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People Power: Joe Keithley of D.O.A

Joe “Shithead” Keithley has been fronting seminal hardcore band D.O.A. since 1978. 18 albums and 2 books later, Keithley has recently announced his NDP candidacy for the Coquitlam-Burke Mountain riding.

D.O.A will be performing at the Red Dog in Peterborough on October 10 during what may be their final tour. Arthur caught up with Joe on the phone at his home in Burnaby, B.C.


The last time you were in Peterborough you were touring in support of your autobiography “I Shithead: A Life in Punk” Since then you have released another book last year called “Talk– Action=Zero.”

JK: Yes. That came out last year. That one is pretty cool. It’s kind of a poster and picture book of D.O.A, the entire history, like 33 years, but there is a story that goes with the images. A bit of a coffee table book in that sense but it is my little version of a guide on how to go out and change society and be an activist.

How do you go about writing that? Most punk bands can’t recall three months ago never mind three decades …

JK: [laughs] Well, I had a bunch of different stuff. It is kinda the same way I wrote “I Shithead” which I wrote using old tour schedules. Traveling around with your companions like your road crew and band members blah blah blah, you end up telling road stories as you’re traveling. I mean, what else do you do other than listening to music and playing cards. So, we decided that “I Shithead” grew out of talking and stories but you kinda go “Did that show actually happen in ’82 or ‘84” and the only way to tell is by a tour schedule. When I did the poster book, I have this massive collection of posters, like the majority of shows that I have played which is about 3000. So, I picked out the most interesting which is about 500 and took them down to the publishing company and dumped them on a conference table and myself and the art director started putting the posters by year. We did that by going on the internet and finding a date finder. So, as you are going along it sparks memories of other stories.

I read this is D.O.A’s final Canadian tour, is this true?

JK: Well, I am running for the NDP in a riding out here in Vancouver. If I get elected we won’t be doing anything for four years and if I get re-elected we won’t be doing anything for eight years. If I get defeated then maybe I will be out traveling again. I am thinking this is our last year because I am thinking I will get elected, I am confident.

D.O.A has been playing politically conscious, confrontational music for three decades or more. How do you see the relationship between songwriting and politics? For you they seem to be inseparable. 

JK: Well, it’s not for everybody. Not everybody could do it. It has its own unique art form. Some people are good at writing pop songs, some people are good at writing about their social angst and their relationship problems. Some people are good at incorporating politics into music. I learned that from growing up in the early 70s. My sister would bring home folk music like the Weavers and Woody Guthrie and at that time I got into rock music like Jimmy Hendrix and stuff like that. It was a really volatile time in North American society and that is where the influence came from there. I became politically active, too, and stuff like that was a big part of it as well.

And that early political folk music is certainly the ancestry of punk music. 

JK: Well, yeah, I think that they totally tie together. The fans of the two genres would rarely agree on that point but I think that it is totally that punk was the follow up to folk music. And I think that punks would be really outraged and I think that the punks were the follow up to the original hippies because they were anti-authoritarian against a lot of what society stood for and they showed it through their music and culture

Yes, on the album “We Come In Peace,” the tracks “We Occupy” and “Who the Hell” are back-to-back and really celebrate the Occupy movement and condemn the concentration of power that the 1% has. Having been an activist and political musician through the late 70s and 80s, how do you compare today’s political context to then. Are you optimistic?

JK: Uh, no. I don’t want to be a downer, but you know what? It is a different generation and I think that a lot of younger people are very apolitical and don’t think they can change anything and don’t want to raise their voice. Whereas people in my generation and older thought that you could do something from protesting. Sometimes protesting does nothing but if you haven’t tried then you have no one else to blame but yourself for the state we are in, in a sense. I want people to wake up and realize that they can change things, things you can change incrementally and in a Grassroots fashion. I think change comes from the bottom up, whereas people perceive it as coming from power politicians, media and rich people. I think that real grassroots movements come from your neighborhood and move across your country, even across the world. The Occupy movement may not be doing as well as people expected. A year later it has kind of fizzled out. But I think that the amount of publicity it had at the time is a good thing. It woke people up to protesting in North America and made people go “Yeah, that’s really strange that 1% of people have more wealth than the other 99%”. You can’t create some sort of Utopian socialist paradise where everybody makes the exact same thing, and I am not saying take money away from all the rich people either. I am saying why don’t they pay more of their fair share. Canada is a rich country yet kids go to school hungry. That makes no sense at all.

On the new album I noticed you have continued something that you have done on previous albums, where you rerecorded versions of older D.O.A songs. “General Strike” is on the new album in a reworked acoustic, stripped down version. I think it is noteworthy because it feels just as relevant today as it ever has.

JK: My friend Jello Biafra, who is on the “We Occupy” track said “Joe, I think you should do a new version of ‘General Strike’ and put it on the new album, wouldn’t that fit?” So that was his idea.

Where did you record the album? Do you have your own studio?

JK: No, I wish I did but I am glad I don’t just because of the bills and the upkeep. A buddy of mine has a studio called Profile Studio here in Vancouver. I spend a lot of time darkening that doorstep in the winter recording.

In terms of the older songs, like “General Strike” do you play those songs live? Or do you play new material?

JK: Um, a few new songs and a smattering of old, in between. I don’t think we play a song off of every album but we try. So “General Strike” is in there. I think there will be four new songs, which is good but people want a variety too.

It seems to me that there has been a shift away from political songwriting in much of the newer hardcore punk. Have you come across anything lately that has caught your ear or that you find inspiring?

JK: I gotta say that I am probably not enough of a close listener to new bands as I should be. Just given the amount of time I don’t seem to have for almost anything in life. So there might be, but I can’t say whether there is or isn’t. In general, punk rock is not as political as it used to be. There is political punk out there and there is real genuine punk . There is also punk generated by buying stuff from the mall. I think it is obvious that people will take advantage of the style to try and sell records. In reality it doesn’t matter how you dress-up, it doesn’t matter how long your guitar is or how fast you play or how tall your mohawk is. If you don’t have some sort of guts and passion and rebellion in your song then it is not punk rock. That is my standard.

Final question. D.O.A’s motto has always been “Talk-Action=Zero.” It seems to me from the little I know about you, that you seem to live this philosophy. Not just singing about the problems you see but also working to change the world. As you mentioned in the interview earlier, you are running for NDP candidacy. So, given that punk traditionally has been “anti-establishment” why have you chosen to engage politically both from outside and within the established system?

JK: Well, you know, I have been trying to change the system from the outside for 30 years. And I think this is a good opportunity for me to get in there and change it from the inside. I have a lot of people encouraging me to do it and like the fact that I am doing it. They feel that I am a straight-shooter and I am trying to help people. My basic thing is people power—trying to empower them to have a better life and get financial justice, to get some regular justice and equity within our society. That is my trip. I don’t do it perfectly all the time but if I do become an MLA I would be really hardworking and do my best. I get a lot of people who say “Joe, I have never voted for any political party before but now that you are running I will vote.” I get a lot of younger people who get the D.O.A trip. So, it should help the party and help younger people get involved in politics. It is not for everybody but it’s not good when you have 70% of people over 50 voting and only 30% of people under 30. voting. You need to exercise your democratic right to vote.

watch “The Prisoner”, recorded in 1979

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