Music

Jon Mikl Thor, the DIY Thunder God, Forever on the Edge of Valhalla

Pushing 60, the God of Thunder, God of War, still believes success is just around the corner.

by Justine Smith
Jul 22 2015, 7:12pm

Still via trailer

As the documentary I Am Thor screened at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal a thunderstorm raged outside. Jon Mikl Thor, armed with an oversized hammer and adorned with a mask and white cape, stood before an audience gripped with anticipation. Over 40 years into his rock and roll career, and 15 years into his "comeback," the former He-Man lookalike showed no indication that age was catching up with him. Maybe the crashing of lightning outside the theatre was a blessing from the Thunder God, or maybe things in Thor's life are finally going to change, because inside the room—which normally serves as a university lecture hall—the crowd went wild as he, along with his long-time guitarist Steve Price, put on an improbably energetic show.

Jon Mikl Thor always wanted to be Superman. Growing up in Vancouver in the 1950s and '60s, he wore his Superman costume to class. When VICE caught up with him at Fantasia he reflected on this time in his life, "I'd ask kids to throw bricks at my head" he said. "Not realizing they wouldn't just bounce off me."Following in the footsteps of his brother, he started doing competitive bodybuilding—by the time he turned 19, he had won over 40 titles around the world.

That wasn't enough, though, and he retired from bodybuilding to venture into music. Thor's music career has always been built around his body, his strength, and his voice. Thor was once poised to be the next big star of rock and roll: he was the full package; he had the looks, the talent, and the charisma. Mismanagement, a bizarre kidnapping, and a series of health issues , all of which are covered in the film, have interfered with his success. But, that never stopped Thor, and he refuses to give up on his dreams.

Thor's path to rock stardom got off to a promising start with an appearance on the Merv Griffin Show in 1976. More than music, Thor put on a performance that showcased his strength and physique. He would bend steel rods and blow air into a hot water bottle until it exploded. Thor no longer does these feats of strength, saying, "I'm happy all that stuff is captured on film, but it's too dangerous for me to do now. I think I can still bend a steel rod, but it takes away from the music." Reviewers of his shows would focus on the performance, often ignoring the songs. The band has never had a hit—one of the biggest obstacles to their success—but they have some legitimately good music. Their best known album, Unchained, is theatrical, sure, but it's catchy and fun—no irony required. Songs like "Anger" and "Lightning Strikes Again" feel like metal anthems that have yet to be discovered.

Reflecting on his career now, Thor can't help thinking he was ahead of his time: "People now are more interested in health and positivity, that wasn't the case when we started," he said. "We never wanted to be anything we weren't. Other bands were changing who they were to fit trends, we never did that."

Now about 60, he loves to talk about his life, his music, and his future. He seemed confident that success is just around the corner, almost blissfully ignorant that he was already living his dream. His desire for recognition overshadowing the fact he has accomplished so much. He spoke with humility, and his desire for fame somehow never came across as egotistical. In his presence, it was impossible not to feel the love he has for what he does and his dedication to the fans by structuring shows around their requests. As seen in the documentary, it doesn't matter if he has a crowd of six or six thousand, he never fails to put on the performance of a lifetime.

While the documentary has the potential to introduce new audiences to his music, it may be Thor's career in movies that is perhaps the best gateway into his work. When music failed, Thor turned to film, working on a few cult classics. Comparing himself to Elvis Presley, he explained how he believes that a musical career and a film career are interconnected—he just wished he had his chance at a mainstream role. While he made impressions in films like Recruits (1986) and Zombie Nightmare (1987), his greatest cinematic contribution was Rock n' Roll Nightmare (1987), which he produced, wrote, and starred in. Around the time he made the latter film, he was on the brink of retirement, and his presence has an air of the surreal. He is by far the best actor in the film, his presence is natural and charismatic but above all else the film is infused with a wonderful spontaneity and heroism. In the tradition of Thor's DIY career, the film's low budget quality adds rather than detracts from the experience. It's like entering the mind of an incredible creative child, nearly impossible not to be taken by its imaginativeness and youthful spirit.

The film's status as a monster movie resonates deeply. During our interview, we'd be ready to move onto a new topic and he'd turn the conversation around: "Let's go back to that monster question." We spoke about the silent cinema of Lon Chaney, David Lynch's Eraserhead and Frankenstein. He was as excited to talk about these films as he was his own accomplishments—a quirk that made them seem very much like a fabric of his identity. Crucially, none of these monsters are bad guys, they are all misunderstood outcasts. After all, for all his strength and heroism, even Superman was a monster and an outcast. Even at the height of his career, when Jon seemed to have everything, the monstrous was always what was creeping behind him, pushing the full weight of his ambition forward but also maybe holding him back. The documentary latches onto this idea and showcases the quintessential Thor performance—one that is constantly drifting between tragedy and comedy.

For all his struggles, quirks, and obstacles, it is clear Jon is a star. Maybe not a star in North America, but to watch scenes in the doc of his adoring fans during his Northern European tour, it's clear his lifework has had a great impact on many lives. His presence, his positivity, and his love for what he does is all larger than life. It's a tired cliche to describe someone as a "nice guy," but Jon Mikl Thor is THE nice guy. A nice guy who dresses up like the God of Thunder. But as Thor himself once sang: "I sometimes act like a fool / But that has kept me alive."