Author Stuart Berman talks about chronicling the life and times of Canada's most underappreciated rock stars.
Author and Grid online editor Stuart Berman says he never planned to write a book about Danko Jones. The idea was presented to him while he was finishing up his last book, This Book is Broken: A Broken Social Scene Story. Berman interviewed Danko Jones, frontman of the band of the same name, as part of that book. Jones was the one who suggested that his musical odyssey would make a good read, as well.
At first, Berman says, he wasn’t sold.
“I was wondering, ‘What’s the story here?’ Danko are very consistent, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a narrative arc,” he said. “I kind of had to take a step back and look at their entire career. And I said ‘Wow, this band has actually had a pretty strange career.’” The resulting book, Too Much Trouble: A Very Oral History of Danko Jones, was recently released by ECW Press.
Jones is the ultimate “big in Japan” band, except in this case, “Japan” is Scandinavia, Germany, and the Netherlands. At home, they verge on one-hit-wonder status. In Europe, they headline festivals. It was this dichotomy that fascinated Berman.
“They spend so much time in Europe that most people here have totally forgotten about them,” Berman says. “When you talk about them, the first thing people say is ‘Oh, aren’t they really big in Europe or something?’ It’s almost a kind of urban legend.”
Berman says that in the mid-to-late ’90s, long before Danko found success in Europe or made the odd decision to tour with Nickelback, the band was the city’s hottest unsigned act.
“Their shows were packed in the late ’90s,” he says. “The New Music did a profile on them without even being granted an interview. They just sort of did an oral history-type segment, talking to people about ‘Who is Danko Jones?’ For today’s kids, I would say they were like the METZ of their day in terms of hype equivalent.”
The problem, according to Berman, was that Danko’s sexed-up lyrics—not to mention the band’s focus on showmanship—were off-putting and confusing to Canadian indie-rock audiences.
“Canada’s always had a bit of an uneasy relationship with hard, loud music,” he said. “There’s sort of this grand tradition of singer-songwriters, and, more recently, these sort of communal indie bands… [Danko] hit Scandinavia as that whole Hives thing was happening, and there was a lot of excitement about that sort of punk-rock-mixed-with-’70s-stadium-rock sound.”
As Berman tells it, the band’s uneven success was ultimately for the best. That’s because its failure to catch on in Canada turned it, ironically, into one of this country’s most influential acts. Berman says that, in doing the interviews for the book, he was constantly surprised by how many well-known performers profess a love for Danko.
“I interviewed John Garcia from Kyuss, and listening to him talk about Danko Jones is like listening to someone talk about finding religion,” he said. “Hank [von Helvete] from Turbonegro, one of the most notorious partiers in rock ‘n’ roll, is sober now. He says that watching Danko be a performer as a sober person made him want to clean up his act. Hearing how these veteran rock ‘n’ rollers had their lives changed by Danko Jones is really impressive.”
The most impressive of those fans in high places, Berman thinks, is Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister. Berman says interviewing Lemmy is “as scary as you’d imagine.”
“For someone in a loud band, he speaks very softly,” said Berman. “That’s one thing Lemmy said about Danko, that they’re both very loud on stage, but then very quiet off. They related on that level”
Ultimately, Berman says his goal for the book is to get people in Toronto to take another look at their city’s underappreciated rock heroes.
“There’s no other band like this that came from an indie-rock mindset, but was applying it to this sort of classic rock,” he says. “People hear them, on the surface, and say ‘Oh, it’s just classic rock.’ They’re this sort of sex-obsessed rock band. But they don’t hear the cleverness and the nuance and awareness that comes with it.”