Interview With Jon Mikl Thor: “Instead of being the Thin White Duke, or the Horror King, I would be the King Of Muscle Rock”
Between fronting various rock bands, starring in '80s B-Movies and baring it all for dinner guests in the Aloha state, Jon Mikl Thor has been existing on the fringes of American pop culture going on 5 decades now. The subject of the new documentary I Am Thor, my review of which you can read here, he is poised to come
Between fronting various rock bands, starring in ’80s B-Movies and baring it all for dinner guests in the Aloha state, Jon Mikl Thor has been existing on the fringes of American pop culture going on 5 decades now. The subject of the new documentary I Am Thor, my review of which you can read here, he is poised to come roaring back onto the heavy metal scene and beyond. Jon was gracious enough to take the time to speak with me about the documentary, his career, and all that lays ahead.
Arlin Golden for Film Inquiry: So I’d like to start with the film; how did the documentary project come to be?
Jon Mikl Thor: Well, you know, over my career there’s been numerous attempts at producers trying to do a documentary. Many have started, many have failed to complete it. I have to hand it to Al Higbee and Ryan Wise that they completed this documentary over 15 years.
Basically, it started in 1987. I got out of the business totally, completely, and moved away from New York City with my wife at the time. We went to live in Charlotte, North Carolina. I wanted nothing to do with show business, nothing at all. I went into other businesses, and then after about ten years I started felling like “hey”, I wanted to come back again. So I started coming back; I started my own label, put out some albums.
But then my wife at the time didn’t like all this stuff that was going on so we got a divorce. I left Charlotte, NC and headed out to the west coast and released an album called “Dogs 2” and started touring with it, because I wanted to get back in the music industry. So I went into Seattle, met up with Al Higbee and Ryan Wise. Because I was also getting back into films again, and I just happened to find out that they just got out of film school and were looking to do things, I invited them to my concert.
They came to the concert and were blown away. They said “we gotta do a documentary.” Maybe in their mind it was going to be two years, but it took much longer than that to finish. A lot of obstacles. Myself, I though there were a lot of things on the horizon that I thought would come sooner to me [rather] than later; it was pretty rough on me too, this comeback, you know?
FI: After all of the false starts in the ’70s and ’80s, and what seems, at least in the documentary, to be a comfortable home life, what compelled you to go back and start touring as Thor again?
JMT: It’s something that, ever since I was a kid, I was a showbiz a guy. I was the kind of guy that would enter the talent contest at school, play my accordion and sing and win the chocolate bar. I got into bands at any early age, and also competitive body-building at an early age. I loved going up there, flexing my muscles, competing; when I was 14-years old I’d compete against guys in their twenties and beat them.
Somehow, my muscles grew at an amazing pace, and I trained really hard and was very competitive. I loved the cheer form the audience, the roar of the audience. That’s why maybe I got into bands. In body-building you train for a contest that’s maybe once or twice a year, whereas if you’re in a band, you can play more often and get the roar of the crowd. Then of course I got very much into the excitement of what was going on with music. I loved writing music, I was very creative. All this kind of stuff spurred me on.
FI: Right, but then you go through all that, you tour Europe, you come back, you do a few movies in Hollywood, for whatever reason you decide to leave it all behind, but what in ’97, ’98…
JMT: Oh you’re talkin’ about that period!
JMT: That period, yeah. You’re talkin’ about after I retired and kind of wanted to have a whole different life. Basically what spurred me on was, I guess was relating it back when I was a kid, to creativity, that’s always in me. The wanting to be in front of an audience, the roar of the crowd. For example, I’d be in a grocery store with my wife, and we’re goin’ down the aisle and she said “go get a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes”.
But I’d be writing a song in my head, and I’d walk right past the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and keep writing the song, and she would go berserk and say “be where you are! You’re grocery shopping now. Be where you are.” The thing is, if you’re creative, you know, things come to you when you’re driving, or a song comes to you when you’re walking around doing something, and you want to retain that melody, that sort of thing.
So I wanted to be creative again, I wanted to get back into show business. It just calls to you, it’s in your blood, like it was when I was a kid, right? It goes through my whole life. It’s something, that spark of creativity, the wanting to hear people singing your songs when you’re on stage. I guess, that’s what brought me back in, you know? And I felt I still had unfinished business, because there were some things that happened to me, as shown in the movie, of why I had to get out of the business.
One of the reason’s I had to get out of the business in 1987…there was unfinished business I wanted to continue. For example, I always felt I was a great songwriter. I had #1 hits in England, but I still wanted that #1 in the United States. I really wanted to see if I could get that, that’s a tough thing to get. I was always kind of this underground artist where I wanted to try to be a mainstream artist. I wanted to get up there, that’s another level. It was a tough egg to crack, so to speak.
FI: It seems like at the culmination of the film you finally managed to crack that egg, and I’m curious what your impressions are as to why that northern, Scandinavian countries are so responsive to Thor, in particular.
JMT: I think that when you look out into the audience, and see everyone out there, most of their names are Thor, you know? Thor Erikkson, Thor Svenson. It’s just like, we have all these fans in Germany and The Netherlands because they get it. Heavy Metal, for one thing, is a way of life. And they’re really into Norse mythology, your Germanic Mythology. But then, just recently I did this tour in November of the United States, all major cities, and all of the places were packed, everyone was cheering, and I saw a lot of young fans who were discovering Thor through a new medium.
Social networking, Youtube, the new albums that are being put out, revisiting and repackaging some of my older albums, and then the new album that came out, Metal Avenger. The thing is, they’re singin’ along with me to all the songs I wrote 40 years ago before they were ever born. They’re like 20 years old, you know? Some are in their teens. But they’re singing those songs, they know ’em all.
It’s almost like… I was talking to someone yesterday in the biz and he said that when he saw me in New York and Philadelphia, “it’s not like you’re a nostalgia act, there weren’t older people that came to see ya. It was more like young people.” It’s almost like we’re a new band, and that’s all good to me. I think that I’m made for social networking, I’m made for the internet. I love it. I’m an older guy, I’m in my 60s, but I just love the way technology has gone. I think people get me more now than they ever did in the ’70s when I came out.
FI: That’s fascinating, I can see that for sure. I’m curious…your act. You’re saying you’re touring now, and you’re seeing these young crowds that I think really resonate with your act; that visceral, authentic, physical act. It seems like there’s a hint of vaudeville in there even. I’m just wondering how you landed specifically on the bending the steel, the blowing the water bottle. How did it become a solidified Thor act?
JMT: You know, I grew up loving the early ’70s, right? And that’s why I kind of honed my craft to be this character Thor. I was a big fan of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, what David Bowie was doing, what Alice Cooper was doing, this whole glam, theatrical rock that was going on in the early ’70s. The bigger the show the better. So I thought, why not have a strong guy? Since I was into bodybuilding. I was already playing in bands, I said “I’m going to make myself a front man!”
Like Bowie and Alice Cooper. But instead of being the Thin White Duke, or the Horror King, I would be the king of muscle rock. I was trying to develop the character, so what would this character be? Instead of hanging myself or, Gene Simmons was breathing fire and all that kind of stuff, I thought that the character should do somethin’! If he’s supposed to be a superhero, or a Herculean character, then he’s gotta bend steel.
So I went to Doug Hepburn, a friend of mine, who was the world’s strongest man, who could bend spikes and bend dimes, he lived in Vancouver, and he showed me how to bend steel in my teeth. It’s real steel, no one in the audience could bend it, not even ten people could bend it, but then I would put it in my teeth and try to bend it and it would. I would also rip license plates in two until my fingers would bleed.
JMT: I realized I should be wearing gloves. And I would lift the heaviest person in the audience with a harness on a platform, and one time a 400-lb person came up, and I lifted him up and the platform broke and we both rolled into the front row of the crowd. Another guy, Chuck Sikes, who is no longer with us, (Doug Hepburn is also no longer with us), if Doug Hepburn showed me the secret of the steel, Chuck Sipes showed me the secret of the rubber, which is the hot water bottle.
I can blow up and explode a lifetime guaranteed hot water bottle, sometimes it would get as big as the dance floor, like a zeppelin or somethin’. People would start running and screaming and then it would explode and knock me unconscious. I would see myself as the Evel Knievel of rock, ’cause Evel Knievel was really popular in the ’70s, right?
So that was my shtick, right? There was Bowie, there was Cooper, there were all these other bands that were trying to do theatrics and wear make-up in the early ’70s. I was very theatrical and glittery, but I was portraying a different character, a guy who was supposed to be a superhero.
FI: Do you feel that the direction to go and find that character…was that at all a coincidence due to your strong name? Do you think you would have become Thor if your name was Ted Smith or something?
JMT: [Laughs] Huh, that’s a pretty good stage name, Ted Smith!
FI: Well, I mean I don’t think people in the audience necessarily expect your real name to be Jon Thor, but that’s your real name and you became Thor! So I’m just wondering if you had a more conventional name, do you think you would have still drifted those themes of superheroes and Norse mythology?
JMT: My first band, in 1973, well there was Centaur first, but shortly afterwards Mikl Body Rock, I’m John Mikl Thor, M-I-K-L, my middle name there, so I used that name, Mikl Body Rock. I wasn’t even thinking that much about Thor, except Thor would become a character within the show, that’s how it kind of worked. But if you go back to the ’50s, I was just a young boy, I would watch The Adventures of Superman with George Reeves, and I would watch Hercules with Steve Reeves.
In fact, I loved mythology, not necessarily Norse mythology, I loved Greek mythology and my idea was with Centaur and Mikl Body Rock, it was more of a Hercules character in the beginning. I was always into comics and superheros all through my life. And science fiction movies like Invaders From Mars and all that kind of stuff. So I think it would’ve evolved…I often think “What if I had kept the Mikl Body Rock name? And used the costumes from that period?”
Of course, they were glitter costumes, and the times were a changin’ from the ’70s. We got more into punk. If you look at my costume that’s on The Merv Griffin Show, it’s more glam, it’s more glitter, right? And then “Keep the Dogs Away” it was more leather and studs because we were changing and I had to adapt. It’s adapt or die, and we’re gettin’ into punk and into more harder music, or hard rock as they were callin’ it then. “Heavy Metal”, you heard it in the Steppenwolf song and Grand Funk was sometimes called “Heavy Metal”, but it wasn’t secured yet, “this is Heavy Metal”. It was all “rock” or “rock n’ roll” in the 70s. Then it evolved into heavy metal.
But yea, everything was getting heavier, so I wore different types of costumes, I was always experimenting. Experimenting with my make-up, experimenting with my hair. There was one time where I wanted to make my hair…they put too much of this peroxide on and it burned my scalp; my scalp was on fire and I was screaming in the hairdressing salon. Everybody was jumpin’ outta their seats and waving my head with magazines. I was always trying to do things with my hair, and some things went right and some things didn’t.
FI: It seems, apart from experimenting with your act, which seemed to evolve and coalesce over time, you were experimenting a lot also with different careers leading up to that point. So I’m just kind of curious, from the naked waiter to the rock to the acting, was there any reason you felt you could never really settle? Or was it just always striving for something more?
JMT: Well, you know, I always wanted to do theatrical shows. So the offer to came in to do the show “What Do You Say to a Naked Waiter” in Hawaii. I’m a young man, a young boy, barely out of my teens at the time, and I loved sewin’ my oats at the time, I was very promiscuous. But I went “wow, if I can go on stage and be naked in Hawaii in front of all those women”, 400-500 women, for the nude lunch and dinner show and all that stuff, then I could be comfortable in any kind of stage performance, I’ll never be nervous.
And that’s what I did, you know? I thought it was a great run, I did very well with that show and it led to other shows like “Red, Hot & Blue” which I stared in shortly after in Las Vegas. There you couldn’t do nude, I wore a jockstrap. In “Red, Hot and Blue”, I was able to be different characters, which I liked doing. I was playing, because it was the bicentennial in 1976, I would play heroes of America. I was Superman, Paul Revere, Elvis Presley, it was great!
I just had one incident where I was Superman, they had this cable that said it would hold me, it would hold a 1-ton truck no problem. As I’m flying over the audience, back to the stage, about 15-ft up the cable breaks, and I come down really hard and broke my shoulder and ribs at that time. I had already broken bones form doing strength feats, having bricks smashed off my chest. But this time I really got the wind knocked out of me.
So it’s an occupational hazard, these are things that happen in this business. I was always striving, I wanted to be different characters, I wanted to do things. I was lucky that Merv Griffin saw me and he liked the show and he gave me a shot on The Merv Griffin Show.
FI: So then, toward the end of the ’80s, you had a #1 hit in the UK and they were loving your live show over there. Things were kind of stalling, but it seems, at least in the film, that there was an abrupt shift to get into pictures and move your focus to Los Angeles.
JMT: Yeah! I always wanted to be a mutlimedia character, being a big fan of George Reeves, Steve Reeves, who won Mr. Universe and Mr. America, then used his muscles to get into movies and all that. I was very impressed with that. Schwarzenegger was doing the same kind of thing. So I wanted to get into movies.
I always loved movies, I would film movies as a young kid. I pretty much loved the idea of bein’ in movies as much as bein’ in bands. They always say that usually someone who is a musician does better going into movies and being a musician than some who stars in movies first and then tries to be a musician, right? I think somehow it carries over better. So anyhow, I just felt it was a natural meld, and I wanted to do it.
I starred in a movie called Recruits with Lolita Davidovich, who later went into a movie called Blaze. A fellow who became a friend of mine, John Fasano, the late great John Fasano, saw me in this movie and said “Man, I gotta get this guy in Zombie Nightmare with Adam West and Tia Carrere“. The offer came in and I said “of course, that’s what I want to do, I want to do movies.”
John and I spoke about “Hey, why don’t we do a movie together? About some kind of a Hercules type of character, or an angel who falls to earth that tries to do a good deed to get on the good side again” So, you know, I came up with a script, Rock N’ Roll Nightmare. It was originally called “The Archangel” then it was called “The Edge of Hell”, and some countries kept the name “The Edge of Hell”, but Rock N’ Roll Nightmare was the name used for North America, and it did incredibly well!
A B-movie, John and I just wanted it to be distributed at some point. I never thought it would have this longevity. There’s still a generation of fans that love this movie. It still comes out on SnagFilms, there are great fans of the movie, and I look back at it and I’m surprised. Surprised and pleased I guess that it still carries on today. I saw that when I went on tour, how many people came up to me and they had copies of Rock N’ Roll Nightmare for me to sign.
FI: Yea, I’m looking forward to checkin’ that out myself, no doubt. So to come full circle here, you mentioned that you did a tour behind the documentary that sounded like it went pretty well, was well attended, and you’re garnering new fans. Looking back over everything in your career, all the shifts, all the hopes dashed and restarts, I’m wondering how are you feeling now? Are you content? Or are you feeling that there’s more yet to achieve?
JMT: Oh, I always feel that there’s more to achieve! Things didn’t go completely according to plan. My plan was, hey, I was going to put this act together and then I’d have #1 hits like I did in the ’70s, and I’d be like The Beatles. Everything was going to go that way. It didn’t work out that way. But in some unorthodox way, it’s kind of amazing how things are working out because technology’s changed, and the technology that’s goin’ on now is really working for me. All these doors are opening up, ya know?
It just so happens to be that people really seem to like this movie and the new album that I just did and the older albums that are being re-released and the tour, like I said, went well and now I’m getting offers to do shows in Australia, more shows in Europe, and there’s going to be a big show in May in New York City. It’s going to be a big Broadway-type show with big sets and they’re going to show a different cut of the movie, and it’s going to be amazing, it’s going to be a big production.
So I’m going to be doing that, I’m going to be doing a Canadian tour coming up, select cities in Canada. There’s a lot going on. I got some other movies I’m writing, a book, so the opportunities are endless. It’s sort of like, back in the day, The Who would write about “hope I die before I get old”. Well, most of the rockers now are being looked up to who are in their 60s. Schwarzenegger‘s still doing movies and he’s 67 or 68, McCartney‘s palying and he’s 73.
If you look after yourself over the years, which I feel I’ve done…I mean I’ve had my share of illnesses and problems. But generally, I didn’t burn the candles at both ends. Like I didn’t abuse myself with cocaine or other drugs or speed, like maybe some others had. I tried to live a pretty good life, which was not the norm for rock stars in my day. “John, why aren’t you comin’ with us to the pub? We’re going to drink and then we’re gonna snort coke after, why aren’t you comin?” ‘Cause that wasn’t my lifestyle.
So anyhow, if you look after yourself somewhat, you can still rock on stage, and I feel great right now. I’m ready for the upcoming opportunities and tours that are going to come my way. The thing is, I feel young, I feel full of excitement, and I like hanging out with young people, seeing young people singing my tunes. Talking to ’em…I don’t feel like I’m in my 60s, I feel like I’m in my 30’s.
FI: Well that’s awesome, but I do feel compelled to ask… How many more sledgehammers do you feel you can take to the chest?
JMT: [Laughs] I take no sledgehammers to the chest! The way I feel right now, the strength is in the music; I don’t do stunts any more. There’s going to be some big surprises how that’s going to work in New York City. There’s some unbelievable strength feats in New York City coming up, but it’s going to be done in a whole different way. There’s going to be an announcement about it coming up.
But like I said, I feel the strength is in the music, I feel I could go on stage and wear a t-shirt and jeans, and the band wore t-shirts and jeans and we sang our songs, I think we still could on a great performance and people would enjoy the show.
FI: Well hey man, that’s awesome. Sounds like you’re right where you want to be, and I’m happy to hear that you’re happy.
JMT: Thanks! I appreciate that.
FI: And thank you for taking the time to talk to me! I was compelled by your story and…you watch enough documentaries, you don’t always expect there to be a positive situation in the end, but it was a relief to see that that’s how your story is turning out.
JMT: Well, thank you very much, I really appreciate it, great talkin’ to ya.
I Am Thor is now available everywhere on Blu-Ray and VOD. You can keep up with Jon and all his projects on his website, Thor Central.
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.