Pity the Canadian hard rock band. Shunned by mainstream media channels, derided by music critics, exiled even from our local culinary scene, their genre has been left out of the cultural conversation. Nowhere is this more apparent than on home soil. Want to get played by CBC Radio? If your band doesn’t have a mandolin player, electronically flecked soundscapes, or socially conscious rhymes, you’re shit out of luck. Straight-ahead, guitar-based rawk, in this country, is for the birds.
Danko Jones knows this better than most. Since forming in 1996, the Toronto-based power trio has become one of Canada’s finest exports — they routinely headline festivals in Scandinavia, Germany, and the Netherlands, and have been namedropped by rock legends from Kyuss’ John Garcia to Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister. Yet, in their home and native land, they’re considered little more than a one-hit wonder, brushed aside as a Canadian Blueshammer (or worse yet, a Torontonian Nickelback). The band’s brand of balls-out, lascivious, up-yer-arse rock n’ roll has never really resonated with Northern audiences (maybe we’re just too pretentious and puritanical). Their latest album, Wild Cat, won’t likely change that — it leaves no rock cliché unturned, from Thin Lizzy-esque hooks (“You Are My Woman”) to gratuitous cowbell abuse (“Let’s Start Dancing”) to songs about rock (“I Gotta Rock”). (And if you’re into that sort of thing, it’ll hit the spot like a cheesy weeknight casserole.)
But one thing Danko hates more than being snubbed by Canadian audiences? Getting asked about being snubbed by Canadian audiences. (This, despite being outspoken in the past about the Canadian media’s bias towards butter-churning music.) So, naturally, we went there, because what else were we going to talk about? Widdly-widdly guitar solos? Pfft, as if you guys want to read about that.
Wildcat has all the familiar elements than make a Danko record fun: no-bull hard rock songs, ass-shaking riffs, lyrics about women and partying and all that good stuff. But some of the criticisms I’ve read of the album is it doesn’t really offer up anything new.
Are they really criticisms? I take them as compliments. [Laughs.] I mean, it’s hard enough for a band to have a signature sound, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do. We’re not reinventing the wheel, and I find in Canada a lot people just can’t get over the fact that that’s what we do. Probably because there are more bands here who are trying to sell the idea that they’re always expanding, always progressing, always doing something new, and that’s supposed to be better. But I don’t really believe in that. I subscribe to the school of Motörhead, AC/DC, Slayer and The Ramones. Bands that figured out their sound, and were humble enough to not try and force their audience to follow them through some sort of experimental phase. We just put out hard rock songs, and it’s really discombobulating for a lot of people.
Why do you think that’s so hard for people to fathom, especially in Canada?
They just can’t wrap their heads around something that’s so simple an idea. It’s just hard rock. Done. It’s really easy to expand your sound with a million different guitar pedals. Anybody can do it. But try re-fashioning the same three or four chords over and over again, using the same subject matter, you know, re-tooling it and refreshing it, trying to make it sound new again. There’s no acknowledgement of the art that’s involved in that. But that’s okay. As much as hard rock music gets branded as lowbrow, especially in Canada, that’s okay. I’m not trying to impress anybody as to how smart I am. I’d much rather have people enjoy the music because they like it, without needing people to tell them what’s cool or not.
I find in Canada there’s a lot of division between genres. If you’re a fan of hard rock or hardcore or metal, you’re kind of persecuted if you’re in a room full of cool indie fans.
Well, I mean, there’s nothing wrong with indie music. I listen to a lot of it. Maybe I’ll meet some indie rock band who’ll give us attitude because they fall in line with that kind of thinking, but for the most part, I have no problem with indie rock. But I always get asked these kinds of questions in Canada especially, because in Canada there’s been such success with indie rock bands that people have really gone out of their way to support it. We all know the role call of bands — Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Feist, The Dears — and these are all great bands. Some of them, I’m huge fans of and friends of. It’s more the outside that seems to want to put dividing lines between everyone: it’s uncool to like rock, and it’s cool to like this, and like… Jeez, I graduated from high school a while back! It was the same when I was growing up; if you were into KISS and Metallica, like I was, you couldn’t listen to New Order. And I love New Order and Depeche Mode, so what am I going to do? Just listen to what your ears tell you is good, and don’t listen to what your ears tell you is bad. I’ve never had any guilty pleasures, because whatever sounds cool to me is what I like.
A lot has been said about how you guys don’t get enough respect in Canada, but are basically worshipped outside of it, especially in Europe. What do you make of that?
There’s a much more knowledgeable fan base in rock music over there. They know the lineage, they know the genre, they’re well versed in the discographies, you know? And so, I’m glad that Europe is there for us; it kind of validates what we do, being from Canada. But I’m always talking about this in Canada, and I get this image of being bitter towards Canada, which, really, I’m not. It’s only because I’m constantly asked these questions in interviews, and it’s nothing to do with what you’re bringing up, I’m just pointing it out. It is how it is. But I get it, you know? Canadians and everybody live in their bubble, and that little bubble is their world. And I’ve been lucky enough to tour enough to see other bubbles. It’s interesting; it gives you different perspectives. But on the other hand, I’ve been saying what I’ve been saying to you for years, and I’m very apprehensive when I speak to the Canadian press because I’ve been misquoted constantly about it, and it makes me look very bitter, when, in fact, I’m very happy for Broken Social Scene. I’m very happy for Feist, and for The Dears. I think they are very deserving of all the success they’ve had.
Still, I think there’s something to be said about the open-mindedness of European listeners, compared to listeners here. It seems there’s less segregation between genres there. Like, you could have Erykah Badu play the same festival as Slayer.
Yeah, and that’s a lineup that’s actually happened! Um, absolutely. When we started out, it was incredible. I mean, as a music fan myself, I was like, “Wow, this is crazy!” Mary J. Blige would play, and The Hellacopters or Hatebreed would play, and then Kris Kristofferson would play, and then Dilated Pupils would play. I mean, that’s just how that ran for certain festivals. But now, of course, there are more specialized festivals there, and their success over the last 10 years is starting to segregate festivals more — you have the Wacken Open Air metal festival, and then there are more indie-rock festivals, which even Roskilde is becoming. We’ve played both those festivals — I don’t think something like that would happen in North America. So yeah, there is still an open mind over in Europe, more so than here in North America. Which is a shame. I wish more people would just listen to music, and not worry about what’s cool and what’s not, and just follow what their ears are telling them. It doesn’t matter if you listen to One Direction or Opeth — whatever sounds cool to you is cool! If what you base your coolness on is an album, maybe you should, like, stop listening to music and just work on yourself.
You were good friends with Lemmy. Now that he’s gone, who do you think is going to carry the torch as the next overlord of rock n’ roll?
Oh, I don’t know. I personally don’t think there’s going to be anyone. I’m happy to have rock n’ roll fade into an underground, outsider type of music, which it’s supposed to be. It’s been bastardized and appropriated and kidified for so long that the end result, for us, is how we get treated in our home country or looked down upon. And there are still a lot of rock bands, but there’s just no unifying scene for it like there is in punk and heavy metal. Metal has Blabbermouth, Metal Sucks, Terrorizer — all these unifying hubs. There’s Pitchfork, Quietus, and all kinds of unifying hubs for indie rock. But not for rock n’ roll. So what is a rock band to do? All of us, we still exist, but we’re like islands looking with binoculars at each other. We try to do our part; we go on tour and take out younger rock bands that we think are really cool, like Dead Lord, ’77, The Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, and Audrey Horne. We’re doing what we can to unify this splintered rock scene, but really, I don’t think there will be a successor. More, the scene itself will just fade into the background, and it’ll just leave all the people who really like the music left.
The genre will be purified!
Oh, I don’t know about “purifying” in these alt-right times — that word scares me! But rock will become more for the people who really like it. You know, there are still pockets of popularity; if you’re in Europe and know rock music, there’s no way you don’t know who Imperial State Electric is. But I think Canada’s got a long way to go.