Boiling with Soul
Nomeansno create punk-rock-jazz roadkill
By Gabe Meline
When some really old guys walk out onstage and pick up instruments at the Phoenix Theater on May 4, it’s not some kind of joke that Phoenix manager Tom Gaffey’s parents are pulling. It’s actually the band.
Seriously, Nomeansno look old, but they will fuck you up.
Rob Wright is used to people’s initial shock by now. “When I started playing, I was in my mid-20s, so right from the very beginning, I was 10 years older than everyone around me,” the 51-year-old Nomeansno frontman says during a recent phone interview. “So hearing people say ‘God, you’re old’ has never really bothered me. What has surprised me is how little it seems to matter.”
When his band first came to Sonoma County for a warehouse show in Santa Rosa, Wright (then only 33) was already gray and starting to bald. But as Nomeansno continue their 25-year (and counting) reign as the Greatest Canadian Punk Band ever, the “old guys playing rock and roll” stigma continues to be flipped in their favor as reassuring proof that you can age not only with grace but with fire.
“I think people appreciate the fact that there are people who are above 40 who don’t mind getting up there and screaming and sweating and playing at 110 decibels,” he says, summarizing his band’s powerful stage presence. “We haven’t slowed down and just gone to our ballads, reminiscing about the good old days.”
In fact, the band’s song titles show that, if anything, Nomeansno’s music ominously tells of the bad old days: “The Day Everything Became Nothing,” “The End of All Things,” “Dark Ages,” “Life in Hell.” The Nomeansno formula is hard to nail down, but it generally contains a mixture of horror and total surprise.
Punk has since separated into countless subcategories, but when Nomeansno began, the rules were rigid: violent music played at breakneck speed. Nomeansno were among the first to blow the genre’s limitations wide open with pounding jazz bass lines, celestial vocals and psychedelic songwriting; those of us it has affected have never fully recovered.
The band have hammered out a formidable catalog of albums with titles like Small Parts Isolated and Destroyed, each with a unique vision that we can only hope to understand in a few days’ time. Each album, more expansive than the last, reminds us of the original impulse we felt when we first heard Rob Wright’s distinctive bellow telling us that real love don’t care about me or you, and that impulse told us: I think these guys know more than I do.
When asked how he thinks his band will be remembered in the history books, Wright wryly suggests “watching from the sidelines,” though the band have earned modest success. “Dad,” a surprise underground hit from the band’s first album as a trio, 1987’s Sex Mad, describes from a son’s point of view a family’s helplessness under an abusive father. The song struck a nerve, and the band stepped out from the sidelines.
Wright himself has not worked a day job for years. “It’s always been such a surprise to us that anything we did was popular,” he remarks. “Our songs have been quite personal and idiosyncratic, and even if I wasn’t in the band, I’d have a hard time finding a slot for us.”
Likewise, there is no typical audience for the band, but a certain contingent of Nomeansno’s core crowd are musicians. Wright has never been featured on the cover of Bass Player magazine, yet his thundering command of the instrument has single-handedly revolutionized punk rock bass playing. These days, it’s said that he listens to a lot of jazz fusion, like a curious driver who turns back to survey the animal he has just run over. Bassist Jaco Pastorius may have beat him to the punch in coining the term “punk jazz,” but after you have heard Rob Wright, Jaco Pastorius is roadkill.
Though the band covers Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” on their latest album, 2001’s One, Nomeansno’s true strength lies not in sheer virtuosity, but in a peculiar ability as both songwriters and performers to channel terror and elation at the same time. Even a basic assessment of the band’s songs yields a subtle concoction: the music can contain anguish or joy, but above all, it boils over with soul.
“Stocktaking,” from the landmark 1989 album Wrong, is based entirely around one simple chord, repeated over and over. Slowly building in intensity, the song’s prodding questions about desire and necessity create a dynamic spectrum of wild emotional depth.
Sadly, almost all of Nomeansno’s albums are currently out of print, but the band are currently working on eventual re-releases–some say a little too lackadaisically. A new deal with noted madman Mike Patton’s label is causing Wright to look toward the future. “We’re gonna probably work with Ipecac for our new record when it comes out,” he clarifies, “which we’re writing right now.”
Wright is unfazed when asked about the possible pressure involved in signing with Ipecac, whose roster includes newer, younger heavyweights like Fantomas, Isis and the Locust. “We’ve never really played the kind of music that even our audience wanted to hear,” he points out. “The only pressure we feel now is that what we’re doing is worth doing. I mean, we’ve had a great run. If it were to end tomorrow, I can’t say I’d be disappointed about what we’ve done and the legacy we’ve got.
“You know, it’s a damn fine profession,” Wright adds reflectively. “For all its cartoonishness and clowniness, music has been going on since before people grew food and built houses. It’s completely integral to any human culture, and we’re the guys who do that job. And as long as we can do it, and do it effectively, then why not?”
Nomeansno play on Wednesday, May 4, at the Phoenix Theater (“We’ve always had great shows there,” says Rob) with Polar Bears and the New Trust. 201 Washington St., Petaluma. 8pm. $10; all ages. 707.765.3566.
From the April 20-26, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.