January 3, 1999

Homegrown noise

What kept the Nihilist Spasm Band - London's noisiest international group - going for 33 years? Just this: they don't care what you or anyone else thinks of them.

By Gord Westmacott -- Special to The Londoner
  This spring, London's Nihilist Spasm Band takes its trademark blend of chaotic noise to Japan where they'll play sold-out clubs and music festivals for the second time in three years.
 But for now, they'll have to make do with a case of beer and a mostly empty room Monday nights at the Forest City Gallery -- a weekly ritual that has been going on somewhere in the Forest City since 1965 and one where the members are truly most in their element.
 Though most Londoners would more likely recognize the band's middle-aged members in their other capacities as a doctor, retired librarian, newspaper technician, teacher and visual artists, experimental music fans the world over have gone to increasingly impressive lengths to see, hear and meet them.
 Six years ago, Jojo Hiroshige, who runs Japan's Alchemy Records, tracked the group down after hearing rare imported pressings of its earlier records. He signed the band to Alchemy and has since re-issued its entire back catalogue on CD.
 But Hiroshige is not alone in his reverence for the group.
 When Alchemy helped the band arrange its first Japanese tour in 1996, 200 people packed a small club for its debut and 17 bands requested opening spots, making it clear the Nihilist Spasm Band's status there was beyond even its members' fondest hopes.
 That tour was followed by high-profile shows at New York's Knitting Factory, a legendary home to experimental music since the 1970s, and Chicago's Empty Bottle, home to the Windy City's latest crop of adventurous players. At both shows, the band caught the attention of some top American avant-garde musicians, including Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, members of Gastr Del Sol and celebrated Chicago music writer and improvisational guitarist John Corbett.
 After seeing the band live, Moore even asked the Nihilist Spasm Band to open for Sonic Youth on one leg of its most recent U.S. tour -- an offer the members couldn't accept at the time.
 Then the band was asked to Quebec's Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, a world-renowned experimental music festival.
 But the band's biggest coup came last May, when it brought an impressive cast of international admirers to London, including Moore, Hiroshige, Alan Licht of the American band Run-On and the Chicago free-jazz trio of Corbett, Hal Rammel and Terri Kapsalis, for the first No Music Festival at Aeolian Hall and Forest City Gallery.
 The festival's every note was captured on a limited-edition six-CD set that was released at a special Saturday night show two weeks ago.
 So how did a band that seems to have had almost no interest in impressing its own hometown, let alone the rest of the world, attract such an impressive throng of admirers?
 The answer lies in the question.
 "I don't think the Nihilist Spasm Band has the ambitions of a typical band," says Moore, explaining his trek here from New York to play with them.
 "They work and play as a process for expression. They love attention but it does not necessitate their existence as a group. They are one of the very few truly utopian groups on this planet. The knowledge of their existence in the community should be felt as a positive, politically arresting and dynamic. London is lucky."
 The seeds of what would become The Nihilist Spasm Band date back to the summer of 1965, when a group of friends got together to create the soundtrack for a film they had made called No Movie.
 As bassist and retired librarian Hugh McIntyre recalls, "Greg Curnoe got a whole bunch of people together and bought a whole bunch of those little kazoos and handed them out and we did the soundtrack. And then we started talking about, 'Why don't we start a band?' "
 Over the next year, the members began modifying the kazoos and adding other instruments: drums, a door knocker, homemade or custom-altered guitars, basses and violins.
 "Right from the beginning we thrived at making changes on the fly," explains retired Free Press technician Art Pratten. "If a guitar became too familiar to Murray (Favro), he'd just build another one. And I do that all the time with the violins. Most musicians probably change in a slower or more subtle way, whereas we deliberately want something new."
 But while change has been a key factor in its approach to music, the band's core line-up of McIntyre, Pratten, celebrated visual artists Curnoe, Favro and John Boyle, physician John Clement and retired high school teacher Bill Exley has remained remarkably static, with the tragic exception of Curnoe who died in a 1992 cycling accident.
 As their history might suggest, there is no blueprint for what the Nihilist Spasm Band does.
 Their approach appears rooted in a will for destruction and chaos in their music -- something some of the members acknowledge was originally tied to an interest in the Dadaist and nihilist movements of the 1920s.
 Nihilism, says the Encyclopaedia Britannica., is a philosophy of negation that rejects traditional morality, order and authority and sees no basis on which to build a new order. Though nihilism today is an attitude, the 19th-century Russian version was a radical protest movement battling social convention and Czarist rule with political terror.
 Dadaism, a nihilist "anti-art" movement in post-First World War Europe, was born of despair and disgust with bourgeois values.
 And then there's the Nihilist Spasm Band.
 "Basically it was just good old great dull London and a sort of rejection of authority," says McIntyre, explaining what prompted the members to first pick up their instruments. "The idea with the Dadaists and the anarchists was, of course, no structure, no rules, do stuff, tear things apart. And that's precisely what we decided to do."
 Still, simple destruction isn't enough to sustain a band for 33 years. And it's not really what the band is all about.
 "You could really overblow the importance of (the will to destroy)," cautions Clement. "I think that we were all impressed by the failure of destruction that we found exemplified by the Russian Nihilists."
 "We were trying to find out what comes out of the instrument and what comes out of us," adds Favro.
 And that's the key to the Nihilist Spasm Band. Everything is improvised on the spot; there is no leader or lead instrument. Each voice is given equal importance, a policy that informs both the process and the end result.
 True to Dadaist and nihilist tradition, there's a total disregard for rules, but the "spasm blues" of 1930s and '40s Mississippi supplies the members' will for spontaneous creation.
 This spontaneity allows each member of the band to express himself without limit, providing he allows his bandmates the same freedom.
 "The playing is rather like a conversation," says Pratten. "Some conversations are more interesting than others. It's what's going on at the time. You really don't discuss a conversation after (it's) over, you just say it's nice and go on to something else."
 But this deliberate lack of preconditions doesn't mean the Nihilist Spasm Band is unconcerned with its sound. It's not enough for band members to focus on the process without regard to the ultimate result.
 "If we were tied to ideology and the only idea was to just get up there and do our thing and that was it, then there would be no failures," Clement says. "But we're working toward something when we play."
 "I think that we also try to get better at what we do," adds Favro. "We noticed even when we first practised that, instead of noodling around, we could get to a level of energy. We always went for that."
 This desire for a strong and immediate personal response is probably the single most important factor in the way the finished product sounds.
 Pratten thinks this approach adds a more active element to what many band members do as visual artists.
 "It's given a visceral aspect to the art," Pratten says. "The band gave you something to do. Academics sit in towers and come up with theories. Artists do work . . . (The band) gave the art here in the city a more physical, robust attitude. The band isn't precious. It's for doing things."
 Of course, none of this has made it any easier to actually explain what the band sounds like.
 Over the years the Nihilist Spasm Band has been called many things -- flattering and otherwise -- from industrial, proto-punk and free jazz to noise or two-year-olds having tantrums.
 All of which may be fair assessments of music that seems at first hearing like a random collision of haphazard sounds produced simply for the pure joy of it. But let it settle in for a while and it becomes clear the members are interacting and, on the band's best nights, fusing these disparated elements into one, collective voice.
 Still, most of the members are quick to cut off any attempt to think too much about what they do.
 "People keep trying to figure out what we are," says Clement. "There's musicologists who've said we're a free form rock band. Greg (Curnoe) liked that for a while."
 For Moore, who first heard the band after finding an early imported disc in a New York record store, it's this almost blue collar attitude that makes the Nihilist Spasm Band so special.
 "That they are artists with a sense of community and family responsibility is indeed working class, which is neither here nor there for me," he says. "But it does inform their chemistry as a group in a wonderful way."
 But the band hasn't always garnered such favourable reviews.
 "In the early days we received a lot of hostility -- real hostility," says McIntyre. "People got angry. They thought it was a joke and they didn't like the joke. The famous one was at the University of Guelph. There were over 300 people and it didn't take three minutes until there were only about 30 left."
 Other reports suggest it was not uncommon for audiences to stick around just long enough to find something to throw at the band, be it beer glasses or snowballs.
 But for a group that has probably angered as many people as it has pleased, the Nihilist Spasm Band now seems to be winning more battles than it loses. Audiences are coming to it on its own terms.
 Jason Bellchamber, music director at the Forest City Gallery, released the No Music Festival CD set on his Entartete Kunst Records, a local independent label. He has since secured international distribution for it through Forced Exposure Records and Alchemy Records. Proceeds will fund the second annual No Music Festival in May. So far, there's been no shortage of groups willing to share the bill with the band.
 Meanwhile, the Nihilist Spasm Band's third album for Alchemy is due out early this year. A follow-up tour of Japan is set for March.
 But even as the band's international profile increases, its members are adamant about the importance of the city that produced them. They seem just as excited by their Monday night gigs as they do about touring Japan.
 "London's our home," says Pratten. "This is where we're most comfortable. We've never felt we had to succeed, aspire to. The only goal was to play next Monday."
 The band could only have happened in a place like London, he says.
 "In some place like Toronto, we would have developed an attitude of competitiveness or had it foisted on us," Pratten says. "Well there never was that. We were doing things for ourselves and anyone who would listen.
 "And we didn't look around for either approval or encouragement," he adds. "We had ourselves, we were our own best audience and we were happy as hell when we were playing . . . to anybody."
 In fact, if their experience proves anything, it's that you don't have to leave London to succeed, he says.
 "There are people who can do things in London. You don't need to leave. You can do it here if you want to."
 Gord Westmacott is a Toronto freelance writer. 
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