POSTMEDIA NEWS. BY ERIC VOLMERS
Hugh Dillon can speak eloquently about his band’s debut album, Picture of Health.
After all, he’s had 25 years to think about it. The album itself has aged incredibly well, introducing Kingston, Ont., expats The Headstones’ as a fully formed, raucous rock ‘n’ roll band powered by old-school punk and prone to exploring dark subject matter with both a brutal honesty and gallows humour. It provided sturdy musical and aesthetic DNA for the band, helping it survive, off and on, for more than a quarter century in the Canadian music scene.
So Dillon can certainly wax poetic about the album, the band and those early days. But the word that seems to spring up the most in conversation with him about Picture of Health is “lucky.”
“That record kept us out of jail,” says the vocalist. “It was a crossroads of just bad decisions and bad lifestyles. We were so lucky to focus all our energies and our life on the band … We were so lucky to have survived it in one piece. We were so lucky to survive the drug addiction and the things that come along with playing in the band in the 1990s. And we were lucky just to have had those audiences.”
Dillon, alongside the band’s co-founders guitarist Trent Carr and bassist Tim White, may be leading the Headstones on a cross-country tour to celebrate the reissue of a 25-year-old album, but it could be argued that the band is also in the midst of enjoying its second act.
Or maybe it’s their third act.
After releasing five studio records and becoming one of the country’s most reliably exciting live acts, the Headstones did call it quits in 2003, a breakup that was at least partially due to Dillon’s relapse into heroin addiction. The charismatic frontman would go on to have a successful acting career after his breakout role in Bruce McDonald’s 1996 Hard Core Logo — he recently showed up in David Lynch’s surreal 2017 Twin Peaks reboot, for instance — and released a 2005 solo record under the name the Hugh Dillon Redemption Choir. The Headstones reunited in 2011 for a successful tour and began recording again a few years later with 2013’s Juno-nominated release Love + Fury. In 2017, the band released Little Army, which included the No. 1 single Devil’s On Fire.
So while the most recent tour, which hits Calgary’s Grey Eagle Casino on Nov. 16 may find the now six-piece band playing its debut album from beginning to end, it’s hard to see The Headstones as a nostalgia act.
Dillon says the band is recording new material. As a songwriter, Dillon’s life may be very different from that of the angry young man who wrote about mental health issues and addiction on songs such as Heart of Darkness and It’s All Over, but he says the writing process hasn’t changed all that much in 25 years.
“It’s almost unconscious, you have to go in and find what drives you or what makes you angry,” he says. “Most people walk around saying ‘No, I’m fine. Everything is great’ and underneath it isn’t that. That’s what’s great about this band. It’s therapeutic. Even on Little Army, those songs aren’t ‘Hey baby, baby … ‘ They are talking about everything, from existential angst to you-name-it. It is a place for us to go that allows you to use your poetic license and express yourself. Because there are so many places you can’t express yourself.”
“Sometimes it’s a good exercise to quote that raw rage, or whatever it is, into an articulate piece of art that enables you to continue with your life as opposed to exploding on the street,” he adds with a laugh.
One song on Little Army that directly addresses Dillon’s past is Kingston, an ode to his hometown that was inspired by an old postcard his friends The Tragically Hip sent him when they were touring the world in the 1990s. Dillon grew up with them and was inspired to put his own band together by the Hip’s success. He credits the Tragically Hip, particularly the late Gord Downie and guitarist Paul Langlois, as being instrumental in helping build the buzz that landed the Headstones its major record deal for Picture of Health.
As with the rest of the country, Dillon is still processing Downie’s 2017 death from brain cancer.
“I shot the lyrics (of Kingston) by him before he passed away,” Dillon says. “It’s all just a matter of coping, you have to find ways to cope. For me, it’s songwriting. It’s not just coping, it’s appreciating the time. For a guy like that, he did so much for so many people, including me, on such a personal level.”
Downie was not the only loss, of course. Dillon says there are a number of people from the Headstones’ early days who have died, including the band’s original drummer and co-founder Mark Gibson.
So while the Headstones may not be a nostalgia act, Dillon admits that revisiting the songs from Picture of Health certainly reminds him of the band’s all-for-one attitude in the early days, long before the major labels came calling.
“We set up our own shows because we believed in it,” he says. “We postered the streets ourselves. This became our life, and our social life. Every weekend we dumped our money into a rehearsal space and buying a few cases of beer and some weed. And we stayed in that place and wrote songs. At the end of the weekend, to get us through our sh-t jobs, we now had this obsession.”