Jeff Dahl interview
Originally published in Zombie Creeping Flesh fanzine.
Jeff Dahl has been playing raw, authentic rock and roll ever since the late 70s. Having fronted the legendary Angry Samoans, Powertrip, Vox Pop, and his own Jeff Dahl Group, he continued as a solo artist in the 1990s and 00s. His sound is perhaps best described as muscular, sped-up proto-punk in the Dead Boys and Stooges tradition, yet with the occasional touch of glitter.
Jeff has been a huge inspiration to many in the way he has stuck to his guns and remained a teenage rock’n'roll fan at heart. Always aware and supportive of up-and-coming rock’n'roll bands, he founded the Ultra Under record label and published his own Sonic Iguana fanzine in the 90s. We talked about the early Los Angeles punk scene, Johnny Thunders, Stiv Bators, and not least about his own, incredibly prolific career.
ZZ: Hi there Jeff, are you just back from your tour?
JD: I’ve been in Los Angeles playing some shows, and watching The Dictators. For me it’s the first time to see the Dictators, so I was very excited. They played a great show.
ZZ: Jeff, you were born in Stuttgart, Germany. How come, was your father a GI based there?
JD: Yes, it was a military family.
ZZ: Is it true that you got into The Stooges and the MC5 right from the beginning, in the late 60s?
JD: Yes, in 69/70 I was listening to that kind of stuff.
ZZ: Did you get to see them live?
JD: No, I grew up Hawaii. In the late 60s and early 70s it was very difficult and very expensive for bands to travel there, so we didn’t get to see so many good shows.
ZZ: Which band had a bigger impact on you, the Stooges or the MC5?
JD: Probably the Stooges, but the MC5 was also a very big influence for me. The first album that made me want to play music was Funhouse by The Stooges. It was like in 1977, when all the punk rockers listened to the first Ramones album and wanted to start a band – for me it was Funhouse.
ZZ: You spent some time in the army yourself?
JD: I was in the army for three years.
ZZ: And you moved to Los Angeles in 1977?
JD: Actually it was in 1979.
ZZ: So you didn’t witness the early LA punk scene from the beginning? The Germs, early X and so on…
JD: Oh no, I saw all those bands, sure! Most of those bands started in ’78 and ’79, not so much ’77 really… in ’77 there was still kind of a glitter rock scene in LA. The first concert I saw when I moved to Los Angeles was The Flesheaters, the Alley Cats, The Weirdos and X.
ZZ: What was the LA punk scene like in these days?
JD: It was still connected to the glitter and glam rock scene a little bit. I guess in the UK it was like that as well. And a lot of the LA scene was copying what was happening in England. UK punk was all over the newspapers and magazines, so when LA people saw that, they wanted to act like that too. (laughs)
ZZ: I think in the UK it might have initially been closer to pub rock rather than glam.
JD: Yeah that’s right… which is unknown in the US. Nobody here ever heard of bands like Dr. Feelgood.
ZZ: Then came the second wave of LA punk, hardcore bands like Black Flag, the Adolescents, Fear, and so on. To this day, this scene has a particularly violent reputation. Lots of fights at shows all of the time… was it really that bad?
JD: Probably not as much as people remember. But yeah, there was the beach punk scene, some bands from Orange County like Black Flag, Adolescents, Circle Jerks. They had a lot of this kinda crowd. Before that, when bands like the Germs, X and The Weirdos were going, there was no violence. So I think it was basically the kids from the suburbs that were football players or soccer players… more athletic people. They were not so much into the music, really. They were more into hanging out and having a party.
ZZ: You recorded your first 7” single in 1977?
JD: Yes, it was called Rock’n'Roll Critic, I recorded it while I was still in the army.
ZZ: Can you tell me more about the lyrics to that song?
JD: At the time I was still listening to my early influences: a lot of garage and rockabilly, bands like the Stooges. But at that time bands like Boston and Bad Company were big, which I didn’t like so much. That was all that was ever written about in the music press, which I found really boring. So my song Rock’n'Roll Critic was just about that. I’m always at war with the critics.
ZZ: But now you’re a Rock’n'Roll Critic yourself, with your Sonic Iguana fanzine.
JD: Yeah I know, maybe I hate myself (laughs).
ZZ: Is it true what it says on your website, that you recorded that single two weeks after you bought your first own guitar?
ZZ: But you must have played someone else’s guitar before, right?
JD: No, never. I just found how to make the A and the E chord. And once you know that, you can play punk rock. No leads, no solos, nothing – I didn’t know anything like that. I had been a drummer before, though. When I did the single, the only musicians I knew were jazz musicians. They didn’t want to play with me, so I played all the instruments myself, even though I didn’t really know how to do that. I did it just for fun.
ZZ: You eventually joined Vox Pop. Some of those recordings sound very psychedelic and drugged-out.
JD: Yes, very much so. Everybody in that band at the time was taking huge amounts of drugs. I mean unbelievable amounts of drugs (laughs). What’s amazing is that everybody in this band is still alive. I don’t think there was another band in Los Angeles at the time that took as many drugs as us. Not even the Dickies.
We listened to a lot of Blue Cheer and Chocolate Watch Band, psychedelic bands from the 60s, as well as some of the German art bands like Faust, Can and Amon Duul. We would just take drugs and listen to these bands. Vox Pop never did a full rehearsal, ever. It was just play-as-you-go.
ZZ: Were you into psychedelic drugs, or into uppers and downers?
JD: It was everything. Anything that we had access to, from nitrous oxide and alcohol to heroin. And a lot of speed.
ZZ: What’s your opinion on drugs today?
JD: I don’t do them anymore. To tell you the truth, I got bored with them, but I also had a lot of medical problems from doing too much. My medical condition is so bad that I can’t drink anymore. But I’ve got to say that the reason I play music like I do now is partially because of those times and the things I did then. So I can’t condemn all of it, but of course people need to know that if they do that kind of stuff, it’s like playing with a loaded gun.
ZZ: I could never completely decipher the lyric of Junkies Deserve To Die. Can you sum up what point you were making in that song?
JD: The lyrics of that are actually a composite of about ten different people I knew. Every line in that is something I heard some junkie say to me. For example the line “I just wanna die”, I heard that a hundred times from junkies. It’s written from a first-person perspective, so it’s not really condemning junkies, it’s more kind of telling the story. I get asked about that song a lot, (laughs).
ZZ: To continue the drugs theme… do you even want to talk about drugs this much?
JD: Oh yeah, that’s okay.
ZZ: Most of your favourite musicians were on smack: Johnny Thunders, Cheetah Chrome, Iggy Pop, Stiv Bators… Some people say that Johnny Thunders’s music, for instance, wouldn’t have had that special something, that particular atmosphere, had he not been on heroin. What’s your opinion on that?
JD: I completely agree with that. But one thing I’ve got to say is, Johnny Thunders wasn’t great because of drugs. He was great in spite of drugs. The reason his music was the way it was, it was because of his life, because that was the way he lived his life. But I think that without it he still would have been great. I also think that if he hadn’t been on it all of the time, he could have done so much more. With Johnny Thunders and Stiv Bators, I still think that their best records were yet to come. With all the respect to their great old records, I think there were great records they were still to record.
ZZ: So you think drugs were largely holding them back?
JD: In a way, both. In some respects they were held back, and in some respects they were actually probably advanced because of it. It’s like the Yin and the Yang, you know: both.
ZZ: Raw Power, for instance, is very powerful in its nihilism. It’s a very heroinesque atmosphere all the way through.
JD: You know what, when The Stooges recorded that record, they weren’t actually using heroin at the time. They had a period of heroin before that, after the Fun House record. So when they came back and recorded Raw Power, it was really not so much the hard drugs: they were living in London at the time and were very isolated from everybody. I think that has a lot to do with the sound and the lyrics of that album: the alienation of living in a country where everything is very foreign and very different.
ZZ: There’s an article by Nikki Sudden about hanging out and doing drugs with Johnny Thunders which you published in Sonic Iguana. Do you not think he is glamorising heroin addiction?
JD: Yes, I think that’s probably true. But I also think that this is the way that Nikki’s relationship with Johnny was it’s an accurate and true piece of literature. The truth is the truth, regardless of whether it’s pretty or not so pretty. It’s just very authentic, and that’s how they were and how they thought at the time, so I wouldn’t dream of censoring a word in that article. Did you ever meet Nikki?
ZZ: I interviewed him last year, and he actually gave me permission to publish the same piece on Johnny Thunders in my zine.
JD: He’s a very interesting fella.
ZZ: He’s much more cheerful than you would expect upon hearing his music.
JD: Yeah, and one thing that impresses me with Nikki is that he’s very intelligent. He’s a very smart fella.
ZZ: Did you know Stiv Bators personally?
JD: Yes, I did.
ZZ: When I interviewed Sonny Vincent, he told me Stiv Bators wasn’t much of a wild man in real life. Apparently, he was a very friendly and motherly person, to the extent that he would help his fellow Dead Boys to apply hairspray before the show, wondering if they were nervous and so on… and then on stage he would turn into an animal. What was your impression of him?
JD: All of that is completely true. Stiv was a very different person from the Stiv Bators on stage. I think that the wildness was part of him, but it wasn’t the only part of him. He was a very intelligent person, very well-read and well-educated. He had a huge knowledge from studying how religion and politics are related. He was raised as a Catholic, so he knew a lot about the history of the church and how it related to politics of the different times. He was a very interesting guy, a very friendly person. And like I just told you, I really believe that the best records he was gonna make were still to be recorded.
ZZ: Let’s talk about your music some more. At some point, you joined the Angry Samoans who were banned from playing in every LA venue. Why was that?
JD: Basically because of the song Get Off The Air, which was written about a very powerful Los Angeles radio DJ called Rodney Bingenheimer. Because of that song, they wouldn’t let us play in any of the clubs, it was like a war.
ZZ: Are you still in touch with the rest of the Angry Samoans today?
JD: Yes, I spoke with Todd maybe one month ago. And I’m still in contact with Greg Turner, he came to my studio and recorded his new album at my studio, which by the way is very good. I think Angry Samoans fans are going to be very interested in this record. When I play in San Francisco I see Metal Mike sometimes. I toured with Billy the drummer in Europe before, and I see him in Los Angeles every couple of times when I go in there.
ZZ: You also played in a band called Powertrip for a while, which were a quasi heavy metal band?
JD: I wouldn’t say it was heavy metal. What we were trying to be was a cross between The Stooges and Motorhead. So if you’re talking Iron Maiden or something like this: no. If you’re saying Motorhead, yeah, we were like Motorhead. But we were trying to have more of a Stooges-like influence. It was a good band for several years.
ZZ: Did you cut any records with them?
JD: There were a couple of singles, and there was one album, which was only on vinyl. It was reissued once, but it has been out of print for a long time now. I think it’s something that may be reissued in the future. It’s never been released on CD before, and I’m getting asked about this album almost every week now, so maybe I should reissue it on CD.
ZZ: You also had your own Jeff Dahl Group, but you disbanded too after a short while. Do you see yourself unable to work with people for longer periods of time?
JD: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Towards the end of my living in Los Angeles, I had the same steady band for maybe two years, the Jeff Dahl Group. It was a good band, and honestly, I would have never stopped playing with them, except I moved from California to the Arizona desert. It’s a very isolated area. It’s away from the cities and there’s not that many musicians out here. There’s only a lot of heavy metal musicians who live out here.
But I have a lot of friends who are great musicians from different bands that I can get to play with me. For me it’s always a great honour and very interesting. I can do a record where I have somebody from L7 play a guitar solo, or Rikk Agnew from the Adolescents play on something. Or I can have the Angry Samoans back me, or I can do something with Poison Idea…
For me it always keeps changing, so I never get bored
ZZ: Do your allow your backing musicians to bring in their own ideas into the music, or are you a dictator?
JD: It depends on the project . If it’s for live shows or a tour, I usually know very well how these guys play, and there is not much I need to tell them. They come in and have their own style, and it works with what I do.
For the most part it’s all people that don’t need to be told anything. They all have their own identity and their own ideas, and at the same time they fit very well with what I do anyway.
ZZ: You’re pretty well known in Europe and in Japan, but not in the USA. How come?
JD: I don’t really tour much in the US. I play in LA a couple of times a year, but that’s it. The US is so big, and it’s so expensive to tour here…
Look, I’ve got very, very good fans here in the United States. But I think people in Europe are more serious about music. I can play in a country like Spain where everybody knows The Dictators, The Stooges and Rose Tattoo. Whereas here, I can say The Stooges, and the only song they can think of is Search and Destroy. It’s really a case of going where people are more interested. I love going to Europe.
In the USA, everything is influenced by MTV and Rolling Stone magazine.
ZZ: I think there’s a pretty good rock’n'roll underground there too.
JD: Oh yes, very much so. But the US is such a big country. If I’m going to tour, I can go to every city and play for 20 or 30 people that are very interested. But if I go to Europe, I can play almost any place and have 200 there that are very knowledgeable and into the music.
(c) Zuri Zone
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Tags: garage punk, garage rock, glam punk, glam rock, jeff dahl, johnny thunders, mc5, Music, the stooges