Ahead of the release of his new covers album, Evil Elvis opens up about longevity, the blues, and Christina Ricci.
Photo courtesy of Girlie Action PR
Five minutes before you go into an interview with Glenn Danzig, it’s almost a guarantee that your mind is either trying to unknot the man from the myth (or the meme) or convincing yourself that your questions will go over smoothly, and you'll avoid pissing off an artist who’s legendarily pissed off—or, at least, one who's marketed as such by the media. Separated by the thinnest of margins, legend and notoriety have the tendency to eclipse each other, and especially so when they dovetail into one another and become a sort of penance for any kind of longevity in the rock'n'roll world. Look, the cat litter memes are funny as fuck. But why? Because it’s Danzig, and imagining the Dark Lord clipping coupons for Fresh Step leads to imagining him routinely scooping out the piss cakes and gritty shit nuggets of Mewcifer or Elvis (it has to be one of the two). It’s not funny when we do it, because we’re not Danzig.
The well-known story of Danzig’s impassioned zeal for throwing bricks is just as hysterical, and for the same reasons. It’s the whole “Whoa, Taylor Swift takes shits too?!” mental block of celeb-worship. In celebrity culture, where the assumption is that Danzig simply vanishes into the the netherworld once he walks off stage, it makes sense that people would be shocked when he does the unthinkable and is seen buying groceries. It's no wonder Danzig has a reputation for being prickly, or sometimes for just fully embracing his inner asshole; hell, he’s even made remarks about the "conspiracy" known as chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Danzig, just like any well-known person, probably can’t go to the Post Office without being genuinely concerned that someone will notice he’s returning the Yankee Candle he received (as it was clearly not the Holiday Cinnamon he’d ordered). Celebrities are weird, and the longer you are one, the weirder you become.
Once you take into account that Danzig is an irrefutably vital part of the very music that you think is so new, inventive, and super metal today, though, it sort of puts things into perspective. Turns out that the man behind the caricature is an inveterate badass, and one of a handful of artists owed a great debt of admiration from a range of genre. As the founding member of a little punk band called the Misfits, and then of the deathrock-punk-metal hybrid known as Samhain, the man from Lodi earned the right to his characteristic swagger and sneering persona.
It was his work with Samhain which would eventually evolve into the more straightforward moniker of “Danzig” and establish the Roy Orbison by way of Ozzy Osbourne vocalist as more than just an inimitable force in heavy metal, but as a powerful force in pop culture. Danzig’s commanding, immediately recognizable voice has influenced countless bands from Crowbar to Kyuss to Soundgarden, and yes, even those four Bay Area dudes who call themselves Metallica. Considering that those are just a few examples of musicians who’ve directly cited the man behind the horned skull, it certainly paints a much more complete portrait of a man whose work has had the kind of impact that no amount of joking could ever eclipse.
Danzig’s work continues to speak for itself, and undoubtedly will continue to do so long after the brief shelf life of social media mockery has faded. Longevity is rock'n'roll’s holy grail, and of the few musicians who’ve earned it with equal parts ambition and pure luck, Glenn Danzig is right in the middle sporting his all black-ensemble, leather jacket, aviators, and a voice you simply can’t fuck with. All that said, I was understandably nervous right before speaking to Danzig about his upcoming covers album, Skeletons.
Noisey: What made this the right time for you to release a covers album?
Glenn Danzig: Well, it just seemed to work out this way. There was no sort of master plan. [Laughs.] We just basically found time to do the covers record and eventually found a partner with my label because I like to do everything through my label, and then it worked out that we’d be on tour at the same time. It worked out great.
There’s a wide range of artists that you cover on Skeletons. Is the diversity in your influences something you've seen lend itself to your own success as an artist?
I don’t know. I mean, growing up of course I listened to a lot of different stuff, but I think in the end there’s something in all of the music that I like that’s a time factor. They all have similar things about them, whether it’s Wagner or Black Sabbath or Elvis or Howlin’ Wolf or Willie Dixon or whoever. They all have something in there that ties it all together, this one element. I think in a lot of these songs on the record, of course it was really hard whittling down all the songs that I wanted to do to the ones that you hear, but I think they all have some of those elements also.
You mentioned the blues. To me, that sound has been present throughout your entire career, but is that something you see as more of a rarity with today’s heavy metal artists?
It’s a rarity. I don’t think a lot of those artists even delve back to it, and I can’t say all of them. There are artists who obviously like to listen to a lot of stuff, but I think a lot of the new artists don’t, and I don’t think they care to either. I don’t think they really give two shits, which is okay but it shows in what you do [laughs]. There’s an old saying which is pretty accurate with that, and it’s “You gotta know where you’ve been to know where you’re goin'.”
Certainly. I think there are the obvious players who serve as influences – Metallica, Motörhead, and others—but the artists who influenced those bands don’t really seem to get much airtime in that context. And it doesn’t seem to be as much an ignorance of that history as it is a dismissal.
Right. And that’s okay. They do what they wanna do, but me and a bunch of my friends, we’re still around 30 years later. Let’s see if some of these artists are 30 years from now. I doubt it. It seems so many of them come and go. They’re the flavor of the month with the biggest hit, and then in three or four years they’re gone. They get arrested [laughs]. But that’s their own choice, you know? You do what you do, and that’s fine. I’m not telling people what to do. I certainly could’ve made a lot of better choices on a commercial level, but that’s not why I do music. That’s one of the reasons when I met with all the different people, and I met with Rick [Rubin] for the first time, he saw what I did the same way that I saw it. He saw that we’re an album band. Do an album. If it’s a hit, great. Do a tour, go home, do another record, go out on the road. If it’s a hit, great. If not, go back, do another tour, do another record. You’re an album band. It’s one of the things that we agreed on. I said, “Look, I wanna be in a band like Black Sabbath or Velvet Underground,” and we talked about a lot of blues artists, bands that were making records that people aren’t just listening to now but 20 and 30 years from now they’re still buying those records and listening to them. That’s what we agreed on, and it’s been happening for me for a long time. Whether it’s the Misfits, Samhain, or the early Danzig records, it’s exactly what I wanted.
Going along with that notion of longevity, what is it for you that keeps you coming back to that creative well?
[Laughs] It’s so many different things. There’s always stuff to write about, but I think that the whole punk thing helped a lot. If it gets boring, change it, fix it, make it exciting, make it relevant again, and that’s what I did without sacrificing the music. That’s what I try to do. I try to do stuff where first thing is I’m excited about the record, and then I hope that the people who listen to my music are gonna dig it too. That’s pretty much how I go into doing a record, and I don’t do a new record until I have stuff to write about it. I don’t force myself to do a record. Someone doesn’t come to me and say, "Hey, it’s been a year or two since your last record. You’ve gotta write a record and put one out in a couple of months." No one comes to me and says that to me. The covers record I’ve been working on for a while, but the last new Danzig material came out in 2010. The new record is about three-quarters done, and by the time that comes out it’ll have been probably about six years since the last time you heard any new original Danzig material. Not a covers record or not this Danzig Sings Elvis record, so it’ll be six years.
Is that attitude of not forcing the creative process something that’s always been there for you?
Yeah. I mean, I used to do it on a more frequent basis [laughs]. But I think even back in the Misfits and Samhain days, I put out a record every two years, I think. The same thing with Danzig, too, where I put out a record every two years. Later on it became further and further apart, but that’s just the way it worked out. I think in between Danzig IV and V was probably a two-year period, and then between V and VI was probably a three-year period. It seems to be now it’s gone to four or five. I think one of the things also was for Deth Red we toured a lot over those years. Not two or three months at a time, but we just kept getting offers to go to Europe and then back to America. The record did pretty well for me, especially the way it was received, so hopefully the next one will be the same.
You mention the punk attitude and perspective, and it’s been interesting to see the trajectory of what’s considered extreme in the context of pop culture. I mean, I can remember my mom finding the Danzig and Slayer tapes I had hidden and just losing her mind at the time.
[Laughs] Yeah, Danzig and Slayer were like the two curse words in music then, man.
But now those kids like myself, we’ve grown up, and a lot of us are parents now, and it’s changed the cultural perspective and stigma in a lot of ways. Having seen that shift yourself as an artist, what’s your take on it?
You know, I think in a lot of things I talked about where people said, "you’re crazy" or "you’re out of your mind," and so on, well, eventually it becomes validated, and it’s almost like you’re validated in a way. All of a sudden things you were talking about which everyone thought were crazy are all that people are talking about now. It’s on TV. It’s everywhere and not in a negative way. It’s nice to see that, actually.
It’s nice to know that my kids will never have to hide their Danzig tapes.
[Laughs] Yeah. That’s so funny because someone brought to my attention that Christina Ricci said in an interview that she was raising here kid on Danzig, and I was just like, wow, that’s cool [laughs]. I always try in the songs to make it where you can just listen and get off on them. You don’t have to listen to any kind of methods in there or anything, but if you want to there is stuff in there for you to listen to and learn if that’s where you’re at. If not, I write the songs so you can just listen to them and lose yourself and not have to think about any of that stuff. It’s cool on all those levels to me.
A lot of your appeal to fans is due to your vocal style; you’re not screaming or growling, you’re actually singing. Was there a point where you realized you could utilize that kind of distinctive voice against a backdrop of this abrasive style of music?
No. That’s just actually the way I sing [laughs]. I don’t have a high voice. I don’t have a traditional—or I guess nowadays traditional—metal high-pitched screamy time of voice. I have a deep, booming voice where when I scream it’s more of a roar than a high-pitched siren. And that probably reflects the kind of music I like, with Elvis and a lot of the stuff you’ll hear on the covers record. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate some of that other stuff, but my voice is my voice, and I’m never gonna change it. It’s the way it is.
Coming back to Skeletons, when it comes to what drives you creatively, are you still pretty much that same kid playing drums back in New Jersey when you walk out on stage?
Of course it’s much different now. It’s tremendously different, but I still get excited about the same things. The things that motivate me and make me want to do what I do are still the same things, but it’s also a little different. I can’t just walk off a tour. I have people that work for me who are depending on me, and I can’t just leave. I’ve done it before [laughs]. But I’m not doing that kind of stuff anymore. So yeah, it’s changed in many ways, but the things that motivate me to keep playing music and to keep singing and performing are the same things that always did.
Skeletons is out November 27 via Evilive Records/Nuclear Blast Entertainment.
Jonathan Dick is going where eagles dare on Twitter.