March 28, 2023
A decade ago, I wrote an intensive piece on The Nils; one of the premier punk rock or rock n’ roll bands to ever come out of Canada. That chat took place with the full group following their set and that of the Dead Kennedys, in the backstage area of the historic Corona theatre. Which, looking back on it now, was so apt that I didn’t pick up on it at the time. See, the Corona theatre is a Montreal landmark. An iconic spot in an iconic city that had been left to fall apart, abandoned for decades before it was brought back from the brink of destruction, dusted off and salvaged. Today, it is again one of the greatest venues in the city – and in a lot of ways, her story is similar to that of The Nils.
To say that The Nils have been there, have done that, and wear the tee-shirts is an understatement. These lads have been through hell – but they made it back. Four and a half decades since they begun, not only are they still kicking, still rocking – they’ve put out a new record that shows the scars of the wars it took to get them to this point, and not a single sign of slowing down. This new record I speak of, Five Roses, saw a digital release at the end of last year and will finally be coming to vinyl next week.
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This time around, the band and I are all sat in Phil Psarakos‘ living room, spinning records, sipping beers and just shooting the shit. Its a cozy spot in Montreal’s St. Henri district, just a stones throw from the Corona theatre. A place filled with interesting trinkets and art. And, of course, interesting people.
Emilien Catalano is only going to be with us for a short while, as he has to lug his drums over to jam with his other band, Moving Targets. Mark Donato is sat to my left, closest to the turntable while Psarakos is busy digging through his impressive vinyl collection, looking for something to catch his eye – pulling out a copy of The Boys To Hell With The Boys, an original pressing no less. “We’re all fans of The Boys in here” states Carlos Soria, from my right – which triggers a conversation about The Boys. We’re hear to talk about the new record The Nils have out, but there’s no rush or sense of urgency. This is perfectly laid back and casual – as it should be.
I run into Soria quite often along my travels, most recently taking in a Sloan concert over at Cafe Campus. He was really excited to tell me, that their new single Fourth Line, was being played at games over at the Bell Center. Montreal’s sons, who grew up on hockey and the Habs, having their new song which itself is about the sport – played between plays in the biggest arena in the league. Bigger than that, in Montreal while the Canadiens are on the ice.
“When I heard about that, I swear, I was sitting on the corner smoking a cigarette and it was just a perfect moment. I know at that moment my little brother was looking down going way to go.” You can imagine what that means, having your song playing at Canadiens games just down the street inside the Bell Center. More than four decades into their careers, for a bunch of proud Montreal boys to have their song played in the cathedral. The mecca of hockey.
“I was listening to the game on the radio, eating a big plate of pasta, and this guy calls me and tells me they’re playing it tonight”, gloats Donato. Apparently the song had already played a few times during television time outs but the band wasn’t aware. “You could barely hear it over the radio because of the crowd noise and the announcers talking over it. I’m laying down and crashing (probably from all that pasta) and about six minutes into the game, I’m like oh my god, there it is. It woke me up and drew me right in, and I’m like, man, I saw the Smashing Pumpkins at the Bell Center and that sounded big as fuck”.
“I remember being at the games with Ivan (Doroschuk) and the Hats (Men Without Hats) would come on and I’d go like, woah dude, and now it’s us,” says Soria. “This never happened when I was a kid in the 60s and 70s, you know. You never got to hear Gabba Gabba Hey go by The Ramones back when Jean Beliveau was playing, you know?” Of course, Beliveau had retired by the time The Ramones came about but you get the idea.
“Dude. that’s a pretty good achievement for us,” says Soria, with a twinkle of pride in his eye. “We’ve never been a band that made a million dollars and we’ve had bad luck but at least the music is good and we have a really good band now. It’s too bad Alex (Soria) is gone but there’s nothing I could do about that and trust me I tried, you know, I tried talking my way out of him dying but it didn’t work. He’s still with us in the music and everything we do, even on this record and even this Habs thing.”
It has been almost two decades since the younger of the Soria brothers took his own life, and although it was no fault of his own – it is evident that Carlos still carries a shade of guilt over the whole thing. Alex Soria fell on dark times and took drastic measures, but his music has lived on – largely because his brothers, his friends, his bandmates have never allowed it to wane. Even on the records he hasn’t been around for, he is noted with song credits.
“He’s in the writing credits and we don’t have to do that, because technically the music has become our music,” says Carlos. “Mark writes, Phil writes, I write – we all come up with bits and it shows on Five Roses. On Shadows And Ghosts, Alex wasn’t there but it’s still a lot of Alex on it. Five Roses is the first one where its us, but it still sounds like The Nils. When I sent it to Ivan (Doroschuk) he was like “Yup, sounds like The Nils“. Alex wrote parts of Mud and Losing Ground but we changed it around a lot. Its less and less now.”
“I have songs in my head that we wrote and never recorded that nobody has heard,” says Carlos. “I know the songs, because I still play them when I’m all alone. But it doesn’t matter, because we came up with that shit together. Alex was our shining little star but it was always all of us that wrote those songs.”
“Alex needed assistance, he need a captain to sail his ship,” says Donato.
These days, Carlos is all about second chances and although things that happened in the past can’t be changed – they can be learned from, and that seems to be the case here. Sometimes people deserve a second chance. The Nils certainly deserve to be heard, to play and to continue to bring their music to the next generations of music lovers.
“People can think what they want. We did what we had to do. Life is tough and bad things happen. And let me tell you, we’ve been through a lot of bad things. When we put out Shadows And Ghosts I thought, alright its been twenty odd years and I did some errors and bad stuff, but I never murdered anybody but it seems like after a while they say forgive and forget but, you know, they still use shit against you. But we’re older know, we’re smarter and wiser and we have our song playing at Habs games. We have our drummer who is amazing and only thirty years old and we have Mark that has been with our how many years – we don’t even remember, and Phil has been our friend for years and years. He was playing with Emergency and I was like why don’t you come play with us.”
“He used to come to all our shows when we were kids. He knew Alex too. We’d all sit at the Barfly and drink. I still go there and you know who has been really nice to meet, is Anthony. When I had all my problems, he held it against me, but recently he’s been really super and when I told him that they’re playing us at the Habs games, he and and Amanda, he was super happy for us but he already knew about it.”
If the old adage about adversity building character is true, it would explain a great deal. How The Nils have been able to soldier on through a slew of things that would have crumpled many of their peers. Yet here they are, as strong as ever with a new recording that is on par with anything they have done in the past, to boot. “This EP sounds like Sell Out Young and Paisley” Carlos then knocks on the table and says “we had good luck with those two so, you know“. And he isn’t wrong.
“We are all kids from here. We’re all sons of immigrants but we’re all from Montreal and now that I’m not fucking around with drugs anymore… and the worst thing about this whole drugs thing is the amount of time I wasted doing that. Thinking that I was happy doing that. And I’m not bullshitting here”, he says while pointing at Mark and Phil “because you guys knew when I was doing that. People knew.”
Right when The Nils should have been exploding, their record label went under and it dragged the band down with it. The Nils found themselves anchored, by contract, to a sunken ship and unable to release music elsewhere and so they broke up. But the void that was left needed filling and the Soria brothers did that by getting into heroin. That lead to a tough period and to Carlos venturing off to Los Angeles for a while.
By that time, Alex had formed Chino with Mark Donato, a short-lived project that produced but one release – albeit a great one, with 1999’s Mala Leche. Chino would become the sort of band that earns its appreciation down the road, but it would also lead to The Nils reforming. Three years later in 2002, the Soria brothers were reunited and joined by Donato – but addictions are tough to kick to the curb, and in late 2004, Alex Soria would end up taking his own life on a train track near his home.
Now clean and back on track, Carlos and The Nils are again gaining much deserved attention although convincing others that the past is in the past may be hard to overcome. Not to worry; this is a group that have faced every form an adversity imaginable and found ways to keep their chins and pull through it all.
“Now I work, I play my bass and and my guitar, watch a movie and I go to sleep and that’s it, that’s my life. I got a new apartment and it’s all changed for me, and I was like this is boring and then I convinced myself that I’m already complaining,” which gets a giggle out of Phil, “I tell myself you’re not fucking sick, you don’t have to sneak twenties here and there.” As Carlos echoed several times during the evening; positive mental attitude. Phil looks at him, and says “Take pleasure in that. The freedom of just being here, man.” Followed by Mark saying “No more constant agony or having to feed the beast. Just constantly feeding it, and feeding it.” These guys have walked the fires of hell and come back from it all.
“I didn’t mean to sad or nothing but you never know,” says Soria. “We’re all sixty years old, lets face facts. After fifty, your life goes down. And, you know, I’m proud that I still get to do records, but like we were saying, its not the same excitement as it was when we were kids. You’d wait for the album to come out, and you’d go out and get it on the first day and can’t wait to get home to check it out. It’s not like that anymore.
“Dude, we went to Indica and gave the guy hardly any money and he did that for us (Five Roses). We’ve paid the guy in the past and stuff but yeah, who know what’s going to happen. I cherish every day. Look what happened since this pandemic. A lot of people dying. A lot of musicians, artists and photographers, all these people. We’re at an age now. When we were kids we didn’t have to deal with this, but now at my age – they are all younger”, he says pointing around the room, ” it’s important for me. It’s just too bad that we don’t follow music like we used to. It’s been hard for everybody in this business. You need to appreciate it all, so if it’s my last I’m proud of it.”
Iconic is a word that keeps popping up. The Nils are an iconic piece of a Montreal music scene that is and always has been among the greatest in the world. Moreover, a lot of their imagery proudly displays their home town, and often relies on iconic imagery to bring it home – like the Rocket firing home a slapshot at the old Forum, winning one of the twenty four Stanley cups that the Montreal Canadiens have claimed over the years.
Their newest release, Five Roses, is named for the neon sign that watches over the Lachine canal where it has sat since 1948 – a monument that holds a strange place among Montrealer’s. It is the first – or last, depending on direction – part of the cities skyline that is visible when leaving or entering and a strange beacon welcoming us all back home. An old spark that shines amid the new reminders of the gentrification that is swallowing up the city, erasing its culture and very soul. A flour plant that doesn’t even exist anymore – yet the sign is considered a heritage site and can’t be taken down, nor turned off.
Just how a neon sign that sat atop a flour plant became as synonymous with Montreal as the Olympic Stadium or Notre-Dame Basilica, is beyond comprehension yet somehow very fitting for what this city truly encompasses. For seventy years, this wayward sign has over come all obstacles and stuck around – which makes it only fitting that The Nils have championed it, not only naming their new record after it, but commissioning a painting of it to become the album’s cover as well. Iconic.
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Psarakos and Soria are trying to figure out how best to pay tribute to their fallen friend, to whom this new records is dedicate – the late, great Gord Lewis of Teenage Head who was tragically killed last year. The Nils will be in Toronto next week for a gig and it is important to them, to show some love to a lost friend. Another of the greats of Canadian punk rock.
The Nils will be playing with Rusty and The Lemonheads in Toronto later this week on March 31st, 2023 at the Phoenix Concert Theatre. The show is already sold out, maybe you can find a sketchy character with an extra pair of tickets for you down some dirty alleyway, or something like that. There are a pair of upcoming Montreal gigs, too – but those haven’t been announced yet. You can bet we’ll be spreading the news once it breaks.