Lots of bands talk about taking risks, but how many go so far as to court failure? Supreme Dicks do. They've never officially said so, but their music teeters always at the edge of collapse. Between their moody folk, sprawling noise and drifting melodies, anything could happen. Actually, if it couldn't, nothing would.
For two decades, that sense of unhinged possibility has led them to a surprisingly influential, portentous and remarkable catalogue. When I saw them play in March at Austin's annual South by Southwest conference, they had gathered to celebrate the release of their retrospective box set Breathing and Not Breathing. These days, band members are split between coasts and seem unsure whether the time that had passed since their last show—opening for Dinosaur Jr. in 2005—made this a reunion.
"I don't think our band has ever broken up," mused guitarist Jon Shire. "That's the problem. I mean, we'd love to ... but I think the only way out of the band is suicide or death."
Shire told me this not long after closing Supreme Dicks' first SXSW set with a blunt apology: "Sorry if we sucked." Subsequently, my interview with the band began with guitarist Steve Shavel threatening to go home early because he disapproved of the video projections Dicks comrade Dan Kapelovitz had done during the set. The turmoil led guitarist Dan Oxenberg to speculate that their label, Jagjaguwar, asked the band to play the first set of their showcase "because they probably only had 20 percent confidence that we would actually make the show."
The band is so good-natured about all this that it's tempting to call it an act. But it turns out Shavel wasn't kidding; when I watched Supreme Dicks play only two nights later, he had actually skipped town. In his stead, Kapelovitz wandered around the room, adding random sounds with an odd Theremin. When he walked past me, he said with a grin, "I'm the only professional in this band." On the contrary, the group's meanderings consistently gelled into something pretty and profound that night. If that was failure, it made success seem boring.
Supreme Dicks began in the mid-1980s while college students in Western Massachusetts. Their music was so harsh and unruly that they stumbled upon a name when a neighbor complained about the noise, yelling "You guys are dicks!" Founding member Stuart Morris replied, "No, we're supreme dicks!" Subsequent performances earned similar reactions: "We would just go out anywhere and start playing, and eventually security would shut us down," says Oxenberg. Adds Shire, "We literally put amps up on rooftops so they couldn't get to us. There would be sound but no one would know where we were."
The band's rotating cast of characters also reflected that anarchy. Though the five current members have been involved for decades, many others have entered and exited, including Dinosaur Jr.'s Lou Barlow. "I think we prided ourselves on weeding the band by attrition," says Shire. "We'd play 10-hour noise jams and people who couldn't handle that left the band."
Shavel agrees, calling membership in Supreme Dicks a badge of courage: "We were kind of reviled, so anybody who wanted to humiliate themselves by joining us on stage was welcome."
Supreme Dicks carried on this way for a decade before releasing any music, but when they did, their records revealed a band ahead of its time. Inspired equally by the Velvet Underground and Fairport Convention, they stretched subtle melodies with dissonance and improvisation, years before that mix caught on with Tower Recordings, No Neck Blues Band and Sunburned Hand of the Man. None of those acts have matched the Dicks' brand of magical chaos. "One review said something like, 'One guy tries to play a song and seven guys try to destroy it,'" recalls Shire. "That's an exaggeration, but it's almost right."
But that characterization sells Supreme Dicks' wry sense of humor short. Their sardonic name has provided fodder for album titles like Workingman's Dick and This is Not a Dick. (For the box set, they also considered What a Long, Strange Dick It's Been and No Erection Home.)
They're also fond of conceptual stunts: At one show, they left their amps feeding back and went to eat dinner before finishing the set. When Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis decided he didn't want to play a scheduled set in Manhattan, he asked the Dicks to substitute unannounced, and they kindly agreed. "Someone there said to me, 'I heard you guys aren't Dinosaur,'" Shavel remembers. "And I said, 'You don't understand—there's the recording version of the band, and then there's the touring version.'"
Supreme Dicks revisited the '90s when compiling Breathing and Not Breathing, and it was a typically fraught process. They combed through reams of old tapes to compile a bonus disc of unreleased material, but after more than five years of digging, they could agree on only a few rarities to add to the original releases. "By the time we got stuff to [Jagjaguwar], I think they were pretty sick of us," says Shire, laughing. "I think we overstayed our welcome."
Still, the band hopes to eventually release more of that archival trawling, but whether they'll make new music again is—surprise!—a mystery. As Oxenberg admits, "I think the personalities in the band are too dysfunctional for it to ever be something that sticks out."
Or, as Shire spins it in a more positive take on Supreme Dicks' obscurity, "I think we're our biggest fans."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Being dicks."