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Interviews

The Dirty Nil: Cleaning Up Their Act

We spoke to the "dirty" rock band that comes from Ontario's Steel City, Hamilton.

Juliette Jagger

I don’t know what it is about bands from Hamilton, but they always seem to come forth with a thick layer of dirt, like Pigpen from Charlie Brown. They appear to revel in the fuzz of noise and thick distortion, brash drums that pound feverishly like the beating of an exasperated heart, and desperate, howling vocals that escape with intention to stomp about wildly.

Now, whether or not that’s a bunch of bullshit is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the place has nothing to do with it and we’re just starved for something to believe in, something like the myth of “grunge.” As I found out while talking to Luke Bentham (guitar / vocals) and Dave Nardi (bass/vocals) of Hamilton’s The Dirty Nil, it isn’t the geography of the place that drives the story so much as it is the blood, sweat and kinship of the bands that exist within and support it’s local scene.

The Dirty Nil is the kind of band that plays loud, distorted out of control rock and roll, and they do it because they couldn’t do a damn thing else if they tried. They have a particular affinity for releasing 7-inch vinyl and most recently put out an EP titled SMITE.

Are we talking about the next Seattle here? Probably not. But, these are strange times we live in and even though music has never been more readily available, we still find ourselves standing around, scratching our heads and wondering where the fuck all the rock and roll is at? Well, you can call off the search parties cause as it turns out, it’s in Hamilton, Ontario.

Noisey: There is something about Hamilton that seems to be ingrained in the bands that come out of the city. There’s just something brash and filthy about their sound. It’s something you guys definitely have. What’s that all about?
Luke Bentham:
Well, we’ve talked a lot about Hamilton and the city having a “sound,” and I know a lot of people have tried to point to something like that, but when we’re here on the ground level, it’s something I have a hard time seeing. Most of our friends have loud, obnoxious, electric guitar bands so that’s kind of a unifying thread but most of our bands also sound pretty different from one another.
Dave Nardi: Hamilton has this sort of exterior aesthetic, and I think a lot of people look at bands from the city through that window. I mean it’s a pretty cool thing and it’s all real if you see it right? If people see and hear cohesion I’m certainly not going to tell you there isn’t any there.

I’d like to talk a bit about the rock scene in Hamilton. You mentioned being on the ground level. What is it like being a band at the centre of that and is there a sense of community there?
Bentham: We all support each other’s bands so I would definitely say there is that sense of cohesion and community here. Everyone in Hamilton who plays in a band is an active member of the scene. Everyone goes to shows and buys each other’s records so there is a very communal feeling. We all root for each other.
Nardi: Yeah, there is definitely a scene here as well, but there are also many different factions. There’s a lot of cross-pollination going on. There are the “Hammer-city” shows and those are more like hardcore shows with bands like Born Wrong and punk bands like TV FREAKS and Snake Charmer, but then at the same time they’ll kind of, as I said cross-pollinate, and play with other bands as well. There’s a promotions collective in Hamilton called Perdu that’s run by members of WTCHS, and they put out various releases and put on shows and they kind of have their own cool bands too. Everything is very inclusive and everyone is always kind of playing together.

Being from a big city like Toronto, I find that a lot of people tend to dub themselves “Toronto bands,” but I just don’t feel that sense of community here. I love that you guys are all out at each other’s shows and buying each other’s records because those are the things that really help a scene to thrive.
Bentham: Yeah, Toronto is such a huge, diverse city with a trillion bands in it, but I’m sure that if you are on the ground level in some of those bands there is a similar sense of solidarity. I guess it’s just easy for people to have a sort of tidy view and aesthetic about a place like Hamilton because of its size.
Nardi: I definitely think there is something to being a slightly smaller town; there is more of a kinship. In a city like Toronto there might be 200 other bands doing exactly the same thing you are so it’s nice to be a part of a smaller pool. There also isn’t a whole lot of genre exclusivity here in Hamilton. Chances are that you probably already know the other bands that are playing similar sounding music to what you are, but you can also go to a random show and there will be a whole bunch of members of different bands there. No one’s really biased. Everyone just kind of supports everyone else.

Is there anything about the Hamilton scene that only Hamiltonians would understand?
Bentham: See the number one thing that I usually come back to that influences that feeling or people’s perception of it anyways, is the size of the city. That is really to most important factor. It’s big enough to have a thriving arts scene but it’s small enough that there are not a trillion bands. It’s a fertile patch where all the trees can get some sun, you know?
Nardi: Yeah, I don’t know, Hamilton never really feels like a radically different scene than anywhere else. I don’t know that there is something necessarily special happening in Hamilton aside from there just being some really good bands here. People always say the Hamilton scene is so great because it’s a steel town and we have that working class mentality, but I always kind of just think that’s a bunch of bullshit. Being a steel town has had no effect on us as a band. People have this weird perception that bands here are hardworking because of the industry and infrastructure, but I don’t really buy into that. I just think that there are some truly great bands here that like to work hard.

I want to talk a bit about your approach to making rock and roll today. You guys have released three 7-inch singles, which are always fun because of the resurgence around vinyl over the past few years, but you guys also recently opted to put out an EP titled Smite, over a full-length release. Is there any method to your particular brand of madness?
Bentham: Well, we’re definitely going for a certain thing with the singles but we also just really like releasing records. The vinyl format is a really attractive thing and an important part of our identity and what we want to do with rock and roll, but it’s also a matter of necessity. Early on we didn’t have enough money to put out a full-length. Also, I think at no point past the age of 19 did we want to just jump into a full-length album. We abandoned that notion pretty quickly once we realized we would release it and it would just be this group of songs we were all really proud of and then we’d put it out on the merch table and hope for rain. We realized that wasn’t the smartest way to do it. Releasing a few songs at a time is just a really good and safe way to slowly build some attention.
Nardi: Personally, I’ve loved vinyl since I was young, but there is just something about the 7-inch single that feels like the perfect balance between digestibility and something substantial. It’s not just a digital single that you can put on your iPhone, get tired of and delete.

So you are a firm believer that tangibility is still integral to the musical experience?
Nardi: Absolutely. Not only is something like a 7-inch quick and easy to get into but it’s also a physical release that you can hold in your hands. You can look at it and say: ‘okay someone has put effort into this and money behind it and it was important enough to them that they made a real, physical copy of it.’ At the same time, it’s kind of succinct enough to give you a little snap shot. It’s also a really cool way to kind of validate your own efforts as a band. To hold something in your hands and say ‘I made this, I produced this physically.’ It doesn’t have to be vinyl, it can be a cassette or a CD, but just making something physical kind of shows that you personally feel it’s something worthwhile. It’s really easy to make something on your computer and kind of throw it out into the digital world on a whim. A digital only track doesn’t hold a lot of weight for me. It’s almost careless, as if to say you don’t value what you’ve created.

For us, even when we’ve put out a digital release we’ve always ended up putting it on a tape or something, even if it was only 20 copies. That’s just always been important to us.

Today, most people do the DIY thing out of necessity but that has almost become your aesthetic in a way. Everything from the songs to your homemade videos have this real raw, divey kind of quality to them. Now, granted there is no right or wrong way to do it anymore, there’s only what works for your particular band, so what have you guys found works best for you? What’s The Dirty Nil way?
Bentham: As Dave said, these days you can get anyone’s music anywhere on the Internet so I think having those physical things for people to hold in their hands––something they can look at and keep while they enjoy your band––is really key. You can’t even calculate how much more important that is than being a single white line in an iTunes file.
Nardi: It’s also that no one has ever understood our band and our kind of desires as well as us so doing things ourselves has just always been the best way. We try and move from project to project as quickly as possible because we don’t like to get bogged down. The idea of having someone else involved has always just given me a headache. It’s also not the kind of thing we’ve taken a stance on and said, ‘we are a DIY band,’ it’s just what works for us. We want to move quickly and have complete artistic and creative control so there’s just been no other way. That being said, if someone came along that understood us and understood what we wanted as a band and could help us achieve that, there’s no reason why we wouldn’t consider it.

I think it’s fair to say that it’s a pretty tough time for musicians out there. So many are trying to navigate the same unchartered waters at once and all while going up again these very romantic ideas about the way things used to be. In your experiences thus far, what has really tried your patience or tested your ego as musicians?
Nardi: When we reach roadblocks, I always try and take them in stride; I don’t sort of keep a catalogue of grievances. That’s not to say that it’s been smooth sailing but I’ve been happy just being in this band for quite a while.
Bentham: Yeah, I feel very fortunate that pretty much most efforts we’ve put forth have generated a response. We haven’t really hit a point where we tried this experimental thing that flopped so we were frustrated that no one could understand our art [laughs].
Nardi: I think early on there were those feelings of ‘I’ve got a clear idea of who we are and I know who this band really is,’ but maybe not everybody else sees you the same way yet. There’s always going to be those things that cause you to take one step forward and two steps back, but any hardships that have come our way have ultimately brought us to the music we are making now so I’ll count those as blessings.
Bentham: The only thing I can say is that I’ve realized how important it is to give a hundred percent because the more you try the better things will happen. I know that’s some kitschy, inspirational bullshit but it’s so important for rock and roll, especially these days as you said because there are just so many bands out there. You can go back and listen to all the other music and reminisce about how much better it used to be but there has never been more rock and roll than there is right now. Our basic formula is simple–we try to write songs that get us stoked and if they do that, then we take them to the outside world.

Can you guys pay it forward and recommend a couple other really badass local independent rock bands that you’re into right now?Bentham: Born Wrong and TV FREAKS are probably the two best bands in Hamilton right now so check them out if you don’t already know who they are. Born Wrong have a couple 7-inches out and TV FREAKS have two LP’s out and both of them are really good. They both have a really great sense of humour. Those two are the first bands to come to mind but I definitely feel guilty about leaving other people out.
Nardi: Yeah, Born Wrong is maybe the best live band I’ve ever seen. Tight, pummelling, super prolific and I think they’ve only been a band for something like two years maybe. Greys from Toronto are another incredible loud, rock band; kind of punk, kind of noisy and they have a full-length album coming out soon. We’ve played a bunch of shows with them and they are definitely one of my favourite bands for sure. Teenage Kicks are another great Toronto band. Peter and Jeff are amazing and so supportive of us. Peter has probably recorded more of our music than anyone has. They have a new record out too, which is just a really great, really accomplished rock record. Our friends, The Beverlys, from Toronto as well. They’re a three-piece kind of noisy garage punk band and they recently released a three song EP on Buzz Records, which is awesome. And of course our friends in Single Mothers, we’re waiting on baited breath for their full-length just like the rest of North America.

Juliette Jagger is a rock writer living in Toronto. - @juliettejagger

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