June 20, 2008
Thirty-years is a long time for anything, especially a career in music. Canadian punk rockers DOA have managed to outlive the majority of punk and hardcore from the late 70s/early 80s, a testament to vocalist Joe “Shithead” Keithley’s passion, dedication and firmly grounded punk opinions.
When we met for the interview Keithley looked everything the part of 1979 – torn, patched denim jacket, messy punk bed head hair, rocker shoes and attitude, but obviously much older, partly to the passed three decades, partly to the rock and roll lifestyle.
Aside from the attire, Keithley is a very different man now. Once a practiced anarchist, he is now the married father of three children whom he talks very highly of, a soccer coach, a Green Party politician, an evident Simpsons fanatic, a successful, published author and a notable authority in the music industry. His stories are hard-lined with knowledge and conviction, the kind of tales only found through bands that existed in a pre-Internet world. Everything about this man is interesting, and with a coffee in one hand and an Amsterdam Blonde in the other, he uninhibitedly told us why.
“The band was based on three things: to have fun, to try to change the world in our own small way and on camaraderie and friendship. I don’t feel you can play music unless there is camaraderie,” Keithley said. “When I was a kid I got so much joy out of listening to all these great records, I wanted to do it so much. Finally when I was 12 I got a drum set and I was a drummer before a guitarist. You have to have this friendship element. When you’re disagreeing with someone the whole time, even though you’re still friends the whole thing goes out. That’s why people change.”
The camaraderie element is partially why DOA’s original bassist Randy Rampage has rejoined the band after such a long hiatus. Keithley is the only member to have maintained his position throughout the band’s career; various musicians have filled all other positions over the years. Currently drummer James Hayden rounds out the trio.
“My philosophy is be your own boss, think for yourself and try to affect some sort of positive change in the world. I don’t think I said it like that in 1978 or 1979, but always that kind of intent was there,” Keithley said.
Three decades and over 40 albums, EPs and singles later, DOA is working with legendary Canadian producer Bob Rock (Metallica, Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams) on their latest album entitled Northern Avenger, expected to be out in August. This is a huge leap from their first endeavors into the music scene, which had them scrimping for money and sneaking across the border to play shows.
“We didn’t have any money at all, we were on welfare or worked part time jobs. We barely had gear. The only gear we had was my guitar and everything else we rented from Long and McQuade and broke and returned and tried to sneak back the broken ones and pretend they weren’t broken. We’d go down to what is now Zulu [Records] and we’d stand around the magazine rack with a piece of paper and pen and start reading these magazines because we couldn’t afford to buy these magazines and of course this wasn’t online in those days,” Keithley said.
Bob Rock is important here because he played in and engineered albums for Canadian band the Payolas, who also helped to shape the scene. This do-it-yourself punk ethic stemmed primarily from lack of financing and accessibility, something many independent bands can relate to today. Unlike contemporary bands who have the help of communities like Myspace, DOA took part in the older, more traditional form of communication: they physically wrote people letters.
“We’d look for people, so and so did a show and if you’re interested in coming to Salt Lake City write this address, because phone calls were expensive back then too. In those days if you called England it was a $20 phone call and we were working at jobs making $5 an hour if we were lucky. It was a long time ago, so it was much cheaper to write letters. Letters were like 17 cents to mail. Or we’d do it through word of mouth. We’d talk to other bands. We put up the initial single, Disco Sucks, in June of ‘78 and we started mailing it to all these addresses, college stations to promoters, from Toronto to California, New York to Chicago. We started getting replies and people liked the single so we booked a trip to San Francisco. I took a train, two guys took a bus and one guy hitchhiked. We didn’t have a car and we just kind of met up. I said I’ll see you guys there in three days good luck! We snuck across the border because we didn’t have work permits.”
What helped make DOA stand out was their west coast brand of Hardcore, a term coined by a San Francisco writer to describe the faster, heavier style of punk rock that was different from the eastern stuff in New York. While Black Flag are considered the godfathers of hardcore by many music critics and enthusiasts alike, DOA really set the standard for the style in Canada when they released their album Hardcore 81 in 1981.
“Our manager thought it would be a great name for the album to put that in the common vernacular with people,” Keithley said. “But now everything is hardcore. It’s the most disposable fucking term going.”
Now the common vernacular of hardcore instantly associates with bands such as Alexisonfire, who are influenced by traditional hardcore but have faster, metal edges.
“In 85 or 86, punks started doing a lot more speed and started listening to Motorhead and the offshoot of that was stuff like Metallica, there’s a punk rock influence with something heavy like Black Sabbath and Motorhead and they’re doing a lot of drugs and then you get thrash. When it gets to the newer hardcore variety, it’s taken on a whole new connotation. Alexisonfire have a thrash attack with their screaming, but they can hit a hook because they’re smart about how they do it,” Keithley said.
Despite the politics surrounding the term “hardcore” in general, one thing is for certain and that is DOA is a band with strong roots, an important history and an aptitude for keeping things fresh without betraying their original foundation. This is why after 30 years a bunch of punk rockers can still tour the world and continue to sell out shows. This is why they matter.
DOA will be touring their 30th anniversary up into late ’09, and will be returning to Toronto once their record drops. Like previous releases, the album includes controversial songs inspired by real life events and situations that impacted Keithley’s life, such as awful police brutality. For now you can listen to them at www.myspace.com/doapunk .