an interview with D.O.A., whose ‘Fight Back’ LP comes out this week
When D.O.A. formed from the ashes of a band called The Skulls in 1978, punk rock itself was still in its infancy. The Canadian band played faster than The Ramones but was as politically charged as the Clash. Their unrelenting intensity and the fortuitously titled sophomore album Hardcore ’81 led to a popularizing of the term “hardcore” as a description of punk rock’s louder and snottier second wave that is still in use today.
Although the band would have a revolving door of members, including original drummer Chuck Biscuits who would go on to drum in Black Flag, Danzig, and Social Distortion, the one constant is Joe Keithley. In addition to playing guitar and singing in D.O.A. he owns Sudden Death Records which release his own music as well as the likes of MDC, Sham 69, The Vibrators, and Thor. He also: became a published author with the 2004 autobiography I, Shithead: A Life in Punk (taking the surname Shithead when the band started probably seemed like a good idea at the time), entered into the Canadian Independent Music Hall of Fame, and, aside from a small break in the early 1990s, spent the past 40 years fronting D.O.A. and living up to the mantra “Talk – Action = Zero.”
D.O.A. will release their 17th album Fight Back this Friday (5/4). It is just as uncompromising and ferocious as anything the band has ever done. Keithley still has something to say at 61 years old and still prefers the direct approach: loud and literally in your face since he still spends nearly half the year on tour. Calling in from the Sudden Death offices in British Columbia, Keithley is articulate and passionate whether reminiscing about the band’s past or his own political aspirations.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Invisible Oranges is a metal blog. We live in more enlightened times but when D.O.A. formed, metal and punk didn’t get along very well.
Yeah, not particularly. It was kind of a funny thing. The lines are much more blurred now musically. I think that kind of transition happened after like 1985 when you really had some faster metal bands come along. The unifying factor that joined the two was Motörhead because punks could get into it and metalheads could get into it. And punk got faster with the more hardcore aspect of it.
D.O.A. is credited as inventing hardcore by many people. Do you take credit for that?
Yeah, I think that’s a legit thing to say because we came up with the album Hardcore ’81 and we did the first hardcore festivals in Vancouver with us, Black Flag, and Seven Seconds in February and March 1981. We went on the road and played all over the USA and Canada under that title. Really what we were saying was, okay, we have an attitude that’s non-compromising and we’re going to go play hard and it’s not a fashion thing. These are some of the early tenets of hardcore. So people say D.O.A. are the godfathers of hardcore in that sense even though when you listen to it today, you don’t go, oh, that’s hardcore. So I like to say we came up with the title and we’re a hardcore punk band.
D.O.A. is celebrating forty years together with this new album, which is, uh, I, I tried to count, I think it’s your 17th studio record.
Yes, it’s the 17th album. It’s been 40 years and the band has been everywhere. We took a brief break in 1990, 1991 for almost two years, but [otherwise] we’ve been going continuously the whole time. We’ve played like 4,000 shows in five continents, in 44 countries.
Would you ever have imagined still doing this in 2018?
I wouldn’t have believed it. I would have told the person they were crazy. I think there’s an old quote of mine from some magazine, somebody asked if D.O.A. was going to be around for a long time and I said we’d be lucky if make two years! We were a pretty volatile bunch of young fellows but that’s what made D.O.A. good in the first place – we were volatile and creative. Tim Yohannan who started Maximum Rocknroll magazine, he said to me, “how’s it feel to be such an old fart? Five years in a punk rock band! Aren’t you too old for this?” He was trying to piss me off, and he did!
You’re the only original member of D.O.A. making it uniquely your project. Is it a democracy or are you a dictator?
To be blunt, you have to have a vision. There are a few basic things with D.O.A. Those guys were great and really creative like Chuck, Randy [Rampage] and Dave [Gregg] who is not with us anymore. And people like Wimpy [Brian Goble] and Dimwit [Ken Montgomery] are my best friends who I grew up with.
As people go along, they change and what they want to get on life, what they want to get out of music changes. D.O.A. was really pretty much always based on camaraderie, right? So if you don’t have that camaraderie, something has to give. Like, I’d hate to be in a situation like The Who were. They hated each other’s guts but they were playing because they were The Who. I think they were one of the great bands, but I need that sense of camaraderie and friendship and common goals, right?
‘Cause D.O.A. started with a few things: We were going to take over the world and make a bunch of really loud, obnoxious rock music and have fun doing it, right? And those were the three tenets that we started with and you know, that really hasn’t changed that much even though we’re not twenty, I’m sixty. You do things differently when you’re sixty than when you’re twenty, that’s for sure. I would hope!
The current lineup has been together since around 2013, correct?
We’ve got a great rhythm section, Paddy Duddy on drums and Mike Hodsall – we call him Corkscrew – on bass. They’re really easy to get along with and they’re good musicians. They understand punk rock. The big thing is you’ve got to respect D.O.A. You’ve got to understand the politics, you’ve got to understand the sound. You can’t come along and try to reinvent the wheel because the wheel is not broken, basically. That’s all I really asked from anybody who has come into the band. This is how we do things. I’m going to listen to you, because I think is really valuable to get input from people. You don’t want to be a person that’s on an island by themselves. You have to be open to new ideas as they come along.
They’ve both been in the band about four years or so. And this is a second album we’ve done together. We’ve done like, 300 shows together or something like that
You’re still logging the shows! You’re going to be 62 in June and D.O.A. doesn’t have their own plane like Metallica! It sounds like you’re making absolutely no concessions to getting older with your tour schedule.
[Laughs] No, it doesn’t seem that way! We try to play every day if we can. What are we going to do on a day off? Let’s go play, let’s talk to people, have fun with them and entertain them! Rile them up; get them out there to change things, that’s kind of my goal. You have to learn to pace yourself. When you’re young, you don’t pace yourself. You’re too busy partying or whatever. So you conserve your energy and when you get on stage let it all hang out and go for it.
On the new album you let it all hang out and go for it. It’s called Fight Back and in many ways you’re still fighting back against the same things from decades ago. Does it ever bother you that the things you have been fighting against for decades are still a problem?
Yeah, it’s a funny thing. When we started out I thought the big problems were racism, sexism, greed and warmongers. Forty years later racism, sexism, greed and warmongers are still the big problems, right?
In some ways things have improved. Some things have gotten worse. Things go in cycles too, and we’ve got a rising tide of racism now happening in North America, in Europe, around the world. Those types of problems never completely go away. So I think it sets up this whole thing for fighting back; you have to continue to fight back.
When I start to write an album, I never really have an idea for a theme. You just have to come up with some songs. But I realized when I got about halfway through, okay, that we had a central theme of the album before we hit the title. That central theme is inequality in the world. When we came up with the title, Fight Back, it was perfect. It makes sense for what’s going on – economic inequality, racism, sexism, and all those kinds of things. We’re just talking about [how] the world hasn’t got better or we found ways to completely screw up and get worse.
D.O.A. is Canadian but the band has immersed itself in US politics. The new album has “Just Got Back from the USA,” you famously did “Fucked up Ronnie” about Reagan which you updated for Trump. Is American culture that pervasive on Canada or do you just find American politicians more reprehensible than the Trudeaus?
The influence the United States has on the world is big, but the influence the United States has on Canada is really big! We’re your best friends and your next door neighbor too. I’ve probably spent five years of my life down there. I have done something like 2,500 shows in the United States. So the influence America has culturally and politically is a big influence whether some people can’t stand that. But you know, it’s reality, right? So we react to that. Songs like “America the Beautiful” and “Fucked Up Ronnie” are talking about American politics – the type of politics that we disagree with obviously.
You’re a member of the Green Party which is a little different in Canada. Here in the states, they just run a spoiler candidate for president but don’t do much locally whereas up there it’s a growing party in many places as I understand it.
We’re holding the balance of power in British Columbia at state-level politics which is making the party in power do better things than if we hadn’t won those seats. We’re at real loggerheads with Trudeau right now because he approved this pipeline that runs right through my hometown.
He has a reputation for being liberal but I know some lefties don’t know why.
He’s better than Donald Trump as a leader and he’s better than our last prime minister, Stephen Harper, who was a real place of work. But he’s not quite the hero that he was a couple of years ago. But that’s what happens with politicians. All of a sudden they get into office and as opposed to “I’m going to help you,” it becomes “do as I say because I’m the boss.” I don’t believe in that crap.
You’ve run for office a few times already yourself.
Here’s an interesting thing for you. I’m running for mayor of my hometown. The name of the town is Burnaby, and it’s under the Green banner. And I think I’ve got a half-decent shot at winning. That’s in October. I think we’ll make a real dent. My opponent is well financed, really experienced and really vicious. But you what? I love a challenge!
Punk rock in general and you in particular have always been about challenging authority. You know if you win the mayoral race that makes you the authority!
I guess as my campaign theme song I’ll have to use “Fight the Power!” Yeah, that’s a well-put question. Basically as the leader of D.O.A. in writing all the songs and doing benefit shows and benefit albums for people over the years, I’ve kind of been an unofficial politician here in Canada and around the world in a sense, right? So now I guess I’m just trying to make it official, right?
My basic thing with politics is that I would do it the same way that I do things in D.O.A. You got to respect people, you got to listen to people, people deserve democracy and they don’t deserve the bullshit that they’re getting from politicians. It’s really about grass roots democracy, people power. This is important, a really important thing because if politicians are a bunch of windbags that don’t listen, that’s why young people don’t vote. They’re so cynical about politics. So I’m doing my best as the most outsider-type possible candidate that you could get. But it’s time we do things differently.
You also take time to sing about real important stuff – like beer! Specifically bad beer on “We Won’t Drink This Piss.”
We were doing a tour about 15 years ago. There were like 14 bands; seven were English, six were American and D.O.A. was the one Canadian band. The tour was called Social Chaos and it was in 1999. So every time you arrive at the venue, there’d be these big tubs of beer, right? Invariably in the tubs of beer would be, I think it was Miller Lite and Bud Light. Every time we were at the venue, the English guys would arrive and every day they would look into this vat and go, “What is this fucking piss? We’re not going to drink this fucking piss!” They would almost have a revolution and string up the promoter! So I thought that was just a funny thing.
You’re over sixty years old, you run a successful business and you’re a budding politician. Do you ever regret choosing the surname Shithead?
[Laughs] Well, put it this way: If I did I can’t do anything about it now!
I’ll give you one little funny anecdote. People always say you should listen to your mother. When we first became a little bit popular in Vancouver, the newspapers wrote about us, these outrageous punk rock guys. The story would always go “the lead singer Joey…” and my mother would be reading the paper to me when I would go and visit her. She would drop the paper down and she wouldn’t say “Shithead.”
She’d look at me like, “Don’t you think you use your real last name?” And she would just kind of glare at me. She would do this every time. I was like, sorry ma.
It might come in handy because people can’t lay off that. They just go, oh, this guy’s running for office, Mayor Shithead! It is what it is. I’ve had old people tell me, “I can’t stand your nickname, but I’ll still vote for you.”