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Killdozer: Back to the Grind

Michael Gerald of the reunited Wisconsin legends on music as a job, music as a hobby, taboos, and tax law



When Killdozer reunited in 2006 for Touch and Go's 25th-anniversary celebration at the Hideout, the crowd shouted for an encore, chanting "Kill-do-zer! Fuck the other bands! Kill-do-zer! Fuck the other bands!" Such is the devotion inspired by this rigorously strange trio.

Taking their name from a 70s TV movie inspired by a mid-40s Theodore Sturgeon story (not from Marvin Heemeyer's armored suicide bulldozer—that wasn't till 2004), Michael Gerald and brothers Dan and Bill Hobson started Killdozer in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1982. They released their debut album, Intellectuals Are the Shoeshine Boys of the Ruling Elite, in 1984 and shortly thereafter signed to the fledgling Touch and Go label, where they'd stay for the next decade. The band's grinding postpunk sound, often cited as a precursor to grunge, was defined by the disgruntled crunch of Gerald's bass and his growling, cartoonishly gruff vocal style, but Killdozer's blackly funny lyrics were arguably even more distinctive: Gerald sang about Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, sympathized with a cast-off mutt named Knuckles, and wrote a tune about sausage. The band also earned a reputation for hilariously straight-faced covers—Don McLean's "American Pie," EMF's "Unbelievable," Janet Jackson's "Nasty," Neil Diamond's "I Am, I Said."

After a three-year hiatus in the early 90s and a series of lineup changes that left Gerald as the only founding member, Killdozer made the rounds one last time in 1996, on a tour they called "Fuck You, We Quit!" But the original trio got back together for the Touch and Go celebration and has since played the occasional show—like this Thursday's headlining gig at the Abbey Pub with early LA punks the Urinals.

For this interview I spoke to Gerald, who now works as a tax lawyer in California. After we got off the phone, he e-mailed me the following:

"Killdozer has begun work on new song material for a concept album on the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, with hopes of debuting the song 'Minimum Vesting Standards for Pension Plans' at our Chicago show!"

Do you see anything on the job that would make good material for a Killdozer song?
Yes, to the extent that tax evasion is a crime. Some of our clients do that. Then again, are millionaires really good topics for Killdozer songs? I don't think so. We always wrote about the trashy underbelly of life. This would be more like the trashy upperbelly.

Do your coworkers know about Killdozer?
They do. I put it on my resumé! If I didn't, I'd have 14 years off to explain. Better Killdozer than let them wonder. Maybe they think I had a secret life at Blackwater—maybe a 14-year stint at Chino.

Has anybody confronted you about the band?
These are sophisticated people and what they do is google it. They learn all they need to learn. I imagine that it's probably cost me an interview here or there. I landed here and it's OK. We have entertainers here as clients. I've worked on a document where I discovered that—I never would have guessed—Stevie Wonder's signature is two fingerprints. It makes sense. How can he sign his name otherwise? I discussed some tax issues with Johnny Depp's manager. I hope Johnny was able to take advantage of my advice. What's Killdozer compared to that?

Killdozer was not in Pirates of the Caribbean, as far as I know.
Right. We didn't dress quite as fancily.

How did you decide that "Fuck You, We Quit!" didn't apply anymore?
When we did "Fuck You, We Quit!" I was the only original member of the band. We went our separate ways and I continued with the band. When Touch and Go Records had its 25th-anniversary party, Corey Rusk called and had grave doubts that we would actually be interested in playing. But it'd been a year since we'd seen each other. We'd gone on with our lives and it sounded fun. It was fun. Two years later, we were asked to play the Forward Music Festival in Madison and decided, "Well, if we're going to get together to practice again, let's have more than one show." We started going forward with the idea that we play shows when a show we'd like to play presents itself.

Have you ever considered going full-time with the reunion?
No, that would be insane. In fact, one of our ground rules is that it can't interfere with our day jobs. What I have here is a bit more than a day job. It cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars to go to law school. I didn't do it just to spend a few years and then quit to make a thousand dollars a night on guitar. Dan, our drummer, has a good gig as a nurse. This is a hobby. Now and then, we have to remind ourselves that we're not doing it for the money because, if we are, we're doing it all wrong.

You once said in an interview that you'd started the band to make your friends laugh. When did it go past that? Did it ever?
Musically, we were always trying to make some kind of statement. It was the heyday of hardcore punk: really fast songs that were no more than two minutes long. We reacted against that because we thought it was stupid and not musical. We made a statement by playing songs more slowly, although when I listen to our first record I think, "That was pretty fast." Without getting as pompous as some bands of the late 70s, there's nothing wrong with a tasty guitar solo. The lyrics were something more dear to me than done as a joke. Still, I can never resist at least putting an O. Henry ending. I always have a chuckle. The songs ranged from being particularly silly ideas that I had after reading an article in the local paper to grandiose schemes that still get to be funny.

Was any subject taboo even for Killdozer?
No. There were some ideas that just fell flat or turned out to be, "This offends even me," and therefore I didn't think it was funny and threw it away. I've never myself considered much with offending others. We did a song that made Dan and Bill's parents quite upset. Apparently I'd made the mistake of writing the horribly offensive lyrics on the back of the record sleeve. Bill's younger brother bought a copy and showed it to their mom and dad. Their parents' reaction was that they were going down to Best Buy and Target and buy every copy they had. We thought, "Oh, that'll be great! I'll show these to my mom and dad, too! Maybe they'll help us."

What they found offensive was the obscenities, but for the most part I don't care if you find the topic offensive. It's satire.

How did you arrive at your singing style?
I just did it for one song and Bill liked it. He encouraged me to stick with it and I did. By the time we got around to our second record with Butch Vig, if I'd actually try to sing, Dan and Bill might object and Butch might say, "Well, Michael, that's really nice. We see you can sing, but just give us the old Michael Gerald!" They never wanted me to deviate. I guess they thought it was something really marketable that would take us to the top, but it might be one of those things that took us to the bottom.

Given that Killdozer has already broken up and re-formed, what would it take to kill the band for good?
I think if one of us were to insult the other's wife. That would take care of it. It would be worse if one of us would insult the other's dog. I can't imagine. The sort of thing that would cause it would be a fight about musical direction, but we don't have that. When we had the initial parting of ways, it wasn't about music or what should be done with the music; it was about an inability to continue touring. It was babies. If it happened now and we all had babies again, it wouldn't keep us from continuing to play shows.

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