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T2C Casebook Interview feat. Rob Wright from NoMeansNo

NoMeansNo is a legendary Canadian new wave punk rock band formed in 1979 in Victoria, British Columbia and now located in Vancouver. The musical press described their recordings as “Devo on a jazz trip, Motörhead after art school, or Wire on psychotic steroids.” Nomeansno have been credited with being an influence on, and perhaps even the genesis of, math rock. The group has never had, nor have they seemed to pursue, strong mainstream success, but they do have a devoted underground following in North America and Europe. They tour fairly often on both continents and maintain a dedicated fan base. Interview with Rob Wright (bass, vocals).

Is there any logical explanation for you still being on the road after 35 years?

Rob Wright: I don’t know...I think you should do what you do well. And why stop? This is what we do well and people still find it relevant, so why not?

How do you manage to keep your spirit up? It’s hard to be on the road for this long...

RW: It is, but when you do shows like ours, it’s lot of fun! There’s lot of excitement and experience and that’s what music is supposed to do. Live music gets people go out and get together. You get involved, get a little drunk, and forget about everyday problems. It’s not about the money, it’s the whole scenario, it’s a necessary thing, it is like a public service.

Do you consider NoMeansNo a lucky band? Did it achieve the goals you set up back in 1979?

RW: Oh yeah, we’re a lucky band! I think one of the reasons we did so well is that we never had any goals, we just did one thing after the other, and before we knew, it was like wow! And here we are, still touring and playing.

Are you still in touch with Jello Biafra (ex-Dead Kennedys, The Guantanamo School of Medicine)?

RW: Occasionally. He still comes to our shows when he can. But I think he got pissed off when we left his label. He takes everything personally, he’s a temperamental character, but I think he’s still a fan of the band. We owe him and his label, Alternative Tentacles a lot, because that’s where we became established as an act, not just somebody traveling around, playing on Wednesdays and Thursdays to nobody. Especially when AT came to Europe, we got a lot of recognition; people came to see us just because of that.

What do you listen to nowadays?

RW: Mainly electronic music. Techno, dubstep, everything really. I find that computers now are the voice of this new generation. I’ve heard a million bands and after a while they all sound the same to me. I think that today the most creative and most DIY independent music is been done by these electronic producers. They got their own labels; it’s a whole new world that you cannot compare to our shows. I’m always looking for what’s coming up next! Footloose for example is a bunch of producers from Chicago – 18-20 years old black kids – doing soundtracks for breakdancers. But it’s not dance music; it doesn’t have a steady beat. It’s mostly samples with really cheesy beats. That’s the kinda stuff I’m listening to.

You have like 15 LPs, how do you put together the setlist?

RW: That’s pretty hard, especially if I don’t remember my own songs...Now we are doing a weird set because we got tired of the old hits we had to play all the time. We go like it’s great but let’s do some weird stuff as well.

Have you ever considered making an album with an orchestra?

RW: No, the band seems to have a life of its own. It seems to have everything it needs. I think lot of people do that because they are bored with their own sound. So far, NoMeansNo had good luck with staying a small combo and being able to do whatever it wants to do. I’d hate to do stuff that I couldn’t do live. Although we may integrate electronic sounds and samples into your music. It’s a temptation, we might do that, but not hiring an orchestra...

Are you experimenting with new technologies?

RW: Yeah, I got proTools, I will not pretend to go on with the same technology as twenty years ago.

How often do you update your park of instruments?

RW: Well, my bass guitar was bought back in 1995. I got to refurbish it soon. It’s the same setup since years.

Do you have an iPhone or a tablet?

RW: No, but I got a MacPro, I need it for proTools.

What do you use it for?

RW: Composing. I remember times when there were no bank machines and you had to go to the bank to withdraw some money. It seems like a century away.

What do you think of the music industry today? I mean, NoMeansNo survived MTV, CDs and even the big record companies, as today everybody’s downloading...

RW: I think that’s good, ‘cause it subverts the system. There is very little distance now between the artist and the listener. People can record something in the basement, throw it up on the web, and people will listen to it. They don’t need managers, record labels, hard copies and all this shit. I like that, I do downloading myself too. I haven’t bought a CD for years. And it’s easy, I got like 20.000 songs, because one leads to another. It’s not like you drive downtown, go through a bunch of records and pick just one. Downloading is very democratic; it makes music available to everyone. It’s all about whether it’s good for the people, not about whether it’s good for the market.

Which was your weirdest show recently?

RW: In the spring we played in Poland at a venue that was built in the twenties by a Jewish guy. It was like a huge civic museum, art deco and statues everywhere, a real palace with stain glasses. It was a weird place to put on a show.

What are your short term plans?

RW: We gotta recharge the batteries; we’ve been living and playing pretty hard. We’ll have another tour in May in Europe, and after that we may take a year off, and do stuff around home. I would like to come out with 7-8 new songs next tour, so we don’t have to relearn our old songs...

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

RW: I don’t know. I think the key is not thinking about that. Try to stay within a year. Long term plans don’t really work out, that’s why we are moving from one record to another. Oh, we have some new songs? Let’s rehearse them! We have them done? Let’s record them. We have a new album? Let’s go on tour! That’s the way we do it. I have no plans to retire. I may have to, but if you do something and you’re happy with it, and other people are happy with it, then just keep doing it! Have fun and be productive! It’s very liberating!

Rob Wright