Misfits’ Glenn Danzig: “We were angrier, we were faster, and we were louder”
Glenn Danzig has always been something of an enigma. If the 66-year-old’s public persona is often reduced to a two-dimensional cartoonish caricature – muscle-bound, permanently clad in black, forever frowning and at war with the modern world – it’s not an image he’s ever fought overly hard to dispel.
Though possessing one of rock music’s most distinctive voices, Danzig largely shuns the spotlight, has zero social media presence – “I don’t have time for that shit,” he once said, dismissing the whole concept as “crazy” – and only sparingly grants interviews. And yet his fingerprints are recognisably all over our world. Metallica, Green Day and Guns N’ Roses have covered his songs, as have My Chemical Romance, AFI and Alkaline Trio, Trivium, Volbeat, Behemoth and Cradle Of Filth, among many others. Beyond his trailblazing, massively influential recordings with hardcore punk legends Misfits – now reunited and more popular than ever – Samhain and Danzig, the singer has also worked with the legendary Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, a testament to the timeless quality of his songwriting.
A true polymath, the New Jersey-born singer runs his own comic book publishing company (Verotik), a record label, he has two feature films in the works, and boasts a CV which includes an appearance in cult U.S. comedy show Portlandia, a voiceover cameo for animated TV series Aqua Teen Hunger Force and a degree in martial arts teaching.
He also has a reputation as a somewhat prickly character, not given to suffering fools gladly. The truth of this becomes immediately evident when, at the outset of our interview, Kerrang! enquires if this is a good time for Mr. Glenn Danzig to talk about his life and career. “I’m talking to you, ain’t I?” comes the terse response. Abandoning the idea of asking for his opinion on the hundreds of moderately amusing Danzig-themed gifs and memes still circulating online, Kerrang! decides to kick off our conversation with the dark lord on rather safer territory…
Let’s start with comic books. Growing up in New Jersey, what first attracted the young Glenn Anzalone to that world?
“I liked monsters, I liked horror, and the comic books I read fed my imagination. Back then, of course, there were no videos games, there was barely any TV, so you could see stuff in comics that you couldn’t see anywhere else. Comic books were one of the only forms of media for kids at that time.”
Were your parents concerned that you were filling your head with these dark images?
“No. They were raising four boys in the ‘50s. Comic books were pretty low down on the scale of things for parents to worry about.”
Is it true that when you were younger you originally wanted to be a comic book artist?
“Well, I wanted to be a lot of things when I was a kid. I wanted to be a brain surgeon, I wanted to be a pilot, a comic book artist and a photographer, but eventually it was music that took over.”
Did the comic book idea of becoming a different character – someone larger-than-life – feed into the creation of Glenn Danzig, the performer?
“No. I think you’re reading too much into that. The person you see onstage is me, I don’t put on a character or become a different person to perform. The guy you see onstage isn’t a creation that I put on and then take off.”
Your 2015 covers album, Skeletons, gives some indication as to the music that’s soundtracked your life, but which artist was your first real musical love?
“I liked so much stuff: everything from Elvis Presley to The Everly Brothers to doo-wop, but then I also liked stuff like Blue Cheer and Steppenwolf and punk rock and classical music. There was a lot of music in my life when I was growing up, a lot to absorb.”
What do you remember of your first time performing on a stage?
“I remember that people were shocked that this little kid had this big deep voice. The first time would have been at some local dance in New Jersey that bands got to play. I was a bass player and a roadie before I sang in a band, but eventually some people heard me singing and asked me to try out for their band, and that’s how I got promoted to being a singer.”
There’s a lot of mythologising around the early American hardcore scene, particularly among those who weren’t actually there to witness it first-hand. Do you remember the early days of Misfits being a fun time?
“I just look back on it as another period in my life. It’s true that people don’t understand what it was like, though, and a lot of what’s been written about that time doesn’t tally with my reality and my memories.”
Did you feel any sense of community with the other bands on the hardcore scene at the time? Misfits, Minor Threat, MDC, Black Flag, would have crossed paths quite a bit in those days…
“I don’t know, I mean, at the beginning there weren’t any other bands like the Misfits. We were angrier, we were faster, we were louder, we didn’t dress the same, and people were taken aback by us at first, particularly when we were smashing shit up at our shows. To be honest, we didn’t really know that there were other bands like us until we went to check out a band who wanted to play our big Halloween show at [New York venue] Irving Plaza and Bad Brains were opening for us. We were like, ‘Wow!’ It was only then that we realised there were other bands around the country playing hard and fast.”
For a lot of metalheads who weren’t schooled in the punk rock underground, Metallica’s championing of the Misfits played a huge part in opening up that world. When did you become aware that the band had a cult following among fellow musicians?
“I knew about Metallica and some other guys in bands because they’d get in touch with me. Metallica were cool. They blurred the lines between punk and metal, and they were good guys, particularly in the beginning.”
Is it true that it was late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton who encouraged Def Jam/Def American label boss Rick Rubin to check out your band Samhain for the first time?
“I don’t know about that. Rick came to see us at a big New Music Seminar show in New York. We were representing New York, Celtic Frost were representing Europe and D.O.A. were representing Canada. Rick had signed Slayer at a similar show the year before, so he was just checking out all the bands I think. I had other label people there because the band was getting too big for my small label [Plan 9], and he came in and introduced himself. I didn’t know who the fuck he was, he just looked like he was in ZZ Top. But we had some friends in common and I took a couple of meetings with him and I liked what he had to say, so I went with him.”
The first [1988’s eponymous] Danzig album was a huge success. After operating in the shadows, so to speak, for so long, were you surprised by how much it took off?
“Not really. At the time Samhain had been headlining places like The Ritz in New York, which big label bands would headline, so as Danzig we were still playing the same size of venues. Things really changed on Danzig II and Danzig III, but initially it didn’t feel like we were big rock stars or anything.”
That album was the one that brought you huge success in Europe for the first time, though. The band came here for the first time with Metallica as support on the …And Justice For All tour.
“That wasn’t my first time playing live in the UK, though. I came over with the Misfits in 1979, to play with The Damned. That didn’t exactly work out too well, though… [Misfits infamously walked off the tour after just one show, following a dispute about payments. Danzig and guitarist Bobby Steele were subsequently arrested in London after a fight outside a gig by The Jam, their night in the cells immortalised in the Misfits song London Dungeon].”
Danzig’s success undoubtedly raised your profile in the music industry. To the point where you ended up working with established stars like Johnny Cash. Was it Rick Rubin who first introduced you to Johnny or were you already a fan?
“Well, what actually happened was that Johnny Cash’s people had heard the song I’d written with Roy Orbison [Life Fades Away, on the soundtrack to the film Less Than Zero] and they asked if I’d be interested in writing for Johnny Cash. My dad was a big Johnny Cash fan, and obviously I’d heard his music before, so I was never going to say no.”
Was that the point at which your parents stopped asking you when you were going to get a real job?
“Um… that‘s a difficult question for me to answer. At times they were supportive, at times they weren’t so into me doing this.”
Working with Johnny Cash and with Roy Orbison must have been a huge compliment, though. Were you able to view those great icons of American song as peers, or was there some hero worship going on?
“I pretty much just went in and showed them my ideas like I would with anyone else. I mean, obviously if you’re sitting with Roy Orbison or Johnny Cash you know you’re in the presence of someone special and you’re honoured. But you’re a musician too, and so you connect on a musician to musician level, even if they made music you grew up on.”
When we last spoke, in 2015, you said that “the smarter people” had stopped asking you about a Misfits reunion. So what changed?
“Hmm… I don’t know that that’s the correct question for the answer you want. What I will say is that eventually Jerry [Only, Misfits bassist] and I worked out a bunch of our differences and we decided that if we were going to do a reunion, we were going to do it now rather than later, while we’re still young and vital and can still go crazy and run around a stage.”
Have you enjoyed playing the Misfits comeback shows?
“They’re okay, yeah, a lot of fun. It’s pretty much the same as a Danzig show to me, it’s what I do.”
After 33 years apart, it must be somewhat surreal selling out a venue like the 17,000-capacity LA Forum with songs you used to perform in small basements and church halls?
“Well, yeah, but it’s really no different than Danzig selling out Irvine Meadows, which is 15,000 people.”
Jerry Only seems into the idea of potentially making a new Misfits album. Are you equally enthused about that prospect?
“No. (Laughs) I’m taking it one day at a time, so we‘ll see where all this leads. If it ends up somewhere like that, then great. If not, it’s not a big deal.”
Looking back now that you’ve buried the hatchet, do you regret the years of legal battles over the Misfits? It must have been pretty energy sapping and distracting…
“No, I don’t regret it at all. Things have to be worked out, and if someone is being difficult, you have to do what you have to do. That’s a weird question.”
When you were profiled by Rolling Stone at home in Los Angeles in 1994 you said, “For some reason, people around here are scared of me.” Is that still the case?
“I think you’ve taken that quote out of context. As I recall, in that piece I was talking about kids not visiting my house at Halloween, not my neighbours generally. Context is important. Look man, I just do what I do, I try to stay out of people’s way and I want them to stay out of my way. That’s how I live my life.”
Are you still as much in love with your craft now as you were when you were a teenage kid playing bass in your garage in Lodi, New Jersey?
“I still love it, I just don’t like where the industry has gone and how it treats artists. The industry has changed so much that you start to wonder whether you want to be involved in it or not. Especially now, where people are stealing your stuff left and right, like the YouTube scumbags and the Google scumbags. Big corporations have bought everything, so you have to either deal with scumbags or you have to try to do it on your own. There are times you get so pissed off that you wonder, ‘Maybe I should just get the fuck out of here, because this is not healthy for me.’ It’s not as easy as it used to be, I’ll tell you that…”
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