Fastest guitar in the West

Ben Weinman, a Jewish mensch from Jersey, returns to Israel with his Dillinger Escape Plan and their mega-amplified, lightning-speed jazz cacophony.

dillinger escape plan_311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
dillinger escape plan_311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s never been the profession that a Jewish mother would have traditionally chosen for her son. But being a musician isn’t so bad, especially if you’re a concert pianist or something more modern, maybe a renowned jazz musician. Even rock and pop music can make a mother proud – just ask anyone from Paul Simon to Gene Simmons.
But you can just imagine the reaction of Ben Weinman’s mom when her teenage son started playing a type of music called mathcore in their suburban Morris Plains, New Jersey, home. A rhythmically complex and dissonant style of speed metal, mathcore sounds to unaccustomed ears like mega-amplified jazz played at lightning speed over shouted, incomprehensible vocals. To trained ears, it often sounds like that, too.
But a couple of decades later, there’s probably plenty of pride – along with a lifetime supply of earplugs – in the Weinman household, as young Ben has evolved into one of the world’s 50 fastest guitar players, according to Guitar World magazine, and the leader of one of the genre’s sturdiest bands, The Dillinger Escape Plan. And he’s also remained a Jewish mensch.
“My parents weren’t very observant, but I grew up with a real appreciation of the culture of Judaism and a real respect for it,” said the 35-year-old Weinman last week from London, where the band is performing in the middle of a European tour that will see them arrive in Tel Aviv on November 12 for a show at the Barbie Club.
He sounds like Ben Weinman, the articulate graduate of New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University with a degree in psychology, not Ben Weinman who breaks sound and light barriers with his music.
“My family background is basically an Austrian and Polish/Austrian mix. My grandparents escaped before the Holocaust, but some of my other relatives did not. I’ve always had a strong connection to the Holocaust, and the existence of Israel has always been really important to me.
“When I was 20, I visited the country for the first time with my father. And now I’m really excited to be coming back and that the guys in the band are having the opportunity to do the same.”
How a suburban Jewish kid from Jersey wound up making music that might have Ozzy Osbourne covering his ears is a result of timing, curiosity and having older brothers of friends around.
“When you grow up in a suburban town where everything is pretty normal and most kids are into sports, music was kind of what I ended up being decent in,” he said.
But while most Jersey kids in the 1980s and ’90s were rocking out to local favorites like Bon Jovi, Weinman was receiving a musical education of a different sort that introduced him to the underground metal movement where bands like Bon Jovi were chewed up and spit out.
“Of course, it was music like Bon Jovi, Motley Crue and Skid Row that we were exposed to and were kind of the gateways to heavier music. Seeing their videos and listening to their music led me on to heavier things,” said Weinman.
“I started getting catalogues of death metal bands from this older brother of a kid who lived down the street. So it was through him that I kind of got exposed to some of the more underground metal music – I was lucky to fall into that and get that kick-start.”
Back then, the Internet was in its infancy and social networking meant going to singles dances at the JCC, so there weren’t any chat groups of MySpace pages to go to in order to discover the music that was too weird to be on MTV or the FM rock radio stations. Instead, there were low-budget fanzines and specialty record stores.
“It was a different culture then. You went into the record store and asked the guy behind the desk what he recommended, as opposed to going on a message board,” said Weinman.
“The Internet, as far as the underground scene was concerned, was used primarily to find like-minded people who were also into the subculture. They’d maybe suggest other records to listen to or, at the least, you’d find someone to go to a show with.”
He also located like-minded musicians and, by 1997, out of the ashes of his hardcore punk trio Arcane, Weinman formed the Dillinger Escape Plan, named after infamous gangster John Dillinger.
Writers who have attempted to describe their music end up likening it to an athletic endurance test: “maniacally intense,” “crushingly metallic,” “displaying rigorous physical stamina,” while at the same time praising their “precise musicianship” and “meticulously thought-out compositions.”
“I fully expect people who don’t understand what we do to dismiss it and call it noise,” said Weinman. “I find it funny when somebody who might be into jazz doesn’t see any similarities in our music just because we’re playing it fast and loud. But we didn’t write this music for everybody. For every person that likes us, there’s a couple who absolutely hate it. We don’t expect everyone to understand what we do; but when someone does, it’s pretty exciting.”
THROUGH INCESSANT touring, multiple personnel changes leaving Weinman the only original member, and bone-crunching albums like their new release Option Paralysis, the Dillinger Escape Plan have managed to survive and thrive in a world where their music is shunned on mass radio formats.
And Weinman has managed to survive and thrive as a Jew in a subculture that’s been adopted by a fair share of skinheads, neo-Nazis and other miscreants. He said that he’s constantly vigilant and doesn’t back down when he faces or sees a trace of anti-Semitism.
“Touring as much as we do, we’ll play in areas, especially in the US Midwest, where they’re still producing neo-Nazis and skinheads,” said Weinman. “And they happen to like heavy music. So it’s not uncommon for them to show up at our shows. I deal with it if I have to.”
The band has even turned down lucrative offers when something doesn’t seem kosher to Weinman.
“We got offered a tour slot with [popular US metal band] Slayer. There are certain lyrics and aspects about that band that are questionable to me and have never been sufficiently explained – lyrics about Auschwitz or imagery I’ve seen that have created a conflict for me. So we turned down the tour.”
Weinman has expressed his Jewish pride in other ways, none more whimsically effective than a home video clip he made which showed him step by step preparing a scrumptious breakfast, before dumping the entire plate into the garbage and announcing, “It’s Yom Kippur, and today we fast.”
“We were in California recording our record around Yom Kippur time – and it’s hard when you’re in a band and in a place where Judaism isn’t the primary religion,” said Weinman, who said he does fast on the holiday. “It’s fairly rare in the scene I’m coming from to have a Jewish connection. There are guys in my band who, before me, had never met a Jewish person before,” he added, referring to his colleagues Liam Wilson on bass, vocalist Greg Puciato, guitarist Jeff Tuttle and drummer Billy Rymer.
“So I decided to make the video for me. I don’t take things too seriously, but it is kind of fun sometimes to expose our fan base, even if it is through humor, to things that they might not realized. I’m sure I could be criticized for taking a serious holiday like that and making light of it. I’m not a religious person, but I am into respecting my culture, and it’s my way of recognizing it.”
Mrs. Weinman would be kvelling about now.