Interview – Don Dokken of Dokken

Don Dokken live photo

During the ’80s, Hard Rock and Heavy Metal found a common place in Billboard charts. A soar in mainstream acceptance and popularity that we have not seen prior, or thereafter, one of the kings of the era were none other than Dokken. A band formed by Don Dokken in the late ’70s, it was a steady climb to the top, starting in 1983 with Breaking the Chains, flowing into 1984’s Tooth and Nail, 1985’s Under Lock and Key, and erupting with 1987’s Back for the Attack. A rise to stardom that would eventually say Dokken over ten million albums, they had massive hits that aired consistently on radio, with videos in heavy rotation on MTV. Even finding themselves immortalized with the 1987’s “Dream Warriors,” written for box office smash hit A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, there is no denying the impact of Dokken.

Now, many decades later, Dokken continues to move forward with Don Dokken establishing an extremely strong band behind him. Passionate and dedicated to giving fans the best version of Dokken possible, they returned in 2023 with the exciting new album Heaven Comes Down. Dokken’s first studio album in eleven very long years, the wait was worth it, because it has everything fans want to hear. Dedicated to the music and making it all killer and no filler, Don Dokken recently sat down to take an up close and personal look at the band’s history, the work put into Heaven Comes Down, plus more. 

Cryptic Rock – You have been involved with Dokken, and Rock-n-Roll in general, for quite some time now. Over four decades, you have been doing it, and have built a strong legacy with Dokken. That said, you continue to keep the band going strong into present time. How would you describe the incredible journey that Dokken has been on?

Don Dokken – Well, it’s definitely been a journey. (Laughs) We got to the top of the mountain in ’88, we broke up, and then Grunge happened. Six months later, Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses came along on the same label as us, Geffen, and we just slowed down for about five or six years… because it wasn’t the kind of music we made.

Then, for some reason, beyond the fact it’s so sad and tragic, a lot of these Grunge singers from bands like Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden are gone. They’re dead. They died from drugs or committed suicide. It’s sad. You know, I don’t know what that’s all about. Why are these singers like Layne and Chris Cornell gone?

I hear this a lot on tour. A lot of kids were too young to see us in ’88 – there were around twelve. Then we broke up. Then they were in their twenties, we’re back, and they can come see us. I see a lot of kids in their twenties all the way up to people in their sixties. It’s been kind of a resurgence for us. We’re playing in front of thousands of people, and I’m just grateful.

Dokken - Breaking The Chains album cover
Dokken – Breaking The Chains / Elektra Records (1983)
Dokken - Tooth and Nail artwork
Dokken – Tooth and Nail / Elektra Records (1984)

Cryptic Rock – The band has certainly been on an interesting journey.  A lot of bands that had success in the ’80s, such as yourselves, did feel the hard hit of the Grunge era. Fortunately, things came back around.

Dokken’s success was steady build. Obviously, you had success with the first two records, and then it started to really blow up once you got into Under Lock and Key (1985), as well as Back for the Attack (1987). What was that like at that time seeing everything get bigger after all the years of hard work you put into this?

Don Dokken – Well, it was exciting. We thought, “Well, the music scene has changed, so maybe it’s over.” I didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon and start writing dark music. I didn’t want to be The Smashing Pumpkins or Marilyn Manson. Dokken is Dokken… this is what we do. We just kind of had to ride it out during the ’90s, even though we still kept making records. We did Dysfunctional (1995), Shadowlife (1997), Long Way Home (2002), and Lightning Strikes Again (2008). We made a lot of records in the ’90s. After George (Lynch) left the band, I always made sure that whoever got in the band was a killer.

We had Reb Beach, who is an amazing guitar player! He did Erase of Slate (1999) and that was one of my favorite records. That was a killer record. That’s one of the few records that we actually went into my recording studio and we just set up old school. Reb came in and I said, “What do you got?” I play guitar too and he said, “What do I have?” Then Jeff (Pilson) goes, “I got this.” We basically just wrote that record in rehearsal in two weeks and came up with a great record.

Then I had John Norum, another great guitar player. Then Billy White. I have really always had great guitar players in the band. Then, Jon Levin joined the band in 2003. We get along really great; and he has a little bit of that Lynch sound.

We kept making records. It just was because Apple and Microsoft screwed all the musicians. You used to have to download a record or $0.99 a song, and then some asshole said, “I think we’ll just make you pay $24 a month, and you can download as many songs as you want.” Well, that didn’t help us.

 

Cryptic Rock – Yes, it definitely hurts all musicians. Now we are in a period in time where everyone is just streaming things. Sadly, most people do not even buy physical music anymore.

Don Dokken – It is. They just stream a song, play it, and move onto the next song. Or you got social media, where fans put out really cheap videos on their iPhones, and they watch it for one minute. It seems like the attention span of Americans, especially, and Europeans, has gotten very short. They watch one minute of the song, if they don’t like it, they move on to the next song.

So, I thought about writing Heaven Comes Down. With Heaven Comes Down, I thought, “Every song has to be great on this record, and I don’t care how long it takes.” It took us three years.

Cryptic Rock – Yes, and speaking of the new record, it was worth the wait, because it is really great. 

Don Dokken – We delivered the record a year ago. It’s been done for a year. For some reason, the label held it back. It finally came out and we’re happy. We were shocked after doing the first video for “Fugitive.” It had something like seven-hundred thousand views and I thought, “That’s a lot of views for YouTube.” That’s not normal.

Cryptic Rock – Most certainly, that is a great reaction. As you said, this record took three years to make. To the fans, this is the first Dokken record in 11 years… so it is really exciting

Something many have waited for, were you just taking your time as far as figuring out what the next step was with music with Dokken?

Don Dokken – Yeah. It was just the next step. Especially since I moved out of Los Angeles and my main writing partner, Jon Levin, is there. I’m in New Mexico now. The bass player and drummer, Chris McCarvill and Bill Zampa, live in Connecticut. It was hard for us to get together and write.

We were on tour, doing shows, and then we’d all go home. It took a long time until I found Bill Palmer; who was a producer here in Santa Fe. The hardest part was finding an engineer that was willing to drive up my one-mile driveway to my villa on the top of a mountain in the snow. He said, “I got a four-wheel drive. I can do it.” That worked out well for me. We just took our time, and I said, “Look, there’s no hurry.” And Covid, you know Covid hit.

Covid was a terrible thing, but we had two years where they said, “You’re not allowed to play in front of any more than five hundred people.” I’m like, “Well, I don’t want to fly back east for five hundred people.” They put restrictions on the Covid thing; except for Florida. We did Florida two years ago and we had like twenty thousand people because the governor said, “No masks.” We had that time to go over like twenty-seven song ideas and narrow it down to the best of the best.

Dokken - Under Lock and Key artwork
Dokken – Under Lock and Key / Elektra Records (1985)
Dokken - Back for the Attack artwork
Dokken – Back for the Attack / Elektra Records (1987)

Cryptic Rock – Well, you certainly accomplished that, because this album is really good from start to finish. There are no valleys… it is all peaks. One thing that sticks out with this album is that it sounds real. A lot of modern records sound really way too polished and processed in that respect. It sounds like you guys are playing live. Was that something you had in mind?

Don Dokken – Yeah. I was listening to all the new artists the last couple of years, and I thought, “I can hear the Auto-Tune… which drives me crazy.” When you hear a singer singing, they’ve got Auto-Tune on it, because he’s singing flat or sharp. They run up to this little device called Auto-Tune, and he sounds perfect, but it doesn’t sound real. It sounds artificial and fake. If you sing a flat note or a sharp note, that’s okay, because maybe the guitar player at that point pulled a little sharp or a little flat. I want to make an honest record. No toys, no artificial tuning.

Some nights I had a bad night. My voice wasn’t good. I’ve had a lot of vocal problems over the years, because of what happened to me in the surgery. Sometimes Bill Palmer would show up and I’d start singing and say, “Eh, not tonight, Bill. I can’t do it.” We’d move on to other songs, I would edit, and change the arrangements. I think I probably wrote every song on this record over three times.

I just kept pushing myself to say, “The lyrics can be better. The music can be better. The drum parts can be better. The harmonies can be better.” I didn’t want to go for the old Dokken sound like, classic example, “In My Dreams.” We’ve got like eight, nine tracks of harmonies on “In My Dreams.” I didn’t want to do that. I just wanted to keep it real with some harmonies.

How do I say it politically correct? I’ve heard some songs from bands with heavy production and tons of harmonies… but the song’s not good, in my opinion. So, the old saying is you can’t turn shit into ice cream.

Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) It is very true. The songs are what make the music and it is nice to see that you kept it real. You can hear that on Heaven Coming Down. It sounds real in a time where there is so much auto tuning and overproduction.  

Don Dokken – Yeah, I didn’t want to go down that road. I have all those toys in my studio. If I hit a bad note he’d say, “Well, I’m going to start auto tune.” I said, “Nope. Let me sing it again until I get it.” I sang the note over and the melody over till I got it. I didn’t want to use so much electronics. I listen to Taylor Swift, who sells millions of records. It’s so obvious that she’s all auto-tuned. That bugs me. I’m like, “Girly, go in the studio and just sing the damn song.”

You have good days and you have bad days. Bill would come up in the dead of winter. My house is eight thousand feet up in the mountains. That’s pretty high up, and there is a one-mile driveway full of snow. Bill would slowly work his way up to my house. If we had too many beers, he’d just spend the night in my guest house, and we’d go at it the next day. Thankfully to him, he was willing to come up and work at the house and in the studio. I said, “I don’t want any tricks. I don’t want any fakery.” As you noticed on the record, there’s not a massive number of harmonies. Just the basics – lead vocal, note above, three-part harmony and that’s it.

I didn’t want to go for that Def Leppard Pyromania (1983), which was a brilliant record, but it took them four years. There are something like ten or twelve harmony tracks on that record. I didn’t want to go down that road. I just said, “Let’s just keep it real.” I believe that if the song’s good, it’s good. I don’t have to put twenty harmonies on it. I don’t have to triple the guitars three times. The song is what it is, and let’s let the song stand alone.

Cryptic Rock – Absolutely and these songs do stand alone. You had mentioned you underwent vocal surgery and the issues you had. Tom Kiefer of Cinderella also had problems with his voice, and obviously battled back. What have you had to do to get your voice in shape and continue to persist and sing?

Don Dokken – Well, actually, I did it from talking with Tom, because Tom didn’t sing for three years. Tom sings super high, he always did. It sounded great, but it’s kind of a curse. When you’re in your twenties, and you’re singing at the top of your range, then all of a sudden, you can’t do it anymore.

He had surgery done to his cords. He went to Ron Anderson, a vocal teacher who’s now passed away, who taught it. Ron Anderson actually went on tour with Axl Rose to warm him up an hour every night before the show because Axel, God bless him, was doing Guns N’ Roses and AC/DC. I was like, “How in the hell do you do that?”

I talked to Tom. We did a few Cinderella shows. I said, “How’d you get your voice back? You sound great. You sound just like the old Tom from the ’80s.” He told me of his struggles, and how he blew his cords out, the surgeries, and vocal teachers, etc. I was picking his brain going, “I’m starting to lose my high end. I can’t hit those high notes anymore. I don’t know why. I’m trying.”

The truth of the matter is, the only thing I’m negative about for the new album I hear is – Don’s not singing high like he used to, and Don’s not hitting the high notes, and Don sounds husky. Well, guys, I’m seventy years old. What do you want from me? I can only do the best I can. I’m not twenty-six years old anymore, like on Tooth and Nail (1984).

When a guitar player’s strings start sounding like crap, they change the strings. The bass doesn’t sound good, you put new bass strings. Your drums start sounding crappy, you put new drum heads. Well, we can’t do that as singers. We have a muscle, and we have to use it. All of a sudden, you do ten, twelve, or fifteen world tours… yeah… your voice takes a hit. Unless you’re like a person that was blessed by God.

Case in point, Ronnie James Dio. His last album, when he did the Heaven and Hell album, I went in the studio one day. He was in the studio and I just popped in. I didn’t know he was there. He was singing, and I thought, “That’s Ronnie, I can recognize him.” He was working at Total Access Studios, and Wyn Davis said, “Sounds great.” Ronnie said, “No, no. Let me do it again. I can do it better.” To me, it was already perfect. However, Ronnie was like me. He’s very meticulous. He wants the energy, the honesty. He wanted every note he sang to sound real. That was kind of inspirational.

When the fans are naysayers and say, “Oh, I saw Dokken, Don was singing lower, he didn’t do the high notes,” I’m like, “Dude, you do fifteen world tours. Let me see how you sound fifteen years, or forty years.” I don’t let that get to me anymore. On this record, I am singing lower. Even the Scorpions now sing lower, because we’re getting older. Some of the fans are like, “It doesn’t sound the same as 1985.” Well, guess what? It’s not 1985… it’s 2024. So, I ignore that shit. I just sing the best I can. My whole thing about singing is to emote the lyrics I’ve written and tell the story of the song with an honest vernacular of singing the songs and telling the stories.

As you know on this new record, it’s very different from our previous Dokken records. Every song is like a story. “Gypsy” is a story. “Fugitive” is a story. I wrote stories instead of just, “I miss you. I love you. Please come back to me.” You know I just wanted to get away from that; I think I burned that story out.

With Heaven Comes Down, every song is different, and they all have a story or a metaphor. “Over the Mountain,” classic example. “Over the Mountain,” people ask me in the interviews, “What are you talking about?” I said, “It’s a metaphor about life and trying to get to the top of the mountain to find your place of happiness, to find your Shangri-La, to find your place of peace.” And that’s in that animated, and that’s what I wrote about, stories.

Dokken - Heaven Comes Down album cover
Dokken – Heaven Comes Down / Silver Lining Records (2023)

Cryptic Rock – And it works well. It is very enjoyable to listen to. You did some shows in November, but is there going to be any more extended touring going to 2024?

Don Dokken – I think what I’ve seen, we have maybe a show in March, one in April, maybe two or three, and that’s it. But right now, we’re concentrating on going to Europe and doing a huge European tour. We’re working on it, I’ve got it in front of me right now… and it’s going to be crazy.

We’re going to play countries we have never played. We’re going to play Budapest, then Stockholm, then Norway, then a flight to Spain, and then a flight to Belgium. Then we’re flying to the Czech Republic, then back to Denmark, and then back to Milan. So, it’s going to be a pretty intense tour; because we haven’t played Europe in seven years.

Cryptic Rock – Excellent. Well, that is great that you are going to Europe as well and playing places that you have never played before with Dokken. Dokken is beloved in Europe. And you had mentioned how American’s attention spans are extremely short nowadays. It is perhaps a little different in Europe; people there seem to retain and appreciate music a little bit better. What are your thoughts?

Don Dokken – I agree. You know we’re going to Budapest, and I’m thinking – does anyone know who we are there? Yes, apparently, because there has been a lot of ticket sales.   

I don’t go on social media much and I don’t go on YouTube much. And then when we released the video “Fugitive,” and within eight weeks, it had over seventy thousand views I thought… Holy shit! I mean, people now click on a song, listen to one-minute, next song, next song, next song… they don’t even listen to the whole damn song. So, I said, “Why don’t we try to make a video that is so off the wall.” We filmed at this place called Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return and every scene is different.  The record company didn’t believe in it. And I said, “Well, it’s not your money. It’s my money. I’m going to spend it.” We filmed it with movie cameras.  There were no GoPros, no iPhones; It’s all shot with 4K movie cameras.

And we brought in the best of the best, Chris Eyre, who was the director of a show called Dark Winds, and Tom Strickfaden, who did three Dokken videos. And I said, “I’m going to bring in the best of the best and make an amazing video, and we’ll see what happens.” Sure enough, we get sixty thousand in around seven weeks. And you can see when they view, they don’t click out.

So, I thought, “Well, we must have done a great song, a great video, and people are interested.” I’ve had many who have said, “I’ve had to watch that video four times. because there’s so much going on.” In the video you’ve psychedelic trees and statues, and you’re in a trailer, and you’re walking around an old house. It’s a pretty trippy video. And they listen to the whole song. That’s what I wanted them to do, to absorb the song “Fugitive.”

And people asked me, “Why is the song called Fugitive?” And I said, “Because I lived in LA my whole life.” I never thought I’d ever leave Los Angeles. I lived at the beach; Manhattan Beach, Mimosa Beach, etc. I would buy and sell different houses, and I was always a beach brat. Then I moved up to Beverly Hills, up in the canyons, where it was peaceful and quiet… and I didn’t like it either. I just said, “It’s just too much.”

I just had enough and I just wanted to move away. I found this home up in these mountains and I saw this ad that said, “Mountain for sale.” I went, “Someone’s selling a mountain, I’ll take it.” The mountain had one house on it. That sounded weird to me. I came up and looked at it, sure enough, there was this beautiful chapel-like building with 25-foot ceilings. I’m surrounded by thousands of trees, land, and no neighbors. I can look out any window of my house, and I don’t see anybody. I am in a forest, and I said, “This is what I want to do. I’m done with the traffic, the homeless people, and crime. I just got to get the hell out of here.” So, now I’m in New Mexico, and it’s very peaceful.

Cryptic Rock – Wow, it sounds absolutely amazing.

Don Dokken – And it really inspired me to write Heaven Comes Down. I could look out in the studio and out the windows, see the sun going down, rainbow sunset, and you see the stars at night. It’s perfectly quiet, except for the damn coyotes. And my dogs go crazy when they hear the coyotes going for it. (Laughs)

I have security cameras on my property, and I check them the next day, and I see a massive bear standing at my front door. And I’m like, “Holy shit!” I mean, this bear was huge. He had a gray muzzle, and I’m like, “Wait a minute. I remember him from last year, because I have apricot trees and peach trees and fruit trees.” And he came down to our property and he’d eat all the fruit, because he’s getting ready to hibernate.

It’s just a different environment than L.A., which is just traffic, crime, and homeless people. I just thought it’s time for me at seventy to have a different life. I feel that I’ve devoted my life to my Dokken and fans for forty years. I’ve lived on a tour bus, planes, and in airports. And this is what I devoted my life to… to my fans. And I finally realized, getting older, I said, “Well, what about me?” My children are grown, they’re in their thirties, and it’s time for me to have some peace and quiet. So, it’s only hectic when we go on the road… and then you have to do what you have.

Cryptic Rock – It sounds like a wonderful place to live. It is fascinating to hear how the move inspired this new album too.

Don Dokken – I said that every song has to stand alone. I said, ” I don’t want what they call filler.” And that has been my disappointment from my peers you know from the ’80s and ’90s. They made a record, and you got the one cool song you see on the internet. I listen to it, and I go, “That’s a great song.” I buy the record, because I always buy them and say, “No offense,” I won’t say who, but I’m like, the rest of the album is kind of eh, so-so.”

So, I can understand why people just stream the cool songs, and don’t buy the record, because it’s boring. I said, “I’m not going to do that. I don’t want a record with three songs and seven okay songs. I’m not going to do it, and I don’t give a shit if it takes five years to make this record.” It was sad about COVID, but COVID gave us the vehicle to not be on tour. We just kept writing and writing. We wrote twenty-eight songs for this record, and I think they were all pretty cool.

There are four songs they took off the record, which I’m really disappointed with. The label said, “But your album is coming out on vinyl, so you can only put five songs aside.” And if we put out fourteen on the CD, everyone’s just going to buy the CD, and not buy the vinyl. I said, “I know, but these songs are good, man. They’re really good.” Hopefully, those songs will see the light of day.

Dokken - Erase the Slate artwork
Dokken – Erase the Slate / CMC International (1999)
Dokken - Lightning Strikes Again artwork
Dokken – Lightning Strikes Again / Frontiers (2008)

Cryptic Rock – Hopefully, that would be great to hear them.

Don Dokken – They’re really good, honestly. And the four songs they took off, dammit, were the ones that I played guitar on before my arm got paralyzed. When my arm got paralyzed, I was fucked; I couldn’t write anymore music. So, thank God I had Jon Levin. He wrote some great songs, probably half the record, and I just concentrated on the lyrics. That’s how it worked out.

I’m really happy people like the record. The only negatives I’ve heard is that I’m not singing as high as I used to; I’m not hitting the Rob Halford screams. And I’m like, “Guys, give me a break. I’m seventy, man. Back off.” (Laughs)

Cryptic Rock – Right. Well, no one should expect you to hit notes like you did on a song like 1985’s “Lightning Strikes Again.” People’s voices naturally change.

Don Dokken – Yep. Oh, God. “Lightning Strikes Again,” If I would have known and I sang that song so high, and I had to do it forty years later, I would have sung it a lot lower. (Laughs)

There’s the God bless. Ann Wilson sounds amazing, still. Ronnie James Dio said it was amazing until the end of his life. People like Glenn Hughes in the Deep Purple, who is in his seventies, still sounds like he did back in the day. I guess it’s just a gift. I openly admit, I didn’t take great care of my voice. I didn’t warm up every day for an hour; I’d just get my clothes on and go on stage and do it. I paid the price.

Then when they operated on my spine, they nicked my larynx and my vocal cords, and trashed them. I went to two surgeons, spinal surgeons, and they said, “Don, we know who you are. We know you’re a singer. And we don’t want to operate on you.” I’m like, “What?” They go, “Well, we’re afraid if we nick your vocal cords, because you still have your tonsils, you have big tonsils, and there’s not a lot of room in there. And we don’t want to trash your vocal cords. Your voice is going to sound different. We don’t want to do it.” So, I went to a specialist in L.A., who went through the back, and he still fucked me up. I woke up and my right arm was paralyzed. Now I can’t play guitar, piano, bass, or drums. So, he really screwed me over.

I spent three years now with vocal teachers, physical therapists, and doing everything I can to be the best I can, but it is what it is. I told the band, “When the time comes, when I walk on stage, and I can’t stand there and perform for two hours, then it’s over.” If I can’t do it, I can’t do it.

Cryptic Rock – Let’s hope you can continue to do it as long as you can. All these troubles sound very stressful and agonizing.

Don Dokken – Yeah. Fingers crossed. You know I have good nights and I have bad nights. And people go, “Oh, I saw Don Dokken play last night. And he sounded like shit.” What they didn’t know was I flew for seven hours on a plane to get to the gig, I had three hours of sleep, and drove in a van for four hours to get to the venue.

The fans are the fans. They want to hear it just like it was in 1985. Sometimes I sing great. The band will tell me after the show, “Dude, you sing great tonight. You were singing your ass off.” They also know when I’m having a bad night, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I just do the best I can and sing the best I can.

I have a great band. I have no reason to change members. George (Lynch) has been playing with us a few songs at the end of the night, a couple of songs, and people like that. It’s all good and I’m happy. When I get to a venue, I don’t know if we’re going to have one-thousand or seven-thousand people, I’m like, “Wow, there’s still Dokken fans out there.” And that makes me very happy.

Dokken 2024 Tour Dates:
8/4/2024 Rockefeller, Oslo, Norway
For more on Dokken: dokken.net | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram 

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