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Vancouver punk stalwarts D.O.A. with their indefatigable leader, Joe Keithley (a.k.a. Joey Shithead) have spent thirty years spreading their love of beer, hockey, lumber jackets, punk rock and rabble-rousing politics. Their new album, Talk-Action = Zero carries on the tradition and builds on it. I talked with Joe earlier this month as the band was wrapping up their Canadian tour. Thanks to Bill from Sudden Death for setting this up and Joe for enduring a number of phone calls to get this all done,
A few years ago you wrote an autobiography called I, Shithead. What was the writing process like for that?
JK: Once I decided to do it in a linear fashion the most useful thing was old tour schedules. I have a pretty good memory and lots of good stories but then I’d go, “Okay was that actually in ’83 or ’85?” since this was like twenty years later. So I’d refer to the schedule to see if we were really in that town on that date.
I thought it would be easy and it was, in a sense, because I wanted to write it like you were sitting down and having a beer with me. Rather than being too analytical about the whole thing, I tried to make it conversational because I don’t talk like an English professor, obviously.
I hammered it out and started writing a couple of hours a day and as the deadline grew nearer it became four hours a day and at the end it was eight hours a day.
Since there’s not much on the later years, would you consider writing a sequel?
JK: Well I’ve done that type of book – If Henry Rollins did “Get in the Van”, I did “I, Shithead”. But I’m working on a new book that’ll be out in April on Arsenal Pulp Press, Talk – Action = Zero: A Visual History of D.O.A. It’ll be old album cover, posters, set lists, different weird stuff because I’m vast hoarder of old D.O.A. paraphernalia and each image will have a story that comes with it.
How did you feel when you read the intro that Jack Rabid wrote for the book?
JK: I haven’t read it for a while but it was pretty good. I mean anyone who knows Jack knows that he’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of music from 1950 onwards – almost rivaling his knowledge of the New York Yankees. He can tell you who pitched in what game back to 1948!
It was also pretty funny because he’s describing that story about how he saw us at the Peppermint Lounge when he was 17 and how when we tossed a record out into the audience and there was wrestling match and the record broke. Somehow he made his way backstage and I gave him another record so we became friends after that.
The throwing out of albums is a long-standing D.O.A tradition. I remember seeing the band for the first time around 1984 and you threw out a copy of Let’s Wreck the Party and someone threw it back to you!
JK: Well maybe he didn’t like the mixing but that’s happened before. We were playing in Switzerland one time and we were cleaning out the van and we found thirty or forty bottles of Slovenian beer so we threw them all out into the crowd and about half of it ended up back on stage because it wasn’t good enough for these Swiss people because it was some sort of beer from a poor country.
Still on your book, did you read Bob Dylan’s Chronicles or any other music bios while preparing your own manuscript?
JK: No. I’m a big fan of Bob Dylan, I think he’s the William Shakespeare of lyric writing but I only read Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory , Rollins’ Get in the Van and a book on Jimi Hendrix. But I didn’t read too much because I didn’t want to be overly influenced by anything. Like I’m the musical director on a theatrical adaptation of (Michael Turner’s novel) Hard Core Logo, writing new music to go with the lyrics but I made sure not to watch the movie again. It’s good to keep your mind clear when you go into these things.
Speaking of Hardcore Logo, I remember Terry David Mulligan was interviewing people on the set of the film version and getting everyone to play along with the Mocumentary thing but that when he got to you, asking something like “Tell us how HCL influenced you.” You sorta snapped back with “Why doesn’t anyone ask how we influenced HCL?” Were there ever any bad feelings about that book?
JK: Michael Turner took the first core of the story from a D.O.A. acoustic reunion benefit show that we did with his band the Hard Rock Miners but he took the characters in a different direction. I mean, when the book and the movie first came out they wouldn’t acknowledge that the beginning of the story was based on D.O.A. It’s no big deal, they probably just thought we were gonna try and extract cash from them. But now the playwright got me involved because he thought this would do justice if Joe wrote the music for the theatrical version.
How’s the tour so far?
JK: It’s been incredibly exhausting. We’ve already been pulled over by the OPP! We flew out to Toronto on a red-eye, picked up the merch and the crew and did it all on one hour of sleep out of 36! We’re gonna be doing 12 shows in 13 days!
That’s an intense itinerary…
JK: Yeah but D.O.A., is one of the few bands tough enough to do it … or stupid enough depending on how you look at it (laughs).
I see you’re almost crossing paths with Jello Biafra on this tour, which reminded of the fact that you said that the collaboration that D.O.A. did with Jello, The Last Scream of the Missing Neighbours, was the largest selling album you’ve ever been involved with. Does that seem odd to you?
JK: He’s a really brilliant guy, he’s got a lot to say and he’s influenced a lot of people. I mean that record is twenty years old but it was huge all over Europe, especially in Germany. When we played that song (”Full-Metal Jack-Off”) people would go fuckin’ nuts. I mean nowadays the older guys don’t have as much energy and some of the young people just go (adopts German accent), “Well, this is a long song” (all concerned laugh) but they get it.
So on this tour, what’s D.O.A. driving?
JK: Oh we’re flying from Toronto to Saskatoon and then driving out to Winnipeg and flying home. About 8 or 9 years ago I said I would never drive across our fair country again, I’ve done it so many goddamn times! I like driving across the prairies and yeah I like driving by the Great Lakes but I can’t spend the next half of my life in a van, I’ve already done that. I love playing shows but I’m just trying to shorten the time it takes to get to them. I’m a big Star Trek fan, so if I get could the Transporter working that’d be wonderful.
Speaking of which, your new song “Kirk, Scotty and Bones” is only the second punk rock Star Trek song I’ve ever heard (alongside The Dickies “Make It So”), how did it come about?
JK: It’s actually part of the theme of the album, “Talk – Action = Zero. The big thing with the Capt. Kirk song, is that even though they’re a fictional thing, they resonate with people for so long is because they did things because it’s right thing to do and not because they’d get on a big reality show, or get a lot of bling or go out with Hollywood starlets. They did things because it was the right thing to do and that’s becoming more and more lost in modern society.
Now that you’re heading for what must be your hundredth tour, how do you stay inspired playing songs that are sometimes up to thirty years old?
JK: Well if you take a song like, “The Prisoner”, we’ve probably played it live 3,00 times but if something is a vehicle that will give people in the audience joy then it’s a good thing to use. I don’t like to totally play old songs completely but there’s a few nuggets like “The Prisoner”, “Fucked Up Ronnie” or “Fucked Up whoever we’ve attached the title to”, the audience gets a real jolt from it and that kinds of energy kicks back at the band and helps carry everything through. The thing with D.O.A. is we put up new albums, we’re progressive, politically and socially, and that stops us from becoming a nostalgia act. That’s death when you’re like that.
On the topic of old songs, D.O.A. often re-records songs from all different points in their career. What’s the thinking behind that?
JK: Well, if you can update a song in a lively way, with a lyrical change like on this latest album we re-did “Royal Police” from our first e.p. but named it “RCMP”. With that song it’s thinking about the mis-deeds of the RCMP that are vast and numerous. I was reading these articles that detailed gross violations that they’d done and the punishment would be a week off without pay or two months at the desk. Y’know if every one acted that way it’d be like fuckin’ Dodge City 1871, your life wouldn’t be worth a plug nickel!
I’m getting off topic about rewriting songs, I mean if they’ve got a really good merit or sometimes they’re unavailable like in the case of (the songs) “To Hell and Back” and “Lumberjack City”, we couldn’t get that album back from the company in New York.
Are we ever gonna see those albums again?
JK: I’ve gotten everything back except True North Strong and Free and Murder – the mid-period albums or whatever. It’s a drag but, hey, you make mistakes when you’re young, sign contracts that you never shoulda signed.
You seemed to not have had as many legal problems with the label CD Presents that bands like The Subhumans had.
JK: That’s weird but we actually had to sign an agreement that we wouldn’t bad mouth each other. But that lawsuit pretty well broke up the band at the time. In the mid-eighties we spent fifty grand U.S. on a lawyer and that was when the Canadian dollar was at sixty-five cents so it was enormously bankrupting on the band – financially and energy-wise. We had a tangle with him but we settled and we got the albums back – Bloodied but Unbowed and Let’s Wreck the Party
I asked about your process of writing your book and one of the questions I felt the book left unanswered was about how you write songs. Even though you’ve written hundreds of songs, not necessarily pop songs but some damn good ones nevertheless, I rarely hear either you or critics talk about you as a songwriter. So how does your song-writing process work?
JK: Half the time I sit down at night with a beer and just start playing guitar. I’ll find a groove or a beat and work a pattern around that. I’m so old-school – I think I’m an analogue guy in a digital world – that I tape it on a mini-cassette. Then later, I sit down with the tapes and say, “That’s a good riff” or “That one’s a pure shit” or “That one’s exactly the same as a song from the last album”. The hardest part is the lyric. Not everybody can play music but everybody in the world can sing a little bit. The words being sung are the one thing that everyone in the world can relate to. When you come up with a chorus, a lyric or a key line it’s gotta be something that people will remember, something that will make people think. Then I search around for an idea, whether it’s in newspapers, TV or people’s conversations. Sometimes in conversation people will say something that just really fuckin’ makes sense – I suppose I’ve ripped some people off – and I try to turn it into a song. Sometimes you start with a verse but lately I’ve been going from the chorus because you need a focus. Then you gotta hammer it into shape. I’ve never written a song in twenty minutes. I’ve come up with all the riffs for a song in twenty minutes but then you gotta hammer it into shape and that can take days or months.
I recently heard Win Butler of Arcade Fire say that artists “Don’t get to choose their foundational influences”. Who are some of your other foundational influences and how have they shaped who you are?
JK: Well, my older sister would always bring home folk records back in the sixties – Bob Dylan, The Weavers, Peter Seeger stuff like that. I didn’t realize this till three or four years ago but for me my older brother, who’s into music and who’s a union organizer, that stuff had a big influence on our perception of music and especially politics.
What about your influence on the wider world? What, would you hope the legacy of “Joey Shithead” would be?
JK: Well if you think about the role we played in hardcore back in the day, I think we helped make the politics manifest and we made it accessible.
Speaking of politics, at one point in your book you say you brought back D.O.A. because “there wasn’t any new loud, ripping obnoxious rock band that would gleefully send a punk boot right into the establishment’s groin” But what about Winnipeg’s Propagandhi? Don’t you feel they’ve followed the hard-rockin, hard-drinkin, hard rebellin’ road you laid down?
JK: They’re a great band, a band who knows how to play hard and knows what the fuck they’re talking about. Y’know, truth is good punk is a lot like the counterculture of the sixties was.
Journalist Bob Mersereau’s book the Top 100 Canadian Singles leaves out all Vancouver punk (and new wave) from your band to The Pointed Sticks, to The Young Canadians to The Modernettes. Then the punk bands that do make the list are Ontario bands like The Demics, Teenage Head and The Diodes. Are you still frustrated by this belief that Toronto’s punk scene was Canada’s most important one, even though almost no one outside of T.O. seems to think so?
JK: Well, I’m not saying this because I’m in the band, but outside of the Canada, in the United-States and Europe, the two best known Canadian punk bands would be D.O.A. and NoMeansNo.The Ontario-centric viewpoint of musical history is really frustrating but in essence the Vancouver scene was five or ten times more creative than the Toronto because we had to be because there was no outlet, no record companies, no distro, no clubs. Whereas Toronto bands at that time – and it’s not insulting them and saying that they’re not good bands – but they had the record industry that the bands would try to cater to. By being in a backwater, like Vancouver, you have to strike out by being more daring than the rest.
Stepping back a bit, what do you make of the state of our nation now?
JK: It’s rule by mediocrity. When you don’t have a leader that’s strong enough to put forth a vision, then out political leaders are reduced to just reading polls and reacting to what they hear in the press.
Well how did you find a vision for D.O.A. that is so Canadian and yet so universal?
JK: Well one thing I decided a long time ago was that a band needs an identity. So when I thought about Texas I thought about ZZ Top, when I thought about London I thought about the Sex Pistols. There’s something about their sound and the way they look you really identify where you were. That’s how we came up with the mac jacket or the flannel look, which ended up getting copied in Seattle. This is the Canadian lumberjack look. We really played that up with the hockey, the chainsaws and the mac jackets and anything we could think of. At first, people in Europe and even the States couldn’t believe there was punk rock from Canada. By being adventurous and going and taking a chance that made the name for D.O.A. We got out there and did it, and that’s the bottom line.
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