Interview With John Wright of Nomeansno
St Louis musician Shawn O’Connor (of Yowie on Skin Graft Records and R6 Implant) interviewed punk legends Nomeansno during their visit to St Louis on October 14, 2010 for St. Louis Music Press:
I went on a trek with Canada’s only progressive rock trio, Nomeansno (can you think of another? I cannot)- more specifically John Wright (drummer) and Tom Holliston (guitarist) for food and drinks before their concert here in St. Louis. Since we were at the Firebird and walking on our hunter/gatherer mission, we tried to go to Pappy’s Smokeshack, but alas it was closed (of course) and so ended up at some unremarkable joint that was out of everything but pizza at 7 p.m. Now that’s hospitality! Given that these folks’ music served as a powerfully formative influence on me in a number of ways, it was hard to keep my composure, as I felt like screaming like one of those hysterical girls you always see in the footage of the Ed Sullivan show when the Beatles or Elvis played. But I faked it as best I could, here in this iconic band’s 32nd year playing, recording, and touring their unique style of independently produced music, looking back and forward at the same time at their career and the trajectory of music writ large. What follows is a transcript of our conversation before the show.
Shawn: The last several times you’ve played in Missouri or in Chicago, there have been some issues. One time you bypassed Missouri and so you played at the Fireside in Chicago, and there was a young woman who spent the entire set right behind the drum set yelling, “play ‘The Rape,’” over and over, literally dozens upon dozens of times, until Rob finally got upset and made some remark about not being a jukebox. Then I recall seeing you at the Creepy Crawl here in St. Louis, where there was a lot of feedback, broken mic stands, etc, and Rob was very upset about the inability to have your performance come across effectively, which he also conveyed…
John: (smiling) Oh yes the Creepy Crawl…the crowd was good. The club was a mess.
Shawn: Then last time in Columbia, MO, a young woman kept demanding a particular song, and toward the end of the night when it looked like you weren’t going to play it, she spit on Rob, then he spit back, then she charged him and he hit her in the head with his bass….
John: I remember that. She went at him. We were talking about that today as we drove through Missouri trying to remember where that was.
Shawn: So my question is, do you get a lot of that, all over the world, or is this just something from the Midwest?
John: I think it’s just the Midwest with some of the things you are talking about- but different places have different quirks. Like in San Diego, we have great shows there, but every time we play there it’s a bloodbath. Either inside the club, or once it was backstage, or outside, there are always fights. It had nothing to do with us; it’s just the culture of the people there, and we don’t generate that kind of atmosphere, but it happens. It just takes one person who’s too drunk, and too stupid, to get on someone’s nerves and maybe you’ve driven 18 hours to get there, you’re tired, and you just have no patience. Other times, you have a lot of patience and shit’ll happen and you just let it roll. But generally speaking, no, our audiences- and ourselves- are well behaved.
Shawn: I was wondering if you have it happen a lot that people are dead set that you have to play this or that song and they have almost a sense of entitlement or ownership- that’s what some of the issues I’ve seen with you have been about.
John: It’s almost always alcohol induced. Somebody doesn’t know when to shut up. But people want to hear certain songs, it’s their favorite song or something, and they want to hear it live, and that’s fine. Most people know how to impart that without being completely annoying. But we don’t take requests- we work up a set and have a certain number of songs that we’ve rehearsed and that we can play. Some people don’t understand that- they are like “well you’re a musician, play one of your songs.” But I can’t play a song I haven’t rehearsed for 10 years. We can’t just whip it out. Some musicians, that’s their livelihood; they have 200, 300 songs and they can play any of them. I remember there was a thing with Elvis Costello he did for one of his shows- he just got a big wheel with 50 songs on it or something, spun the wheel, and whatever came up, that was what they played. But we’re not that way- we have a show, a set that is paced out specifically, and we very rarely diverge from that.
[At this moment…Tom comes over…]
Tom: Paul said he will give me $10 if I come over here and say ‘balls’ into the microphone 6 times. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls. Balls.
[Tom walks away triumphantly, hands in the air, and demands payment to a booth full of folks.]
John: But we digress.
Shawn: It has been my experience that people who enjoy your music are very often very passionate about it, moreso than for most bands. There are a lot of bands I could name where people are sort of tepid about it, they like an album or a song here or there, but for you it seems that your fans are committed to your music in a different way, at times almost obsessive. I wonder if you have observed that.
John: Hard for me to say. I can’t be a fan of my own band. It’s impossible for me to understand what people make of our music. But we have die hard fans for sure. People keep coming out year after year. But one thing about us- the music is not just about a catchy pop song or a party or really heavily political thing; you’re not expected to have a dissertation at school the next day, it really is more about feeling things. The songs sometimes don’t even make a lot of sense but they leave you with a feeling, so naturally if you are trying to evoke more of an emotional response from people, when it works, that’s what you get. So people do pick up on the emotional aspect of our music, even though we don’t set out to do anything in particular, but the way we’ve always approached playing music is that we put a lot of that intensity into it, and sometimes touch on subjects that are a little bit dark or…not always, but, they touch on or poke at what you’re thinking inside, more than what’ you’re talking outside.
Shawn: I think you’re being a bit modest if you don’t mind my saying so. Some of the subject matter you touch on is among the most sincere, raw, and difficult topics talked about in music. A lot of the songs I can think of that really inspire emotion involve themes of alienation, intimacy- and the fear of it- being subjugated to the passions of a human body but having the experience that you are more than that- these are deep philosophical and ethical questions about one’s existence.
John: Definitely- Robbie (John’s brother, bassist and principal singer/lyricist for Nomeansno) writes most of the lyrics and he is a thinker that way. He is very much into philosophy; he has read it and studied it all his life and he is very much into a Buddhist kind of philosophy now, combining a philosophical and kind of a spiritual approach. Not so much me; I am not a super deep thinker in that respect; I will think about it and feel it but for Robbie it is a real focus for him and his music is a real outlet. It’s just about not being trite and not being superficial. When we were coming into punk rock in the late 1970’s, and we were living in Victoria, it was all about not being part of the formula. It was like, ‘say something with your music, think about what you’re doing, be creative.’ So we came out of that whole environment that nurtured the idea of being different and being yourself and with us that was really hard intense 3 piece rock music. But like I say, thinking about what you’re writing and thinking about what you’re singing to people, and making them think about what they’re listening to, because you’re not being trivial.
Shawn: I have seen instances in live shows where people become very emotional, much moreso than I usually see at concerts or with other media for that matter. I have a particular image in my mind one time of you playing ‘Victory,’ and there is a moment when Rob asks, “Do I have any friends here? I can’t see.” And I remember seeing people crying, and people with their arms outstretched in a very earnest gesture, which seems incongruous with what a lot of people think of as punk rock.
John: Oh yeah.
Shawn: Usually punk rock is reactive, it’s against something, it’s unidimensional and about anger or reactivity, but your music seems to catalyze really genuine personal, complex responses from people.
John: I know what you mean. That song in particular touches a chord for sure. When we’ve been playing it recently, although we haven’t been playing it on this tour for some reason, we were doing it in the encore for a little while…that’s the thing. The music has given an outlet to those feelings and Robby is able to convey that unfiltered. And he’s not really that guy if you talk to him in person. He’s just sort of chatty chatty, funny, but through the music, that’s where it finds its form. But not all of our music is like that either. We have songs that are just kind of straight up, all about the energy, and not trying to be anything deep or philosophical or emotional. I mean music is fun, and we always embraced the fun part of music, but it’s also fun to be more real about what you’re doing. Like the Hanson Brothers is just nothing but a joke…and we have a lot of fun with it. But by the end of the tour, you’re done. You’re sick of it. It’s the same joke over and over and over. And we’ll put it away for a couple of years, and then say, ‘let’s play some Hanson brothers, let’s have some fun.’ But when you’re really being honest and being yourself, you can do that forever. And when you’re getting a great reaction from the audience and the audience is also not pretending to be something else, just being themselves at the show, enjoying it and getting involved, then that’s the perfect show.
Shawn: The “no yin yang” shirt…
John: Not ‘no yin yang,’ what it is, is “no everything” or “nothing,” but when people see it they perceive it as a negative. It’s not a negative. It’s provocative; I mean, let’s face it, that was another one of Robbie’s “being cheeky” moves. But he likes to impart this concept of more or less a Buddhist thing to get rid of everything, until you come down to nothing, and that’s nirvana by some descriptions but the “nothing,” well he just had this idea, “If yin yang is the symbol for everything, and harmony, then just put an x through it, and it’s the symbol for nothing. Reject everything.” Not even really reject it; just “not that.” But you look at it and it’s like, ‘What are they, anti-Tao?”
Shawn: I have gotten so much crap wearing that shirt. I have been verbally accosted on more than one occasion because of it.
John: I know someone else told me the same thing- some guy running down the street yelling at them, “Are you against harmony?” I think you should just say, “I am against everything.”
Shawn: Good advice.
John: It was a cheeky little graphic, easily misinterpreted, and sort of obscure too in a way, but it looks good on a poster.
Shawn: And it allows you to meet interesting people.
John: Well, like anything artistic, it should make you talk. If it inspires anger then you have a chance to vent. I think that’s when art is successful. I am not trying to describe myself as a great artist or anything, but that is what art should do. It should be provocative. The best artist is when people sit around and say, “Can you believe what he did?” That’s always the best.
Shawn: Someone once said, “It is good taste, and good taste alone, that possesses the power to sterilize and is always the first handicap to any creative functioning.”
John: “Art is a hammer” is one I like.
Shawn: You mentioned writing some songs that are just fun and more straightforward as well as your more complex and challenging and sometimes difficult material. I was under the impression that “All Roads Lead to Ausfahrt” was more on the catchier, tunier side of things.
John: After “One” had come out, which was a fairly, well, not really dark album, but it was a ‘sit and listen to on your own’ kind of record. With the longer songs, especially with ‘Bitches’ Brew,” I really enjoyed that and was really happy with it. I think it is one of our stronger records. But we thought, “Dance of the Headless Bourgeoisie” was a very obscure album and not our greatest effort, so “Ausfahrt” was like, let’s do some short songs, 10 or 12 on the album, and keep it under 50 minutes, and just try to do something rocking. When it was being written, I didn’t know if it was really working. It was an odd collection of music, and then Robbie started writing lyrics for all this music we had going, and then it started to take on a bit of its own thing. We left two songs off that we had recorded, one of which we are just re-releasing now on the second tour EP, which is an outtake from the “Ausfahrt” sessions because it just did not fit at all. And there’s another one that will come out later that also didn’t fit. But the group of songs we chose for “Ausfahrt,“ it had a kind of flow- not earth shattering or really deep but that was a fairly conscious effort to do something that was a little more accessible.
Shawn: Would you consider that a change in direction for the future?
John: The new stuff is totally different. You’ll hear all the songs off the new EP tonight, and one song, “Jubilation,” comes off the second EP, and that’s the one that’s a bit of a pop punk song. But the other ones are all a bit longer, slower, and one of them, “Something Dark Against Something Light,” we put together a bit like a dub step. Robbie had looped some drum parts together and made a song, and when we were learning it, we were like, “We should just learn this like you assembled it. I’ll learn the drum parts, but we’ll assemble it like an electronic song,” and that turned out to be fun to do in the studio. The live version is quite a bit different; it’s faster and much more organic. Obviously we are playing it from beginning to end live, but you’ll hear that and then the studio version of it, you’ll be able to tell how different it is. The new songs are definitely not like “Ausfahrt” at all.
Shawn: Still today, if you talk to people about music or look up “all time favorite CDs” on the internet, you will see the album “Wrong” featured with amazing regularity.
John: That’s our most popular album by a country mile. That was just the right album at the right time. And it reached the largest audience. So it’s not surprising that it’s generally the favorite. The songwriting and the production and the time in which it came out, just all gelled.
Shawn: What was it about the time in which it came out?
John: The kind of music we were playing, and then Nirvana before they got popular, and that kind of alternative…I don’t know how to describe it. Punk rock was getting to that point where a lot of bands were just starting to get into that commercial breakthrough, and when Nirvana did, well of course that spelled the end of it all. But it sort of simmered to that point, and then people wanted to hear bands like Nirvana, which weren’t hardcore, not pop or rock, it was sort of more heartfelt music, and we were sort of caught up in that, with Alternative Tentacles and Jello Biafra, of course peaking in their popularity, the Dead Kennedys were just coming to the end before they exploded. In Europe especially, the music scene was just exploding. We completely attribute all of our success to going and playing in Europe. That’s where all the buzz about us came from. We were touring throughout the States in the mid-80s, and we’d get a little bit of audience here and there, but after a couple of years in Europe, we started doing some big shows there, and all of a sudden, people in the States were coming out to our shows. And we went from getting paid $200 to getting paid $1000. It was just like that. You had to have the buzz, and then it all just kind of blew up. Every major label tried to sign every band, and then it became no longer an alternative, it sort of became co-opted by the mainstream and people moved on to hip hop and dub step and then everyone got sick of rock and roll and went to raves.
Shawn: I remember those dark days.
John: But we had developed this hardcore group of fans at that time. And they kept coming out to the shows. We kinda lost some of the periphery. We were doing 1000-2000 people a show in Europe at one time. Now a big show for us would be 1000 on our own in Europe. We still get 800-900 in Hamburg and Prague, but especially in Germany, which is really our strong base, but we are a solid 300-500 band now, which is great for a lot of promoters. Everything was getting sucked up by the major labels and promoters for a while, Clear Channel, House of Blues, started eating everything up.
Shawn: Things are different now though; bands that used to play these big shows in bars are often playing house shows, basements…
John: I know, there is quite a bit of change going on. The record label industry more or less collapsed, and it’s left everybody with this D.I.Y. thing, and everything now is on a smaller scale. But at the same time, it’s so diffuse now. We relied on a scene. There was a group of people who supported these bands, and if you fell into that category they were there at your shows, and especially in Europe there was a huge grassroots movement to support music, like volunteerism that never caught on in North America. But there it was a really big thing. Squats and all that- very political- but totally into music, and that’s kind of all dissipated. So you have this very diffuse approach to music now. People can hear anything, and electronic music is sort of the weird alternative scene that is kind of obscure but people are totally into it. Rock and roll music now is this big vast landscape of everything all mixed together and there’s no real core audience that you can latch onto.
Shawn: In a way a lot of people have been very excited about the demise of the big record companies’ domination and there is a lot to be said for that, but on the other hand the phenomenon you are describing, largely drive n by the internet, is making it nearly impossible to make a living playing music, especially if you are doing something different.
John: It’s harder now, definitely. Hard to get your audience. When the record industry goes down too the whole publicity machine goes down too. At least before if everyone knew the system, there was a record label and a distributor and a publicist, and if you were into something you could find the labels and the publicists and take the pictures and write the stories and associated yourself with that. Now it’s like, “There’s this great band, how do I get a hold of them? Who represents them?” Nobody does. “Where are their records?” Well, if you write them maybe they’ll mail you one. If you find something, there’s not a system you can be part of and lock yourself into. But there still are writers, reviewers, papers, but it’s way more open now. You have to go find it yourself and discover it yourself. It’s not going to just be sent to you. Well of course the top pop stuff always will be shoved down your throat, but especially the internet world is suddenly vast. It was not even 10 years ago, and then now it’s like, “boom,” and this other world now exists. In some ways it’s fantastic, and in other ways it’s just daunting.
Shawn: The first time I saw you play, some good friends of mine heard about this show on “The Worldhood of the World (as such)” tour up in Chicago through this new thing (to us) called the internet. And we were so excited to hear that a band we loved was within driving distance…one might think that this technology would make such things easier and better for bands, but now it seems that the internet has made everything more atomized, which makes it hard to cultivate a base.
John: There is a certain amount of energy and momentum that comes from a scene that supports itself. When you don’t have that, you have a very diffuse situation in which there is a myriad of things but it’s hard to coalesce.
Shawn: That being said, it may be a paradox to talk about a “punk rock role model,” but given your success and influence over more than three decades now, through all of these changes we have been discussing, do you have any advice for a young band starting today? I think they might do well to look at everything you have contributed and accomplished.
John: The one thing that has not changed is that people like good music- that is, music they are attracted to, that there is something about it that they are not just entertained by but that captures them. And so it all comes down to just playing in front of people and doing a good job. Impress them, and they will remember. You come back again, and they will come back again. So it always comes down to it being up to you, what you play, and how well you do it- that really determines the whole thing. If you want to be a manufactured star, you can still do that if you look the part, but if you want to play music, you’re doing it for yourself. It was no different for us. We were doing it for ourselves because we weren’t making any money, no one was coming out to shows; we just played in hopes that the next time we come back there will be a few more people there. We never had any label support for that stuff and we didn’t want it because then you’re working for someone. I didn’t want to have a job working for someone; we were playing music and that’s what we wanted to do, so its’ no different now. If you think you’re going to win the lottery and be the next viral youtube video, well, maybe, but that’s not how you gain any success. As far as music is concerned, it’s writing and performing and pleasing yourself first, and then trying to convey that to the world. And that is no different than it’s ever been.
Shawn: May I ask one last dorky drummer question?
Shawn: What song is most difficult for you to perform?
John: Well, up until not too long ago I would have said, “This Story Must Be Told,” but recently there are some new songs that are very difficult. As I said, Robby wrote one on a drum machine and I decided to learn what the machine was doing. It was very counterintuitive. I told him, “I can learn this, but just so you know, no drummer on earth would ever play like this.” So you will hear that tonight and see me thinking about it more than I should have to.
Nomeansno went on to play a stellar set, as usual, to throngs of people singing along and ecstatically moving to their music, with fans wearing tour shirts from decades past. Some people flew in from Philadelphia, one from New York, probably many drove from all over. Only one person was escorted out for hassling them. He was a huge fan, heavily intoxicated, and kept touching their instruments as they played in a sort of awestruck daze. He politely apologized on his way out, though. And the monitors on the stage kept cutting out, but not as bad as in previous shows. Progress? Methinks so.
Find out more about Nomeansno with these links: