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After 35 Years D.O.A.'s Joey Keithley Is Still Not Taking Your Shit

Joey "Shithead" Keithley talks about making music for 35 years and what he's doing to solve the oil issues in BC

by Gen Handley
Feb 12 2015, 5:48pm

Photo by Kevin Statham

For more than 35 years, Joey “Shithead” Keithley has fronted D.O.A., arguably Canada’s most legendary and influential punk band. Heralded as the “Canadian godfather of punk,” Keithley has brought his views into music clubs all over the world, as well as into the political arena when he ran for B.C.’s NDP party in 2013. Around this time, D.O.A. called it quits. “I wanted to run for politics,” he says, looking down at his coffee. “But that didn’t happen—I lost the nomination by five votes.” He shrugs with some resignation. “That’s the essential part of D.O.A. and the desire to do that hasn’t died – it’s still there. I’ve always considered myself as an informal cultural politician so that was an attempt to run for formal politics.” It’s that desire, that fire, to use music as medium for change fuelling a new, yet-to-be-titled D.O.A. album and a string of shows around British Columbia to protest oil pipelines construction in the province. “I’ve always been an environmentalist and this is an issue near and dear to my heart—I grew up two blocks from where the Kinder Morgan terminal is on Burnaby mountain,” he explains. “Like in the old days we’d skate on the pond up there that they had for fire prevention…there was a watering hole that we’d go swimming in. They used to be friendly back in those days, but now, they’ve become the most unfriendly neighbours you could ever have. This makes me pretty mad.”

However, even as the world morphed around him, not much has changed for Keithley when he goes up on stage with his guitar. “When I started D.O.A. I knew the world was a fucked up place, I just didn’t know how fucked up it was,” he says. “For sure, D.O.A. is the classic, angry-young-man band. Our idea was to go out and have as much fun as possible and change the world at the same time. Those goals haven’t changed…I’m just not 20 anymore. I’m 58. I started D.O.A. when I was 21 but I still love playing and speaking my mind.”

Noisey: So what do you hope to achieve with these shows?
Joey Keithley: Well, there was a big furor up on Burnaby Mountain over the Kinder Morgan thing and also, a lot of shit was raised with the Northern Gateway before it was granted approval from the National Energy Board. Now it’s waiting approval from the Cabinet. I honestly think they’re weighing their options because there’s an election coming up. If there wasn’t an election coming up it would be like bam! So the idea of performing is to keep these issues out in the news and the other idea is to stop it. And I know I can’t stop it by myself, but I can keep it in the news to achieve that end.

Keeping that buzz alive.
Yeah. So it’s inspired me and I wrote a new song called “Pipeline Fever” and haven’t recorded it yet but it will be on the next album. We’re going to start the new album in March and it should be out by August. [D.O.A.] hasn’t done a studio album in about three years.

And that’s when the future looked a bit uncertain…
Yeah, we thought D.O.A. was going to break up and apparently we didn’t. Knock on wood right? [Laughs]

It sounds like you still have a lot to say.
Yeah, there are so many crazy issues right now. We actually did a ton of shows last year across Canada, about 20 shows down in the States, went to Europe, went to Australia, went to China. So after finishing all that in the fall, I sat down to look at some loose ideas for songs, nothing serious, but a lot came up. For example, what happened in Missouri, with the cops and all that shit. Twenty years ago, cops weren’t trained to shoot for the body mass. You’re trying to stop the guy, not kill the guy on the spot, putting six, seven slugs into him. So there are couple songs along that line and there’s stuff about the environment. I mean, there’s always shitty stuff going on in the world and it’s always been D.O.A.’s thing to say something about it whether it’s the pipeline or other stuff.

Is there a solution to our oil issues in B.C.?
Well, if oil stays the price it is right now, that’ll probably kill the pipelines right there. Right now, Texas crude oil is about $60 a barrel to get out of the ground and Saudi is about $30 a barrel to get out of the ground, but the bitumen is about $69 to get out of the ground so the asking price is about $44 plus your transportation. These guys didn’t get rich by throwing away their money. They got rich by stiffing us at the pumps with their prices. So it may be defeated anyways.

There are a couple of things we need to consider. For one thing, you just can’t be like, “no, no, no, no.” What this should really encourage, although I doubt it happening right away with the Conservative government, is that a carbon tax would make sense. People that don’t pollute, get a tax credit. People who do, pay more. So if you’re running a business and you’re shelling an extra couple of million a year for carbon tax, you’re going to find a way to reduce that. We can’t have the mentality like, “if India or China doesn’t do it then neither should we.” It’s a ridiculous argument. The other big thing is to spurn renewable energy. You look at China, that has the biggest industrial output in the world and very little in the way of natural resources, and to drive the amount of money for importing resources they invest in solar energy panels. Makes sense. Hopefully this influences us to think about more renewable resources like geothermal because we are just off the fault line. We’re a rich country and should be thinking about other ways. Let’s get smart, helping the planet and helping ourselves financially.

Does the new album have a title yet?
No, I’ve got to think of one. One of the best times we had naming an album was for 13 Flavours of Doom in 1992. I phoned up (Jello) Biafra, because the record was coming out on his label, and told him we didn’t have a name for the album. So he pulled out a list he had of maybe 400 or 500 album titles – he actually had a list for himself or for somebody else. So I phoned him up in San Francisco and he’d read me the titles and I’d then read them back to the guys and we’d write them down or somebody would start laughing and like, “Fuck that, we’re not using that.” So originally 13 Flavours of Doom was 31 Flavours of Doom from Baskin Robbins. And we changed it to 13 because it’s always been D.O.A.’s lucky number. So maybe we’ll have call up Biafra again for his great list. He’s a man with many ideas and lots of them are good [Laughs].

I think it will be D.O.A.’s 15th studio album since ’78. That makes it 36 years, wow. It’s been going a long time.

Did you ever think you’d be going for that long?
No, absolutely not. If somebody would have told me that year one, two or three, I would have laughed my head off. I remember we had been going for five years and we did this big show with Bad Brains in over in Oakland. Tim Yohanna at Maximum RocknRoll, who was friend of mine, came over and said, “Joe, did you ever think you’d make to five years in punk rock? You’re basically like the grandfathers of punk rock now.” And then I told him to fuck off [Laughs].

What have you learned over the years playing punk rock?
Not a hell of a lot—that’s why I’m still playing music. I must be fucking crazy [Laughs]. I don’t know. I think I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how young or old you are, or how much skill you have on stage, but if you really put your heart and soul into it and exhibit some spirit, the audience has a way of picking up on that. They go, “Wow. There’s something going on here.” Even if it’s not necessarily your best night, as long as the energy is there…that’s what matters and the audience feels it. That doesn’t change with people. That’s why I really love rock music and why I got a real charge out of it when I was 12 or 13—I actually wanted to become a drummer. I remember bands that come to my high school at noon, we use to call it a sock hop because they didn’t want the gym floor wrecked by your boots and shit. And we’d watch these bands and be like, “Yeah, we could probably do that…”

So the sock hop influenced D.O.A. in a way…
Yeah and those high school bands. It’s funny.

As a musician, do you feel you have a responsibility to speak up about issues like the pipeline?
Yeah, I do. I think at times people have been critical of entertainers or artists…saying just stick to your art. But a lot of reasons you create art, whether it’s painting or dance or theatre or music or whatever, is a response to your environment. That’s always been something that’s always driven the best art and the best music the whole way. For example, a mediocre actor became the governor of California, a really mediocre actor became the president of the United States. On the good side, a really great playwright became the first president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel. I would hate to see Bono become president of the United States (Laughs) and I don’t like his music, but I think he does some good things with the pulpit he has by being one of the most popular entertainers in the world. I think that’s a good thing.

What else is making you mad these days?
Racism. The police. Those are big subjects. I obviously live in Canada, but I also spend a lot of time in the States and those are big issues down there. I don’t think our society is completely fair. There other places in the world that are a lot worse but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying to do better – and if we improve, we can influence other places and people can learn from that. But if you look at the United States and they’re torturing people, what’s going to happen? You’re going to have more people hating the United States. It’s crazy. One of the biggest crises now is religious fundamentalists who want to kill other people. I’ve written a song about people who are completely intolerant and decide to shoot or behead or blow up other people. It can come in a lot of different forms. It’s not just Islam, it can be related to Christianity or other religions too.

What do you think makes music such an influential mobilizer around important issues?
That’s interesting. I’ve played at various rallies and political things over the years and I recently played up on Burnaby Mountain when the camp was going up, just acoustically. Unless you’re a hardcore follower of whatever movement or ideology, you can only take so much in the way of speeches and talking and ranting and raving. But music is common denominator that everybody in world likes. They might not like the same kind of music, but they like some kind of music—that’s just a human thing that’s been instilled in us since the times in caves when people were beating on logs. It’s a primal thing and that’s why people love it. You feel free when you hear music in some sense. I mean, I started playing music when I was 11 and I’ll play until I die, whenever that is. So I think it’s a common unifier and one of the things I tried to do running for politics and I want to do for these no-pipelines tour is use my music to get around certain issues. People identify with it and they get worked up about it.

I got into punk rock because I thought it was a great anti-authoritarian movement. I didn’t like what was going on in society, I didn’t like rock music at the time and then I heard about Johnny Rotten and the Ramones and Joe Strummer and The Damned and was like, “Wow, this is what I’ve been looking for.” It had this fabulous energy that rock music didn’t have. One of things about punk rock was to spurn people on to taking action, to think for themselves. When it came out, I was amazed at how open an art form it was and that’s why you had so many variations—you had New Wave, experimental and later on, hardcore, it was all a big mishmash. It didn’t have any rules or artistic boundaries and that was a really cool about it. Kids are still coming up with new variations and that’s a good thing—it’s been cross multiplied and divided so many times. So of which I can take and some of which I’d leave.

Do you think punk rock is still an influential movement like it was before?
Not as big, no, because everything’s bigger when it’s new. In the old days, in the late 70s and early 80s, people were shocked by it. They thought it was either really funny or really disgusting or both. The police hated it and they would do everything within their power to fuck with it. And the punk rockers fought back but they also took up some really noble causes in those days, fighting against nuclear war, against racism. So I think punks still can do that and I think they still do, except for the like, pop-punk bands or mall-punk bands or whatever. It’s not the real thing. It’s not punk because you have coloured hair or a Mohawk and play some loud, fast songs that mean shit.

What could punk rock, now, use more of?
It could use more original thinking, musically. I mean, it’s hard to say. If you go too much outside the boundaries, that’s fine, but people will stop calling it punk rock. One type of music I can relate to punk rock is folk music. Most people wouldn’t make that association but folk has always been about guitar players and singers telling a story about what was going on. And when punk rock came along, they did the same thing, albeit a lot louder, a lot faster and a lot of the times you couldn’t understand the lyrics. But I really see punk rock being akin to modern folk because it’s about talking about the troubles, the shit that’s going on. Two hundred years ago, they’d talk about the feudal baron in the next valley who would come down and burn their crops every year to mess with the people on the other side of the mountain – that was the word of the people. And now, if you’re in a punk band, hopefully, although it doesn’t have to be every song, you’re writing songs that mean something. You can’t have every band be a political band—that would be really boring—but it’s good to have a message behind it all.

Do think music is always enough for change? Is violence or militancy ever necessary?
I don’t think violence is ever necessary. You look at a guy who changed the second most populated nation on earth without violence—Mahatma Ghandi, a total pacifist. I mean, it took a lot of years and there was a lot of beatings and a lot of people were jailed, but eventually the British gave up its biggest colony because of him. But when people do get in certain situations, they fight fire with fire and that happens. Here’s the really fortunate thing: we live in a civil society and we’d be really smart to try to keep it that way for as long as possible. Because you see what’s happening in Iraq and Syria, in the Ukraine it’s anything but civill—it’s horrible. I mean, last year was one of the worst years I’ve ever seen for violence and I’ve been around for a long time.

So is music ever enough?
Well, it can be a healing thing—if I’m not feeling great I’ll put on a Bob Marley record or a Jimi Hendrix record. Something from when I was a kid. But in other times, music can be something that really fires people up. We've done stuff like strikes and it fires people up to do something for the good of society, but it's never an endorsement for any violence. There’s nothing wrong with protesting things and lying down in front of vehicles and forming a human chain. In the Kinder Morgan protests on Burnaby Mountain, the RCMP did a really good job—they didn’t rough people up. When I was a kid, the cops used to come on horseback, I was probably about 12, and they attacked anti-war protestors, hippies, in downtown Vancouver. They came in on horses with billy clubs and smashed the crap out of everybody. My dad thought that was a great idea. My dad was like Archie Bunker, a right-wing redneck.

So needless to say your dad wasn’t very happy that you were in a punk band.
He thought it was terrible. He thought playing music was horrible. He thought I should be a lawyer. I did go to school to become a lawyer, but I ultimately found that boring. It’s way more fun playing music.

Gen Handley is a writer who is on Twitter - @Gen_and_Tonic

British Columbia
Joe Keithley
Oil pipeline construction