D.O.A.’s punk veterans won’t give up the fight

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For a guy whose long-time slogan is the blunt Talk–Action=O, it’s no surprise that, almost three decades into D.O.A.’s career, the band’s leader, Joe “Shithead” Keithley, shows no signs of slowing down. D.O.A. continues to flip the bird to conformity, and Keithley keeps himself active by running Sudden Death Records and its newly minted subsidiary, JSK Media.

“Everything is kind of clicking along,” he says. “I’ve got to work my ass off at the record company. And when we go out on the road, I double up as the road manager, promo guy, and driver. I do everything. Which is fine. It keeps you busy, and that’s what you’ve got to do. We don’t have anybody with a whole ton of bucks backing us. We’ve just got to get to that town and go and play for people and show them that we’re still one of the best bands in the country.”

D.O.A. will prove that to local fans with a pair of shows on Saturday (February 10). The pioneering hardcore unit is between records at the moment (with plans to have one out next year in time for its 30th anniversary), but when Shithead and company heard that Vancouver’s first punk band was coming out of retirement, it didn’t take much arm-twisting for them to spring into action. “We weren’t really planning on a show, but then Carola [Goetze] from the JEM Gallery said, ”˜Hey, do you want to play a show with the Furies?’?” Keithley says. “I thought, ”˜That’s a great fuckin’ idea.’ This is actually a return to real punk rock.”

Ah, yes: the ongoing shit-storm over what constitutes the genuine article and what is merely borrowing its symbols with no regard to their significance. As buoyed as he is to see younger acts such as Anti-Flag and Rise Against carry the agit-prop torch, Keithley seems to have little use for the spike-haired pop stars whose faces end up plastered on the locker doors of Warped Tour teens.

“If you’re gonna play punk rock, you’ve got to have conviction, and when things are fucked up, you’ve got to call it like it is,” he asserts. “The thing that I don’t think people understand about punk rock today is that you may have a loud, obnoxious band with a really loud guitar and play really fast, but if it says nothing, and you’re still only singing about cars and girls, then it’s really like pop music dressed up in a really loud suit. It doesn’t matter how loud and angst-ridden they seem to be on stage, if it’s really saying nothing or contributing nothing to people thinking, then it’s doing fuck-all. It’s just serving the same needs that pop music always has done forever and always will do for people.”

A desire to see wrongs righted is what has kept D.O.A. in the punk-rock business for so long. Well, that and an undying love for bashing out its anthems for an always-eager cult following. “The thing about D.O.A.—to me, why it still makes sense to do it—is we’ve still remained progressive politically and done new albums and new material,” Keithley says. “While D.O.A. has a certain nostalgic air, to me it’s not like a nostalgia band, because we’ve kept moving forward. And also, we really realize between the three of us that if you’re gonna get up there and play for people, it doesn’t matter how old you are. I mean, we’re not kids anymore. That’s fuckin’ obvious, right? Anyone would guess that. But if you don’t get up there and just totally give ’er shit while you’re playing, then you shouldn’t be up there playing.”

D.O.A.’s on-stage electricity received a fresh jolt recently with the return of original bassist Randy Rampage, who last joined Keithley and drummer the Great Baldini on 2002’s Win the Battle before returning to his day job as a longshoreman. “He’s just nuts,” Keithley says of Rampage. “He’s still a crazy man on stage. He’s got that energy, which I think is really important, that the band can get that across.”

Keithley himself has no lack of energy; in addition to his D.O.A. duties and his label-honcho status, he’s an occasional solo artist, with a new CD, Band of Rebels, in the works for a planned June release. As one of the scene’s elder statesmen, the Burnaby resident has also become a go-to guy for those seeking punk-rock expertise; hence his presence in the documentary American Hardcore, and his participation in a UBC lecture series called Rock’n’Resistance. Such is Keithley’s status that, in honour of the band’s 25th anniversary, then-mayor Larry Campbell declared December 21, 2003, to be D.O.A. Day in Vancouver.

He’s still an unapologetic shit-disturber, but it’s evident that the veteran antiauthoritarian is turning into something akin to (gasp!) a respected authority figure. “I never envisioned anything like that,” a clearly bemused Keithley says. “It’s a little bit bizarre, for sure, and it takes some getting used to, and I don’t know if I’m still totally used to it. I have walked down the streets of Vancouver and had policemen go, ”˜Hey, Joe!’ And I kind of turn around like, ”˜Okay, should I run for it or not?’ Then they say, ”˜How ya doin’? I saw you a long time ago at a show.’ And I’m like, ”˜Oh, okay.’ That’s kind of a funny thing. When we started, I couldn’t see that we would last, like, five years.”

D.O.A. plays an all-ages show at Richard’s on Richards on Saturday (February 10) at 3 p.m., followed by a licensed show at 8 p.m. Joe Keithley appears at UBC’s St. John’s College next Thursday (February 15) as part of the Rock’n’Resistance lecture series.