Joe Keithley of D.O.A.: “Being in a band is a really good chance to say what you think about the world…”

Handmade mixed-media art by B.

On this day in 1981, Canadian punk band D.O.A. released their Hardcore ’81 album. Punk heavyweights Ian MacKaye, Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra and Kevin Seconds have all spoken of the impact and importance of this record. It’s been said that the title is the first time the term “hardcore” was used to describe this style of punk outside of a music publication. A couple of years ago their sophomore full-length won The Polaris Music Prize, awarded annually to one of the all-time best Canadian albums based on artistic merit. Hardcore ’81 still holds up today, as a record that is still wild (or as Joe puts it, “rips your face off”), full of conviction and energy. D.O.A. were also one of the first punk bands to tour (North America) independently, setting the blueprint for all the bands that have come after them. Yesterday, Gimmie spoke to vocalist-guitarist Joe Keithley.

On the 22nd of April D.O.A.’s album Hardcore ’81 celebrates its 40th Anniversary; what comes to mind when you think of that record?

JOE KEITHLEY: Lots of things. It’s a unique thing that we came up with, that title, and threw it on an album. It was a collective thing; we had heard the term “hardcore” a few times. There is some argument with who came up with the term but that doesn’t really matter, I think it’s a worldwide movement that came out of a few bands, including D.O.A.

We’re reissuing it on my label Sudden Death Records in August. It will be a special 40th Anniversary edition—it’s a fucking classic record! [laughs]. I don’t look at old D.O.A. records very often, but I put that one on when we were doing the remastering. We added three bonus tracks. I was like, wow! It just rips your face off, so that’s a good thing, right?

Totally! It is definitely a classic. An important punk record. Around the time you initially released the album you would have been around 25-years-old, I think? What was happening in your life or around you at that time that inspired the writing of the songs on Hardcore ’81?

JK: Yeah, that’s about right. Before that we’d spent a lot of time as a band touring. Since I was a teenager, I’ve always been an activist for different causes, we took that on as much as we could doing benefits shows and doing records for good causes all around the world. We’d been around North America [on tour] a bunch and we’d been going to Southern California probably five or six times a year; that became our home away from home. What happened was, I was probably in the van driving up and down the Interstate 5 highway back and forth between Los Angeles and Vancouver playing shows.

The only thing that I did at home was that I was a cab driver. They didn’t really care about me and I didn’t really care about the cab company. When I showed up, I would drive the car and when I didn’t, some other guy would, probably another musician or a waiter [laughs].

Did you find driving cabs interesting with all the different kinds of people that you meet?

JK: [Laughs]. That’s one way of putting it! I drove for a long time, for three or four different companies, on and off, for about six years. I’d go to the job every time I’d arrive back from tour and be broke. I’d just call them up and start driving again. You’d meet some interesting people; you’d meet some you didn’t like and be glad you never got to see them again. I thought it was pretty interesting, the one thing I really noticed was that, people with not a lot of money, they were the most generous tippers and people with a lot of money, were really cheap. Go figure, right?

Right. That’s usually been the case in my experience too. On the cover of Hardcore ’81 there’s photobooth picture strips of each member; where did you get those done?

JK: Yeah, it’s one of those machines that you go into a booth and they’d take passport sized photos, you get a strip of three or four. Our manager had the idea. The booth was probably in Vancouver, maybe at the Greyhound [bus] Station. We went down there and thought it would be pretty funny. They look great on the cover.

Why did you decided to cover the Led Zeppelin song ‘Communication Breakdown’ on that record?

JK: I can’t remember what the impetus for that was. I remember that there was this guy in my neighbourhood when I was growing up, and if a new song came on the radio… (we lived on a mountainside-type-thing, it was quite steep) he would take his old records, of the songs that weren’t in fashion anymore, and he’d roll them down the hill! When I got into my first punk rock band, which was called The Skulls, we were from Vancouver, I found a hill (this was about ‘78’) and I took all my Led Zeppelin records I had loved in high school and I rolled them down the hill. They got run over by cars and got smashed to bits! [laughs].

For some reason someone in the band suggested we do that song. Nobody could sing it though. Chuck [Biscuits] tried to sing it, Randy [Rampage] tried to sing it, but they were both too high. I said, “I’ll do it!” We put this underwater effect on it, it makes you sound like you’re underwater singing. We were like, “Huh! That kind of works.” The original take actually went on for about another minute, it was longer; at the very end you could hear the sound of a 2-inch tape going off. The ending was kind of perfect.

Why is music important to you?

JK: Music has always been a big thing for me. For one thing, it’s a lot of fun! That’s why you get up on stage, you want to thrill people and excite them and get ‘em worked up. I think that’s the goal of a band. With a punk band, or metal band, or rock band, heavier stuff, you want to see people going crazy, so you have to do something to make ‘em go crazy.

Being in a band is a really good chance to say what you think about the world. I was heavily politicized when I was a kid, with the Vietnam War going on and environmental degradation and the Arms Race between America and the Soviet Union. I joined Greenpeace when I was seventeen. I got into a band, D.O.A. started to take off and I thought I had a perfect soapbox to get up on and say what I thought about the world. That’s why I did my songs.

Before you started D.O.A. you wanted to be a civil rights lawyer; obviously you’ve always cared about people and what’s going on in the world?

JK: Yeah! My goal through Junior High was to be a professional hockey player for the Boston Bruin, to play ice hockey [laughs]. That didn’t work out, I was ok, but not that kind of quality. Then I got into the legal thing. I was involved in protest stuff.

This guy, William Kunstler, the lawyer for the Chicago Seven – there were big riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention – he defended them, which I found quite interesting. I thought, I want to be like William Kunstler! He defended Abbie Hoffman [a political and social activist who co-founded the Youth International Party (“Yippies”) and a leading proponent of the Flower Power movement] and all the rest of the people that were on trial. I guess it was strange for a kid in high school to have the resolve to be a lawyer [laughs]; a civil rights lawyer, not a lawyer, lawyer!

Yes! There’s definitely a difference [laughter]. Was there a moment you can remember that you realised that music could have a big impact on people?

JK: Oh yeah, absolutely! When I was a kid in high school and even much earlier. You could see people like Jimi Hendrix and Country Joe McDonald, influenced what was going on in the world. Think about the Vietnam War for example, it was a big, big thing when I was a kid, and musicians would stand up against it. It was an interesting transition, at first, they were called “Commie pinko fags” and all that stuff for not supporting the American war machine. Eventually, people in the mid-west, farmers, saw it was an immoral war as well—not that any war is moral. This one was particularly horrible. All of a sudden, people that played music that was saying stuff against it, weren’t so far out there and wrong, and you had the regular work people saying “yes” too. They might not have been buying Jimi Hendrix records, but he was influencing people that were involved. Rather than saying that Richard Nixon stopped the Vietnam War—it was the people that did.

What do you feel is one of your most powerful songs?

JK: There’s a few. ‘World War 3’ and ‘The Prisoner’ [from Something Better Change] is a really strong song. I think the song that a lot of people identify D.O.A. with is ‘The Enemy’ which is on the first record and on the Positively D.O.A. 7-inch EP [with the lyric]: “Ya gotta know who your enemy is”. It’s synonymous with D.O.A. and D.O.A. fans. The line in the chorus, pretty much says it all.

Your band is known for being trailblazers of independent touring, especially in North America, laying the blueprint for bands that came after you. Previously you’ve mentioned that part of why you started touring is because the band were adventurous; have you always had the sense of adventure?

JK: I was a pretty introverted child, I wasn’t really outgoing or anything like that, which may be hard to believe [laughs], it’s very true though. It was one of those things that just started happening, I went to university to be a lawyer. I was there for about four months and then I was in a punk rock band, we got a little bit popular, not long after that we started D.O.A. and that took off right away, within a few months things were moving pretty quick—right guys at the right time in the right place.

Because Vancouver was a real backwater (not these days though, Vancouver is a big town with over three million people). The music industry was in London, New York, Los Angeles and Toronto, for us anyway. Obviously, you’d link Melbourne and Sydney to that too from where you are. Those were the centres of attention and where all the bands were getting signed and that they would gravitate towards. We didn’t, we thought we’ll just strike out on our own. D.O.A. was a lot more unique because we weren’t trying to play to get signed to a label, therefore our style wasn’t co-opted from someone from a record label going, “Oh, you should really put more of this in there!” The pressures that bands start to get when they begin to get popular. We blazed our own way!

We bought a van and toured up and down everywhere. In 1979, we went all the way down to California, to Texas, up to Chicago, New York and eastern Canada and all the way back; it was a North American tour. We had a lot of days off because we didn’t know what the fuck we were doing! We’d sit around at people’s houses and eat them out of house and home [laughs], ‘til they got sick of us and then we’d try and find another show. That’s all we could do. We were getting a lot of attention.

A big break [in 1981] was that we saw an ad in one of the big English music papers like Melody Maker or New Music Express (they were pretty influential, people in North America would read them too), it said that D.O.A. were opening up for the Dead Kennedys at the Lyceum in London! It was a big, big hall, 3,000 people-type-thing. We looked at the ad and were like, “We are? Nobody told us about that!” We phoned up the promoter and they said, “Sure, you guys can play, but I won’t pay you anything. You have to get over here.” We all saved up about $700 to pay for the air flights and we found some friends to crash with, on their floor. We went to London and played this big show. It worked out because the record company [Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles Records] released Positively D.O.A. and it became Single Of The Week [in British press]. It sold a lot! We were like, wow! Ok! That whetted our appetite to do more. Eventually in ’84 we came back and did a two-month tour of Europe and the UK.

Before you mentioned that when you were younger you were introverted and now obviously, you’re not; did being in a punk band give you confidence?

JK: It certainly makes you stand out from the crowd. When I got into it, people were afraid of punk rock, they thought it was the strangest type of music that had come out and people were shocked by what they saw; some people were interested in it though, and loved it like me. We were way in the minority.

Being in a band, the first few times you go up there, you might want to get off stage and puke because you were so nervous. Because you have your fellow bandmates there with you, your confidence grows off of each other. You get the courage to get up there and do what you do. If you’re good at it, it will grow.

Another thing that I’ve always loved about D.O.A. is that you always keep moving forward and create new things. You once said, “We still sound like a punk rock band, but we’ve tried to progress with the times.  We try to expand what we can do lyrically.  We sing about what’s going on now.  We don’t hearken back to the glory days of punk.” A lot of people talk about punk like it was a special time that existed in a particular time period. It’s still happening today and still thriving. Punk is an energy, that keeps moving and evolving.

JK: Yeah, I would agree. There’s lots of younger bands around with great ideas and lots of energy. They’re being rebellious, and that’s what it was about it the first place. An older band has to find new ways to keep progressing, to find new ways to express themselves, that’s really important. If you don’t come up with anything new, that’s fine, if you just put out two albums and you go on tour 30 years later and play those songs to fans it’s because it’s kind of a trip down nostalgia lane. With D.O.A. there is a sense of nostalgia because we were one of the early pioneers of the whole thing but you have to keep moving forward, otherwise you become a nostalgia act, which is deadly if you ask me; that’s not where you want to be as an artist, you want to keep writing new songs.

Is there a particular way that songs come to you more often when you’re writing?

JK: If I sat down for a couple of days with my guitar I could come up with hundreds of riffs, they could be good or bad or I could be repeating myself (which happens when you’ve written so many songs for as long as I have). The big thing for me is the lyrics; if you get the lyric, that’s the key. When I have the lyric, I can try to write the music to back its sentiment. If it’s a dark lyric, you want something dark sounding. If it’s a happy lyric, then maybe you play D, G and C. If it’s something evil, dark, maybe you play a B-flat and E-flat [laughs]. Some cues are happy and some cues are mean and tough. To come up with a good lyric is a hard thing to do.

Please check out: suddendeath.com & D.O.A. on Facebook. There’s also a documentary about Joe and D.O.A. in the works called Something Better Change more info here.