2012 is an interesting moment in the 30-year plus career arc of Dokken. This year not only saw the release of Dokken’s final studio album, Broken Bones, but also the re-grouping of his former bandmates in a new venture, T&N. While the dysfunctional on/off relationship with his former band mates is hardly new, the fact that Don himself is calling this album their last does come as a surprise. Both 2008′s Lightning Strikes Again and Broken Bones were both well-received and lauded as returns to the classic Dokken formula and the relationship between Don and guitarist Jon Levin is 10 years strong. Don is gearing up for some solo acoustic gigs he does around this time every year which begin this Friday night in Arizona. This time out he’s taking along Mark Boals (ex- Yngwie Malmsteen) for what should be a great show featuring a ton of stripped down Dokken classics and much more. We talked to Don about the state of the band, his upcoming tour and much more. Read on…
Legendary Rock Interviews: I wanna check out one of these new acoustic shows you are doing Don. Is this always a fun time for you?
Don Dokken: Yeah, it is. That’s the whole reason I do it. We do it every year, I go out and play a few acoustic shows just for fun. I’m taking out Mark Boals (ex Yngwie vocalist) and he’s doing harmony vocals and we’re both playing guitar. I did 40 shows with Queensryche a couple years back the same way just myself and an acoustic guitar. We’re going to be playing the Dokken stuff but also a lot of other stuff like Beatles songs, Three Dog Night, stuff like that. It’s interesting because a lot of songs, without the pomp and volume don’t really work or stand up but these Dokken songs are really stripped down to the way they were originally written with acoustic guitar and vocals.
LRI: Your last album “Lightning Strikes Again” was probably my favorite since “Back For The Attack” or at least “Erase The Slate” and your new album “Broken Bones ” is a little moodier but with much better sounding vocals. Do you think people underestimate how much vocal surgery can impact your delivery as a singer?
Don: Oh yeah. Just listen to my voice now, it’s a lot more husky since the surgery. I damaged my vocal cords about four years ago in Germany. I remember I had this funny taste in my mouth every night, it tasted like iron and then I started spitting up blood and I was like “What the hell?”. Then I came to find out I had really damaged my voice and I should have stopped right then and cancelled the whole tour and come home but I didn’t. We had ten shows to go and I kept going and really did some damage. The surgery is pretty straightforward, they just take the cord and stretch it a little bit and cauterize it but it does take a long time in healing. It took about two years for me to be able to sing like you hear on “Broken Bones”, it sounds a lot more like the old days I just don’t hit the high notes like I used to but I don’t know many singers who can continue to do that their whole career. It’s a long road and you have to start over from scratch. You have to go to a vocal coach and instead of warming up for a half hour you have to warm up for an hour. You have to do things like not talk to people before a show and people think you’re being arrogant or a primadonna but the fact is you just can’t talk to people before the show, you’ll lose your voice. Talking is worse than singing, especially when you’re trying to talk over really loud music in the background from a support band or something. You have to learn how to re-sing your material, Klaus Meine (Scorpions vocalist) has had three surgeries and he had to learn how to sing lighter. More in your head tone and less putting pressure on your vocal cords. The bottom line is, we get older and it’s like a car, you put a hundred thousand miles on the engine and it’s not going to run the same as it did when the car was brand new so you have to find new ways to drive it. You have to sing lighter and if you feel like you can’t make the note than you can’t try to, you have to modify the note and change it a little bit. It’s not a good idea to stress yourself to hit a note you shouldn’t be hitting but some fans just think you should sing exactly as you did thirty years ago which is impossible.
LRI: Between the amount of time between the last album, how well it was received and your vocal surgery, I was interested in seeing the reaction to this album. The reviews for “Broken Bones” have been very positive.
Don: Yeah, it’s nice, I feel lucky. You never know, you work so hard on these albums but we could have come out and everyone could have said “Ehh, it’s okay or it’s boring or whatever”. You just never know. Then I started seeing the reviews coming in and I was like “Holy Shit, I guess we did the right thing because everyone likes the album”.
LRI: You also do a lot of charity shows and events, dating way back but you also recently did one to benefit wounded policemen. Are charity shows like that just important to you?
Don: I think it’s an obligation. I think not just for me but for any artist or person in the public eye, whether it’s a musician, an actor, athlete, anyone who has been blessed with a skill or talent they can donate to raise money or awareness for a cause. If you can donate your time, it’s just time, to help a cause you are really paying it forward and it’s important. I like singing, I sing for free. The economy is in the toilet, a lot of these charitable organizations have had funding cut, if there’s anything you can do to help even a little bit it is the right thing to do. You’ve gotta pay it back man.
LRI: I know one of the shows is Friday the 14th of December at the legendary Whisky A Go Go. You’re a legend of the Sunset Strip so you no doubt have some history there. Is that going to be surreal?
Don: It’s gonna be weird. I have not played at the Whisky A Go Go since 1979. I know the owner and he was like “Hey, do you wanna play one of your acoustic dates at The Whisky?” and I said “Yeah, sure, why not? That’ll be fun”. It’s been over 30 years so it’s going to be interesting and a very deja vu thing for me and doing it acoustic is even more interesting and more of a challenge. People generally think these acoustic shows are easier but I really think they are much more of a challenge. I’ve always said that. They’re so intimate. If you’re playing a normal loud, hard rock show you are basically just throwing down and if you miss a note or a beat or break a string you have the guys behind you to take up the slack and rely on and in an acoustic setting you really have to be on your game. Also, I’m doing two jobs, I’m singing and playing guitar and you’re really stripped down and exposed. Every note, everything you play has to just be nailed because the audience hears everything.
LRI: I wanted to ask you about some old Dokken history because I talked to Michael Wagener and he told me all these great stories about crashing on your couch when he first came to the States among other things. How do you remember getting acquainted with Michael?
Don: Good old Michael. I remember meeting Michael in Germany, how could I forget? We were at the Sounds club there in Germany, those were the people who invited me to come over there and do some shows. They knew all the other club owners and I’d never been out of the country so it was like going to Mars basically. You don’t speak the language, you don’t understand the food or anything. I met Michael who worked in the recording studio across from the club, which was about 50 yards away called Tennessee Soundstudio. It’s so ironic now that he lives in Tennessee and the studio was called that (laughs). I met him and he liked the band and after playing at the club til Midnight we would sneak in and cut demos at his studio until like 7 in the morning. Those demos ended up being stolen and they put it out on a record called back on the streets which is a bootleg of all of those sessions along with some live recordings from Germany. Someone made a lot of money off of that bootleg.
LRI: So you told Michael, “Hey, come to L.A. and sleep on my couch?”
Don: Things were different in Germany back in those days. I said “Look, there’s this rock scene going on back here in California, if you ever wanna come to America you can crash on my couch and we’ll work together”. So he did, he came over here and crashed on my couch and we worked together buying and selling cars. We’d buy these old cars and have a mechanic work on them and Michael and I would paint them and bang out the dents, which was literally how we were paying my rent because we didn’t have any money. “Breaking The Chains” had come out in Germany but I didn’t have an American deal. Then we got a chance to do the Great White EP, I found them in Orange County in a garage so Michael and I took them into the studio and did their first EP, Out of The Night. It was all kind of this strange chain of events that started. My manager was Cliff Bernstein and they had just signed Metallica who wanted one of their songs remixed and I said to them “Why don’t you give Michael Wagener a chance and let him mix a song and see what you think”. He ended up mixing a Metallica song and soon enough people discovered that he was just this super talented guy. Within five years he’s doing Ozzy and all of these bands and he just exploded but I always knew he was just an amazing, amazing talent and a great guy.
LRI: Michael told us that the tension between you and George was very real but he also felt some of it contributed to the great performances. Do you think that some of the strife had anything at all to do with the fact that you had a friendship with Michael dating way back to before George or Jeff even joined the band?
Don: I don’t know. Every album I fought for Michael to do the record and the band definitely thought that we were in cahoots. George was always worried that Michael would make my vocals too loud, childish things like that. I said “The vocals shouldn’t be too loud or too low, they should be right where they’re supposed to be”, him saying that didn’t make any sense to me. The problem was, as Michael well knew, George and I never got along from the very beginning. Even in Germany when Micheal was working with us on “Breaking The Chains” every day was a struggle just trying to get something on tape with George. I liked using Michael because he was just about the only person I knew that could deal with all the madness and pretension. Having said that, I think a lot of it had to do with drugs and alcohol and stuff like that you know….I never got into that whole 80s cocaine thing, it just wasn’t my thing but as we got popular they all really developed pretty bad drug problems and Jeff and George were really writing a lot of songs for the Dokken albums at their drug dealer’s houses and I was kind of the odd man out writing my songs at my house alone. I never wrote a song with George, not one. People always thought it was like a Motley or Van Halen situation where I was the frontman like Vince or Dave but they forget that I was the guitar player in Dokken. I play guitar and I played guitar on the first tour. I would go home alone with my guitar and write songs like “In My Dreams” or “Alone Again” or “Into The Fire” or songs like that and they would go off together and write their songs. A lot of times they couldn’t come up with lyrics for their songs so I would help with that or help with re-writing lyrics to make them better. It was all just about the best songs making it, it always has been, but George and I never wrote a song together.
LRI: That does speak volumes I suppose. I know people have been real pleased with the last couple Dokken albums you’ve made with Jon Levin on guitar and I know Jeff has his gig with Foreigner and he and George have T&N. Do you think that as messy as this was this has all worked out for the best ?
Don: Jeff’s where he should be I think. He’s a great bass player and a great background singer but he’s not a frontman. He’s perfect in Foreigner. Dokken was my band, I started the band. I got the record deal. When I got signed to do “Breaking The Chains” the album said “Don Dokken” on the album cover. I dropped the Don when we got the record deal in America but I think that for some reason George just thought “Okay, I’ll do this album and get a thousand bucks and then I’ll go move on and do my own thing”. I think he was really surprised that the band started to take off.
LRI: When Yngwie first made his mark he was in Steeler and then Alcatrazz before eventually just totally wanting to do his own thing. Do you think George was thinking of doing something similar?
Don: I don’t know, maybe. The thing is, I thought that the more famous we got and the wealthier we got the happier everyone would be but it seemed like with George, the bigger we got, the angrier he got.
LRI: I just talked with George about his new band with Jeff, T&N and we spoke about your interview on Eddie Trunk where you said T&N had already broken up.
Don: Well, they are broken up.
LRI: George said they’re not. He said they’re already working on a second record.
Don: Yeah, well, ok. I can’t wait to hear it. Why make another record when the first one was as bad as it was?
LRI: I really like the new material but I skip over the re-recorded Dokken stuff. I like Ripper Owens but I don’t need to hear him singing “Kiss Of Death”
Don: Or Sebastian Bach singing Alone Again or Doug Pinnick doing Tooth and Nail. It’s Karaoke. I thought “Well, okay I’ll listen to Jeff (Pilson, ex Dokken bassist) sing the new material”. Now, Jeff has a great voice. I don’t think he’s a lead singer or a frontman.
LRI: Do you think Jeff is trying too much to sound like Dokken?
Don: No, I think he’s trying too much to sound like everybody. I used to always tell him “Man, you’ve got a nice voice, if you can ever figure out your style or be confident in your own skin I think you could really be successful at it” but he’s all over the place on that album. One song he’s in a raspy voice, another he’s trying to be bluesy or soulful, and on and on it’s like, “Ok, what do you want to be?” I don’t sing that way. I just sing one way which is the way I sing, the way I always have.
LRI: I think a lot of people are reserving judgement until they go out and tour as T&N. George mentioned that they were going to tour after the second album and confirmed that Michael Sweet of Stryper was going to be the vocalist for the Dokken material because Jeff wasn’t suited for it.
Don: Really…okay. Jesus. It will never happen. I would bet money on it. I don’t think that tour is ever going to do anything, I actually don’t think that band will ever tour.
LRI: Back to that Eddie Trunk interview you did. I was kind of surprised to hear you mention that this would be the last Dokken album given the positive reviews of the last couple records and the fact that you and Jon Levin (current Dokken guitarist) seem to be working so well together.
Don: It’s the last Dokken album but Dokken is not breaking up. I’ve been with Jon Levin for ten years and we will still tour we just won’t be recording new Dokken material. I just don’t see the point in it. I don’t make albums like T&N where they just crank out some album just to make money. You can’t compare that album to “Broken Bones” melody-wise, production-wise or anything, in my opinion. You just can’t. It’s like apples and oranges. It’s just a Karaoke album.
LRI: I know you have other musical interests beyond the old school hard rock style. Is it just a matter of you wanting to climb other mountains or do other styles?
LRI: Yeah, I’m done. I think Jon and I both agreed when we finished this record. We did 30 songs and narrowed it down to 11 and I think my exact words were “I think we’ve said what we have to say as far as writing within this ‘Dokken Box’, I think that’s it”. It’s just too frustrating to make a new album under all of these creative restraints. I’m so tired of record companies telling me “Ok, make sure it sounds like ‘Tooth and Nail’ or ‘Under Lock and Key’”. My response is always the same, I say, “Well, people can go out and buy that record, I already did it, what’s the point?”. I wanna play with other people and do other things. I’m working on an acoustic album with Michael Schenker and there’s a few other musicians I’ve always talked about working with that I want to take the time to work with. I don’t want to do any more records where there are all these people giving me rules or expectations, whether they are record companies or even fans. I don’t want to be really excited and writing a song and think to myself, “Ohh I gotta be careful, I don’t wanna branching out too much here or trying something new there. People will be disappointed if it doesn’t sound like old Dokken from 25 years ago.” I can’t do that. I just can’t, I wanna write songs without boundaries. How do you as a journalist interview a band and then have someone tell you how you have to ask the questions or that you have to ask the same questions of every band. You’d think that was ridiculous and you wouldn’t wanna do it.
LRI: Is the idea of being free of a record label kind of appealing in general at this point?
Don: I’m liberated. My next record, all I have to do is what I want because I won’t be doing it under the “Dokken” name. If I wanted to do it for money or get money out of a record label I would do it as Dokken, I could do it but I don’t want to. I wanna sit down with my guitar and write a song without me worrying about “Does it sound like Dokken?”. I just want to write from the cosmic universe or God or whatever you wanna call it, I just want to write without rules. Whatever inspires me.
LRI: Are you thinking more like the material on your last solo album Solitary or an even heavier direction that you’ve talked about.
Don: Anything that inspires me, something different. Like I said, I’m excited about this acoustic Michael Schenker album we’re doing, I would love to do even heavier material. I’ve been getting offers for years and years and years and years from all sorts of different talented and famous people to do different things but I never could because I was busy with Dokken. There’s a lot of great heavy bands that I love, that influence me like Chevelle or Soundgarden or Opeth but I keep those influences out of Dokken because if people heard that creeping in they’d be like “What is this??!!”. My opinion has always been that a good song is a good song, regardless of genre or style or whatever so why do artists have to be stuck in this box?? What would music be like today if The Beatles hadn’t evolved. They were singin cover songs on the first albums. What if they had come out with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” which was a huge hit in the 60s and the record company looked at them and said “Okay, we want you to write another ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ and just kept wanting them to write that exact same style and there was no Revolver, no Sgt. Pepper, no White Album? What would’ve happened? The fact is they did what they wanted to do, things were different back then. Look at the Zeppelin albums even in the 70s. They started out with all this blues stuff they stole from Howlin Wolf and Robert Johnson on the first album and wound up at Houses Of The Holy and Physical Graffiti, they evolved and did what they wanted to do.
LRI: As much as I love so much of it, do you think something got twisted artistically or business wise around the MTV era, that whole 80s era? Was it the whole fashion over finesse thing that limited the ability of bands to grow?
Don: Yep, absolutely. Like we’re pigeon holed and lumped in as a hair band but the bands that came out and are typically remembered as hair bands like Poison, Warrant and stuff like that didn’t come out until we were on our fourth or fifth world tour. I mean it was Van Halen, then Quiet Riot, then it was Dokken, Motley and Ratt. Those were the five bands that dominated that scene in the early 80s. All of the other bands were bands that followed after us and picked up on it and ran with it. I know I’ve played with all of those bands that followed the original five and lots of people like to say it was grunge that killed hard rock or whatever but I really, really disagree with that. I think 80s rock killed 80s rock. I think somewhere along the line it shifted from an emphasis on the music to how good does our makeup or hair or spandex look, not to say that all of the bands that came out when we did didn’t have a look but the music was always first and foremost. Somewhere along the line it all got watered down and MTV played a huge part in that for every band, they were like “Okay, this is what we want…everybody’s gotta look like a cross between Motley Crue and Poison”. The videos and the visuals became so incredibly important to the suits that it was like “Hey, wait a minute, what about the songs?”. Bands started losing their edge or putting out bad songs and people didn’t like them, the other bands were making better songs. I truly believe that the demise of that music was brought on by the bands themselves.
LRI: Motley’s been able to keep that original lineup intact to keep that rolling in the public eye and I don’t know if it’s because of the dysfunction or what but I think sometimes people forget just how BIG bands like RATT and Dokken actually were. Like you said, we’re not talking about Theater bands.
Don: Oh no. When we broke up we were playing stadiums. I didn’t wanna leave the band, I started the damn band. I had already toured Germany before I even met George or Jeff but I for some reason thought that the bigger we got, the easier it would be for us to smooth things out and get along but like Michael Wagener would tell you, the tension got to the point where you could cut it with a knife. If the four of us would have all been in the same boat and wanting the same thing it would have been great but you take cocaine and alcohol and egos and throw it all in the mix and most bands will implode. It’s a shame and I’m a music fanatic and that’s all I cared about, it’s still all I care about. That’s why back in those days it was always me going back to my house and writing by myself. Almost all the songs I wrote for Dokken were songs I wrote alone, at home because George and I could not sit down in a room together. That just couldn’t happen.
LRI: Do you think some of that isolation and solitary way you had of creation found its way into a lot of those classic lyrics?
Don: Yeah, it was like me against three other guys. I always wrote about my life, there’s lyrics that are about love lost, love found, some loneliness, some darkness, some angst. Asking questions in my lyrics….things like that. A lot of bands there is one guy who sort of determines a lot of the direction, whether it’s the singer or the songwriter and things just work out, but with us it was just this continual power struggle between George and I that we never got over. I remember when we got back together in 95 , we were in Japan and I thought we were older, wiser and could get on with our careers but the same old shit was happening, he was playing behind his amps and just screwing around and the band was just not playing good in general. I asked George flat out “What can I do to make you happy? What is the problem that you just can’t seem to get on board no matter how well things are going?” and I will never forget it, he just looked at me and pointed his hand up to our backdrop, this 30 foot backdrop that said “Dokken” and he said, “That’s the problem”. I just said, “Well, I can’t do anything about the name of the band George”. I will never forget that moment. I think maybe if the band had been called something else we could have survived. I’m not a psychiatrist you know but for some reason that was a major part of the problem in his head. I guess he thought that the more everybody tried hard in the band the more I somehow got all of the credit.
LRI: I think he sort of was being honest and he nailed it, maybe that was the major problem which as a fan is so unfortunate. I like George and I enjoyed talking to him and he is so talented but maybe he never recognized just how much credit he actually did get back then. Going back to the American Bandstand TV spot even, when Dick Clark announced the band George got a huge, huge pop from the audience.
Don: Yep, yep. That’s just it. That’s why I don’t understand what he was searching for because he had everything he could’ve wanted. When I met George he was driving a truck delivering Gallo wine to liquor stores and I called these two guys from Germany to give them a chance to live their dream but for some reason he fought it so hard during the entire heyday of our band. Then he started Lynch Mob and couldn’t keep a singer, he had Oni and then bam, he’s out. He had Robert Mason and then bam, he’s out and Mick (Brown, Dokken and T&N drummer) said to me “Yeah, he seems to have an issue with singers.”
LRI: Again, I am a huge George Lynch fan as well as a fan of yours so to clarify and to be fair, was there ever a moment where you or Jeff or Mick resented or felt alienated by all of the attention and magazine covers or spotlight on George??
Don: Nope. Nope, because the more famous George got, the more famous the band got. I was fine with it, that was good for our band. I was the frontman, the singer, that was my job. His job was to be the guitar hero.
LRI: Is it out of the question to sit down in a room as grown men and hash it out without lawyers or managers and just make some type of collaboration between you two for the first time in 30 years?
Don: We tried that a couple years ago with the That Metal Show thing and Jeff said he was busy for two years because of Foreigner but then George has gone out in interviews ever since and said that “Don was greedy and wanted all of the money for himself” or I wanted to further my own means or whatever and put it all on me which wasn’t at all how it actually happened. Hand to God, that’s a lie, I don’t know why he has made it a point to say that because it’s so stupid. Some people just have a problem with telling the truth and I’ll never understand that, it’s kind of a sociopathic thing and again, I’m not a psychiatrist. There were a lot of witnesses as to what actually happened, there were managers and agents and all of these people in the room who saw what went down because we were all ready to put the reunion tour together and then Jeff threw us a curveball and said “Yeah, I really wanna do this……in two years”. George can say it was me but there were witnesses there that know the truth. I don’t need to further my career but it’s so stupid because if I did then pulling the shit he’s accused me of would be the worst way to do it let me tell you. I don’t need to further my own career or be greedy, Lynch Mob has warmed up for us a few times. We played a show last year in Japan and we were on the mainstage opening up for Judas Priest and Lynch Mob was on the other stage playing for 300 people. We still play festivals and Lynch Mob doesn’t, they play smaller places. For George to insinuate that I would sabotage the reunion to further my own means is ridiculous. I’ll say it one last time for the record, I’m so glad I have the email, I should blog it really, the night before George and I were supposed to do the Eddie Trunk thing and announce the reunion Jeff sent me an email, a frantic email saying please don’t talk about a reunion because I haven’t talked to Mick Jones (Foreigner guitarist) about it yet. I said, “Jeff, you’ve had four months to talk to Mick Jones about it” and he said “Well, I didn’t”. So basically he said that Foreigner was gonna be touring for the next two years and he couldn’t do Dokken. He screwed us. He screwed me, I’m supposed to be making this big announcement on television and all of a sudden I’m like “No, we can’t talk about a reunion” and puts us on the spot because the night before, the NIGHT before the TV show Jeff sends an email and says we can’t talk about it, he can’t do it.
LRI: Aside from a reunion do you feel like you and Jeff and George could ever get along, if not as friends, or band mates at least as human beings?
Don: I see George, we’ll play out together, we say hi, we talk. We can get along on that level. It’s just musically that things become difficult. What George wants to do and is into musically has nothing to do with Dokken. A classic example, there’s only one album in the entire catalog where I gave up fighting for the Dokken sound and that’s “Shadowlife”. That album is just bizarre. That’s an album that George and Jeff wrote the whole album and I just wrote the lyrics. I think I might have written three songs for it but the album, the music overall was just so unfocused that I didn’t understand what it was we were trying to do. It was soooo experimental that I just said, “What does this have to do with Dokken?”. It was so out there, and George has always been like that. I write the way I write for Dokken and I just got tired of fighting with him for that Dokken sound and it came out…bizarre. It would be like METALLICA trying to write like Journey.
LRI: Thanks for taking so much time to talk to me Don and good luck with these acoustic shows and with Dokken in general.
Don: Thank you, no worries man! I am at peace and I’m excited about the acoustic shows and these new projects but Dokken is not breaking up, we will still continue to tour for Broken Bones and beyond. I’m gonna tour for as long as I can tour, we just won’t be making any more albums. I just can’t do it when we sweat and slave and work and our our heart and soul into an album and it sells 30,000 copies in the first month but we see we have 60,000 free downloads. It’s like what’s the point, what’s the point of making a record for a record company when everyone just downloads it for free. It drives me crazy. Then the other side of it is what a lot of bands do, which is just crank out records real fast and real cheap with maybe one good song on it so they can go out on tour. They’ll get a 50,000 dollar record deal spend 10,000 dollars on recording it and pocket the other 40,000 and go out on tour. That also drives me crazy and makes no sense artistically. I can’t do that. We got a huge advance on “Broken Bones” and we spent every penny on that record. I don’t need money, I have money. I made enough money in my career that I don’t have to work anymore so when I get a record deal I spend every dollar they give us to make the best record we can possibly make but it just doesn’t matter in this day and age so we will still be out there, we’ll still be on the road and look forward to seeing everyone at the live shows. These acoustic shows are going to be a blast because it is not at all about the money, it’s not just about Dokken and it’s all for fun. Mark and I are really looking forward to it.