Canada’s longest running hardcore band to embark on a “Farewell Tour”
“I won’t stop doing this until I’m dead. And that’s how they are going to have to stop me – carry me out in an old pine box.”
– Joey “Shithead” Keithley
Not five minutes into our conversation, Joey Keithley’s cell phone erupts like a pipe bomb.
Keithley – the burly front man of legendary punk band D.O.A. – at the end of his patience, snarls into the receiver.
“Hold on!” he booms.
Amidst the background hiss, the man who sired the now-infamous term “hardcore” is growling intensely. But Joey Keithley is someone who is infamous for his bark, his vocals being instantly recognizable on classic punk hits such as “Disco Sucks” and “World War Three”. Even off the stage, separated by two thousand kilometres, the politician/activist/musician/entrepreneur is vastly intimidating.
“Sorry about that,” he says, finally back on the line. “I smashed my cell phone, so we’re fine now.”
It wouldn’t be especially surprising if he actually did. Consider that Keithley is a man famous for his motto, “Talk Minus Action Equals Zero” – the same axiom that has inspired the guitarist into politics as a representative for the Green Party and also gotten him thrown into jail at least once.
And, especially considering the vitriol that fuels the pure punk rage on albums such as Something Better Change and 13 Flavours of Doom, on which Keithley belts out his clear anti-war, anti-imperialist stance, it seems that the Vancouver denizen should be able to dismantle the entire military industrial complex with his bare hands.
But it’s especially even more believable considering that the man has proudly proclaimed himself as “Shithead” to a society that needs several kicks in its collective ass. After all, Keithley has delivered more than his fair share.
Which is why, after playing in D.O.A. in its many forms after 35 years, it is kind of a bummer that the band are currently embarking on their “Farewell Tour”.
Also sucky: while Shithead and his bandmates have plans on hitting up Texas, Australia and China, there is currently no Saskatoon date. Fingers crossed, right?
Although he is noticeably greyer and now accepted by mainstream rock – having been inducted into Canadian Independent Music Hall of Fame, Keithley does indeed still front the same band that belts out the same political spittle like a jackhammer out to crush various injustices.
Starting the band in 1978 after his previous act The Skulls imploded, Keithley, along with Randy Rampage and Chuck Biscuits, formed D.O.A. and quickly began wrecking every party they had a hand in starting. Touring in a time when punk bands were targeted by violent audiences – where cops and even their fellow punks were out to get them – D.O.A. managed to leave an impression the size of a footprint in the side of a head. The band stomped through the next two decades, releasing over a dozen full length albums with many more EPs and singles.
“I like doing what I’m doing,” says Keithley, once again focused on describing his role in shaping politically infused punk rock. “D.O.A. has always been the perfect soapbox for me to get up and say what I want to about the world. There isn’t any other band in the world quite like D.O.A., combining loud, obnoxious guitars with blatant sloganeering.”
And, as Keithley is quick to point out, his unwillingness to either lie down and die or, worse, become a tribute act is what keeps his act from going the way of the rock ‘n’ roll dinosaur.
“D.O.A. has remained progressive with new songs and new ideas and trying to update our sound, although we’ve always remained true to our punk rock roots,” rails Keithley. “Being progressive makes D.O.A. not a nostalgia band. I guess there is a certain amount of nostalgia with it, but the worst thing to happen to a performer would be to rely solely on that nostalgia and D.O.A. has never been seen as that.”
Even so, D.O.A. has stuck together despite a rotating-door roster that would make even the featherheads in Spinal Tap chortle. And although there have been plenty of opportune moments for Keithley to quit D.O.A. – which he once did in 1999 – the preacher has rarely yielded his pulpit. The fact that Keithley has always injected his sermon with a fistful of leftist political rhetoric is something that continues to motivate him still to this day.
“It’s amazing how many things have actually stayed the same,” says Keithley. “I mean, technology has changed, the world has changed, and there have always been political leaders who have essentially done nothing right. The issues that were at hand when we started in 1978 were war, racism, sexism, poverty and to me those things are all around and flourishing, at least in general terms.
“We’ve always done lots of benefits for various organizations, such as environmental causes. And over the years some of those causes have changed, where we do benefits for fair trade whereas before we were conscious of free trade.
I take the causes as they come along and get my ideas from reading the news, talking to people or reading things online. And, believe me,” says Keithley, enunciating the same way a Kalashnikov finishes a paragraph, “there is plenty of cannon fodder out there.”
But, in a scene noted more for producing a lot of rants and little follow-up, D.O.A. has actually won several of the battles they provoked. Among his spoils of war, Keithley revived his career by taking control over the band’s vast back catalogue on his own label, dubbed Sudden Death Records. The benefits are twofold – D.O.A. are now masters of their own destiny and fans now have access to obscure recordings that previously sat on a dusty shelf somewhere.
And, while the old guard may be burning out, fading away or simply growing up, there is still a rabid interest in those records and the band responsible for them.
“I find that the majority of our fans have constantly been 18 to 30,” says Keithley. “So definitely a lot of them weren’t even born when we started. I guess when people get older they get more responsibilities and they don’t go out to shows anymore.”
Of course, as someone who has continued to go to shows – and headlined the majority of them, Keithley has plenty of satisfying moments to look back and reflect upon.
“There have been some pretty cool highlights,” says Keithley. “We did a benefit with Randy Bachman and 54-40 to raise money to buy an ambulance that was used in Soweto in South Africa, back when apartheid was a big issue. Or we did a show here in Vancouver that was a benefit to clean up the damage from the pulp and paper industry. And it was a strange bill because it was us and Bryan Adams, if you can imagine that. It didn’t change the law but it got a lot of publicity and it put pressure on the government who eventually did change the law. It’s stuff like that that has really stuck out to me.
“Or when someone has come up to me and said ‘your music and your words made me think, think for myself.’ Our modus operandi has always been that, to make people think and affect some positive change in some way. That has happened a few times and it’s definitely made being in D.O.A. worthwhile,” confirms Keithley.
Although Keithley has certainly earned some downtime, with over 35 years of rocking behind him, the brawny front man is still fighting the good fight – and remains adamant that he will never stop.
“I know we’ve accomplished a lot, but it’s not as much as I wanted,” says Keithley. “It’s never been enough. There is the old maxim that says ‘revolution is constant.’”
Clearing his throat with his trademark gruffness, Keithley suddenly and inexplicably begins to laugh.
“I won’t stop doing this until I’m dead,” explains Keithley. “And that’s how they are going to have to stop me – carry me out in an old pine box.”
Which would be a fitting end for the man who fronts a band named D.O.A.
– Featured photo from Flickr user “gregoryperez” – Creative Commons.
– Editor’s note – sections of this story and interview originally appeared in Planet S Magazine.