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"At This Point, I’m Beyond Quitting:" Catching Up with Thor, Canada's Unconquerable Heavy Metal Hero

The heavy metal legend discusses pumping iron, the new documentary about his life, and that one time he played a naked waiter.

af J Bennett
10 december 2015, 8:26am


Photos courtesy of Thor

Jon Mikl Thor has just finished working out at his local Vancouver gym when we ring him on the Thor Hotline. At 62, Canada’s quintessential heavy metal hero and former bodybuilding champ—he was the first Canadian to win both the Mr. Canada and Mr. USA titles—is preparing to tour in support of his 18th (!) and latest album, Metal Avenger. A star-studded extravaganza of sufficiently chest-thumping proportions, the album features guest shots from Henry Rollins, Twisted Sister’s Jay Jay French, Repulsion main man Scott Carlson, former Motörhead guitarist Fast Eddie Clarke, and diminutive shredder Frank Soda from Thor’s brief 1976 incarnation as Thor & The Imps.

Meanwhile, a documentary about the many, many trials and brief tribulations of Thor’s lengthy music career is about to hit screens. I Am Thor is the passion project of director Ryan Wise, who hooked up with Thor nearly 15 years ago to start filming the Canadian muscle man’s comeback. From Thor’s early showbiz days blowing up hot water bottles until they explode (on The Merv Griffin Show, no less) and playing a naked waiter in a Hawaiian dinner show to his late 70s and 80s heavy metal-slash-B-movie heyday and self-styled late 90s reboot, Wise examines the many painful episodes in Thor’s life—including a kidnapping, a nervous breakdown, a suicide attempt, a divorce (from onetime Cheri editor and superhumanly endowed nude model Rusty “Cheri Bomb” Hamilton) and a stroke. Unsurprisingly, our favorite strongman comes out on top in the end. As he says in poignant footage from I Am Thor: “At this point, I’m beyond quitting.”

Noisey: What was the genesis of this documentary?
Jon Mikl Thor
: I was trying to make my comeback after being out of the business for 12 years. I was trying to do a few little tours, and I was promoting the [2001] album Dogz II at the time. I came back to the West Coast after I split up with my wife after living in Charlotte, North Carolina, for a long time. So I was in Seattle, and I met these filmmakers who were very interested in what I was doing. They came to see the show, which went over really well, and they said they wanted to do a documentary. Little did they know what they were in for. [Laughs]

What was the inspiration for you to start playing Thor shows again in the late 90s?
Well, I had unfinished business. Although I felt I was successful—I had number one hits in England and I did quite a few movies, even though they were B-movies—I never achieved certain goals. I was always an underground guy, but I wanted to get to the next level and be a mainstream guy. Years ago, I got a part in Adventures In Babysitting. Then the part was taken away from me at the last moment and given to Vincent D’Onofrio, who played Gomer Pyle in Full Metal Jacket. They paid me off and everything, but I would’ve rather have had that mainstream shot in movies. I also wanted to get a platinum record if that was a possibility. So I gave it a shot again in the late 90s, and it cost me my marriage, my home in North Carolina, everything. But I’m glad I did, believe it or not, because things are going quite amazing. I’ve got the film; I’ve got the new album coming out. It’s an exciting time for me.

You’ve got the optimism of a 20-year old, which is all the more incredible given everything you’ve been through. How do you do it?
You think, “Hey, this guy’s 62 years old. How long’s he got left?” But Paul McCartney is 74 and he’s still doing three-hour shows. He’s a vegetarian, so I’m trying to get on that track, too. Schwarzenegger is still doing movies, and he’s 68 now. So age isn’t as much of a factor as it maybe was 20 or 30 years ago. If you eat right and exercise, you can have longevity.

Are you still training much?
In fact, I’m just outside the gym where I was training today. I’m working out, running. I’m still in pretty good shape. I’m getting ready to go on tour, so I have to be because you can’t even get through an hour show—never mind a three-hour show—without doing exercise.

There’s some pretty personal stuff in this documentary. When you saw the final cut, was there anything you were feeling hesitant about?
Oh yeah. There’s some things in there I wished were not revealed. When I first saw it at the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah in late January, I felt like I was exposing my vulnerability to the world. But then I thought, “Why not? Why not just reveal it all?” The good and the bad, let it all hang out.

That’s what makes the film so effective and relatable, I think. We see Thor the rock hero and Jon Mikl Thor, the vulnerable human behind him.
Well, that’s it. We all have obstacles in life that we have to overcome or get through. That’s part of life. Superman had his kryptonite, and there’s a lot of kryptonite in my life. I just had to overcome things. I believe in what I’m doing, but it’s not easy to get to the places you wanna get to at times.

How did you first get into heavy metal?
Well, my first experience was with actual heavy metal—I started lifting weights when I was seven. I wanted to emulate guys like Steve Reeves, who played Hercules in the movies. I was into comics and all that sort of thing. When I was a kid my parents got me an accordion, but that wasn’t a cool instrument. I saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in ’64 and knew I wanted to play guitar, so that’s what I did. I started forming bands, which coincided with my weight training. When bands like Led Zeppelin came out, I really loved the riffs. When I was in the gym, I’d put the music on full blast because it inspired me to train harder. Then I started entering physique contests. All that stuff—the music and the weight training—are what led to Thor.

What was the first rock concert you went to?
I went to see Zeppelin at the Pacific Coliseum a long time ago. Their big hit at that time was “Whole Lotta Love.” They were just incredible. I think the tickets were like ten bucks or something like that.

Was that when you realized you wanted to play heavier music, or were you already on that path?
I played bass in bands already, and our music was getting heavier. The first bands I played in were more like Beatles-type bands, pop bands. But as I heard Zeppelin and Sabbath, the music started getting heavier and I decided I wanted to be a frontman.

Your first heavy band was called Body Rock.
Yeah, our first show was at the New Westminster High School auditorium. [Laughs] People just didn’t know what to make of it. We wore Hercules outfits with sandals and we had girls in glitter outfits. There were other muscle guys in the show. I tried to get [successful Canadian music manager] Bruce Allen to sign us—he’d signed Bachman-Turner Overdrive—but he wasn’t convinced. That was the thing: In the beginning, people thought the act was kind of freakish and different. And it was different. But we were playing all the old haunts in Vancouver—Oil Can Harry’s, Izzy’s Supper Club—just to get out there and play. The band was called Mikl Body Rock, but I incorporated the Thor character into the show.

Were you already doing feats of strength as part of the act?
Well, I was experimenting with feats of strength. I started bending steel and exploding hot water bottles. I ripped license plates in two. At one point, I was going to have a bulldozer drive over my chest, but that didn’t go so well…

I can’t imagine why.
[Laughs] I was trying to construct it so there would be a slanted metal ramp that it would drive up on, but it was a ridiculous thought, really. The bulldozer was just too heavy. Had it fully gone over me, I would have been crushed. It started to roll up the ramp and I said, “That’s enough.” I pulled my shoulder right out of the socket just trying to get out from under it. [Laughs] But you know, being a young guy, I thought bigger was better. I thought our real strength was in the music, but at that time you had Alice Cooper hanging himself onstage; you had Kiss breathing fire and all that stuff to grab attention. So I was trying to do that with my character.

Did you come up with the exploding hot-water bottle yourself?
I had seen a guy called Chuck Sipes do it. He was Mr. Universe. The thing is, there’s a secret technique involved—as well as strength in your lungs. It’s the same with bending a steel bar in your teeth. You’ve gotta be strong, but there’s other elements. So I had to learn the secret of the steel and the secret of the hot water bottle. [Laughs] But that’s not to say you don’t get hurt doing this stuff. I was kind of like the Evel Knievel of rock. People would try to smash bricks on chest with a hammer and they’d miss so the hammer would come down and break my ribs. I got knocked unconscious by the hot water bottle. Those things would get so big when I was blowing them up sometimes that people would get nervous and run out of the room. I’ve cleared entire dance floors with that one. And then the rubber would finally break and snap back in your face and knock you unconscious. But I just wanted to entertain people. I wanted people to say, “That was a great show.”

One of the most fascinating episodes in the documentary is when Body Rock breaks up and you go to Hawaii to star in a play about a naked waiter—and you played the naked waiter. Were you nervous about letting it all hang out in front of an audience?
I felt if I could do that, I could do anything onstage. I was doing that show six or seven times a week—almost every day—for a year. So I took it as a learning experience.

And it prepared you for what rock stars experience, because you had women throwing themselves at you.
It was pretty wild, yes. There were some wild things that went on—wilder even than what was in the movie. [Laughs] But I knew I had to leave Hawaii and get back to the mainland. If I’d never left, I would’ve never been on The Merv Griffin Show.

At that point you go back to Canada, work on the Thor material, and get signed to RCA Records. The label throws a bunch of money behind you, you’re about to go on tour, and then you get kidnapped. What the fuck?
That’s one of the things I didn’t wanna have in the movie. It’s a very sensitive issue. However, it was in there. It was a crazy thing, and I don’t like to talk about it too much. All I can say is that there were some people who didn’t want me to go out there for that particular tour we were about to do back in 1978. I often wondered what it would’ve been like to go on that tour. We were booked in 5,000 and 10,000 seat venues to promote [Thor’s debut album] Keep The Dogs Away. But some people didn’t want me to go. That’s all I can say about it.

That incident was the first in a long line of setbacks to your career. After the kidnapping, you had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide in the 80s, a stroke in 2007, plus all these management and money problems over the years. You must’ve felt cursed sometimes.
I thought there was a force out there that wanted to stop me. I felt there were maybe some planets I was misaligned with. [Laughs] But I do know I felt pretty shaky after that incident. I thought about maybe giving up because everybody dropped me when I couldn’t do the tour. Then I got an offer to do a show in Las Vegas called Space Circus, so I decided to hang out in Vegas for a while. But eventually I went back to Toronto and put a band together. Since then, I never gave up. At times it was very painful—other times were great jubilation. But it was part of my life. I just couldn’t give it up.

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