The Dirty Nil will be the first to tell you: Forget about punk, they're just a plain old rock and roll band. Sure, the band may have released a seven-inch last year on Fat Wreck Chords, the record label headed by NOFX frontman Fat Mike, a label which defined a specific style of 90s punk. And yes, they may have also spent this summer on Warped Tour, the long-running, punk-rooted traveling music festival. Guilty as charged. And OK, yeah, the Dundas, Ontario three-piece play an aggressively loud, often dynamically fast style of rock that will kick your eardrums in. But punk? Who’s to say what that is, man?
The band grew up on the classics of rock and with every chord, they are forcibly trying to get that fact across. They were the kids who’d sit way too close to the TV, watching videos of guitar gods shredding across the stage. They were the high school students who’d spend fourth period reading music magazines instead of biology textbooks. They were the teenagers who, between waking up and going to sleep, had only one word going through their heads: rock. Their forthcoming album, Higher Power, is a true product of this upbringing.
Higher Power was a long time in the making. Guitarist Luke Bentham and drummer Kyle Fisher have been messing around musically since they wore braces and had two songs to their name. “You have to understand, Kyle and I are awful at our instruments and no one would really have us in their bands,” Bentham tells me. “Our band was also just a way of learning how to play music together.” It wasn’t until 2009 when bassist Dave Nardi joined the band that they really got moving and in 2011 released Fuckin’ Up Young, which was originally intended to be a full-length but ended up as a two-song seven-inch. That’s how the Dirty Nil’s discography has broken down over the years. An EP here, a single there. Now, finally, the Nil is preparing for the long-awaited release of their debut album, Higher Power, on February 26 via Dine Alone Records.
We talked to the band as they swung through New York for CMJ and they were also kind enough to drop this music video of a workout gone wrong for the album’s opener, “No Weaknesses.”
Noisey: How did you guys get hooked up with Fat Wreck Chords?
Luke: Basically, we played this one show in Burlington, Ontario and a friend of [Fat] Mike’s saw us play and bought a bunch of our seven-inches. Then I got a text from Fat Mike a few weeks later, and I didn’t really… like, I don’t know NOFX, I don’t think any of us do. It was never really part of our musical development.
Dave: I knew them in the context of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
Luke: See, that’s more than I knew. I knew the image. And Fat Mike is... everybody knows who that guy is. But that was pretty much it for me. I had a phone call with him and he asked what we wanted to do and I said, “Let’s do a seven-inch” and he said “sure.”
Were any of the Fat Wreck bands influential to your sound?
Kyle: Of all the bands on Fat Wreck, I guess we had played an Against Me! cover a few times, but outside that, not really.
Dave: It wasn’t really the world we grew up in. Thinking of how I came to listen to punk growing up, that wasn’t in my sphere of punk. I started as a classic rock kid. So I naturally found more of the 70s New York punk—The Ramones, Television. So this new wave of modern liberty spikes, it didn’t jive for me, except for, again, playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and “Stickin’ in My Eye” came on and you’d say, “Oh, this is a sick song to do a grind to.”
Luke: It just wasn’t a thing for us where we grew up. We also grew up in a cultural petri dish, like you do when you grow up in a small town. I remember one kid with a NOFX shirt. And I was like, “OK, that’s a band.” That was the furthest my knowledge of NOFX went. We grew up listening to classic rock.
What’s the reaction been to signing to Fat?
Kyle: It pissed a lot of their fans. If you troll the forums, right when they announced it, people were like…
Luke: “Fuck this band!”
Dave: “This is the worst thing Fat’s ever put out! This doesn’t sound anything like a Fat Wreck release!”
Kyle: These like, “skate punk for life” kind of people.
Luke: Which is, in some ways, a nice badge of distinction.
Dave: And I think also it reflects really well on Mike. To me, I’m flattered that he was able to look outside of his sphere that for so long, it’s been like, Fat Wreck is this one kind of sound. But it feels nice that he’s able to look at us and say, “This isn’t that sound, but I see some parallels here. I like this.” And he felt comfortable to fold us into that camp. One of the most bullshit parts of what people call punk is when they say that it has to be this sound. For Mike to say, “I decide what the sound is, and I like these kids, so I’m gonna put them on the label,” that was a cool move.
On a similar note, you guys also did the Warped Tour this year. How was that?
Kyle: That was a dark carnival. ...Of fun, but also, no-so-fun parts. We made a lot of really good friends. The guys in Silverstein are really awesome. They’re from Burlington, near where we’re from. We finally met there. We were sharing a bandwagon with Seaway. The Wonder Years guys were really nice. CItizen were sweet. PUP, also.
I heard that bands of your—let’s say, moral ilk—banded together on that tour.
Luke: Yeah, the oddballs stuck together, for sure.
Kyle: We were the outcasts on that tour.
Dave: There’s a lot of weird politics that we tried to stay out of, but we definitely had our opinions about the way certain things we were running, but we weren’t as vocal as some of the other bands. That’s not our style. We’re more ones to keep it under our hats and use it to decide how we operate in the future, as opposed to calling people out on the internet.
What were some positive things you took from that tour?
Dave: It was a lot of hard work. Knowing that we could do it, honestly. It was really shitty a lot of the time, but we did it. We did the whole thing.
Luke: Our best achievement of that tour was we won the faculty over. People in the Warped Tour camp were pretty stoked on us.
Dave: They were the only people watching.
Luke: Yeah, the kids didn’t give a fuck. They were just trying to find a refill for their E-cig.
Kyle: Or watch Attila or Asking Alexandria.
Luke: Which is totally cool, I guess. But if you can get a sound guy’s respect, that’s a pretty fucking huge accomplishment. We made friends with everyone I cared to make friends with.
Kyle: We didn’t know what it was gonna be like, but after the first day, I was like, “Fuck. This is so much weirder than we imagined.” I thought there’d be some sort of skate punk bands on there but there wasn’t.
Dave: The old guard is gone.
Luke: It’s all tracks through the PA system. It’s all fucking samples and wild shit. It was a pretty blistering experience. We had a bunch of merch printed up—probably our biggest order of merch so far. We were like, “I don’t know, we wanna be prepared but we may have gone overboard.” We showed up and had maybe ten percent of the merch any other band had. It’s a completely different world.
Did you sell your merch?
Kyle: Some, yeah.
But you don’t have shirts that say “I’ll kill you, faggot” or whatever.
Luke: Right, “suck my fuck.”
Dave: Not to harp on the festival—we appreciate that Kevin Lyman took a personal approach to asking us to do it and that’s great—but it kind of skews more towards the merchandising. The band’s performance feels like a pitch to get you to the merch tent. The merch tent is where the real business is done. That’s why other bands would come up to us like, “You guys only have five T-shirt designs?” Like, only five T-shirt designs? Are you fucking kidding me? This is the most T-shirts we’ve ever had! And they have that many koozy designs.
Is it at least a decent way to see the United States?
Kyle: Only if you wanna see the parking lots of America.
Luke: We did a two-month tour with Single Mothers earlier this year and that’s how you fucking see America. You go around in a van. But if you go around in a fucking rodeo—a tailgate party that moves around the country—you don’t get to see anything. You wake up in the parking lot that you will spend that day in until 11 PM.
Would you guys even describe yourself as a punk band?
Dave: We’d say we’re a rock band.
Luke: The furthest we’ll go is to say we’re a rock and roll band. The notion of calling yourself a punk band is a bit loaded for me. To me, it carries with a certain badge of distinction that, unless you’re an unmistakably punk band, it’s a little bit of a pat on the back to be like, “Yeah we’re a punk band. We don’t give a fuck.” It’s not really for me to say.
Dave: Yeah, so many genre tags have become a misnomer. Like, how many quote unquote “indie bands” are signed to major labels? They’re just so fucking meaningless. Is a punk band a band with spiked hair and loud guitars? Or is it a band that books their own tours, and prints their own shirts, and puts out their own records? It’s fuzzy now, where the definitions are coming from. Do you define it by ethos or by sound? Or by lyrics? Or by the way you look?
What’s the one thing you wish people would ask you but don’t?
Luke: Talk about our gear more!
What are you most gear-nerdy about? Pedals?
Luke: Pretty much everything, but mostly guitars and amps.
Dave: Luke and I have a pretty clear aesthetic of what we deem as cool. Like, if we’re at a show and I see a guitar player, I can look over at Luke and give him a nod and we both know, like, “Yeah, this is bogus.”
Are you gear elitists?
Dave: One hundred percent.
Luke: We are gear snobs, man.
Dave: Super specific things, too, like, “Oh look at this guy’s knobs. This guy’s got fucking Chicken Head knobs? Go home, buddy! Amateur hour over here.”
Luke: So much of my love of rock and roll comes from a place of sitting in the suburbs, reading photobooks of old guitar players.
What’s the most iconic gear photo for you?
Luke: There’s one shot of the Stooges playing, I think in 1970. Iggy’s just about to get into the crowd. Dave Alexander and Ron Asheton have walls of Marshalls, but also smaller walls of Sunn amps. Most of my life is just trying to achieve that photo.
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter - @danozzi