“I have to say, I don’t know of any other bands who started off playing with the New Bomb Turks and ended up opening for Nickelback!” Danko Jones, the shaven-headed frontman with the band who share his name, is looking back on nearly 20 years of manning the rock’n’roll barricades with a mixture of pride and bemusement. Rising from the garage rock boom of the early noughties, the Toronto trio have made the jump from underground band with a diehard punk attitude (they initially refused to release records or merchandise) to raucous, rocket-fuelled rock’n’rollers with a reputation for incendiary live performances.
“I always listened to everything – I never cast off rock from my personal listening,” says Jones, as he explains the band’s sonic evolution. “Then the riffs I was writing just started to sound more like Thin Lizzy. And I thought, ‘Can we really do this?’ Hard rock music demands a certain musical prowess… that we just didn’t have. It was scary, but it was also a challenge – to see if we could pull it off.”
The thoughtful, bespectacled man sitting in a fine London hotel is a world away from the shaven-headed livewire who has been known to slap himself in the face on stage. “In my personal life I’m really quiet,” Jones admits. “I’ve always sat in the back – back of every class, back of the bus. Being in this band has actually made me go forward. It’s taken me out of my shell.”
Danko Jones’s new album, Fire Music, is the latest step on a musical evolution that has taken in assorted Canadian Grammy nominations, support slots with such heavyweights as Guns N’ Roses and the Rolling Stones, and, in true rock’n’roll style, an in-out cast of drummers that would put Spinal Tap to shame (the latest, Rich Knox, is their seventh). It’s certainly a long way from playing the punk dives of North America.
“We got a good response to the hard rock so we just kept going,” he says. “We’ll always throw in some sort of garage-y type inspired song, though,” he adds with a smile.
Jones’s obsession with music is unmistakeable. During our conversation he name-drops everyone from the Jesus Lizard (an early musical influence) to Kiss (the band that got him into rock music as a nipper) to Mars Red Sky (the French stoner/psych crew who released one of his favourite albums of 2014). “I’m a one-sided guy!” he says with a laugh. “JC [John Calabrese, bassist] likes basketball, he likes fishing… I don’t. I just wanna talk about music, listen to music, find out about music.”
Fittingly, Jones’s life outside the band is all about music too. He hosts a podcast on Soundcloud called The Danko Jones Podcast, on which he’s had an impressive line-up of guests including Bruce Dickinson and Henry Rollins. He writes columns about music for the Huffington Post and various other publications, and he’s released spoken-word albums on the subject of rock.
“I know other musicians talk about other things, like politics or social issues, but I like to keep those opinions to myself,” he says. “I want you to like the band because you like the music. And anyways, when I get the chance to write about something it’s gonna be music. It’s fun to have your world revolve around that.”
As a rock’n’roll standard-bearer, Jones has a lot to say about the current state of rock’n’roll – and he’s not impressed. “Rock’n’roll is littered with so much baggage that it’s hard for new bands to capture the crown, because the old guard is either still there, or their shadow looms,” he explains. Genres such as indie and heavy metal, he says, are all about pushing boundaries and making the music unique. But rock’n’roll is more conservative: “With rock’n’roll you gotta make sure that it’s different, because everything’s been done. And the only way you can do that is if you listen to a lot of different music.”
Danko Jones (the band) certainly practise what Danko Jones (the man) preaches, and Fire Music backs it up. From the punchy opener Wild Woman to the cowbell-laced grooves of Do You Wanna Rock, it’s simultaneously edgy and polished. And, as befits an amateur student of music, there are some interesting reference points. Nick Cave’s black-hearted 1996 album Murder Ballads influenced the subject matter of Danko tracks The Twisting Knife and Body Bags. No less bizarre is the influence of ex-Misfits frontman Glenn Danzig – just listen to I Will Break Your Heart, from Fire Music, followed by Danzig’s She Rides to hear the parallels.
“Even rap music has found its way into our band,” says Jones. “Jazz too – the aesthetics of jazz. John Coltrane song titles are just perfect.”
Such broad reference points have helped to craft the distinct Danko Jones style.
“It’s all well and good when people say: ‘Oh that band’s amazing because they sound like Led Zeppelin’ or ‘because they sound like AC/DC’,” Jones says. “But I live and breathe this stuff. And as stock a genre as rock can be, I want us to stand out in a certain way.”
Over the years, Danko Jones have built up an impressive touring CV, opening for some seriously big names including the Rolling Stones, Guns N’ Roses and Motörhead. And then there was the time they played with Nickelback, having bagged the opening slot for their fellow Canadians after several other bands turned it down. Even then, many people advised them not to do it. Which only made them want to do it more. “It’s that punk rock attitude: whatever you say, I’m gonna do the opposite.” says Jones.
So touring with Nickelback was a perversely punk rock thing to do?
“It was because everyone was telling us not to do that, and I think punk rock is all about not caving in to pressure. I’m open to opportunity and the experience of doing what’s interesting, as long as it’s not something that I couldn’t really live with.”
Nineteen years on, Danko Jones are still fuelled by that punk rock mentality. “We became the band we became because we were willing to take chances,” says the singer. “Being punk, beyond the music, beyond the anger and the frustration, is a confrontation and a challenge.”
Inevitably, in leaving their underground days behind the band have faced a degree of backlash from punk purists. Even now it touches a nerve.
“It scared the shit out of me at first to be called a sell-out,” Jones says. “But it’s easy to not sell-out. The moment you start going out, meeting new people, it becomes a challenge. Once you realise how this whole thing is kind of rigged, you just do what you wanna do, as long as you can look at yourself in the mirror every morning and say: ‘That’s who I want to answer to.’”
Fire Music is out now on Bad Taste Records. A free and exclusive Danko Jones ‘best of’ CD is free with this month’s print edition of Classic Rock.