Outliers Headstones Anything But Grave: Tour celebrates 25th anniversary of Picture of Health

Pulling out Headstones’ 1993 first album, Picture of Health, along with a fistful of their albums that followed it, and listening to the melodic, sinister, and vibrantly wonderful songs is bliss. All joy and sneer, it’s a fist jabbed upwards through the soft, saggy CanCon underbelly, with a mainline of darkness thrown in. It’s music for driving, but only if you’re on a midnight highway going 50km over, middle finger at the ready. It’s music for dancing, but only if you’re fucking after, or, preferably, during, the songs. It’s music for singing, but only if you give zero fucks who hears or what notes you hit.

Headstones music is not for everyone; it’s for the disenfranchised, the jaded and, to use lead singer and co-founder Hugh Dillon’s word, the outliers. Dillon, in Park City, Utah, shooting the Taylor Sheridan TV series Yellowstone alongside Kevin Costner, is also a few Headstones shows into a tour celebrating Picture of Health’s 25th anniversary and supporting the album’s re-mastered, bonus track-laden re-release. It seems a long way away from the band’s first chaotic, junk-sick decade in which Dillon seemed to check in and out of rehab as often as Trump Tweets.

“It’s not that different because those stories are really my stories and we’ve been playing some of those songs and you’re catching me three shows into it. It’s a force of nature that album,” Dillon says while taking a break.

His film career began with Bruce MacDonald’s classic Hard Core Logo in 1996, and a move to Los Angeles for a few years helped nourish his career (although he says he always kept a place in Toronto). He’s appeared in the updated Twin Peaks, in several series including X Company, Flashpoint, and Durham County, in the movies Wind River and The Humanity Bureau, and in many other shows.

Part of the reason for the Picture of Health tour is the fans pushing the band in person and on social media, which the singer didn’t think he would embrace. But for Dillon, any pathway between him and the fans is sacred. In fact, at one point during the interview, he sounds a little choked up as he reads the dedication to the fans on Picture of Health’s new liner notes. (It begins wit:h “We have a lot of respect and admiration for those of you who embrace music and life so passionately, particular diehard Headstones fans, who seem to have an incredible amount of fucking heart, empathy, and humour.”)

However, “A lot of it is for ourselves,” he says. “But for us to go back and relive these songs and what happened for us is it reminds us of where we came from and how rough it was. So much of it is now people talk a lot about mental illness and a lot about suicide and now it’s something that’s talked about in social circles and then it wasn’t so much.

“And those things were happening to us. That album was on the heels of my best friend committing suicide — who we dedicated it to, it’s dedicated to Ian Goodfellow.

“So a lot of those songs have that misplaced rage and (are) trying to grapple with life. And that’s why those songs stand up because they’re all based on who we were and what we knew and they still apply today.” 

While those topics may have been taboo a quarter century ago, Dillon was not only living them, he was also working as an orderly at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, which meant things were dark inside and outside his personal life.

“(It was) not an easy place to work. It’s just a slap in the face in terms of the harsh reality of life and unfairness, and I think that’s why I was driven to play in the band at any cost, because you saw things from traffic accidents to diseases to empathy and compassion from surgeons and doctors.

“It was an important place for me to work, but there was no fooling around, you see life. And at the time having friends commit suicide and all the rest of it. You know, I am not going to fuck around. I’m going to go after what I want and what I was interested in, was playing in a rock band.

“And the acting was an extension of that, but at the end of the day it still comes down to if you look at my albums I’ve always written songs. They’ve shown up on many of the shows that I worked on from Flashpoint to Durham County to you name it.”

The death a few years ago of high school friend (and co-writer of Cemetery) Randy Kwan, and more recently original Picture of Health drummer Mark Gibson, reminded Dillon of some of the demons that were fought and the issues that were wrestled with during Headstones’ career. “This band was a way for us to fucking cope. It wasn’t just, ‘Hey we’re here for a party.’ And nobody ever expected us to be successful or to survive.” 

Dillon’s memories of getting off his night shift at the hospital at 8 a.m., grabbing “booze and beer” and going to write songs with guitarist Trent Carr in the apartment building stairwell because his girlfriend wouldn’t allow Dillon in the house are recounted with great respect for the guitarist who “wasn’t playing to impress anyone or anything else. We knew we had chemistry. He understood that I could be brutally honest, and he understood that the only way for us to work together is to be fuckin’ brutally honest. Even in the days where the drugs from my side of it got messy.”

So coming back to the album, playing the songs again as a set, and adding in other beloved Headstones songs from those days, but now doing it clean — might that not be tempting fate?

“I don’t find it triggering, I find it empowering. Because now there is no bullshit, there is no hidden meaning. Then I would have to be careful because I didn’t want to really discuss the lyrics, I didn’t want to say how close. A lot of those things were buried in the lyrics. And those stories were: ‘Rock band! Yeah, they rock, they’re great, and they party!’

“So I hid a lot of what I really had to say. And that’s why I think we have fans that stayed with us for years because people love real songwriting.”

Indeed, the fans have stayed with them. After the band split up in 2003 and then reformed in 2011, they released two of their most successful albums to date, Love + Fury, which was their first Top 10 album, and last year’s Little Army, which offered the No. 1 single Devil’s on Fire. They are set to return to the studio in January.

But, ironically, there’s a Top 100 Canadian Albums list on Wikipedia that contains everyone from Shania Twain to The Band to Teenage Head, yet not one whiff of Headstones. Dillon doesn’t blink.

“Who gives a shit?! Who gives a shit? I don’t care. I mean, I’ll tell you why I don’t care: This band’s always been an outsiders’ band, and we’ve always been outliers, and what’s interesting is we’ve always had our own fans and that’s why that Little Army title worked.

“If we had of been a flavour of the month or a fashion-oriented band — we’re none of those things. Our fans are hard-core people.”

Headstones play Grey Eagle on Friday, Nov. 19. For tickets and information, please click here.

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer.