TRAVELLING AND PLAYING ROCK N’ ROLL WITH MY FRIENDS
AN INTERVIEW WITH LUKE BENTHAM OF THE DIRTY NIL
Their vocals are almost as wild, loud, and crass as the feedback that guitarist/vocalist Luke Bentham uses as an instrument of his own. Their untamed energy comes alive in their songs nearly as much as it does in their live show. Such a stark semblance of chaos in sound and performance shows that raw sense of personality as well. So it’ll be no surprise to anyone that’s heard their music or seen them live that Bentham took it as the compliment it was when I told him that the loud, hard to tame sound may have something to do with the personalities of the members of the Dirty Nil.
That said, the love from Southern California that shone down on these Southern Ontario rockers is no big shocker either. Years of basement tours, releasing singles and 7 inch’s, and playing all around the GTA really paid off when they got a call from Fat Mike, frontman of NOFX and founder of Fat Wreck Chords. The group had been working with Dine Alone records over here in Canada, and the two joined forces to put together the Dirty Nil’s first full length release, Minimum R&B.
In most cases, a group can be designated to a specific genre, or sonically aligned with another type of music, but with the Dirty Nil’s, it’s an endless guessing game of what the next person is going to label them. Bentham says they don’t have any long standing relationships with any type of music other than Rock N’ Roll, so he finds it fascinating when people tell him they sound like a certain band, and that it surprises him almost every time. “Whatever people call us, I have no problem with it. We welcome any kind of titles, we just do whatever we want to do and we don’t reject any titles. Whatever you want to call us, whatever you see, it’s there, or whatever you hear, it’s there. We aren’t going to try to colour your interpretation of the ridiculous ruckus that we create.”
While their influences lie mostly in the music of previous generations, (MC5, Minor Threat, The Stooges, etc.), having grown up in this generation inevitably leaves some imprint of 90’s music. It may not have been their main influences, but Bentham said bands like Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., and Weezer influenced them a lot. For himself personally, he said it was a lot of different people, from Fred Durst to Eminem, Prozzak, and Stompin’ Tom Conners. Growing up in Dundas, live music is limited unless you head into Hamilton, and that’s exactly what they did. Bentham said aside from classic rock, it was “a lot of whatever was coming through the Casbah,” adding that they’d go there in High School and liked it no matter what it was. “It was all good to us.”
One thing you wouldn’t expect after getting to know the Dirty Nil’s music, is that on his time off, Bentham listens to a lot of country music and Frank Sinatra. While he still has an inkling towards music like Jesus Lizard, Culture Abuse, and Minor Threat, his love for country music and oldies may lend a hand to him having been unfamiliar with NOFX’s music when he got the call from Fat Mike. He went so far as to say it was crazy when Mike called him the first time and wanted to collaborate, because he’d never listened to NOFX before. He just knew they were a big band. The interesting and fortunate thing about that is when you come about a relationship in that manner, both parties are on the same level. Had Bentham and the rest of the Dirty Nil been fans of the band, they wouldn’t have the same relationship. He said many people were astounded that he was able to just shoot the shit with him without being star struck. “It’s because I know who he is, but he wasn’t my Kurt Cobain. I understand that he is for some people, but to me he’s just the really funny guy that calls from Southern California and gives us money to make Rock N’ Roll.”
Even if you don’t know who they are, if you’re in the music industry, you know the name and furthermore, you know the label. Although they weren’t NOFX fans, Bentham said he was “super down” when he got the call. “So we did it, and we’re doing another one right now, and then we’re going to do another one later. Life’s good and thanks for the love from Southern California, Mr.Mike.”
Most of the bands on Fat Wreck Chords have a rather distinct ‘punk’ sound, and while the Dirty Nil definitely holds up that persona, their sound doesn’t exactly resemble any of the other bands on the label. Again, they’ve been given many titles, but to me it sounds a lot like Bentham’s reference to Mike not being his Kurt Cobain is reflected in their sound and approach. I get a distinct grunge vibe from their music, and even more so in their live performance. While seemingly surprised by the comparison, Bentham was more flattered than anything. “Cool! We have heavily borrowed from that era of music and been very inspired by bands of that era, so any resemblance to that is ultimately flattering to us.” In his eyes, “like any band,” the Dirty Nil is a concoction of all of the different rock videos and pictures that they absorbed in their formative years, but done out their own way. The ultimate goal to them is rock music, and Bentham expressed how much the ingredients that are used enhance that product. Which is not surprising, as the band has quite the affection towards gear.
It’s quite astounding just how much goes into the production of music. Most people don’t really sit back and think about how many pieces of gear are used to produce sounds, aside from the instruments themselves. The funny thing? Most of these pieces are trivial. When you think back to how Jimmy Hendrix could outdo a pedal by leading his teeth up and down the neck of his guitar, guiding them across the strings, or about all of the bands that came before these intricate programs and pieces of technology that are behind music production today, it’s really quite astounding how much could be done without all of these expensive pieces of equipment. With much resemblance to the simplistic approach of many of his influences, Bentham said he’s always tried to do what he can with what he’s got and that that’s always what’s inspired him as a guitar player. “Instead of saying “oh, I’ll just get a new blinky pedal that’ll have a new sound,” I try to come up with a new sound using my fingers or whatever the guitar can actually do, rather than expanding. I don’t like guitar pedals. It’s always a good way to get the most out of your rock band, rather than opening up your MacBook and triggering along samples. (laughs)”
However dated, much of the iconic music we know and love was made with very little at hand. “When you think about some of the best bands, they made their worst albums when they had all of the options open to them and they made their best stuff when they were just slashing away with what they had. I think it’s a medium that’s done well when it’s restricted in some way,” Bentham said after he explained that gear is something that’s very special to him, mostly for it’s imagery. He said that certain pieces of equipment look more imposing than others and although you can’t hear what a band sounds like when you’re looking at their photos, the first time he saw pictures of bands like the Stooges, he thought “that band looks like they sound fucking crazy! And they do.”
Although the way he absorbed Rock N’ Roll was through “it’s mythological touch stones of photography,” his love affair lies with guitars and amplifiers. If you want to get into a conversation about gear with a member of the Dirty Nil, you better know your stuff going in, or it won’t be much of a conversation at all. A love for guitars and amplifiers leaves you with almost insurmountable options, but every musician has their sound, and if they’re lucky, there’s a guitar and amp combination that aligns with that. For Bentham, that starts with the old 1970’s Les Paul Customs. “The fancy ones that some people complain [are] heavy, but I love that they’re super heavy. The fanciest ones are always played by the worst guitar players, like myself. They’re meant for Jazz guys, but it’s usually guys just slashing away on them with big shirt collars and smug looks on their faces, like myself, who utilize them. Hands down those are my favourite guitars.”
When it comes to amplifiers, Bentham’s thirst has been “somewhat permanently quenched” by the Marshall Super Lead amp. Not only did he attribute the amp to most likely being used at some point by guitarists like “Jimmy Page, Angus Young, Wayne Kramer from MC5, and Jimmy Hendrix,” he said that it’s the original stadium amp and that for him, it’s “the one.” “I used to have a lot of old amps that would all die at some point and I’d get them serviced and they’d keep wearing down. One day I got this old, well it’s not old, it’s a re-issue of an amp,” the Marshall Super Lead 100 Watt amp and he’s used it every day since. This takes us back to that loud, hard to tame theme. “It’s the reason recording Higher Power took so long. I was fighting with our engineers who didn’t want me to use it. So we went somewhere else and I was like you’re going to record my insanely loud guitar and they were like okay, sounds good.” Adding that if you want to make them any kind of reasonable volume, you have to know how to do it and do it a certain way.
Earlier expressing his distaste for guitar pedals, he went on to say that he does still have affinity for the Vintage ProCo Rat pedal. Not being too keen on pedals, it makes sense that he’d have an attraction to this “simple, imposing, and cold looking” distortion unit. “I really like those pedals. You can pretty much plug them into anything and I’ll sound like me, which is a cool thing to have so easily available.”
Having such a wide knowledge of gear can sometimes cause judgement to be passed when presented with a set up that isn’t up to the buff’s standards, but Bentham says he’s grown out of that mindset. “I used to, but I’m over that shit now. I used to be more vein when it came to gear. “If you’re using that, fuck you.” Now if you have terrible gear, I kind of in a way like you more. You’re more charming in a way.” Over the years, touring and seeing so many bands use so many different types of gear has given him a bit more of an objective view on other bands’ gear choices. It’s something he pays attention to because he knows a lot about it, but it no longer influences his opinions negatively. While there are a few things, like he’s got a quite apparent loathing towards simulators, that’s a “red flag” to him. “I just don’t get why you’d spend 5,000 dollars on something like that when you could spend a very small fraction of that and get an excellent amplifier.” That being said, he does appreciate the fact that it’s another approach, just not one that he could get behind taking.
The approach is different for every band, with every aspect of their careers. One thing that rings true for every band though, is that you have to start somewhere, and that’s usually at the bottom. Since their formation, the Dirty Nil has had quite the sporadic approach to releasing their music and that was not solely a reflection of their monetary means. Of course that was one of the factors, but Bentham said that it was also an aesthetic choice. “It was a quick way to make something bold and physical in our minds and it seemed like a good system, so we did that for a while and then it became clear to us [it was time to] make a full record.” They also didn’t want to release a full length album until they had more demand for it. “We knew we were going to have to work it, but we wanted to have some momentum before we threw that log on the fire. We wanted to have some flames going already.”
Now that won’t be much of a problem going forward, at least in Canada, with their recent success as Breakthrough Group of the Year at the 2017 JUNO Awards. Quite like the phone call from Fat Mike, Bentham was not at all expecting them to take home the JUNO trophy. “I remember being at our table and it was just us and our manager and everybody from Dine Alone. When our category came up I was so sure we weren’t going to do it that I had half an ice cream sundae in my mouth. (laughs) I was eating our manager’s sundae while he was watching the screen very intently. So when it happened, I lost my mind, it was crazy. I didn’t think it was going to happen.” He said it was pretty surreal to have the attention of the room and that Kyle Fisher (drummer) is always bailing him out, having prepared a list of people to thank, just in case.
All of the excitement from that and the new caliber of touring that they’ve been afforded “after so many years of investment, is really exciting and very fulfilling.” Their careers have reached a new height and as “bullshit and cliche as that sounds,” Bentham says that being on the road is where he’s happiest in life. “Travelling and playing Rock N’ Roll with my friends… it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do and I feel very fortunate that I get to do it.”
At the age that they’re at, all of the members in their 20’s, that much excitement and success can come with a lot of partying, but Bentham says he tries to stay away from anything that’s going to keep him from playing a really good show to the best of his abilities the next day. “You learn that if this is going to be your job, then you have to treat it as a job and pick your nights where you enjoy it.” Adding that he does still like to enjoy opportunities when they’re afforded and that there are those days once in a while, especially when they’re in Germany.
All in all, it seems that those “years of drinking all the time” in their early years got the partying out of the way and allowed them to be more serious about being career musicians and “do this 250 more times this year and be standing at the end of it, if possible.” While as Bentham agreed is not the case for all bands, “I know bands that can throw ‘em back every night and still deliver every night,” it is for theirs and of course there’s time for that when they’re not on tour. That’s when they can “go drinking at the bar and come home and try Dance Dance Revolution,” a funny fact about the Dirty Nil that Bentham gave me the pleasure of being the first to share. His favourite song to dance to on DDR? “Walk Like An Egyptian”.