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I Am Wrong: An interview with NoMeansNo's John Wright

NMN
10 October 2011

This interview was conducted in November 2010 and has been edited for length and clarity. Thanks to Melanie Kaye for setting the interview up and to John Wright for being so willing to talk and drive at the same time.

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Y’know I first saw NoMeansNo at The Royal Albert in Winnipeg on the Wrong Tour. So since that was way before we knew and saw everything on the Internet, I had two great shocks. The first being that [bassist/singer] Rob Wright looked old enough to be everyone in the audience’s dad and tahe second was that your kit was set right up front, instead of being in the back as is almost always the case with the drummer. Did you want to talk about how that came to be and what affect it’s had on the band’s development?

JW: We (John and Rob Wright) started out just writing music, not playing live. We were getting involved in the punk scene in Victoria – at the time a lot of bands were sprouting up and playing live – so when we decided to play live we didn’t have a guitar player, we thought “well, let’s just do two piece.” And we started actually writing songs just bass and drums. Then we played live and I would set up in the middle and he’d be standing out front and we quickly realized that’s stupid because he can’t see me while he’s playing and singling to the audience and I’m doing singing but I’m stuck at the back where the audience can’t really see me. So as a two-piece we just decided to set up side-by-side, facing each other. So when Andy Kerr, our original guitarist, joined in we saw no reason to change. He set up on the far side and that way we could all see each other better and it’s much more exciting for the audience to actually be seeing what the drummer’s doing. Because I sing, and I sing off my left shoulder, then I can actually sing out into the audience and they can see me singing. It was just a more logical way of setting up.

Did that set up end up giving the drummer more prominence?

JW: Definitely! There’s no doubt that it’s more exciting for audience to see what the drummer’s doing and you feel more connected to the rhythm section that way. I mean that was standard set up in the old days – rock n’ roll was the oddball that put the drummer in the back.

How did playing for so long as a bass/drums duo, how did that affect the sound you developed?

JW: Well I think it had a lot to do with how we ended up sounding. Because without a guitar player you can’t rely on the standard hooks that punk rock and rock n’ roll in general relies on. The guitar player – the guitar god quote unquote – was such a focus for so long that by the nature of not having a guitar player, the bass and the drums have to do a lot more. It also makes the vocals more important, or at least it makes a lot more room for the vocals. You don’t have guitar solos, you don’t have the wash of high end. And the things you do on the drums are different, if you just did a straight four beat on the drums it would get kinda dull after awhile. It isn’t as though bass guitar hasn’t been a prominent instrument at times in other bands but it made us approach things differently, our song structure couldn’t just be verse-chorus-verse. It had everything to do with how our sound got off to a unique start. Then when we added guitar it was more building on top of something that had already started.

NMN despite being famous for instrumental prowess seem to have a thing for rather arresting a capella numbers like “Joy” and the cover of “Forward To Death” from Virus 100. Any possibility of an a capella release?

JW: Y’know…well…Maybe (laughs). Y’know in conversation recently, we’ve been talking about having a more vocal heavy interplay on our next e.p. We just released two new e.p.’s one came out last spring and one is coming out this December. We wanted to do four e.p.s’ as a set and have four songs each. We were just discussing how it ‘d be interesting to try to get more vocal interplay between the three of us, a more conscious effort on that part

That’s great because I could see how with all of the other elements the band has to focus on that the vocals might get…neglected.

JW: Vocals have always been a big part of the band, Robbie is a good song-writer and a great singer and that brings the humanity to the band. Just to digress a little, my brother is completely into electronic and dub-step entirely. But the key to this band, is that what put the humanity into the band. There was a good instrumental band from Vancouver named Removal but part of their appeal was using sound-bites, human voices and human voices interspersed with their music. I get very lost when I hear instrumental virtuoso music. I go well “it’s great” and some of them can put their personality there – especially when you see them live – but the best thing about punk rock was how it put the human element back into rock and roll, which the seventies entirely erased.

Speaking of punk rock, what draws strong players like yourselves to a style of music famous for its ultra-basic 1-2-fuck-you kinda style?

JW: “What draws us back to out punk rock roots?” is that what you’re trying to say?

Yes.

JW: Where we came out of was that energy, it wasn’t just fashion or even really rebellion – well there was a bit of rebelliousness in us as well – we just found great inspiration in punk music and it was so much more exciting, so much less apparent bullshit. Of course there was bullshit, and there still is now, but it didn’t appear that way, it gave you a sense of musical freedom, without the hierarchy of rock n’ roll. If you didn’t have an operatic singer or noodle around like Eddie Van Halen you didn’t cut the mustard. It put rock n’ roll back into rock n’ roll. Then of course trying to sing something that wasn’t just trite bullshit, lyrically. Punk rock did become more political, which we never did ourselves but the music had substance, it was more than just bubblegum, And we’ve always been that kind of band, a band with something more there than just being a party rock band. Not that party rock music isn’t fun. We like to throw that in when we do The Hanson Brothers and we try to have fun with the music because music needs to be fun. But at the same time there’s definitely something more there. People talk about us as being a ‘musician’s band’,’ jazz-core’, ‘prog punk’ or whatever but we never think of ourselves that way. Yeah, we challenge ourselves musically and we write things that we can’t play without practicing and yes after thirty years of playing with each other you just get tight. But if you look over all of our music you’ll find a lot of it is very, very simple.

I guess that’s true

JW: Some songs are kind of crazy that’s true but the energy of the punk rock milieu of which we grew out of is where we still draw a great deal of our energy. We like to be intense, and there’s adrenalin that come through that kinda fuels it.

I just interviewed Joe Keithley from DOA and he stressed that the key to a good punk rock band is a good drummer (and he should know!). As well, I also just read an old interview with Dave Grohl, from Foo Fighters and Nirvana where he says that the Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Slayer and NoMeansNo showed him that hardcore was “A drummer’s game”. What do you think is the role of the drummer in punk rock and hardcore?

JW: I couldn’t agree more with all that, and not just because I am the drummer. (all concerned laugh). But because the drummer is the engine of rock n’ roll, the engine of music in its simplest form; a group of people sitting around and banging on things and chanting. Rhythm is really where all of our music is born from, not that I’m some sort of musical historian but the visceral nature of drums strikes right to the heart of people. Loud guitars are great and musical interplay can be soothing, pleasing and interesting but the actual visceral feel of drums, they hit you in a physical and acoustic way. It’s very tactile and it’s very energetic. There’s no doubt that a band cannot be good without a good drummer. You go see any act and if it’s got a weak drummer it doesn’t matter how good the other guys are, you just go “They’re great but they need a new drummer.”

So you brought up the vapidness of the seventies but since you’re a Canadian three-piece with philosophical lyrics, lengthy songs and strong musicianship, the Rush comparison does comes up from time to time, Do you feel any affinity with that band? Or prog-rock in general?

JW: No, not really. It wasn’t any of the kind of music I was ever into, so I have no connection with it. I recognize their material, I don’t like it or dislike it, it just doesn’t do anything for me. Musicians’ music never really inspired me much. I think that a good three-piece rock n’ roll band is a great thing. I admire all those people who can take three-piece rock and make it into something. So in that respect I understand what they’re doing…

So, how about jazz, another word people throw around about your band. What elements of that have influenced the band?

JW: Well, we’re not afraid to put a little swing into the music. Jazz is often about growth and evolution of music within your own band and within a song. We allow our songs to evolve, not all of them – some are pretty strict verse-chorus-verse punk rock songs with set parts but some aren’t and we allow the songs to grow and change. We’ve always allowed there to be an element of improv in the set, there are songs that we can jam the ending out and song parts that we can extend and sometimes the jams become set pieces because you’re doing it night after night and you’ll find something that works. That’s what jazz guys are doing all the time, they’re bending and twisting the song and we let that happen in our music.

Now your last album All Roads Lead to Ausfart, like the Worldhood of the World As Such is kind of a sibling to Wrong, with it’s shorter, faster, harder, catchier sound. Is it fair to think of NoMeansNo as a non-linear band, a band who grows and evolves but is still free to revisit different parts of their past as it fits their mood?

JW: Definitely. After Dance of the Headless Bourgeoisie, which was a fairly strange album and then One, which I happen to really like but not a lot of people did, we decided to do a short album, under fifty minutes with 10-12 songs that are catchy and make a bit of an easier album

I seem to recall One generating a lot of talk, especially around those two covers, the slow version of the Ramones’ “Beat on the Brat” and the version of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” with lyrics written by the band. Was it really that badly received?

JW: Well, it wasn’t a party record. But apart from maybe “A Little Too High” – there’s very much a jazzy sort of song in that respect – the songs are pretty straightforward, but they were the longer, more brooding, more vocal heavy kind of things that made it kind of a sit-and-listen-by-yourself album. It’s good people talk about it – you know it’s a success when it makes people think and talk.

Reading an interview years ago, likely around the time of The Worldhood of World As Such, I got the impression that the some members of the band can get annoyed at the praise directed at Wrong sometimes at the expense of the rest of the band’s catalogue Is there any misgivings about the success of that album?

JW: I don’t think there are misgivings. It’s only natural, most bands have that album, the one with which they’re most widely associated. That album was the right sound, on the right label that came out at the right time that hit the biggest audience. By virtue of that alone it’s going to be the most talked about album. There was that huge bubble of interest in alternative rock and the kind of venues that we were playing right before Nirvana broke. We’d had a few successful tours of Europe, we’d impressed a lot people so everybody was ready for that album from us. There’s no resentment, to call it our best album is not true from my perspective but who am I? I just play on the damn thing. I’m not the one buying the albums! I cant put myself in the position of the audience, it’s impossible. We’re trying to satisfy ourselves first and hopefully in doing that we satisfy our audience

So talking about touring, I wanna dredge up this old quote from prog-rock drummer Bill Buford, who said, “*King Crimson* was the only gig for a rock drummer where you could play in 17/16 time and still stay in decent hotels”.

JW (Laughs) That’s a great quote!

So how does NoMeansNo, a band who’ve been pretty uncompromising musically, manage make a living on and off the road in these economic times?

JW: We’ve managed to make a living from this band since 1990. From then on we didn’t have to have day jobs. I’m telling you our most successful year was 2007, that was the most money I ever made in one year from this band. We were just in the States and definitely the numbers are down. Every gig, whatever I expected, there was fifty people less than that. The economic situation is way worse in Canada, though people up here don’t realize that. The entertainment dollar has never been stretched so thin as it is right now. Not only because people aren’t selling records any more but because every band and their grandparents is getting together and hitting the road because they’re realize their income is drying up. Then on top of that, people who might’ve gone to see three or four shows a month can now afford to see one. So if you’re not the one, then they’re not showing up. But we’ve managed to survive, I’m not a rich man but I’m not washing dishes.

I remember reading an old interview from around 1990 where Rob said he was a dishwasher!

JW: He still is. He volunteers at a soup kitchen and washes dishes. He couldn’t get enough of it.

I still miss the simplicity of dish-washing!

JW: My statement should not be taken as a derogatory one towards the noble art of dish-washing. I worked in a kitchen for years and been now I’m the chief cook and bottle washer in my family and I love it.

Speaking of business, how’s your label, Wrong Records, doing?

JW: Well first of all, “record label” is a bit of a stretch of that term. We’re not really a working label. It’s simply become a name for ourselves, as we own all our own publishing and all that. It originally started as a way for ourselves and other bands we knew to have an opportunity to get their stuff distributed.

And now Southern Studios is doing a certain amount of the work?

JW: We are a label but we are a label of one.

How is the re-issue process going?

JW: Well Wrong’s been re-released and we still need to get Sex Mad, Mr. Happy and The Worldhood done. The Worldhood is ready to go. The problem is that for most of the releases we no longer have masters for the artwork, which is making it very difficult because you have to re-create artwork and that’s not easy to do and it’s expensive.

The consumers have risen up and decimated the music industry, what’s the future for the band in that climate?

JW: From the very beginning we’ve essentially just been doing this for ourselves. We didn’t aspire to get a record contract and to be part of the music industry. The Music industry just sort of grew around us. Obviously we couldn’t have been a band like this without having support from labels like Alternative Tentacles and support from promoters and booking agents and whatnot. But it wasn’t about how to approach it as a business. Our successes came from writing music that interested us and performing it as best we can that impressed audiences. I think as long as we can continue to write music that’s relevant and continue to play shows that impress people they’ll come and see us. We’ve got a hardcore group of fans that are, even in these leant times, are sustaining us.

I know a lot of that fan base is in Europe, what do you think accounts for the band’s popularity there?

JW: Europeans have a different attitude towards music, especially North American music. They have a huge attraction to American rock n’ roll. They have a bit of an inferiority complex in a way, in that they don’t see their own bands as being as good. It’s a cultural thing but in the last twenty years Europe has been a much more outward looking part of the world. They embraced politics more over there. In America, punk was really more about partying and the sort of mindless rebellion, there it was more mindful, much more real. They’d actually go fight the cops they don’t just talk about it. We just ended up being over there at a time when this…alternative music, for lack of a better term, was blossoming. There was a great network of people who were interested in and supporting independent music and independent bands – high energy punk rock kinda stuff. Squats were popping up all over the place in the late seventies and the eighties and they were very politically motivated. There was a great support network for music to play in those places.
You could also boil it down to the fact that there was no drinking age. You could put on a show, anybody could come and you sold beer so you didn’t lose money. In America, if you want to sell liquor only people over the age of 21 can come. It’s hugely expensive to run a club…but in Europe it was easier to be a promoter. You could put on punk shows and not lose your shirt. Nobody was getting rich but it wasn’t this crazy business you had to try and manage and survive like in the States. The culture of the night clubs in the states was just more hard-ass.

It’s much more commercial …

JW: And much more about just making money – because that’s why they’re there. In Europe, you’d play in youth centers – which are funded by the city for God’s sake! We’d play a show and they’d pay you two thousand Euros even if there’s only a hundred people there because they’d budgeted that much for the show. That’s not the norm but it exists and it does not exist in any shape or form in Canada and The United States. It’s gate-driven [here], you have to get people through the door, paying the ticket, in order to pay the guarantees and you can’t survive a lot of loss.
So there was a certain infrastructure, a certain cultural imperative in Europe that made it easier.

On the subject of touring I’ve noticed that you allow free trading of live shows on your web-site. While some bands seem to think such activities hurt their bottom line or hurt their brand, I take it you guys think such trading is a good thing for the band?

Well… it’s something that I take very little interest in (all laugh).
I don’t think about it. If fans want to get excited about us and talk about and exchange our music that can’t be anything but good for a band. People aren’t stupid. When they listen to a crappy recording, they know it’s a crappy recording. That’s not the point.
As far as branding is concerned, we don’t make a real conscious effort about that. I suppose in the end, that’s kind of what our brand is.
We’re kind of disconnected from our music after we let it out. Trading live music and not getting paid for band is annoying but if people are listening to the music then they’re gonna come and see you live and they’ll buy your T-shirt or your sticker or this crazy vinyl that they can’t find in the stores. You’ll still end up selling something. It’s more important that people like who you are and the music. Trying to protect your brand, as though that’s gonna save you in the end, seems a little counter-productive.

The people who want to trade live show are the base – the hardcore of the hardcore…

JW: Those are your best fans.

And how about playing in a band with your brother, you seem to have avoided any Cain and Abel or Liam and Noel Gallagher style disasters? How has it been keeping a band running all these years with someone so close to you?

JW: The best person to ask that would be Tom [Holliston], the guitar player. (All laugh). He’s the guy who has to put up with it. He kinds gets left out of the mix because we draw all the attention. The one thing that my brother and I have always had a shared is sense of what the band was and how it sounded and what was good about it. Sure we argue about things here and there’s no question that brotherly arguments make no sense to anyone around them. But we – and Tom and Andy [Kerr] before him – we all have the same basic idea why we’re there and what to expect from it. A lot bands break up just because you have three different people and three different sets expectations of what they think is gonna happen and what the band should be doing. We’ve always managed – although not 100% – to avoid differences that are divisive. My brother and I get along well as musicians and family – it’s hard to say if there’s anything special about that. I mean there’s something to be said about being a kin to someone.

I always remember your brother saying that the first Ramones album really separated him from his generation. Who introduced who to punk rock in your family?

JW: [Rob] was definitely the one bringing all the punk rock albums home. In grade nine I was in the jazz band and I didn’t really like a lot of rock n’ roll. I think I had a Queen album and I kinda liked Foghat and some of the more blues-rock bands but I didn’t have a real musical focus. Even the first Ramones album I heard and Devo and The Sex Pistols I didn’t think was that great. It wasn’t till I saw D.O.A. live…

Oh, yeah…

JW: I heard this single “13” and “The Prisoner and I thought it was a pretty cool little single, So let’s go see ‘em. the chaos of that show, the confrontation between D.O.A. and the rugby team that showed up to see what all this punk rock was about and cause trouble – it was hilarious. I had a great time. D.O.A. were so amazing – Chuck Biscuits on the drums, Randy Rampage [on the bass] having beer bottles hucked at him and smashed on his face and he’s playing with his cut fingers and Chuck at one point jumping out from behind the drums and picking up his cymbal stand and threatening the crowd and they set back up again and kept playing music faster than anything I’d ever heard in my life. It was so fun that I wanted to see more!

NoMeansNo will be touring Canada from October 13th to October 30th.

 

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