They may barely register on the commercial radar, but Dead Milkmen's biggest hits--"Bitchin' Camaro," "Smokin' Banana Peels," "Instant Club Hit (You'll Dance To Anything)," and the MTV-rotated "Punk Rock Girl"--perfectly recall an era of snotty late-'80s and early-'90s college radio. But, like its peers in King Missile, Too Much Joy, and others, Dead Milkmen faded when it toned down the humor that made it famous. Signing with the Disney-owned Hollywood Records was a kiss of death, as two dismal flops on the label (1992's puzzlingly straight-faced Soul Rotation and 1993's Not Richard But Dick) alienated Dead Milkmen's remaining fans. The Philadelphia-based band broke up before the independent release of Stoney's Extra Stout (Pig) in 1995, and its members have scattered to an assortment of new projects and day jobs; guitarist and occasional singer Joe Genaro (better known to Dead Milkmen fans as Joe Jack Talcum or, to a lesser extent, Butterfly Fairweather) formed Butterfly Joe, a somber but characteristically off-kilter pop band that recently released a self-titled album on a Philly-based independent label (www.razlerrecords.com). Genaro recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his old band, his new band, and the battle between winsome and wacky.
The Onion: How's business?
Joe Genaro: Business is good, especially Internet business. Three-fourths of the ex-Dead Milkmen work in web-related businesses. That's a statistic for you.
O: What web-related business do you work for?
JG: It's called searchbyvideo.com, and it didn't start out Internet-related, but it's jumping to the Internet now. It's a clearinghouse for recruitment videos for colleges and boarding schools.
O: What are the other ex-Dead Milkmen doing?
JG: Dean [Sabatino, a.k.a. Dean Clean, drums] is working and playing in Butterfly Joe. Rodney [Anonymous, vocals] is playing in a band called Burn Witch Burn. He'll play with Butterfly Joe every now and then. Dave [Blood, bass] spends a lot of time in Europe. He was in Yugoslavia when the U.S. started bombing over there. Then he got out after a couple weeks of bombing. When his Internet connection went out, he decided it was time to leave. [Laughs.] He was teaching English to Serbian-speaking people at the university there, but he lost his job when the war escalated, I guess. He's looking for ways to get back. And he spent a lot of time in Prague recently.
O: You guys are doing all right.
JG: As ex-Dead Milkmen we are. Financially, we're all doing pretty good in our jobs, probably better than most of the years we were in the band.
O: Listening to the Butterfly Joe album, it's a bit more winsome than a lot of fans might expect.
JG: Or want.
O: Has it been tough to face those expectations, being a former member of a less winsome band?
JG: Sort of, but the Dead Milkmen fans usually fall away pretty quickly, I think, and I'm not too worried about it.
O: At the same time, I would imagine the Dead Milkmen connection would draw people in.
JG: Yeah, that's what Razler Records is doing. It's their game, so they can do whatever they want. I know some Dead Milkmen fans who like this, too. There are all shades of fandom out there.
O: Did you find that performing under a pseudonym in the past has helped or hurt you as you've started over?
JG: I guess it can help me. Most people I've talked to for Butterfly Joe interviews don't even know that Dead Milkmen was my band before, so that's kind of good. As far as promoting it as an ex-Dead Milkmen thing, I originally didn't think that was a good idea, but it's turned out well. It's probably the only way the record is getting attention from college-radio DJs, for one thing. That's my foot in the door, even if the door gets slammed shut on it.
O: It's interesting that Dead Milkmen started out as this really jokey thing, and then, over time, there seemed to be an urge to stretch out a bit more musically, and...
JG: To be more subtle.
O: Yeah. Did you regret starting out quirky?
JG: No, I regretted stretching out.
O: That was my next question. I liked the initial records and was really turned off by Soul Rotation.
JG: Yeah, me, too. I don't like to hear my voice, for one thing. That whole record was, I think, a big mistake in hindsight.
O: What was the thought process behind it? Was the label...
JG: No, there was pressure within the group. Not from the label itself; they had no idea what we were doing. Hollywood Records didn't say, "You should sing more songs than Rodney." In fact, they rightfully didn't like the record when we submitted it, but we had this crazy clause in the contract that said we had this artistic-control thing. As if we were artists. But it was what the Dead Milkmen wanted to do at the time. Big mistake. I think we were smoking too much pot or something.
O: There seemed to be a backlash. What did that entail for you guys when that record came out?
JG: Oh, just lots of hate mail. Declining record sales, the need to get part-time jobs to support our drug habits. That's about it, nothing serious.
O: Is that desire to go serious one of the perils of quirkiness?
JG: I guess so. It'll never happen again, though.
O: You said you hate the sound of your voice?
JG: Singing, basically. I don't mind it on the answering machine.
O: You sang on the Butterfly Joe record.
JG: Yeah, I don't listen to it, though.
O: Have you thought about hiring a singer?
JG: No, we don't have enough money.
O: Was signing to Hollywood Records a kiss of death?
JG: I guess in retrospect it was, but we signed back to Restless after that. It was a short life after that, yes.
O: It's interesting: If you follow the history of Hollywood Records over the years, other than Queen reissues, I don't think they've ever really had a hit. It just seemed like every time a band signs to Hollywood, you might as well put "R.I.P." next to its name.
JG: Yeah, you're right. It's weird, though, because all those albums were bad, including ours. We can't even blame it on the record company. All they did was give us a lot of money. Maybe it's because they gave us too much money. Maybe the amount of money the record company gives you inversely affects the quality of the record you make with it.
O: Your only stuff that's entirely out of print is the Hollywood stuff, right?
JG: I guess so. I haven't kept track. I know the Hollywood stuff is out of print.
O: I read somewhere that they weren't giving you the rights to release that stuff live because they might want to do a compilation themselves.
JG: Yeah, I think that's the explanation they gave our manager. But it's kind of crazy, because the amount of money, contractually, that they would give us to release the compilation is way more than it's worth, so it's just not gonna happen. We tried to make a deal with them so they would get money, too, and it would be put out on the compilation that came out [1994's Chaos Rules: Live At The Trocadero]. But they weren't going for it.
O: It's bizarre how labels say, "We won't release this and you can't have it."
JG: It's kind of like, I guess, the corporate possession: "Mine. Even though it's worthless. It will remain worthless. I won't sell it."
O: Did label wrangling break up the band?
JG: No, it had nothing to do with that. I guess we were getting tired of doing what we were doing, combined with half the band being married and it being hard to spend three-quarters of our time away from home to support ourselves, because that's what it took. It was a grind after a while.