Headstones’ Hugh Dillon Has Seen Some Shit
The Canadian punk rock icon talks about overcoming his heroin addiction, finding a work ethic in acting, and how Toronto bands have a bad attitude.
Photo by Gord Hawkins
No one, perhaps ever, has been able to flick a cigarette with the accuracy of Hugh Dillon. What separated him from all of the other butt flingers of the world is that Dillon did his share from stage, which he commanded as the frontman for Canadian hard rock heroes Headstones. "The cigarette flicking was early, early on. It just became a lifestyle," Dillon says with nonchalance. "I didn't give a shit. Lots of bands smoked and drank on stage like we did. And with flicking, I had a pretty good aim. So it's not like I randomly flicked it. I could do it the way ninjas throw those stars. I could hit things with them, so it became a trick. And I could hit someone in the forehead or in the body so that I didn't hurt them [laughs]."
Dillon invited Noisey to chat in the East Toronto studio where Headstones recorded and mixed their seventh full-length, Little Army. It's tough not to bring up the band's glory days in the 1990s though, when Headstones were the bad boys of CanRock. They stuck out like a gnarly, dislocated thumb, thanks to their hard living ways and Dillon's biting, misanthropic persona. A lot of their peers viewed them as "obnoxious, loutish and generally annoying."
Of course, being loutish and obnoxious was part of the band's allure for the fans. Dillon feels that at its core, "the band has always been exciting and fun, and that's what draws people back." But yeah, they knew how to rub other bands the wrong way. "It's true. Except for the Hip," Dillon says of his fellow Kingstonians. "I grew up with those guys and they were sweethearts. But Toronto bands were notorious for having an attitude. I could name names but it's too fucking late for that. I loved music, so whenever somebody tried to stand in my way I looked at it as, 'That's not gonna stop me. I'll just go around it.' And people don't like that. We were a different kind of band. You can't abide by other people's faux civility. I don't want to fucking dance around. I hate the passive-aggressive game. I just wanna be honest and people have a problem with that."
Headstones formed in Kingston, Ontario in 1987, after Dillon spent some time in London, England busking, squatting and living life as a true gutter punk. Although they worked odd jobs to pay the bills as well as demos and other band expenses, the band was originally an outlet for what Dillon calls "fucking rage and energy."
"I'm from Kingston and I likely would have gone to jail without this band," he explains. "I was interested in three things: crime, hockey, and rock'n'roll. Thank God rock'n'roll prevailed. It was such a fucking godsend. I had the chops to write and do what I needed to do." The band moved to Toronto not long after and began building a name for themselves playing local venues like Lee's Palace, Sneaky Dee's and the Ultrasound, where they were offered a record deal by major MCA.
"We wrote these songs and knew they were good. We also knew that the other bands in Toronto didn't like us, and we didn't give a fuck," he says. "We were all fucking blue collar guys and Friday nights had become renting a space, getting a two-four and writing songs and getting drunk. That was the way out for us. Nothing glamorous. It was just a necessity. As opposed to talking about it and not doing it, we focused on writing and were driven to do it. We did it like motherfuckers. We were bizarrely focused."
Headstones filled a hole in Canada's fertile alternative rock harvest, infusing their gritty hard rock with a punkish attitude and nihilistic lyrics, heard on albums like 1993's Picture of Health and the following Teeth and Tissue. Unlike some of their contemporaries, Dillon feels Headstones had to work even harder to create buzz. "We didn't get a lot of video play or radio play in the beginning," he says. "It was our live show that made us. We were on the road constantly and eventually we got some love from MuchMusic, but we were never overplayed. I think it's hard for any artist to cut through the apathy and the noise out there, no matter any time or decade. The secret to any success is talent and perseverance. You might not be successful commercially or critically but you will create the art you want to. When it's all said and done that's what matters most."
Their debut album, Picture of Health, went platinum, and was followed up by a couple of gold records— Teeth and Tissue and 1997's Smile and Wave, respectively. However, with this success came an appetite for self-destruction. "We had to really work for it," he says, "but the alcoholic and drug addict tendencies tend to go through the roof once you're allowed free rein. So that didn't help. It gets in the way of what you really wanna do, which is write and record songs."
By the time Headstones released their fifth album, The Oracle Of Hi-Fi, Dillon was using heroin again after getting clean in 2000. Although he was an occasional user throughout his time in the band, his addiction began spiralling out of control. Fearing things wouldn't get better on the road, he ended Headstones and headed to Northern Ontario, where he took a job as a lumberjack in a bid to get clean, which is what he's been doing for the last 14 years.
"There was no way out. I lost everything," he says stonefaced. "I was in detoxes and rehabs. It was just so brutal. There is a romantic component to rock'n'roll, but if I was still loading trucks at Canpar and had a drug addiction that would be tragic, whereas if you're in a rock band it can seem glamorous. And it isn't, because your family suffers horribly. It was so hard for my family. I think that's the big takeaway from this story. If you can recognize the pain you're inflicting on others you have a chance to get out, if you're willing to accept help. If you're gonna change your habits or your life you're kidding yourself if you think you can just dabble in anything."
Up until 2003, Dillon had also been dabbling in acting. But once he cleaned up, that became his primary vocation. (A side-project called the Hugh Dillon Redemption Choir did produce an album in 2005.) During the Headstones' original run, Dillon had scored roles in a handful of independent films, as well as TV guest appearances, including Degrassi: The Next Generation , for which he portrayed an abusive father. "I do get recognized for it," he says. "I remember going to see a movie and the ticket girl lost her shit. I knew she couldn't be a Headstones fan, and it turned out she just loved Degrassi."
He was cast in films—both indies (i.e. Down To The Bone) and big budget films ( Assault On Precinct 13) — but it was the lead role in Canadian drama Durham County as a homicide detective struggling to face his demons that was his breakout. This led to roles in AMC's The Killing, CBC's X Company, and most notably, a lead in CTV's internationally syndicated cop drama, Flashpoint, which he compares to "winning the Stanley Cup or Super Bowl."
Most recently Dillon can be seen in an episode of the newly revived Twin Peaks. It's not a major role in terms of the storyline, but it no doubt left a huge impression on him. "It was awesome," he says with glee. "I can't tell you much, but I'm in a single episode. It's so minor. But finally to be on set with a master like David Lynch was such a beautiful fucking experience. To have David Lynch put the make up on you himself is just surreal. It all just lasted for a second, but it was such a career high. I got to work with a guy who was one of the reasons why I'm an actor. What a great experience."
Ask any long-time fan of Headstones though, and Dillon's greatest piece of acting was in Bruce McDonald's 1996 mockumentary, Hard Core Logo. After portraying a killer in the director's 1994 film, Dance Me Outside, McDonald cast Dillon as Joe Dick, the loudmouthed vocalist of the titular has-been punk band. The film became an instant cult classic, inspiring Canadian rockers Pez to eventually change their name to Billy Talent, and impressing Quentin Tarantino so much he bought the rights to distribute it in the U.S. and even auditioned Dillon for the role in Jackie Brown (it eventually went to Michael Keaton.)
"I love it. That film changed my life," he says with adoration in his voice. "It showed me a new direction I could take. And I did it totally clean. I signed a deal with Bruce to stay clean. They allowed me to sing and they used my ideas. I wrote the ending and got involved. So the least I could do was sign a deal that said I wouldn't drink or do drugs on the shoot. That was the best deal I ever made because I got a glimpse of what it was like to work completely clean and sober."
Dillon feels the experience he's gained from acting has also impacted his work as a musician. "The thing I got from acting that I applied to the band is my fucking work ethic," he exclaims. "Because when I came back to the Headstones, after doing some acting, it was much easier. I wanted to rehearse, I wanted to be prepared, and I wanted to be organized."
When Headstones reunited in 2011 it wasn't some nostalgia trip. Dillon doesn't do nostalgia when it comes to his band. "Fuck no. Life's too good now," he admits. Instead, it was the death of the band's lifelong friend and influencer Randy Kwan that got them back together. Before they knew it, they'd written and recorded a new album, 2013's Love + Fury and come full circle.
"I didn't come back to the band for any other reason but to be creative," Dillon says.
"I rebuilt my life and moved to California and got into acting. I learned to refocus. I was very lucky. And I was lucky that Trent and Tim were such killer creative forces that going back to rock'n'roll became better. You learn things from working with people like that."
With a new label Cadence Music Group behind them, Headstones find themselves in a perfect position at this stage in their life. Despite reaching his 50s and finding stability in a dual career, Dillon doesn't seem to have lost his edge as a songwriter and vocalist. Little Army still retains that piss and vinegar Headstones built their reputation on, but it also sounds as if they're doing it more out of love than anything.
"We get to make these records and hang out and when we play there is a magic to it," Dillon says. "I think each record we've gotten better and better and it's because we don't give a fuck. We don't have to do it."
Cam Lindsay is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.