Fury Of Forward Motion: Our Interview With Joe "Shithead" Keithley

CREDIT: Sudden Death Records
Over the course of thirty some years, Joe "Shithead" Keithley has presided over the shelled out Dodge City of Punk Rock with all the pioneer spirit and rogue cowboy appeal that we love in our anti-establishment icons. Whether it be as the well-known frontman of D.O.A., a band that rode the top of the DIY wave of the early eighties and beyond; or as a potential politician and activist, he's managed to keep his finger on the pulse of humanity long enough to know what makes it surge.

I recently finished reading his new book, Talk–Action=0: An Illustrated History Of D.O.A., and was stunned by the amount of fun I had pouring over the pages packed with over three decades of life with D.O.A and Joe.

Hi Joe, how are you?
I'm great. How is it going with you?

Good thanks. What do you say we start out talking a little bit about the new book, Talk–Action=0: An Illustrated History Of D.O.A.? It's an amazing visual and written history and it spans thirty years down to the smallest detail. Personally I love this kind of book but I was exhausted for you when I saw the amount of stuff that went into it. It's meticulous. Playlists, lyrics, photos, fan art, posters. How hard was it laying out all of this and making sense of it?
It was pretty funny. I had 14 maybe 15 boxes of fairly reasonable size of all this stuff I'd collected over the years and when we first kind of conceived the book I went down and talked to Arsenal Pulp Press because they had done my last book, I, Shithead about eight years ago, and I thought, "How about a poster book?" They said, "Yeah, that's a good idea."

So we decided to do it in the summertime. So we got back from the tour last November and started going through the boxes and I said, "Man, there is an awful lot of shit in here." I've got duplicates of the same thing and I finally sorted through it and finally got it down to two boxes maybe three and went down to Arsenal and met with their entire staff and they had this big boardroom table and I kind of turned the two boxes upside down and dumped them out and just went, "Hey, there's your book." Not in a mean way but they were kind of just like, "Well, what the fuck to we do with this?"

So then it was the art editor who said, "Let's just put these things together correctly by year." So we started doing that and then she got on the computer and then I joined in and then we found some websites that were like a date finder because Saturday the 15th, 1983 could also be Saturday the 15th, 1990 right.

Eventually we pared it down and once I had them into years in order, I began to write the stories from there. So when we had enough posters from the first ten or fifteen years, it really started rolling and we could add more stuff in later as it went along.

Did you have tour diaries you kept all through that time because the detail in the recollection is amazing. It's like, "This guy got a bottle broken over his head and the blood was everywhere and then the merch guy helped mop everything up with the t-shirts." It's like it was yesterday and the reader is really there.
My memory is not too bad, it's pretty good but it's not perfect that's for sure, but what I did have was a tour schedule of all the tours so that sort of allowed this process to make sense in a linear fashion rather than higglety pigglety all over the place. It's a better read since you get a sense of things building and a repeating theme of the trouble never stops from year one to year thirty. So I didn't keep tour diaries but initially when I did the lead up to the first book I, Shithead, there was a lot of telling stories. You do a lot of traveling mile upon mile in various vehicles and what else do you do when you travel besides play cards? You tell old war stories and I usually prefaced it with, "Stop me if I've told you this before" and of course some of the guys had heard it but the others may not have and they'd be like, "This is a good one, tell it again!" So you have a couple of beers and you just start going at it. That kind of led to me doing spoken word shows about ten years ago and then writing I, Shithead about nine years ago, so the stories were already there. Weird, funny or sparkling incidents, I would remember it that way. I remember the towns, I remember the highways in and some of the venues and I'd meet a lot of people I'd talked to a bunch of times and I just don't remember their names but I do remember their faces.

That's got to be incredibly hard because you've been on tour endlessly, and the brutality and relentless nature of your tour schedule with less than ideal accommodations or support. You were basically diving head first, while fighting to get paid, to eat, to make it to the next gig. You feel what it's like. Do you think today's bands have any idea of what it's like to rough it on the road like that?
The resilient ones would find a way to make it happen. All the circumstances have changed. In reality. all the things that are really different? Probably the information. We used to plot tours, we'd write letters to people. There would be a phone number in the back of a magazine which we couldn't afford to buy but we'd stand in the back of the record store with a pen and paper taking down numbers of promoters and figure out a tour that way. We became friends with Black Flag so we started exchanging numbers and addresses and also warning each other about promoters who wouldn't pay and things like that. So between them and us we developed this whole circuit across North America. As for the conditions, a lot of bands can still go through that but it might make them quit a lot earlier, that's all.

CREDIT: Bev Davies

You've got some steely resolve there. I would have packed it up after day two.
You know what though? It was also a LOT of fun, you've got to remember that. It depends on your sense of adventure. I think not knowing what was coming there was a real sense of punk rock pioneering in a way. I mean it's been like thirty years right. The first three years were more like an education than the last ten or fifteen, but I think that you just get out there and you get some great results. Like people showing up and really liking the songs, that's too crazy for words. It's like, "Wow, that was really cool, let's do it again." So you kind of are able to get past the horrible parts like dinner consisting of three hot dogs from an ARCO station and the worst generic beer you ever tried and looking for the best deal on Marlboros.

It's like an internal fury to survive and perpetual forward motion. You seemingly never stayed still long enough to ponder the bad times. I guess that's the dividing line between who stood and who fell.
You've got to stay at it and with different circumstances. I've got a bit of a funny background because as a kid in high school, I was really into Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath, along with Deep Purple, all this heavy rock stuff. But at the same time my sister kept bringing home folk records and I was also really influenced by that and the music I really played as a guitar player was bluegrass and folk-type stuff and I got an awful lot of the lyrics out of that too. Idols of mine like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, they went through a lot of hardship and obviously Woody Guthrie died prematurely from Alzheimer's but Pete Seeger is still going and he went through an awful lot of shit. Obviously, he had great fame in the '50s until the McCarthy Era, then he had a hard time getting a show after that but he managed to hang in there and keep doing it. I've played shows with him and I've played shows with his sister Peggy Seeger. It's pretty amazing that it can be the late '70s/early '80s and they can just keep plugging along, the resolve is amazing. They have a goal in life to actually do something. You've got to pick between what is right and wrong and try as hard as you can to go for right. That's kind of my summation of the whole thing.

Let's talk about live performances. You and D.O.A., your reputation precedes you. I'll quote a friend of yours who says you "blow the roof off the place" every single time you play. You are going to be touring in Southern California in June. Are you going to consider extending that or are you going to keep it limited?
Just that for right now and then in the fall we are going to do a full tour of Canada and the eastern states, probably some western states too, but we aren't sure. Just waiting to see and of course we'll make sure we go to all the places that have horrible weather and make sure to do them before the weather gets to be too much. If there's one thing I've learned with touring it's the weather thing. We used to have a manager who would send us to Saskatchewan in January and Miami in July. He'd go sit in his office, I think with a map of North America and darts and that's how he'd choose the times and places. So I learned to go someplace sunny and warm between November and March.

You are going to be doing a book signing and a live date on June 17th, both on the same day. Do you think you'll be doing a book tour with this book?
Yeah, probably when we get out east like Chicago and New York. We are planning that for September. So we would either do it at the venue or preferably at the bookstore. I think people that would be interested in the book might not necessarily go to a show.

CREDIT: Bev Davies

Really? Wow. I'd imagine that if somebody had not even heard of D.O.A. the book would catapult you right out the door to see them live.
Maybe so but sometimes people are still a little bit afraid of punk rock and they wouldn't necessarily go to the venue. If they get a little bit older and whatever. We've got a pretty wide swath of fans between fifteen and sixty. We run the full gamut, so it depends. In some towns, maybe there's not a suitable bookstore around since they are few and far between these days.

In southern California we are actually doing a couple of record stores.

It's a nice combination, you need to get here though.
We haven't been to DC in a while, that's always a great place. Also haven't seen Ian MacKaye for awhile and he's a good guy so.

He lives in my neighborhood.
Oh wow. Cool.

You are a big activist and you support many great causes and I was reading a little on when you ran in the British Columbia provincial elections for the Green Party. You said going in that you thought you probably couldn't get elected but you were going to make people think. You came dangerously close to getting elected with the highest percentage of the vote next to the party leader. What would you have done if you had been elected?
I guess I would have had to put my music career on the shelf for a little while. I could have kept writing songs, but it's a really busy job and you've got to be really committed. The thing is you can get out there and influence people and the thing I liked about running for the Greens at that time was that they had never elected anybody so there was no chance they could be corrupted and I could act in my own maverick fashion, not quite forming policy ad hoc but somewhat.

Do you think they would have given you carte blanche? You just came out and said this is what I'm doing and this is what I stand for so screw you this is it.
I think that people would have liked what I did. I run into tons of people and they always say stuff like, "When are you running again?" or they'll say, "There's our future mayor right there" type stuff. You get a lot of people between twenty and forty and that's where I got most of the vote, so you can get out there and change things. Politics is very difficult because I think a lot of people go in with great ideals and they end up getting corrupted by endlessly compromising so I think that would be the real trick, not to water down what you believe in.

Yeah, politics flattens people pretty fast.
They get squished in between and it doesn't matter what you pick out sometimes. Everybody ends up hating you.

You can't win. Although you came pretty damn close.
True. It was exciting. It was a one-man campaign basically. I got a couple of people, got a thousand bucks together and got my two oldest kids who were about eight and ten years old at the time to help me hand out leaflets to those in my town.

People love kids.
And I'd do that at elevated train stations and play my guitar and sing songs .

I'm not Canadian, but I can say with certainty that if I was I would have voted for you. You've sort of operated on the fringe of the mainstream music industry since day one. At the beginning of the book you write this little paragraph that states basically, "No one likes us, no one will ever book us," so you put your heads together and decided you would do it for yourselves. How do you feel about the current state of the semi-collapsed current music industry? Now that more people can cut them out of the equation due to being able to bring their music directly to the consumer with the internet? Slippery slope or something wonderful?
Both. I think it's great that people have realized that they can go the DIY route because it's out there and it's available. Obviously, the age of information we are in and the internet has enabled that whereas before it was really tough. Now you can record at home studios and make records for cheap and in those days a studio would cost seven hundred to a thousand dollars a day so it was really prohibitive and we are talking in 1980 dollars so it would be way more today. I think having the access and people recording and getting their information out there, the songs and albums, that's great. At the same time I think what it's done is created a really huge noise floor where you have more and more and more bands that are listened to by less and less people, unless they do something really outstanding or get a break or they go out and tour and win those fans over. And I think that the internet has made it so people can go out and get music anywhere which is really great because record stores they carry less and less titles and will there even be any record stores left in ten years?

We still have a few good ones left here, but nothing like it used to be.
I know. It's just like you can't go out and rent DVDs or videos anymore. Those stores are all closing or closed, Blockbuster and that kind of thing. So in one sense it's harder to get your stuff out but way easier in another. It's a mixed thing for sure right?

From Talk-Action=0
I like what you said about touring as it seems like the one last great way to make money and secure the fan loyalty.
That's the thing with bands unless they are doing reasonably well it costs nothing but the tank of gasoline, which is a killer now but still. I don't think people are paying all that much money for shows anymore but the costs have all gone up.

A stadium show here can cost upwards of two hundred dollars now. I went to the Verizon center to see someone who kind of sucked and I was poor for two weeks. Then I spent thirty dollars at the 9:30 club soon afterward for a band that was a hundred times better. Go figure.
That's a reasonable amount and some people might say, "Well thirty bucks, that's way too much!" and even punks will be like "You want ten bucks!" But I guess you have to decide how important it is to you and how much you want to go. The most I ever paid to go see someone was ninety bucks to see Neil Young, who I really like.

If it's someone I really like, I'll be honest and tell you that I'll usually pay no matter what. They've got to eat and the venue needs to rebook them when they come back around so I try to do what I can by supporting them.
That's the balancing act. The tickets need to be affordable but priced high enough to be worth it.

in 2002, Larry Campbell, the mayor of Vancouver who's now a senator, made his first official act the declaration of DOA Day!
Yeah, that was pretty interesting. We kind of had a background there as the nickname for Vancouver was "No Fun City" because you have a hard time doing anything and the police will bust you at every given chance. For a city of two and a half million people, it should be fairly culturally vibrant and it is for sure but, ya know. So the council and the mayor at the time thought they would do something to dispel this notion of Vancouver being No Fun City so what better thing to do than to take the local long established punk rock band and name a day after them.

I was playing a solo show and one of the counselors who I'd worked on activist stuff with before came in and pulled out this big scroll, unrolled it on stage, and started reading all the stuff like "whereas DOA is..." and all this official stuff so I just grabbed the scroll from him after awhile to hurry him along and said, "Let's get on with the show."

Thanks for talking with us today Joe!
Thanks, talk to you soon.

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You can visit Joe at Sudden Death Records, follow him on Twitter, and don't forget to pick up his incredible book Talk–Action=0 for an amazing walk through 30 years of meticulously annotated history and irreverent fun.

For those of you in California, Joe will be performing five shows this weekend:
06/17, TKO Records, Fountain Valley: Acoustic show from 7-8 PM
06/17, Alex's Bar, Long Beach: Concert w/ JFA, Litmus Green, Love Canal
06/18, Vacation Vinyl, Silver Lake, CA: Acoustic show from 3-4 PM
06/18, The Glass House, Pomona: Gnarmageddon Fest w/ Agent Orange
06/19, The Shakedown Bar, San Diego: Show starts at 4 PM

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