The Nihilist Spasm Band: The Wavelength Interview

Sounds like: Marbles rolling around in a few pots and pans.
File next to: Do not file this.
Playing: Tonight! (Sept. 17) at The Garrison (1197 Dundas St. W.) – Tickets $15 at the door. Earplugs available at the merch table!

What is a “spasm band”? In essence, it’s a group of folks who make a racket with instruments they’ve either found, built, or – as is sometimes the case – aren’t instruments at all. The Nihilist Spasm band are commonly thought of as the Canada’s first — if not the world’s first — “noise” band: they’ve been blowing minds and eardrums since 1965, and they’re still trucking. They’re Canadian “Weird Music’ Royalty and are here to mark their 50th year of existence. They’re in many ways the anti-Rolling Stones. We’re simply thrilled to have them here in Toronto. We caught up with a members Bill Exley, Art Pratten, and John Boyle ahead of their show, which is… tonight!

You have mentioned that you play for your own enjoyment, but that an audience is welcome. Now, or in your past, have you ever felt that your music is at odds or in any way has an adversarial relationship with its audience?

John Boyle, kazoo, drums, etc: I have never felt this. Nowadays, our audiences are very friendly.

Art Pratten, “Pratt-a-various”, waterpipe: I think there are always people who are surprised and or bewildered by the band, and there are of course those who enjoy being outraged. Generally we are performing for people who are aware of us — or at least understand the words “Nihilist” and “Spasm.”

Bill Exley, Vocals: Playing for enjoyment at Forest City Gallery when there is no audience is very different from playing for an audience. When members of the Band forget this difference, we sometimes play far too long, and on several occasions the audience has walked out. This is adversarial. I think that the dismissive statement, “An audience is welcome,” was made, at least in part, tongue-in-cheek, because old people like us would not go through all the hassles of traveling to Europe, Japan, and elsewhere, unless we wanted, valued, and respected the audiences that hear us there.

In your view, what is the role of the audience in improvisational or free-form music such as yours?

A: Performing improvised or free-form music “noise,” you must concentrate on what is happening in the group. You are always playing on the edge of the sound, responding to what the others are doing, so the audience is forgotten. On the other hand, Exley, our vocalist, plays off the audience entirely.

Do any of the original instruments you built back around your formation still exist, and if so are they still in use?

A: I think John Boyle still uses an original kazoo.

J: Yes — part of my original kazoo is incorporated into one that I still use. I still use a ring modulator that was built for us by a friend in the late 1960s. Also, some of our drum kit is original. I’m not aware of anything else.

B: The megaphone which I used to project my voice before the Band became electrified in the later 1960s is still in a storage area of my home. It was exhibited in the art show curated by Ben Portis at the London Art and Historical Museums in London in 2000, and it was actually used during the performance at Aeolian Hall on July 7, 2008, which honoured James Reaney, the London, Ontario playwright and poet. A couple other instruments, now not used, are also in my storage area.

Are you as a group still continuing to build “new” types of instruments, or have you more or less settled on the basic forms of the instruments you use?

B: My instrument is mainly my voice, and although the vocal and the instrumental parts of the Band have always had an uneasy relationship with one another, the Band as a whole feels that the lyrics are valuable. The unaugmented voice does not change as much as the really inventive instruments made by other members of the Band, such as Art Pratten and Murray Favro. The cooking pots which I use during performances do tend to wear out and need replacement, as do the marbles which I roll around in them.

A: I am constantly building, cannibalizing and rebuilding things. It is at least half the pleasure of playing in the Band.

J: Art builds many bowed stringed instruments. He also invented a new wind instrument, the Water Pipe, a few years ago. Mostly though, we repair or replace them when they break.

Have you read or seen much about the phenomenon of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (commonly known as ASMR)? As traffickers in sound, have you given any thought to sounds that elicit an actual physiological/psychological response?

A: I have not.

B: One of our lyrics, a satirical comment on jargon, is titled, “I have nothing to say, but I can say it very well.” Too much writing about art and music today is largely incomprehensible to the average intelligent reader, and it often obscures meaning rather than clarifies it.

What is your favorite natural or unnatural sound or sound texture? Is there a certain “type” of sound that you find yourselves going back to repeatedly, or simply enjoying?

A: My favourite sound (other than that of my wife’s melodic voice) is listening to the sound of a storm raging through the trees while I snuggle in a sleeping bag in a small tent. As for the Band, we have default settings that are loud, driving, and at some points actually swing.

B: Jojo Hiroshige, former head of Alchemy Records, when we were on one of our Japanese tours, made me listen to the sound of wind blowing through bamboo trees in the gardens of a temple which he took us to see. If the members of the Band’s audience wish to continue to enjoy various types of sound, they must wear earplugs during our performance. Two members of our Band now wear hearing aids.

Do you feel today’s musical climate makes it easier to find a foothold with non-standard musical forms? Is it harder or easier for a, for lack of a better term, “noise” act to garner attention these days?

A: The music climate is always the same. Those that are committed (or crazy) will persevere and play, others will complain and fade.

J: That said, our audiences are much more open and accepting than they were in the past.


BONUS QUESTION: Banjos – what are they best used as?

J: Interesting sounds or music can be made with anything — even banjos.

A: Ah… the Banjo Question. Since my son plays tenor banjo and has played with both a church band and a ‘40s style swing band… My wife tells me I think they are wonderful. On the other hand, I think the players of the big three A B & B, Accordions, Bagpipes and Banjos, should be considerate and refrain from playing in public.


— Interview by Dean Williams

The Nihilist Spasm Band