Pretty Music For Punk Icons: A Conversation With The Dead Milkmen’s Dean Sabatino

Hello, everyone! We have been telling you for months that we were hoping to expand our Artist Spotlight series, and today we are doing just that. The world of metal has been left in our rear view mirror and we are now setting our sights on learning from a living punk legend. Whether you’re into underground music or not, there is something in this feature for you. Pay attention.

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In 2014, it’s often a miracle if any band can make things work long enough to make it to their five year anniversary as a group. Far more unique however, are those outfits who have spent over a decade together. Even crazier than that are the two decade groups, and standing out above them all is a select group of musicians who have been performing more or less consistently for over thirty years. To reach that point takes a special kind of creative magic, and today we hope to shed a little light on how your group can attain that kind of longevity.

For more than three decades, with the exception of several years in the middle, The Dead Milkmen have been an influential voice in the global music community. There sound was born out of the very same bacteria that gave birth to the initial North American punk movement, and today it sounds just as infectious as it did when their debut album dropped in 1985. Their latest release, Pretty Music For Pretty People, is slated for release on October 7. We had the chance to speak with longtime drummer Dean Sabatino about the record, as well as the group’s legacy in music, earlier this week. You can view highlights from our conversation below.

I know The Dead Milkmen are not often held in the same regard as The Ramones, The Clash, or The Sex Pistols, but if you truly do your research into the history of punk in the US I think you will discover their impact is far greater than anyone has been able to accurately document up to this point. Pretty Music For Pretty People is a fantastic record that provides further evidence of the band’s enduring quality, and I hope for your sake that you find time to experience all it has to offer in the weeks ahead. Click here for pre-order information.

H: Hello, Dean. How are you today?

D: Pretty good. Things are looking good right now. We launched our new website yesterday, which recalls snail mail newsletters from back in the day. We also have a new album due out next Tuesday.

H: Happy to hear it. Thank you again for taking to speak with me. There’s a few things I’d like to cover, but we should start with the reason this feature was able to happen in the first place: The Dead Milkmen are releasing a new album! Pretty Music For Pretty People is set for release on October 7 through Quid Ergo Record. That’s a label the band launched, correct?

D: Yea, we are self-releasing our stuff now. We started that back in 2011 when we release The King In Yellow. Between then and now we did a bunch of singles, and it’s been great. We’re doing all our own stuff now.

H: Let’s go deeper there. What inspired you to start a label all your own?

D: I think mostly because we wanted to do everything on our own terms. Our own timeline. Working with a label may have resulted in deadlines and things like that, which doesn’t really work for us. Having our label has allowed us to create on our own terms, with our own costs. As a result, we’ve been able to take our time and put things out when it works for us.

I think it harkens back to the DIY attitude we had back in the day. It can seem difficult to do everything on the surface because of just how many avenues for music there are today, but it’s actually a lot easier in many ways.

H: Back to the album, Pretty Music For Pretty People will be your tenth studio album in a career that now spans over three decades. Do you feel it’s your best album to date?

D: It’s the best one at the moment (laughs). We’re pretty happy with the way it turned out. There are several songs that we released in the past as limited edition singles, but there are also six new songs created just for the record. Rodney did the sequencing and it turned out fantastic. We may have recorded over two years, but I think the record holds together as a full album. There’s some dark stuff on there, but it holds together and I think that is great.

H: Do you compare the material the band released in the 80s and early 90s to what you’re doing today, or do you view them as separate efforts?

D: I don’t think we look back in that way. It’s not like we sit down in rehearsals and try to make stuff that sounds like our old material. If anything, we are able to expand more now because of computers, software, and home studios. We’re more collaborative than we used to be because everyone can record on their own and bring ideas to the table. We just do what we do and it comes out the way it does.

I think some of the nicest things we have heard since our reunion in 2008 is anytime a fan tells me that our newer material fits in with what we did in the past. I hope the same will be said about our new record as well.

H: I’ve read interviews where you talk about the first time you got back together following your 2008 reunion and how that sparked a second wave of creativity for the group. I have to assume many of you have families at this point, so I am curious about how they reacted to the return of The Dead Milkmen. Can you shed some light on that?

D: I think they were pretty positive. I have a wife and teenage son now. When we played those first reunion shows in 2008 I actually took my wife and son down to the show. He was only 9 or 10 at the time, but he loved it. He’s known about my music for a while, and he’s always been very supportive.

There was a spark of creativity around that time, at least in my mind. We didn’t want to start playing together again and only play our old material. It didn’t make sense. So we decided to get together and write new songs.

H: A lot of what we do as a company involves helping artists understand the realities of a career in the music business. What do you think is the key to maintaining creativity later in life?

D: Try and use new technology to your advantage. I know this makes me sound like a cranky old man, but back in the day we did not have anything close to what is available to musicians today. If I wanted to do an interview like this, and we were on the road, the band van would have to pull over somewhere and I would have to seek out a pay phone to call you from.

We have embraced technology since our return, and it has allowed us to further connect with our fans. Our mailing list once included 10,000 people, and we like to think that we have always been friendly with people at shows, but we are able to do so much more now thanks to the internet. You can not only talk to them, but interact with them and learn from them. That’s exciting to me.

H: The new album is a lot of fun, but I feel like there are still some messages there for people to take away as well. What do you hope people gain or experience while listening to this record?

D: I think a couple of things, actually. Our music and lyrics may be based in humor, but underneath there are some serious issues being tackled. Even some of the things we were writing about thirty years ago are still relevant today, including gun control and right wing conservatism.

H: I’m not familiar with any major touring plans associated with the album’s release. Can fans expect to see The Dead Milkmen on the road in the last part of 2014? How about 2015?

D: We have two shows coming up in October. We are trying to work out more shows in the future, but we definitely want to make them happen. With the way our schedules work now, balancing work and family, it takes some time for these things to come together. We haven’t done a major tour since we reunited, but we will do a string of dates every few weeks or months. We will probably continue to do that for the foreseeable future.

H: With everything you have accomplished, are there any personal or band goals you would still like to achieve?

D: I would like to see us continue to write music together, but also maintaining our freedom as far as creative decisions and when things will be completed. Keeping control is a core goal for us.

H: That’s all I have for you today, but I thank you for being so open and honest with me throughout this conversation. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you and I hope we can dig a little deeper later on down the road. Before I let you go, are there any final thoughts or observations that you would like to share with our readers?

D: If you see us in public or at shows, please say hello. We love to meet our fans.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.