No Cause for Concern? Issue #8 | October 1983 | Page 10 | Ken Lester interview
An Interview with
by Vig Déliberté
At the time this interview was taped (October 19, 1982) Ken lester was the manager of Vancouver's D.O.A. He has managed them on and off since around 1979, but to the best of my knowledge he is not working with them at the present time. (One of his previous leaves-of-absence prompted them to write the "Kenny Blister" ditty on their "Hardcore '81" record.) Ken Lester, in his dealings with D.O.A. and other bands in Vancouver, has seen a lot of changes in the North American punk scene. In this interview he talks about what it's been like and gives some advice to bands planning to go on tour. - Ed
VIG: How long have you been doing this, working with D.O.A.?
KEN: I guess for about three years. I just started by accident 'cause I sort of supported Rock Against Racism. I went out to Chicago where D.O.A. were playing a Rock Against Racism concert and from there I hitched a ride with them to New York and we just ended up hanging out together because I was into journalism and I knew some of the writers out there and everything like that so I just said "Well, if you guys want to get interviews then you've go to go talk to this person or that person, blah, blah..." So I sort of got involved that way and then we just ended up partying the whole time and it was a really unique time because D.O.A. was out there, the Dils (who are now defunct) were out there and the Dead Kennedys (who nobody had ever heard of) were out there at the same time playing a totally obscure club. Nobody had ever seen anything like it before -- or at least not on the East Coast and New York, so we just sort of became friends from there, then when we got back to Vancouver they asked me to manage them. I said I wouldn't do it because I didn't know anything about managing bands and I wasn't really into it and they just kept asking until I said I'd do it. But we just learned the whole thing as we went along until that's all we've been doing.
VIG: D.O.A. and the types of bands that play music similar to them have a kind of social message: were you ever involved in anything like that prior to working with D.O.A.?
KEN: Oh yeah, my background is in journalism and the radical politics of the sixties. I put on a John Sinclair benefit in 1970, and we rented the Gardens auditorium which was about the last time it was rented. We turned it into this whole community event which was quite stunning at the time.
And then I was involved with another friend who helped put on the first Greenpeace concert to raise all the money to start Greenpeace. Different things like that, but mostly any organizing I did was just to raise money for causes. I was never involved in the management of a band or the development of a band as an idea or anything like that.
VIG: You were talking about R.A.R. Tell me why you got involved in it and what you saw as its problems.
KEN: I thought Rock Against Racism in Britain was a really brilliant idea because punk music and rebel music and reggae music all have a real socially committed stance. I have disagreements with rastas and a lot of Rastafarianism because of sexism and because of different fucked up ideas about the way things are in the world. At the same time I recognize a genuine sort of rebel music, and in London there were the punk bands who were expressing the same kinds of feelings and emotion -- perhaps less religiously, obviously -- but there was that affinity, so that blacks and whites came together and played together. And the fact that a lot of punk bands did reggae numbers really lent credence to that.
While I still think the idea is really good because I think rock music does have a lot to do where blacks and whites can be together and it transcends cultural differences, but the problem in North America is that there isn't that unifying thing in reggae. Reggae is not that popular amongst North American blacks at all. Whites and blacks listen to funk music and disco music together and they listen to blues together, none of which have any real affinity to punk rock. One of D.O.A.'s first songs that was really successful was "Disco Sucks" and there's what all the black people are listening to and D.O.A. is Rock Against Racism. There are black groups that are Rock Against Racism and they're playing the exact kind of music D.O.A. is assailing in its lyrics. So what I always thought about north american Rock Against Racism is that it never really addressed that problem in a political or philosophical sense. And, also, in Canada -- specifically in Vancouver where racism really exists -- is racism toward native people or East Indian people. And East Indian music has no bearing whatsoever on what we're doing but that's the issue you have to address. So the concept is sort of muted and it's difficult to deal with even though we're staunchly against racism. We can do things like raise money for it but to try to unify the two things, like reggae and punk were unified in England, is almost impossible.
VIG: I wanted to ask you what else you have in the way of theories about rock music. Anything that is pertinent to the whole scene now?
KEN: There is. One theory about rock musicians is that rock musicians are scum weasels...that they have no sensitivity whatsoever. No...rock music?
The reason why I think it's important to be involved with rock music right now is that it's the only area -- not the only area, the arts, culture is the only area -- where you can approach people where they have an open mind. They are coming to see you because they have an interest in what you're doing so they're open to it -- at least listen to what you have to say. If you're into politics nobody wants to listen to more lying politicians, nobody is interested in listening to the latest manifesto, but they will come and listen to music and will see art and will be affected by that art and will be affected by the art and that opens their minds so they become more expansive and exploratory in their daily lives and perhaps change the way they view the world. Everything that we're trying to do with music is to create an environment that is so intense and so exciting that people will say "this is a lot more fun that fucking listening to bullshit day in and day out on Top 40 radio. This is fun, this is real, it's vital". It creates a certain environment, a rebellious environment, a dissenting environment from the way things are.
VIG: You've been doing this with D.O.A. for three years. What's happened in those three years?
KEN: Things go up and down. When D.O.A. first started out even as the "Skulls" in the last part of '76 there was a big upsurge then because there was the whole punk rock think coming from England. There was no dissent. It was like the "ME generation", the "ME decade". Everything was supposed to be acquiescent, nothing was supposed to be going on. Everyone was supposed to be going along with the system, you know -- Seig Heil! And then there's a bunch of malcontents and idiots from England going "I'm going to vomit on this and spit on that and fuck you and everybody's a pile of shit..." They weren't supposed to exist. They were NOT supposed to be there.
So there was this initial upsurge of interest from everybody who agreed with that point of view. That went over for a little while; then it went into a recession or something like that. Then there was the second upswing -- which was the West Coast, San Fransisco, L.A., Vancouver to a certain extent -- of bands that went on the road and played Bumfuck, Alberta, or Nowhereville, Arkansas, and started little scenes, going all over the place. At the same time electro pop was the sort of counter balance to it. Dance music. It was just to go out and have a good time. "Why do we want to go out and smash the shit out of each other? We don't want to slam-dance anymore. These guys are too crude, they're too young. There were some really young people involved.
So it sort of went down again. Most recently it seems like there's bands that are starting to make it almost commercially. Like you've got the Dead Kennedys that are selling hundreds of thousands of records even though no major record company will touch what they're doing.
The conditions we have to go through to try to present D.O.A.'s music to the public are really horrendous. A lot of clubs are just not open to us; the radio airwaves aren't open to us. Even in the so-called "new music" radio stations. They don't want to put on politically volatile music. They don't want to hear it, they want to hear something that deals with the internal emotions. There's nothing wrong with that kind of music. It's just that there's other things that are externally oriented too and they should be played.
One thing we figured out with the record companies is that even though things are sort of in a downslide -- or they have been for a few months -- we were still able to get Faulty Products in the States to put up all the money for this record we've got out. Plus now it's being released in Canada on Fringe, who previously hadn't expressed much interest in what we're doing.
It's indicative that they realize economically there's a large enough base for them to invest money in a band like D.O.A. And what we're also trying to do is to prove that beyond that, there is a more generalized interest in what we're dong. We're not just a one-note band. The band can play all kinds of different music and they can play things in different ways and we can actually put an entertaining show together. And that a lot of people even my age -- like I'm thirty-three -- just don't like this kind of stuff at all but I think that a lot of people my age are open to it if it's presented in a way that's entertaining.
VIG: You were talking before about the way music rose and fell. What point do you feel we're at now?
KEN: I feel that right now it's a difficult time to tour because people are sort of reassessing their divisions. Like hardcore thrash has reached a certain peak and a lot of people are retreating from it right now. Not because people don't want to see intense things but that there's so many bands involved in it right now that none of the bands has an identity that you can identify with.
Alternative Tentacles released that Maximum Rock n Roll album "Not So Quiet on the Western Front". It's got forty-seven bands just from Reno, San Francisco area and Northern California. Forty-seven fucking bands! It's really hard to tell the difference between the bands and all of them are at different levels of development. It's the same thing in the Midwest: for every Hüsker Dü you find, there are another fifteen bands that play [Ken makes an awful grating noise]. I don't know how that comes out on tape, which you might enjoy when you're there in the physical environment, but when you hear it on a record or if you had a steady environment of that, then it doesn't have the distinctness for you to get involved with it.
VIG: So D.O.A. has survived in one form or another with all these changes. What do you think is going to be happening with the band. I wanted to ask that because it's obvious that you and the people involved in the music want to see changes take place. Changes in our society and other changes -- perhaps in people's awareness. Are those changes going to take place as a direct result of the music and, if so, how do you envision it?
KEN: Music has nothing to do with it. It was really funny, a couple of years ago different radicals used to come up to us and say "how come you guys don't lead the revolution? There's hundreds of people coming here to listen to you and nobody comes to listen to us so therefore why don't you guys lead the revolution?" Fuck! You know, we couldn't lead our way from one lunch to the next. We don't know what the fuck is going on. All that D.O.A. is doing is reflecting certain feelings that ordinary people have. And maybe not even all ordinary people, maybe we're all damaged. But we feel this way and obviously other people feel this way too, otherwise they wouldn't waste any time listening to us. The only overt thing a band does is try to create an environment that is conductive to change, that encourages people to reach out for more than what they have, for more than what they are and to become a little more humane.
VIG: Do you have any advice for musicians who want to play original music? I guess in particular the types of music that would fit into the scene that D.O.A. fits into, that want to go out on the road and at least make a living off it?
KEN: The first thing I'd say is don't have any illusions. Don't think you're going to be a rock star. If you're going to play anything remotely like D.O.A. or any of the hardcore bands around, don't have any illusions about being successful at what you're doing because everything is totally arrayed against you. Basically you're confronting people and people don't like to be confronted and particularly all the people involved in the commercial end of it. The music business hates anything that confronts them They don't want to deal with bands that want to be fair to opening acts. They don't want to deal with bands that want to get their fair amount of income from whatever comes through the door. They don't want to deal with bands that are uncompromising with the material they want to present. So if you have the delusion that you want to be a rock star, if you have any idea of that at all, then don't bother playing any kind of alternative music. Go play the club scene, go play the Top 40 tunes until you manage to con somebody into putting money into you.
But if you're really committed to what you're doing, all we ever did -- or me as a manager -- is talk to the bands that you like, ask them for help, if they've got any numbers you can have, play with bands that you like, help push them, and they'll help push you. It's a cooperative thing, it's a mutual aid type of situation that you want have with other bands. Also, you have to be fairly openminded towards other music. If somebody's playing electronic, synthesizer weird music but they've got the right attitude and have the same feeling as you do, don't just put them down because they're not playing your kind of music. It's better to combine with them, put a composite show together because they're drawing their audience and you're drawing yours and you build up the scene rather than splinter it.
It's all through really persistent work. You just keep expanding the address book, share it with other people and they'll share their addresses. Find people that you trust and work with them.
We're in a hotel room right now and I think it's the first hotel room -- maybe the second -- that we've been in on this trip and not everybody in the band will agree with me on this but I personally feel that hotel rooms are the worst thing that can happen to a band. It totally takes you out of the community that you're in. I'd rather stay at peoples' places when we go to play out of town, stay with real people that live in that town and see all the ins and outs that go on with them and find out all the gossip about the town -- who's doing what and what their personalities are like and it's a much more human way of keeping in touch with people and I think that's real essential for new bands.
VIG: What about for recording?
KEN: If you feel that you've got something that's worthwhile and you feel you can sell a couple hundred copies of it then I'd say go out and record, but the point is that a lot of bands record stuff when they don't even have enough of a following to support the record. Like you should be able to break even on a record. I don't think you can expect more than that on a first record or any kind of initial project. If you feel that you have five hundred fans in your town then record your favourite songs and print up 300 records, and then try to sell them. Singles to me are what I'd call advertisement whereas you actually make money from E.P.s and albums.
[At this point a few other people join in and start debating the best way to put out E.P.s, singles, etc., and it becomes very hard to figure out what's being said by whom. So I guess that's it.]