In the early 2000s, untold "scheming and dreaming" took place in the neighbourhoods along Highway 99 in Dundas, ON.
That's where teenagers Luke Bentham, Kyle Fisher and Dave Nardi would duck out during lunch hour at Highland Secondary School in their small town — now a Hamilton suburb — and play cover songs in their parents' houses. After school, they'd pool their money and buy Zippos, sparklers, matches and lighter fluid from the local corner store to blow up old toys in the woods. They'd put on classic rock albums and trade notes about what they could do to be more like their heroes.
"I knew even when I was 15 or 16 that it was going to be terrible," Bentham recalls. "But I'd think if we just keep trying, we'd get something out of it."
He and Fisher are sitting now in a tiny backroom in the historic Horseshoe Tavern on a Saturday evening in Toronto, an hour's drive from home but a long way removed from those bright-eyed, impish kids in the 'burbs. On the night of a sold-out show celebrating the release of their debut record — just after another two back-to-back sellouts in Hamilton — it's fair to say that the Dirty Nil have gotten something out of what they've given.
They'll certainly agree. It's hard not to notice the band's enthusiasm, in particular the boyish joy on lead singer Bentham's face, at any gig they play.
"Every time we get on the stage and I flip off the standby switch and I feel the initial rising of feedback emanating from my amp, and I look out and see a bunch of people there to see the songs that we wrote in my basement, and I get to play with my two best friends — that's rarely been lost upon me, the significance and fortune of that experience," he says.
Their album, Higher Power, is a big leap for the band. Since their debut single in 2011 — the rambunctious, Weezer-esque party rouser "Fuckin' Up Young" — the band had only released a handful of small samplings of what they could do. In 2012, there was Little Metal Baby Fist, a three-song effort that included a cover of David Bowie's "Moonage Daydream." In 2013, they did a split seven-inch with Northern Primitive, with the Nil offering up one of their greatest songs to date, "Zombie Eyed." Early 2014 saw them gain more ground with the five-song Smite EP, and again when they released a single on Fat Mike's record label, Fat Wreck Chords, later that year.
The band toured relentlessly throughout North America and Europe on those bits and pieces, a steady stream of teasers that slowly built up anticipation for a full-length among the Dirty Nil's steadily growing following. They felt that pressure when it came time to lay down Higher Power, which turned into a laborious sequence of recording and re-recording for weeks to get what they wanted.
"It's a relief now that it's out," Bentham says, as Fisher nods, slouched on the sofa a few feet away. "It was a struggle getting the whole thing done."
You have to rewind all the way back to those days near Highway 99 in Dundas to get a deeper sense of the Dirty Nil's identity and character. Bentham and Fisher, the band's drummer, have known each other since grade school. In high school, they met bass player Nardi, an Iron Maiden-loving kid who lived further down the highway, out in the country, but who always joined them for the lunchtime sessions and after-school hijinks.
"We would sit at one of our kitchen tables, listening to Led Zeppelin or the Who, scraping all the particulate off a sparkler so it was in powder form and cramming it into a toy, then we'd douse it in lighter fluid and just walk out into the woods and let 'er rip," Bentham remembers.
"We were just bored," Fisher adds. "It was destructive desire out of boredom."
The three of them spent days listening to rock classics like the Stooges, Pinkerton-era Weezer, Led Zeppelin, Dinosaur Jr. and old Metallica. Those influences are all present, to varying degrees, in the Dirty Nil's music. But no group was more influential than the Who. Live at Leeds — the British band's first live record, originally released in 1970 and cited by many music critics as the best live rock recording of all time — would form much of the foundation for the Dirty Nil's sound and aesthetic.
"It's the benchmark for how tight a live band can be… It's just unbelievable, the sound on that record," says Bentham. "I hate every studio recording by the Who prior to that. It's just so lifeless. The gulf between what they were doing in their live shows and what they did in the studio is, to me, just a tragedy… That's the Who that I love — that live, ferocious sound."
That reverence comes through noticeably at the Dirty Nil's shows, and they sought to preserve that while recording Higher Power. The record was made to be an imprint of the band's live performances — loud and boisterous affairs with pounding drums, rowdy stage moves and driving guitars that careen wildly and frequently into feedback.
"I think that we stayed true to the original aesthetic we outlined for this record, which was loosely based around us playing live on the best night of our lives, with a little bit of fairy dust sprinkled on top of it," says Bentham.
Later that Saturday at the Horseshoe, just as the clock strikes midnight, the band step onstage in front of a jammed room of people. Bentham flips the toggle on his amp. He feels guitar feedback rising in the air, breathes it in, feels it rattle in his chest. He scans the room, shares a short, wordless moment with his friends, and a wide grin stretches across his face. It's probably one of the best nights of their lives. But they're still trying for more.