With Their Latest Juno Nomination, the Dirty Nil Are the Underdogs of Canadian Rock
Published Mar 06, 2020The Dirty Nil are a rock band.
Normally that would be a boring and obvious observation, but it's a descriptor the band have been chasing for years. Despite the band's insistence, the Dirty Nil often get labeled — arguably mislabelled — as a punk band, or an alt-rock band, or an indie band or whatever other qualifying term. That's probably due in part to the peers they accompany on tour, and the raucousness of much of their early (and recent) work, but it likely also has plenty to do with the often repressive boundaries of what is conventionally known as rock music.
Growing up in Dundas, ON, the band hoovered up records by the Stooges, Led Zeppelin, Dinosaur Jr., Weezer and Metallica. The energy they bring to their live shows is informed largely by the Who, KISS and MC5. Particularly formative was Live at Leeds, the Who's landmark first live recording from 1970. They are by no means a retro act — they don't actually sound like the Who, Led Zeppelin, Weezer or Metallica — yet they carry inside them the unmistakable flame of prior generations of rock'n'roll.
With their late 2018 album, Master Volume, the Dirty Nil all but perfected that balancing act between novelty and mythology, thanks in large part to an outstanding commitment to what they are and a refusal to let genre conventions dictate what they do. The Dirty Nil are a rock band — and the Juno Awards, surprisingly enough, have validated that.
After winning their first Juno for Breakthrough Group of the Year in 2017, the trio are nominated this year for Rock Album of the Year. Guitarist and lead singer Luke Bentham says that categorization speaks volumes about their place in Canada's music landscape.
"That, in and of itself, is an accomplishment," he says. "We definitely have some pretty gnarly punk roots and we lean into that sound from time to time, but we consider ourselves a rock'n'roll band. To be recognized in that category, that's worth the award in my books alone. That's an important distinction. You can call us whatever you want — it's highly subjective, obviously — but just to be considered in that category is important for us."
This goes beyond just validating the band's public image. This Juno nomination presents an opportunity for the Dirty Nil to inject a young, underground spirit into an award category that has long been ruled by major labels and legacy acts.
Looking at winners and nominees from previous years, it's a list of familiar names: Arkells, Three Days Grace, the Trews, Theory of a Deadman, Sam Roberts, Billy Talent, the Tragically Hip and, of course, Nickelback — just in the last three years. Putting aside any assessment of whether those groups were or were not worthy of recognition, let's say that the Junos have not exactly been on the cutting edge when it comes to recognizing new and emerging talent in Canadian rock.
That's why the Dirty Nil's nomination is so surprising. On a ballot with Sum 41, Big Wreck, Headstones and the Glorious Sons, the inclusion of this scrappy little trio is significant.
Big Wreck have been nominated for Rock Album of the Year three other times: in 2013, 2015 and 2018 (though oddly enough, not for their big 1997 debut, In Loving Memory of…). Headstones also have three prior nominations: 1996, 1998 and 2014. Sum 41's first four records were all nominated, with Chuck taking the prize in 2005. Those bands have each been around for a quarter of a century, give or take. The Glorious Sons have only been around since 2011 — the same year the Dirty Nil released their first single, "Fuckin' Up Young" — but they already have two nominations under their belts, including a 2018 win for Young Beauties and Fools.
Meanwhile, the Dirty Nil are dwarfed by the others' sales and streaming metrics. The other contenders have a much higher Spotify listenership, and they each peaked in the top five on the iTunes chart for Canadian albums, while the Dirty Nil only reached #23. Four of the last five albums to win the Juno for Rock Album of the Year peaked at #3 or higher.
As is almost always the case, the other nominees also have or have had major label backing. Big Wreck's …But for the Sun was released by Warner Music Canada. The Glorious Sons' A War on Everything was released in Canada by Black Box and in the U.S. and Australia by BMG. Headstones' PEOPLESKILLS was released by Cadence Recordings, but they've already spent the prime years of their career with MCA. Sum 41's Order in Decline is their second album to be released by independent imprint Hopeless Records, but, likewise, the band enjoyed a decade-long run in the majors, releasing five albums with Island and Mercury.
In short, it's mainstream versus underground, and it's a four-to-one battle royale.
The Dirty Nil's Master Volume was released by Dine Alone, as was their 2016 full-length debut Higher Power and their 2017 compilation album Minimum R&B. The independent label has grown quite a bit since its formation in 2007 at the St. Catharines home of founder Joel Carriere, with a roster of many household names like Alexisonfire, Monster Truck, Tokyo Police Club, Wintersleep and Yukon Blonde. The now-Toronto-based imprint made early gains when it invested in then-developing acts like City and Colour and Arkells, who went on to have massive commercial success and Juno Awards of their own. Today, Dine Alone has grown in its roster and reach, but it's still a relatively small and self-contained operation with an independent, entrepreneurial and hands-off approach.
"We currently enjoy completely free rein," Bentham says. "They basically have never said no to us. We have a great team around us. Our manager is awesome. We're definitely not opposed to taking a bigger step upward — but nothing that would compromise our ability to maintain that spirit. It's been really important for us to be able to do whatever the fuck we want.
"We've had opportunities since we were 19 years old to sign different kinds of contracts, but if things didn't feel right — in a way where it felt like we'd be ceding a lot of control, and there are going to be people making decisions for us about our music, and we're just going to feel like we're being pimped out while other people are making the top call at their level — that's just something that we were never interested in," he adds.
There hasn't really been a dark horse in the Junos' rock category since 2012, when the Sheepdogs claimed the crown for their self-released record Learn & Burn. It's probably worth noting, though, that the award was a bit delayed; that album came out in 2010, more than two years earlier, and if the Saskatoon blues-rock band hadn't gotten their big break by becoming the first unsigned band to grace the cover of Rolling Stone in the intervening year, it's entirely plausible that that Juno Award might not have happened, either.
A couple of other somewhat recent underdog nominees are Cancer Bats, who made the shortlist in 2011 for their third record, Bears, Mayors, Scraps & Bones, and Protest the Hero, who mixed things up in 2009 with a nod for Fortress. As both of them are metal albums, they would have instead been punted into the Junos' metal category had it existed before 2012.
So, if the Dirty Nil win Rock Album of the Year on March 15, you could call it a surprise. But as cliché as it is to say so, the band consider it meaningful just to be nominated.
"We try to do whatever sounds good, whether it's a one-minute-and-45-second blaster of a somewhat-punk tune, or a stadium-rock stomper, or a big old-fashioned Guns N' Roses power ballad, we like to do whatever we're feeling," he says. "Rock'n'roll is a beautiful thing that has many different faces and feelings and emotions. It can be this, and that is a very nice validation to feel that that is reciprocated."
All of this is not to say that the other four records are necessarily undeserving; the perceived quality of the music itself is, as always, subjective. But the Junos could shake things up.