John WrightAlternative Tentacles
By Shelby Monita on September 5th, 2015 at Phone
The 2015 Western Canadian Music Hall of Fame ceremony is taking place on September 20th in Victoria, BC. We spoke with John Wright of Nomeansno on what it is like to be inducted this year, the current state of the music industry and how he started playing in a band full of robots.
Shelby Monita: So thirty six years as a punk in Canada, you’re now being inducted into the Western Canada Music Hall of Fame, how does that feel?
John Wright: Well it’s a little surprising but The Western Canadian Music Hall of Fame is pretty local. It’s not a big deal, I shouldn’t say that – I don’t mean that. [It’s just that] it’s not televised and there are no big rock stars, nothing like that. You know it really is kind of a home spun thing around here, around Western Canada and more to do with, I think, more lesser know bands; more independent stuff. That’s my impression, although there are some major bands on there as well. It was definitely not expected. I wasn’t aware of it. I’m not trying to be cheeky, it was not something I was aware was going to happen.
SM: Still, congratulations!
JW: Yeah, absolutely! And everyone is really excited, certainly the organizers are really excited, they’re big fans of the band and have been pushing for awhile, to my understanding. Which is great! Because we’ve been playing around here and I mean Victoria since 1981 as nomeansno, so that’s getting to 34 years of being a presence here. You know we have since moved away from Victoria, we’re not really a Victoria based band anymore. We moved to Vancouver in the 90s. Established ourselves there, sort of a home base where everybody lived. We’re definitely a product of West Coast punk rock scene, West Coast music scene really. So this is a nice recognition, you know this is our region. And we’ve made some fans over the years it’s flattering.
SM: Does it feel a little surreal? You came, like you said from 1981 when punk was still rebellious and not accepted by the mainstream and now you’re getting an award from one whole part of the country.
JW: The times have changed. Again, it just shows the evolution of trends and ideas and art in general. I think that the stuff that’s on the edge, the stuff that’s on the outside, it’s not punk rock any more. There’s other forms of art, other forms of music that are really pushing the boundaries on the outside and not generally accepted by the mainstream. But I mean at the same time you can’t lie low and be hidden anymore. You can’t be word of mouth anymore because everything spreads so quickly on the internet. You know punk rock was on the boil for a while before it exploded and that sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore. Nothing stays unnoticed for very long. So things change rapidly and I think by now a lot of people are looking backwards and not looking forwards.
I have 2 sons, one is 16 and one is almost 19 and you know they’re still listening to music from the 60s and the 70s and the 80s and now. You know it’s not really a forward-looking generation. Maybe I’m just talking through my hat. I’m 53 years old now so I don’t see the world how a 19 year old sees the world. It’s hard for me to say but when you hear music it is very much revisiting the styles from the past. Apart from really crazy electronic music, I think dub step and these things really are more of an evolution in music. But they leave people cold.
People still seem to want to attach to the humanity and the energy and youth of rock n’ roll and punk rock. I mean it’s still amazing to me that hardcore is alive and well. Certainly a lot of it was that 16-18 year old testosterone driven music and that will never go away. In once sense it seems like we’re in a loop. Will guitar music go anywhere? Or has it gone all the places it can go and now we just go around in circles and repeat what’s done before.
It’s kind of interesting to think, where does music go now? Electronic music – and I haven’t been exposed to a lot of it – it’s interesting but it doesn’t capture so much of my imagination as my emotion. There’s just something about people banging on things that makes all the difference.
SM: As you solidified your place in the punk scene and your fan base grew, how did you maintain your DIY aesthetic?
JW: We knew very early on that our kind of music would not appeal to the masses. At least not for long. And you get yourself involved in the industry and the industry takes over your life. You lose control of what you’re doing. And the emphasis is more on things not so much to do with your music but your record sales, your public persona your status. All the things that interfere with the music. And since we were all so obsessed with the idea of the music coming first we didn’t want to lose control of it. We didn’t want to work for someone. Which back in the day if you were on a label you worked for them. You weren’t working for yourself unless you mutually agree I want to be a big star, I want to make a lot of money; I want to do what I have to do to achieve it. Which is not a big deal, I don’t have anything essentially against that. But music, the more pretentious it becomes, the less value it has I suppose and the less satisfying it is. Although there are certainly stars I think that are satisfied with their music and are genuine, so much of it isn’t and that part is so lonesome that we didn’t see that we fit into that part of the world.
And plus we didn’t have the savvy and we were very satisfied to be a big fish in a small pond rather than make the leap into the big pond and get swallowed up. So we were pretty much in control of what we were doing, enjoying what we were doing, our association with Alternative Tentacles, which was great, we did what we wanted. They put the records out, we developed an audience, always had a crowd that was always there and interested, we got paid.
SM: Great! I feel like it’s so hard for people to stay DIY these days or if they do stay DIY they are incredibly broke.
JW: It’s way harder now, the fact that records companies – as bad as they were – there was a medium in which you could count on. I mean no one sells records now. When we went on tour, the first tour in the States, the only reason we weren’t phoning home for money is because we had a few records to sell. We weren’t getting paid anything but there was always something to sell. And although that’s still true: on tour, bands do sell stuff; but it’s very difficult when you don’t have a support network, which people don’t really in the traditional sense. Now maybe there’s new support networks that are establishing themselves. But the other fact is that people can do so much on their own that now it’s just everyone out there.
There’s no gate keeper anymore, and as much as we hated the gate keeper, if you could get passed that gate, you had legs to stand on. And it also meant that you had to have something to get past that gate with. You had to really prove that you do what you did and you did it well, regardless of what it is you’re doing; and now I think it’s so difficult because there’s a lot in the crowd. So you know I think it’s very difficult.
For instance there’s this band Invasives from Vancouver who I plug all the time because they’re so amazing. One of the best bands to come out of Vancouver in years and years and years and they just can’t get anywhere because they don’t have the traditional methods of developing audiences. Audiences aren’t coming out because there’s something new to go see. You know it’s back to the old if I didn’t read about it, if I didn’t see [it on youtube], if it’s not floating around social media, I don’t know what it is and I’m not going to go look at it because my attention is being spread out so thin. It’s difficult and there’s no record companies that are out there pushing your product. It’s a whole different world. And first of all I must say I’m not an expert on it because I was never really involved in the music world that much, when I was involved in it. And now less so, I don’t follow music so much anymore. And I’ve just been very very busy focused on stuff I do with the band and the world has changed so dramatically in the last 20 years that yeah I scratch my head and wonder what is going on…
SM: I think we all are… So you’ve traveled all across Canada, multiple times. I have to ask, what city has the best pizza?
JW: The best city is Napoli, but unfortunately it’s not in Canada. It’s pretty hard you know, I’ve been to Italy so many times that it’s pretty hard to get good pizza. But I have to say Vancouver. There’s a couple of really good pizza places in Vancouver. I’m sure in Toronto there’s got to be a good pizza place somewhere I just haven’t found it…. But I have to say if you want the best food in the world, you have to go to Italy. And you know Italian shows were always crazy, we always had good shows there, there was always some kind of chaos surrounding them and it didn’t matter because we knew we were going to get the most amazing meal…
SM: How does it feel to be such a strong influence on so many bands across the country?
JW: Well it’s kind of like being recognized by the hall of fame, it’s flattering. And I know that I was inspired by loads of music and bands. I’m happy to feel that the music I’ve written has also inspired people. That’s what makes music exciting and fun – that inspiration when you hear something and it gets your juices flowing, that’s the excitement in music and in writing and performing. You’re inspired by other people and what they’ve done and it sparks your imagination and your energy, like all art really, so I’m happy I was able to achieve that.
SM: You also have another band with robots, if I’m correct?
JW: It’s true, yes! The latest project that I’m involved with right now is a band of robots called Compressorhead. I’ve written an album for it. They exist in Berlin, although it’s a man from Coventry, England, a man from Southern Germany, a Dutchmen , an Australian and myself, a Canadian. So it’s a pretty multinational enterprise.
This fellow Frank from Coventry is very mechanically minded and artistic and has been building things and robots for a very long time. About 7 or 8 years ago he just decided to build a drummer to see if he could. And he was always building stuff out of scrap metal and a lot of what the drummer is made up of is motorcycle parts. But it has four arms and plays with sticks on a regular drum set, 2 feet of course. It’s amazing and separately this German fellow was building a guitar player who plays a flying Gibson, and they got together and started to program music to together. They did this cover of “The Ace of Spades” by Motorhead and it went viral on youtube, got a million-and-some-odd hits.
Suddenly everyone was calling saying, “who are you, we want you to play this and play that”. And they had a friend who was sort of an artistic engineer type down in Australia and he was good friends, or his wife worked for the man who run The Big Day Out festival in Australia and he said if you become a band I can get you down here to play.
So this guy in Australia built a bass player, he plays a Fender precision and it was just the three of them and they would programs songs and it would become an audience sing-along. Eventually it would become mass karaoke, they would put the words up and the audience would sing while the robots played. That’s kind of how they got their start. So after this transpired they thought they should be a real band with original music, with a singer and stuff. And Frank for instance was a big fan of Nomeansno and the Hanson Brothers and he wanted them to play punk rock like Hanson Brothers, Ramones style punk rock. And he just contacted me through the website out of the blue and just said, this is what we’re doing, would you be interested in writing music for it? I was kind of like, I don’t know. But once I investigated it I wrote a few songs and they were totally into it… And I’ve been over about 3 times to work with the robots.
My idea is they have to be as un-robotic as possible. They have to be a punk rock band… It’s been real fun, they’re all really nice guys and the robots take on a life of their own… It’s very expensive so they are starting up a crowd funding campaign in November to help finish everything, finish the recording. Plus they are doing gigs are well, raising their own money. The interesting thing is it’s not just punk rockers and musicians who think this is cool but there’s this huge world of robot geeks out there. I’ve seen them once in a live context… and it was a science fair…. They played a house party in Los Angeles. You know these aren’t punk rock people or even music people, it’s just people who find this completely cool. So that has been occupying a lot of my time. The idea is to have the album recorded around February and released in the spring.
There is this very large rock/heavy metal music festival in Germany called Wacken Festival and we’ve been offered our own stage and I would imagine play 2 shows a day for 4 days. So I would imagine that’s the goal… that will be the official unveiling of the band and that happens next July. So we got our work cut out…
SM: That sounds amazing and I look forward to that. Sounds like a big year ahead for you! Any plans for Nomeansno after the induction?
JW: We’ll see. It depends on how broke everyone gets…. Hopefully we’ll get something going again. There’s certainly a lot of musical ideas and I still love playing music. Right now that’s being channeled through the robots but there’s still more to come
SM: Thank you so much for this interview. Enjoy your weekend.
JW: You too, enjoy your heat wave!