Besides being the party who propelled the MC5 (and New Order, and New Race, and The Motor City Bad Boys, and...) into the stratosphere with his percussive power, Dennis "Machine Gun" Thompson is also undoubtedly the greatest living high-energy conversationalist on the planet. He talks the same way he plays the drums -- energetically, assertively, aggressively, thoughts spilling over each other two or three at a time, punctuated by explosions of laughter.
This interview took place in two parts, beginning on March 24 and winding up on March 28, 1998. We started out talking about his recent activities.
K: What have you been up to lately?
D: Well, lately I've been trying to become a priest, but they won't let me. I've got a CD coming out called Phantom Patriots, Volume One. I'm shopping a label. There are two or three labels that I'm courting; I'm looking for the best distribution deal, and I want accountability for sales. When you work with independent labels, you don't get that.
K: Who are some of the people involved?
D: Well, the first round are local people. That's Joey Gados, who played with one of Rob Tyner's MC5 bands; Pete Bankert, who plays with Dark Carnival, has played with, oh Christ, 15 bands, he owns a studio; and Tommy Ingram, who is a young singer, but...he's done the Detroit thing. It's a very powerful unit.
I just talked to Deniz Tek, I'm going to do a version of "Kick Out the Jams" for this, I believe. I'm either gonna have Deniz do the "Kick Out the Jams" instrumental or the theme song, "(We Are) The Phantom Patriots." And Deniz has agreed to do a solo for me. Once I get the DAT version of that finished, I'll send it off to him in Montana, and we already spoke about it and he said he'd love to, 'cause we haven't played together in awhile, and so I'll have Deniz Tek as another Phantom Patriot.
The concept of the Patriots is an ongoing concept. The idea is that every succeeding volume, I'll search to find new people, new players who want to donate their time and their energy to play the music; they won't care about the recognition, they won't care about fame, and they won't care about fortune. They will care about being able to play in a context that is completely, totally free. They're all gonna sign off as...whatever happens, "Dennis, if you can bring me 500 bucks for your initial deposit from sales, or if you can give me a royalty," I'll give them a royalty; I'll make sure they get some money.
There's 50 people that are lined up to do this concept, and the bottom line is, the Phantom Patriots is exactly what it means. We're phantoms, that means invisible; we're spectres, we're ghosts, whatever, shadows, and we are patriots; we love our country, we do the right things. And no one's gonna know who's in the band. Except me. I have to use my name as the hook to work the media. Once I get to the media, I start explaining the concept and they'll get the drift...like a benefit for the masses, y'know? (Laughs)
On Volume One, I bring in these musicians, and there's a synchronicity in the air. I'm bringing the players in to play. What I've tried to do is to get as many of my creative friends as possible to do the computer artwork, to do the marketing, friends that are DJs at radio stations, musicians that wanna just really play, etc., etc., etc.
K: Can you describe the music?
D: Well, the first CD is straight-ahead rock and roll. It's bad-ass rock and roll; the songs sound like MC5, the Stooges, Metallica, Pearl Jam, Nirvana; we cover the spectrum.
Patrice [Dennis' girlfriend]: On the CD, we have something very surprising, it's Rob Tyner speaking from the Heidelberg.
D: What it was, was a spoken invocation to "Kick Out the Jams," and this was at the Heidelberg in Ann Arbor, three weeks before he died. He was just preaching the Gospel for four minutes. So while I'm wrapping up this Phantom Patriots CD, Pete and the guys shut off all the lights in the studio and said, "Hey, Dennis, why don't you just go crazy, and be you, okay, just go!" So I did, I created a piece. I constructed an actual piece of artwork and I dedicated it to Rob and Fred. I cried a little bit, and I played. I played for four minutes.
Little did I know that Pete Bankert had thought about this, but didn't tell me about it, and he had this dialogue, because back in '91 at the Heidelberg, Pete Bankert was playing bass in Rob's band, so he knew, he knew. So anyway, I come into the studio two days later, and he put the two of them together. It was like, "What the...this is...excuse me." It's really good; talk about your spoken word or your performance art, this is crazy, 'cause I've got a person who's been dead for seven years playing a piece with me, and we're in perfect sync. I played well...Billy Cobham would be proud. Elvin Jones would be proud. Keith Moon, he'd be proud, too. Cool?
Rob died in '91, and Fred died in '94. They were both 46 when they died, and they both died of heart problems. So when I finally hit 47, that day, I swung from the chandeliers. Because I passed that 46-year-old year old curse of the Five, right? (Laughs)