Exclusive Interview with Metal Legend Jon Mikl Thor

| January 30, 2016

On Tuesday, January 19, Dark Sky Films released Ryan Wise’s documentary I am Thor (2015) on home video and Digital HD. The film covers the life and career of rock god, Jon Mikl Thor, focusing predominantly on Thor’s triumphant yet all-too-often tumultuous return to the music industry after a decade of retirement. One week to the day after Dark Sky’s release of I am Thor, I spent the greater part of an hour on the phone with Thor talking about metal, his movies, and zombies.

An interview that length is an unruly thing to transcribe, I can tell you, and I honestly thought about condensing our talk into a far more manageable article, pulling out only the juiciest quotes from our conversation. The thing is though, as a Thor fan myself, I was thrilled to hear the man’s thoughts on these subjects, and also to learn firsthand that he’s every bit as passionate about his work as it seems. So, though I’ve done my damnedest to trim out the more chit-chatty bits of our conversation, I’m presenting my interview with Thor in its near entirety. That said, if you’ve come here specifically to learn about I am Thor, that material’s housed exclusively in the first half of our discussion.

 

[Our conversation opened with me sharing an anecdote about my 4-year-old son discovering Thor’s music the weekend prior and talking about the multi-generational appeal of his music.]

Thor: It’s amazing how music can transcend time. […] I’m still a big fan of Beethoven and Mozart. It’s a matter of introducing a new generation to the music and then it goes from there.

 

Jef: That actually applies to most of your work, as it happens—your film work as well.

Thor: Yeah, for example, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare [1987]. I’m very surprised that’s still popular. People have Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare parties […] When I first worked on it with John Fasano, many years ago, we just wanted to get it distributed. […] Here we are, years later, and the great thing about it is there’s songs in that movie, in particular “We Live to Rock,” “We Accept the Challenge,” and “Energy,” that people call out still at the concerts.

 

Jef: This is the perfect time for [people to discover Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare] too. With the internet bringing people with niche interests together, the things you’re interested in are out there and you just have to Google it.

Thor:  I love the technology now, because it’s about what the people want. Back in the day or even when MTV started out, I would make these videos and a council would sit around humming and hawing about whether they thought it was appropriate for MTV […] Whereas, on YouTube, everybody gets a chance. Every band gets an opportunity. You upload your video and see if people like it. […] I think it’s a perfect age for a young band to get the public aware of them—faster than in any era.

 

Jef: So I’ve a couple questions here about I am Thor. How long was the filming process?

Thor: It took a long time. I met these guys Al Higbee and Ryan Wise in 1999 […] on one of my comeback tours. […] I was playing in Seattle when they came to see me. [The production took] many years. It was 15 years altogether before it got completed—editing and everything. It was a long process. They went on many tours of mine, some good and some bad. [I was] trying to make a comeback as an underground performer and trying to get gigs everywhere: I was in a wrestling ring, the Kick Boxing World Championship with Joey Shithead from D.O.A., another time I’m at a wedding, or we’re at some kind of private party. And then there were the festivals and the arenas. […] It was a crazy time—a crazy time for me and for the film’s producers.

 

Jef: Did you find that process invasive? I mean, was it a good motivator for you or was it just one more thing to worry about while you organized all this stuff?

Thor: It was at first. It was kind of an invasion of privacy, but then it was like a fly on the wall […] You just sometimes didn’t even feel they were there. And they would film anything and everything. Like my credit card wouldn’t go through at the hotel—it was some tough times—we were touring and previous hotels didn’t drop the holds off! So, you don’t have a hotel for that night. […] They’d kind of film me moping in the lobby or whatever [and film] fights among the band members. There were a lot of things actually left out.

 

Jef: Yeah, there’s some tough stuff in this documentary. Like you were saying, there’re conflicts with the band and credit card problems and all that. How do you feel about it being in the movie? Was that stuff you were hoping they would cut out or—

Thor: I left a lot of the editing, basically all of the editing—the whole movie—up to [Wise and co-producer Higbee]. I just left it up to them because it’s got to come from their lens, from their point of view. I saw myself one way and they saw me another way. […] I just did my thing, and yeah there’s a lot of ugly things in there that I didn’t necessarily want to be shown. Because, who wants to air their dirty laundry? But what’s a documentary? I mean, people want to see the nitty-gritty! They want to see the ugly side behind the scenes.

There are some documentaries that come out about bands, and everything’s wonderful, all about how great they are or how many platinum records they’ve sold. And rock and roll’s not like that! It’s the nature of the beast to be ugly. This happens whether you’re The Beatles or The Rolling Stones and you’ve sold a ton of records, or you’re a smaller band—an underground band, a cult band. […] So let it be shown! […] There’s a lot of pain, a lot of agony. So there it is for people to see. This movie is not just about me. It’s about the industry too, how tough it is and how tough life is. […] So many people have seen the movie and said it inspired them.

Or… [maybe you’ll] laugh at it. And that’s fine. I was at the Swedish premiere and next to me was this big guy and he’s going, “Ho ho ho, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Ho ho!” He couldn’t stop laughing at the movie. I said, “You don’t have to say ‘sorry’ to me. I’m just glad you’re having a good time!”

Whether you’re laughing with me or at me, it doesn’t matter. I mean, I’m just happy you’re entertained. […] Whatever you get out of this movie, I hope it’s something good.

 

Jef: I’m glad you brought up the nature of documentary because that’s something I wanted to ask you about actually. Any documentary, like you said, is from that filmmaker’s perspective, but the film is called I AM THOR. And yet, by the nature of documentary, this has to be Ryan Wise’s definition of who Thor is. So I wondered, from your perspective, how close do you feel this documentary is to your vision of yourself?

Thor: When we started the documentary, I saw [myself] much different than Ryan Wise [did]. My vision was maybe more heroic, you know? You’d just show the big crowds, not the small crowds, not the ugly things. I mean, don’t look behind the curtains, you know! But he looked behind there at the creepy stuff that went on.

There’s also conflict with other band members. Like Mike Favata comes in and he says, “Is it Thor the man or is it Thor the band?” And I mean, that was always the conflict, all the time. I was in England where I was on the cover of Kerrang Magazine, and the band wants to fight with me, because “why aren’t we there on the cover with you?”

The thing is, I always welcomed them to be in, but it’s not just me, it’s the media too. So the media says, “Thor, we want you to be in the photo shoot.” And you try to get in the band in, but what am I supposed to do? Should I say [to the media], “I’m not going to do the cover of Kerrang because you’re not going to let the band members in”? […] You’ve got to try to get out there and promote the product, whatever it takes. Yeah, I’m always the frontman—the guy up front—but I always included [the band] as much as I could. But… that’s the conflict that goes on to this day: the battle of whether I can play with other bands or if I have to wait until everybody else is ready to come in. […] Like I said before, it’s the nature of the beast. That’s this business.

 

Jef: Sure, we all try to see ourselves as the hero of our own lives, but by the end of this whole documentary, there’s no way not to see Thor as the hero. It’s such a triumphant ending. [BTW, SPOILERS!] In the very end, when you say that you’ve reconsidered retiring, I think it’s really triumphant and heroic.

Thor: You know, I don’t always want to be the hero. […] Don’t get me wrong. I love the monster as much as the hero. When I made my movies when I was a kid, like “Power Man vs. Kong,” I didn’t play Power Man. My nephew played Power Man. I was Kong, the hideous creature. I admired Lon Chaney […] just as much as I loved Steve Reeves as Hercules.

I love both, but you explain it well. In the end [of I am Thor], everyone says it’s kind of like Rocky, but this is real life, right? […] Rocky comes back from obscurity to triumph, and maybe that’s the exciting part of the film. I was down a year ago for the world premiere [of I am Thor] at the Slamdance Festival. In the end, everybody got up and cheered, not unlike Rocky when I saw [it] in 1976 or whenever that was. Everybody got up and cheered at the end. So maybe [I am Thor] has that heroic appeal. But the underdog gets beat up […] before all that happens. So maybe it’s the human spirit that’s portrayed, right? It’s my stubbornness to not give up.

 

Jef: And [the film’s conclusion] is really metal!

Thor: Metal’s a lifeform in itself. […] It’s something that doesn’t give up either.

 

Jef: I would love to ask you some questions about your movies. I became aware of Thor when the An-Thor-logy DVD and Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare came into my life at basically the exact same time. And it’s something I’ve done some work with since. I’ve been able to teach it [I teach media studies at DePaul University, by the way] as a superhero film.

Thor: That’s what it really was. It was a superhero film. It was my Superman—my Hercules—but done in a horror way.

 

Jef: And horror makes everything better! Now, I’ve heard you talk about how you and John Fasano collaborated in brainstorming the character of Intercessor and all, but there’s one thing I’ve always wanted to hear more about: What was it like for Thor, a metal God, to just sit down and write a movie? What was your process?

Thor: It wasn’t so different than when I wrote plays in high school or when I wrote my short movies or when I write songs […] I have a wild imagination and the idea for this was something I already had in the works. The process was: when I met John Fasano, he saw the movie Recruits, liked how I acted in that, and then he had me come up to Montreal and we shot Zombie Nightmare. […] We’d talk about things while I was getting makeup put on me and all that stuff. John and I had ideas [for movies] and my thing, of course, is I’m into the [heroes of] Norse mythology or Greek mythology, [who] come from another world, from the heavens. And they come down and they’re demigods and they have to do these great things. And the idea I had was: let’s put rock and roll in there! Let’s put horror movies in there!

Originally the movie was called The Archangel, and Triton the Archangel would come down and he had to do some labors on the Earth. For me to write [Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare] wasn’t so hard. It flowed. And of course, John Fasano would guide me in how to put a proper script together. Not that I hadn’t done scripts before but he was doing scripts already… a lot of them. He was involved later on with Another 48 Hours and Universal Soldier and so on and so forth. He had a big career in Hollywood.

[Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare]’s got everything thrown in there: a superhero, mythology, horror, rock and roll, a surprise ending. I mean, I often think of what it would be like if we’d stayed with the name, The Archangel, but that would’ve given it away.

 

Jef: Definitely!

Thor: We then called it Edge of Hell and we sold it on the American film market and sold the film country-by-country. In Germany, they call it The Face of Hell. And in North America they thought it was a better marketing tool to call it Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, so that’s how that name came about.

 

Jef: And it was done on a really low budget.

Thor: Super low. We were actually written up in many of the trade magazines as one of the first companies to edit on digital at that time. Nobody was editing on digital but we did it in 1986. We were shooting it on 35mm but transferred it to 3/4-inch and then edited that way. […] And we were using ends. In Toronto there were a lot of major productions and they would throw away the Kodak ends. And so we go to Kodak and say, “Hey, can we buy your ends?” Because they were going to throw them away anyway. [And] I think that gave us some rich colors that you couldn’t get if you just shot it on video. […] We wanted it to look like a movie and we really wanted to shoot on 35mm. And we did. I think it was better for it.

 

Jef: The transfer on the DVD looks great.

Thor: Synapse did a really good job with color correction and they took it right from the master. They did a great job.

 

[I then asked Thor to talk a little bit more about Recruits (1986).]

Thor: Lolita Davidovich was really cool and there were some great actors and comedians in there from Canada. […] I had to go up there and audition [but] I couldn’t ride a motorcycle for one thing. I said I did though. I said, “Oh yeah, I’m pretty good with riding a motorcycle.” So I had to do a quick training and many times I flipped over the handlebars. It was a little tough for me to get the motorcycle riding going, but I eventually got it. It’s like how some actors do […] a western and they say, “Oh, I can ride a horse!”

It was an incredible movie to do, actually. It won awards in Europe [including] a Silver Award for most sales on video in England. It was sort of like the Police Academy for Europe.

 

Jef: I like that description, “the Police Academy for Europe”!

Thor: Well, in Europe there’s more breasts shown [on film] and nudity which you couldn’t show in Police Academy, or not as much. But there was quite a bit of that in Recruits. They want to see that in Europe, so it worked well.

 

Jef: Have you seen the Mystery Science Theater episode of Zombie Nightmare (1987)?

Thor: Yes.

 

Jef: I’ve heard filmmakers and performers talk about having their work riffed on. Some said it was an incredible compliment, but for others it was a bit more uncomfortable. How did you react?

Thor: I thought it was fantastic. I saw [the episode] back when it was being shown in the ‘90s. I was living in Charlotte, North Carolina. At the time, I was sort of out of the music industry and the film industry. But I remember seeing it and it really catapulted Zombie Nightmare, because Mystery Science Theater was so popular at the time. It was like Beavis and Butthead. If you were on there and you got ridiculed, well that was a cool thing.

But I don’t see it as ridiculing. They were having fun with it, comparing me with Michael Landon [because] I was kind of doing everything in the movie: writing the music and acting in it and all that. […] It was funny. And that was the biggest thing that happened to the movie! Because from there, it got a cult following and [MST3K]’s what gave it the opportunity. I thought it was a great thing.

You know, [Zombie Nightmare] was sort of like Batman meets Thor. I got to meet Adam West, and there were some great things that came out of it. I’m not saying it was the greatest movie in the world or anything like that, but it was fun playing a zombie.  And Tia Carrere was really nice, and I think it was the first movie of her career. There were some milestones that came out of that film!

 

[At this point in the interview, I’d expended all my prepared questions about Thor’s career. So with zombies on my mind, I had to know: How would Thor handle the zombie apocalypse? What is Thor’s zombie contingency plan?]

Thor: I’d first make sure I got my supplies together. You’ve got to have your supplies and food and your hideaway, which would be a cave. I would have all my weapons set up: hammers, swords, axes. […] You have to have these things to survive, and you got to have your weapons. You’ve got to make sure you’ve got [your food] together, because if you get drained of energy you can’t battle anyone.

And then I’d start developing my plans for survival. […] I don’t know if it would be raining acid. I don’t know what the atmosphere would be like. But you have to be ready for that. I would just have to plow my way through. In other words, heads are going to have to roll!

 

Jef: So your answer is basically that you don’t know what this zombie apocalypse is going to be like, so you’re just going to play it by ear, and all you need to do that is some food and an ax? That’s metal as hell!

 

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
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