Dylan Kussman

Sometimes life and interviews take weird twists. This interview was meant to be about Dylan Kussman, the actor, screenwriter, and bandleader. He’s moved back to Chattanooga, gotten the band back together and is playing a cool benefit on September 1 at the Palace Theater downtown… and it is about that… and the Beatles and me and my family and how to have a serious meta moment while working on a major motion picture. I tried to put this is some kind of order, being a professional writer and all, but I decided that the organic vibe of how it came out reads better than anything I could pull together. Enjoy.

So, are you back?

I am back. I moved back in the summer of 2017. I lived here from 2008 to 2010 and the Dylan Kussman Band, through that two-year period, was me and Terry Clouse on bass, Scott Allison on guitar, and Calvin Steele on drums. I moved back to Los Angeles in 2010. I moved back here in summer of this last year [2017] and now the band is coming back together, with me on rhythm guitar, singing, and writing most of the material. Again, Terry Clouse is on bass and Scott Allison is on guitar. On drums, we have Jo Whitaker. Eric Young is on keyboards and Kathy Webb is on backing vocals. It’s a really talented band. It’s a bigger band. It’s a six-person band, instead of a four. The sound is big…

Thicker?

Yeah. I’ve never played with a keyboard player before and never had a backing singer before. It’s changing the dynamics of the songs. It’s affecting the arrangements. It’s affecting the way the whole band feels.

Totally vague statement: I was sitting with a friend of mine two days ago. We were talking music, talking about bands, and he brought up the fact that Greg Hawkes had ended up playing with other acts after The Cars called it quits. Now, I have this whole series of things to go back and listen to… Greg Hawkes was such a big part of the sound of The Cars and the whole sound of The Cars was really an era-defining thing. I think many people wrongly malign keyboards.

It’s so funny that you bring up The Cars because we are working up a cover of “Let’s Go.” I grew up with The Cars, too. As soon as I knew we had a keyboardist, I said, “Let’s do ‘Let’s Go.’” And we have been, and it’s been really fun. It’s super because it’s suddenly there.

It’s one of those songs that makes me stop on infomercials. If I’m flipping through channels and I come up on the thirty-minute Midnight Special infomercial and Ben Orr’s there doing “Let’s Go,” I’m stopping and getting thirty seconds of that.

(both laugh)

I like the way the Facebook page puts it: “We exist when we want to.”

I had to say that just as a disclaimer, because we existed for two years and put out a recording those first two years I was here and then we’ve been off while I’ve been out in Los Angeles. So, the band has been weaving its way back into existence. It’s been nice to have Terry and Scott with me as core members through both iterations of the band.

I don’t know a lot about Scott, but you could do a lot worse for a bass player than Terry.

I hate to brag on him but I think he is the best bass player in the city. I hate to brag on him… but I believe it.

I will if you won’t, so…

(laughs) Although I saw Danimal (Pinson) with Strung Like a Horse at The Signal two weeks ago… that guy is good. That is a good band right now. I know that they had another bass player before him, who I never got to see, but I heard he was great, too. That guy Danimal, put on a great show. So did the whole band. It was an amazing show.

There are a lot of different acts and venues now than there were eight years ago.

Yeah, it feels like there’s a real vibrant scene.

Yeah, we have our own version of Boston’s The Big Dig going out here, trying to reconstruct downtown. I would hope that we would at least end up with some good acts and venues in exchange… you know, the Walker Theater has reopened over at the Memorial …

Songbirds, a real premier venue. I guess Junior Brown’s going to be there in November.

I remember when Junior Brown played the Folk Festival and freaked everybody out. They didn’t know what to do with that.

(Both laugh)

It was like if the Reverend Horton Heat had been invited to religious night at Riverbend. They wouldn’t have any idea of what to do.




Man, that guy should just be welcome anywhere, any festival, any stage. Just give Junior Brown the stage and let him play. Whatever. He’s that good. To me, he crosses over all musical boundaries.

I think that once you build your own instrument, it’s just go for it. Whatever you got, let’s hear it.

He did one of the best Jimi Hendrix covers I’ve ever seen by anyone ever live when I saw him in Los Angeles once. Just note-for-note and with the feel, too. He’s just amazing. He’s a transcendent talent.

I wanted to ask you… you said you’re writing most of the material now. I mean, what I write now is different from what I wrote ten years ago. What do you feel like the music is like now?

Well, hopefully, going forward the material I write will be for this band. I love having a female vocalist. I’d love to write some more keyboard-centered stuff, pull away from the guitar-centered stuff. More female-vocalist centered stuff. Right now, we’re working up a duet, a new song, which was really built for me and Kathy to sing. Now, Scott is singing a third part and Eric is flirting with a fourth. There’s an opportunity, perhaps, as we go forward, as we continue to gel… again, we’ve only been playing the past few months. This is going to be our first live performance. So we’re going to get a real taste of what we feel like and what we sound like in front of a live audience real soon. But, going back to what we were talking about, there’s the potential for a four-part harmony with this band. That would be amazing.

As long as no one goes CSN&Y and decides to kill one another…

Of course, of course. We don’t want any murder. You don’t want any homicide in your band. Things are tense enough. (both laugh)

It’s hard to balance the upside of publicity with the downside of murder, you know?

Right.

So, you’re talking about this first time, your first gig. What’s it all about?

When we decided as a group to get out and play live, see who we are, we knew we wanted to play The Palace Theater. I had a movie I directed that played there a couple of months ago.

C’mon. Give me the name.

“Wrestling Jerusalem.” That was a real good experience. Rose, who runs the place, is just awesome, an advocate for artists and for music and for film. So, we said let’s do a show there and what are the dates they have available and what dates do we have available. Okay – September 1. It all lined up. When we said September 1 is going to be the show, Scott Allison, who always tends to think this way… he is always thinking about things bigger than the music… he said, “You know, September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. The show’s September 1. Why don’t we make the show a benefit performance for a non-profit that dedicated to preventing suicide? That’s a relevant topic.” I said, “That’s a great idea.” So we approached Rick Rushing and the Blues Strangers to see if they would open for us. Then we asked singer/songwriter Dana Rogers, who I love, a dear friend, if she would come and play in the lobby before the show started and make it a real evening of music, dedicated to letting everyone know that no one’s alone and there’s a support system. The whole night is a benefit to raise money for this Philadelphia-based non-profit called The Buddy Project. It’s an app, it’s a movement dedicated to pairing up people who are feeling down, kind of linking up people who are feeling that way and creating more support networks for people with people they can communicate with, who may be on the same wavelength, who can understand and empathize. It just seemed like a real worthwhile organization. So we said, “That’s what it’s going to be” and that’s what it’s become. We recently lost A. Hunter White in tragic fashion. It feels like an issue that is near and dear to the hearts of a lot of musicians in this community. I personally did not know Hunter White, so I can’t speak to it from a personal place. A lot of factors came together to make it all relevant. Then Kathy, who likes to point out what I’ve done with my life on occasion, said, “You know, the movie for which you are most famous – ‘Dead Poets Society’ – dealt very intimately with a suicide and the star of that movie committed suicide.” What, about a year ago?

2014.

Suicide has touched me in that way and in others. It feels like the more people we talk about it with, the more people have a story.

It feels to me like all those stories were there and we just didn’t want to talk about it, that they were just waiting for someone to say, “Hey, I’ve been there. I understand or I want to understand. I want to help.” As soon as someone says that, it seems like there is a huge backlog of stories … now, suicide is skyrocketing in veterans and I worry that I’m going to get on Facebook and see some of friends I served with are gone by their own hands… I’m glad to see something like [this benefit]. Good on you guys. Good on everyone involved.

The Buddy Project is one of many nationwide organizations that have dedicated themselves to addressing the problem and trying to help. It seemed like a worthwhile one. The girl who started it is a real go-getter, Gabby Frost…

That sounds like a soap opera name.

(Both laugh)

“This week on ‘Days of Our Lives’…”

So, tell me what you’ve been doing since 2010. Have you been writing for Enigma this whole time?

(laughs) It’s been very, very sporadic. I tried to go back to school and get a law degree and ran out of cash one semester short of my bachelor’s.

Oh, wow.

My wife’s health, unfortunately, has worsened.

Sorry to hear that.

But, we had our baby boy, Dan, in 2010.

Yep, I remember that.

He’s the absolute best.

Oh good.

So we home school him and get Red to her doctors. I sit around and champion bands that nobody wanted to listen to in the first place.

(laughs) Nothing’s changed there.

Yeah. I’m on the way over here, The Hooters’ “And We Danced” comes on, and I’m 17 again. In addition, if you ever need to do 90 to get here from Red Bank – not that I would ever do that, officers of the law …

Never ever.

But if one needed to, going immediately from The Hooters to Buckcherry’s “Lit Up,” that works for fifth gear. That’s good stuff… you know, it’s good to talk to you because you’ve been gone… it’s like getting fatter: you look at yourself in the mirror every day and you don’t see that wrinkle or that extra five pounds. I’ll be honest; I’ve become numb to it [changes in downtown and in Chattanooga in general]. I’m isolated out in Red Bank. Got a wife and kid. We’re poor. We don’t get out much. I thought you and I would be like two strangers to the city doing an interview, because of how much I haven’t gotten out into it and how long you have been away. This all started years ago. I mean, I got out of the Marine Corps where Coolidge Park is. The Marine Reserve Station was there, to give you an idea of how much no one wanted this area, and I try to keep that in mind when I look around at all the changes here… but anyway I write a bit, raise Cain. Wrote for some online stuff. And I had a few people, evidently, who read it.

Yeah.

Because I’ve had people come up to me, like, “Write some more.” Okay, then. (laughs) I didn’t know anybody cared… I’m joking, but not really.

Yeah, write more stuff. We need you. Write some more album reviews.

It just popped into my head: listening to Alice in Chains’ “Black Turns to Blue” and saying to myself, “I don’t know if anyone will buy this.” But I thought “King Animal” by Soundgarden and “Black Turns to Blue” by Alice In Chains were really good returns to form. And that sadly ties in once again to what we were just talking about. You know, Chris Cornell …




Yep. There you go.

…one of the most striking, talented people on the planet just runs out of juice. Layne Staley as well, though it was a slower, longer form of it.

Anthony Bourdain as well.

Yeah, Tony Bourdain. Just done.

Another great writer. Did you ever read his “Kitchen Confidential?”

Absolutely.

That guy could write.

It was set in a different environment than “Fear and Loathing,” but it’s really the same thing. It was, “Here’s what I’m in the middle of and I don’t look at it like everyone else does. Or maybe I’m willing to tell you what no one else wants to say.”

Right.

I thought that Hunter, had he been around for it, would have really dug that book. It was no holds barred, no prisoners. Hunter went through the Hells Angels gig, knowing that he’d never be able to hang out with them. He went through covering the Democratic campaign trail…

“Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.”

…knowing he was done with that. And I don’t think he ever went back to Las Vegas.

I was just telling someone about the book written by the guy who was his Samoan lawyer in the book, Oscar Zeta Acosta. Have you ever read “Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo?”

Yes!

I just recommended it to someone the other day. I told him, “You’ve got to read this.”

He was just as strange as Hunter was. Birds of a feather…

My favorite stuff of yours was always those album reviews. You’d get your meat hooks into an album and just write a whole column. I felt like I was listening to the album and just getting your gut-level, honest reaction to it track by track and your impression of the band and where you thought the band was at. Don’t have a lot of that locally, if any. I don’t know that we have any of it. You’re not writing it. I looked forward to them.

I had a good time with it and it sounds like a good time should be had again. I thought I could bring two things to the table: I could go find bands that no one had heard of and I would talk to you about something I liked. There are plenty of writers who are out there to tell you what is horrible. You hear that enough every day. I want to tell you about something you will want to pick up and listen to … but enough me. I’ve got ego for years but enough me. (laughs) Back to you. I saw this on IMDB. What the hell is a Writer Tech? I was a stagehand. I’ve been a sound tech, a light tech, a mic tech. What is a Writer Tech?

Writer Tech is the name of my character in “The Mummy.”

See, I’ve been waiting for it to come on something I can watch at the house. I apologize.

I also have a “Screenplay by” credit on the movie.

That’s what I thought.

I have two credits on the movie. One was as a screenwriter because I was on set as an on set production writer for six months of the shoot in London and Namibia. Early on in the shoot, we had written a scene with a doctor and a nurse. The scene was written with characters names just being doctor, nurse, doctor, nurse…

Sure.

And the director said, “Would you please name those characters? Because we are going into casting and we’d like for those characters to have names. Just name them Nurse Ratched and Dr. Kussman.” To which I responded, “Does that mean I’m going to be in the movie?” To which the director replied, “Ha ha, no.” About a month or two after that, the director came to the set and he was looking at me funny. I look up and he says. “’Dead Poets Society’ was on my hotel TV last night” and I went, “Oh.” I had just been a writer to him that whole time. And then he goes, “Yeah. You’re going to be in my movie. I’m going to make you one of the guys in Prodigium.” I got cast and I was on set for about a week in simultaneous functions as production writer and actor playing Writer Tech guy. There are shots in the movie where I’m sitting in front of a computer as Writer Tech where I am literally working on the scene we are shooting. I had my laptop there and I’d be typing in the rewrites for the day while I was also being this Writer Tech guy in the scene …

Nice.

…which is a real meta kind of moment. I’m acting in a movie that I am now writing the part that I am acting.

Did you run out and get a tattoo of Ouroboros on your arm, you know, eating your own tail? (both laugh) That would be awesome. I’m serious. I know I’m the last person on earth who hasn’t seen it but those are just the vagaries of who I am. I saw that when I was leaving the house and was like what is that. I’ve been about every type of tech there is and thought that was a new one. Instead, I show how ignorant I am. Awesome… let’s circle back around as my addled mind allows. What time is this shindig on the first?

Doors are at 7pm. Dana will start shortly after that. Rick Rushing will be on at eight and we should be coming on around nine.

How’s the family?

They’re all good. My son’s started first grade. He’s happy. I’m teaching Shakespeare acting at Chattanooga State. I did that last spring and I think I might be doing it again this spring. I’m also teaching a film production class this fall. I’ve been teaching on camera acting lessons here for the past couple of months. I’m teaching. Son’s doing well. Wife’s doing well. Everything is good with us. No complaints.

You had a web series going a bit back.

Yes, I did.

Did you meld your acting and your music? Did you do any music for your series?

I did not. I got the music done by an A-list composer friend of mine by the name of Joe Kraemer. He scored “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” recently. He’s in a lot of big time film composition and he agreed, as my friend, to do the music for “The Steps,” so of course I did not say no. That was a really amazing time here in Chattanooga, when I did that first season set here, in 2008-2009. We got a grant from the CreateHere foundation to finish up that first season. We did ten episodes. And then, based on that, we raised money to do a season two once I moved back to L.A. where I basically set the second season of the show in Los Angeles. So now, it’s a two-season story arc. You can watch both seasons on YouTube in the course of about two hours.

You said earlier you were writing for the band now. Explain what you mean by that.

I’m early on in the process because the band just came together in this formation fairly recently. So, most of the songs we’ll be playing on the first are songs I’ve been writing over the past many years. I’ve got a back catalogue of 35-40 songs and we’re learning those. One of the songs that I recently wrote for the band, and that we recorded recently as well, just demands two voices. It’s about a relationship and it demands two voices. I’m not writing the piano parts or the keyboard parts for Eric Young. He’s writing them. So he’s filling in the music. Adjustments are being made. When you’re in a music collective, if you’re listening and you’re not out there to dictate to the band, “Play an A chord here. Then go to the C and the D …” and instead you play through the songs a number of times and listen to how the other people play and you end up changing how you play. That’s the kind of bandleader I am. I am much more collaborative. I come from an acting/theater/film-making background, which is extremely collaborative. I’m interested in listening to other musician’s contributions, especially musicians who are better trained than I am.

Do you find the songwriting now is more collaborative than in the first incarnation of the band?

Songwriting is kind of a dictatorship. I tend to write alone. We might come up with a riff or a groove as a band but in terms of crafting it into a song – bridge, verse, chorus – a lot of times, that’s done in a dark room, which I’m sure Chris Cornell, would agree with were he here. Soundgarden would execute his songs but those songs were created in dark, lonely places. We’re not quite at a level of writing songs as a six-piece. I’m bringing songs to the band.

Kind of like bringing in a rough draft …

Yes.

How are you able to meld the actors’ discipline with the musician’s improvisation?

There are elements of each of those in both mediums. Robin Williams. Extremely improvisational as an actor. Well-trained. Hit his marks, but when the cameras are rolling, you didn’t know what was going to happen. That energy can definitely be onstage as a band, where you’re not sure what’s going to happen. When I went and saw Strung like a Horse, there are some extremely difficult, complicated, and well-coordinated breaks, drops in dynamics. The whole band is right there on that turn and breaks from one song right into the next. That was something that they practiced … to me, there are training and precision with both mediums as well as an improvisational “who knows what’s going to happen” energy to both. I grew up studying piano, learning to read music … but I never came into my own as a musician until I stopped reading music and just started playing chords on the guitar. I learned three chords on guitar and started writing songs like so many songwriters do. And you find that if you learn three chords, you can play about half the rock canon… Paul [McCartney] once said, “If you learn to read music, it will destroy your creative spirit” which I don’t think is necessarily true… I’m probably more Paul than John. This feels good. Let’s do it. Feeling my way through it.

We should all want to be Ringo. The one that gets no pressure, no nothing, but has the first number one solo song, marries Barbara Bach…

It’s hard to beat him.

– Jim Sells