Vancouver punkers D.O.A. may be about to embark on their 40th anniversary tour, but the band and its members are as active as ever. They’ve just released their 17th studio album, Fight Back, and guitarist/vocalist Joey “Shithead” Keithley is keeping busy running Sudden Death Records (who released the new album), organizing an annual festival, and running for mayor of Burnaby, British Columbia.
“It’s about inequality,” says Keithley about the new album when we get him on the blower to shoot the breeze. “Racial inequality, economic inequality, gender inequality, that kind of thing. It suits the times, and the title came out of that. The title was really last minute. We wracked our brains for months then maybe two days before we had the finalized artwork we came up with the title [laughs].”
You told me songwriting for this album was dragging along; how come?
It’s not a factory. You have to come up with something that’s original and good. I’ll write a bunch of songs and be like, “This is really good, this is really good, that’s crap, that’s crap, this is good, this is mediocre, okay, that’s good.” You go through an awful lot of songs before you come up with the right ones. Writing music is probably the easiest thing in the world, I find, but coming up with the right lyric is the hardest part.
How do you keep it interesting for yourself after 17 albums, and going on 40 years now?
Has it been that long? Are you telling me… [laughs]
I’m not saying anyone’s old.
[laughs] I have fun traveling around. We’ve been lots of places lately. We were in Southeast Asia and China last September; we had a pretty good tour of Europe last summer as well. I think what drives it along, really, is the people that show up at shows. You meet some fascinating people that just have some crazy, crazy stories. Some will involve D.O.A. and some will involve people you know, or just good stories that they want to tell you. So that’s how I get the mental adventure out of the whole thing that keeps it fresh for me. You’ve got to talk to people locally. I usually hang out at the merch booth; that way, you get a sense of what people are thinking. You go to their town, you want to get an idea of what’s going on in that town, as opposed to just going through that town, going to the hotel, soundcheck, playing for an hour, then going back to the hotel. Some people are not public people, so I don’t really blame them for maybe not hanging out. But I get a lot out of hanging out with people at shows.
Moving to the album, a song like “Time to Fight Back” sounds to me like a punk rock version of a folk protest song.
There were three songs that were really quick, and that was one of them. We were down in Thailand last September; the gig was packed, there were about seven bands, and everybody who came to the show couldn’t fit inside, only about half could fit inside, the other half were in the courtyard out front. The guy who ran the bar was a French national. I was sitting outside and all of a sudden about 15 cops came along. I guess they were just there to show authority and/or collect bribes from the club owner, that sort of thing. Being a Westerner, I thought my odds would be better to run inside, so I did. When the police came in, all these punks started singing a capella, at the cops, a song in French. I have no idea what they were singing, but I knew it wasn’t saying anything very gracious about the police and their conduct. They were being pretty pushy with the kids, and I don’t think the police understood the song either, otherwise they’d beat these guys. You see that kind of resistance throughout the world; people would find ways to talk about the government, but you couldn’t be forward like we are, otherwise you’d just be arrested. I got back to our hotel that night, and I woke up at 3 in the morning and I had the lyrics in my head, and I grabbed my little recording device and I had the melody and it was all pretty well right there when I listened to it the next day. One of the things I always thought about D.O.A. and punk rock is that there’s this association with folk music. Punk rock came along as a modern form of folk music for suburban white kids and whoever else got tagged along with it, in the same way that when rap music came along that was for inner-city black youth, and that was another form of folk music, if you ask me. Because folk music is telling the story of the people and what’s going on with their lives at that time. The folk influence is big, I’m a big fan of it, I played with Pete Seeger a couple times and met him; a guy like that is a super big inspiration to me.
Why do you feel that now is the time to fight back?
When D.O.A. started out, we thought we’d change the world, fighting against racism, sexism, greed, warmongers… now, 40 years later, all those same things are still there, and stronger, maybe, in some senses. So I think people have to take action into their own hands and organize with their friends and neighbours, because we’re stronger together than we are apart. When people do that, they can change things. Not to beat a dead horse or talk about Donald Trump, because that’s been well documented, people standing against him, obviously. But people in other parts of the world, too, like in Hungary and Poland, they basically have a fascist as heads of their country, and there are big fascist movements in England, France, Germany—they won 12.5 percent of the vote—they’re very strong in Austria, in the Netherlands, there’s a right-wing alt thing going on in Canada, too; it’s not as big as the USA. So I think this is a good time for people who disagree with all this bullshit to fight back, and that doesn’t mean throw a punch or get violent. Civil discourse is usually the best way to do everything. But strength in numbers is hard to turn back; it’s hard to turn back the tide when a lot of people go together. A good example is the whole student movement after the Parkland school shooting. To me, that’s a really hopeful sign. There’s no political agenda other than, “Let’s use some common sense; let’s save lives.” Those kids don’t have to be right wing or left wing, they can be Christians, not Christians, they could be Buddhists, they could be Muslims. They’re saying the right thing about a really important issue. They’re fighting back, in that sense.
Now, let’s get serious here. The song “We Won’t Drink this Piss…” This is what we really have to discuss.
[laughs] Okay, let’s get down to brass tax here. I agree. Way too much serious stuff here. This is from traveling with English musicians and friends. There was this one tour we did in ’99, there was like 14 bands, seven of them English, six American, and D.O.A. So, big venues, and every time we arrived, there’d be these big vats of beer. It was really hot; it was July. The beer was always Bud Light or Miller Lite. And every day, the scenario was the same: these English blokes would walk in, and rather than realizing that this was the crap they were going to get on tour and you better buy some of your own if you want something different, they’d go, like, “What the fuck is this? We’re not drinking this fucking piss! This is fucking piss!” Like that, they were so indignant, and this went on for an entire month [laughs]. I’d sit in the dressing room and wait for a few of the same characters to show up.
Your publicist said about you, “the guy is over 60 years old and still in the van, carrying his gear around.” Is that a point of pride for you?
Well, it’s always been all for one, one for all kinda thing. I can’t sit there and watch everybody else carry the gear, right? I think it’s good for you. I think it’s good to stay healthy. You gotta exercise a lot, and on tour you spend an awful lot of time sitting in a van, sitting in a club, having a few beers, and I wouldn’t call that necessarily the healthiest lifestyle [laughs]. If you get a chance for some exercise, hey, gear-carrying is good. When you’ve got two or three sets of stairs, yeah, that sucks. We had this one show in Vienna three summers ago, and it was about 115 degrees and unbelievably humid; we finally find the venue and it’s four floors down. It was humid beyond belief; it was like a cesspool down there. The locals helped us carry the gear down. The problem was after the show they all had a good time and had a few beers and took off, so the locals weren’t there to carry it back up, so we had to carry everything up. At that point, that’s a little trying [laughs]. After playing a gig, at three in the morning, with people smoking like crazy.
You’re about to go on your 40thanniversary tour. How does that feel? Even saying that is crazy. I’m only 41 years old.
Yeah, we started back in the Jurassic age of punk rock. It’s good that people still want to see the band. The average age of people coming out, the majority of them are probably between 20 and 35, and some older people too. Older people don’t go out as much; we know that. So it’s great to see kids at shows, that’s really, really good. It’s a funny thing, when we started, someone asked me in the first six months, “Joe, how long is this going to last?” And I went, “Oh, this won’t last two years.” Then we had this big show in Oakland with Bad Brains, Discharge, and The Lewd from Seattle, and Tim Yohannan, my old buddy from Maximum Rocknroll, came up and went, “Joe, you guys have been playing punk rock for five years now; you’re like the grandfathers of punk rock. Why don’t you step aside and make some room for some young people?” [laughs] And he was being dead serious, trying to piss me off; he was good at that.
Tell me a bit about the first annual Fight Back festival.
I thought, rather than doing just another show, I wanted to create some sort of event that could take on a yearly festival type atmosphere. If it does well, we’re going to take some of the money and it will go to a charitable cause. The inspiration was kind of from Willie Nelson. Willie Nelson used to do this thing in Austin called Farm Aid, to help out farmers that are having a hard time, economically. He’d get all his famous show business buddies to come down and play. They would have a great event and do a great job. I’m hoping it can grow into something like that and eventually go outdoors. And, yeah, fight back against racism, fight back against sexism, fight back for affordable housing.
Which ties in to what I was going to ask next: give me an update with what’s going on with your political life.
We’re going strong with that. I’m running for mayor of Burnaby, for the Green Party. The election is October 20. Reaction on the street has been great; if I go to a Costco or go by a mall, anywhere, I get people going, “Hey, there’s our new mayor,” or, “Hey, it’s time for a change, we’re sick of the old guy.” I’m taking the same approach with that that I’ve taken with D.O.A.: it’s grassroots democracy. People want to have their say, and that’s what D.O.A.’s been about all these years. I’m trying to take that same approach. Obviously, it ends up being a bit different: you’re at political events, you don’t have a guitar, you don’t have a loud band behind you. But people are getting the message, and it’s going really well.
It’s not you screaming at a bunch of young punk rockers. It’s you really going for it.
I’ve been an activist since I was 16. There was a nuclear bomb testing off the coast of Alaska, so Greenpeace organized all these kids in high school back in ’72—I think I was 16. We left our school and marched down to the American consulate in downtown Vancouver and chanted, “no nukes” or whatever we were chanting in those days. It started from there and I just fell into it. I went to SFU to become a civil rights lawyer. It didn’t last long; I only went one term, like half a year, because all of a sudden I fell into a band and was having so much fun and we started getting a little bit successful and I forgot all about being a lawyer. Good for me, I think [laughs].
It all worked out.
That’s what my lawyer friends tell me: “Joe, you made the right choice” [laughs].