The Nihilist Spasm Band reflect on five decades of absurdity

by Jesse Locke

September 10, 2013






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The Canadian noise pioneers celebrate 50 years with shows in Toronto, Guelph, and London.

Since 1965, London, Ontario’s storied experimental music troupe the Nihilist Spasm Band have cranked out a unique brand of improvised bedlam. Armed with an assortment of homemade instruments, modified noisemakers, and other Frankenstein creations, they have brought their brain-rattling performances around the globe. Artifacts of the band’s illustrious lifespan include the documentary film What About Me, the gallery retrospective No Exhibition: The Art and Spectacle of the Nihilist Spasm Band, and a series of sought-after albums recently capped off with 2012’s Nothing Is Forever. This article is an excerpt from the liner notes of the band’s recently reissued 1968 debut LP, No Record, available now from Lion Productions.

The Nihilist Spasm Band will appear in a series of 50th anniversary concerts this month, reuniting with past collaborator Joe McPhee. On September 16, Kazoo! presents a performance in Guelph at eBar. On September 17, Wavelength presents the Toronto anniversary show at the Garrison with guests HSY (doubling as their record release) and The Dead Are Those Who Have Died. Finally, the NSB return home to the Museum London Theatre on September 18.

Few sounds are as gleefully maniacal as the surge of laughter that opens No Record. Vocalist Bill Exley’s raw-throated cackle—rivaling Vincent Price as the most sinister of all time—can only be transcribed as “Aaaaahhh ha ha.” Pregnant pause. A twinge of guitar. And then those fateful words launching us into the tumult of the anti-anthem to beat ’em all: “Destroy the Nations!”

Fast-forward 45 years, and the laugh is still there. Sure, it’s softened a bit over time, but whenever Bill gets off a good quip, his hands rub together and out comes that ol’ familiar sound. On a rainy Sunday afternoon in London, ON, I’m sitting at a coffee table with Exley, Art Pratten, and John Clement, three large-looming figures from the Nihilist Spasm Band. You might not know it to look at them in their sweater vests and fleece jackets, but these stalwart noisemakers are both pioneers and a bona fide institution in a class of musical experimentation all their own.

While the NSB’s introduction to the world at large was the monolithic slab known as No Record, the story actually started several years earlier with a much smaller item at its heart: the kazoo. It all began when the late, great Greg Curnoe—Canadian visual art enfant terrible and member of the “London Regionalism” movement—decided to move beyond painting and try his hand at film with a silent short titled (you guessed it) No Movie.

For the soundtrack, Curnoe gathered a group of friends, fellow artists and attendees of the yearly Nihilist Picnic (a summer gathering of likeminded dissenters that continues to this day) and passed around a box of 25-cent mouth-buzzers. The resulting free-for-all was recorded to cellulose, and with this seed planted, jam sessions continued in the weeks, months, years, and (for some) decades to come.

NSB circa now (Photo: Dennis Siren)

“At first it was just kazoos at the cottage, and then kazoos at the picnic,” explains Pratten, maestro of modified string instruments variously titled the Pratt-a-Various. “We started building our own, and we knew there were jazz people like Tampa Red who had big amplified versions. We thought that if they could do it, so could we. Everyone began trying to outdo each other and become the loudest, and every week we’d come back with something bigger. The band became a happening with legs, and I decided then that I wanted on.”

Over time, homemade instruments became an NSB hallmark. This is fitting since their name is derived from the original “spasm bands” of New Orleans—ad hoc street combos playing Dixieland and skiffle on anything they could get their hands on. With Pratten’s skeletal violins, fellow visual artist Murray Favro’s one-of-a-kind guitars, and merry prankster John Boyle’s arsenal of kazoos, kalimbas, and electronics, the high end is a squealing, slinking, chaotic array. Depending on the listener’s sensibilities, the NSB can bring to mind shamanic free jazz, agitprop/absurdist poetry, junkyard concrète, or a live cat being wrung through a meat grinder.

“I originally found a metal kazoo that was red and black, the colours of the nihilists,” says Boyle, over the phone from his home in Peterborough. “I brought that in, and soon enough other people got them as well. We started off by tootling on the kazoos, thumping and making noise. That was kind of fun, but people’s brains got working instantly and independently. Art was working at the newspaper at the time, and there were big metal cans of ink and various fluids lying around. He got some, cut them up and made a kazoo out of these strips of metal. Then Hugh got a gutbucket, and on and on it went, very quickly.”

The NSB’s sound is topped off by the foghorn monologues of Exley, beginning each song—such as the aforementioned “Destroy the Nations” and its laugh from the depths—with a spoken (or non-verbal sound effect) passage, often delivered via megaphone. “I developed a style of giving speeches at the Nihilist Picnics,” Exley chuckles. “Various non-sequiturs and exaggerations, ultimately leading into total absurdity.”

If their brand of expression isn’t enough to admit them, the band has also exhibited an obsessive work ethic—or perhaps just enjoyment—with a faithful regimen of Monday night performances dating back to the ’60s. Before their current residency at the Forest City Gallery, these weekly jam sessions began at a local watering hole (immortalized in song with No Record’s “When In London Sleep At The York Hotel”).

NSB live at Electric Eclectics (Photo: Jeremy Hobbs)

“At first we were playing in Greg’s studio, which was kind of the gathering place for people, and then we moved to the York,” explains Boyle. “That wasn’t too far away in downtown London, and Monday nights were a time when not much was happening except for a few drunks asleep at the tables. They were persuaded to let us play. I don’t think many of the regulars liked us particularly, and the owners didn’t like our stuff either, but it was very unique of course: A bunch of guys who didn’t know how to play music making squawks and things on various instruments.”

Perhaps it was the novelty of seeing this not-so-motley crew of characters making an unholy racket on their ramshackle contraptions, or perhaps it was just the freewheeling spirit of the times. Regardless of the reason, word began to spread.

“Our performances started to attract attention through articles in the local paper and local TV,” Boyle says. “We developed a reputation and people started coming from outside of London to see or hear this strange band. It wasn’t very long before the York was full on Monday nights. I’m not sure whether or not people liked us, but it was kind of a weird evening to come down and have shouted conversations while the band roared on.”

“There’s never been any discussion about what we’re going to do in the future, whether the future is years away or 20 minutes later when we’re going on stage,” Pratten concludes. “Everything we’ve done has been for some kind of immediate need. We played at the York because it was fun, and didn’t have anywhere else to go. Nobody was interested in playing outside of London, or in fact playing any time other than Monday nights.”

5 unforgettable events from the Nihilist Spasm Band’s lifetime

Thanks to the obsessive record keeping of the NSB’s resident archivist Bill Exley, every important date and event has been documented. Here are five of the most mind-boggling moments.

1. November 1, 1969 – In one of the most unlikely government-sanctioned events of all time, the NSB are chosen to represent Canada at the Sixth Biennale des Jeunes in Paris, France. Wearing specially designed red and black jackets with the logo ‘Canada’s Official Music Team’, they perform to a crowd of largely blank stares.

2. March 11, 1996 – During their first tour of Japan, the NSB appear on the Tokyo-based TV show Tamori’s World of Music. In a clip straight out of Lost In Translation, the band’s unusual instruments cause the sunglass-clad host to exclaim, “Anarchy!” Watch it here. 

3. March 27, 1998 – To celebrate the first annual No Music Festival, Thurston Moore travels to London to perform with the Spasm Band at the Forest City Gallery. Later No Music events include collaborations with Lee Ranaldo, Jim O’Rourke, dancer Paulina Wallenberg-Ollson, and Japanese noisenik Jojo Hiroshige.

4. August 15, 2002 – In their largest gig to date, the NSB open for Sonic Youth at the Kool Haus in Toronto for an audience of approximately 2,000 people.

5. November 8, 2004 – Alongside the final performance of original NSB bassist Hugh McIntyre, the members of R.E.M. join the Spasm Band for a jam session at London venue Dissent. No word whether religion is lost or found.

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 Issue of AUX Magazine.

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Tags: Music, News, AUX Magazine, AUX Magazine September 2013, Nihilist Spasm Band






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