Sometimes Chaotic, Often Pugnacious, The Dwarves 'Don't Have To Put On An Act'
"The Dwarves are a band out of time," muses Blag Dahlia, the punk group's singer. "We don’t make any sense commercially and we don’t make any sense at all except on our own terms."
Dahlia — born Paul Cafaro 50 years ago — took his all-too-fitting punk moniker from a victim of a gruesome murder in the '40s. The woman, Elizabeth Short, was dubbed the Black Dahlia by a sensationalistic press.
The Dwarves have been making albums for 31 years, starting with “Horror Stories,” and continuing through the 2013 album, “The Dwarves Are Younger & Even Better Looking,” and the 2014 album “The Dwarves Invented Rock & Roll.”
But the band — which plays Somerville’s Thunder Road club with the Upper Crust and two other groups on Sunday, June 11 — remain on the outer edges of most fans’ consciousnesses. As in: Wasn’t that the band that had a masked, sometimes naked guitarist called HeWhoCannotBeNamed? The guy who faked his own death and conned their record label into putting out a solemn announcement to that effect?
Yes, that was the Dwarves. (The stunt prompted their dismissal from their label, Sub Pop.)
“We always existed in a netherworld of punk rock that’s just different than anyone else,” Dahlia says. “From the beginning, it was this strange amalgam of music. The first scene to pick up on us of any consequence was the grunge scene, where we were the token punk band. People hadn’t seen a punk band for a few years and everyone was going slow and sludgy, so they saw us and it was something different.”
The Dwarves took shape outside Chicago. They were high school friends who called themselves the Suburban Nightmare. “We started out in the '80s being a garage band into '60s garage rock,” says Dahlia on the phone, coincidentally on a tour stop in his old hometown. “We put on paisley and a pair of Beatles boots and thought we could fit in. But we were punks. We weren’t reverent enough and we liked fast, hard stuff that sounded new. We got thrown out of every club and would get in a fight with whoever was playing with us or putting on the show. It was always a mess. Being in the Dwarves, at some point we realized, ‘Oh no, we’re a punk band’ and we never looked back.”
They relocated to San Francisco. As grunge hit the mainstream in the early '90s, the Dwarves — who have at least 18 former members — got semi-adopted by that crowd and played gigs with Nirvana. But, Dahlia says there was a disconnect. "To the grunge people, we’re a punk band, to the punk people, we’re a grunge band. We’re just one of the bands that didn’t join in all the reindeer games."
Still, they thought they, too, might be on the verge of signing with a major label. It was not to be.
There were probably numerous reasons for this, but Dahlia cites one particular incident. They were headlining a showcase gig in New York in front of fans and record company executives. “Everybody was there. I was up there on stage thinking, ‘This is our time, we’re finally going to do this!’ and I look over to my right and there’s my guitar player, HeWhoCannotBeNamed, with his mask on and this crazy look on his face. He’s naked on top of a bunch of speakers, peeing on a bunch of record executives in the audience.”
And, so Dahlia resigned himself: “This will never happen. There is no way. The world was not ready for us.”
The Dwarves got no major label deal and have been with countless indie labels over the years.
A few things you should know before going to the Dwarves show Sunday:
Do they have a local connection?
Yes, Dahlia lived on Queensberry Street in Boston from 1984 to 1985. He worked at MIT, cleaning toilets. "A 'Good Will Hunting' type thing," Dahlia says.
Is the band name offensive?
No, Dahlia says. "The Dwarves is kind of an homage to those '60s bands with names like the Troggs and the Seeds and the Stooges. Really basic."
Did they ever work with a dwarf?
Yes. The late actor Bobby Faust (in the movies “Street Trash,” “God Is on Their Side” and “Dwarf”) appeared in the Dwarves videos and on album covers. There’s no dwarf now, though. “Bobby is irreplaceable!” Dahlia says.
There are at least 18 ex-Dwarves. Who's part of the band these days?
Bassist Rex Everything (that’s Nick Oliveri, ex-Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age), guitarist The Prince of Darkness and new drummer Hunter Down, replacing Dutch Ovens. And, of course, there’s HeWho. Maybe. Will he be there? "I’m trying to get him to go to Boston," Dahlia says. "He’s kind of got his own agenda that nobody else in the band could get away with, but he’s such an icon."
Should you be afraid at a Dwarves show?
“I hope so,” says Dahlia. “I think fear should always be part of your experience at a rock ‘n’ roll show. If you’re a real rock 'n' roll show there should be a feeling of ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ At a Dwarves show, you might see 99 out of 100 and you’re [seeing us] kicking ass and people are stage diving, people jumping around. But every time I think, 'It's pretty safe now and I know what's going to happen,' something crazy happens again."
Will any Dwarves be naked at Thunder Road?
In any universe, the Dwarves music is subversive, but Dahlia says it’s also “just us. How do we keep doing it? Because this is real, because we mean it. We don’t have to put on an act to do it. It occurs naturally.”
There is, given the nature of the Dwarves, the potentially naked factor. “HeWho is the closest to naked,” explains Dahlia. “I love being naked. I was naked on the last record we did for Fat Wreck Chords about three or four years ago. You never know when I’ll be naked. If there’s a female who’s aggressive enough and ripping my clothes off, they’ll come off.”
The Dwarves shows are not for the timid. Altercations are not uncommon. And this goes way back.
Dahlia says when the band was playing in Australia recently one of the Dwarves had a friend who was talking to Green Day’s touring guitarist Jason White, who told him Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong had said, ‘I’ve never been so scared as I was at a Dwarves show.’ F---, man that was 30 years ago! People still remember that?!"
"The Dwarves has a legend or ethos around it," Dahlia says. "It has to do with violence at our shows. It has to do with tales of people who were members of the band who got strung out, people involved tangentially or sometimes in the middle of it."
The Dwarves’ songs tend to be short, fast, brutal, loud and hooky, trafficking in imagery that can be sexual, horrific, comic or some combination thereof. They follow in the proud and sleazy tradition of the Cramps, the Anti-Nowhere League, the Misfits, G.G. Allin and GWAR. As a kid, Dahlia saw the Cramps many times and cites them as a primary influence. “Anything that’s part of the American pop culture canon is fodder for me,” says Dahlia. “And I love horror.”
And it shows. Here are a few of their song's topics: “We Must Have Blood,” (going on a murder spree in Texas), “Back Seat of My Car,” (passed out in the back of the car, hoping for sex), “Trailer Trash” (falling for a meth-addled nymphomaniac who lives in said park and is blown away in a tornado), “Kings of the World” (All hail Satan!), “Free Cocaine” (self-explanatory) and “Armageddon Party” (welcoming the end of the world). They sampled Charles Manson for use in “Speed Demon.”
“There’s a sleazy undercurrent,” Dahlia says about the Dwarves’ music, which has taken a Ramones bent of late. “We’ve certainly done our share of sleazy things. Various guys in the band did extremely sleazy s--- and other guys in the band drank chamomile tea and meditated. It ran the gamut. As for me, I put most of the sleaziness into the music itself and figured people would get that joke. We’re nice guys. The s--- is in the music.”
“People have a really hard time [understanding it] when a number of things are at work at once. I’m very into songcraft and I’m into record production, but if you went to see us live you probably wouldn’t pick up on either of those things. You’d go, ‘These guys can’t produce a record or write a song.’ ”
As for the future of the Dwarves, they have an EP, “Julio,” coming in October and an album called “Take Back the Night,” next February.
“I’m real excited about them,” says Dahlia, of the new music. “I don’t see any other punk band that feels that way. I see guys in old punk bands and they’re just playing their first record [in concert]. Whereas, I still love my first record, but I love my new ones, too, and I think they stand up against the old ones. I’m bullish on the prospects of the Dwarves. We’ll keep knocking it out, not giving a f---.”