Nothing Doing With The Nihilist Spasm Band

25 April 2010 No Comment

by Shane Scott-Travis

No Means Yes

The story of the Nihilist Spasm Band is the story of a band that will take “no” for an answer. Their maxim is one of inspired improvised madness. The NSB began and remains a precocious child with many proud and protective papas.

Born during the rise of the counterculture and the delivery of a social revolution—the Sixties. Echoing out of ultra-conservative London, Ontario came a rumbling retching sound unlike any before it.

Though already performing together for a couple of years, it wasn’t until 1967 that the Nihilist Spasm Band released their debut album, No Record, on an unsuspecting public. Their influence would best their fame as originators of an avant-garde genre never before gleaned.

No Record roars to life quite literally, becoming 50 minutes of, well, something no one had any context for. Was it abstract sound, agitprop, clamour, ear-splitting nausea, poetry, or an inoculation against boredom? And what exactly do you call it?

The answer is both yes and noise.

I Don’t Like Mondays

“We had no money so buying instruments wasn’t an option,” muses John Clement (bass, guitar, and drums) on the early days of the NSB. “So we just made them ourselves. We took the same attitude to music and thought we’d just do it ourselves and not worry about the fact that none of us had much by way of formal music training.”

They were nothing more than a group of artists, intellectuals and functional non-conformists. The spur that urged them on was rather meek and mild considering the cacophony it would ultimately create.

“Our friend, the late artist Greg Curnoe, made a film that needed a soundtrack,” says John Boyle (drums, kazoo, thumb piano). “He consulted with his friends and we decided to toodle on kazoos—chosen because they were black and red—the colours of the anarchists and the nihilists.”

“One of our friends, Hugh McIntyre, showed up at my art studio with a small kazoo in one hand and a metal funnel in the other,” enthuses Murry Favro (guitar). “He wanted to know, could I join the two together somehow to make it into a big kazoo? Greg got very enthusiastic about us making our own kazoos and forming a kazoo band or using other instruments we’d made.”

Inspired by the spasm bands that egressed out of New Orleans in the late nineteenth century—bands that made their own instruments out of everyday found items, like jugs and pipes—and the anti-authoritarian tenets of nihilism, these iconoclasts were cast.

“Shortly after doing the soundtrack we began playing regularly in Curnoe’s studio in 1965,” says Boyle. “We persuaded the owners of the York Hotel—where we drank beer after playing—to let us play there.”

“Monday night was quiet with very little business for us to drive away,” recalls Clement. “Mo and Eddy—the owners of the York Hotel—were fond of music. Mo, who played clarinet, had trouble tolerating the noise we made, but he loved the crowds that developed on Monday nights and the increased beer sales that went with it.”

“We played there for five years, during which time the York became the most popular pub in London,” adds Boyle.

While the venue has changed over the years, Monday night performances have become a bona fide tradition, now being held at the Forest City Gallery in London, Ontario.

“This tradition is fun and has gone on since 1966,” says Favro.

“We used to take the summers off but now we play year round,” adds Clement, proudly.

In this way the Nihilist Spasm Band emerged, absorbing what was in their trundle and turning it into that rare thing—something disparate, provoking and entirely playful.

Bring The Noise!

The needle drops, emitting a hiss and a crackle through well-worn speakers, landing in its congruous groove as the vinyl spins. Suddenly a voice—erupting in a flush and campy timbre—shatters the calm, confessing repeatedly: “The Nihilist Spasm Band is the greatest band in the world! The Nihilist Spasm Band is the greatest band in the world!”

Even newly minted their records sound beautifully broken.

The voice belongs to Bill Exley, a voice that, like the man behind it, lands somewhere between Robin Williams, Captain Beefheart and your favourite teacher from middle school. This makes sense, as Exley was a secondary school teacher in Ontario for many years.

“Bill’s songs are never sung the same way twice,” says Favro. “Recently, in England, Bill did about 20 songs in four minutes. He went at top speed and was amazing. We asked him how he came up with the idea and he goes, ‘what idea? Didn’t you realize we get a fee for each song we did and we only had four minutes left?’”

In Zev Asher’s documentary from 2000, What About Me: the Rise of the Nihilist Spasm Band, Exley is asked what the NSB’s relationship is to punk. Exley deadpans for the camera, “why, we’re the uncles of punk.”

It isn’t just punk rockers who share an aural acquaintance with these garish geezers. The NSB were invited to tour with experimental noise rock progenitors Sonic Youth in the late 1990s, and have since shared the stage with SY’s Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo on numerous occasions.

“It was great to play with Thurston and Lee and others, like Joe McPhee,” says Boyle, chiming off some of the impressive names that have shared the stage and made noises with the band. “Most recently we played with Einstürzende Neubauten’s Alexander Hacke and Blixa Bargeld and had a great time talking and jamming.”

Who knew that these old fogies would cause such a ruckus? In Japan, where noise music is viewed with more reverence than here, they’re much ballyhooed and championed.

“It was a shock to learn that there were lots of people there who love our noise,” says Boyle blithely.

Japan stands out the most,” Clement agrees. “I think there’s no place where we are best appreciated.”

It’s fitting that Japan would be so smitten by the NSB. Noise music—which many feel began with the NSB and artists hip to the improvisational spirit of jazz—didn’t do much evolving until the 1990s in Japan, where “Japanoise” and the post-punk industrial movements got on like a house on fire. Artists like the Boredoms, Melt-Banana and Merzbow came from this scene and have attained appreciable popularity around the world for their approach to noise.

“We indulge in a bit of a free-for-all of sound,” says Favro, “until something emerges from the chaos and we go in that direction with the sound.”

What is it about noise that people find so compelling? There can be no definitive answer, which is in keeping with the NSB’s manifesto. Not that they have a manifesto, but if they did it would doubtlessly appear in black ink on red paper—the letterhead of agitators and renegades.

No Country For Old Men

“Three of us know we’re basically artists,” says Favro. “The others don’t know it yet. They think they’re things like a retired teacher or a retired doctor or even a retired plate-maker. Being an artist is an attitude as much as an occupation and you don’t retire from it.”

“I’m a visual artist, a painter,” beams Boyle. “To my own amazement I’ve been able to support myself exclusively from this for 42 years. I’m proud of that.”

Boyle may have the outward appearance of a cardigan-clad codger, but he’s got a reputation for being, on occasion, a confrontational artist and novelist, never one to shy away from contention or sexuality in his work.

Clement—a retired doctor who used to practice acupuncture—also busies himself with less nihilistic pursuits. “Motor cycle racing, wine making,” says Clement, listing off what he’s been up to lately, “oh, and helping with my wife’s exceptional garden.”

Not to be outshined, Favro, too, has been making more than just noise in his spare time. “Learning to fly an aircraft with skill,” Favro explains, has made him particularly proud. “However, I had to give it up because I never caught on how to land the things!”

A flippant and irreverent sense of humour and love of the absurd is par for the course when teeing up with these guys.

“To someone who’s never heard us,” ponders Art Pratten (“pratt-a-various”, water-pipe), “the short answer is that we’re an adult kindergarten rhythm band.”

“I think it was 1967 or thereabouts,” recalls Boyle slyly, “we booked a studio at CHLO—a radio station a short distance south of London-O. The engineers miked us and the take began. We started nicely and within a minute we were cooking. For reasons unknown, Bill decided to probe his throat with his index finger to find out what kinds of sounds he could elicit from his inner depths. I could have told him they’d be retching sounds and they were. Everybody laughed and played all the harder. Bill got excited, too, and probed deeper and deeper. Suddenly, the inevitable happened and Bill vomited on the microphone. The disgusted engineers shut off all the equipment and rushed in to assess the damage—they’d never seen anything like it. We just laughed all the more and kept playing until we were ushered out of the studio. The piece was later titled ‘the Sweetest Country this Side of Heaven’—the flexidisc of which became a valuable collector’s item.”

Over the years the NSB has released over a dozen LPs and appeared on numerous compilations and box sets. Original vinyl pressings are sought after by collectors the world over. And these aren’t just Lester Bangs-style connoisseur elitists or anti-social antiquarians, either.

“Well, people in Ontario have been pretty cool to us,” says Boyle. “We’ve found that many younger people in the rest of Canada and in Europe, the U.S. and Japan seem to like us a lot—enough to buy up original copies of our vinyl on eBay for up to $800.”

And while those who follow the NSB are a devoted flock, the band still remains relatively obscure on their native soil.

Full Of Sound And Fury, Signifying Nothing

The Nihilist Spasm Band may be one of the most stable conflux of functioning artists that have ever been. That they’ve been recording and performing for 45 years is astounding, how many acts, forty years in to their careers, are still making their most relevant material?

Did these brazen and garish virtuosos really think their bizarre art project would live so long a life?

“We didn’t think about it at all and I think that’s the main reason we’ve lasted,” says Pratten, matter-of-factly. “The future to us was next Monday night, and we never thought beyond that. We never thought of the band as a career, we each already had a ‘life’ and weren’t looking for another.”

“We’re friends, we believe in community,” suggests Clement. “We have no leader and we share the task of keeping it going.”

“I attribute our longevity partly to the fact that we have no leader or direction,” adds Favro. “This is an internal view that explains why we tolerate one another and persist as a band. On the outside I’ve no clue as to why we still have others interested in our music or noise.”

Noise exists aesthetically in all musical forms, and the standard in which we gauge and value such things adheres to no hard and fast rules. How could it? Even ambient noise and found sounds can alter one’s appreciation towards pitch and tonality. And for some, the edicts of noise can have almost religious implications.

“I show up every Monday night to make noise and see what’s going to happen next,” says Pratten, conveying something akin to child-like wonderment.

The Rest Is Noise

On the surface of things it might seem like the NSB live in slumber, architects of their own Elysian Fields, and why not?

“How the whole band decides to choose a place to eat is the same way we perform,” Clement says, “we all mill around. We discuss the options until we form a consensus and then we all go together to that place or not. Sometimes one or two of us will go off in our own direction, like when we play.”

Their art is play and their play is noise. Noise can differ for each listener, for some it may wax and wane. For others, our awful language betrays emotional feelings. Noise is an attempt against this betrayal, an attempt at emotive and unprompted beauty, a map without a territory.

“No doubt the future holds for us—as it does for everyone—slow decline and eventual death,” says Boyle. “For a brilliant musician it might mean loss of dexterity, touch, virtuosity, perhaps a descent into noise and chaos. But that is where we begin, and I expect where we will remain.”