HEADSTONES – “If You Can Be Honest, You Can Be Anything”

November 18, 2019, 5 months ago

By Aaron Small

feature hard rock headstones

HEADSTONES – “If You Can Be Honest, You Can Be Anything”

Years ago, Juno Award nominated Headstones were selling a tour shirt with the query, “Where’s The Fuckin’ Money You Owe Me?” emblazoned on the back. Their new album, PeopleSkills - the band’s eighth - very much maintains that Fuck You attitude, which is tremendous for both the band and their long-time fans. “Yeah… we had to make this record. This is like the crack cocaine of Headstones records,” declares frontman Hugh Dillon. 

“You’re always trying to make the perfect representation of what it is you do,” continues the vocalist. “We realized at the end of the day… it’s just fucking us; and we happen to have a great record company. After we made Little Army (in 2017), we just became driven. We’re a rock ‘n’ roll band. I hear a riff in rehearsal that Trent (Carr – guitarist) has written, and I’m like, ‘What the fuck is that? That’s killer!’ Then we’re off and running again. You have to put your phone down and be 100% committed to what it is you’re listening to, and what it is you’re trying to do. We figured it out late but… this one is really just every fucking thing we want it to be.”

Although the album title, PeopleSkills, is not the name of a song, Hugh enlightens BraveWords as to its origin. “I was in Los Angeles talking to this agent, and I had nothing. It was fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking. Trent laughed and he said, ‘Honing the PeopleSkills.’ It’s become a code word for when somebody else is so full of shit, there’s nowhere to go but these secret remarks. But it is a way to get to the truth; it’s kind of tongue-in-cheek. What’s it mean to you?” I find it ironic, because you’re so belligerent on the album. Normally, people skills would entail being nice, polite, and courteous. However, in “Best You Can Do”, you threaten to spit in someone’s eye. Those aren’t good people skills. “Yeah, and the cover with just the skull. There’s something I find disingenuous about that phrase. A lot of times it’s gut instinct; you don’t even need to talk about it… yes, that works. And that’s what this whole record is about. We are really reacting to the truth – what makes sense; or what makes you laugh. There’s a lot of humour that people miss in this band; I think that’s why that title works as well.”

Headstones are originally based in Kingston, Ontario. The videos for “Leave It All Behind” and “Dimes And Pennies” – both from PeopleSkills – were filmed in the confines of The Kingston Penitentiary. What’s it like to be inside such an historic jail? “It was exciting,” admits Hugh. “It’s like somebody opening a door into a whole other world. I lived in that city for most of my adult life; I haven’t lived there in years now. But we went back for… there’s a thing for The United Way that Paul Langlois from The Tragically Hip, his wife is involved in. They had asked us to do it, we said, absolutely. We got to play ‘Little Bones’ with the guys from The Hip. It was a great night of rock ’n roll for a great cause. But in there, we got to shoot our videos, and have access to the place. For me specifically, to be in that gun turret in the guard tower… you’re seeing a view of a city you know like the back of your hand. It’s like Harry Potter or something opened up this whole other world. I’m looking at the lake from a vantage point I’ve never seen, look back and see the city from a vantage point I’ve never seen. You’re also like, Oh My God, I’m so lucky because anybody can make mistakes and end up in jail or prison. It’s the luck of the draw sometimes. That vibe – and historically – that place has been around for 150 years. There’s so much history, it’s fascinating! Culturally, in terms of how humans treat each other; there’s so much depth to that place. I’ve always been interested in history, crime, and the justice system. I recommend people get down to Kingston and take that tour; the guides there are fantastic! It’s well worth it.”

The press release accompanying PeopleSkills states, “For Hugh, this album was cathartic and therapeutic,” which he elaborates upon. “All of these records are. It’s just these last couple are so… what happens, I find, is you either get better at what it is you do; or you’re distracted with life, whatever. I have been able to get out of my own way when I write songs. You plug into your subconscious and say the things you want to say. You’re not trying to edit it to be cool. It’s just a combination of the lyric and the music. The music is so explosive and inspiring that you become obsessed with making these songs as great as they can possibly be. You spend all your time on it making sure the lyrics are right, the sound is right, and the people involved are the right people. The band is so super tight and so creative because we basically have been writing songs and touring for the last couple of years. It’s a perfect time.”

Getting much more specific about certain lyrics, we begin with “Horses”. That song contains the line, ‘Pull the plug on mental health.’ Currently, mental health – and the government’s response, or lack thereof, to this crisis – is a high-profile issue in Canada, the United States, and the UK. “I know what you’re saying,” affirms Dillon. “The guys in the band, we’ve all had issues with it. If you go further down in that song it’s, ‘Climbed out of a hole that was six feet deep.’ You’ve got to figure it out; especially in this day and age when it’s so easy to be isolated. And that’s why I love the band, because you really connect with people you know and you love, and you create this music with. On a bigger scale, it’s like a double-edged sword; the social media thing. What’s great about it is, we can really connect with our fans; it’s a super-tight community. When we play live, it’s exceptional. It’s that coming together. But sometimes the way we are with our phones and our lives, it can be so isolating and so lonely.” 

“From my point of view, I’ve been clean and sober for years now, but I’ve got to be hyper vigilant about who I hang out with, what I do. Mental health means always… the great thing is, it’s come to the forefront now and people are talking about it. That’s the biggest thing to say. In the past it was hidden, people suffered in silence. I’ve seen lots of suicide and lots of death; this is our response to that. We’re super tight as a band and as friends; I talk to Trent every fucking day. We are not just a band. We are actually friends who hang out and laugh our asses off; that’s what really keeps us healthy and alive. The by-product of that is creatively, we are so in-tune to being straight up. Our whole thing is, just be honest. If you can be honest, you can be anything. Mental health or otherwise, if you have people that you can be fucking honest with – no matter how crazy your thoughts are, or whatever mood you’ve found yourself in – communicate that to another human being, and you can move on from there. In our case, we can create from there. That’s a thing you cannot buy, and what makes this band unique – the chemistry. You couldn’t put these players together. It’s so real and authentic that it produces this particular brand of rock ‘n roll.”

“Dark Side Of The Doomed” features the lyric: ‘All these people lying dead in the streets, they’re nothing but statistics and policy. Died two blocks from the injection site, on her hand were the words saying No Surprise.’ That appears to be a double-headed serpent, simultaneously addressing the current opioid crisis, as well as the controversy of safe injection sites. The NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) are complaining that the addicts are using illegal drugs, so taxpayers should not fund their criminal activity. “You know what?” interjects Hugh. “The real concept there – if that was your fuckin’ kid, your son or daughter; or your brother or sister, or your Mom or Dad – you’d fucking do anything, anything, to stop that. And that’s what that song’s about. Further on it says, ‘I don’t know how I made it from A to B.’ I got lucky because I had people who gave a shit about me and put me in the right direction. People are very lucky who can sit back and judge people with hardcore drug addictions from our homes, in front of our screens, eating our dinner. We talked about Kingston – that is a fucking prison that is tough to get out of; more so than a regular prison. You’ve got these underlying issues of drug addiction and mental illness. That song is… I used to know a girl years ago; I talk about neck tattoos and tattoos on her hands, it’s all real stuff. That song is another one that just dropped into my mind subconsciously. When I wrote it, I was thinking of this, and I refer to a song we had on Little Army called ‘Broken’. ‘Another cop says to a doctor there is nothing here we can do, they are self-inflicted, cross-addicted, they are the dark side of the doomed.’ Everybody’s got their little script that they say, and they don’t really see that this is someone’s kid, or daughter, or any of it. That’s where I think those songs come from; they aren’t just… I think why people relate to them, and why I’m able to write them, is they aren’t as general as you might think. They’re very specific in terms of people and how you see them. And the pain and suffering that goes with being human; it can be brutal.” 

“The larger issue - this is why I create art, why I write songs. This is my way out, and it goes back to the therapeutic thing. Most people have things that they really think about, or are concerned about, what do you do with them? I’m lucky that I can put them in the band. Whatever frustrations I find in life, I can translate those to art and express myself. In that expression, I can enjoy my life. Then it comes down to the live shows; the live show is very much all-inclusive; everybody gets into it. That’s why it’s fun and it works. What’s interesting too is that the band’s called The Headstones. Early on, I had certain signs of committing suicide back then! The band is anything but a quiet, macabre little rock ‘n’ roll outfit. This band is very much alive! And the live shows are very chaotic. With me, I didn’t have a lot of options. I had a shitty job. It was like, you can have this shitty job and nurse your drug addiction and alcoholism, go home and watch TV until you can’t pay your rent, cause all the shitiness will go to you self-medicating with drugs and alcohol; or go to jail. I was lucky that I fucking love rock ‘n’ roll music! I fucking love it! I could put all of my energy into that one thing, as long as I can navigate the negative thoughts of addiction.” 

As a former - and now fully recovered - heroin addict, do you identify with Nikki Sixx’s Heroin Diaries and his current anti-opioid crusade? “I read the book the day it came out; I thought it was accurate,” recalls Hugh. “I don’t know all the specifics, cause I haven’t been following Nikki Sixx, but from what I do know, that’s a guy who pulled himself out of it. The thing about not being a street junkie is, sometimes you have even more access to hardcore narcotics.” As Nikki tells it, people are enabling you from all sides. “Well, you do. Yes, they’re enabling you, but you really are helping coerce them into enabling you. Of course, that’s a guy who turned his life around, and has come out the other side of that kind of addiction. I have nothing but applause, nothing but positive things to say about that guy. He’s a guy with a conscience, he wants to do the right thing. The truth of it is… so many of us just die. And that’s the end of it. It’s rare, the ones who make it out the other end; let alone to say something positive about the state of the opioid epidemic.”

At your lowest point, when the drugs and alcohol mattered more than anything else, it must be fair to say that you could never have seen yourself where you are today - in 2019, releasing album number eight from The Headstones; with three of the four original members still in the band. That must bring about a sense of pride and accomplishment. “Absolutely. And in a funny-ass way, more than just ‘Hey, we made it.’ With the record (PeopleSkills), I listen to those songs and I’m like, ‘Holy fuck, did you ever do it!’ That’s what you look at as an artist, because you never know if this is your last record. When we did Little Army (in 2017), that was everything I wanted to do. I love it! Then it just became open to creating another one. To look at this record, and listen to these songs, and how finely tuned they are. We’ve played together for so long now; we’ve done so much stuff live. Jesse Labovitz is a killer drummer, he’s a hardcore drummer. And his mom; it’s such a family, our band now, his mom, who plays for The Toronto Symphony, came down to Kingston and played on ‘Motorcade’. It’s a real family vibe that the songs are so intricate and meaningful to us. They’re not just… every fucking song means something to me lyrically. They’re intense fucking songs! And our fans always get the gist of it, that these lyrics are innately mine. And that’s why I like hanging out with fans after shows. I love talking one on one, or in a couple of groups at the bar after the show. Those are hardcore fans, cause they want to know exactly what’s being said. Then I will open up; or I’ll ask what they think it is.”

“For me, I don’t look at making the next record like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to have a hit record.’ I look at it like, I don’t want to waste my fucking time. I want to write great songs that I can go and play live with the band tomorrow cause I’m into it. If we’re going to pull a song out of thin air and put it in our setlist, it better mean something. Our fans aren’t stupid, and that’s why they embrace it at this stage in the game. That’s why we’re lucky to look at Billboard and be number four with ‘Leave It All Behind’. How did that happen? It happened because we give a shit about every single note, every word, the way it’s recorded, who records it, and who mixes it. We knew the potential of that song. When we first wrote it, it was addictive. ‘Whatever the fuck that was, let’s do that again!’ Then, ‘Holy fuck, that’s awesome!’ Then it becomes, let’s get a studio, while trying not to lose that vibe you came up with, that intensity, that excitement. That whole creative… changes how you think; it’s so positive. And that’s the funny thing about the band: Headstones with a skull on the front. But underneath it, there’s that fight. We’ve been down so many times in the band, and even with mental health. There is that fight to get back up that people relate to. It is constant. Whatever it takes, get the fuck up and try to do better.”

“I love the record, in every regard. And having Taylor Sheridan – who wrote Sicario, he’s got a new movie with Angelina Jolie – call me personally and say, ‘Motorcade’s going to be in one of my shows; that fucking song’s awesome!’ Something has changed with The Headstones. We kept our heads down. We don’t just go out and play everywhere. We make the music, so then we can go out and play. The last two records make up the bulk of our setlist. Then we cherry-pick all the stuff from the other records that we like. Our live shows become exciting and fun, and it comes down to our fans. We’ve got such a great audience out there of people who are just like us. They love rock ‘n roll; something that’s honest and not full of shit. And that’s what you have to live by. We had to create these songs because it means everything to us; then whatever happens, happens.”

(Photos by: Nicklaus Ball)

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