Hugh Dillon is refreshingly no-nonsense in everything he does. He does not suffer fools lightly and is delightful devoid of the desire to self-censor himself for his language or the strongly held, and usually impenetrable, opinions he holds. He is authenticity and integrity writ large, and belies … no, shatters, the usual affectations and expectations that come with being a rock and roll artist and actor of both popular and critical acclaim.
In other words, he’s a badass, an inveterate artist who literally does not give one solitary f*** what most people think of him, his band, his music or any other aspects of his life. What a literal breath of fresh air in a world full of pithy social media obfuscations, artful non-conversations and an overindulgence in the language of political correctness and banality. Hugh Dillon tells it like it is – always has, and always will – both in conversation and especially through the music he unleashes on the unsuspecting masses along with his brothers in arms who comprise the Canadian alternative rock posse known as The Headstones.
Besides lead vocalist/songwriter Dillon, the band features fellow co-founders Trent Carr and Tim White, alongside relative newcomers Steve Carr, Rickferd Van Dyk and Jesse Labovitz.
As in 2017 when we chatted with Dillon about the band’s then new album Little Army, he is at his robustly honest and entertaining best when speaking of the Headstone’s latest piece of creative anarchy, the exceptionally insistent and exceedingly raucous album Peopleskills, which was released Oct. 25 through Cadence Recordings/Known Accomplice.
“We don’t decide when its time to put out an album. We don’t dictate that, it’s the songwriting gods. If suddenly those songs come to us, we have to record them because we’re a rock and roll band and that’s what we do. We’re the guys who bought the records and listened to riffs and listened to lyrics and loved old school rock and roll. So, when we’re hanging out and Trent comes up with a riff of something, I am like, ‘whatever the f*** that was, was awesome.’ Then I am usually lucky enough to come up with the lyrics fast enough, and pretty soon we have a song. And then it happens again, and again, and soon enough, you’ve got a whole f***ing album’s worth,” said Dillon, as he was on the road to Ottawa for some media appearances in anticipation of the release of Peopleskills.
“We’re lucky that we’ve got a great record company that is excited by our work and we’re lucky that we’ve got great producer in Chris Osti and it is that old thing, you’ve got to strike while the iron is hot, and when we know we’ve got the songs. This time around it was just obvious. And, you know, in a weird way we have gotten better. We have just evolved at a particular speed. We never had a number one hit before and we had one with Devil’s On Fire from the last record. The first single from this new record, Leave It All Behind is already on the Billboard top five in Canada. We know we have the goods, and the live shows and our fans just made this record really explosive in a really personal way.
“We are an anomaly, I guess. We have such a crazy loyal fan base and we’re such an odd band in terms of being around for a long time, but we don’t play all the time. We play very intensely; we’re an intense little rock band. We play by our old school rules. I always loved music and collected albums and that’s we still put out f***ing albums. I am in an authentic rock and roll band, not a band put together by anyone else. Trent and Tim have been friends since they were 10 years old. We have been writing songs together for decades and it’s just real and authentic.”
Peopleskills is unapologetically in your face, riven with a contained aggression that always seems ready to bubble over.
“You’ve really got to do it for yourself and not give any f***s about anything else. Because if you don’t f***ing love this, nobody else gives a shit. And I think that’s why our fans are so loyal. On this new record, and on stage, there’s an intensity that this band has now that’s just out there – we’re just driven. And there’s an artistic satisfaction that comes with that, that we know we love it and to get it down the way we want it,” Dillon said, emphatically.
“This record is probably one of the best mixed records we’ve ever done. And it’s about building a team, within the band and surrounding the band. Anybody can build a team, but to go through the hard times and the good times and to continue on and to create, that team gets tighter, the shorthand gets tighter and the components of songs reveal themselves quicker and with more meaning and depth than ever before. That’s art, and that’s what we’re striving for, that intensity, that’s the difference.
“And its not just unhinged aggression. It’s deeper than that. It’s an ability to really communicate what you really feel. It’s about the emotion of the music and the lyrics and the attention to details. It isn’t reckless abandon. It isn’t anything else; it is the ability to truly focus and have everyone focused. That is what I am trying to get at. There isn’t a cliché to wrap around this. It is simply an intense focus where, every once in a while, everything works and that is the satisfaction that an artist is looking for.
Dillon also bats aside questions about the meaning of the songs, or if there is any consistent them weaving its way through the 11 tracks on Peopleskills.
“I will put it this way, you’ll find it in the lyrics of the song By Sunday. There are a lot of songs on this record, but it’s in part of the lyrics of By Sunday that you will find the core of it. For me, it’s too hard to define. All the songs have different veins, but I was listening to the record with Trent as we were driving up to Ottawa and there’s part in By Sunday, which is the second last song, and I was like, ‘f***, that really encapsulates a lot of things, for a lot of people,’” he said.
“I just don’t want to be super specific, because it’s not fair to fans, it’s not fair to me, it’s not fair to anyone else. If you listen to By Sunday really closely, you’ll get it.”
As with the previous Headstones studio album, Little Army, which came out in 2017 and spawned the band’s first ever number one hit single, Devil’s On Fire, Peopleskills was recorded at The Bathouse Recording Studio, the residential studio facility owned by the Tragically Hip, located literally across Highway 33 from the shores of Lake Ontario just outside Kingston, Ontario. Always a wonderful place to write and record, filled wit the spiritual energy of The Hip and all those who have come and gone from the facility over the years, there was extra poignancy for the recording sessions for what would become Peopleskills in that it marked the first time Dillon and his bandmates were at The Bathouse since the death of iconic Hip frontman Gord Downie.
“It always had a resonance to it, but that is part of the whole experience too. What I thought about was there is no taking anything for granted, you know. I think of course [Gord’s passing] has affected me, but I can’t even articulate it, but of course it does. I remember shooting the video for the [non-album single/video] for our cover of The Wreck of the Edmund FitzGerald out on the ice out by the Bathouse, and you can’t help but think of your relationship with people and your friendships and music,” he said.
“When I think of music, there is a small number of people who I have been friends with who are also musicians, and a smaller number yet who are also singers and songwriters, and a smaller number yet who are also from the same high school you’re from and the same town you’re from and a smaller number yet who had always been kind and gracious and had great musicality. So, you can’t help but think of Gord and those guys. I don’t even like talking about it. It’s very personal, but you can’t help but think about it. But that doesn’t define the f***ing record, you know what I mean?”
The Headstones were part of a very special fundraising concert held within the mythical confines of the now de-commissioned Kingston Penitentiary, that also featured The Pursuit of Happiness, The Trews, Kasador, Tom Cochrane and Tragically Hip members Gord Sinclair, Rob Baker and Paul Langlois. All funds raised from the Sept. 14 show were donated to the local chapter of the United Way. Dubbed Rockin’ the Big House, the show raised more than $365,000.
To be a part of a show in his hometown, alongside members of The Hip who have been lifelong pals, and in the wake of band leader Gord Downie’s death two years ago brought on a raft of emotions for Dillon. The video for Peopleskills’ first single, Leave It All Behind, was also filmed within the eerily stark corridors of Kingston Pen.
“The show was phenomenal. And just to see Paul and Rob and Gord Sinclair and their families was special, and it was for such a great cause as the United Way, and the guys that run that place are such sweethearts. It was just a great vibe. And to have access to the Pen for the video was … I mean, I studied History when I went to Queen’s once upon a time, and I passed that building every day going to hockey practice or whatever. To be up in the guard tower and see the city from a vantage point that you would otherwise never ever see in your life in the city you’ve grown up in, was a trip,” said Dillon.
“Then to played with the guys in the Hip and play a Hip song like Little Bones and to play that with the guys in my band and have the crowd, the hometown crowd there, it was just exceptional. Those are once in a lifetime moments and to have them in 2019 is just … that’s what everything else is for. That’s why with me and the guys in my band, there’s an intensity to the way we live our lives, and I think so much of it is because we have been lucky to have this second chance and second opportunity since we got back together a few years ago. And to be given the opportunity to make a f***ing record or to play a show or do whatever it is that we love to do together, is incredible.
“We live intensely and when you have those moments like at the Pen, they’re even more intense, and what’s great is the fans and the people around us, people without it being articulated, they just knew something was different in the air, and it’s exceptional and it’s an energy that you can’t describe.”
Coming back home to the Limestone City is always special and Dillon said he cherishes any opportunity to get together with close friend Langlois and his family.
“He is a guy who helped me do my solo record [Works Well With Others, released in 2009] when I had nobody to help me do anything. We played hockey together when we were eight years old. All these guys are people I have known, and we’ve all been friends since before we were in bands, before we even drank beer. It goes so far back that it just shows. It’s so gratifying to be in their company, and they know me so well, and I know them so well. And to play on a stage and play those songs at this point in our lives, was great. To play Little Bones with the Hip guys felt like a great starting lineup for a f***ing hockey team,” he said.
“And when I see Paul really get into it on stage, because I played hockey with him, you know when we were kids he was a great hockey player, and similar to the way he would bend down for a wrist shot, he would hit chords in a similar way. There’s a skill and an intensity and ease that he plays rock and roll that I have always admired and has always inspired me. He was always about finesse: he was always Gretzky and I was always more about Bobby Clarke. They are just great people. I have been shooting the show Yellowstone in Utah with Kevin Costner, and I loved it, but there is something unique to coming back home, to do what I love doing and be with the people I care about, it’s so special.”
The Headstones have one last show to end 2019, which takes place Dec. 7 in Toronto at The Phoenix Concert Theatre. Dillon said more dates will be forthcoming for 2020 soon. For more information, visit the band’s socials or http://headstonesband.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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