andrew kruse-ross | thor | oct. 2017
Since his earliest days Jon Mikl Thor dreamt of becoming a superhero. He unashamedly admits to being enamored with superheroes long before the days of cosplay.
“I took it to the next level; I was really into superheroes, so much so that I would wear a Superman costume underneath my clothes, go to school, change into Supermanat recess and think that I could fly."
Perhaps discovering that the secret to superhuman strength didn't stem from the costume and emulating muscular heroes like Herculean Steve Reeves, he began weight training at the age of 7. At age 11 he entered his first physique contest.
Thor hit the weights like a man possessed. At a time when listening to music at the gym was uncommon, Thor let the rock 'n' roll of Iron Butterfly, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath drive his training sessions.
“I would listen to the music and it would drive me into a frenzy where I would really train really hard — it's like it gave me that extra push beyond the pain barrier."
Thor would go on to win more than 40 bodybuilding titles and become the first Canadian ever to win both the Mr. Canada and Mr. USA titles.
Much like bodybuilding, Thor was exposed to music at an early age. Encouraged by his Austrian parents, Thor began playing the accordion at age 5. Influenced by the British Invasion, Thor began playing guitar and bass and formed The Ticks in high school. Eventually, Thor would fuse his bodybuilding and musical passions with bands Thor-Body Rock and Thor and the Imps. All the while, Thor, who was now a frontman, was honing his craft and perfecting his stage presence.
Drawing inspiration from the theatrical artists of the 1970s — artists like Alice Cooper and David Bowie — Thor decided to bring his own Thor character to life and from 1977 onward, the band has been known simply as Thor.
“I always knew the music was important because there's strength in the music," says Thor. “But in the early days, I just wanted to grab attention, so I would do some really crazy stunts."
A Thor show regularly incorporated a slew of props, simulated battles between the forces of good and evil and a series of strongman feats. The latter included bending steel bars with his teeth and blowing up hot water bottles until they burst, which he learned from bodybuilding legends Doug Hepern and Chuck Sipes respectively. Having bricks broken against his chest with the help of an assistant using a sledgehammer or pneumatic drill was also a favorite strongman feat, one that despite precautions, didn't always go as planned as happened during a show in New York City.
“The guy I hired to smash bricks off my chest started going crazy and there was just one little piece left and he still brought the sledgehammer down and it broke my ribs quite badly," says Thor. “I still continued the show."
“I always say I was the Evel Knievel of rock; I've broken numerous ribs. These are things that happen if you're going to do stuff like that."
Thor's live shows are legendary and in the 1980s, England was taking notice. The band performed several sold-out shows at London's legendary Marquee Club and followed up the success of their “Unchained" album with “Only the Strong," which charted songs “Let the Blood Run Red" and “Thunder on the Tundra."
By the mid-'80s, Thor decided to branch out, and like his idols Arnold Schwarzenegger and Steve Reeves, he began to pursue an acting career. Thor landed several B-movie roles, including roles in two horror cult classics: 1987's “Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare" and “Zombie Nightmare" — opposite Adam West and Tia Carrere in the latter.
But just as it seemed Thor was poised to take things to the next level, the band's momentum stalled. Where many of music's up and comers are derailed by a consumptive lifestyle, Thor's issues were of a different nature, but no less devastating. Corporate greed, stalled tours, contract disputes and more put a halt to Thor's success. In 1987, under severe mental strain, Thor retired from show business completely.
“I've often felt like we did everything right and there were so many others that did everything wrong," says Thor. “I was always trying to overcome obstacles; whether it was management or booking agents or whatever, there was always something."
Thor's attempt at living the life of a mere mortal wouldn't last, and in 1998, he began a to make a comeback. That roughly decade-long comeback is the primary focus of the 2015 documentary “I Am Thor," which has been met with considerable acclaim. The film and its Thor-only soundtrack, coupled with the re-issuing of Thor's classic albums have been pivotal in introducing Thor to new audiences across the globe.
“It's really amazing to me. I mean a song like 'Thunder on the Tundra' was a hit in England, right? But over in America … it never really made the mainstream, yet everywhere I go in Europe, the United States and Canada, people seem to know the song. This is a song from 1984 … and all these people know the song and I can only attribute that to the reissuing of the albums by Cleopatra."
Thor also points out how digital sharing of songs like "Thunder on the Tundra" and other Thor staples, which are regularly performed by cover bands, and even Thor tribute bands on youtube have given the songs life beyond that afforded by the original vinyl and mid-'80s airwaves.
Thor's catalog isn't framed solely in the past, however, he regularly produces new material. In August of 2017, 44 years after the Thor-Body Rock album first appeared, Thor released a new studio album titled “Beyond the Pain Barrier."
The album features 12 new songs that merge classic Thor riffage with a modern metal edge courtesy of musicians like John Leibel and Ted Jedlicki. Songs range from heavy as in “The Calling," co-written with the legendary Frank Soda, to heartfelt, as is the case with “When a Hero Dies," which Thor wrote in honor of his friend, film director John Fasano.
Today, as it was in the 1980s, it is with European audiences — this time those in Scandinavia — where Thor's fan base appears at its strongest. Thor has become a major draw in the Scandinavian festival circuit where he and the band most recently performed in front of 15,000 fans at the Porispere festival in Pori, Finland.
“In Europe it's just a way of life," says Thor. “Heavy metal is a lifestyle."
Such is the draw for Thor overseas, festival promoters have asked Thor to relocate to Helsinki to take full advantage of the European festival circuit. But unlike he did in his 20s, when he relocated to England to take part in the U.K. metal scene, Thor's in no hurry to uproot. Today he'll take family over fame.
While mainstream success has proven elusive for Thor, the tireless frontman has left his mark on the industry that seemed uncertain of how best to receive him and Thor, now in his 60s, shows no signs of slowing down.
In 2004 an international panel of journalists voted Thor one of music's greatest 100 frontmen of all time and a follow-up to “I Am Thor" titled “Return of the Thunderhawk" is scheduled for release later this year. In September, Thor kicked off a 30-city US/Canadian tour. That tour will bring Thor to Green Bay's Phat Headz on Oct. 21 — a first for both Thor and Titletown.
“The fact that we're speaking today in the year 2017 and I started Thor in 1973 it speaks something in itself," says Thor. “I'm still standing and I'm still making music."
“If you ask did Thor make it? I think I'd say yeah, Thor made it, but maybe in a different way … I had everything thrown at me: legal problems, divorce, illness, but somehow you get through the tough things. You gotta be tough in this business; if you buckle you're finished."
Thor visits Green Bay's Phat Headz on Oct. 21 with special guests A Sound of Thunder and Attalla. Doors open at 7 p.m. Show at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $13 in advance or $15 at the door. Advance tickets are available at the Green Bay Exclusive Company and Rock N' Roll Land.
For more on Thor visit ThorCentral.net.
“I Am Thor" is available on both DVD and Blu-ray and is currently streaming on Netflix.