Going Gray with NOMEANSNO
NOMEANSNO was formed in 1979 in Victoria, BC by the brothers John and Rob Wright. From the start, the band had a unique and identifiable sound, driven by Rob Wright’s aggressive bass playing and confrontational, thought-provoking lyrics. Nomeansno’s music might be described as a virtuoso mixture of progressive rock, punk, and jazz fusion. In their 33 years of prolific existence, the Wright brothers have seen punk rock, new wave, post-punk, hardcore, indie rock, alternative and grunge go by, all the while cheerfully refusing to fit into any of those categories. Throughout the 80s and 90s, the band released records on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label; since 2002 they've released new material and re-issued older albums on their own label, Wrong Records.
I interviewed drummer John Wright before their recent show in Berlin.
VICE: One of Nomeansno’s obsessively recurring themes is old age. How old are you guys actually?
John Wright: I just turned 50, our guitarist Tom is 52, and Rob just turned 58. We’ve always been the old guys. My brother Rob especially, who writes most of the material—he’s eight years older than me. Since we’ve been playing music, we’ve mostly been hanging out with people my age. So he’s always been years older than everyone around him. I started going gray when I was twenty-five, the same as my brother. So in the punk rock milieu we just always appeared older, as being the older band. It’s not as though we’re obsessed with it, it’s just that with age comes more experience. You start to sing about the things and talk about the things that are more apparent and relevant to you.
Is the band still full time?
It’s been in fits and starts for a while. 2007 was one of our busiest stretches, between the end of 2006 and 2007 we did 172 shows. We were very busy in the 80s and 90’s, but subsequently I had kids and your schedule starts to get a little bit broken up. Now my brother Rob also has two children, so there start to be other schedules involved. The last four years we’ve done about three months a year on the road, roughly. It’s not a super hectic schedule. We purposefully have tried to avoid really hectic schedules because it just ends up destroying a band.
My oldest son now is 16 years old, my youngest is 12, turning 13 in a week. For the last sixteen years, when I go home, I’m a dad. That’s what I do. Now the kids are getting older; in a few years my time off will be mine again. For now, I drive kids to soccer games. It’s a glamorous rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, I know.
When the band started, you were 17 years old. Nomeansno had a unique sound from the beginning, and your earliest recordings already displayed an impressive range of influences: jazz, progressive rock, pop, experimental, punk and new wave. How did you develop such an expansive musical palette at such a young age?
I think that our family was relatively musical. My mother was a piano teacher. She loved music, my father loved music. When my brother and my older sisters were teenagers, all the Beatlemania and the explosion of music in the 60s made them lovers of popular music and it grew from there into hard rock and acid rock and reggae and jazz—and then all of a sudden it was like, woah, it’s all bullshit now, here comes punk, it’s all new again. And me, I was following later, but I was hearing all this music in the house all the time. I was playing my sisters’ 45s when I was four or five years old, listening to pop music of the 60s. I couldn’t even read the titles, I just knew by the picture on the sleeve which song I was going to hear. So yeah, music was there. I come from an Irish working class background. Lovers of dancing, that sort of thing. Not me personally, but you know—it’s in the culture, it’s in your blood, it’s where you’re coming from. For my parents, growing up post-war in the 50s, music was your outlet. You’d go dancing. It was a special part of your life outside of working, like it is now for a lot of people. It was no different then. So, yes, I think there was a lot of music around. There was a love of music and a feel for music long before there was Nomeansno.
You started out in the era of vinyl, lived through the era of the CD, and are now entering the digital age. We’re seeing the collapse of the music industry, the proliferation of file sharing, and an almost total devaluation of recorded music as a commodity. Older musicians tend to be hostile to these developments. What are your feelings? Does it make you mad when kids download music?
That’s just the reality of the world they grew up in. The positive side of the internet and digital recording is that it gives you access. I don’t have anything against the internet, even downloading music doesn’t bother me too much. I just think its more difficult now for people to establish an identity. Because there’s so much mimicking and copying and aping of what you see. There’s too much access! You see everything all the time. So everything becomes meaningless. You just see a blur. You don’t pay attention because you’re looking for the next thing.
The problem is, it cripples a generation of musicians. It’s difficult to be a full time musician. If you can’t make money you just can’t do it. I mean, it’s not a hobby. If you can’t live from it, you can’t focus on it. It’s just that simple. I think it’s really difficult for young musicians now. These days it’s like the internet lottery, if you happen to be the band that gets noticed and it goes viral... you get known for a song, and there’s a buzz about you, but unless you have some experience under your belt, you can’t carry that forward. We played many, many, many shows before we were playing to any significant amount of people. That’s the difficult thing for young musicians to understand, that you have to go play all the time. Regardless of whether you’re making money or not, you have to go play. A LOT. If you’re doing something really interesting, and people start to hear about you, and then they go see you and you suck, because you just sort of exploded and you have no experience to back up what you’re doing, or you can’t survive on the road because everyone goes crazy on tour—then you fizzle out.
The old school music industry, in a sense, really—I mean, it was corporate driven, it was controlled by people other than musicians, which was the bad side. But the good side was that bands were developed. Record labels were constantly working on bringing their bands up, and you weren’t expected to be successful until your third or fourth record. By the time you got to be popular, you actually knew what you were doing. I think the whole idea of developing musicians is more difficult now. Now it’s jumping on bandwagons, the whole industry of touring festivals with groups of genres of bands. It becomes more anonymous and harder to stand out from the crowd and get noticed.
Do you listen to a lot of contemporary music? Have you discovered anything new lately?
The thing about me is, I just have always listened to what everyone’s listening to. You know, whatever’s on the turntable. When I was a teenager my brother bought all the records all the time, so I never really had to buy anything, it was always there. I never in my life had any specific music that I listened to. But, for instance, the other night our tour manager put on this record by David Axelrod, a jazz drummer from the 60s who became a producer and composer, and it was a fantastic record, just fantastic music. It really reminded me of how much I love the big band stuff, swing stuff, those great horn arrangements and all that. Because I remember that from when I was a kid, learning to play that stuff. One of the genres I really love is movie music. Carl Stalling, for instance, who did all the Looney Tunes cartoon music. I love that stuff. I love punk rock, I love aggressive music. I’ve been listening to more electronic music cause that’s all my brother listens to. In many ways electronic music now is the vanguard, it’s the music that is outside of the industry and appeals to the fringe audiences. It’s utilizing the tools of today to make music. Who’s really doing anything new on guitar? When was the last time a guitar band played something you haven’t already heard at some point? There might be a new personality. Really, rock ‘n’ roll is the same song done over and over again, just done by a new personality, a new entity.
What does the future look like for Nomeansno?
We still have some records to put out, I think. It just depends on people’s health, people’s lives, whether it’s still viable, whether we can still earn enough money to do so, whether we’re happy with what we’re producing. We wouldn’t put out records just for the sake of putting them out. It’s not like they sell anyway. For me, I have to be excited about what’s being created. And the logistics of whether it’s financially, physically and emotionally viable to tour and play. As long as it is, and as long as it’s still fun, there’s no reason to stop. This tour has gone amazingly. Considering that we’ve really avoided the mainstream, we’ve done pretty well.
I don’t think our music sounds dated; if you never heard us before, you wouldn’t go, “Oh they sound like somebody from the 80s.” We didn’t sound like we were from the 80s in the 80s. In that respect, I think we can still remain relevant to kids. The same way a 20 year old would have enjoyed us in 1983, a 20 year old will enjoy us now. It’s just that we look like their grandfathers.