IN 1983, out of the sweat and brawn of the hardcore scene emerged a sardonic band of kids with a folk mentality and loud amplifiers: The Dead Milkmen. Vocalist/keyboardist "Rodney Anonymous" (Rodney Linderman), guitarist/vocalist "Joe Jack Talcum" (Joe Genaro), bassist "Dave Blood" (Dave Schulthise), and drummer "Dean Clean" (Dean Sabatino) shook up their hometown of Philadelphia with snarky lyrics, hooky guitar progressions and memorably absurdist melodies.
For twelve years, the Milkmen navigated an unusual career, finding success on college radio with songs like “Bitchin’ Camaro” and MTV favorite/timeless alt-love anthem “Punk Rock Girl,” signing to Disney-owned Hollywood Records, and disbanding in the wake of tendonitis and a commercial slump.
A 13-year hiatus followed, but it was certainly not downtime for Genaro. The songwriter, a soft-spoken, gentle fellow, was recording solo material on cassettes, starting bands (Butterfly Joe, with Sabatino, Ornamental Wigwam with Schulthise, Though Me Zoo, The Town Managers, The Fresh Breaths, The Low Budgets, Ukebox, No! Go! Tell!), and a slew of home recording-based projects (Jiffy Squid, We’re Not From Idaho, Sock, and The Cheesies).
Now, The Milkmen are back with completely new material (Pretty Music For Pretty People); while Genaro is writing and performing alongside Linderman, Sabatino, and Dan Stevens (replacing Schulthise, who passed in 2004), he has also remained faithful to his acoustic solo work, touring extensively as Joe Jack Talcum.
Currently, his merch table is stocked with copies of Home Recordings: 1993-1999, an intimate collection of tunes that are playful and gentle one moment, wryly sarcastic the next.
Genaro brings his solo work to Savannah on the Kidnapped! tour, a roadshow featuring L.A. hip-hop/nerdcore act Coolzey, goofball duo D&D Sluggers, and, at The Jinx stop, our own Dame Darcy.
- Joe in the early Milkmen days.
Connect spoke with Genaro about the return of The Dead Milkmen, his prolific career, and what “folk-punk” really means.
Did you ever think the Milkmen would reunite?
I did not think it was going to happen—I thought for sure it wasn’t going to happen!
We got together to play benefit show for Dave—ironically, that was with Dan Seasons—and again, I just assumed everybody in the former Dead Milkmen thought it was just a one-off thing.
And it was a great event showing love and support. But four years after that, we got asked to play Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin, Texas. The guy started asking a year ahead of time, and at first we said, ‘No, we’re not going to ever get back together again, it just doesn’t make any sense.’
But over the course of the year he convinced us. I think every single one of us said, ‘I like the idea, but I’m sure no one else in the band would.’
It turned out we all were thinking the exact same thing—we all wanted to!
What was that like, getting back together to write after all that time? Did it feel the same?
Yeah, there’s not really a big difference, the one being that years ago, a lot of the writing was done in real time, in person. We didn’t have the luxury when the Milkmen was our full-time job of having time to do things. Now, we’re a little more geographically separated and we all have our different jobs and families and things to deal with, and we found that the Internet helped us keep up our collaboration, but we wouldn’t have to be in the same place in time to collaborate.
So we’ll do things like make recordings, put them in Dropbox. It could just be a riff or music without lyrics or an idea, and it would spring from there. Somebody would claim it—‘I have another part that would be put with this’—Rodney usually would have an idea for vocals. Sometimes people would submit songs completely fleshed out in that regard it was like it always was, just with Dan Stevens in the mix.
The Dead Milkmen are often referenced as early, original folk-punk; how do you feel about that genre’s evolution?
Well, I didn’t even hear the term when we were starting on that, though that would describe us. I thought we made that up as a joke, but it really was kind of the origin of the music to begin with. It was in the early 2000s when I started seeing that actually being written as a real genre and being taken seriously. It seemed like it was taking off, especially with people playing acoustic versions, or playing music acoustically in punk style, where we were taking the folk style and playing it electrically—that’s how the Dead Milkmen style started, anyway—but I saw that happen and coincidentally, it was around the time I started playing shows acoustically with harmonica.
Is that how a lot of your songs over the years have started out, on acoustic?
From very beginning, I’ve written on an acoustic. I didn’t have an electric guitar at first. One of my inspirations was Bob Dylan in junior high school, that led me to write myself. My secondary inspirations were the Ramones and The Clash, which was new music back when I was in high school.
- Ryan Johnson
Were you inspired by Dylan lyrically?
Lyrically, I always wanted to try to do something that would result in a laugh or two, so I wasn’t even trying to be like Dylan, except there might have been some mocking going on there, but not intentionally to be like that. I guess I was angry and confused. It was satirical at first, and I did like the Ramones humor. Some of that leaked in there, for sure, and then Rodney, when I started collaborating with him, we took the things into a new direction. He brought in a new take on funny and absurd in whole mix, like with ‘Bitchin’ Camaro.’
Okay, so how did ‘Bitchin’ Camaro’ happen? Was the intro improvised?
The intro was a planned improvisation, and as I recall, Rodney got the idea overhearing a conversation...then he came up with all of the words. None of the spoken part was written; I knew that I was going to write what I considered back then hardcore music—I even wrote that on acoustic!—the chord progression, I got that down put that on a little cassette, and I’m pretty sure we were inspired by the format of a song by Suicidal Tendencies called ‘Institutionalized,’ which had speaking overtop of the music and the hardcore bass part. But that song, they go back and forth, and we wanted one that would have the intro and then go into the fast part. That’s how I remember how it got together.
When we took the song to the band at rehearsal we just explained, ‘We’re going to do this instrumental improvisation.’ Dave started playing that walking bassline, and just came together like that: you could snap your finger, and there it was, we had the song.
Do you have plans to release any new solo material in the near future?
I don’t know, I don’t have any plans. I’m thinking mostly about The Dead Milkmen. But since I’m always on the road and they don’t play as much as I would like, I do a lot of solo stuff on the road. It makes sense to have things to sell—that’s how you can fund tours. I’m grateful to have these Happy Happy Birthday To Me [Home Recordings] releases to sell.
Do you write on the road?
I don't have a steady hand! It used to be easier. For me to really do it, I have to be stripped and keep that time devoted to the creative process.
Are you finding a lot of new fans at these Dead Milkmen shows?
It's become more of a family affair, because we see some old fans from way back now have kids. It makes perfect sense, but what surprises me is that they bring their kids to see us, too!