The Dirty Nil Say "Fuck That" to the Music Industry Carnival as They Become More Uncompromising Than Ever

"We're not trying to become the next Green Day or the next Foo Fighters. We just want our little rock 'n' roll band to be fun and to be fresh and exciting."

Photo: Steph Montani

BY Dillon CollinsPublished May 24, 2023

Luke Bentham is keenly aware of the situation. 

The founding frontman and guitarist for Ontario rock trio the Dirty Nil, Bentham and his longtime partner-in-crime on the drums, Kyle Fisher, found themselves breathing in the rarefied air of radio rock following the release of their 2021 album, Fuck Art

That album, their third studio LP for Dine Alone Records, earned the band their third JUNO Award nomination, buoyed by the hits "Done with Drugs," "Doom Boy" and "Blunt Force Concussion."

Yet the old adage "all that glitters isn't gold" still rings true, and for a band that got in the business the old-fashioned way — for the love of rock 'n' roll — critical and commercial success was not the root to all happiness. 

"We had a decent amount of success on the side of radio on the last two albums, and it yielded a bunch of external conversations and external pressures to, 'Just write songs with this co-writer guy and just go do this,' and an increasing amount of pressure coming in from that side of things. We just said 'fuck that' to all of that stuff and just refused to yield an inch of ground in that direction," Bentham shares in a candid sit-down with Exclaim!

"We basically said to ourselves: 'Well, we're going to keep doing the band, which we want to do, but if we kind of keep going down this direction, I think we knew that at some point we will collapse if we're listening to other people tell us what to do. Because we're the people that have to get out there and play these songs every night, and we have to basically sell it to people. And so if we're going to be selling them something, which at the end of the day is what we're doing, it has to come straight from us and we've got to be able to stand behind what we're doing.' And that's kind of the philosophy that we've moved forward with, is everything that we do, we have to back 100%."

Grinding through Ontario's rock music landscape from their early teens, Bentham and Fisher have experienced the rigours of the music business — and have been burned by the dog-eat-dog nature of its "what have you done for me lately?" credo. 

"I think it's impossible to not view the music industry in 2023 as one giant carnival game. It's a cruel place where it's just set up to take your money," Bentham shares, reflecting on the Nil's humble beginnings where pay-to-play was the recipe of the day. "Let's be real here: it always has been."

"When we first started we were playing these battle of the bands things where, in order to play you had to sell like 50 tickets at like $25 a pop, which is basically still our fee. But this is like 2008 — $25 tickets to all of our friends, pull them out to Toronto in order to play for a panel of judges who would award you like 30 minutes of recording time at some studio down the road. It's just bullshit, right? But that was our version of this pay-to-play stuff. And there's a million people out there, whether it's 'Just pay me this money and we'll get you some robot followers on your Instagram and that'll help things.' We were being pressured, and not necessarily into that specific part of the music industry carnival game, but other areas of the music industry carnival. And we just said, 'Let's get the fuck out of the carnival,' because I've seen enough of this. And so let's just do it on our own terms."

Steadfast in their now galvanized approach to the Dirty Nil machine, Bentham, Fisher and newly added bassist Sam Tomlinson — who replaced longtime four-stringer Ross Miller — set to work on crafting their rockiest, most free-flowing and artistically minded effort yet, the aptly titled Free Rein to Passions

"What we're going to do, our way of combating all this stuff, is to just be more prolific, make more music and accept whatever comes. Our goal is to not be the biggest band in the world," Bentham asserts, impassioned. "Our goal is to be happy. Our goal is to be able to stand behind what we do and get to however this ride is going to end and just say, 'I back everything we did there and I'm really proud of it.' That's our goal, and to love it while we're doing it, rather than making a million little deals with a million little devils along the way."

If there's a mission statement for the Nil's fourth studio effort, then "back to basics" should be etched boldly in its liner notes.

"I think that one of the kind of core parts of our formula, so to speak, is just hammering things out in our horrible jam space that's just completely concrete and has a blown-out PA system that my mom bought for us when we were 16," Bentham explains with a smile, delving into the origins of the tried, tested and battle-worn setup that has lasted the length of the Dirty Nil's history.

"I had a girlfriend at the time when I was 16, and my mom hated her. She was a bad girlfriend. I'm sure she's changed. I'm not going to name her, but mom was just like, 'If you don't talk to that girl ever again, I'll buy you and your buddy Kyle a PA system.' I was like, 'Consider her dead to me!' So we still have that PA system. It's broken. It doesn't really work. You really have to yell into it to hear anything above the drums and guitars. And that's why I sing so hard, is to hear myself over all of this din of madness. 

The Dirty Nil know a song is ready once it sounds good even in spite of the shoddy practice space acoustics.

"It's a pretty utilitarian function for us, the studio," admits Bentham. "It's not necessarily how some other bands and artists treat it as like its own kind of creative space. We're there to execute and maybe throw a little bit of pixie dust on top of things. But the real heavy lifting all gets done in the jamnasium, a.k.a. the dungeon of sound."

Refusing to abandon their penchant for concocting catchy, earworm hooks and soaring choruses, the Dirty Nil have doubled down heaviness with Free Rein to Passions, churning out thrash-inspired riffs on opening track "Celebration," a nod and a wink to late Power Trip frontman Riley Gale. 

"Out of all the casualties of the pandemic, Riley was the one that hit me the hardest," Bentham reflects of the riotous track's genesis. "And I think us in general, I think we were obviously not alone in really just admiring and rooting for that comet of a band as they ascended. And it was sad that it all ended, but what a beautiful light it gave while it did shine."

He continues, "First and foremost we're fans of rock 'n' roll, and music in general. And I think that we probably would have played heavier riffs earlier on if we were capable of them, but it took us a while to actually amass any kind of chops to be able to play anything remotely heavy. And so our internal engine has always revolved around trying to hype each other up with something that we bring in. And so when it comes to something like 'Celebration,' I was kind of playing it as a joke because I just try to come up with the most ignorant-sounding riff of all time. And Kyle was really pumped, so we just rolled with it."

Bentham pauses for a moment deep in thought before explaining that, now removed from the chains of industry expectancy, the road for the band is filled with enticing possibilities — all of their own making. 

"When we started, our goal was to play a show in Hamilton. We were from this little bumpkin town called Dundas that I like to call the Shire. And our big goal was one day we're going to play a show 10 minutes down the road in Hamilton and it's going to be sick. And so we've always just had these little modest goals of what we've wanted to do, and I think we've never allowed ourselves to get caught up in goals of world domination or any kind of stuff that I think are easy pitfalls for a rock band to do.

"We've made a lot of good friends at radio, and we're certainly happy to honor those friendships and relationships and kind of keep going with them. But we're certainly not willing to make any tweaks of the dial and pulls of the fader in favor of those types of things. We make our music for us first, and our fans are obviously involved in that. And then whatever happens, happens. 

"We're not trying to become the next Green Day or the next Foo Fighters. We just want our little rock 'n' roll band to be fun and to be fresh and exciting as long as possible for us. And that's kind of our mission statement moving forward. And this is, I'd say, the first record in line with that. Not that I don't back everything else that we've ever done, but this one feels special in terms of [being] a bit of a first step in an exciting direction."

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