Sat backstage at the wonderfully gorgeous Corona theatre in Montreal’s Saint-Henri district, following a superb night of punk rock, performed by two bands that formed the year I was born, I get a sense of nostalgia. Two seminal bands from neighboring nations, The Dead Kennedys and The Nils had just blown the doors off the club. As the Kennedys relaxed next door, and their stage crew geared down and packed up, I waited for the members of The Nils to file into the adjacent dressing room.
Earlier, on my way into the building, a gentleman just ahead of me approached the ticket office to ask whom the support band was, and upon being told that local punk legends, The Nils, were that band, he loudly proclaimed “holy fucking shit!” as he reached into his back pocket for his wallet. Perhaps he was lucky enough, being that it was still fairly early in the night, to have procured one of the last remaining tickets.
“I get that all the time,” Carlos tells me, “I take the subway and people stop me and have me write my fucking name down on a piece of paper and take pictures. I get really scared. I get like, what, am I going to die? I don’t really like that, but at the same time it feels really nice.” Perhaps it has to do with the near four decades of being in this band that has jaded Carlos? “No, I like to be known for what I did.” He says, “Even tonight, a bunch of kids came up to me, perfect strangers, and they were all wiggin’, you know? Dude, that’s my million bucks. Maybe I’m never going to have a million bucks because I already killed myself, but that’s my million bucks. I did music because I love music, not because I ever thought I’d make a million bucks, you know?” Pointing to his band mate, he adds “All these clowns say the same thing.”
“We were the first Montreal sort of pop punk band doing this type of music. Back then it was different, you had Genetic Control and The Asexuals, No Policy. Every band was different but we were the first pop punk band. People call us Canada’s Replacements, we never wanted that tag or anything to do with that but that’s like what we are, you know?
“The problem was that when we started out it was all really hardcore, and we weren’t a very hardcore band. Everybody was playing that really hardcore beat but we were not like that, but we stuck to our guns and it paid off for us and I think all those other bands respected us for it. We stuck to what we wanted to do and we never changed with whatever fad. When I started listening to punk, it was the very early punk thing and that was what I liked, stuff like Stiff Little Fingers and I listened to The Clash and The Ramones, that kind of thing, The Undertones and I still like those records, as much as they makes me a corn ball now. I still stick to that sort of thing. And then all of a sudden it became hardcore and everybody was going hardcore, hardcore, hardcore, but we could never do that beat, you know? But it’s worked out good for us.”
In the early days, The Nils had a helping hand from another influential Montreal band, known as Men Without Hats. Their singer, Ivan Doroschuk, gave the fledgling band a helping hand by helping The Nils find the funding they needed to record their debut album.
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“It was a loan from the bank national. He was a friend, they took us out on tour and they were really supportive of us and they took us on tour when they were doing really well and they really didn’t have to have us. That was a pretty amazing thing. We’re talking back in the day before internet and cell phones and all that sort of thing, know what I mean?
That was the first incursion for The Nils, who have travel many miles since those days. But, as the expression goes, you never forget your first – and it seems that hitting the cold, hard roads as a young man is no different in that aspect.
“It was fucking amazing, dude! I got to stay in killer hotels and eat meat that wasn’t cooked, you know, so I was like ‘Can you burn this steak’ and they would give it to you red and I was like, OK. I was twenty years old and yeah, good memories.” Carlos seems to drift back to old times briefly, “Those guys are still my buddies, Ivan and Away (also of Voivod) those guys are like my best friends, you know? Back in the old days, they used to say we were the Montreal music mafia. It was Ivan and John Kastner (Jean-Guy Kastner, Doughboys, Asexuels), Away and me.”
Another Montreal group that never got attention or the respect they deserved were The Doughboys. Although, they did well for themselves, and in 1993 gained a lot of interested for their single, “Shine”, which for many Canadian’s of my generation, can best be remember as the theme song of Music Music’s alternative program, “The Wedge”.
“When Pearl Jam were here last year… wait, that was the Foo Fighters, sorry, when they played the Bell center and the Air Canada center in Toronto, and they got The Doughboys to reform for those two shows. Dave Grohl is a big fan of The Nils and The Doughboys. I met Dave Grohl when he was in Scream. He stayed my house when Scream broke up, and he said he was thinking about joining this band in Seattle called Nirvana and I was like, cool good idea, and I swear I’m not making that up, too, you can research that. He stayed on my fucking couch for two weeks and I had to buy him beers and food! He’s still my buddy to this day. Dave Grohl says that Colin is the best drummer in Canada”, instantly Colin pipes up, and loudly exclaims his sentiment. “Shut up!” he says, sparking a chuckle. “It’s true though” says Carlos, with a mischievous grin on his clock, “see he doesn’t like when I say that, but it’s true!”
“My old band, Bliss, did some tour dates with Scream back in the day,” explains Colin in an almost apologetic manner, “Dave was absolutely the best drummer I’ve ever seen in my life.” Colin also had a brief romance with Godpseed! You Black Emperor, playing just one show before getting booted out. Not for lack of talent, but due to a former feud. “It’s a long story,” says Colin, “Dave Bryant used to be the lead singer in Bliss and we kicked him out, then after Bliss broke up, he hired me for Godspeed, then kicked me out.” Back on topic of Grohl’s comments, Colin says “There’s a lot of great drummers in Canada and I don’t claim to be the best”, again seeming almost embarrassed by the praise. Carlos again rises to the moment, ““Some people don’t take compliments well,” he says, “it’s good to be humble.”
When you take into consideration all the artists that nod towards The Nils as being major influences on their own music, you have to wonder how they became so obscure. Members of The Smashing Pumpkins and Superchunk, as well as The Goo Goo Dolls and Husker Du, have all at one point named The Nils as being a major influence on them, musically.
“We played Toronto at North by North east, and Bad Religion were playing this free outdoor show and Bad Religion were saying stuff like don’t bother with us, go see The Nils play this shitty Bovine Club, you know? And the guy in Off!, when they played here last time at the Fouf, he was raving about us too. Social Distortion was playing next door and he’s talking about us. We get a lot of props from that kind of shit but it doesn’t pay us anything. We’re still struggling the way we were when we first started out, you know? We were never kiss-arses or anything like that, so when they used to send A&R guys with leather pants and pony tails, we used to throw them out of the room. So we never really got anywhere like that, you know, not like other bands, but I’m not going to name names. “
“It’s great to have all this praise from all these people but we’re still struggling, you know? To get ahead is really hard now. It’s not like when we started thirty-five years ago, you know? I’ve been in this scene for thirty-five fucking years! This is the best line-up we’ve ever had, too. People all agree, we just “Carlos pauses briefly, turning to his drummer, “how many shows is this with you now, Colin?” “This is my third show,” Colin replies. “Right,” Carlos nods in agreement, “so give us another six months and we’ll be right on!”
The band quite literally sat in limbo after the death of Alex Soria. Sat, stuck somewhere between annihilation and resuscitation, waiting for the day to come when the band would be resurrected once more.
“Alex got into his personal problems and then he was gone, you know.” Mark explains, “Just before he died, a friend of mine, Chief Mike Willis, an Australian guy, had a 4-track that he brought by to my place which had pretty good acoustics, so we put down the acoustic record, “Next To Kin”. It was all done at my apartment. There are thirteen diamond songs on that record that never got properly flushed out, just from tooling around at my place. Some of the stuff we’re doing now are those acoustic songs that never really had a band life back then, with guitar solos, and just sort of loose and hippy, so it’s kind of nice that we’re taking these songs and playing them.
We’ve got a real nice bridge going, with these old songs that I understand our audience still love and want to hear and you’ve got the bridge there of Alex’s song writing that never got flushed out and that Carlos and I finished, so that’s part of our new material and we’ve new songs that are fresh and ready to go, too. So, it’s a really nice well of songs. It’s really nice to have, because we’re never going to get sick of these songs, and it’s nice that the new stuff stands up with the old stuff, too. It’s just as prominent, too, so it’s a nice mix.”
Natives of the Saint Henri district of Montreal, that for so long was the best kept secret this fine city had. Close enough to all the action of the downtown area, without the inflated housing costs. But in recent years, Saint Henri and neighboring areas such as Point Saint-Charles, Griffintown and Verdun have been undergoing transformations, taking away areas of the city inhabited by lower income families, to accommodate the wealthy. These where the neighborhoods the Irish immigrants inhabited when they first came to this part of the world, but much of those foundations are gone now, either transformed from industrial buildings and demolished, to make way for more and more condominiums that are priced well out of the pocketbooks of the working class.
“This is the last apartment I’ll be able to afford in Saint Henri, actually” Mark tells me, “If I get kicked out or lose the apartment, I won’t be able to afford to live there anymore, because it is becoming so yuppie and gentrified. People with money are buying up all the condos and they want their Starbucks and conveniences of life to surround them and the area, you know, it is a nice neighborhood. It’s near the mountain and right by the city. It was a hidden treasure for a while, though. In my first place, I felt kind of like a gangster, living down by the tracks and the canal and there was nothing! My whole front yard was the canal and we could stand around all night having beers and all of a sudden” he uses his hands and mouth to simulate an explosion noise, “they maximized on every square inch.”
Much of these neighborhoods were abandoned and left derelict, as the times changed and the cities industry went through a metamorphosis, its buildings did so along with it.
“I lived here during the period where everything was lying dead for twenty years, like this place, the Corona Theatre” Mark says, raising his hands to point out the grandiose building in which we currently sat. “The Corona was sitting here dormant for nearly twenty-five years and now, all of a sudden, it’s the number one show hall in town. Virgin’s taken over, and it is the place to play now. I can see why, too, after playing here tonight. The stage sounds great and the audience sounds great, too.” The theatre itself was restored and re-opened in 2008. It kept much of its old world charm, having originally opened during the golden era of silent movies in 1912. It saw all manner of shows and the stage and dressing area are still set up to reflect that, with hidden trap doors and aspects you would expect to find at such a place. It was closed in 1967 and was marked for demolition, but was forgotten and stood dormant for all those years. Today, it has been restored to its former glory and its original styling’s and detail were retained as much as possible, making it a truly wonderful icon of a bygone era.
“I used to ride my bike past this place when it was closed for all those years and now I’m standing on the same stage that Johnny Rotten and Steve Earle stood on. Like I said, I don’t have any money, but to me it means a lot. We all live here in Saint Henri and we love our town.”
“The Clash used to always say they were the West end wonders, so that’s why I say we’re the South West wonders” says Carlos with a smile on his face, “Nobody caught it, though.”
“I think right now, we have a really cool record in us, and maybe vindication will come upon us or whatever, and I think this is the time to do it. I have a really solid line-up with me, in Mark, Phil and Colin. People keep saying we’re musically better than we were before. I was never a singer before, either. I used to let my little brother sing and everything we do here is in respect to my brother. I used to have to live in his shadow but I wrote at least half of that shit myself, and tonight made me feel like, for once in my life people recognized what was going on. It’s a big hurdle to do.”
Writing on a new The Nils record is well underway. “We just recorded a demo with the guitar player from Grim Skunk, Peter Edwards, and we’re going to try make a record, that’s the most pressing thing.” There’s a spark in his eye as he talks about what is to come, as he tries to contain details as best he can. “We’re still working on it, so I’m not going to venture too much into that. We’ve recorded five songs and we’re building it up slowly and we’ve got a bunch of labels that want to put it out. It’s a whole new ball game with labels now, with the internet and all that shit, so we have to figure out what we’re doing, but we have a lot of people behind us and supporting us so it’s a really good time to be doing this.”
“That was the idea for this demo, to make a 7” 45 (rpm) that we were going to give away to people to introduce them to the new band and the new songs. We also do acoustic versions of the old songs and shit and we play a few of the old ones like you heard tonight. To be honest with you, I haven’t been this excited to do this in a long time, and we’re not making any money doing this and we’re struggling and getting in debt, but we have a lot of really good people behind us and people care about us. The levy is about to break!”
As well as the new recordings, audiophiles and fans of real music will be pleased to learn that a good chunk of the bands back catalog will soon be available again. Hunting down their album has been a pain-staking venture that I am unable to say, has been an easy one. “Yeah, we re-issued everything! “Sell Out Young”, the Paisley and the Chino stuff, the Now cassette and we put out some out-takes but the deal was, this guy printed all these records but he never got a distribution deal so basically they’re sitting somewhere and we’re trying to work something out.”
“In 1987 we put out a record and the fucking first week it was out we charted in Rolling Stone, back when college radio meant something, and it was within one month of release.” Recalls Carlos, “Kastner calls me up and goes you’re in the new issue of Rolling Stone and I thought it was a joke, you know? Back then, before cell phones and interweb, that sort of thing meant something. Now, I couldn’t get a cup of coffee for that.”
“When all hope was lost, Marky and I sat on his couch and still the kept the band going two nights a week. Then we got Phil and then we got Colin so trust me, everything is going to fall into place. We have a really good manager named Peter who managers Jeff (Ament) and Matt (Cameron) from Pearl Jam and he doesn’t manage us just because he makes money off of us. He does it because he’s from here and we’re a Montreal band. Say what you want about The Nils, but we are a Montreal band, you know? And we’re really proud of that fact… and that’s what we’re trying to prove with the new record, too, that we’re Montreal kids, you know what I mean? It’s really important to us, our neighborhood, and the things we’re losing control of.”
Although there aren’t any concrete plans for tours or shows at this time, he does hint at plans for later in the year.
“People think touring is fun, but trust me, it’s not.” Carlos says, while shaking his head and laughing more with a sense of flashback then comedy, “You miss your friends when you’re on the road, sitting and waiting to play Thunder Bay and there ain’t nothing fun about that. Nothing at all. No sleep. I just remember drinking Scotch with my brother the last time we went to Thunder Bay and I remember thinking, ‘what the fuck are we doing here’, you know? But at the same time, when somebody new comes up to you and says hi and likes you, that’s what it’s all about. So we’re going to make this new record and go to Europe and America and we’re going to do good. The stars are lined up.”
“I’m stoked!” says Carlos, just at the door opens, catching his attention. “I get my meals brought to me and everything, it’s great. We’ve got all our stuff lined up. We’ve got all our ducks lined up and we’re working hard, rehearsing hard, you know?”
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This excitement can be felt from everybody, as if it was a contagious virus that swept through their jam space. “I’m excited every fucking time I jam with these ding-dongs,” says Phil with a chuckle, “It sounds so good! It’s gravy for me, one of the biggest pleasures you can have in life is music and my music is one of those things that’s almost like air, you know, where I want to hear this album, and this album, and this album, know what I mean? I need it to live. So, this is quite the incentive to live.”
Phil knows all too well the other side of life, having been a grave digger atop Mont-Royal for the past two decades.
“You get people showing up there that go ‘we’re looking for the Titanic people’ and I tell them where to go.” Quite a few infamous people are interred there, and given that humans are fascinated with their own mortality, it stands to reason that tourists and curious locals would enjoy a stroll with the dead. “We’ve got three that died on the Titanic and a couple of survivors, too” Phil informs me, when my own morbid curiosity compels me to ask if he has witnessed any signs of an after-life. “No haunting, no. I’m not quite sure that there’s anything super natural happening there and I have been looking hard, but nothing yet.”
How would he react if he did see something spooky? “I’m open-minded enough to go, well, fuck me… look at that!” he says, while laughing.
“It’s a pretty good gig while we’re here, and there are lots of experiences to be had that it should be enough, know what I mean?” Phil says, “We’re here such a short time, fucking enjoy it! I’m not going to worry too much about after I die because I think it’s going to be a lot like before I was born.”
“Nobody should worry about what happens after they die, man. Nobody really knows, anyway. Just enjoy it while you can, you know? Get it while it’s hot!”