Danko Jones: Much ado with not so much

« – So, Danko, isn’t it too difficult to give interviews that early in the morning?
– Oh no, I slept well. I’m not a cliché! (laughs)! »

Should we be afraid of being clichéd? There’s plenty of rock’n’roll revolving around three chords and speaking of girls, drugs and fighting – like, really plenty. But is choosing to devote yourself to that type of music a sign that you lack creativity? Does clichéd mean easy? Does it mean bands like Airbourne and Danko Jones have no personality? Does a musician have to push the boundaries of technique or originality to offer something fresh and new?

To all those who feel like answering “yes” to this never-ending debate, Danko Jones shares his arguments to see things in a different light. And given the very spontaneous character of the man, it’s no surprise that the following interview, which was supposed to be about his new album Fire Music, turns at times into pure chatter, with a healthy dose of banter.

« When you’re throwing a bunch of notes that sounds crazy, is it really that hard? [Chuckles] Try singing with some kind of soul or some kind of emotion that can affect somebody! It’s really hard to do. »

Radio Metal: You welcomed new drummer Rich Knox in the band. What happened with Atom Willard?

Danko Jones (vocals/guitar): At the time Atom was in our band he was already in two different bands. We were just another band he was drumming in. It was for the best, and I’m not saying that because I’m wishing that our current situation goes well, absolutely not. Rich Knox is a vital part of this band now. In the year and a half that he’s been in the band he’s made himself a vital part. When Rich joined our band, after it was already established that he had the skills and the chops to join our band, his first order of business was removing the rack tom from his drum kit. That was something that all of our drummers, previous to Atom, did but Atom insisted on playing drums with a rack tom. “Ok, sure!” But it also set the tone for his stay in the band and the sound. We never recorded an album until Rock And Roll Is Black And Blue with a rack tom. And sure, it might sound like a really small thing but it was really a big deal to me because that’s the concept of the band. That’s what the band is: minimal instrumentation making a maximum big loud dirty sound. And once Rich joined the band, he said: “Look, I really like to play with a striped down kit,” the way he used to do it, and I was like: “Absolutely, perfect!” That set the tone already for Rich’s stay. His entrance into the band was while we were on the road in the middle of a tour, so he was thrown into the fire, so to speak. We found out we could get along, which is another part of whether or not you can hang and be in a band. And then we made this album, that’s another part. Going through a creative process with somebody can be sometimes a nightmare. And it was the opposite. On an offhand conversations that Rich and I had, I just kind of loosely just said: “I wish we had another song like ‘Full Of Regret’,” like we did on the Below The Belt album, which is two albums ago. We had a song called “Full Of Regret” with a lot of cowbell and we made a video for it with Elijah Wood in it and Lemmy in it, it was a single and it did very well for us. But I really like that song, regardless of whether or not it was a single. Unannounced to me and JC, Rich went back to our rehearsal space and recorded three different drum patterns with cowbell and he sent them to us and just asked us: “What do you think of these?” And one of them ended up being “Do You Wanna Rock” which is track number 6 off our new album. No drummer who has ever been in this band has ever done that. That’s awesome! We’re very happy that the situation with Atom turned the way it did because it enabled us to find Rich Knox.


You don’t sound convinced… [Laughs]

Actually I am! [Laughs] I know how hard it is to play on this minimal kit. When you have a huge kit with a lot of toms and cymbals it’s kind of easy to pretend that you’re a good drummer but a great drummer can be great just with a snare drum and hi-hat and one tom.

Absolutely! That’s what really the mark of a good drummer is: if you can make a loud noise with just three drums. Plus it looks amazing that this kind of sound comes from just this tiny little set up. I always thought it’s in the drummer’s advantage that the kit stays minimal.

On a different topic, you did your last two albums with producer Matt DeMatteo but went with Eric Ratz this time. Did you feel a need for a change once again?

It was just exactly that: we needed to change it up. Matt did the last two albums, like you said, but he also did We Sweat Blood and Sleep Is The Enemy. It was time to change it up. And Matt did a great job, those albums are great and a lot of it had to do with Matt. But Eric is somebody with whom we worked 15 years ago, so all the songs he engineered made it on to I’m Alive And On Fire. Since then, we both watched each other and Eric has gone on to produce records by Billy Talent, Cancer Bats, Monster Truck, while we’ve gone on to do our thing. And he’s watched us, and we’ve watched him. And a few years ago, maybe going back four or five years ago, JC bumped into Eric at a club and they ended up talking. And that was it, we connected that way. And then, Scott Middleton from the Cancer Bats came over to my place – was it last year? – and he brought not their new album but the previous Cancer Bats album, and Eric produced that. He gave me a copy and I listened to it and I loved the guitar tones. Not because it sounds metal or heavy metal or anything but I just thought that those guitar tones was what was lacking on our albums. So I asked Scott about Eric, how was it working with Eric, we talked about him. And then, when it came time to do this record and decide who’s going to produce it, who we’re going to work with and if we were going to work with somebody, Eric’s name kept coming. We just started talking about him more and more until we reached out to him. And sure enough, he wanted to work with us. It was really cool, we were all on the same page. Eric is a rock ‘n roller! He loves rock, he loves metal so it was really nice to work in a studio with someone who knew this kind of music, but also he knows our band, he knows us! He knows what sound we want or what sound we need. And one thing he did that I’m really happy about, is that he worked on guitar tones. I’m someone who knows what guitar sound I want to hear. I know what sounds good; I just don’t know how to get there. I don’t know what gear to pick. I don’t know what head or what pedal is the right combination. I don’t know what secret pedals all theses producers and all this gear-heads use. I just know what sounds good! So Eric was there, fine-tuning stuff and doing stuff with the tones and then you hear it, you’re like: “Ah yeah, that’s it, ok let’s go!”

In 2010, when Below The Belt came out, your bass player John Calabrese told us that you had found with your voice the perfect balance between what you could do and what the songs needed. Four years after, how do you feel about your voice?

I feel pretty comfortable with it. This record is pretty much a proof of that, I’m singing more and screaming more. A lot of songs have a combination of screaming while keeping the melody intact. And that was something that, in the past, I have to admit, I was very shy to do. For some reason I equated melodic singing with being soft. And yet I still listened to bands like The Misfits and bands that I thought were pretty heavy that use melody. Here I was just too shy; I thought it might soften our sound. Over the years it’s been a case of me trying to become more comfortable with the idea of me actually singing melodies in our songs without screaming them. Below The Belt was maybe not our first time but definitely one of the times where I just laid it all out for everybody to see on a song called “Had Enough”, and that’s very melodic. And I think with Fire Music we kind of picked up the pace with that, picked up the thread, and we did it on “The Twisting Knife”, even “Gonna Be A Fight Tonight” has the melody intact, “Body Bags” has the melody intact, “She Ain’t Coming Home”, “Live Forever”… A lot of songs off this new album have a melodic theme but with a gruffness and a hardness intact.

« Everybody has those guys or those people in their lives who did them wrong and you want to seek revenge. Of course people will tell you to take the high road, forgive and forget […] Fuck that shit! That’s the shit that fuels me, man! »

The next question is kind of linked to what you said earlier about the drum kit of your drummer. Your music is straightforward simple and very efficient rock. Do you think that this is the most challenging way to play music, more than playing technical stuff?

Yeah, absolutely, it’s a point that you make that people don’t realize. Sometimes it’s easy to just create a wall of noise or a wall of sound or throwing a million notes, and take a step back and watch the accolades follow you away and everybody praise you and how technical you are. And yet, it’s really difficult to make three chords sound fresh again and to reshape that over and over again. You can say that it sounds boring, and sometimes it is, sometimes it really is fucking boring. But that’s not what you keep [laughs], and that’s not what you show people. You work on that until you hit on something that sounds fresh and new, and sounds energetic. And that’s hard, man! And people wonder why you sing about the same stuff all the time. Try to doing it, over and over again, and try to make it sound fresh over and over again. It’s hard! It’s difficult, and it doesn’t get the respect that sometimes I think it deserves only in comparison to all these proggy-technical bands. It’s obvious that it’s hard to play that, but is it really? When you’re throwing a bunch of notes that sounds crazy, is it really that hard? [Chuckles] Try singing with some kind of soul or some kind of emotion that can affect somebody! It’s really hard to do. Not that I’m saying I’ve done that, but I’m just saying that simplicity tends to be overlooked and cast aside as simple and easy, I should say. But simplicity in music isn’t necessarily simple and easy.

And what would be the best band that did that, for you?

Part of the appeal of the 90s rock and the garage rock revival was the fact that it was lo-fi. Not the aesthetic sound of it, but the actual songs themselves were very, very simple; I liked it. Something that I think a lot of people can relate to, without getting too underground or rare, is a song like “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes. That’s a great example of keeping it simple. Over and over again you hear the same riff but for some reason it is fresh and new and you can hear it over and over again. It’s a very simple kind of chord progression but it hits home with a lot of people and it makes its mark; it’s that kind of essence. That’s why it really marks Jack White as someone who’s a really good song writer. When you can do something as simple as that, and also in a contemporary context, that sounds fresh and new, it’s very difficult to do.

A Danko Jones record with no song talking about women isn’t really a Danko Jones record. So what pushes you to make it your number one song topic?

It’s an easy topic to sing about with emotion because everybody has been through at least one of the three stages, whether you want to be with somebody or whether you are going out with somebody or whether you were going out with somebody and now you’ve broken up and maybe you’re heartbroken or their heartbroken, or both. It’s a universal feeling, so it’s easy to relate to. And it’s also something in which you can invest a lot of emotion, when you sing it, when you write the lyrics or at least when I sing it and when I read the lyrics because it means something to me. I invested a lot of emotion and a lot of time and energy in that part of my life, in that experience. So when you are singing it every night, if you sing about: “Oh, I went hiking yesterday and I went into the forest and it was great”, try to sing that five hundred times with emotion! After a while you’re going to get bored of telling people that you took a walk! While if you talk about this person who you loved and you wanted to be with her, and now the two of you have broken up and she’s going out with somebody else and it hurts you… I can sing that. I can relive this emotion every night easily!

Songs like « The Twisting Knife » or « Body Bags » convey a strong feeling of bitterness or even hate. Where does that come from?

Those, and “Body Bags” in particular, are revenge songs. It’s not about an ex-girlfriend or anything like that. I think that it would be kind of weird and creepy. It’s just about a bunch of guys, like the first line in the song is: “Line up my enemies, tell them what they did to me.” All my enemies are, or most of them, are guys [laughs]. So it’s about a bunch of guys I’d like to do that to. It’s a revenge fantasy song! Everybody has those guys or those people in their lives who did them wrong and you want to seek revenge. Of course people will tell you to take the high road, forgive and forget, and you have to leave the past in the past, and all these platitudes and slogans to convince you that you can’t hold on to the baggage, you have to let go… Fuck that shit! That’s the shit that fuels me, man!

Songs like « Gonna Be A Fight Tonight » or « Getting Into Drugs » also convey a sense of excess or danger. Is that what rock is about: excesses and danger by putting yourself on the edge?

It means different things to different people. I was always, when I was a kid, attracted to rock ‘n roll because it was dangerous, or at least it seemed to be to me. So maybe it’s a recurrent theme. In terms of excesses, being on the other side of the rock ‘n roll curtain excess isn’t something that you necessarily need to strive for. I think this Dionysian desire for excess and the celebration of it seems tired to me. Coming from a punk-rock background, it seems pointless. But it’s part of the tradition and history of the kind of music we play, I cannot deny it. But “Getting Into Drugs” isn’t anything but a light-hearted song about somebody who discovered drugs late in life and found out that they like it. It’s partly about me, but only partly because I’ve done drugs when I was younger but it’s also about a recent experience where I did smoke a join and we all had a funny laugh about it. That’s all it is, a funny song. And I think a funny song, dropped every now and then in the middle of an album, has its place. Songs like “Big Balls” by AC/DC are pretty funny songs, but AC/DC isn’t a joke band.

« There’s always gonna be people who want to be police officers, they’ll tell you what to do, they’ll put rules and regulations on it, even if the thing that they’re putting rules on means freedom. »

You’ve got also a song called « Do You Wanna Rock ». What does rock actually represent to you?

A lot of things! Rock ‘n roll itself, some people tried to kind of define it. I think first and foremost rock is a form of music, it’s music, and it’s a kind of music that I really, really like. In the bigger picture, for me, it’s also a concept that stands for freedom, the freedom to do whatever you want. But there’s always gonna be people who want to be police officers, they’ll tell you what to do, they’ll put rules and regulations on it, even if the thing that they’re putting rules on means freedom. You have to look this way, you have to act this way, you have to talk this way, you have to be this way. And that goes against the bigger idea, past the music, of what rock n’ roll is all about.

This album is called Fire Music. Would you say that rock n’ roll is that one thing that burns inside of you, maybe, somehow, consuming yourself from the inside?

That’s a better explanation than I had! I was just going to tell you “It’s a cool title” [laughs].

More than anything, Danko Jones is a true live band and you become such a high voltage character on stage. What actually happens to you when you come up on stage? What’s goes into your mind? Do you have a special routine to prepare yourself for the stage or to get in the live state of mind?

It’s going to be pretty disappointing but nope! It’s more the opposite, I don’t think about anything at all. You have a tendency to psyche yourself out, I think, if you think like that. When I walk on stage, the only thing I’ve got prepared or that I know are the rehearsed songs. I know how to play the songs that we’ve decided to play that night from beginning to the end. What happens in between or what happens during the songs is up to the audience that shows up, is up to the venue we are situated in and up to what I feel at that moment. But I don’t walk on stage and say: “Ok, first I’m gonna say this, then I’m gonna say this, and then this is gonna happen and then I’m gonna do this.” Never have I done that. Sometimes I watch bands, and sometimes you see a band two nights in a row, or three, or during a tour, it’s not like they are doing something wrong but I just noticed that sometimes bands tend to do the same things over and over again. I don’t necessarily want to do that for our band. Of course you’ve got to say: “Hi! [Laughs] Good evening – insert city here” or “It’s great to play here.” You’re always gonna say stuff like that. But whatever happens in between that and saying “Goodnight!” is up to the audience that show up and up to what I’m thinking at that time, up to whatever happens during the show! If we run a script, what would I say or what would I do if something happens that never happened? Let’s say, I don’t know, somebody falls down or somebody is wearing a funny hat. I remember a time, during a show, when a guy showed up with this neon green hat that looked like a tentacles that came out of his head. He was standing in the middle of the crowd, I mean, everybody could see this guy’s funny hat! You could see it from the back of the room! I had to talk about it! And everybody who was there knew that I wouldn’t be talking about the guy with the funny hat tomorrow night and I wasn’t talking about him last night because he wasn’t there. If I had a script I just couldn’t veer off the script and I’d just have to ignore him, and that just makes for a very well-rehearsed planed show and I don’t like to leave the audience with the impression that it just could have been like any night.

I remember that, at a show in Lyon a few years ago, you talked to the audience and you said: “Ok, who in this audience plays in a band? Here’s a riff! I give it to you, you can take it!”

[Big laugh]

Was that completely improvised?

Yeah [laughs], I don’t have any recollection of doing that. I’ve done things like that before, but I can’t remember ever giving a riff to somebody. I usually keep it for myself [laughs] but that’s pretty funny. I’d like to vary it if I were to do that again, which is a good idea to do [chuckles]. I can guarantee you I didn’t do that the next night. It has to be something for me to say that. Sometimes you try to test the guitar sound of the amp between the songs, just to see if it sounds louder or heavier or whatever the problem is, and you stumble on a riff, in the middle of a set! Maybe that’s what happened, I don’t know.

It would be interesting to know if the person to whom you gave the riff actually did something with it and recorded a song with it!

Oh, it would be my nightmare if that song went on and became the biggest song in the universe… It’s like giving somebody a lottery ticket and they win 10 million dollars. “Happy birthday! Here’s a lottery ticket I bought for you.” I never understood why people buy lottery tickets for birthday presents…

Yeah, it’s awful because you buy it but you expect the person to lose.

Yeah! “Hey loser, happy birthday! Continue with your losing streak!”

« I don’t like to leave the audience with the impression that it just could have been like any night. »

Being such a great live act, how comes you still haven’t done any actual live album or DVD?

Well, we actually have. We’ve put out a live “album” on Spotify earlier this year from a show we did in Stockholm in May called “Live At Gröna Lund”. Two reasons: first of all, the venue, the Gröna Lund park where we played this big show, they had at their disposal this super professional recording facility on site, and they offered to record it for us. We said yes, they recorded it and it sounded good. And then, at the same time, Spotify is a new medium, a new platform to consume music for people that has kind of gained a lot of ground. And we’re a band that’s never shied away from new technologies, we’ve always embraced it, and so we decided to do this almost as an experiment to see what would happen if we put out a full live album, which is a live album we’ve never done, and just stream it. In one way, we kind of got away with not putting out a live album, it’s more of a live recording online that you can listen to, but we titled it so I guess it’s an album. I think there are live shows and live recordings on torrents, downloading streams or whatever that people have uploaded themselves over the years, so this isn’t something new, it’s something on an official platform. And we still sidestep the whole thing about recording an official live album. I’ll tell you another reason why, it’s because I don’t really like live albums. I don’t like them, I don’t enjoy them. First of all, they’re never really live, except for ours. Ours is actually really live. That was just recorded on spot and we just almost put it out as is. I think it is as is! I think that some editing was made in between the songs so you don’t really hear what I say in between the songs. The editing was made in between the songs but not during the performance itself. On a lot of officially released live albums there’s a lot of studio gimmickry and they re-record stuff in a studio… I didn’t re-record anything. I also find the concept of a live album, which is supposed to be a souvenir of a live show, a bit of a tease, telling you: “Haha! See what you missed?” Or it just never comes close to the real thing.

John Calabrese is with you in the band since the beginning. How would you describe your relationship?

Good, we get along very well. We’ve been through a lot. We’ve learned a lot together. We’ve been through the ups and downs of this band. When you go through something like that with somebody, it’s always gonna stick.

You sang twice on Annihilator’s songs. What is your relationship to this band?

Annihilator is from Canada, so being from Canada myself, I’ve always admired Jeff Waters and Annihilator. I always thought that he’s an incredible guitar player that nobody really gives him enough accolades for. On the album that I first sang on, which was Metal, all these guitar players are on it praising Jeff, so I guess I wasn’t the only one but I just didn’t realize before the advent of Blabbermouth and the internet that there was other people that felt that way. Jeff knew of our band because we’re from Canada, so he knew who we were. We met in 2006, we exchanged contacts and shortly after that he asked me to sing on his upcoming album, and of course I’m gonna say yes! I mean, I think Never, Neverland was one of the best thrash albums of that era, one of the most forgotten and overlooked thrash albums of that era.

Can we expect Jeff Waters to be invited to play guitar on a Danko Jones album?

[Chuckles] You never know! You never know… I also sang two songs on Marty Friedman’s album, Inferno.

Interview conducted by phone 28th, november 2014 by Philippe Sliwa.
Retranscription: Mariane Monin.
Traduction and questions: Nicolas Gricourt.
Promo pics: Dustin Rabin.

Danko Jones official website: www.dankojones.com.

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