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One of the most prominent names in Toronto rock, the power trio is your favourite band's favourite band
This story is part of our 40th anniversary archival series. Check back every Monday for a new 40 at 40 cover story marking four decades of NOW Magazine.
When people get nostalgic about breakout Canadian bands of the 2000s, they tend to talk about a few usual suspects: Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade. But there’s a Toronto band that was all over MuchMusic and in local music venues in that same era, has remained consistently good and prominent since then, but is unfairly left out of the conversation: Danko Jones.
After six years of non-stop rock and constant gigging, Danko Jones licensed their debut album to the major label Universal in 2002. That was the year they appeared on the cover of NOW Magazine, their hometown alt-weekly, with an interview with music writer Tim Perlich about playing Snow Jam at home and breaking out in Europe. For Danko Jones the man, the lead singer/guitarist of the eponymous rock trio, it remains a milestone.
“My mom’s got it framed at home,” he says over Zoom. “I see it often.”
Nearly two decades later, the band is still going strong. They’re about to release their 10th album, the apply titled Power Trio, on August 27 for Hamilton stalwart label Sonic Unyon. Recorded during the pandemic with strict safety measures, it’s another no-frills rock album about the power of music itself – a power which was suddenly acutely felt by anyone missing live music.
Jones has been open about his acute pandemic anxiety, tweeting often about it (while constantly arguing with anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers) and writing op-eds for papers like the Toronto Star.
“[The pandemic] was all I could think about,” he says. “I couldn’t even read a book or watch a movie because I can’t not think about the virus for longer than 30 or 40 minutes.”
While songs like Let’s Rock Together, Start The Show and I Want Out are self-explanatory – and suddenly extra poignant after 16 months in isolation from Jones’ bandmates and his fans – there are other manifestations of his pandemic frame of mind. Raise Some Hell is a song informed by the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer.
“It’s not really a reaction to George Floyd, but more my personal reaction to the protests,” he says. “Paralyzed by the fear and anxiety of being around people during a pandemic, but wanting to participate. So this is my way to contribute my feelings.”
As record labels and other music organizations posted black squares on social media, he also made his thoughts felt on Twitter. Privately, he messaged some folks he felt had been racist to him and his band over the years as a non-white band on the rock scene. Publicly, he called out Toronto radio station Indie88 for their overwhelmingly white playlist and their ironic advertising slogan: “32 flavours of not vanilla.”
He had some trepidation about being seen as a bitter rocker who wasn’t getting airplay, but says it wasn’t about him specifically. There are plenty of rock and indie bands who aren’t just four or five white guys with guitars, but he felt they weren’t getting their fair shake on the radio’s rock stations.
Despite making back-to-basics hard rock, Danko Jones are a band that seems misunderstood in their hometown. They don’t quite fit in with the Pitchfork-era indie rock boom, they’re not quite hardcore or metal and they were never as big or polished as a band like Nickelback. Instead, they came from a late-90s underground garage rock boom with bands like the Dirtbombs, Oblivions and Blues Explosion that eventually exploded into the mainstream with bands like the White Stripes, the Hives and the Vines.
But Danko Jones stuck around past most of those bands, and now they get lumped in all sorts of places. They’ve opened for Nickelback and Guns N’ Roses, but also cult legends like Blonde Redhead and Turbonegro. Later this month, they’ll play with Big Shiny Tunes CanRock bands Our Lady Peace and I Mother Earth.
“I didn’t know we were part of that whole scene when it happened,” Jones jokes. “I mean, we’ll jump into any scene. We’ve been included in many scenes and excluded in as many scenes and sometimes it’s the same scenes.”
Pandemic aside, Danko Jones have had basically the same strategy since that 2002 NOW cover: draw as much power as they can from guitar, drums and bass and tour nonstop in both North America and Europe. Jones is looking forward to getting back to that, if very cautiously, and they’ve already played a couple of dates.
There’s a phenomenon of big bands coming to town and shouting out Danko Jones. It’s happened with Mastodon, Supersuckers and Mastodon. People will sometimes assume they have some sort of marketing strategy, but Jones says it’s just touring everywhere, making connections and playing their songs well enough onstage that people dig them.
“And sometimes people are just kind of like, ‘What? Why that band?” he laughs. “Because we’re a fucking good band, man!”
Below is Tim Perlich’s cover story on Danko Jones, republished from NOW’s September 12, 2002 issue.
Sharing a bill with the Rolling Stones would be a career-capping highlight for most local bands. But for Danko Jones, hanging with Mick and Keith was just another in the series of mind-blowing events that are occurring with increasing frequency.It’s no longer uncommon for the tough-rocking Toronto trio to jet off to Holland to headline a massive outdoor concert in Rotterdam and then slip over to Paris for a media day with the French glossy press on the way home.
In the past year, Danko Jones have quietly made the transition from promising Queen West threat to bankable European festival draw. They’re rock stars.
“Like many Canadian artists,” explains singer Danko Jones at a Front Street bistro, “I believed you had to go to the States to make it. But once you play a few shows down there, reality slaps you hard.
“When you think about American rock bands who’ve become successful internationally – KoRn? Limp Bizkit? Staind? – that’s nothing we aspire to. We get to travel all over Sweden, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands on our own, playing songs for thousands of screaming people that we wrote at a rehearsal space at Queen and River. It’s incredible.”
At a time when popularity is largely a function of media hype, Danko Jones have made their way on word-of-mouth, based on the quality of their music and their ability to present it in an exciting way night after night.
Their explosive new Born A Lion disc was completely self-produced and self-financed. But even before they licensed it to Universal (shrewdly hanging onto their masters and publishing), and their ingenious Blue Jays video clip started showing in high rotation on SportsNet, they were already well on their way to becoming celebrities in Europe.
“It all started when Trigger Happy’s Al Nolan played some of our songs for the guys at the Bad Taste label in Sweden. They liked what they heard and began e-mailing us about putting out our My Love Is Bold disc and playing some shows in Sweden.
“The weird thing is that right after we made the deal with Bad Taste, the Hives’ European booking agent signed us onto these big festival dates – 14 countries in seven weeks with groups like the Hellacopters and the Backyard Babies – all without any of them seeing us play a single show!
“But I think we exceeded their expectations, because after our second gig we got booked for the Roskilde Festival and another entire European tour.”
So why Danko Jones? Certainly, Sweden alone has more than enough heavy rock bands to go around. There’s just something about the Danko Jones guitar-led attack – which has them kicking out a ZZ Top-inspired groove grind with hardcore punk intensity – that happened to be what everyone was waiting for.
“It was definitely a matter of timing. We happened to come along when people were embracing guitar-oriented rock ‘n’ roll again, and I guess we’re doing something a bit different.
“Also, the fact that our rhythms are really basic and we don’t get into anything deeper lyrically than relationships makes our stuff accessible to a lot of people.”
The real key to Danko Jones’s success is the confrontational charisma of the group’s namesake frontman. He lurches into each song with wild-eyed, vein-popping rage, like he may spontaneously combust any second.
Yet the macho flexing comes tempered with lascivious smirks and a tongue-thrusting tease that adds an intriguing sexual dimension to his shouting delivery.
“Oh, man, the tongue thing,” he chuckles, shaking his head. “That all started when I did this photo shoot for Kerrang! where they insisted on a burning guitar being involved.
“When I saw the guitar on fire, I immediately thought “Gene Simmons’ and stuck out my tongue. It was, like, one frame out of 50, but that’s the image they used.
“Then we played the Hultsfred Festival in Sweden, and I forgot the words. Without thinking, I stuck out my tongue and got this huge reaction from the crowd. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
For all the razzle-dazzle antics onstage, the members of Danko Jones are surprisingly reserved, pleasant and punctual – about as far as people who play music for a living can get from the rock star stereotype.
The difference between the fired-up Danko Jones onstage and the charmingly soft-spoken person offstage has been perplexing for journalists on both sides of the ocean.
“As soon as I shake hands with an interviewer, the first question is always “Are you two different people?’
“”No, I’m the same person you see onstage, and you’ll know it if you keep asking me that.’
“When I stand onstage in front of a lot of people, with all those eyes looking at me, it’s like an act of aggression. That’s how I take it. My reaction is to strike back in an aggressive way. I go on the attack.”
The European press is always good for a few laughs, whether it’s probing dietary tendencies or uncovering the hidden political subtext in love-gone-wrong songs, as Danko Jones is discovering.
“This German journalist who looked kinda like Marilyn Manson asked, “So Danko Jones, your album is called Born A Lion. If, like Lenny Kravitz, you make millions of dollars, will your next album be called Born A Pussy, because you will be making pussy music like Lenny Kravitz?’
“We were all laughing too hard to even try answering that one.”