For the Sun Times/Shopper
Toronto classic rockers the Killer Dwarfs “Keep the Spirit Alive, when they jumping into the rock and roll time machine and make a long awaited return to Alberta, including a June 14 stop at Average Joe’s with fellow ’80s metalheads Kick Axe.
“Music really is a time machine,” observed “the only Killer Dwarf drummer,” Darell Millar managing his time for his eight-year-old daughter’s PE day.
“I’ll still put on an Aerosmith record and it will take me back to high school, driving around the streets of Oshawa,” he reminisced.
Other than a few “dark days” when the Dwarfs were on hiatus in the early ’90s due to the grunge explosion, he has been lucky to make a living making music.
“I always knew I wanted to play music. When I was 15, I was in a three-piece band like Triumph. We were called Sphinx. And we opened for bands like Triumph and we were playing at a very high level. We moved to Calgary and signed with the biggest management company in the country, which handled bands like the Headpins. So I took courses and finished high school as fast as I could because I knew this was what I wanted to do,” he said, noting Sphinx was in the throes of breaking up in 1981 when he met Dwarfs frontman Russ Graham and formed the band, and met with pretty much immediate success by charting several big, upbeat hits in the ’80s and early ’90s like “We Stand Alone,” “Stand Tall,” “Keep the Spirit Alive” and “Dirty Weapons.”
“We (Sphinx) was pretty much a cover band by then and wanted to do something else. The only time I ever had to take a job was for a couple years ’94-’96 in the middle of grunge music. I was in the middle of a custody battle for my first daughter and my lawyer suggested I get a job because heavy metal drummer wasn’t a viable job. So I got a job working with Canpro in the sorting room and I hated it,” he said.
“I don’t think we’ve been to Lethbridge since 2003 or 2004, but we used to play there all the time in the ’80s when we were on the road for 300 days a year,” recalled Killer Dwarfs frontman Russ “Dwarf” Graham, who shares the stage with drummer Darrell, guitarist Millar, who has been with the band since 1991 and bassist Johnny Dwarf Fenton who joined in 2013.
Millar noted the Dwarfs used to play Alberta a lot including Lethbridge.
“We loved it. We’d always play Calgary and Edmonton and we’d play Red Deer and Lethbridge, too,” he said, adding he has good memories of the city.
“I remember around 1996, I went to a house party and Nickelback was there before they got big. I remember meeting Chad Kroeger. They broke not long after and I saw them and that was him. They must have been playing here at the same time as us,” he recalled.
They recently signed to Megadeth bassist Dave Ellefson’s record label EMP and released a live album, “No Guff Now Dwarfs” and expect to release a new studio album in 2019.
“We’re excited about being on Dave’s label. Because he knows. He’s been in a band, so it’s not like you’re talking to an accountant,” Graham said.
“I’m 5’4” and shrinking,” Graham chuckled, answering the question what he’s been up to, from his home in Orillia, Ont., the one band member who doesn’t live in Toronto.
“We’ve been playing for 37 years. We’re very fortunate. The fans have been really good to us,” he said, noting the Dwarfs have a busy year ahead of them including tours of the U.S., United Kingdom and the Monsters of Rock Cruise in February and March.
“We’ve been lucky to be able to make a living making music. I’ve also got my solo band and my brother has his solo band,” Graham said. “At this point we can pick and choose what gigs to play. It’s not like in the ’80s when we were on the road for 300 days of the year.”
“We don’t really write about booze and chicks, there’s enough of that to go around,” he said, adding the positive nature of the songs aligns with his world view.
“I’m generally a very hopeful person,” he said.
He enjoyed making the videos, which were a mainstay on ’80s Can con mainstay Video Hits as well as on MuchMusic’s the Power Hour and MTV’s the Power hour.
“They were a lot of fun, though I cringe when I see some of them now, he said.
“But the puppets in ‘We Stand Alone’ were definitely a shot at the record industry and what they did with heavy metal bands then,,” he chuckled.
Graham’s voice often draws comparisons to Rush’s Geddy Lee. “We‘re not quite like Rush. We love them and I’ll take that complement. We’ve been listening to them since 1972 or ’73,” he said.
“But I don’t see myself as a singer. I see myself as an entertainer,“ Graham added.
Millar is excited about the live album.
“It’s a greatest hits album. I don’t listen to it a lot, but it’s a good quality album, just take away the crowd noise. My daughter will put it on, though. Usually we do a 90-minute set and play four or five songs from each album. So that’s what we’ll be playing in Lethbridge. That’s what most fans want to hear,” he said, adding, their new record label means they have to record a new album.
“It will be strange. We’re always writing music. Our last studio album was recorded in 1993, but wasn’t released until 2013. So the new one will be a continuation of that,” he said adding the new one will be a more collaborative process.
“Before, Russ would bring in songs and the rest of us would arrange them. Now we’re all better writers. I’ve recorded two albums with my other band Laidlaw,” he said, adding while most of their fans want to hear the hits, but some want to hear new music.
“Our fans are starting to bring their kids to our shows, so we have fans in their 20s. Most of our fans are between age 35 to 60, but most are in their 40s. Most of them want to hear the hits, but there are die hard fans who want to hear new music and they tell us at the shows, so this album will be for them,” he said.
“Judas Priest and Iron Maiden release new music, but there’s not a lot of interest in it. Most people still want to hear ‘Run To The Hills,’” Millar observed.
He noted his kids aren’t planning to follow in his footsteps.
“My oldest daughter is married and living in Vancouver. She has no interest in music. My youngest daughter, Marlo, has potential, though. She’s been drumming since she was two. I’ll critique it. I’d like to get her into piano, but I’m not going to push her into it,” he said.
He plans to play as long as he is physically able to.
“I’m still playing at the level I was back then. I’ll be the first guy to say I can’t. Neal Peart (of Rush) had to call it quits. But then I saw a video of Mick Jagger running around the stage before his show and he’s 70 years old, so I’ve still got a few years left in me. I’m only 56. I find that very inspiring,” he said.
“But it’s very physically demanding, especially for drummers. Your joints and muscles hurt. But I take pretty good care of myself. I work out and do yoga and I drink a lot of beer and rum to lubricate my joints. We’ll, I’m just joking about that last one, though I do love rum. I’m a pirate,” he chuckled.
He is excited to join Helix and Kick Axe.
“We’ve known them for years. Brian (Vollmer, Helix frontman) is a good friend of Russ’s. But we’ve never played together before.”
Tickets for The Killer Dwarfs and Kick Axe are $35 in advance, $40 on the day of the show. The show begins at 8 p.m. June 14 at Average Joe’s.