DIY Punk Legends Dead Moon on Cancer, Retirement, and the Early Days
Noisey called up Toody Cole, one third of seminal Portland punk band Dead Moon, to discuss everything from the 80s punk scene to their most recent mini-tour.
Photo by Samantha Marble
There is no rest for the wicked or the dead. After many years of making ground-breaking music as seminal DIY punk band Dead Moon, Fred and Toody Cole now survive by living off the Oregon land and swigging Jack Daniels. They've remained hidden behind road-worn cowboy hats and plumes of tobacco smoke, while occasionally homesteading in the Yukon and writing spooky songs about graveyards. While it might sound like the plotline to a Wild West horror flick, it's actually the countrified punk reality of rock 'n' roll's grittiest outsiders: Dead Moon. Even though they reunited last year after an eight-year hiatus, this may be Dead Moon's last stand. After all, at 66-years-old, the Coles are technically retired. Then again the current mini-tour includes a string of appropriately weird venues overlooked by the mainstream such as last week's gig at Pioneer Works and a set in SoCal at Berserktown II on August 16 (tickets available here.) Shows like this feel like home for the Coles.
Haven't heard of Dead Moon? That's because they're the quintessential American band ignored for much of their existence. The Coles were anti-cool before grunge was even a thing. Along with the Wipers, Dead Moon is Portland's most mythologized, yet underappreciated artifact. The Coles, along with drummer Andrew Loomis, didn't tour the states until 1994, seven years after forming as a country-punk hybrid that combined elements of their previous two bands: the Rats and the Range Rats. Fred Cole's indefatigable drive has been the catalyst behind 13 different bands for nearly 50 years.
When Dead Moon retired in 2006, the Coles took a year off before quickly returning as Pierced Arrows with drummer Kelly Halliburton. On two records as Pierced Arrows, their DIY approach remained raw and originated out of necessity in the '70s, and evolved into their own hideaway located 25 miles Southwest of Portland. Built by Fred with his own hands, the remote property continues to keep the Coles comfortably isolated from all the bullshit. In fact, six of Dead Moon's 10 studio albums were released by Tombstone Records, the label run by the couple out of their home. The Coles' brand of self-reliance is the rock 'n' roll equivalent to Thoreau's Walden.
Cut off from the music industry for much of its existence, Portland's cloudy skies and muddy roads have nurtured the darkness of Greg Sage of the Wipers, and the DIY defiance of Fred Cole. Since getting into rock 'n' roll in the mid-'60s, Cole's legacy includes sharing a bottle of Southern Comfort with Janis Joplin, opening for the Ramones during their debut in Portland, and if you ask anyone from the grunge era (including Eddie Vedder, who once wrote a letter about the Coles), he's Portland's Neil Young with a quivering falsetto, a rebel who's subverted the music industry by pressing his own masters on the same mono lathe used to cut the Kingsmen's "Louie, Louie." Along with Sage, he's the godfather of Portland's DIY scene. Both he and Toody can say they were hippies in the '60s, punks in the '70s, and 40-year-old DIY pioneers in the '80s. Along with Roky Erickson, Cole is one of the only active garage rockers that appeared in the legendary Nuggets compilation (with his band the Weeds). But Marrying Toody was Fred's most legendary achievement. Toody is both Dead Moon's bassist and business manager; she also does most of the talking for Fred – who's mellowed even more after open-heart surgery in 2014. Fred also wears a hearing aid, a striking juxtaposition to the Dead Moon logo tattooed across his sideburn.
After 48 years of marriage, the two are celebrating their wedding anniversary by hitting the road and gigging as an acoustic duo. For a handful of those dates, they'll be reviving Dead Moon for what could be the last time. Waiting to play a gig in Kingston, New York, we caught up with Toody over the phone to discuss everything from Dead Moon's DIY legacy, to the Pearl Jam thing.
Noisey: Your Facebook page says Dead Moon is retired. Will this be the last run?
Toody Cole: It really might be. We never know for sure. We didn't even expect to commit to these many shows this year. At first, we were just going to make up the shows we had to cancel last year, when Fred had to go through open heart surgery. Then all these offers starting coming in, and it got out of control. Fred just doesn't want to go out and play night after night, and work himself to death like he did 20 years ago.
Your original drummer (Andrew Loomis) had to leave for health reasons. What happened?
We did the Crystal Ballroom in Portland this year, a couple shows in Seattle, and a show in Holland. In the meantime, Andrew's health started to go south. He was diagnosed with cancer. So we were stuck in a tough position of whether we cancel everything and disappoint everyone, or try to go on with Kelly Halliburton. Fred decided that he would rather do it this way than cancel everything. I know it's not what everybody signed on for. I know everyone expected it to be the original three members. But it's just not possible right now.
Will Berserktown be your only SoCal date as Dead Moon?
Yes, just L.A.
Was the brutal 60-date tour in 2006 the reason Dead Moon retired?
It pretty much broke our backs. I wouldn't recommend that to anyone. On every tour with Dead Moon, we would just add four to seven gigs. That's Fred Cole. He just wants to prove to himself and everyone else that there's always a little more you can do.
Are you working on any new music with Dead Moon or Pierced Arrows?
We haven't recorded for a while. There's a third Pierced Arrows album we want to finish, but who knows. I think we've always been more of a live band than a recording band.
So you're kind of the opposite of the Wipers.
Yeah, Greg's whole thing was "I don't want to play live. I just want to record." We're exactly the opposite. We don't like going into the studio.
Is it true that Fred dodged the Vietnam draft by homesteading in the Yukon?
Well, no. The whole story is that Fred and his band were in Portland trying to go to Vancouver to escape the draft, because their notices were following them around every time they changed address. Fred and I were up there in 1970 homesteading, which wasn't to avoid the draft. We actually had enough kids to keep him out of the draft.
I heard Canada wasn't letting you guys back into the country for a while?
Canada wouldn't let us back across the border because they claimed we were homesteading in the Yukon to avoid the draft. It's just very complicated. But we've always had a thing for Canada. My mother was Canadian. To me it's just an extension of where I belong.
So how's Fred doing these days?
He's doing great. He loves doing the acoustic duo thing. It's a lot easier for him. He's loving the rock 'n' roll stuff too, but he just can't do it night after night. Wish to God we could. But we've doing this since 1990, and at this point we're both 66-years-old. But we're having a great time. We just celebrated our 48th wedding anniversary and we wanted to be on the road, just the two of us.
I heard you guys build touring stamina with long gambling sessions at local Casinos. Is that true?
Well, kind of. We haven't done that for a while and we're definitely not as bad as we used to be. We were hardcore in the Dead Moon documentary (Unknown Passage). On our way back to play Calgary, we plan on stopping at a casino in North Dakota.
Are you guys superstitious about numbers?
Fred's got a thing with the number eight. Every time he sees it kicking around, at a gas station or a casino, it's like a sign from God that he's gotta go there, because it's gonna be good. For me, it's six, 27...I got different ones.
Fred's lyrics read like premonitions of doom. I heard they make him feel paranoid.
All that gets blown out of proportion, he's not that much of a fatalist. There are a couple songs he's written that are based on nightmares he had as a kid. Most of his songs are incredibly hopeful, but there's two or three that aren't, like "Psychedelic Nightmare," which is based on a dream he had as kid in the '50s, when they used to put us under desks because of the nuclear bomb...as if that was going to save your life. Whatever, he's basically a very positive person.
Where do you both currently live? Is your mini-DIY empire of "Tombstone" still up-and-running?
We live about 25 miles Southeast of Portland. We let the music store and general store go, but we still own the entire property. Fred built all of it and we ran all those businesses for a lot years. At one point, we were touring with a band and running two to three businesses. After doing retail for 30 years, we just let it go. At some point everyone needs their gold watch.
What's a day in the life look like for you guys?
We're retired right now. What we're doing is running the website, putting orders out, and playing music. This is the first time we've been out playing these many gigs since 2013.
You've been a part of five decades of rock 'n' roll. What era was your favorite?
The '90s were really killer for me. It was the decade where Dead Moon toured a lot, so I saw everything that was going on. For Fred, it's always about the future and what he's going to do next.
You guys are known as the "Grandparents of DIY." Do you embrace that role?
We've always embraced it. But it's really funny that we got pegged with that. I love that Greg Sage gets pegged with different things at different points, especially in America. Man, we just started doing DIY because it was the only way we could afford to get our record out. And it was cool to have that kind of control. And we set a precedent, which is cool. Everybody after us figures it was a big deal, but for us it was just something that happened.
Dead Moon set list from their show with J. Mascis at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn this past week. Photo by Samantha Marble.
How has DIY changed for you over the years?
It's just been a continuation of the same. We went through the punk rock thing in Portland, kinda showed everybody else how to be DIY, but for us it's no big deal. It's just what you do to get your stuff out there and build your dream.
How'd you get into punk rock and form the Rats in 1980?
In Portland, the FM radio station had put on a show with the Ramones, Tom Petty, and Mink DeVille. When Mink DeVille dropped out at the last second, they were scrambling to add a third band and happened to call Fred's band King Bee to fill in. We were all there to see the Ramones. To see that energy, especially at the time when Fred was playing really slow rhythm and blues stuff, really just turned his head completely around. It was awesome. Music is always the catalyst that puts you on a new path.
What was it about the Portland punk scene in the mid-80s that had you move on from the Rats, and form the country-sounding Range Rats?
It was really weird. Fred and I were 10 years older than everyone in the scene. We weren't young kids like the rest of them, and we'd been doing the punk thing for eight years and stuff really wasn't happening. We just got frustrated. We did the country thing with Range Rats because we got bored with punk rock. To me, the Range Rats album is one of the best things we've ever recorded. But then we got bored with country, and started Dead Moon.
I know you don't listen to contemporary music, but what was the last punk band that blew your mind?
The Wipers. You have no idea how incredible those guys were live. The original Wipers...oh my God. The sound was so unique. I can't even explain it. The other one was Dead Moon, even though I was in it...we all knew it was going to be monumental. It just blew me away to be in that band. Sado-Nation were really incredible as well.
Bands like Wipers and Dead Moon have been notoriously overlooked, especially by the masses. Do you think you've gotten the recognition you deserve in recent years?
To me, the recognition that we all get is when I go into a club, anywhere in the world, even if the DJ has no idea we're in the house, and I hear a Dead Moon or Wipers song. At some point, there are enough people out there that get it.
How did it feel to have Pearl Jam start covering Dead Moon in the 2000s?
The Pacific Northwest is a pretty tight scene. We've met Eddie. And it's really cool that he's covered "It's O.K.," and he's done one of the best versions of "Running Out of Time" that Fred has ever heard. It's cool that he tips his hat to us. All the guys that came from the grunge scene acknowledge the fact that it was Fred Cole and Greg Sage, or whatever they saw as kids that helped mold their sound. And Fred can say the same thing about a bunch of bands you've never heard of.
Do you think it helped Dead Moon gain the recognition it deserved with the masses?
It's not about the recognition. It never has been. It's about the respect between musicians. The coolest thing for us is so many bands will cover the songs that Fred has written. That's the most important thing, that you have the kind of respect. Whether you get big or mainstream? Who gives a shit. That's not what we were shooting for.
Photo by Samantha Marble
For Dead Moon, and loads of other legendary bands (including the Ramones), Europe caught on first, with America following suit. Why do you think that is?
Americans are really funny. Everything originates here, but we didn't even get rhythm and blues and the old blues cats until the Brits picked up on it and brought it back to us. America is so cynical about its own until somebody else likes it, and then it's like "Oh my God, we have a national treasure here!" Dead Moon didn't get any credit until we went to Europe. And when we came home, it was really spooky that all these people started showing up to our gigs. I don't know what America's problem is. It's like somebody else has to dig it before they do, so they can appreciate what they've got. What can I say? It was always a bigger deal for us to be out of country, then to be in country. But we were so happy to finally be able to tour the U.S. in the mid-90s.
How did you start sticking a lit candle in an empty bottle of Jack Daniels? It's become your trademark.
It was by accident. At some point on tour, everybody told us we could put anything in our rider. So we decided to put a fifth of Jack Daniels on it, which we got one every goddamn night in Europe. This Andrew's story, but one night we polished off a bottle and put it upside down in the hole above his bass drum. Our son Weeden and Andrew came up with the idea of putting the candle on the bottle. Everyone though it was so cool, and we got stuck with it.
What does the future hold for the both of you?
At this point, it's all about playing live. Fred is looking forward to doing this acoustic duo thing and working on some new songs. The studio is a necessary evil. And we'll probably go back and finish the third Pierced Arrows album. We titled it Walking Wounded, which is such a great title, so it's gotta happen.