Encounter with the Canadian improvisers of the Nihilist Spasm Band,
godfathers of noise music, on stage tonight in Mulhouse.
By Marie LECHNER
LIBERATION.FR : Friday, October 27, 2006
(Translated by Gina
Bisaillon. To read the article in the original French click
The Nihilist Spasm Band is in concert tonight at 8 :30 at the Noumatrouff,
in Mulhouse. The concert is broadcast live on Radio WNE Webradio. The
collectors' LP of the live June 1st, 2004, at the St. Fridolin Hall, in
Mulhouse, titled "No Nihilist Spasm Band in Mulhouse," has just been
released on the Les mondes mental label (edition of 500 copies).
Rarely have we heard grandfathers make so much noise. It was Saturday night
at the Instants Chavirés, the Montreuil hall, before a public of the age of
their grandchildren. Don't be misled by the flannel pants, the carefully
clipped greying beards and the gentlemen farmers' airs. These guys hit the
drums like brutes, hum into giant electric kazoos, blow into water pipes,
mistreat basses and guitars which they often have put together themselves,
or shake steel balls in a saucepan while declaiming seditious airs.
Every Monday night since 1965, artists Murray Favro and John Boyle,
physician John Clement, teacher Bill Exley, designer Art Pratten, all now
retired, meet within the Nihilist Spasm Band for sessions of free and radical
improvisation. For a long time, these pioneers received nothing but
hostility and disdain, before being hoisted up on a pedestal by the Japanese
hardcore noise scene which considers them, much against their will, as the
godfathers of noise. Among their supporters, Jojo Hiroshige, Thurston Moore,
Alan Licht, Borbetomagus, and Joe McPhee. But the Nihilist Spasm Band
couldn't care less: indifferent as they are to fashions, they continue to
make noise, creating seductive sound tracks out of chaos.
Interview with John Boyle, kazoo player and guitarist Murray Favro,
accompanied by Aya Onishi, a Japanese musician who accompanies them on their
How did the Nihilist Spasm Band get started?
John Boyle We all grew up in London, Ontario.
Murray Favro John, Greg (Curnoe) and I, we were artists, we used to hang
out at art openings.
John Boyle In those days, no one thought of playing in a band, it was an
accident. Greg, who has since died, had made a silent film, he asked people
to come make some sound on his film and someone had the idea of bringing
kazoos, so then we all sat around in a circle and played as long as the film
Murray Favro I think we knew from the start that it wasn't important to
watch the film and make the music fit the pictures.
John Boyle I didn't even know what the subject of the film was (laughter).
All we knew was how long we had to play. But after that, some of us felt
like continuing. They came back with car horns attached to the kazoos, then
with electric instruments. Six months later, we realized that in fact we
were a band.
One of the peculiarities of the NSB is that none of you has had musical
John Boyle It was very important that none of us was a musician. We
created this band but we didn't know how to play. That obliged us to invent
a new way of playing music.
Murray Favro In our band, there is no leader, no direction in the music.
It's like a conversation between friends, everyone doesn't talk about the
same thing at the same time. Each one can play what he wants and no one can
complain... although we do complain anyway! (laughter)
John Boyle If Bill tells me not to play so loud, then I will deliberately
play louder (laughs). Sometimes we play together, sometimes we play against
Murray Favro Or else he will say we have to play real soft and then no one
will play, there will be total silence. But I think it works most of the
time. We don't just play our own thing, we also listen to each other a lot.
Was it important for you to make your own instruments?
Murray Favro Yes, we wanted a particular sound. We needed these
John Boyle We didn't want to make music like everyone else, we were
looking for a sound that corresponded to something in our heads and we tried
to reproduce it with these modified instruments. For example, Art is a
wonderful stringed instrument maker, he has built his own bass, his own
violin, wind instruments like the waterpipe, made with water pipes.
Murray Favro The guitar I use is a cheap old guitar, but it has a special
sound, better than any I've made. Generally, I keep the guitars I make for
only a year. Then I sell them, there's always a buyer.
John Boyle Murray is a very famous sculptor in Canada. People pay a lot of
money for his guitars.
The name of the group evokes the refusal of constraints, the pursuit of the
total freedom that is found in your music.
John Boyle Hugh, our bass player, who died recently, had a very good
memory. He knew of the existence of "spasm bands" in New Orleans, blues
bands whose members were too poor to buy instruments, so they built their
own. He thought we were a spasm band because we built our own instruments.
In those days, in the Sixties, some of us were interested in anarchism,
nihilism, it was in the air. We led a fake political campaign in our
Canadian province. We made posters with "Vote Nihilist," "Vote No" slogans.
We had no candidates, we just wanted people to destroy their ballots. We
thought we had won the elections because the rate of abstentions was higher
than the number of voters. But we didn't want to set off bombs or kill
people. We had our Nihilist Party of Canada membership cards, but for us it
was a parody of political parties. According to Hugh, the Nihilist Spasm
Band was also a parody of a conventional band, with parodies of musical
instruments. It's a joke, but a serious joke. The result was we had invented
a kind of music that was very difficult for other people to play (laughter).
Is free jazz part of your influences?
John Boyle Free jazz was wild and inspired, but very different. Many
people thought we were trying to play free jazz but weren't succeeding
(laughter). Some great free jazz musicians even tried to play with us but
they couldn't. Except for Joe McPhee -- he understood our spirit, he didn't
change what he did, he only adjusted it to our sounds, it was very amusing.
Our music is very different from free jazz, because free jazz starts in the
musical world and tries to get away from it and into the world of noise. As
for us, we live in the world of noise. They try to come to us, we don't try
to go to them.
Murray Favro A jazz musician starts with a melody and gets away from it,
that's the conventional way to learn music. But our music is chaos. It
begins with noise and eventually some motifs will emerge. It's the opposite
of jazz. Our music is more modern (laughter). Improvisation is what's
closest to what we do, but it doesn't have the same meaning as in jazz, it
just means there is no score; it's not formal. Creation happens in that
If we rely on the words of your songs, you pass for dangerous agitators.
John Boyle You're referring to "No Canada," a parody of the national
anthem, or "Destroy the Nations," -- "Let's Start With America, England is
Dead, France is Nuts, and Russia is Old." It's not quite the same as people
who really are angry at the system. There is always a touch of irony because
we don't take ourselves seriously enough to think we can destroy these
people and make a better world.
Murray Favro That said, we couldn't go to the US right now. We used to go
sometimes under Clinton, but under Bush I think it's not possible.
John Boyle Greg refused to set foot in the United States. As long as he
was alive, we never played there.
And you also play loud!
John Boyle In fact, we play less loudly than a rock band. People always
complain that we play too loud but the Japanese band Overhand Party, with
whom we played in Metz, played a lot louder than we did. I had to wear
earplugs. People accept that rock music is played loud, because there's
rhythm, a melody, the form is familiar, but when it's only noise, some
people find it boring.
Murray Favro It's contradictory. We never play the same thing twice. Even
Bill, who declaims the same songs, does it differently each time.
Some see in you the godfathers of noise music.
Murray Favro Jojo Hiroshige discovered our old records in the 80s and
realized we were doing something similar to what he has doing. He reissued
them under the Alchemy Records label.
John Boyle Before people discovered noise music, we were branded the
godfathers of punk, then they told us we were the godfathers of techno. We
have nothing to do with this, we developed in a closed environment, isolated
from the outside world. We made only one tour outside of Canada, in 1969, in
Paris and London, then nothing until 1996, when we went to Japan as Jojo's
guests. It was the first time we heard noise music. It was interesting but
completely different from what we were doing. It wasn't collective
improvisation, there isn't the same interaction, it was one person or bands
playing rock and going nuts, breaking the conventions of the genre by adding
noise. We didn't know if they were doing something together or if they were
playing in five directions at the same time.
Aya Onishi There is always a certain degree of anger and frustration in
the Japanese noise bands, which you don't feel in the Spasm Band.
Are you still playing every Monday night?
John Boyle Yes. First we played in a pub for five years, until the owner
couldn't stand us any more. The bar was called the York Hotel and it became
famous thanks to us. They let us play Monday nights because it was the only
day of the week when nothing happened. But the students came and we filled
the bar every Monday night from 1965 until the early '70s. Lots of famous
people came to hear us play, maybe because we were doing something new. For
a while, people thought it was amusing, then they got annoyed again because
we never learned to play music. So they threw us out. Then we went to
another pub for a year. We played in an art gallery for thirty years and
then in a bar again. But the bar closed this spring and now we're looking
for a new venue for our Monday sessions.
The reissue on Alchemy Records marked a new turn of events?
Murray Favro Totally. Even though we're all retired now, we're busier than
John Boyle Before playing in Japan and New York, no one cared about us in
our own country. This allowed us to play in a bunch of new places, to have
some interesting encounters. When REM came to London, Ontario for a concert
in 2004, they showed up at our bar the previous night, and we jammed
together. I didn't imagine that REM could be interested in us, but they had
a great time... As for Thurston and Lee Renaldo, of Sonic Youth,
improvisation is at the heart of their work, so they were excited to meet
us. When Thurston was in London, someone gave him our first record, a
"flexi-disc" distributed inside an art magazine, a rare piece which is worth
a fortune nowadays. He was really happy.
In your early days, it wasn't rare that people threw things at you. How do
you handle your new cult band status?
John Boyle In the beginning, people hated us. But recently we played in
Toronto before an important public and they applauded after each piece,
stayed till the end. I don't think that we've become icons, and certainly
not in our hometown.
It all began to change at the end of the '80s. Some young people got
interested in us. A young guy in London loved our music and got the idea of
organizing a noise festival around us, the No Music Festival. The first one,
in 1998, was an enormous success. In our music, there is a lot of humour,
but there are people who don't get it.
Murray Favro Today, people understand it better; the public has changed --
a lot more than we have.
John Boyle For many years, we would sometimes play for 400 people and
after five minutes there would only be fifteen people left. We didn't care.
But now, there are young people who come to listen to us, I don't know what
has changed, but they think it's funny and they seem to like us.
Murray Favro I think they listen differently.
John Boyle Yes, less seriously no doubt. Very few people our age come to
see us. But then, the band doesn't care about the public. We like it if the
audience are happy, but if they aren't, that doesn't make us unhappy.
Murray Favro We're also members of the audience. We never know what's
going to happen. If we think it was good and the audience also thinks so,
then it's because it was good.
John Boyle Yes... but if we think it was good and the audience hated it,
we wouldn't change anything to satisfy the public (laughter).
Has your music changed a lot in forty years?
John Boyle I think our music has changed. We try new things all the time
The instruments have changed too. But our method is always the same: we get
together and we play together, sometimes we laugh, make jokes, sometimes we
get on each other's nerves; it's like when friends get together.
Murray Favro We don't go there to sleep. We always seek a certain degree
of energy, but the sounds to achieve it don't stop changing.
John Boyle We don't like precious experimental music, serious music where
the public are snobs. I find that boring, the same with computer music with
guys stuck to the screen. I admit there are geniuses who do brilliant things
but most buy the computer and the software without having any ideas. They
can make noise but it's boring.
How do you see the future?
John Boyle There are [computer} programs which can transcribe performances
into printed musical scores. My great desire would be that real musicians
would interpret our pieces exactly like us. And at last I could say to them
that they don't play well. I would also like to create a Nihilist Spasm Band
school, where Japanese students would come to learn the kazoo (laughter).
Have you ever thought of replacing the members who have disappeared?
John Boyle Some people have tried to become members, but it's always been
a problem. We might have to consider it if more of us disappear.
Murray Favro I don't think so, even with two it's okay. You just have to
have the necessary courage. Even alone you could make the Nihilist Spasm
John Boyle At least, if I'm the last survivor of the Spasm Band, I won't
have to ask your opinion. If everyone is dead and I'm still alive, I will be
the leader at last (laughter).
On your first album, one of you wrote "The important thing is not what you
play, it's who you play with." Does this motto still hold forty years
Murray Favro Who wrote that?
John Boyle That's what I was going to ask. In fact, each time we make a
record, someone different writes the notes. And in general no one agrees
with the one who wrote them.
Murray Favro That sounds like Art Pratten. It's an important trait of our
band, that we are individuals with very strong personalities.
John Boyle And we never agree on anything.
Murray Favro What matters is to play together, sometimes there's a public,
sometimes there's even a lot of people, sometimes nobody but it doesn't
matter, we always try to play the best we can, to have fun.
John Boyle We have a lot of fun when we play, especially when we play
well. For each member, the band plays a very important role in our lives,
but we don't really know why. In any case, when we play together and it's
good, everybody is happy. Even if we fight sometimes, we always go back to
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