Cheap Thrills and the Dionysus Syndrome: An Interview with Billy Hopeless of
The Black Halos
Just between you and me and the wall, the first thought that entered my mind when I got the assignment to interview Billy Hopeless, the wildly sexy and dangerous lead singer for Vancouver’s remorseless trash rockers, The Black Halos, was “Jesus God! The guy lives in Canada! The cost of one phone call will completely eat my profit margin!” I mean, anyone who thinks most rock critics make a living doing this are seriously delusional. Thankfully, before sheer panic set in, I remembered you can buy an hour of phone time to Canada on Priceline.com for, like, $2.50 (no kidding). With the phone bill taken care of, I could concentrate on thinking up good questions for Billy about his much-discussed on-stage antics and The Black Halos’ upcoming sophomore release, The Violent Years (Sub Pop).
When I called Billy at home, he had just returned from his day job at a store called Cheap Thrills in Vancouver, where he’s an Assistant Manager. “I work for cheap thrills!,” he joked, laughing at his clever pun. “It’s a clothing and oddities store, where we sell everything from clothing to, like, shrunken heads and monkey’s paws. It’s a pretty eclectic store, it’s pretty crazy, but it’s the one really cool store in Vancouver — the one really fun store that lets me run around like a madman!” One of the perks of his job, Billy told me, is the hefty employee discount he gets on clothing purchased from the store. “My boss always laughs at me, she says, ‘You’re gonna buy this?,’ and I’m like ‘Yeah,’ and she’s like ‘How long do you think that’s gonna last?’ and I’m like ‘One show!’ During the hour that we were on the phone before Priceline.com cut us off in mid-sentence, Billy Hopeless spoke candidly about any subject that came up and only got shy with me when asked to reveal his age. “When you ask my dad how old he is,” Billy said impishly, “he’ll point at a tree and go ‘See that tree, Yup! I remember when that was just a sap!’ You’ll never get a straight answer.” Billy was, however, willing to admit he wasn’t yet born when the Beatles were still a band. Billy Hopeless was so cool and so much fun to talk to, I was writing “Gail + Billy” all over my notebook by the end of the interview.
You’re always compared stylistically to artists like Iggy, Mick Jagger, Stiv Bators, and David Johanson, but I’ve never read your take on that. Are these guys conscious influences?
I think I’d have to say, writing wise, yeah [they’ve influenced me] a lot, because everything influences me. I remember, when I was a kid, seeing the [New York] Dolls on Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert and going “Wow!” and I’ve been a fan since. I think anything you listen to is going to influence you. I grew up here in Vancouver with bands like DOA and the Subhumans, a lot of the bands in the Vancouver punk scene. So there was that side of me. I listen to a lot of old rock, like Thin Lizzy — I love Thin Lizzy. I think Thin Lizzy was a fascinating band. Then The Addicts, on the other hand, you look at them and go “What a great punk band!” And I’ll listen to Tom Waits and go, “Oh, why can’t I write like him?!” He’s such a genius. I just bawl my eyes out listening to Tom Waits.
It’s weird because everyone in the band listens to different stuff, too. Rich [Jones, guitar] is a real Britpop boy, so on tour we’ll end up listening to everything from rap to Britpop to emo-core music. I think it all comes to where little bits of everything influences me. But mainly, stuff I see and stuff I’ve been through, stuff I experience is the greatest influence. And a lot of whisky [laughs].
Jack Endino said the following about working on The Violent Years: “I’m gonna stick my neck out here and say that I just finished what may be one of the best rock and roll records of my entire career, the new Black Halos album.”
What a flatterer, eh?
Since Jack produced your first album as well, did you ever consider working with another producer?
The guys in the band had sort of tossed it around, but I felt comfortable with Jack. On the first album, I felt really good working with him. We all sort of talked about it and I brought that up and said, you know, the guy has gotten better and better each time we’ve recorded with him. And The Ramones, you know, they used the same producer for a long time and their sound got better, it evolved. If you work with the same person they get to know you and you’re going to sound better. There’s a comfort thing, and a friendship as well. I mean, I love Jack. I think Jack is one of the most fun people to record with. People jump around trying to find the magic sound, but I think you need to find someone who’s a madman, a mad scientist, and stick with them because it’s all about the magic. Jack is definitely a mad scientist, so I said let’s stick with him. Maybe he’ll make a monster!
I was initially thinking that The Violent Years sounds more polished, but maybe it’s just the opening track.
That’s a good thing, I think. I think it’s really funny in that, when we recorded the first album. we got a lot of flack, people saying “Oh, this is too polished.” We were like, we like all that old punk stuff, but, I mean, I buy all those old Stooges records and they all sound like crap. I’m sure if they could have made a better sounding record, they sure would have. If Phil Spector had half the stuff that we have nowadays, it would be amazing, with th at genius of mind combined with technology, it’s amazing. That’s what I think about Jack Endino. If you give him the right toys, he’s pretty damn amazing. I was sure blown away.
How do you think the band has progressed since the first record?
I think the songs are better. I think our songwriting’s gotten better and I think we’ve branched [out] in a way. But I don’t know, I still love the first album, so that’s a hard question to answer. I think more people in the band have let their influences show a bit, and I think that’s cool because it makes it a “wider” sound. Like the song “Capt. Moody” was started by Matt [Camarind], our bass player, and I love that song. Also, some of the songs started with me for a change. Usually Rich would play somet hing and I’d write lyrics, me and Rich would work together that way. But this time I wrote some of the songs and gave them to Rich and went, “Here, what do think of this?” So, there’s a lot of personal touches to it. That definitely makes it better and mo re interesting, to me.
Your songs do seem to be coming from a personal place, and not just a thought of “What can we do to sound like everyone else?”
Me and Rich actually got together and we were working on new songs that I’d come up with and we were talking about that same thing. And I said to him, “I’m really happy that we don’t sound like everything else that’s coming out.” I hear the melodies of the songs and the way he writes guitar parts and melodies to my lyrics, and my lyrical melodies — it’s just amazing. I mean, our lyrics aren’t typical. I could go [sings] “She’s on fire in her hot rod car/ gonna go out and get really loaded at the bar/Rock and roll all night tonight/ Rock show, rock show…” and that would be so boring [laughs], so overdone. So many bands are doing that right now, and I just go, “Nah!” Bands that I really like, I find that they put their own touch in there. You can tell there’s thought behind it, as well as feeling.
I think the Black Halos sound very much like a first wave British punk band, like The Sex Pistols or The Damned or even the very early Clash records, and also some of the early ’80s California melodic hardcore, like The Adolescents, you remind me of them a lot.
Wow, that’s such a nice compliment.
It’s been very refreshing to discover your music.
That’s really neat, because I think rock & roll does that. I listen to a lot of really older rock & roll bands and what are now called “Golden Oldies,” a lot of that comes into my writing, too. Also I get influenced from ’60s Girl Groups all the way up. It seems like there’s cycles, where rock & roll rears its ugly head and it comes out. I’ve heard it called the Dionysus syndrome, and I’ve heard it called all kinds of things, but I just call it rock & roll. The song “Lost in the ’90s” on the new album is basically my way of saying thank you to all the bands I like that don’t get played. I swear, I’ll put on Buddy Holly with Turbo Negro, back to back. People will come in [the store where I work] and go “What are you listening to?” These kids have no idea who he is — Buddy Holly! And there’s other people, like Eric Burdon and the Animals — god, what a great band! Rock & roll keeps rearing its ugly head, then it disappears for awhile and we have the mainstream.
What band did you hear and then think, “This is what I want to do with my life!”
I’d have to put Kiss in there, because Kiss was probably the first band that made me go, “Wow! I’ve gotta do this.” But then the fact that I couldn’t play a guitar, I sort of lost that. Then I’d say The Ramones and DOA. DOA, pretty much here in Vancouver, made me go, “Wow, these guys aren’t really talented but look at them go!” The Dolls just made me want to wear women’s clothes.
What do you think about journalists’ preoccupation with the fact that you seem to take your pants off a lot on stage?
I think it’s a very interesting thing. I’d like to sit a bunch of journalists down on the couch and discuss this [laughs]. Yeah, it’s funny, it’s sort of an animalistic-ness, for me, it’s a pure thing. You know, “If you can walk through the world naked to truly be at peace…” or whatever the saying is, to me it’s sort of the opposite. It’s like, “Okay, now I have nothing protecting me. Now this is purely animal.” It also makes the guys in my band look and go, “Oh!” especially Rob [Zgaljic], our drummer, it makes him look and go “Gawd, I can see his crack!” So it’s always a good time [laughs].
The whole thing is, I get lost up there. I get lost when we’re playing and somewhere along the line — I don’t know if it’s the booze hitting or what, I think it’s just the music hitting and the voodoo drums and the whole thing — I get lost to it. At times it’s been pretty crazy, to where afterwards, I see a picture of someone sticking their finger up my bum. “Oh! It’s a guy! And look at the smile on my face!” [laughs]. It’s pretty funny at times. Sometimes I end up staggering off and laying down and going, “Oh, what did I fucking do to myself? Ah, jeezus.” Having people tell me, “Ah you were great, I liked when you did this.” and I’m like, “I did that?” So I snap out every now and then. I climbed up this huge speaker stack at a show here in Vancouver during a song and then the song ended and I sort of snapped out of it, looked and went, “Ah, fuck, I’m afraid of heights! How do I get down from here?” [laughs]. Stuff like that happens, but that’s the joy of music, when you can totally get lost in it. When you’re just playing and everybody’s working [together] there’s no more thought involved, that’s when music’s probably the best. You’ve got to let go of thought. It’s the same when you’re watching a band: if you can just let go and let the music take you, that’s when it’s completely satisfying. Music i s like sex in that way. That’s been said, I’m sure, a thousand times, but it’s true I think, you can’t think about it; it’s just gotta be done.
There are no instructions
There is no manual. But we’re having a great time doing this. I can’t think of anything else I could do with my life — that I’d want to do with my life or that I could do, I have no skills [laughs]. I couldn’t be on my deathbed, looking back and going, “Well, yeah, I worked in retail” [laughs]. That’s not my goal in life. I’d rather be, “I went to war, and I’ve got the scars to prove it!”
What songs on this disc are your favorites?
Well, I love “Some Things Never Fall.” I really love that song, I think that’s probably the number one favorite. And, weird enough, “Underground,” which is actually called “Going Underground,” but Sub Pop shortened the name of it. I love that song, ’cause I like the moody songs. I like it when it hits that mood, but people either love or hate that song.
That’s one of my favorites, actually. I wanted to ask you about the inspiration behind it.
The whole thing goes to this feeling we’ve been having, especially lately, it goes back to “The Ugly Truth” on the first album but it’s even more so now, especially where I live. It’s about how you see fashion stores selling T-shirts that say “Glam” on them. You see fashion models walking on the runway with spiked-out hair and the whole idea is that fashion steals from the streets and this makes the streets very angry. That was my original thought. I always come up with these one-sentence thoughts. It’s so true, my gawd! I was watching this fashion show on TV and they go [adopting TV commentator voice] “You’ll note the Punk Rock style of the street has been used very well in this runway show!” And I’m like, “No, this is wrong!” and there’s kids coming into my store and they’ve got the look but they don’t know any of the bands and they’re not interested in any of the bands. I look and I just go, “What happened here?” Somehow, I’m in this world with kids coming up to me going, “Look! I’m bleeding, I’m like you!” And I’m looking at them going. “No, you don’t understand, there’s part of me that hates myself inside, and that’s not a good thing. You don’t understand at all. You don’t get where thi s is coming from.”
That’s so wild.
Now, rock & roll has become this big huge thing where, the last time we were in LA, there was “Rock & Roll Theme Night” [at some club we went to]. I was sitting there going “I hate this. I hate it here, I want to be at Al’s Bar or The Garage! I want to be anywhere but here.”
It sounds like they set it up to be a costume party, almost. Like “Let’s pretend we’re Rock Stars.”
Yeah, we’re gonna go buy “Rock” clothes and we’re gonna dress Rock and go to the Rock & Roll Theme Night. And I’m like, this isn’t a trend, it’s something we’ve believed in all along. We hate that whole thing where people market stuff as the big new trend. Does it matter? Do the clothes matter? It’s about the music. It’s so weird. There’s so many things that come up in that song. Like playing with bands and people going, “How could you play with those guys?” And we’re like “What? We love them, we love those guys.” We’re not on anyone’s side, we’re just having fun.
Do you pers onally feel that being from Canada presents any kind of stumbling block to the band?
Yeah because most Canadian bands really suck, for the most part. There’s sort of a whole genre of music which I guess we consider “Canadian music.” I don’t know what people in the States think, I don’t know if they’ve heard half of the bad Canadian music that’s out there. Here in Canada you’ll hear stuff and you go, “Oh these guys have to be Canadian.” But I think we’ve overcome that ourselves. We just go out and play and people go, “You’re from Canada? I’m amazed!” But you know, DOA, The Viletones, Neil Young [are all Canadian]. Then we all bring up that the best comedians are all from Canada, too.
Okay, here we go: how about everyone who was on SCTV? Shall we say Mike Meyers — Austin Powers — Canadian. John Candy? Canadian.
But there’s a lot of good bands in Canada, too, fresh new bands. So there’s hope for the future of Canadian music. Anywhere you go, the radio and the mainstream always pop out these bad bands. How about Our Lady Peace? They’re terrible, it’s like Rush all over again. Do we need to do that again? They just annoy me, but I’m sure people say that about me too.
What is your favorite part of performing live?
The energy, the circulation of energy from the crowd to the band, or just the energy of the band being shot forth at the crowd. And the energy of the music, that’s totally what I love. I don’t care if anyone’s watching, and half the time I don’t know that anyone’s watching. The danger factor too, I love that. I love the danger in our music. I love the fact that, in our live shows, I never know when the guitar’s going to hit me in the head or [the band] never know when the mike stand’s going to hit them. I love the spontaneity of it.
Have you ever been badly injured on stage?
I’ve been pretty lucky. The worst I’ve gotten [injured] was I think when we were on tour with L7. Matt, our bass player, did this crazy jump and landed on my ankle with both feet. So I had to be on crutches for the tour. I couldn’t do it. I’d stand on the crutches and I’d start singing on crutches. The first show I tried that on the crutches, I went out on stage and I went, “I can’t do this.” I threw th e crutches down and went crazy and then afterwards I went “Ahh, more pain. Give me more to drink, I’ll take anything right now to just get rid of this pain.” I kept doing that night after night, walking around on the crutches during the day — going, “It’s getting worse!”– then doing the gig. When I finally got home, the doctor said, “Yeah you fractured your ankle and you made it worse and worse.” Because I kept playing and I jumped around and had fun. I just didn’t stop moving on stage, so I couldn’t feel the pain. When I got home I had to lay down for about four weeks. That was about the worst injury I’ve had. Other than that, it’s just been guitars in the head, cracking me open, or broken glass all over — stuff like that, nothing bad. And physical pain is way easier to take than emotional pain.
Yeah I won’t disagree with you there. In some ‘zine interview that you did, I read this “Black Halos’ 10 Steps to be a Rock Band.” How did you come up with that?
I wasn’t involved in that. I don’t think I got a say in that [laughs]. That was Rich and Rob and Jay [Millette, drums], probably. I think I was off drinking when that was going on. I don’t even remember what the ten steps were, but I do remember reading it. And I was like, “Where was I?” [Laughs].
Someone asked Rich in an interview, “Is Billy as mean in person as he is on stage?” Does it surprise you that someone would ask that?
I’m a pussycat [laughs]. I’m totally sweet. No, it’s funny, people just get that [impression] and it’s just a misunderstanding, I think. It’s just that animal nature I have on stage. They look at that energy that’s being let out and they take it in a negative way. It’s like, some people just can’t take it. They go “Oh, the snot flew out of his nose and l anded on my face! He did that on purpose!” I mean, there’s no way I meant to do that on purpose. Or “He grabbed me and he pulled me!” Jeezus, if you can’t take that, what are you doing at the show? You knew what you were getting into. I don’t understand t hat.
One final question: Do you hate indie rock?
I don’t know what indie rock is anymore. I don’t know what classifications are anymore, most of the time. I remember when Sonic Youth were called indie rock, and I love Sonic Youth. But the new te rm of “indie rock,” if that’s what we’re talking about, yeah, I’m just not interested. It doesn’t set my loins afire, it doesn’t make me want to dance, it doesn’t make me want to sit and listen to it and go “Wow, this is amazing.” It just doesn’t interest me, I find it boring. It’s just nothing music to me. No, I don’t like indie rock, it ain’t my thing.
The Violent Years is in stores March 20, 2001.