NoMeansNo Be Strong. Be Wrong.
Published Jan 01, 2006NoMeansNo bassist Rob Wright sums up his band's 20-year mission statement thusly: "I always wanted us to be a band who were never big but were always who they were; who never fit into any slot but were distinct and did the job music is supposed to do, to evoke and communicate emotion." By no means is his wonderfully erratic ensemble ? which over the years has been a duo, trio, quartet and trio again ? a household name, but to anyone who knows anything about punk, they are unique, a one-band punk sub-genre. They infuse their punk rock angst into epic, rhythmically complex compositions that walk a fine line between creative brilliance and meandering, overwrought, pompous self-indulgence. They're Frank Zappa meets Black Flag, Pere Ubu meets the Minutemen and on their new record, One, they're Miles Davis meets the Ramones. Literally.
TEAC unveils the first ever Portastudio, which brings multi-track recording and the ability to overdub and mix to suburban basements world-wide. "The genesis of the band was the first TEAC four-track tape recorder for people who wanted to overdub and do innovative stuff like that at home," Rob Wright says. "It weighed 180 pounds. Mine still works perfectly. That's really what got us going."
Lifting their moniker from an anti-rape slogan, NoMeansNo (guitarist/bassist Rob Wright and his drum-bashing younger brother John) take advantage of this new technology to record a few songs they wrote together. In March of that year, the Look, Here Come the Wormies seven-inch single was pressed and released independently. It was recorded in the Wright family basement in suburban coastal BC. "We would record in the basement and our mother would be in the laundry room wondering what the hell was going on in the next room," recalls Wright. "I think she'd rather that we were driving her crazy at home that out on the streets doing drugs."
Rob and John continue jamming together and apart in other projects. They record and release another seven-inch (Betrayal, Fear, Anger, Hatred) and their first full album (Mama) as a duo. The records, while not as technically adept as some of their later albums, suggest this band possesses something worth watching. Playing live, they are still a two-piece (bass and drums) and that unlikely and unorthodox set-up forces them to do things differently. At this point, virtually all punk bands have a guitar player. "By that accident, as a rhythm section and vocals, we became turned around in another direction and had to really stretch musically," says Wright. "When we did get a guitar player, that sound was a little distinct and that's what got us going."
Wanting to expand their musical boundaries, the Wright brothers finally cave and bring a guitar player into the fold. Andy Kerr had been playing with John in the Infamous Scientists and seems like as good a choice as any. "He shared our attitude and was willing to experiment with his guitar and learn as he went," says Rob. Although it is up to Andy to fit into Rob and John's established sound, he brings something to the band that they had been lacking. "He had a much better idea of stage presence and performance. We'd always been a studio thing and he loosened us up quite a bit. A lot of tension in the early music came from the fact that he was completely off the wall and we were very disciplined and structured. But I think we affected each other that way. In the end Andy was an excellent and very precise guitar player and we'd become much more loose and energetic and outgoing in performance."
The band heads out on its first U.S. tour. On a tour stop in Gulfport, Mississippi, they are scheduled to play a local pizza parlour but before they get on stage, a near riot erupts over a dispute between the promoter and a couple of bands on the bill. The club burns to the ground in what Rob and John later discover was an act of insurance fraud committed by the sons of the owner, in hospital at the time recovering from a heart attack. They wanted to make an insurance claim and figured the cops would blame the punk rockers. They didn't.
The band records for the first time as a trio. The result is the You Kill Me EP, followed a couple of years later by the Sex Mad full-length. Originally recorded for the home-grown Psyche label, it is quickly licensed to Alternative Tentacles ? the band became friends with AT boss Jello Biafra after touring a lot on the West Coast ? and before long NoMeansNo is touring Europe and playing to more and more people. It becomes a job, but one that is a labour of love.
"The reality of the whole thing sank in when we came back from a U.S. tour and realised we had a couple of thousand dollars to split up. Oh my God, we're making money. That's the point where it changed ? some for the good, some also for the bad because when your hobby or passion becomes your career and pays your mortgage and buys you groceries, perspectives and priorities can be changed. We weathered that by not giving a damn except for the fact we knew we wanted to do it exclusively. We were young guys travelling all over the world having a ball."
The first official recordings for AT, The Day Everything Became Nothing and Small Parts Isolated and Destroyed, firmly establish the band as not only one of the most intelligent and skilled bands around, but one of the hardest rocking as well. Their shows were now attracting punks with mohawks and metal-heads with mullets alike. Not to mention the fans of wanky jazz noodling and prog rock who practically go into orgasmic convulsions every time they hear songs written in a 9/8 time signature. The band follows up with Wrong (widely considered to be their finest-ever moment), a live album, and 0+2=1, Andy Kerr's swan song. But before Kerr leaves, they also record an album with Jello Biafra, The Sky is Falling and I Want My Mommy, which turns out to be huge in terms of international exposure.
"Suddenly there was lot of money being made, and a lot of attention being paid in the press in Europe, and a lot of people coming out to the shows," notes Wright. "At that time in Europe, in a priority list of bands, there were Fugazi, Bad Religion and us. It was a good and bad position to be in because pressures began to build at that point."
During this time, Kerr meets a woman in Amsterdam, Holland. In 1991 he makes the decision to leave the band, get married and move there to live. (For love or the legal dope, no one is quite sure.)
While reassessing their future, Rob and John get more serious with their record label, Wrong Records, and their side-project, a goofy, Ramones/Slap Shot-inspired three chord punk band called the Hanson Brothers. John sings, Rob plays bass, BC friends Tom Holliston plays guitar and Ken Kempster adds a second set of drums. Under the Hanson name, they release the Gross Misconduct album and follow it with live shows that have them decked out in full hockey gear ? goalie masks, jerseys, the whole bit.
The Wrights return to recording as a two piece for the NoMeansNo disc, Why Do They Call Me Mr. Happy? "I did my best on guitar and I think it turned out to be quite a different record for that reason," says Rob. "It's a good record, but some of the songs suffer from the lack of an experienced guitar player." The next release for the pair is One Down and Two to Go which is credited to Mr. Right and Mr. Wrong. It's a collection of rarities, including very early four-track recordings, and NoMeansNo outtakes and alternate versions. They add Hanson Brothers Holliston and Kempster to the NoMeansNo fold for touring purposes and play another memorable gig at the Roskilde festival in Denmark. "Because of the cancellation of Sepultura, we ended up being the last band on the main stage playing after Peter Gabriel to about 60,000 drunken Scandinavians."
As a four-piece, they record and tour for The Worldhood of the World (As Such) while watching the Hanson Brothers project become inexplicably popular, culminating in signing to Virgin Records in Canada. They tour across Canada, going out as NoMeansNo and back as the Hanson Brothers. "It turned into this monster with costumes and tour and it became this whole other thing," recalls Wright. "My first thought was, 'Oh my God, I'm touring my guts out with NoMeansNo and now I've got to tour with the Hanson Brothers.' But it was also a lot of fun for me because I don't have to sing. I'd get up with this mask on and play like an idiot. It was a fuck band that got right out of hand." Costs and logistics forced them to ditch the second drummer and return to the three-piece formation.
The trio records Dance of the Headless Bourgeoisie and has the scariest tour moment ever. Their van and all their gear is stolen in Europe, and held for ransom by Polish mobsters. They end up in a farm field negotiating for its release, which they secure by paying the equivalent of $2,500.
The new record is called One and marks a return to the band's glory days of writing long, patience-testing tracks. It was originally intended as another Mr. Right and Mr. Wrong release with covers of Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" (shortened to 15 minutes from Davis's 26-minute original) and the Ramones's "Beat on the Brat." But as Wright explains, "As it came together, we realised there was a whole album there, depending on how much we were willing to push the bounds of our audience's patience and expectations. We thought the only reason we wouldn't put this out is because we don't trust the audience to accept it. It's a collection of really long songs going from long to extra long. But we looked at what we had and decided we liked it. And in the end I trust the audience, because they don't expect us to play safe. They expect us to do what we want and express ourselves."