. This is much more than something you might hear at a coffee shop open mic. Secondly, it’s pretty weird. They used to cover the Action News theme. That level of weird. It’s great stuff and Sabatino recently posted that he unearthed an old promo cassette and was planning on putting it online so look out for that.
Big Mess Orchestra was … well, it wasn’t any more straightforward than Baby Flamehead or the Dead Milkmen, that’s for sure. Not just a clever name, the orchestra – most recently known as the Big Mess Cabaret – had an ever-revolving door of musicians and performers in its ranks including some of the other Milkmen. Known for its live performances, which an Inquirer review penned by Sara Sherr referred to perfectly as “garage theater,” the band also released two albums, one of them Christmas-themed.
When Dandrew Stevens first joined The Dead Milkmen it was stepping in for the Dave Blood memorial shows in 2004. It was a stressful and sad time for everyone involved and I can’t imagine they were thinking much about what the future held. But when the rest of the Milkmen decided to reunite for real, they already had someone who knew the songs and had performed them with the band.
Fast forward to 2019, and Dandrew has released two albums and a grip of singles over a decade with The Dead Milkmen. He hasn’t replaced Dave Blood, because nobody can replace Dave Blood, but he has become just as much of a member of the band as Rodney, Joe, and Dean.
Before the Milkmen came calling, Dandrew was a Low Budget alongside Joe Jack Talcum, Chris Peelout, and Steve Please. As mentioned earlier in the article, that band was incredible and just one of the finest from their generation of Philadelphia punk. He was also in the totally underrated surf punk band Farquar Muckenfuss who had one album, recorded by Genaro in 1998. Sense a theme there?
But before all that there was just Dan Stevens, young punk music nerd. In 1994, when he was 15 years old, Dandrew went to what was to be the last show Dave Blood ever played, the at-the-time final Dead Milkmen gig [read more about the Trocadero’s iconic calendar that fall in this 2015 article]. He never met Dave Schulthise, but in taking over his duties in the band and playing the notes he helped write, Dandrew has become close to his memory. Two years ago, he had a dream about Dave Blood that he decided to turn into a song for his solo project, St. Evens. As he wrote in the track description online: “… my position as his replacement in the band was once a source of anxiety for me. Not that I am analyzing this dream or anything here, but I do believe that our subconscious minds have a way of eventually working things out.”
The Dead Milkmen will play Underground Arts on Saturday, April 13th with Black Landlord, Mt. Vengeance, and The Spirit World. Tickets go on sale this Friday, March 8th, at noon, more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.