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Interview: The Dirty Nil

26 May 2023

What is it about Canadian power trios? Make no mistake, The Dirty Nil has nothing in common with Rush other than being from the same home country, trading masterful prog elements for a righteous, hybrid punk/rock/metal sound with more than a fair share of humor. Formed by teenage best friends Luke Bentham (vocals, guitar) and Kyle Fisher (drums), The Nil welcomed new bassist Sam Tomlinson to the band in 2021 just in time for the Fuck Art tour and for the recording of Free Rein to Passions. 2023 finds The Nil at peak amplitude, the new album full of thrashy, power riffs, earworm-worthy choruses, and the energy of a teenager who has polished off half a dozen Red Bulls.

This conversation with Bentham took place a few weeks before the release of Free Rein to Passions.

The opening track on the album, “Celebration,” kicks off with a total ‘80s sounding metal riff that kicks ass. And while you embrace that sound, there’s also an alternative rock sound to your music. I imagine you could open shows for everyone from Metallica to Weezer and fit right in.

LUKE: That’s a very kind assessment. I’m sure a lot of bands would say the same thing but we just do whatever’s kind of turning us on at the moment. We played the Tid the Season holiday show a couple of years ago with Every Time I Die. We were trying to get our set list together. Knocked Loose and Every Time I Die were playing and the first band was called END. We were watching them play. We had this set list and we were like, “Let’s just play all of our loudest songs.” And we saw them play and they sounded like a car factory and we were like, “We’re not at all in this world of heavy. Let’s just do our set.” So we did our set and it went great. But, yeah, it’s funny. Sometimes I think we’re heavy and then we’ll be on the bill with a band like Knocked Loose and we sound like The Wiggles.

If actors can go from part to part, shouldn’t bands be able to do that? Like, what’s to stop you from making a country record if you wanted to?

LUKE: Nothing. I think the main thing that keeps us going is that our compass is always driven by trying to make each other laugh and make each other go, “That’s sick.” Kyle and I have been doing that, or attempting to do that, to each other since we were 16 years old. And now we’re turning 33 this year. So we’ve had the band for a long time and it’s basically whatever gets us fired up like we’re 14 again in our little concrete jam space, that’s basically what we roll with.

It’s funny because I think we kind of both came late to metal. We were really into post-punk and The Replacements and, obviously, Weezer and Nirvana and stuff like that when we were just kind of starting and getting into the band. But the older we’ve gotten, the heavier stuff we like. It’s funny because sometimes it’s like the opposite for a lot of people I know. I think it was just like a one day type realization like, “Hey, we can kind of actually do that. We can do our version of it,” which I guess is a little bit tongue in cheek, but it’s also sincere.

But yeah, with “Celebration,” a song like that kind of started as a bit of a joke. “This is the heaviest, most ignorant riff that I can come up with in this moment.” And Kyle was like, “I guess we actually have a song here.” It became the first song in the album.

It may be a little tongue in cheek, but it’s not a parody in the way Steel Panther is a parody of ’80s hair metal.

LUKE: We play a lot of covers because that’s why we got into rock and roll. We love playing the songs of the genre. We’ve done jazz songs and country songs and thrash metal songs and obviously lots of just straight up rock-and-roll songs. But through doing all that stuff, it kind of shows that we can actually kind of do this. And then you creatively start moving into those areas and it’s fun. I just don’t like rock-and-roll that takes itself too seriously. It can go too far in that direction where it becomes a joke band, which is definitely not what we’re trying to do. But we do like to play with the genre.

I appreciate the fun you guys have, from song titles to taking yourself not too seriously, but taking the music seriously. That fun comes across in the music, it comes across in the videos. If I was just looking at song titles – “Stupid Jobs,” “Blowing Up Things In the Woods” – I might think it’s all a joke but those are great songs and not stupid. Is the fun you’re having a reflection of just being those 14-year-old kids trying to make each other laugh?

LUKE: Basically, yeah. “Blowing Up Things in the Woods” is definitely an ode to our adolescence. I won’t tell anybody reading, just in case any kids are reading, about how to make your own fireworks. They didn’t really work very well. I still have the scars on my hands to prove that they didn’t. But, it’s funny because some of the parts of our adolescence have just remained dormant in my mind and I think we just kind of reached into our early 30s now, and for some reason, I thought back on those times and wrote a song about it. And Kyle and I have such a deep well of shared history together that there’s a lot of stuff that we can both draw upon to kind of try and make each other stoked or make each other laugh or fire each other up in some kind of way.

Whether it’s doing some sort of Pantera metal riff or writing a song about homemade fireworks that we used to partake in. That’s kind of the driving engine of the band is basically Kyle and I trying to entertain each other.

I suspect you got into innocent trouble when you were a kid, maybe for blowing stuff up. Do you have any stories of police encounters?

LUKE: We were fortunate enough to live in, I wouldn’t say rural area, but basically the suburbs ended and then it was rural area for a long ways out, so we were kind of at the very edge of the town. And so when we were getting up to our shenanigans, there wasn’t a whole lot of police presence in the area, but there certainly were some local residents that were quite pissed off. I remember one time Kyle and I … I don’t think I’ve ever told this story to anybody, at least recorded it. … but one time, when we were about 15 years old, this is like about a year or so before we started the band, we had got these fireworks from a convenience store because the Statutory Holiday had just passed and they were on special discount.

And I walked in with my braces and I’m like, “Can I buy this?” And he’s like, “Yeah, whatever. $10.” So I took this whole box and basically when you lit it, it would shoot out like a crackling and then explode, probably

50 meters out. So we took these things, and we were hiding up on this wooded hill above this one house. And I feel terrible about it now, obviously. I don’t advocate doing anything like this. Please don’t.

One night at midnight on a Friday night, we were just raining hell down on this house, and then we ran down and lit a couple on the front lawn, and we were just watching them bang.

Then a guy started yelling out the window. We were like “Oh shit!” and so we ran down the street. And I remember I kind of poked my head out probably 200 meters down the street, and I saw a guy completely in black with, like, a hood over his head. And I saw the glint of his aluminum baseball bat and he’s running down the street. I had an adrenaline kick that I’ve never had for the rest of my life. I hope I never get that adrenaline again. And I just booked it.

I remember running around a corner and hiding in a bush and him going through the bush with a baseball bat and not seeing me. So that was one of the incidents that basically Kyle and I were like, “We should stop doing this.”

This is kind of going from a fun, cheeky territory to us maybe getting our heads caved in. We walked around hoping this guy isn’t looking for us. And straight out of a horror movie, as we were walking into his dad’s house, like at 1 a.m. or whatever, we’re closing the door, and then this blacked-out van with tinted windows pulls up in front of the house and just pauses.

We can just tell somebody’s in there staring at us. We closed the door, and the next day we’re all freaked out. We’re like, “There’s no way that was him.” And then we walked past that house inconspicuously, and we saw that that was his van!

But, anyways, nothing ever came of it. It was all good, but not good that it was a completely random attack on his house. It was completely uncalled for. I carry the shame of that to this day.

So if that was you, if you’re somehow reading this, I’m so sorry, and I’ll buy you a pizza sometime or something. I don’t know, whatever you want, but I’m sorry.

Getting back to music, your June tour schedule looks insane. They are all venue shows, no festivals, but you do play a lot of festivals. Are you just willing to take anything that gets offered? Do you have a preference of either clubs shows or festivals?

LUKE: I definitely enjoy the mix. But I do like the rhythm that you get in on a good club tour of just kind of playing every night and getting tighter.

I know it’s cliché, but there’s something intimate about a club show where you can see everybody and it’s somewhat interactive but not too interactive.

And I think for a rock-and-roll band like ours, our fans just seem to really thrive in that kind of environment and the singalongs and the beer being spilled on other people and it’s great. I really kind of like that.

The festivals are incredible, obviously, because that’s when you get to basically touch your finger to the gods and enjoy the huge stage and the huge sound. But they’re also a bit of a crapshoot each time because usually you don’t get a sound check. Usually it’s like you get there, you’ll load your stuff onto the side of the stage and then a bunch of people help you and you roll it out really fast. And you get a chance to turn on your amp, make sure it works, but not actually get any real sound levels or anything like that. And then you just kind of grip it and rip it. So sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s a little bit flying blind, but it’s always just an incredible experience. I just like playing live, to be honest with you. I really like a mixture of both.

When you’re playing festivals, do you get time to hang out and watch other bands or do you pack up as soon as your set it done and make your way to the next tour stop?

LUKE: Sometimes we get to enjoy them and that’s always really nice. I mean, some festivals have really nice catering, which is always a nice break. Anybody that’s toured around Canada or the States knows that when you’re on a really aggressive schedule, there’s very little time for finding food of nutritional or substantial value. So it’s so nice getting to play a show and then having your responsibilities relieved for the day, more or less, and being able to sit down on a nice couch and eat a steak or whatever they have and talk, rub shoulders with some other bands.

It’s really nice when you get to enjoy it. But, yeah, we’ve been on all kinds of different schedules sometimes where, just as you said, we play and then we got to load up and just haul ass out of there.

It’s really nice getting to enjoy those festivals. To be honest, it’s kind of spoiled me. I really have a hard time going to music festivals now as a fan because it’s just like, “You mean I’ve got to stand out here the whole time? Where’s my steak?” I had to fight against that side of my brain. But when we were 15 or 16, we used to go to these festivals all day with a loaf of bread and a bag of cold cuts and just stand in the crowd and eat and just watch all day. I don’t even know how we did it, but I’m a little softer now because of my experience on the other side of the fence.

Have you had a chance to tour with your new bass player, Sam Tomlinson?

LUKE: Yeah, he did his tour with us in the fall of 2021. We did a big, pretty extensive, Northeastern run in the States.

So he helped with the new record as well?

LUKE: Yeah. I had a bunch of the songs already written, but basically as soon as we got home from that tour, I showed him the songs and then we started arranging them together and he brought some interesting new skills to the table that we’ve never had at our disposal.

He’s definitely the most advanced harmony singer that we’ve ever played with. Everybody that we’ve played with has been amazing and had special skills that they’ve brought to the band. But Sam’s main skill, I would say, is that he’s an exceptionally good singer and he can also scream really well and he’s an incredible guitar player, bass player too.

But that was really fun to kind of approach the arrangements from having a second very capable vocalist to kind of really flesh things out. I mean, our previous bass players, Ross and Dave, they were both awesome vocalists in their own way, but Sam’s range is huge. He can sing really high and also just his ear for harmony is different. It’s just wildly impressive. I’ve never met somebody like him.

Since you and Kyle have been friends since you were 14, do you think Sam feels a bit like an outsider?

LUKE: I think no matter what, it’s very tough to enter. Kyle and I have like a 27-year relationship. You’re always going to be a little bit of a third party in a situation like that. The good thing is that Sam and Kyle already lived together. When Sam joined the band, he was living in Kyle’s house, so they’re really close. He’s from our little town, Dundas, so we kind of knew him even though he’s a bit younger than us. We already had a relationship before he joined and we were already friends, so it’s been a pretty seamless transition.

I think the other thing that is one of my favorite attributes of Sam is that he’s a trained actor. He went to school in New York. He’s done tons and tons of team sports like we did when we were kids. And so Sam has done a really good job of entering the team and knowing how to function within the team and doing it very effectively. It didn’t take some big long process of us having to work together and figure out how to work together. And Sam’s a very socially intelligent person and has extremely good team skills. He basically just rolled in and we were off to the races.

I hate to stereotype but since you are from Canada, does that mean you’re a Rush fan?

LUKE: Not really. I mean, I’ve got to say that I respect the hell out of them, but do I throw on Rush in my private time? No, I do not. Because I’m not a big prog guy. I’m a pretty meat-and-potatoes rock-and-roll guy. I totally respect and admire every aspect of the band in terms of their staying power, their determination, their ambition, their skills as individuals, their overall sound. But yeah, I mean, like singing to the trees and all that stuff is just not my bag.

The Dirty Nil put out Fuck Art in 2021. Was that written and recorded pre-pandemic or did you write it because you were bored and needed something to pass the time?

LUKE: We were actually recording it while the pandemic began, so to speak. We had just finished tracking drums and bass when we got the notification that the city was shutting down in two days. So it was a pretty exciting and strange time to be in the studio while all this was happening. It was obviously quite distracting because everyone was trying to focus on getting this thing done. But we couldn’t help but look at the news that’s coming in. Like, “Holy shit.” And our producer, John Goodmanson, is from Seattle and he had flown in and we were getting updates that the U.S, border was shutting down, so he had to fly out with just the drums and bass done.

I locked myself in the studio with the engineer to do all the guitars in 48 hours before they shut the city down. And so we made it to the next stage and then we cut the vocals in our friend’s shed, like down the street, and sent them out to him so he could mix it. We basically got the record done just by the skin of our teeth. And so it gave us a really nice thing to focus on, especially in the early pandemic, to kind of cut the vocals and really focus on that and do all the videos and stuff.

Even though there was crazy restrictions, we really had to think creatively how to make these videos, given the restrictions that we’re facing of not being able to be in the same room as each other and having to do everything outside and all that. So it presented some interesting challenges, but it kept us intellectually occupied, which was a godsend because most of the musicians that I know that downed tools during the pandemic, none of them are the same anymore. And so I’m really thankful that we were in an opportunity where we not only could keep moving, but had to keep moving. We didn’t have much idle time during the severe lockdown periods and stuff. There was always some goal. There’s always something we’re working on. Even if the limitations were extreme in terms of what we were able to do, we were always working. And I’m just really happy that we had the opportunity to navigate the Pandemic that way.

Have you rethought how to tour – or how to tour differently – in a post-pandemic world?

LUKE: Not really. I think we’re always just going to be a lean and mean touring machine. We travel with the three of us, plus a videographer/extra-homey/driver/court jester/ wearing of many different hats. There’s not many things that we’ve changed. I mean, in late 2021 when we were touring, it was also a particularly hot point of the pandemic and we were having to do all the tests and the border stuff was tougher. Oddly enough, getting into the States was the easiest it’s ever been. But getting back into Canada, you had to get an app and the app didn’t work very well. So there’s those kinds of things and obviously the background fear of like, “Do I have COVID?” Like, “I have a little tickle in my throat. Do I have it?” I’m very fortunate that the three of us are quite cool headed when it comes to that stuff. There’s no nervous Nellies amongst us.

The last show of the tour in 2021 was insane because it was another period where the numbers in Canada, and I think the numbers worldwide, were just on a basically straight vertical line up. And it was the day of the biggest show of our tour, we were playing to 1200 people, sold out the whole thing. It’s the last show of the tour and we’re getting all these notifications like the opening band has COVID they can’t play. Things are shutting down. And our agent’s like, “Do you still want to play this?” We’re like, “Hell, yeah, we want to play this.” We showed up and we were debating, “Should we do the show?” The place is completely packed. And everybody in that crowd knew that they were getting COVID that night, but nobody cared.

So it was the funnest show I’ve ever played because everyone just leaned into the fact that you’re all insane for being here and we love you, and we literally played every single song we knew. We just kept going. People were jumping around on stage. It was one of my favorite shows we ever played because the tension was so high beforehand that the release of actually playing was indescribable. And then I got COVID that night. I didn’t even care. We had that show and then I came home and I wrote a bunch of the songs for this record, basically, with COVID.

Is harder, more expensive, for Canadian bands to tour in the U.S.?

LUKE: Visas are definitely expensive, but we’ve always been a really lean-and-mean machine. We don’t take anybody extra that we don’t have to. The first tours that we did, we slept in the van and stuff. So we’ve kind of gotten ourselves to a level of, like, this is the bare minimum that we’re willing to accept at 32 years old. Our whole crew accepts this as well. And that’s it. We basically make it so that we’re always making money. We don’t do things at a loss. We’re lucky enough that we don’t have to, because as I said, our overhead as a band is so low compared to other bands. We just do it all ourselves. We have a rule that has existed since day one in the Nil – if you play it, you carry it. You want to play a big amp, you got to carry that big amp which I think is really good, because I actually enjoy, I know this sounds weird, but I enjoy carrying my amp. When I was a kid, I saw Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips before they played. He was on stage helping set things up, and I was like, “That’s who I want to be.” I don’t want to be sitting there back in the room, bored, entitled. I want to be up there in the thing helping the whole time as much as possible. And so we might be divas in our own ways, in certain ways, but when it comes to the logistics of touring, we’re pretty blue collar about it.

Going back to what you said about having fun, the “Nicer Guy” video is really entertaining. How did you come up with the idea?

LUKE: Usually with our videos, what happens is Kyle and I will get together and we’ll throw some ideas around. Then we’ll go out for coffee with the whole crew and with our videographer, Mitch Barnes at Barnburner Media. We’ll try and hype each other up about an idea. And we’ll have a couple of different meetings. We’ll have the first meeting where we kind of come up with the concept. I think that both videos this time were Kyle’s concepts. We’ll sit there and throw out the practical details of the video, like, “Well, how about a hot dog hits you in the face? Write that down.” I’m pretty sure it was Mitch who wanted to do the steady cams. They were wildly uncomfortable, may I add, but I think that was his idea. And then we just plan a date and we go execute it without any permits or anything like that. We’re very run-and-gun that way.

We’re lucky because Kyle has an uncle who’s got a farm up in the country, and that’s where we do all the demolition videos and fireball videos and all that kind of stuff, because there seems to be no laws up in the country, and they hate any kind of government oversight. So that’s the place to go destroy a Dodge Caravan or vaporize a mannequin. That’s our firing range up there. That’s our film studio. It’s kind of one of the really fun parts of what we do. It’s an extension of the same thing we do with the music, which is just like trying to hype each other up.

Let’s close this out with something easy. What’s your favorite concert t-shirt that you own?

LUKE: I got The Who shirt from the time that we played with them. That’s got to be number one for me.

I saw The Who has part of the Live Nation, $25 ticket sale last year.

LUKE: I went to a Buddy Guy concert when I was 17. He was playing at theater in Hamilton. I was like, “I’ve got to go see Buddy Guy.” So I went down. I didn’t have a ticket, and I went to the box office, and I was like, “How much is the ticket?” They’re like, “Well, the starting price is $75.” This is in 2007 or 2008. I’m like, “Okay, what’s the best seat that you have available?” There’s one ticket. It’s in the front row, middle of the row. I was like, “Okay, cool. Thank you. I’ll think about it,” and I just walked out, and somehow I just breezed past security and I just went and sat in that seat. I just sat front row and nobody checked my ticket or anything. This is when there you had to have a physical ticket and they tore it and there was no scanners or anything like that.

That might be better than your fireworks story!


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