Carl Dixon of Coney Hatch: A Second Chance

By Jeb Wright

Carl Dixon is a walking miracle.  He should be dead...literally dead.  He survived a car crash that he should not have survived.  It's that simple.  He should be dead.  Carl also should be a huge rock star.  His band Coney Hatch were a great '80s hard rock band that never made it to the level they appeared destined to achieve. 

Carl has had a successful solo career and has been a member of April Wine and the Guess Who.  Everyone who has seen him perform walks away thinking, "This guy should be huge."  He's talented.  He is still alive and he is back with Coney Hatch. The band is back with a new album titled 4 on Frontiers Records and the album is really well done, well written and well performed.  While in a coma he was promised that The Hatch has more work to be done.  He woke up but this must still feel like a dream.

In the interview below Carl discusses his life in 2013 and his return to the band that he loves...neither Carl, nor his career, it seemed, would ever come back to life...but both came back as good as ever before. 

Jeb: We met when you sang for the Guess Who and you performed at the Moondance Jam. Everyone was blown away by your performance and you really were the hit of the festival.

Carl: Of course, I remember that well. I really enjoyed my time with that band and I was sorry it came to an end. I couldn’t have moved on to new things if I was still doing that.

Jeb: The way you left…the car crash and the recovery. You’ve been through hell and back.

Carl: As I wrote in one of my songs since then, “When you’re going through hell, don’t stop there. Keep going.”

Jeb: Coney Hatch is one of a handful of bands that never made it huge but really, truly should have been huge.

Carl: I was just talking about that this morning with an interviewer in Los Angeles. The way I like to say it is this: We didn’t make it to the top, but we could see it from where we were.

Jeb: That era of Canadian music was great. Rush, Triumph, April Wine, Coney Hatch and others were releasing great albums. None of those bands had an easy time in America. Rush, at first, had a difficult time.

Carl: Those bands you mention are all friends of mine. Rush had a tough go at the start. They were looked down on and almost dropped out after their third album. On their breakthrough album, 2112, they just decided to do the album they thought they ought to make, and say that if it does not succeed, then we took our best shot.

Jeb: Four…the new Coney Hatch album…is out on Frontiers. You guys were not expected to come back; you’ve been away a long, long time.

Carl: If you call 28 years a long time then I guess so [laughter]. The Guess Who was taking up my time pretty full-on up until 2008. I was writing a solo album at the time and then in April of 2008 I had a terrible car crash. It took me a long time to recover from that. The Guess Who had to move on without me, as they couldn’t just park the band until I got better.

I was in a coma and my wife got my partner in Coney Hatch, Andy Curran, on the phone and he said to me, “Dude, you’ve got to get better because we’ve still got more rocking to do with the Hatch.”

Somehow, that stuck with me and a couple of years later we were finally ready to do a show in Canada and the show went really well. I knew I could still play and sing, but the rest of the world didn’t know I could, since my crash. We had not played with the original four guys for probably 15 years, at least. That show was encouraging and we got some offers for some other shows in Canada. We were offered to play at The Firefest, an annual 80s revival fest in Nottingham, England. We went there and we just slaughtered, not our surprise, but the audience was blown away. We pounded it down and just played punishing riffs and the audience loved it. I guess they don’t see bands like that anymore. It was as if we had been frozen in time and pulled back out from 1984.

Jeb: There was something great going on when you were active. Canadian rock was very cool at the time and it is a movement that no one ever talks about in rock history in America.

Carl: There was definitely a certain sound coming out of Canada at that time that was some kind of a cross-breed between the American rock sound and the British rock sound. There was a certain amount of heaviness and plodding sound that was British and it was mixed with the more melodic rock that was in America. In Canada, we hit a seam on that.

In Coney Hatch, we had influences from Australia like AC/DC, Rose Tattoo and Angel City. We were listening to those bands and being influenced by that. We were the Canadian wing of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

Jeb: After Firefest, was Four in the back of your mind?

Carl: It was actually quite not in the back of our minds. We did those shows and we delighted ourselves. We had never had the chance to play with the original band in the UK before and that was a bucket list item. We got two record deals offered to us shortly after and we had no thought of making a record. We had to get serious and figure out how we were going to do this.

Jeb: You had the ‘offers’ before you had the songs?

Carl: Correct. We were just playing a few shows and enjoying being together again and then someone wanted us to make a record. It was like, “YEOW! Now what?” We were feeling so good about the performances and the audiences response to them we decided, “Why not?” We started putting together songs. Andy and I constantly write, even though he is more in the management end of the music business. We generated some ideas and we started going through stuff we had already and then we had some lyrical ideas and we got the four guys in to gather and pound out the bed tracks, and the songs started two write themselves.

Jeb: Did you discuss that you had to keep with the classic Coney Hatch sound?

Carl: That was definitely a factor. We knew that we wanted to appeal to the fans of Coney Hatch who loved that old sound. We were not going to be Spinal Tap Mach Two type of thing. It was not the rebirth or anything like that. It was meant to be a continuation of that sound that only those four people could make together in this world.

I realized that after we first broke up, when we got back together for some reunion dates. In any band that has formed bonds and gone through experiences together, a certain sound is formed that you can’t make with anyone else. If you change any one of the members it is not the same. It was very important for us to capture that power and that spirit and that sound that we make together. In addition, Frontier Records had right in the contract, “No surprises. Make a Coney Hatch album.”

Jeb: And you did.

Carl: Yeah, we made a Coney Hatch album, we sure did. That was our intention right from the start. I have made other albums in other styles and I played with The Guess Who and Andy has done the same thing. Steve has been doing film and TV scoring and Dave barely ever plays the drums where he lives, but when he does, it is like he never stopped playing with us. It was a powerhouse thing, and when we put it together we still had it. We knew the Coney Hatch sound, and we knew how to make an album the fans would like.

Jeb: Were you so detached from the band, and the sense of the band being part of music history for 28 years that you were unaware you still had such a strong fan base?

Carl: Unaware is a good word for it. We never really knew. We went on and did other things. I would be at a Guess Who show in Demines, Iowa and someone would come up with Coney Hatch vinyl after the show and want me to sign it, which was always a thrill. I had no idea there were so many people who actually cared about the band. In those days there was no internet and you would only get fan mail. You would know from sales and getting more bookings that you were more popular. I think there were pockets of the country where people really liked us that we never got to. In the UK, and Europe, and all over the world there were Coney Hatch fans we didn’t know about.

In fact, our third album, Friction, back in 1985, we had the perception that it was a failure because it didn’t sell as well in North America. Nobody told us that in Europe, it was by far our most popular. If somebody had thought to tell us that back then we might not have packed it in. “We are not a failure after all. Great!”

Jeb: The new album has a tune called “Blown Away” that totally rocks. It shows the band is back.

Carl: That began as a CD that Andy burned for me, of a few rough musical ideas that he put down in his home studio with a drum machine and a basic bass line. The guitar riff, he had in the reverse order. I put it onto my computer and put it in the order that I wanted to hear it and it started to make sense for me. I would drive around and listen to it, and I had a note pad on the passenger seat next to me, and I would jot down lyrical ideas that would come to me as I was driving around listening to the song. The phrase, ‘blow away,’ came to me right at first. The story became about a girl who puts a gun to your head just for jollies---I am sure we’ve all been in that situation [laughter]. It turned into a sleazy rock and roll track.

Jeb: “Devil You Know” is one of my favorite tunes on Four.

Carl: That is a sleeper and I love that song. I put it together out of the idea that it is all about temptation. What do you risk when you give in to temptation? Do you go for it all? Is it a good idea or is it a terrible idea? I had that around for a while, but I could never figure out what to do with it. I had the music track and I showed it to the guys and I finally wrote the lyric that I had been hoping to write for years.

Jeb: Do you create in an organic way?

Carl: The songwriting, itself, generally comes from Andy or me. Steve kicks in some stuff once in a while. To get that Coney Hatch sound we kick it around in rehearsal. In the recording process, you develop the process more and you look for those sparkling bits and you find the things that make it sound more like a record and less like a song.

Jeb: You keep yourself inside the box to get the Coney Hatch sound, yet creativity is something that can be difficult to keep inbounds. How do you balance that?

Carl: Creativity benefits from having limitation. My dad was an artist and he used to say to me, “The worst thing you can tell an artist is to do whatever you want.” I find that you have to give them a frame and maybe six or seven colors and then tell them, “Make a picture that fits in this frame with these colors.” Then, you give them some parameters. I have worked with country writers in Nashville; I have worked with folk, rock, ballad and jazz music. The process is imagining the outcome, and you have to know what feeling you want in there, then that guides your energy to write the song.

Jeb: Who produced the album?

Carl: I asked Andy to produce it. We have been partners for 32 years but no one in the band has produced the band before. He sings some of the songs and I sing a few more. He has that personality that keeps people feeling positive and not backed into the corner. I gave him the nickname The Conciliator. Steve is best viewed as the Contrarian. He is the devil’s advocate type of guy. It drove me kind of crazy but there is a value in that.

Andy has worked with many bands in a producer capacity for other people but he had never done anything for his friends. I kind of tricked him into it, actually; he had to do more work. He had a buddy of his named Vic Fluency who is an amazing sound engineer and recording engineer and he made a big difference on how the sound came out.

Jeb: Isn’t Vic more known for pop music?

Carl: Wow, you know your stuff. He works on all kinds of things. He actually used to take guitar lessons, when he was a kid, from Steve, our guitar player. He worked on some of my very first solo albums back in 1992. The circle is small.

Jeb: Is there a tour?

Carl: We have a stealth tour---you wouldn’t even know we were there [laughter]. We are slow out of the gate to book a tour as two of the guys have full time jobs. We have to cherry pick the dates we do, to be the most impactful to promote the record. We have to make some money as we can’t go play for the door. When we want to tour the guys have to use their holiday time. We are looking to string some dates together next year. We are actively trying to work it out to do a string of dates with some old friends that we toured with in the ‘80s. There is a certain Eddie monster involved in that band. We are hoping to be on with them for a few weeks. Our old friends from England love the new album and they have stayed friends with us, particularly with Andy, and they are excited and they want to get us in on a few weeks of dates.

Jeb: Hatch could tour with anybody. You opened for Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and you opened for bands like Cheap Trick as well.

Carl: The last time I played in LA on a Coney Hatch tour we were at the Palladium with Accept and Rough Cutt.

Jeb: I think Coney Hatch was placed too much into the Metal world. You belonged, but you were not just metal.

Carl: I agree. We ended up punching above our weight. We were not out of place; I would just say we were someone in the Foreigner, April Wine category but with heavier guitars and drums. The melodic aspect that I brought certainly took us out of the realm of the bands that we were touring with. We used to joke that we made pop-metal. There were a lot of fans of the heavy bands that liked what we did and they supported us. We didn’t keep it up long enough. There are many times I wonder what would have happened if we had hung in a little longer and made more records… although, we would have been swept up into the hair metal era. We bowed out just before that came along.

Jeb: I have a friend who is in Shooting Star who had some similar music business issues as Coney Hatch.

Carl: Oh sure, I’ve heard of them.

Jeb: You were harder edged than they were but you two both should have been huge. People must be deaf. I am not making an excuse for you, but the business of music really screwed you guys over.

Carl: The business of music got in the way of bands that didn’t have the right ally in the corporate offices or didn’t have the management pounding on doors and yelling at people. They didn’t have the commitment from someone in the accounting office to put money behind them for promotion. Labels would risk all kinds of money behind a band if they all decided that they were the one. They would bankroll a song until it was a hit. If you didn’t have that kind of endless / limitless financial backing from your label it was hard to break through to the next level. It was pretty prevalent back then. I learned a ton after the fact when I read some books on what happened in the business.

Jeb: You were on Anthem in Canada.

Carl: We were signed to the same management and label as Rush in Canada.

Jeb: How were they different than your USA label, Polygram?

Carl: Polygram/Mercury was our international label. Anthem was only in Canada’s borders. They got all of the benefits of the home country success. They were also in a position to do effective licensing deals to the rest of the world. That is how we ended up with Polygram/Mercury. Our label boss in Canada, and Rush’s manager, Ray Daniels, did distribution deals for our albums around the world. That got him some nice advances. In theory, it was money for Coney Hatch. In reality, everyone made money off of our albums but us, back in those days. We did have some songwriting monies that came to us, but it was kind of hard to make money with the budgets that were allowed to make albums back in those days.

Jeb: Triumph was putting out Allied Forces. Kim Simmonds had a hit song. Rush was big, but the other Canadian bands were almost making it in the USA.

Carl: Being a foreign act made it hard to get supporters within the American labels to knock down the walls that they would for an American band that they signed. It is more of an arm’s length relationship because you have a Canadian representative going, “These guys can be a hit in your county if you can just give them a chance.” The level of commitment was never the same as the American band being signed in America. A Canadian band in Canada gets more love from their people.

Honestly, there are cultural differences too. There were a number of bands that were considered iconic in Canada that just didn’t translate. Max Webster was one of them. Tragically Hip is another one. Blue Rodeo is another one. There are a lot of examples. We were considered surefire contenders at one point. When we first started on our first album we had some guys based out of Buffalo that were backing us all the way who were part of Polygram. They cared about us and they saw that our first album got a good push in the States. They moved on to other jobs and other labels as there was a high turnover rate. It you don’t have those people who signed you and cared about you and you’re handed-off to people who inherit you, then they just don’t care the same way.

Jeb: On a personal level, were you angry at the way it all worked out?

Carl: Well, you know, I never got angry or resentful about it. For me, I could see my own role in how things didn’t go big and I am always willing to accept blame for my own faults—maybe too readily so. I just think that if we weren’t a success and other people were, then that just means that those other people just figured out something that people wanted more, or they got a better representative working for them. It is a long chain with many links in the chain between the artist and the audience, and if any of those links breakdown, then the whole thing is disrupted.

Jeb: Where do you sit with it all today? You went through a horrible car wreck and came back.

Carl: It was pretty dramatic; I made quite a spectacle of myself. I did a solo album following that and I called it Lucky Dog. I believe that I am possibly the luckiest human being on the face of the earth. To have the life that I have had, and to survive that crash and thrive afterwards, and now be back in this position with my old friends that everyone is excited about…I don’t see how you get luckier than that. That is where I am.

Jeb: I would love to go see April Wine, Triumph and Coney Hatch down here more. It sucks that we don’t get to...

Carl: Somewhere a promoter has to be willing to take a risk, and to believe that someone will buy a ticket to see the band. If we don’t have those people out there then we don’t get the shows.

Jeb: Is it different in Canada?

Carl: April Wine still plays all the time. The Guess Who, with the guy that replaced me, is still playing in the States, but rarely in Canada. Coney Hatch is going to pick up the pace and get more shows. At one time Rock Bars were people’s staple entertainment. People would go out all the time to bars and there was a band on every corner. There was lots of work for everyone. People don’t go out that much anymore and they certainly don’t go out to places where rock bands are playing. People who were once headliners have to settle for smaller crowds and a smaller payday. Everything is on a smaller scale but I do see signs that a revival is on the way. I get the indications that many people are hungry for that once again.

Jeb: How about the Internet?

Carl: The Internet is great for promotion because there are not labels to promote you anymore. That used to be the job of the record company. Record companies had hundreds of employees. Now everybody in the world puts a band together and puts a page on the Internet and jumps up and down yelling, “Look at me!” It is a little distracting and it is hard to sort out who is good and who is not. You have to come up with some pretty creative promotional approaches. The Internet has made more opportunity for everyone but at the same time it really did break the old model of the music industry. There is no music industry to speak of anymore. The age of the rock star is over. You will never have that focus of the whole world’s attention on the best band in the world and what they are doing now. There is not that promotional machine anymore. There is not a monolithic rock world to promote to anymore. The sound has changed too, and that is why so many young people harken back to the young bands. When I was with April Wine, after the show, kids would go “Old guy’s rock…”