nomeansno

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Nomeansno: let’s get started

Hello, Sean McTiernan is my name. I’m a freelance journalist from Ireland who has written for a pile of websites including The Awl and Passion of the Weiss. I also co-host a weekly podcast called Them’s The Vagaries, a mostly-outdoor music and pop culture discussion show that ends up being mainly about rap, wrestling and conspiracy theories. Despite how that sounds, I do try to mostly be a good person. 

This week, after Ian’s intimidatingly-excellent exploration of 90s Bowie, Hendrik has graciously allowed me to talk about Nomeansno, a punk three piece from British Columbia, Canada who have been active for around 32 years. 

My aim this week is to attract people to the band who’ve never heard them before or who may have seen the words “Jazz Punk” associated with them and, understandably, ran far away, clutching their faces and screaming for their loved ones. If you were one of these people, I am sorry for this and, I promise, Nomeansno are so much better than that.  To allay any fears you may have about pretentiousness or wankery, here is Nomeansno playing one of their songs really well:

What Nomeansno have done is refine their approach over the last three decades, stretching their stentorian, propulsive, punk sound in all manner of directions. Few bands can sound impossibly brutal and funky (lay down your weapons, there is no slap bass involved) in one song and incredibly mournful and austere in the next. The have written hook-laden punk hits, distortion-driven dark-nights-of-the-soul and stuff that lies somewhere inbetween that also somehow incorporates sea shantys. Their lyrics are about evil or conflicted characters and mostly focus on how dark and fucked-up life can be and how despite, or maybe Because, of this, it’s worth living anyway. Thankfully, these songs are often really funny.  

Nomeasno are a rare gift, a band who emerged with a unique vision and evolved that vision over thirty years, unmolested by commercial success, widespread recognition (something that is definitely partly their fault) or any desire to either keep up with musical trends or make the same album over and over.

They don’t make videos. They do make a conscious effort to disseminate entirely false and contradictory information about themselves. They routinely encourage people to download their music as much as they want. Nothing about any of this strikes them as a big deal.

During their entire career, they’ve made their living doing an insane amount of touring. They also don’t make a big deal of this and, although they’ve said it can be a hard life to which not everyone is suited, they still regard this life as something of a privilege.  This is probably why they’ve lampooned Henry Rollins (who has based his entire career on how difficult it is to be in a punk band) so well on several occasions. 

Nomeansno are also a second band. This band is their answer to the probably-unasked question: “What if the infamously-dumb, notoriously-violent, hockey-playing Hanson Brothers from the movie Slapshot formed a band that sounded like the Ramones?”

This band plays old-school punk songs about brewing beer and hockey. The Hanson Brothers could be the best joke in music and Nomeanso have been telling it excellently for around 25 years. I’ll be covering them in depth on Wednesday. Expect a lot of aggressive counting to four.

I intend to expand on the above and telling you much more about Nomeansno over the next five days. The format will involve focusing on a member a day rather than soldiering through their discography chronologically (a mid-period line-up change gives me four dudes to discuss). In this way I can talk about each member’s contribution to Nomeansno’s sound, their outlook on life and their respective, excellent, side projects.

Some of these side projects, especially Tom Holliston’s hilarious, biting, genre-spanning Show Business Giants, deserve their own weeks but I hope I’ll be able to at least put you on the right path to discovering some of their wonderful music.

The fifth day I’ll dedicate to various ephemera and possibly long screeds about how this enterprise has driven me insane (let’s hope not though, right?).

Nomeansno is my favourite band. I believe four of the most-underrated musicians in punk history have played in it and that it’s produced some of the best songs about love, alienation, brutality and the nature of existence ever written. I also believed they’ve managed to make all that far more fun to listen to than anyone could have hoped. They’re an endlessly interesting collection of classically Canadian fellows and I expect they’re going to be a blast to write about.

Hopefully they’ll be fun to read about too.

This is an early video of Nomeansno, when the only members were Rob and John Wright. They’re playing Rich Guns from their first album, Mama. Compared to every other video you’re going to see this week, they look super young here. 

What this video illustrates perfectly is how much of Rob’s musical approach arrived fully formed on the first album. Yo can hear already the poppy, bouncy basslines mixed with the growling tone, not fully developed into the monolithic force it would become. Rob’s voice also sounds oddly normal, making his trademark sarcastic delivery sound more arch than menacing.

Comedian Stewart Lee reckons his particular brand of glum, grumpy comedy became easier to take as he got older and rounder. What sounds like a whine from a young man seems more justified once he looks and sounds like he’s done some living.

Although none of Rob Wright’s songs are overtly autobiographical, the same could be said for him. Here he sounds more like a sarcastic court jester. Now he sounds like the boatman on the River Styx. The characters in his songs are often twisted, taunting entities who know more than you about something terrible. As he got older, the mocking quality left his voice, replaced by steely dread.

This change in Rob’s voice actually came earlier than you’d imagine. He had to have nodules removed from his vocal chords towards the end of the 80s. Upon recovering from this, his voice developed a deeper, richer tone. Oh and cigarettes probably played a large part in this too.

The lyrics in Rich Guns are classic Nomeansno. Again and again they produce songs that echo the darkest myths imaginable, tales of strange lands and unspeakable evil. Rob has an ear for this kind of language which he has used to great effect, making it almost plausible that somewhere, someone wrote folk songs with three-part shouting, funk middle-eights and tank-like basslines.

Also clearly present in this early clip is Rob’s interplay with John. I guess, there’s a lot of scope for mysticising some sort of “psychic bond” that exists between this fraternal rhythm section. That would probably do something of a disservice to Rob’s very specific, unique musical approach and John’s immense skill as a drummer, initially trained in jazz. Both brothers are incredible natural musicians though, and they do both seem to share a lot of musical DNA. They often sound like two gears meshing perfectly together, subtly echoing parts of each others’ playing and the vocals.  This gives Nomeansno their signature sound that is both organic and seemingly produced by one entity.

Here, in even the earliest clip of Nomeansno, the plans are in place.

"If you go to the alps, do you want to see a picture or do you want to see a mountain? When people come to our show, they see the mountain.” - Rob Wright, 2007

Every day I’ll be supplying footnotes to interviews that are either with, or relate to, the highlighted member in question. Today is Rob’s day and this video finds him backstage in a bathrobe in German in 2007.

In most interviews, members of Nomeansno always talk about music in a fairly business-like manner, focusing on how the tour is going and where they have to be next. Music has been their living for 30 years and they have always talked about it this way. Late in the interview, Rob even describes traveling to Europe as “commuting to work”. As you can see though, there is nothing cynical in this treatment of music as a job. Quite the opposite in fact, Rob realises the importance of music in culture and seems genuinely humbled that he gets to do it. You’ll find a lot about the mythology, power and mysticism of music and its roles when you delve in Nomeansno. However from the beginning, all of it has come with one caveat: the dudes in the band want you to know they’re “schlubs”. This dearth of ego is probably closely related to why they’re still around, as a band and as people.

Members of Nomeansno will often mention getting “beaten up for their hairdo”. I have always found this strange as in most of the footage, photographs and real-life situations I’ve seen them in, they are the most normal looking people in the room. It never really seems to have occurred to them to consciously dress weird. Real strangeness comes from within.

Interesting that Rob asserts that it was okay for the Hanson brothers to make a video because they’re only a joke. We’ll examine the commitment and creativity that goes into that joke later on. For now I’ll just assure you that as jokes that began in the 80s go, it’s a pretty funny one.

This interview also gives you your first taste the of the Nomeansno origin story, one that you’ll find repeated in most interviews. Such is the fate of a band that’s survived for over 30 years despite 66% of the members being brothers.

Note that Rob mentions that Peter Gabriel was doing his “old-man thing”. Funny as this is, I don’t think it was meant to be a knowing comment. Nomeansno being as old as they has been a talking point for a while, probably cause most people in punks bands tend to die, drift into self parody or form The Evens (a mix of both). Nomeansno have always made fun of themselves, have always been intensely Canadian men talking about European countries as if they were towns adjacent to the places they grew up in and filling the gaps between their dark and intense music with the goofiest stage banter possible.

What Nomeansno haven’t done is: rely too heavily on the old stuff, “tarnish their legacy” by reforming, allowed someone’s son to join the band, faceplant while attempting to capture the zeitgeist or play re-imagined versions of their most popular songs with bongos and acoustic guitars. Not to take from the old guys who do this, a living has to be made. These are simply paths Nomeansno never took because they never had to. They never broke up, never released a truly terrible album, never seemed to lose momentum and, crucially, never got bored of their own music. When any of these things happen, performers are forced to do the “old man thing”. Nomeansno just do the band thing.

Rob is genuinely happy at the prospect of being Cheap Trick. This is because Cheap Trick is fucking awesome.

Sadly, Nihilism for Dummies would have been a perfect title for the All Roads Lead To Ausfahrt album or, indeed, for a book about Nomeansno. Their lyrics can be an excellent introduction to several philosophical concepts, Nihilism being among them.

"Old is the New Young" really is their new slogan. At the best of times it can be hard to separate the jokes from the reality when it comes to Nomeansno. This is intentional .

The anger in Nomeansno’s music has certainly declined in recent years. It reached its peaked with an album called One, released in 2000. This is Nomeansno’s least accessible release and probably the one least favoured by the fans. It’s also one of the best pieces of music about depression ever written and one of my favourite albums of all time. I’ll be explaining this in detail later today.

Rob’s assertion that “there’s no progression in music” is interesting. It was around the time of this interview that he was becoming totally immersed in the more extreme end of electronic music, specifically that of breakcore-auter and fellow-Canadian Venetian Snares. So despite how it may sound, Rob is far from being a man who belonged (ostensibly) to one movement of “revolutionary” music that now fails to see the hypocrisy in saying all forms of new music are rubbish or in some cases not music at all. Rob recognises all music as having some shared DNA, even as he was exploring all of the most out-there sounds he could get his hands on, music remained music. Although it serves many different purposes there is not, or should not, be some innovation that takes music to the next level or find some mystical “hidden chord”. It doesn’t have to “go anywhere”, let it be what it is.

Don’t confuse this as an excuse for creative stagnation, Nomeansno’s sound has changed, refined itself over the years and they’ve never rested on their laurels. But Rob’s opinion that music does not have to strive to be different as its main aim is one rarely expressed. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with coming up with different and creative ways to stoke that fire but the most important thing is to keep it burning.

Thankfully for all concerned, Married to Music now have a much better name. They currently perform as The Invasives and are very, very, good at playing fast loud music. They’re actually another sibling based, bass-heavy, punk group from British Columbia that have no real concern for what anyone else is playing or doing. Listen to them here and pay money for their music.

This is the one interview were Nomeansno’s strict philosophy of playing as Loud as humanly possible comes up. I’m glad it came up somewhere because these men, now more than ever, aim to tear the skin of the audience’s face in a way no record can convey.

What better way to end an interview than the assertion that, just like Wu-Tang, Nomeansno is for the children. Oh and by scolding Finland for giving up drinking.

Youth

A song from much later here, to show that Rob’s love of coupling the arcane with driving basslines can often yield unexpected results. 

A white-haired King with a withered hand
Bowed to the youth from a foreign land
Behind the curtains a young girl sighed
Basking in the light of his deep, blue eyes
The King decreed that the youth should know
Alt the secrets of his treasure trove
But never again would he roam free
From that kingdom he would never leave
The young man looked, the young man learned
And never to his home did he return

Youth seems to be about the seductive power of the pursuit of knowledge and the arrival into adulthood. I think it’s saying Youth is a country one can never return to. It’s a beautiful-sounding song nevertheless, delivered with complete earnestness.

It’s hard to think of another “punk” band that’d write a song that sounds like this, let alone put it on an album as dark and violent as the rest of Dance of the Headless Bourgeoisie did. In fairness, it was originally relegated to a vinyl-only exclusive but it has been restored to the current cd reissue.

This is the closest you’ll get to Rob Wright “jamming”, probably because Rags and Bones is the closest thing Nomeansno have to it a hit song and there’s nothing like keeping people waiting.

Rags and Bones is on Wrong, Nomeansno’s 1989 album which is considered to be the perfect gateway drug to get new fans into the band. Wrong is widely considered to be their least experimental album and has been characterised by some fans as the least adventurous. In it’s original form, Wrong house 10 tight-as-a-drum punk ragers, full of explosive enery, creative flourish and discipline.

After these ten concise punches to the jaw, the album closes with All Lies, a sad, broken song that doesn’t just question love, it paints it as the source of evil. This misery is rendered epic by the soaring instrumentation and cathartic, screamed delivery. This is another thing Nomeansno endeavour to do time and again with their songwriting, try to convey the suffocating power of emotion without making it ridiculous or melodramatic. In All Lies, a nursery rhyme is quoted, dwelled upon, like you do with song lyrics when you’re miserable. It’s a fittingly somber end to an explosive, perfectly-measured album.

What Wrong really represents is the precise power of Nomeansno’s musicianship. Wrong came after the austere Smalls Parts Isolated and Destroyed, an album that evoked the kind of sci-fi landscapes found in 2000AD and one dominated by quiet and/or epically long songs. One cannot blame they for wanting to bang out an album of quick, sharp bursts of energy. And this is exactly what Wrong is, hit after hit of galloping, propulsive numbers that don’t sound like anyone but Nomeansno. 

In fact, although all the songs are kept on a tight lease, some of Nomeansno’s weirder moments can be found within. Take Two Lips Two Lungs And One Tongue, an impossibly energetic song that drives and drives towards a climax only to come to an abrupt halt leaving only the sound of the “solo”, two notes being bent slowly a couple of times over. This (perhaps punk’s only satirical guitar solo?) provided Nomeansno with ample opportunity to upset people who had come out to see one of the most energetic lives acts in punk rock. One of guitarist Andy Kerr’s highlights in the band is how he deals with this hostility on the Live and Cuddly album. While polish men are frantically screaming at him, including some who weigh in with their hopeful shouts of “1,2,3,4?!”, Andy and Rob continue to amuse themselves, only to crunch back into the song at a nanoseconds notice, presumably causing whiplash in at least half the audience.

Rob Wright’s bassplaying really shines on Wrong as well (yes, they love the Wright/Wrong thing, more on that as the week progresses). Two of his flashiest and most overtly technically impressive basslines feature in songs called, fitting, Big Dick and Brainless Wonder. It’s Catching Up shows off his playing in the mot percussive, violent manner possible (fitting for a songs about Zombies).The Tower also gives him a chance to sing about the Tarot while also showing off his vocal acrobatics and heavy-metal songwriting ability. 

Wrong is a tour-de-force for Rob because it’s a tour-de-force for all three members of the band. It’s a perfect moment in music, where everyone gives inspired, concise displays of what exactly they can do. It plays like the greatest hits of any other band and, in its original form, clocks in at under 40 minutes. If Nomeansno pique any part of your interest this week, you should seek Wrong out.

But why does Rags And Bones, over any other track on Wrong, still provoke this reaction? It’s hard to tell. It could be the nagging, ear-worm bass riff, the “White man, you’re just starting to get The Blues” vocal hook or the three part, punk-shouting breakdown that kicks off before the song brings it home. It could be the giant chorus. Or it could be that all of these things, and all of the things that make Nomeansno who they are (from heavy bass through singing about the sea to nursery rhymes and giant riffs) has somehow been compressed into one glorious explosion of energy that you can use to recruit people. You can’t ask for more than that.

Again, an incredibly positive message from an often brutal-sounding band who deal routinely in pitch-black subject matter. It’s good to know you can have dark songwriting with such a positive, optimistic intent. 

Nomeansno’s songs are often meant to inspire by giving voice to the bad guy, by showing the evil. Some of the characters he sings about are broken, cautionary tales, like the faded rockstar from Going Nowhere. But sometimes he writes songs where the evil has a distinct advantage and is pushing it into your face.

Rob writes many songs about laughing at the abyss. However he also writes songs about when the abyss laughs back. They can let you know what you’re feeling isn’t unique, that you’re not alone. Or they can just give your enemy a name and help you fight them off. Either way, they help you to live.

Once again, you talk to Nomeansno and you end up talking business. This interview Rob emphasise particularly that touring can be difficult but there are those who it suits and who can just get on with it. No judgement is made against those who don’t like touring, in fact its taken as a perfectly reasonable explanation for original guitarist Andy leaving the band.


There’s no bullshit Get-In-The-Van attitude here, touring is not viewed as a macho rite of passage that turns men into even manlier men and forges Real Bands in the fires of arguing about directions. It is just a job with ups and downs. Despite touring in the oddest places and traveling tough, expansive distances on a regular basis, Nomeansno make no attempt to construct a mythology around that. 

Rob has fully embraced not being big. Nomeansno have a dedicated fan base but, aside from their age and being good, nothing about them has any of that mythology that is the noose around the neck of so many old punk bands.
Here’s another go at the origin story. This time, Rob emphasise the lack of any expectations when it came to the being in a band and how Nomeansno ended up having a career by happenstance more than anything else. At no point does he posit that maybe they had a career because their sound was so unique and had one of the best live shows in rock music. This is Canadian modesty at its finest.
You’ll notice Rob reluctantly mention the Stranglers as an influence. There’s no denying JJ Burnel’s basstone does sound like a progenitor to Rob’s, with its abrasiveness and low rumble. Even on the Stranglers’ bass heavy song Peaches though Burnel doesn’t approach Rob’s roaring, tank-like low-end assault or deft playing. 

Rob jokes that the only prerequisite for being in the band was that you had to be a nerd from Victoria. Later in the week I’ll write about how much truth there really is in that statement.

Nomeansno never give young punks the answer they want. Just when Rob is supposed to take the queue and say things aren’t as good as they were in the 80s and not enough people are taking Ian Mckaye seriously anymore he instead stays hopeful. 

There’s also something to be said for being so punk you actually want to the record industry to fall. It’s not something a lot of people who’ve been in the business for a long time say on a regular basis. I guess when you’ve been grass roots for 30 years you can stand beside talk like that. There’s no mention of selling out or accusatory shots at other bands, instead Rob just wants the conveyor belt approach to be taken out of music.

Again, just to emphasise when Rob says “processed food” that’s not a sly old-man dig at electronic music. He loves electronic music.  "I love the petrol station at the head of town, we had a great time there" - Yes, it takes a certain type of crazy to tour as much as Nomeansno does and they seem to have a bounteous supply of it.