When it comes to rock ‘n’ roll, there are those who live the lifestyle and an even more elite group who find it coursing through their veins. It is a fire that burns deep and cannot be easily extinguished. Jon Mikl Thor is one of those elite warriors of rock and his life story is one of the most epic tales you will ever encounter. A series of mind-blowing twists and turns would take this blond-haired, fresh-faced Canadian bodybuilder to the edge and sometimes past. His passion for music would make him and his band theatrical band, THOR, shining stars in the ‘70s and ’80s; hitting the scene alongside Metallica and KISS. He would go on to share the stage with such top acts as Motorhead, Anvil, Thin Lizzy, W.A.S.P. and Manowar, but he and his band never achieved gold record status. After a brief but memorable film career in cult classics “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare,” “Recruits” and “Zombie Nightmare,” this cult icon all but disappeared from entertainment. However, Jon Mikl Thor will be the first to tell you he isn’t one to go quietly into the night. 10 years into retirement, he found himself doing some soul searching. Incapable of living like a mere mortal, Thor mounts a comeback in the hopes of capturing the success that eluded him throughout his entire career. What results is a wild ride that nearly kills him in the process.
Now, with the help of filmmaker Ryan Wise, metal legend Jon Mikl Thor gets the cinematic tribute he deserves in the triumphant, full-throttle “I AM THOR,” which was unleashed via Digital Download and Dark Sky Films Blu-ray and DVD on January 19th, 2016. The critically acclaimed documentary traces the rise, fall and rebirth of a determined performer over the course of a career that saw more than its fair share of highs and lows. The film, which won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Fantasia International Film Festival, paints a fascinating and sometimes unbelievable portrait of this larger-than-life icon. It is a remarkable look behind the curtain of one of rock’s greatest showmen.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Jon Mikl Thor to discuss his amazing journey in the music business, the making of “I Am Thor” and unmistakable impact the film has had on him, both personally and professionally. Most importantly, the duo discusses what the future holds for one of the rock’s most unstoppable forces! All Hail, Thor!
I want to start by giving anyone just discovering you as an artist a little background. Music has played a pivotal role in your life. What was it about music that inspired you early on?
When I was growing up back in the ‘50s, rock ‘n’ roll was really happening with Elvis Presley and so many other amazing performers. I had an older sister who was a real teeny-bopper and she listened to Elvis and had all the posters of the stars at the time on her wall. I thought it was all pretty neat! My first instrument, because my parents were European, was an accordion. They wanted me to learn to play for polkas and when the relatives came over for parties, I could play for them. It wasn’t my favorite instrument. At the same time, I was watching The Ed Sullivan Show, like so many people did on that particular day in 1964 when I saw The Beatles. That is when I started playing guitar! As I got into guitar, I really got into The Ventures and instrumental bands like The Tornados and stuff like that.
As you know, during that era was the British Invasion, so there was The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones and Herman’s Hermits. Everybody was coming over and that evolved my interest even more. I formed bands like The Ticks or The Cougars that had that kind of pop sound. Then I got into heavier music as the ‘60s wore on like The Doors, Led Zeppelin. As I got into heavier music, I formed heavier bands like Iron Vulcan and stuff like that. Everything just kept evolving as time went on. In the late ‘60s, more theatrics were coming in and the music got heavier. What was the first real heavy metal song? Some people say it was “Helter Skelter” or “Day Tripper” by The Beatles or “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly. Grand Funk Railroad looked at themselves as a heavy metal band, which by todays standards isn’t so heavy metal and the term heavy metal came from the heavy metal thunder line that was in Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wide.”
Then there were bands that had amazing frontman. Mick Jagger was a frontman for the Rolling Stones, even early on. Then Alice Cooper came out in the late-’60s and he was a magnificent frontman. There was Alice Cooper the man and Alice Cooper the band. I was also enthralled with Ziggy Stardust. That character that David Bowie developed, to me, was phenomenal. The whole concept was mind-blowing. I have a top 10 of greatest albums ever which includes “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “The Green Album” by Weezer and “The White Album” by The Beatles. Then “Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars,” in the early ‘70s, was one of the greatest albums of all time!
The new documentary “I Am Thor” documents your life in an amazing way. How did this project get started originally?
Several people tried to do documentaries on me and failed. Many times, it starts off and it gets to be so crazy they give up! [laughs] That is kind of the story of my life! There was a point where I got out of the business in 1987. After a long time in the business as a young kid and going through my teens, 20s and into my early 30s, I decided to give it all up. I wanted to do something completely different and didn’t want anything to do with show business. I took a hiatus from show business and I had other businesses going outside of that world. After about 10 years, I decided I wanted to come back to it because I was starting to write songs, was starting to become creative again and I had formed my own label. I had left New York City and went down to live in Charlotte, North Carolina. I had built a house down there but my wife at the time didn’t like the idea of me going back into show business. We had a lot of conflict and it came to the point where we had to break apart. We split the assets we had and I found myself pursuing my dream again. I went out to the West Coast, back to my roots because I am a West Coast guy. I grew up in Vancouver. I went to go live in Seattle for awhile and I put out another album called “Dogs II.” I met these two guys in Seattle, where I was going to do a show. I said to them, “Would you like to come and see this show I am doing tonight?” We had a mutual friend, we were both into film and I was also trying to get back into movies again. These guys were fresh out of film school and they said, “OK, we will come see the show!” That was Alan Higbee and Ryan Wise. They came to the show and were completely blown away by it with the theatrics and everything else that was going on. They said, “We have to do a documentary!” It all went from there and that was about 15 years ago.
It was interesting how they incorporated some of your personally shot footage into the film. It gave it even more of a human element to a larger than life story.
Yeah. It was kind of a documentary within a documentary. At the time, I was filming “The Diary of a Sad Man.” [laughs] I was very depressed. I was documenting what it was like to go through a breakup when you really trusted and cared for someone who was your friend in life and they all of a sudden don’t want to do what you do anymore and they have different interests. She wanted to run off with a doctor and things were a mess. I wanted to film all of that and it was part of my documentary about how the split was happening, we were selling the house, I was packing up and heading West. That was a piece of the footage in the “I Am Thor” documentary. I am glad some of the footage I shot was able to be seen.
You lived much of your life in the spotlight. When they started doing this documentary about you, did you have reservations about putting yourself out there for the world to see?
You start the documentary wanting some things to be seen. However, I guess you don’t always want your dirty laundry to be seen. I did have some reservations about that because there are some things in the movie that I didn’t want to talk about or to be known. Maybe I saw the documentary in one way, more heroic and with less of the downs and more of the ups. However, I decided, eventually, to let the producers and director do what they wanted to do through their lens. I didn’t have anything to do with editing or anything. I just carried on with my day to day stuff while they were filming. Actually, there are hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage on the cutting room floor because, to end up with an hour and 24 minutes, you can’t put it all in there. Would I do something differently? Yes but that is my perspective as an artist and you have to respect the vision of the director and producer. I decided eventually to give in and do that. If I had my way, I would have put in more things to make me look more heroic. Ya know, you see some of these documentaries where the band has their say in things and everything is wonderful! All the way through everything is wonderful and focuses on how they sold platinum records or did this or that. Ultimately, that is a boring movie! People want to see what really happens behind the scenes, the ugly parts, your drive and ability to overcome obstacles. Rock ‘n’ roll is that kind of business. Even if you are the biggest artist in the world and sold a billion records, there are always ugly parts going on behind the scenes. It is just the nature of the beast!
The film has been applauded by critics and embraced by fans. How has its success impacted you personally and professionally?
We are hitting a whole new audience. I did a major city tour last November and all of the places were packed! I was surprised how many young fans there were. You don’t know this until you get out there and see the young fans and they are singing along with all of your songs. They weren’t even born when I put those songs out! Some of these songs are from 35 years ago like “Keep The Dogs Away” and “Sleeping Giants.” They know all the words and are going wild and having a great time! Are we hitting another level? Absolutely! Is it changing my life? Absolutely! There are a lot of incredible things going on. There have been a lot of offers. We have a big production we are going to be doing in New York. We are going to be showing the film and doing a rock odyssey. It is going to be at the Gramercy Theater in New York. It is a place where many heroes and legends have played! We are going to have a huge rock opera along with the movie and I am really excited about that! I am definitely going to be touring and I have been getting offers to go to places like Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Europe. We are going to start the ball rolling here in Canada on March 11th, 2016. We are going to do a few shows here and zig-zag across the globe!
There are so many great scenes in the film. One of my favorites is at the end when you decide to continue to carry the torch for rock and not call it a career.
Ya know, at that time, I had found everything was becoming arduous. I found I was doing everything. I was having to manage every aspect. I had to book that tour as an agent. I have to tell you, the guys in the band are good guys but they want to be rock stars. They don’t want to help me and I was doing all of the work. I was getting really tired and I got to a point where I said, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t wear all of these hats and be this performer. I am getting tired.” I saw a documentary on Don Rickles and he has had guys there for 20 years working behind the scenes and he is the guy who is being pampered all the time. Those guys do everything for him and he is able to come on stage and focus on his show. As I was watching it I was thinking, “That is how it is supposed to be and not the other way around where I am pampering the band. I am the manager, a performer and everything else.” As I watched the movie, I saw I was exhausting myself and overworking. That is something I will be changing this year. I have people who will be running management instead of myself. There will be road managers and everything else because we will have more of a budget to do that!
That is great to hear and it gives you more time to focus on the product. What do you have in store for us in the months to come?
The material is coming out of me quick! The great thing about being signed to Cleopatra Records is that they wanted to introduce my past albums like “Unchained” and “Only The Strong” to a new generation. That has been going really well. Then they put out “Metal Avenger” where I sang with numerous artists like Henry Rollins, Fast Eddie Clarke from Motörhead and Jay Jay French from Twisted Sister, Betsy Bitch from Bitch and so on. It was produced by Frank Meyer and Bruce Duff. We recorded in Los Angeles, California and it did really well. To coincide with the release of the “I Am Thor” DVD and Blu-Ray, we have the original soundtrack coming out in a few days! It has some cool songs on there that are in the movie but have never been released before! We have some of the stuff from The Tick’s, Body Rock and even some of the punk stuff from Thor and The Ass Boys like “Shit The Pants.” I was listening to “Shit The Pants” recently and we live in such a crazy world right now. I think the lyrics to the song are very apropo. I can also sing a song like “Crunch Crunch Yum Yum,” which is more of a children’s song but also do a punk song or a metal song. I love all types of music and I feel like I can be really creative in any genre. I don’t want to be restricted and have someone say, “You can only sing heavy metal songs.” I want to be able to sing, write and play all kinds of songs. I want to continue to diversify as an artist.
That leads me to my next question. Having lived through so many changes in the music industry and experienced so many highs and lows, how have you most evolved as an artist?
I think I have definitely evolved and not just in shape and size! [laughs] I think I have grown to be more mature. I see things differently now. I am still very excited like a young man but I am in my 60s now. I was going on the road in my late teens touring with Body Rock and before that I was playing in The Ticks and The Cougars. The excitement I had back then is no different than the excitement I have now. Technology has changed greatly over the years but it allows us to edit music much more easily. The technology and digital downloads are something I am all for! Technology has changed everything. My vision when I was a young man was that I was going to be bigger than The Beatles and things were actually going that way! Maybe not bigger than The Beatles but I am saying we had a chance at one time, when “Keep The Dogs Away” came out, to do something very special. If you look at “Hit Parader,” “US Magazine” or “Rolling Stone” from back then, we were going to go on a major tour for “Keep The Dogs” away. It was going to be 5,000 to 10,000 seaters. It wasn’t like it was happening out of nowhere because I had been working very hard to get to that point and be with those major labels at the time. Just before I was set to go on the tour in 1978, that was well advertised, some things happened. You will have to see the movie to see what happened and I explain why it didn’t happen. That could have changed my career. Many times I think back on what could have happened if that tour went off like it was supposed to with all the lasers, monsters and hundreds of thousands of dollars behind the tour. I could have given up then. In 1978, I could have called it a day and never have been Thor again but I ended up almost starting over again. I became more of an underground star but my main plan originally was to become this over the top, mainstream artist, not unlike Ziggy Stardust or Alice Cooper. I felt I had some good songs. It is so interesting that the young kids keep talking about “Keep The Dogs Away.” When I am on tour, I am always hearing, “I love that album! We listen to it all the time!” They will show me tapes of them skateboarding to “Keep The Dogs Away,” “Sleeping Giants” or “I’m So Proud.” It really blows me away! It’s almost like Van Gogh where no one cared about his art until after he was gone! I am lucky to be alive! Seeing the documentary come out, being able to tour and meet up with the younger generation, to have them say, “I love your music,” really means alot to me. In the early days, I would get critiqued a lot because I had muscles and was portraying a superhero character. That didn’t bode well with many of the critics! Even if the music was good, they would criticize me anyway, so the fact that the music is being recognized today makes me feel good because I always felt I was a good performer and songwriter.
“I Am Thor” captures the spirit of your journey. However, as you said, there’s more to be said. Do you plan to tell your story in autobiographical form at some point?
Oh yeah! I have already started a book with a fellow named Ian James from New York. We have been working on a book for about three years now and it is almost complete. That will be coming out at some point but we are currently trying to secure a publisher on it and there are bids coming in. I think there is going to be a part two to “I Am Thor” with the hundreds of hours of footage on the cutting room floor. That is planned. Even in New York, when we do the big show, we might do a special cut for the showing at The Gramercy Theater before the Rock odyssey performance.
Your journey is very inspiring, Jon. What is the best lesson we can take away from your journey as an artist?
Interestingly enough, on tour, I had all kinds of people come up to me and tell me how I inspired them. For example, there was a photographer who came up crying and said she was inspired and now she wasn’t going to give up her dream of being an even better photographer. I had a singer tell me this movie inspired him to keep at it. I am hoping this movie can inspire people to not give up. Life is full of obstacles, no matter what walk of life you are from. There are times you are going to want to give up but you can never give up. I don’t say go to the extremes that I did where I almost killed myself … [laughs] but never give up! Stay positive! Continue the journey! Move forward and try to knock down those walls which hold you back! There are always going to be people out there criticizing you. There will be times even your family will criticize you or show apathy even though other people are cheering you on. You just have to understand that you will have your critics in life and the people who cheer you on. If you believe in your dream, don’t let anything hold you back from making it a reality.
Well said! Thank you so much for your time today, Jon! I can’t wait to see where the next chapter in the story of Thor takes us!
Thank you, Jason! I really appreciate it!
‘I Am Thor’ is available now on Blu-ray and DVD. Visit the official website of the film at www.iamthormovie.com. Visit Thor’s official website at www.thorcentral.net. Connect with the Rock Warrior on social media via Facebook and Twitter!