DOA/ Joey Shithead Interview
From Vol. 3 No. 1, 2004
Bloodied but Unbowed
Talking Reagan, labels and activism with Sudden Death Records boss
& punk legend Joey Shithead
Interview by Louis Rastelli
Joe Keithley, aka Joey Shithead, leads one of the longest-running punk bands in existence, DOA, which formed in 1978 and has taken only brief hiatuses since. He’s been there through every phase of punk rock: his first band, The Skulls, formed in its earliest days, when it didn’t even have a name yet. DOA’s album Hardcore 81 helped define and name the hardcore punk originating from the West Coast that dominated the 80s. [As Joey puts it, hardcore was “faster and more aggressive than New York or London punk, and nobody tried to sing with phony English accents.”]
Though their best songs were behind them by the mid-80s, DOA endlessly toured the world, sharing stages with such diverse acts as Bryan Adams and David Lee Roth, and letting Nirvana open for them when they were just starting out in ’89. A high-water mark was their album with Jello Biafra, The Last Scream of the Missing Neighbors, though many remember them for their anti-corporate take on BTO’s Takin’ Care of Business from 1987.
Joey runs his own label, Sudden Death Records, founded in the late 70s, later dormant for years but very active today. Alone and with DOA, Joey’s also played all manner of benefit concerts, from anti-nuclear rallies in the 80s to anti-WTO protests in the 90s, and he’s routinely released limited-run 45s for various causes.
He also ran for the Green Party in three Vancouver elections, once drawing 15% of the vote. Originally wanting to be a civil rights lawyer, he later decided that “What I really want to be in life is a troublemaker. I’ve tried to be an activist and still try to change things.” This attitude is well summed-up by DOA’s motto of sorts, Talk – Action = Zero. His recent book, I, Shithead [Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver] zips through 25 years of punk rock as quickly as the man speaks. It still only barely touches on the hundreds of stories he’s got inside him, which he relates during occasional speaking tours.
Joey spoke at Casa del Popolo in Montreal in November 2003, then played with DOA the next night at Foufounes Electriques. Fish Piss caught up with him between appearances to chat about Reagan, activism and the record business.
FP: So, you started a label in the late 70s. What was that like?
Joey: Well, it really wasn’t much of a label. We were just concerned that nobody would give us a record deal. And we didn’t have that fantasy in mind. At that time, I think people moved to Toronto or NY or LA to get record deals.
FP: Chilliwack and Prism and bands like that?
Joey: Well, actually, it’s pretty funny, because I did this benefit for people arrested after the APEC protests in ‘97, and one of the guys from Prism, who I’d never met–you know, Vancouver is a small town, but not that small that I know everybody. So the singer came down and said, “Ah, it’s really nice to meet you Joey, I’m from Prism.” And I just didn’t have the heart to tell him, “You know what? Prism were probably my least favorite band– you were one of the bands that made me play punk rock because you guys sucked so bad.”
FP: When you started, you guys just went and pressed the record?
Joey: Well we went and booked some studio time, we had 9 hours, and we did four songs top to bottom. I had to finish writing the lyrics on about half of them. So I sat there and I went, “Oh shit, I have to sing this still,” I had to quickly write out the last half of the lyrics, you know, I had about one verse and half a chorus, thinking “Oh fuck, I didn’t think that through.”
And we thought, you know, we would just do it ourselves. We thought, why couldn’t you do a record yourself? Nobody ever did. There was only one other band in Vancouver at the time that did their own record, they were called the Pied Pumpkin String Ensemble.
FP: So it wouldn’t have been the thing to do, bands didn’t sell 45s at their shows or anything…
Joey: Well, no, and the stuff we heard, the Damned, they were on Virgin, the Sex Pistols were on Virgin and A&M, the Clash were on Columbia and the Ramones were on Sire…
So we got the tape and then we ran down and there was a pressing plant in Vancouver, we ran down there and had just enough money to get 500 singles. Then someone said “What’s the name of the label?” and I though, OK, DOA, Sudden Death Records then. The label itself I did by hand with a felt pen, and we had to be real careful because we couldn’t do any corrections.
FP: Did you do just one, or all 500 by hand?
Joey: No, no, I just made one [to print from], and I did the cover art kinda the same way. When it was all done, I started driving it around to all of the record stores in Vancouver. And we were avid readers of fanzines– there weren’t very many, so you would read them cover to cover, and tried to find out if there was a little scene of punk rock somewhere in North America. The one in Vancouver was called Snot Rag.
FP: Also that one in San Francisco…
Joey: Ah, there was Damage there, and Flipside in LA. There was also Slash, a magazine in LA. So we started sending these singles out to the magazines, and radio stations, and then they said our record was Number One at a radio station in San Francisco. So then that led us to go down on our first road trip.
We showed up without any gear, and we didn’t think to tell the guy that we had no gear. I took the train, two guys took the bus and one guy hitchhiked. So we got there with no gear, and the guy who ran the club, who’s now a really good friend of mine, he called me a fucking idiot, right. He asked me, “What the fuck, are all you Canadians fucking stupid or what?” I was like “I dunno, maybe.” I didn’t know shit from Shineola in those days, right.
So that was kind of how the whole thing started. The record went along, we did the World War Three single, we did the Disco Sucks EP, then we got hooked up with Quintessence Records, which was a forerunner of Zulu Records out there. They put out a couple singles for us, then we discovered by checking around that the guy was lying about how many records he’d pressed. He told us, “Yeah, I pressed 2000 of each of those singles.” So we went down to the pressing plant and just asked the guy, and he said, “Oh, just hang on a second, let me check… 5000 of this, 5000 of this.” And he just told us. So then we went and confronted the guy, we took our stuff back, and a bunch of other records from the store they ran, and told him to fuck off.
FP: That’s actually a classic major label trick, underreporting how many records were pressed to the band….
Joey: Oh yeah, and also pumping up the bills, so you never make any money, right? This guy was just a small-town chiseler who was into doing cocaine, you know, spending all his money on coke.
FP: Numerous bands, they think the indies are better to go with than the majors, but the reality it seems is that both sides have scumballs, and you’re just as likely to get shafted with them as with a major. But I tend to think there’s still a difference in the way that…
Joey: The point is, if you can find someone that’s good, you can make more money off of selling ten thousand records with an indie than you can with a major, because they aren’t clawing back absolutely everything. The best label we were ever with, when they were at their zenith, was Alternative Tentacles. Those guys were totally squaring straight up.
I also want to say that this whole bullshit about this lawsuit with the Dead Kennedys– that’s what it is, is a bunch of bullshit. Those guys in the band, I mean, they’re friends of mine, but they were making a good living by not playing music. And only the surviving members of the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and the Clash are doing that, basically. They were probably the fourth biggest punk rock band of that era, right? And so they weren’t having to work, right, ten years after the band broke up. Then they started this ridiculous lawsuit.