Coney Hatch: Canada's Hard Rock Legends Return
If you were hanging out in the “monkey bars” during the 80s and early 90s, chances are you got to see CONEY HATCH in their heyday. As far as Canadian hard rock goes, there’s not a more identifiable sound than the one that produced songs like “Devil’s Deck,” “Shake It,” “Monkey Bars” and their biggest hit, “Hey Operator.” The distinct vocal of singer Carl Dixon powered a force renowned for ear-damagingly loud live shows, earning the band slots touring alongside the likes of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest.
Although they got side-tracked in 2008 after nearly losing Dixon to a horrific car crash, Coney Hatch reconnected and released their fourth album – aptly titled Four – in 2013. Now original guitarist Steve Shelski is gone, replaced by Crash Kelly guitarist Sean Kelly, but the band named after London’s infamous Coleny Hatch Lunatic Asylum continues to tour. Coney Hatch – Dixon, Kelly, bassist Andy Curran and drummer Dave ‘Thumper’ Ketchum – will be rocking the Seneca Queen Theatre in Niagara Falls October 11th. Dixon took time to chat with GoBeWeekly.com about the early days, the band’s eponymous first album, and thoughts about Carl’s venture into country music.
GOBE: In the very beginning, you go from recording and releasing your first album to touring with the likes of Iron Maiden. What do you remember most about that whirlwind year of recording and touring?
CARL: That timeline actually skips a year. We went straight from recording the album to touring with Judas Priest across Canada and down into the States. I have written a book about those times, and like I say in the book, it was like strapping yourself to a rocket ride. We were playing the Gasworks in Toronto and Uncle Sam’s down in the Falls, and then suddenly we’re at the Forum in Montreal and Maple Leaf Gardens and Northlands Coliseum. It was a huge education as to how things are done in the big leagues. From where we were, we didn’t really have a perspective on how it was done except from in the audience. To see how much work and production goes into a show, and the logistics, and how the performers are responsible for delivering a great show night after night. We sure learned a lot from seeing that up close.
GOBE: Do you remember a moment where you had that first real sense of awe, stepping out from backstage to see the size of the crowds?
CARL: Actually on the first show of the Judas Priest tour. We had been on the first leg of a tour along the eastern seaboard of the United States doing a club level tour, playing with Peter Frampton and Eddie Money and Edgar Winter. We suddenly got a call, ‘get up to Quebec City, you’re on the Judas Priest tour starting in three days.’ So we jumped in our van, and drove up the coast to The Colisée where the Nordiques used to play. Walking out on the stage, the French audiences are always so vocal and enthusiastic. We walked out to that sea of blackness to see a whole arena of lighters. It was just an ocean of little flames. It was awe-inspiring. I’m sure we played all our songs too fast, because we were so revved up from the adrenaline of the experience.
GOBE: Hmm, perhaps you missed out on greeting credit for inventing speed metal.
CARL: (laughing) Maybe, although we had nicer songs than speed metal bands generally did.
GOBE: You certainly did. Your debut album Coney Hatch has to stand as one of the great debuts from a Canadian band. Looking back at it, is there anything you wish you had done differently or songs that you may have changed or added?
CARL: You know, I don’t really think so. I tend to be more fatalistic about it. We had two different songs on the initial version of it. Our label was looking about saying ‘what do we use as a single’ from the 10 that were on the album. We were still writing songs, thinking ‘this album’s done, we have to get ready for the next one.’ The first album wasn’t released yet and the label came out to see us. I had just written “Hey Operator” a couple nights before. The label came out, maybe to check to see if we had any new songs. We played that song in our show, and when we got off stage they said ‘what is that song?’ I said the new song for the next album. The guy started patting me on the head and said, ‘no it’s not, that’s the single that we needed.’ They put us in the studio the next week.
GOBE: You’ve played with many different bands over the years of course, with different musicians throughout your career. What’s so special when you get together with the Coney Hatch boys?
CARL: Oh my goodness. It’s that bond of having built our own thing together, going through those experiences, the ups and downs, the friendships over the years. It’s just a special energy when we play those songs. Even if you play the same songs with other great musicians, it never sounds the same as when those guys get together. It’s not an exaggeration to say there’s a love for each other after what we’ve been through. Also, we were the guys that created those vibrations together out of thin air.
GOBE: There really is a subconscious energy that happens when certain groups of musicians come together isn’t there? I think it’s something non-musicians might not fully understand.
CARL: The bonds that you form are undeniable, especially if you are all pointed in the same direction and working together and you have in mind the results you need. You go through a lot of discussion and chipping away at things and arguments to get there. Then you set about convincing the rest of the world. That’s when the real work begins.
GOBE: I’ve been listening to a lot of Coney Hatch this morning, a few of the newer songs off your 2013 release, Four. They certainly sound like they would be relevant to anyone who likes rock music but of course we didn’t get to hear them much on rock radio. What’s your opinion on the state of rock in 2019?
CARL: Well, you know, it’s difficult to weigh in on that without sounding like an old curmudgeon. It’s a different civilization now compared to the era, let’s call it the 60s through the 80s and into the early 90s, when that first wave of rock music ran fairly uninterrupted, and it developed and developed into all kinds of different threads and offshoots. I think it’s a different thing to have that aspiration today. You could look at the music business back then, and have developing the goal of a career in the music business and becoming a star as a potentially achievable goal, as a young rock musician coming up. That put a whole different energy and willingness to take risks into it. If you took the steps you could actually climb a ladder. There really isn’t a ladder now. I like to joke that everybody today has an equal opportunity to make it small.
GOBE: The infrastructure has certainly changed, from the collapse of the label industry to the club circuits that gave young musicians a training ground.
CARL: That gave everybody a different set of aspirations and dreams and self-belief. If I work hard I can do this for the rest of my life. That’s ultimately what happened to me. I’ve been a performer my entire life, I joined a union in 1979. Since that time I’ve managed to make a recording career and performing career because of the confidence I got in the 80s from the status I had. That made me believe I belonged doing this. It’s really hard to not only have that belief, but also to have the time to build the skill set when you’re working as a barista at Starbucks and fitting in your rehearsals. There’s no tour to go out on any more, unless you’re crowd sourcing and playing clubs for the door. At that time, you could go out and say “I’m a working musician.” You could actually go out and come home with a paycheck and afford an apartment out of it, even if you were just a bar band guy. The bar bands were so important to the development of the skills and how to entertain a crowd.
GOBE: The appetite for rock from a club perspective has changed, certainly in Niagara. No Uncle Sam’s, no Atlas, no Hideaway, no Front 54.
CARL: There were a lot fewer entertainment options for people sitting at home on the couch back then. So you had to go out. They might go see the same band five nights a week at their local bar. It was a whole supportive society for the idea of going to see a band as entertainment. That’s enormous. What’s missing in today’s rock scene is deep skills, swagger and confidence in the future. That’s what comes bursting out of our first album as Coney Hatch. I was just thinking about this this morning. Canadian guys as we were, hetero masculine guys, we were like hockey players. We felt like we were strong hockey players coming at you, coming at you with speed and confidence and strength. I used to feel like a tank commander up there when the band was really locking in, like we could steamroll over anything we had collectively.
GOBE: You talk about taking risks. This morning I was listening to your country album Whole ‘Nother Thing. “Come At Me Baby” is a great little country rocker. What brought that project about.
CARL: That song in particular was commissioned. There’s a TV show called Tornado Hunters. It began on a Canadian network and wound up on Netflix in the States. I bumped into the main guy, Greg Johnson, during an event for the Saskatchewan Safety Council. We got talking, he was excited to meet me because of my career. He said he was developing the new season of the show and thought it would be great for me to develop the theme music.
GOBE: You pulled off some great tracks on that album. Do you see country as a possible side track in the future? Or was it a one off?
CARL: When I did it I thought I’ll see what comes of this, if there’s a market. Some of the songs on that album are some of my favourites I’ve ever written because they have that story telling aspect to them. It really does allow me to explore a different aspect of my writing. Unfortunately, with the state of the business today and me not being affiliated with a major label at this time, I put some money into promoting it at radio and I got some airplay for a couple of the songs across the country. But I invested almost $10,000 to achieve that and I’d already spent $20,000 of my own money making the album. So it wasn’t the sort of thing I could pursue endlessly without some kind of more tangible results. It would be more of a hobby if I were to continue. I had a whole raft of songs ready for the second one if demand had been there.
GOBE: So what’s next Carl?
CARL: For the last year and a half I’ve been working on my next rock album for a German label. That should be out in November.
GOBE: Solo or Coney Hatch?
CARL: It’s a Carl Dixon album. Coney Hatch got an offer from a European label in Italy called Frontiers to make that Four album. And that enabled us to have a plan and a goal to say, okay, here’s our budget, this is what we have to work with. We made it work and we made it happen. But unless you have that kind of focus of here’s a goal, here’s the money, here’s the deadline, it’s really hard to pull everyone’s attention to a project because everyone’s busy with their own lives. To pull Coney Hatch together from the path we’re on requires a very specific reason.
GOBE: The fans still love to see the name Coney Hatch up on a club marquee. So what can fans expect at the show at the Seneca Queen Theatre?
CARL: I tell you one thing. The band is sounding as good or better than it ever has. We’re all actually better players, better singers now. We have more of an idea of being loose on stage and delivering a show as opposed to a certain amount of uptightness that went with the pressure of our early days of being on the major labels and big tours. The sense of ‘we better not blow this or we’re all dead.’ Now we’re more, let’s go out and do this and have a great time. We’re so glad to see each other again and play together again and be in front of a crowd that enjoys the music. The set list is full of all the ones everyone wants to hear along with a few surprises to mix it up a little. It’s a pretty fun rock show.