The godfathers of noise
They’re the ones who started all this 37 years ago. And they continue to “make a noise”, in-different to tendencies, fashions and strategies. Take it or leave it, as the band like to say.
The Nihilist Spasm Band Members are: Hugh McIntyre (1936 – 2004), John Clement, John Boyle, Bill Exley, Murray Favro, Greg Curnoe (1936 – 1992) and Art Pratten.
Refusing even to be labelled as “nihilists” and “anarchists”, despite the name of the group and their attitude in relation to music itself and to the music establishment, the one and only Nihilist Spasm Band is the real nihilist/anarchist thing. It was them who invented the word “radical” to identify a specific approach to the sound world. Murray Favro, Art Pratten and John Boyle tells us how, and why…an interview by Rui Eduardo Paes
Rui Eduardo Paes | Nihilist Spasm Band seems to be part of the North-American maverick tradition. Even if your music isn’t similar, I can’t stop thinking about Harry Partch and Moondog when I hear your music. You were pioneers in the Sixties, and you’re the godfathers of a today’s complete musical reality, the one highlighted by Sonic Youth, Japanese noise hardcore, Borbetomagus, some electronica. And you’re still more radical, consistent and authentic than all of them. Do the band members accept this maverick condition and this pioneering spirit, still alive in the music you play today?
Murray Favro |- Yes, we see no other way to enjoy what we do without being mavericks.
Art Pratten | Collectively we were totally oblivious to what was and is going on in the music world. Some in the band neither listen to or have a contemporary music collection of records. In the beginning, most of us were aware of people like Cage, Tudor and Stockhausen, but it was rock music and free jazz that had the greatest influence on us. Not in the sense we wanted to be that, but because it pointed out that anything was possible. It just never occurred to us that we could not just acquire some things, make a noise and call ourselves a band.
John Boyle | We certainly are mavericks in the sense that we were and are unwilling, and more importantly incapable of conforming to any musical tradition. I don’t think you can have a tradition of mavericks because each maverick is unique. Some of us, myself included, were aware of and appreciative of Partch and Moondog while being completely ignorant of or unappreciative of some of the others you name. We heard Borbetomagus first when we played with them. I think our unintended maverick condition has become central to our development. In fact, we can’t even accept our own conventions and we are constantly at war with ourselves and with each other, in an usually amiable way, to break down combinations and patterns that seem to be becoming too comfortable, repetitive or redundant.
Rui Eduardo Paes | Considering the name of the band, your attitude and your music, it’s seems clear to me that you have strong conceptual references – Nihilism, Anarchism perhaps, or at least anti-establishment convictions. In the text the band included in one of your records you tell that there isn’t much theory behind your work, but I suppose you always wanted to make a point, to make a statement, a political and cultural one. What can you tell me about that?
Murray Favro | I have no references, I don’t give a shit about Nihilism, I hate to find out what Anarchism might be. I am myself, not a collection of ideas. I especially dislike tired ideas that can be looked up in books. I never wanted to make any statements, I just like to play in the band and do whatever I want. Some other members of the Spasm Band may think they are Nihilists, but they’re not the entire band. It is this very fact that we disagree about so much, but agree to play in five or six directions at once or perhaps cooperate at times. That is the secret to understanding what the band is about and why it has lasted so long with no leader and no planned direction. Our practices are not practices, they all are performances. These things make the Spasm Band one of a kind.
Art Pratten | The band has no statement to make and no message to share. We simply interact with each other. If people find that interesting and can make something out of it, that’s OK. If not, they should look elsewhere. We are a free standing event…take it or leave it. For me, Nihilism simple mean no law, rule, custom, practice or religion should go unquestioned. You are at liberty to say NO to any part or all of it but you have to be ready to deal with the consequences.
John Boyle | We were never serious about Nihilism in any historical and political way. What we wanted to destroy was conventional ways of thinking and performing. We chose to do this by utilizing ineptitude and disorganization to confront cultural expression in all of its forms in the face of the externally imposed culture in which we found ourselves living (Hollywood movies, Nashville music, New York books, plays, etc.). If we refused to follow or learn the established rules we would be forced to invent our own. We seek, I think, originality outside of rather than from within any conventions.
Rui Eduardo Paes | The “Chicago Reader” used in 1999 the expression “creative art terrorism” to describe your work. That’s what you’re doing?
Murray Favro | No!
Art Pratten | This is an external and intellectual observation and I have no problem with this. As I stated before, if you do something you have to accept the consequences and the consequences are other people interpreting your endeavours. For me it is simple… nearly 40 years ago, some people who were already friends thought it would be fun to make a noise together and call ourselves a band and we did. There was no one to say we could not… so we did. It continued to be fun, so nearly 40 years later we continue to make a noise.
John Boyle | We’re not terrorists, artistic or otherwise, because we do not intend to harm or destroy anybody’s art methodology but our own. Being mavericks, we are not evangelistic. Other people should not feel threatened because what we do is not in their tradition.
Rui Eduardo Paes | You’re being labelled a free/noise rock band, but your main inspiration come from the blues “spasm” bands of the beginning of the 20th century in the South of the United States. It’s blues what you play? And tell me: when you started to play this music were you conscious ot the world’s ethnic trance musics (I ask this because your music is kind of a tribal, ritual thing)? Was/is free jazz an influence?
Murray Favro | Hugh McIntyre likes the things you mentioned, but they are of no influence on him or us. And if they were I would screw up the sound because I do not like blues. I find it depressing. Our music is not tribal. Perhaps Bill Exley once did something at one time that reminded you of tribal. I do not like jazz. We start with noise and no structure and patterns may or may not form from the noise. I like to think there must be some link to physics like Chaos Theory and that the younger people now have grown up with these new concepts and new ways of looking at things much like we happened to recognize and anticipate before it was formalized and a part of everyday thinking. I see jazz as the old determinist way of looking at things. You start with organized reference of music and improvise on it. The Spasm Band, in contrast, does not improvise. We make noise and sometimes patterns form from it.
Art Pratten | Again, labels are imposed from the outside. Blues has had no more influence on the band than any other noise. The only real influence spasm bands had on us was the fact they used home-made or cheap second hand instruments. We are not trying to play anything. We are just responding to each other in sort of a conversation of noise. If we sound tribal, is probably because we are primitive. It must be stated clearly… although the band as a whole has no objection to the world of music as a whole, there is a healthy disinterest. Although some of us buy CDs regularly, other only own the CDs given to them. Some listen to contemporary music on the radio, some never. It would be very difficult to find a single group we could or would all be able to comment on.
John Boyle | We are a band of disparate individuals, each with very different interests and influences. Some of us liked and were influenced by free jazz, rock, so-called world music (which here means music from anywhere except Canada), but others liked very conservative classical music, pop or country music and knew nothing of the rest. We are a spasm band in that we build or modify our own instruments in the tradition of New Orleans street bands in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But the nature of those instruments and the music we make differ in most respects from any of the forms you mention. Even the improvisation aspect is different in that we, lacking musical training, are nearly wholly improvisational. But our individual musical loves obviously influence what we play in uncoordinated expressive ways.
Rui Eduardo Paes | Like the spasm bands use to do, you design and build your own instruments. And they’re derivations of existing ones, just like the spasm musicians use to do. The Pratt-o-various is an electric violin, the kazoo, even if a giant and electrified one, it’s just… a kazoo, and the guitars, even if custom-built, even if the bass use a piano string, are just that, guitars. Why didn’t you invented new instruments?
Murray Favro | We recognize that every kazoo will have its own sounds, as it is with every guitar, etc. This is true with factory made instruments too. I want to play guitar, so I make guitars, but I seldom play them more than a year, and since someone always seems to want to buy it I sell them. Usually for about $20,000 American. And the fact is that I have never been able to make a guitar with as much variety of noise as an old cheap factory made guitar I have had for over 30 years. It is curiosity that makes me try making my own pick-up’s and guitars.
Art Pratten | The prime motivation is to play, not re-invent, the world. In the beginning, we just grab and played whatever was handy. The modifications that followed were to accommodate our abilities and increase volume. I gravitated to a stringed instrument then a 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 stringed “violin shaped” instrument simply because it was compacted and my father played violin… a family joke. I now also play a electronically altered length of 1 1/2 inch water pipe I call the “water-pipe”.
John Boyle | It’s partly, I think, because we were and are, in a sense, a parody of a conventional band. Our particular situation, living in London, Ontario, Canada, a former colony of Britain and France, and completely dominated economically and culturally today by the United States, where our own indigenous musical forms have been completely inundated and obliterated in the American wash, it seemed necessary for creative people to ridicule the imposed culture. Our instruments are mockeries of conventional instruments. In a sense, we are trying to vandalize instruments, but we are fascinated by the vandalized music that results. We are playing non competitive music. We are always the best and the worst in the world at what we do. Our music is a new form.
Rui Eduardo Paes | None of you has musical formation, and you use to present that as an advantage. You even told in an interview that this is your difference in relation to present noise music, played by “real” musicians that want to cut with music conventions. So, Nihilist Spasm Band is trying to show that, to make music, no conventions are necessary, which is a very important statement. But you also admit that what you do isn’t music. Are you surrendering, after proving that music doesn’t need an Academy to be alive and well?
Murray Favro | Music can have all the conventions it wants. I don’t need them. I am part of the audience also when the band performs. I want to hear things I have not heard before. Do audiences need to be trained in academics of music before they are allowed to listen?
Art Pratten | The band has never produced a manifesto, never a plan, never a philosophy. Our only propose for existing is to play… our only long term plans are to play “every monday night”. How we fit into the greater world of music or how the world of music relates to us is not only meaningless, it is beyond our control. This is not arrogance, it is just a statement of fact. I would hope if the band has any influence it would be… someone responding to us by saying… Hell, if they can do it so can we.
John Boyle | My Canadian dictionary says music is the art of organizing sounds, also, a succession of pleasant sounds. Our sounds are neither organized nor pleasant and therefore, by definition, they’re not music. At the same time, there is a sort of tribal organization imposed by the eight, then seven, now six personalities who have been improvising together for 37 years, and we and a few others have acquired a taste for our succession of sounds. So the music is in the ear of the listener. Because we have never aspired to conventional music, it is not surrender to say we haven’t achieved it. On the contrary, it’s a success. Another large aspect of music is the ability to be reproduced by other practitioners. Obviously, that is not possible with what we do as it is un-codified. I challenge some obsessive person out there to notate a selection from one of our recordings, assemble a sextet with copies of our instruments and perform it as closely as possible to our band’s version. Then we will be musicians.
Rui Eduardo Paes | Nihilist Spasm Band never was a professional group. You always developed other careers besides making music and the most part of your public concerts (an example: your Monday reunions) weren’t conventional ones. Even your records (except one or two) are documents of concerts you’ve played. You don’t promote yourself, you don’t have a permanent contract with any label. You’re the broken piece in the musical industry. Was that intentional, being outsiders, rebels, in the music business (that’s political too), or you decided to do that because, since the beginning, your idea was to make music only for fun? If all that was for fun, what an achievement…
Murray Favro | We like our band and it is still together after a lot of years. I think we are more serious about what we do than most bands.
Art Pratten | We are professional in the sense we are serious about what we are doing and doing it to the best of our abilities. We take money for performing publicly and always perform responsibly. The band is an important but integrated part of our lives. There was never any illusions about making a “living” playing in the band. That would have been devastating. If we were to be dependent on the band we would become dependent on the band’s acceptance and to put ourselves in the position of depending on other people’s approval is suicidal. “Fun” is serious business and you have to work at it.
John Boyle | Most of the band’s members met as adults in our 20’s. We were all either finishing studies for disparate careers or already launched in them. The Nihilist Spasm Band (music), along with the Nihilist Party of Canada (political), the Nihilist Lacrosse Team (athletic), the annual Nihilist Picnic (recreational), of which there have been 37, the annual Nihilist Banquet (institutional), of which there have been six, 20/20 co-operative Gallery, Region Gallery (co-op), Forest City Gallery artist-run-centre, the London Filmmaker’s Co-operative (cultural), Twenty Cents Magazine (literary), and a number of other group activities in and around London, Ontario, constituted our sometimes parodic, sometimes somewhat serious parallel society which made creative and intellectual life stimulating, exciting and productive in the middle of the generally conservative, stultifying and counter-productive society of South-western Ontario, Canada. Everything was for fun. It was and is fun. We never expected to be paid for having such fun. We made this fun to save ourselves. If the rest of the world became interested… that was up to the rest of the world.
Rui Eduardo Paes | During your first years as Nihilist Spasm Band were you conscious of what other radical bands were doing in Europe, like AMM, Scratch Orchestra and Spontaneous Music Ensemble in the United Kingdom, New Phonic Art in France, Nuova Consonanzza and Musica Elettronica Viva in Italy (the last one with some American musicians) and Taj Mahal Travellers in Japan? The approach to free improvisation and noise is very similar…
Murray Favro | No.
Art Pratten | Ignorance is bliss. Thank God we didn’t have and don’t have common reference points or the band would not exist. It is no secret the members of the band agree on very little. In fact, we spend most of the time arguing about anything and everything except playing. We spend little or no time together outside the band… we certainly do not live in each others pockets.
John Boyle | It’s possible that Greg Curnoe was aware of these groups you name. Personally, I was not and am not aware of any of them, and although some of the other members may claim to be aware, I have never heard these groups discussed on Monday nights. I will have to look for some records and have a listen. Again, we were not trying to become part of any movement or even to lead one. As far as most of us knew, we were the only group of our kind in the world. Actually, most of us still believe that.
Rui Eduardo Paes | Your recent “fame” derives from the admiration of people like Thurston Moore, Jojo Hiroshige and Alan Licht, all of them with a rock formation. You’ve played with them and also with John Corbett and with a post-free jazz player, Joe McPhee. Free improvisation was the common ground. What is improvisation for the band members? How do you see it? A method, a playing technique? An aesthetic option?
Murray Favro | …
Art Pratten | For me, free improvisation is a dialogue of noise… “call and response”. This opens it up to anyone who has something to say with an instrument of noise. There are a lot of noises that can be made with a saxophone that are not found in “Moonlight in Vermont”.
John Boyle | For us, lacking common musical interests and having no musical training or rules to follow, free improvisation was the only option if we wanted to play together. I think all of us were at least marginally aware of the jazz improvisation tradition, the baroque improvised music and classical Indian music, and I’m sure this knowledge made it easy for us to improvise without much soul searching. Oddly, most jazz improvisers who sat in with us on occasion in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s could not adjust to our playing, which was, of course, entirely free of musical conventions. Very few rock people seemed to be interested in us back then. We played a concert with a popular Canadian rock band called Lighthouse, and there were fights in the audience between those who liked us and those who hated us. From our perspective, it wasn’t until the late 80’s and early 90’s till young people started to show an interest, and most of them came from a rock background, as you point out. Joe McPhee is a brilliant improvising musician and a fantastically curious and open creative intelligence, but it’s interesting to note that in the jazz world the response has been decidedly cool if not hostile to our beautiful collaborative double CD “No Borders” (Non Musica Rex), a common opinion being that McPhee has debased his art by playing with us.
Rui Eduardo Paes | And what about the label “noise music”? Do you accept it to describe your work? What’s “noise” for you?
Murray Favro | Noise for me is sound that is not tasteful. Noise Music is when you allow it to form into something that you have never heard before.
Art Pratten | As you have pointed out, we have been called a lot of things and “noise music” is as good as any. I also think that there has always been “noise music”. I am sure down through history whenever music was played and some self proclaimed critic did not approve he would stand up and declare that’s not “music”, that is just “noise”.
John Boyle | Most of us, if not all of us, knew nothing of “noise music” before we were contacted by Alchemy Records of Osaka. I didn’t like it when the term was applied to us because it was too limiting. We listened to each other and played off each other much more carefully than the noise musicians, it seemed to me. While we often played very loudly, that wasn’t the objective. It was just the result of not wanting to be drowned out by all the other noisy bastards. While cacaphony sometimes resulted, we were happiest when we could hear each other and when the sound developed a surprising new texture and energy. Also, the lyrics were important to us, and coherent, comprehensible words and thoughts are not compatible with the “noise” moniker. We are sound improvisers interested in the full range of what is audible to humans, but also interested in ideas. In fact, I believe the Nihilist Spasm Band is a genuine folk music phenomenon. Obviously, this is not true if you compare us to the acoustic guitar strumming songsters who dominate the programmes at North American folk festivals. But it is true in the sense that we, as an indigenous social group in a particular place generated our own musical form appropriate to our circumstances. Maybe someday after we are dead little ensembles of acolytes and disciples will be performing our stuff to the best of their abilities at true folk festivals.