When you think of the true pioneers of Canadian music, aged names like Neil Young or Joni Mitchell typically come to mind. Yet, locked out in the backyard somewhere as not to bother the dinner guests, you'll find the Nihilist Spasm Band—one of the true unsung heroes of modern music in this country.
For close to 40 years, this London, Ontario-based collective have been cutting loose in art spaces and theatres. They've toured Europe, Japan and the US extensively. Thurston Moore and the other members of Sonic Youth are big supporters of the band. All this and more coming from a band who, by their own admission, don't even play music.
"What we do is difficult to talk about because we don't have the vocabulary for it," says NSB member Art Pratten. "We've been a band for almost 40 years and we still don't have a vocabulary to talk about what we're doing. Nothing in music applies to it and we don't know any of those terms anyway." Pratten plays a homemade wind instrument that looks like the bastard child of a saxophone and a drainage pipe.
"The terms that get applied to us kept changing through the years: free jazz, free rock, industrial," says fellow member Hugh McIntyre. "We finally settled on noise. People started saying that we were the original noise band." McIntyre plays a fretless bass that combines traditional bass strings with others drawn from a gutted piano.
"Don't forget, we've also been called the uncles of punk," says Murray Favro, yet another NSB member and twiddler of a modified guitar that is missing its fingerboard.
You can probably see what I'm getting at here: the Nihilist Spasm Band is not your average rock and roll band. That's an understatement if there ever was one. The band also features Bill Exley on vocals and pot—the kind you'd find in your kitchen, not the kind you'd find squirreled away in your son's sock drawer— John Boyle on kazoo and drums, and John Clement on guitar and drums. Founding member Greg Curnoe was also a member of the band until his death in a road accident 1992. Together, the Nihilist Spasm Band have positioned themselves as one of the longest running bands in all of Canada, a remarkable feat considering their inauspicious beginnings.
"In about 1965, [founding member] Greg Curnoe starting buying these little plastic kazoos," says McIntyre. "The kazoos cost 25 cents back then—they're about $4.95 now. Greg had made a home movie that was silent so we got this tape recorder and made a soundtrack to the film that was a bunch of us on kazoos. That's where the idea for the Spasm Band first started. We then took the kazoos and added some funnels that we bought at Woolworth's; we'd cut the ends off so the sound would resonate in there. Then, we would send somebody off to the junkyard to look for car horns or truck horns. We'd eventually meet back at base with all this stuff."
"We played at our friend Tony Urquhart's birthday party…that was one of our first gig," says Favro. "James Reaney—he was a local playwright in London—eventually heard us. He thought it would be a good idea to put us in one his plays."
"The people were so hostile to us," says Exley. "Every time we played, people would walk out as soon as they could. We started playing in places like Guelph back then too and again, everybody walked out as soon as they heard us. It was terrible."
The reaction was unfortunate yet not surprising when you consider the band's approach. Concerts are entirely improvised and to the uninitiated, the Nihilist Spasm Band can sound abrasive and unlistenable. However, there is an underlying sense of unity that plays out in the band's performances and these dynamics are a product of years spent playing with one another.
"We just didn't think that being untrained musically should get in the way of enjoying ourselves," says Clement. "We learned early on that you had to keep pushing at the other people—both working against and working with them at the same time. It's the understanding that we have amongst each other that makes it work."
Favro adds, "We consider it successful if it has energy. It has to have a high level of energy and if it has that, then we consider it to be good."
The band has recorded sporadically over the years with its most well-known album likely being 1968's No Record—an album that has already been re-released on CD twice. Much like their live performance, their studio output is completely improvised.
Aside from the studio, the band was able to use its clout internationally to curate the No Music Festival in their hometown of London (although the 2001 version of the festival took place in New York City). Over the festival's five year run, it managed to attract such underground luminaries as Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo and Jim O'Rourke from Sonic Youth, minimalist guitar hero Alan Licht and free jazz saxophonist Joe McPhee.
"Every year from 1999 to 2003, we ran that festival with the help of Ben Portis," says Clement. "Ben is now with the Arts Gallery of Ontario and he was a great help. No Music was an international festival that brought people from Japan, from Europe, and all over the US. It was really quite fabulous and it showed a lot of people our kind of improvisation. That festival was really important because you'd have the performances from the individual bands and then in the evening, we'd mix-and-match with all the bands getting together. That helped spread our notion of improv—we took something from them and they took something from us."
McIntyre confirms, "You'd have Thurston Moore on guitar, me on bass, Jojo Hiroshige on guitar and somebody on drums… maybe someone from Newfoundland or Vancouver. The combinations were pretty endless."
The band recently played Toronto as part of the Over The Top festival and continues to forge forward on their crooked path with European performance dates slated for this summer. Their peculiar take on "music" may not have always endeared themselves at home but at this point in their lives, they are more than content to simply drone on, whether people are listening or not.
"We don't really have support from the arts community in London any more," says Exley. "They've decided that we're irrelevant. They hate us. And we are very disturbed by that because we think they're a bunch of jerks."
"The thing is, people are always giving us these tips and telling us things that supposedly would be good for our career," says McIntyre "We don't have a career and we never have! We played every Monday night at the Forest City Gallery in London because we enjoyed it and now we're just playing Mondays in John's garage because we enjoy it. That's it."
And as Pratten astutely notes, "We've finally become a garage band after 40 years."
For more information about the Nihilist Spasm Band, please visit their website at http://www3.sympatico.ca/pratten/NSB. The band will be playing the following European tour dates in late spring.
May 28, Instants Chavires, Montreuil, Paris
May 30, Festival Musique Action, Vandoeuvre les Nancy
June 1, Non Mi Place, Mulhouse
June 5, Kunstencentrum Belgie, Hasselt
Writer: Cameron Gordon