Photo by Jens Nordström
Heading into Germany’s Wacken Open Air festival in 2011, I was of course looking forward to seeing heavy metal titans like Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, and Motörhead. But my interest was perhaps piqued even more by a certain Canadian hard rock act on the bill, the one and only Danko Jones. Hard rock music of a certain calibre has always found a place alongside heavy metal, but from a Canadian perspective it still came as a surprise to some to see Danko Jones in that context. But there I stood, watching thousands of German headbangers sing every word to “First Date.”
Most Canadian rock ‘n roll fans look back fondly on the glut of guitar bands that our country produced in the 90s. These bands only found limited international popularity, but in Canada they were rock royalty. A bunch of those bands are back now, playing their old hits together on tour. But despite coming up with these bands, who are now considered nostalgia acts, Danko Jones never stopped making new music and touring.
“To a lot of the Canadian audience, we are in the same boat as those bands because we went away for years,” says Danko Jones’ eponymous frontman from his home where he’s been quarantining since mid-March.
“We were pretty much gone. We tour abroad 80% of the time, if not 90-95% (laughs). So I think for the (Canadian) audience we might actually be a part of all those bands, 90s bands if you wanna put a name on it. There’s enough of a demand for us to put out new material and to tour or else we’d probably be stuck in a lot of those nostalgic tours. Not to say that those are bad. I think those are probably (more) stress-free, tension-free, than even their original tours when they were at the height of the popularity. Those bands went away as in they broke up, they stopped. We’ve never stopped, we’ve never taken a break, we’ve never gone on hiatus, we’ve never started a side band so the main band is put on ice. We’ve never stopped writing when we’re not on tour, we’re writing right now! We were writing before the crisis. That’s the difference I think. When the popularity faded for a lot of those bands in the one territory that they were doing well in they called it a day.”
The decline of the 90s Canadian rock sound coincided with more opportunities in Europe for the band. Seeing them play to foreign audiences, it does seem more of a natural environment for their sound. After all, Danko Jones plays big, confident hard rock. It’s a classic style of music that will always be in demand somewhere. That certainly plays a part in the band’s longevity, and their continuing appeal to fans who are a bit more passionate about their rock ‘n roll.
“A huge community of people, mainly music lovers, know that hard rock music is timeless to a certain degree,” says Danko.
“If you are a casual listener of music you can’t really tell the difference between Cheap Trick and Broken Social Scene, really. You just like the song, (using an effete voice) ‘Oh the song is great! This is a great song!’ If you’re a music fan, you can kind of figure out what the genres are and in doing so you will quickly realize that hard rock is a timeless kind of music. That is one of the reasons, one of the reasons, why we deliberately changed our sound when we were into year 2 or 3 of our band. We started off as a garage punk band. (But) I always wanted to just play KISS riffs, and AC/DC riffs, and Thin Lizzy riffs anyway. So it was an easy transition. We got better at our instruments and realized that the aesthetic of garage rock didn’t really vibe with how we were as people. It’s a very dirty, raw sound, which I love. But it’s a very deliberate dirty sound, meaning you have access to the best studios and the best sound but you deliberately choose to make your recording sound as if it was done on a cassette recorder in a basement. That’s a pose to me. You get branded with certain things as you transition, but now that we’re talking in 2020 I think we made the right decision, we’re still around.”
Aside from being in writing mode and hosting his now-weekly podcast, I wanted to know how Danko had been spending his time during the shutdown. When it began, perhaps like most people, the first issue he faced was adjusting to a new normal.
“The first 6 weeks of this crisis was spent really trying to figure out how to cope,” he says.
“How and when to buy groceries, how to do it properly, how to do it safely. How to walk our dog, how to deal with having a dog, that took a while. He’s very reactionary, reactive to other dogs. In a way it’s good, he barks his head off and people stay away! So it’s a natural social distancer! (laughs) I end up outdoors more than I’d like to because of my dog. Now it’s all routine, I’ve got it down. But that took longer than I thought.”
Danko Jones (right) with Ralph
Part of Danko’s day is also spent keeping up on the latest news about the shutdown. His outlook is generally hopeful, but ultimately based on the search for a vaccine, and having an understanding about what it may take to get to the point where one has been found and made available. In the meantime he believes that it’s the love of art and pop culture that will help us get through what is likely to be a long process.
“It’s a waiting game, and I think people are realizing that albums, and movies, and television shows, as much as they seem like small things, it’s now become a way to deal with each day,” he says earnestly.
“There’s some good news on the vaccine front, on the treatment front. Of course we all know it’s going to take longer than just having it exist. From the moment of its’ existence, and the moment that it’s given the green light there’s still months for manufacturing and distribution. Hopefully if the trials in July in Oxford go well, cause that’s when they’re gonna have the first results of it, hopefully we can start to get back to normal by year’s end, (or) early next year, fingers crossed.”
The band are also selling a special “Stay Strong” t-shirt, with part of earnings going to frontline workers at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital.
“Sunnybrook is a hospital in Toronto that all of us in the band have been helped by personally, so it’s going to the frontline workers there,” says Danko.
“In the bigger picture, the researchers at Sunnybrook helped isolate the virus, so that will help in the future for a vaccine. Sunnybrook has actually been right there, on the leading front of the search to find a vaccine.”
The "Stay Strong" T-Shirt
This level of engagement with the current crisis is not surprising given how politically outspoken Danko is, especially on Twitter, and his left-wing opinions don’t go over well with a few of his fans. But that’s not surprising either given that some hard rockers will eschew anything that smells faintly political, or in the worst case, achieve a Ted Nugent-level of bigotry. Danko admits that he speaks out more than he used to, but he now has a platform to do so, and it’s something he feels is necessary at this point in time.
“We’re reaching a weird period in history and if you don’t say something I think you’re complicit, right?” he says with some excitement.
“I think a lot of people are finding out that I do sit on the left side of the spectrum. But as much as people think that I’m being vocal, I still try to corral that in. (laughs) For every tweet (that I’ve posted), I’ve deleted 10 tweets I wanted to send out. Listen, I just want people to be treated fairly. I don’t believe in health care cuts, I don’t believe in education cuts. Someone like (Ontario Premier) Doug Ford who cut $25 million from health care, is now putting $20 million back in. So it’s nice to see… he’s not admitting to it, copping to it. But at least they’re putting it back where they shouldn’t have taken it from. Also I care about the arts. People like Jason Kenney, the Premier of Alberta, he was basically playing in a forum that he didn’t know anything about, which is touring bands. He was screwing with tours and clubs across Canada, and eventually he took it back. I don’t want Doug Ford even remotely near any arts decisions. It’s funny now that we’re in a crisis, what are people doing during self-isolation? Well, they’re getting through this by turning to the arts. A good song will get you through a rough morning, as it has for me since this crisis started. So if anything, it will teach the right wing to value culture more and to value the arts more. Hopefully the biggest outcomes of this crisis will be better treatment for frontline workers, the service industry, and of course healthcare.”
Danko’s political stance may seem at odds with a good chunk of hard rock’s modern image. He understands that the music itself not political, because hard rock music is about moments in time that we all remember. They’re songs that usually trigger specific memories, and make us think of generally better times. These moments are part of what some might refer to as “freedom.” So it’s a circle, you have to engage politically so that those carefree moments can happen more often.
“A lot (our music) is about good times, partying, driving down the road on a Friday night-kind of thing, cause those are the best moments for me,” says Danko happily.
“I never wanna sully those moments or feelings. At the same time I feel like I have to say something because I feel those moments, those feelings, the chances to play music, the chances to rock out, and the chances to simply put out a record are strangely threatened. In a way it does all lead back to me wanting to play and be near music. Like the fact that Doug Ford to me seems so anti-culture. Just from where I stand, it does make me very defensive. So yeah I can be very political, but my endgame is just so I can play some fun songs.”
Danko’s music and personality exude confidence. He’s not someone who plays down his accomplishments. But at the same time he’s a very friendly and warm person. I’ve definitely had my own encounters with rockers who take their image too far, and I enjoy speaking with Danko because he doesn’t mince words, but he doesn’t have to talk down to do that. To him, a hard rock musician exemplifies both confidence and humility.
“As confident as the music is, I feel it does also invite a type of person who I’d like to think is really down-to-earth, and (who) uses the music they make as their own way of building their own confidence up rather than speaking from an ivory tower,” he says.
“You spend enough time in the music industry, whatever side of the curtain you’re on in whatever field, you will rack up a certain amount of stories meeting some of these idiots and weirdos (chuckles), I mean (the industry is) littered with them. We came from punk rock, it grounds people. There’s so much, (laughs) for lack of a better term, ‘policing’ in punk rock that there’s no space to have a big ego. That’s kind of where our roots are from, as much as (they are) in metal. Metal too, metal has a grounding way of dealing with things. Sometimes no, but a lot of times because it attracts outsiders it needs no grounding, because everyone has already been grounded in their straight life. So punk rock and metal backgrounds, I think they bode well for someone to play a confident type of music and still carry yourself on equal footing with everyone and be grounded and treat people like people.”
Danko Jones’ latest album is 2019’s A Rock Supreme. Check out the video for “Burn In Hell” below, filmed entirely by their fans while on tour in Europe. You can also watch their entire Wacken 2015 set here, which was recorded for their Live At Wacken album.
Last, but certainly not least, you can get your own Danko Jones “Stay Strong” shirt from Killthe8, with part of the earnings going to frontline workers at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto.