In 1979, two brothers got together in a basement in Canada, and began making noise. In 2013, that noise shows no sign of dissipating. Nomeansno have blazed a trail through punk rock, tackling the subjects that few others would dare to, and experiencing more reinventions than a gaggle of scientists at a reinventing convention. Currently somewhere out there in the world, preaching the gospel, Steven Rainey caught up with guitarist Tom Holliston to get the low-down on the career that never should have been.
Nomeansno are an enigma. Wrapped in a conundrum, if you like. Whatever suits you.
A lot of bands get categorised as ‘defying categorisation’, but Nomeansno take it to another level. Are they punk? Are they metal? Are they a joke? There are no easy answers, and the band don’t seem interested in giving anything away. Suffice to say, they’ve released twelve albums since 1982, and they’ve never once come near to bothering the mainstream.
Which wouldn’t really be the point, of course. If punk is the voice of dissent, then Nomeansno are the voice of punk’s dissent, so to speak. Refusing to adhere to the orthodoxy of punk’s stylistic straightjackets, the band have encapsulated a myriad of musical forms in their quest to take things further, and to do so without any compromise. Old habits die hard, but old punks just keep getting angrier.
Since 1993, Tom Holliston has been playing guitar and singing, alongside brothers Rob and John Wright, bringing a sense of intelligence and irreverence to the punk scene, pissing off as many people as possible along the way. But the world has changed a lot since the release of Mama back in 1982. These days, just what is the relevance of punk as an outsider voice?
“I never really cared about punk rock. It’s there. Some of the music is good. Pretty much like the other musical genres I am interested in.”
Right from the get-go, it’s clear that Tom doesn’t have much time – or interest – in debating the finer ethical points of punk rock’s continued relevancy to the world at large. In a sense, this shouldn’t be surprising, the band generally displaying an aversion to being tied down to one idea, one preconception. But on the other hand, Nomeansno are indisputably a punk band, and one that has consistently displayed a conscience. Now that the internet has provided the means for true democratisation, allowing everyone to take up arms and make their own music, neatly avoiding the corporate system that has arguably reduced music as an art form to so much product, do Nomeansno feel like the ‘do it yourself’ message of punk is finally being heeded in a way that could never have been thought possible?
“First off a reasonable cash income is what frees up artists to pursue art, not the internet or electrical light. If one can’t eat one can’t work. Not for very long, anyway. Especially if you (are) hopeful of others seeing your stuff. People who try to create tend to look forward rather than back.”
Ok, a guy’s gotta eat, but we’re standing on the precipice of a revolution, man! When the printing press was first invented, it was seen as an instrument of change, a dangerous tool that allowed ideas to flow like wildfire. Fast-forward to 2013, and every single computer that has a bit of recording software has the potential to wreak the same kind of havoc as the printing press. As Nomeansno spread their incredibly intelligent ideas and music through the underground scene in the 80s and 90s, with albums like Wrong still standing tall, having inspired legions of imitators to step outside reality and THINK, all this ‘breadhead’ stuff seems real backward, even curmudgeonly. What happened to the revolution?
But then you notice the word ‘artists’, and things start to make more sense. Whilst they might occasionally embrace fiery polemic (hell, even their name comes from an anti-rape slogan), Nomeansno have always first and foremost been artists, in the truest sense of the word. Like Coltrane and Miles cutting up the jazz rulebook and inventing new colours for us all to play with, they’ve used their chops and their minds to change the rules, to give us a real kick up the intelligence. Maybe I’ve misjudged Nomeansno, maybe I’m forcing my own ethics and ideology upon something that desperately doesn’t adhere to it, ignoring its shouts of, “NO MEANS ‘NO’!”
“There were no key ideas from the start. We just did things. We were not a bunch of theorists gathered together in the canteen using dialectic as means to sublimate (unrealised) sexual energy.”
So maybe, just maybe, nomeansno are just a band, just some dudes in a van playing killer, off-kilter jazzcore to the few heads that get it, caring little for anyone else. It might not be a holy mission or anything, but y’know, there’s honour in just sticking to your guns.
“Nomeansno is not very well known. To get well known you really need to have your picture in papers. Mass marketing.”
Again, we seem to be falling back into ‘sour grapes’ territory. All this is via email, fact fans, so it’s hard to know exactly what the tone is. All I know is that I waited two damn weeks for it, and I can’t help but feel like I’ve missed the mark somehow. I mean, here I am, hassling some guys in their 50s, scraping a living out of underground punk rock, the kind of stuff that almost feels like the underground to the underground, and I wanna fight for the very soul of music itself. But they wanna eat. I get it.
But really, I don’t get it. I want answers, dammit!
I unleash a torrent of questions, overlapping theories that, if answered correctly, will surely lead to some kind of ‘Bill and Ted’ style utopia, where everyone is excellent to each other, and the music is great. I let rip.
Does the world really need punk rock anymore? With things becoming so homogenised, and the omnipresence of the internet diluting ideas, as well as creating a sense of democratisation, has the very idea of ‘punk’ become irrelevant? Is any music truly relevant anymore?
Clearly, Tom is not interested in my ‘Bill and Ted’ style utopia.
“This is a very sophomoric question. The world does not need anything.”
As I wonder if Tom is aware of what ‘sophomoric’ means, or whether I’ve just been out-foxed, I admit defeat. If there was any insight to be had here, either I missed it, or Tom doesn’t want to share it.
Turns out, I’m an asshole, and Nomeansno are just a band.
Get over it.
Me: Is it important for musicians to have a social conscience anymore? In a world that frequently feels like it’s tearing itself apart, what role can musicians play?
Tom: “Social consciousness and Bono.”
Make of that what you will, dear reader.
Nomeansno play Belfast’s Voodoo on May 25.