INTERVIEW WITH FORMER KILLER DWARFS GUITARIST MIKE HALL
Date: October 19, 2020
Photos: Courtesy of Mike Hall
IF YOU FOLLOW THE KILLER DWARFS, YOU ARE MOST LIKELY FAMILIAR WITH THEIR ALBUMS ‘STAND TALL’ (1986), ‘BIG DEAL’ (1988) AND ‘DIRTY WEAPONS’ (1990), WHICH INCLUDED SOME OF THEIR BIGGEST HITS INCLUDING “KEEP THE SPIRIT ALIVE,” “STAND TALL” AND “IT DOESN’T MATTER.” THE KILLER DWARFS’ LINE-UP FOR THOSE THREE RECORDS CONSISTED OF LEAD VOCALIST RUSS GRAHAM, DRUMMER DARRELL MILLAR, BASSIST RON MAYER AND GUITARIST MIKE HALL.
SLEAZE ROXX CAUGHT UP WITH THE RECENTLY RETIRED CANADIAN ARMED FORCES MEMBER MIKE HALL TO FIND OUT A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HIS TIME IN KILLER DWARFS, HIS TEN PLUS YEARS WITH THE CANADIAN ARMED FORCES, AND HIS OTHER MUSIC ENDEAVOURS, WHICH INCLUDES PLAYING IN THE CARL DIXON BAND. WHAT STARTED OUT AS A SIMPLE INQUIRY WITH HALL FOR A LITTLE BIT OF INFORMATION TO DO AN ARTICLE ON SLEAZE ROXX QUICKLY TURNED INTO A FULL BLOWN INTERVIEW WITH THE VERY CANDID GUITARIST.
Sleaze Roxx: You recently retired from the Canadian Armed Forces. What led you to join the Canadian Armed Forces, what did you do and how long did you work there?
Mike Hall: I had freelanced, ran bands, did hundreds of gigs, taught lessons, session work, etc for years. I was tired of it. I had two kids to support and my latest mistake had just asked me to move out. I saw the Canadian Armed Forces ad for a versatile guitar player who would be ok with the military training. I was 47 years old but still very physically fit. I was always interested in the military as my Dad served for many years. I thought it would be a great adventure. And it was. I auditioned in 2009, got the job and left for basic training in March 2010. That was a trip. An old guitar player and thousands of kids getting beasted for 14 weeks. I kind of liked it.
I graduated in June 2010 and reported for duty with a RCAF Band in Winnipeg. We played every kind of music from Sinatra to Iron Maiden. Big 18 piece jazz bands, dance bands, small jazz combos, classic rock bands and once in a while, I’d march with the parade band playing cymbals although that wasn’t a big part of the RCAF Band schedule at the time. We recorded albums, toured all over the world representing Canada and entertaining our troops. Grey Cup, NHL games, Canada Games, Heritage Classic — 33,000 people ! I was there 10.7 years and was based in Winnipeg at 17 Wing. We were quite busy and spent a lot of time on tour. I also did a lot of public relations with various medias on behalf of RCAF Band and Canadian Armed Forces. I played in South Korea, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Greece, Latvia, Washington DC often, and all across Canada.
RCAF Band‘s “Lean On Me” video featuring Sgt Mike Hall:
Sleaze Roxx: Most hard rock / heavy metal fans will know you from your time in Killer Dwarfs. What led you to leave the Killer Dwarfs?
Mike Hall: By 1990, the whole ’80s rock thing was losing ground. We had just recorded ‘Dirty Weapons’ in L.A. with producer Andy Johns and I was convinced it was our best work. I watched Epic and our management fumble around with the album and it really depressed me. Although it took the band to a new level in the USA, I was tired of the life and the lies that came with it. I just thought we should have been farther ahead. Plus there were certain issues inside the band that just pissed me off although at this age I view it more clearly. I was not a nice person to be around. I’m glad they continued the band and play those Dwarf songs! It meant a lot to me and I really realize how good Russ [Graham] was. We’d craft those melodies sometimes but often he would just sail on my riffs. I miss writing songs like that.
To me, Russ Dwarf was one of the greatest frontmen in rock. That’s why I joined the band, because I believed in him… and myself. When ‘Dirty Weapons’ didn’t do the numbers I expected, I really took it hard. I felt I knew why and I didn’t want to believe it was the material or our show. I made things difficult for the other guys with my disappointment. I was a miserable fuck and I feel bad about that shit but it was obvious I needed to split. They agreed. I bailed in the fall of 1990. Overall, I loved being in the band but when you sign with a huge label like Epic, it’s now big business and nothing more. It can rot a friendship if you let it.
Sleaze Roxx: What “lies” are you referring to when you indicate “I was tired of the life and the lies that came with it”?
Mike Hall: The ’80s rock biz was pretty cut throat. Much of the promised support didn’t materialize. I always felt like it was an industry based on hype and lies.
Killer Dwarfs‘ “Keep The Spirit Alive” video (from Stand Tall album):
Sleaze Roxx: The Killer Dwarfs were known in the ’80s for some of the funniest videos but that angle was seemingly dropped with ‘Dirty Weapons.’ Who came up with the ideas for the videos and why was the comic angle dropped for your biggest album?
Mike Hall: This isn’t really a question for me. I had no involvement in the process other than to show up, The first two were fun — “Keep The Spirit [Alive]” and “Stand Tall.” “We Stand Alone” was a dud. It did nothing. I think we just needed a change.
Sleaze Roxx: Why do you consider “We Stand Alone” as a dud? It was a good song but doesn’t seem to get any love from any ex or current Killer Dwarfs band members.
Mike Hall: Yeah, it’s just not a great song. And the video is just silly. [It’s] not a proud moment for me or a career boosting song by any means. Maybe we were trying to hard. I don’t know. Meh… Live and learn.
Killer Dwarfs‘ “We Stand Alone” video (from Big Deal album):
Sleaze Roxx: I understand that you continued to play music after Killer Dwarfs including playing for Helix and the Carl Dixon Band. What was your music career like post-Killer Dwarfs?
Mike Hall: I joined up with Carl Dixon right away. He was debuting some new material and he had me and the rhythm section from Santers. We did a few gigs but nothing came of it. I moved back to the Shwa area and played local gigs with my friend Eric Lambier. It was good. He played every kind of music, even country. So I really benefited musically from this time. We played five nights a week and made decent dough. I rejoined Carl Dixon Band in ‘93 and toured supporting his first solo album. [There were] lots of Ontario dates. We opened for everyone — Bad Company, Foreigner, April Wine, Sass Jordan, Nazareth, Kansas, etc and did tons of dates with Alannah Miles. We also did a German tour that was a lot of fun. Priceless memories and we are still close friends.
I was also playing lots of blues music on the side with local guys. I was always drawn to jazz and blues. It’s my natural vibe but it’s a hard sell if you want to make money. I tried to do it all. I built a teaching business and worked on lots of other people recordings. This was a good time for me. Stable. I got a call in 2000 from Helix and toured with them for a couple years. Great band, fun rock songs. It was mostly in Western Canada with other older classic rock bands. Clubs, casinos, festivals. In 2001, we regrouped [the Killer] Dwarfs for a few years. Did a Live DVD [‘Reunion of Scribes] in Toronto. For a while, I was gigging in Dwarfs and Helix and my own band Balls Deep [which included] Darren Smith of Harem Scarem on drums and Stan Miczek on bass. That was a killer trio. I wish we had done more together.
My personal life was in shambles by 2004. I stepped back for a bit. Once the money ran out, I had to attempt to make a living again. Things were tough. I rehearsed with Foot in Cold Water but we only played one show. I had played a couple shows with Coney Hatch including Sweden Rock Fest. I was on bass! What a riot. [The Killer] Dwarfs thing ended in 2005 for me. It was too difficult to do it part-time. A lack 0f commitment from all plus I was in a bad place personally. The scene was changing and not for the better. Less venues, less money. I did a solo album called ‘Have Guitars Will Travel’ in 2009. I was really happy with it. They are still some available so hit me up folks. It was a bluesy album. The album was about four months old when I got the call to go to Basic Military Qualification.
At the point when the military thing came up, I was happy to take on that challenge. I feel lucky and grateful to have had the opportunity. I served with some awesome people and felt like what we did mattered. The war in Afghanistan was going strong. I was on a leadership course at Camp Borden when I got the call to go to Afghanistan in 2011 with the Carpet Frogs. No military musician had ever done that. It was really a big deal to me. I felt a little Rock and roll could only help our troops.
Sleaze Roxx: It seems that you got to travel and see the world more through the Canadian Armed Forces (“CAF”) than the Killer Dwarfs. Are you surprised by all of the places that you got to go to through the CAF and what was your favourite place that you went to during your time in the CAF?
Mike Hall: [The] Dwarfs did one great tour in UK which was awesome. Besides that our time was spent in USA. We hardly played Canada after a while. The world I saw with the CAF is often not one that most musicians would see. Military bases in Afghanistan, Kuwait. Latvia is cool. I went twice. There is a big NATO force parked on the Russian border to try and thwart invasion. Musicians in CAF generally do ceremonial stuff — Changing of the Guard, DDay, Italy, France, Holland — but I got to visit some forward areas and perform so this was enjoyable to me. I went to Trinidad for a couple weeks one year. Outstanding tour! Played a soccer stadium in a tropical rain storm [laughs]. My fave was our first time in Latvia. My boss, my singer and myself were the guest of the Latvian Army Big Band. They played all these charts of hit Canadian songs. Dave sang and I soloed. Full big band playing Rush, Trooper, April Wine, and even one of my songs. Pretty good tour!
Sleaze Roxx: That does sound really cool! Would you consider doing a Killer Dwarfs classic line-up reunion one more time or has that ship sailed once and for all? What are your thoughts in that regard?
Mike Hall: I think the boys have a good thing going and I don’t see any reason do a classic album line-up. I would not be interested. I would be interested in having a beer and trying to straighten out our turbulent past. But no gigs for me.
Sleaze Roxx: You recently started a new Facebook page. What are your future plans music wise?
Mike Hall: I’ve got some nagging injuries due to my service. I pushed myself at whatever we did and loved it. The CAF really believes in fitness. We are in the gym three days a week. We load our own gear — PA, lights, back line. We unload and set all the gear up. Then we do the show. Then we take it down and pack it again. Eighteen hour days are not uncommon. We flew on C130 Hercs to gigs or travelled by bus. Thousands of miles. It was not an easy job to be in the RCAF Band the way we did it but man it was fun! We also played hockey and squash and worked out and shovelled more snow than I’d ever seen. And It’s damn cold in the Peg [Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada]. My back started acting up. I kept pushing through with physio and pills until I was really hurt bad. I kept trying to stay in the game anyway possible. I finally had to accept that it was time to stand down.
In the future, I just want to keep playing my guitar. Things are changing again with Covid. Live shows are absurd, touring non-existent. My plan is to rest for a few months, then slowly try to find a way to continue making music. I’d like to record some new music. I have a lot written and ready to go. I’d like to build an online teaching business. I have a lot to share with other players and some really funny stories. Maybe a book. There is a wild 40 year career there and I know I gave it my best shot to experience everything rock and roll had to offer. And the tales… the truthful tales are unbelievable [laughs].
So join the page and hit me up in 2021. We can learn guitar stuff or I can leave you in shock with road stories [laughs]. Cheers music lovers!
Killer Dwarfs‘ “Dirty Weapons” video (from Dirty Weapons album):