June 23 2010 12:00 AM

Pioneering punk band D.O.A. is still at work, 32 years later


While many of his peers in the original ‘80s hardcore punk scene have hung it up, moved on or since reunited, Joe “Shithead” Keithley, front man and founder of Vancouver’s D.O.A., has continued to write, record and crisscross the globe to spread the gospel of “Be your own boss, think for yourself and try to affect some positive change in the world.” 

The title of your new record, “Talk – Action = 0,” is sort of a longstanding mantra for the band. What made you decide to name an album that at this point in your career?

It’s the D.O.A. slogan. It’s not necessarily a call to arms, so to speak, but a philosophical call to arms for people to get up and think and take action. We had used it on a [out of print] live album 20 years ago, but I just thought it was the right time for that slogan for a D.O.A. album

Tell me about the first single, “I Live in a Car.”

I read this article about this whole family living in a Suburban in Los Angeles, and it was just like, this has gone way too fucking far. When you’re young, sure, I’ve lived in a car, I’ve lived in a van, I’ve slept in a park and gotten chased away by cops, but when you’re whole world is inside one old vehicle and you can’t even really get enough money for gas to get from point A to point B, things are seriously fucked up. We’ve been overtaken by greed and consumerism, and it’s time for something different for people, because the average people are not getting by very well the way it’s going right now.

In Michigan I think we know that as well as anyone.

I was about to say, you’re probably way more familiar with that than me, with the history of manufacturing, and the unemployment in Michigan. It’s unbelievable. I was in China about 14 months ago; we did a tour there. You can see one reason why this is happening in the U.S. People were just doing all of this work, and they really had nothing either. They were working for next to nothing making all of this stuff. The pathetic part of it is a bunch of people are doing all the work, and they don’t have much, and there’s still people getting rich off of it.

Is it tough to put together a tour in China as a Canadian anarchist?

Yeah, we had to send in lyrics. We picked out a couple of songs that were more on the mild side. That passed, and we hadn’t done a song about Falun Gong, and we hadn’t done a song about Tibet, so all of a sudden we were in. I was totally expecting to fly 17 hours and then get turned away at the border, but we got in and it was completely fascinating, and the kids and the bands were terrific. The punk scene there is really knew, and they definitely had a subversive side to them, but when you have a fascist government like that, you can’t say anything outright, or you wind up in jail or disappear, so artists have to express themselves almost sideways.

Some of us in the United States have looked to Canada as a place where people are thinking at least somewhat sanely. What’s it like to be there and look at our political climate?

The thing that’s really troubling about the United States is the polarization between left and right. In Canada you don’t quite have that same vitriolic fervor. There’s a lot more civil discourse between right and left, and the bulk of people are sort of right in the middle. To me, Canada is going pretty good, but it’s far from perfect. In Vancouver we have a lot of homeless, and we probably have the biggest junkie population and addiction problem anywhere in the world; it’s on par with New York, even thought it’s about a 10th of the size. The cops have almost given up. There are people working to try and help people, and there are different ideas to get people to stop form OD-ing, Vancouver’s a really cool town, but it’s got a really unseemly underbelly to it as well.

A couple of years ago you celebrated the 30th anniversary of the band and you recorded an album with uber producer Bob Rock (Metallica, Aerosmith, Motley Crue). How did that come about, and did you ever think D.O.A. would be around 30 years?

First off, to be around 30 years, that’s a total surprise. I wouldn’t have thought we’d have lasted five years. As for Bob, he worked on our first couple of singles. He was a young engineer at a studio here in Vancouver. It was a famous studio, but we would go in at midnight, when the time was really cheap. I approached him about doing that record [in 2008]. He’s a real nice guy. He didn’t say, “We’ve got to change this, this, this, this.” He goes, “It’s D.O.A., they do what they do, they have their sound. Let’s take their sound and put it on a record.” It was completely straightforward.

What’s your take on recent nostalgia for ‘80s hardcore punk?

That was a really great era of music. IT was like, “We’ve got a bunch of really energetic and angry music. Let’s just go to a studio, play as hard as we can and put it out.” Sometimes the bands were really rehearsed and sometimes they weren’t, but in either case you could get great records. It was loosey goosey. To find other bands, we would go down to the record store and write down addresses from magazines to find gigs, and we would send letters to people, like, “Can we come play in your town?” I don’t think kids today realize that. Communication was not there, even though it was the modern world.

I would imagine it weeded a lot of people out

In those days, to record in a studio, the minimum was $500 a day, and that was a lot fucking money to make a record, so when you did it, you had to go and back it up by playing live shows, and if you didn’t go play live shows, then nobody knew about your single. Now people can go record an album and put it on MySpace and try to accumulate fans. I don’t think you go through the proof of the pudding, because the way bands gets really good is you go play tons of shows for people and you weed out the bad songs and you keep the good songs, and they improve as you go along. Before D.O.A. did our first album, we had probably done 200 shows and rehearsed like 1,600 times.

The band we saw all of the time and traded promoters’ numbers and information with was Black Flag, because both bands were crisscrossing North America all the time from ’78 to ’82, doing tons of shows. A lot of people in those days, if you ask them what heir first punk rock show was, they’d likely say it was D.O.A. or Black Flag, especially in the middle of the continent where a lot of people didn’t go.

Around these parts, the history is in bands like [Detroit’s] Negative Approach, [and Lansing’s] Meatmen and The Fix. I’m wondering how often you came through this part of the country.

We did play with The Fix one time in Lansing. Touch & Go [a local fanzine and, eventually, record label] probably put on the show. It was probably about 1980 or ’81. I have no idea what the venue was. We would run into those guys a little bit. Our stomping ground was going to California. To go to San Francisco was 20 hours straight driving; L.A. was 28 hours, and we knew every truck stop along the way. To fill in along the way, we’d play Seattle and Portland.

You guys get some credit for the term “hardcore” because of your album “Hardcore ’81.” Did you invent it, or just make it more popular or official?

We were maybe the progenitors of “hardcore,” but we didn’t make up the term. We put the term in the common vernacular, and people started talking about it. We saw a magazine article that said something like, “There’s a new type of punk rock out there, and I call it hardcore,” this is what the writer said, “and it involves The Avengers, Circle Jerks, D.O.A., The Dead Kennedys and Black Flag. It’s this non-compromising style that doesn’t sound like New York, and it doesn’t sound like London.” So we got back after that trip, and we were recording our second album, and the manager said, “Why don’t we call the album Hardcore ’81?” Then we had a little mini festival in Vancouver with Black Flag, 7 Seconds and some locals, and we called it the Hardcore ’81 festival, and then we did a 50-city tour of North America.

It seems like you weren’t ever locked into one way of playing; you’re sound isn’t always just loud and fast, but some time more mid tempo and melodic.

I think that has a little to do with the guys in D.O.A. coming up in the ‘70s. I got out of high school in ’74. When I was in high school, the bands we were listening to were Alice Cooper and Deep Purple and, of course, Black Sabbath. These were the heavy bands around at the time, and then we heard about punk rock.

What keeps you inspired and doing this?

First off, we have fun playing. The idea of playing rock music from back then until now, you’ve got to get up there and get people excited, and if you do, you feed off what the audience is doing. That’s the whole thing; rock music has got to be exciting. You’ve got to involve the people in the audience. I still get a real charge from what we get from the audience. And D.O.A. has always been the perfect vehicle for me to say what I feel about the world; the philosophy in a nutshell is, “Be your own boss, think for yourself and try to affect some positive change in this world.”

What sets this album apart for you?

This one I think is a bit more back to the early days, a bit dirtier and a bit more of a punk rock album. I think it’s good and sharp, and we’re really happy with the way it came out. I know everybody who comes out with a new album says, “Yeah, I think this is our best album yet.” So I’m not going to say that. I’m just going to say I think it’s really good, and I’m happy with the message on it, too. And I got to write about some of my heroes. There’s a song about the “Star Trek” crew. There’s a song about them saving people and doing things and not collecting dough. They’re just TV characters, but these guys had the right idea of why you’re on this Earth.”

Are you playing mostly new stuff on this tour?

For this tour, a friend of ours asked, “Why don’t you guys try playing most of Hardcore ’81,” so we were like, “OK.” We will play mostly songs from “Hardcore ’81,” some songs from “Bloodied but Unbowed,” and about four new ones and some covers. And a bunch of surprises.

The lineup we’ve got now, we’ve been traveling for about three years. We just got back form Europe. We did 20 shows in 19 days. Here’s a story for you, there was a huge riot in Zurich, when we played the May Day parade. We played this show for about 2,000 people, and then the Swiss Riot Police, about 1,000 of them, I’m not kidding, moved in with water canon trucks and arrested about 400 people, so that was pretty well the start of the tour. I’ve seen riots before, but never anything that big.

What’s your home life like? Do you have a family?

I’ve got three kids, two are grown up. I’ve got a son who is 13, and I coach his baseball team, and, to me, that’s a real riot. This summer I’m setting up a drum set. I’m teaching him guitar, so I’m going to drum and we’re just going to work on music.”

I first encountered D.O.A. by watching Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers wear your t-shirt in the “Under the Bridge” video. Is there a story behind that?

We were in Los Angeles in ’89 or ’90, and we had a couple of days off. We had met the guys from the Chili Peppers. John, our drummer at the time, and Brian the bass player went golfing with [RCHP bassist] Flea and Anthony, and they ended up giving him a t-shirt. A lot of people ask, “How’d those guys get your shirt?” It’s a total tip-off if you can get a big band like that do that; it’s always going to help.