‘We have never entertained long term goals’ – An Interview With NoMeansNo

NoMeansNo‘s guitarist Tom Holliston gives MacDara Conroy the skinny ahead of the Canadian punks’ Dublin gig on 23 May

“How fucken old are NoMeansNo? Give it up granddads.” So reads the graffiti snapped for the cover of the iconic Canadian punks’ greatest hits comp The People’s Choice. But even better is drummer/singer John Wright’s rejoinder: “That’s ‘great granddad’ to you, fucker!” It’s indicative of the knowing, contrary attitude the band has maintained over the course of 30 years and a slew of classic albums that fuse the energies of punk and jazz to create a sound not unlike a more muscular Minutemen. 

Like their counterparts in San Pedro, at the heart of NoMeansNo is a two-man partnership – brothers John and bassist/singer Rob Wright – but they’re very much a trio: guitarist Tom Holliston joined in 1995, and also plays with the Wrights in their ice-hockey-themed side project The Hanson Brothers. And indeed, like the Minutemen’s bassist (and punk rock legend) Mike Watt, Vancouver’s finest transcend the nostalgia circuit, because they’ve never really gone away.

As NoMeansNo trek across Europe on their ‘Wrongnam Style tour’ – with a stop in Dublin at Whelan’s on 23 May – MacDara Conroy sent them some questions, and Tom Holliston supplied the replies.

With DOA announcing their break-up at the beginning of this year, that must make NoMeansNo the longest running Canadian punk band by a country mile. What do you think about that?
I think DOA did not so much break up as splinter slightly. I am morally certain we have not seen the last of [DOA frontman] Joey Shithead. Other than that, I don’t know if we’re the longest running punk band in Canada; I think the Dayglo Abortions are still front-runners.

You’ve always been so well received in Europe. When I saw you for the first time on the One tour in 2000, so many people there knew all the old songs and were singing along; there was so much good natured energy flowing back and forth between the stage and the crowd. But what’s your reception like back home in Canada? How does it compare?
Europe is by far the best place for us to come. But in Canada we get great crowds too, by this I mean a good-sized audience who are fun to play to, in some cities such as Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver. In the States it is always a pleasure to play Portland, Oregon and Wanamingo in Minnesota, but Europe – not everywhere to be sure – has always received us well and kindly.

The band never seems to stop – you’re on tour every year – but your recorded output has been much more sporadic since One came out in 2000. What reasons do you have for that, if any? Was there a change in priority in terms of what you all wanted from the band?
We put out All Roads Lead To Ausfahrt in 2006 and a couple of four-song EPs since then. The Hanson Brothers actually got in the way for a couple of years, also. But we do need to come up with another new release. So this upcoming tour will be the last one before we release another round of new material. What format that will be remains to be seen. I love vinyl but it is so expensive to ship; the cost is almost prohibitive.

Every record you’ve done has a distinct feeling to it – some have faster, hookier songs; others longer, slower building, like short stories set to music – but everything sounds like NoMeansNo. How naturally does that come you as a band? Or have you always had to work hard to gel your influences and instincts?
I think it is simply that we do not try to sound like someone else. Our recorded sound is not really radio friendly: we do not spend millions trying to get on the radio or wherever. And I think we try to avoid formulas. Sometimes the guitar solo, if there really must be one, fits naturally into the part after the second chorus but this should be kept down to a minimum if possible; things just get too predictable otherwise. I am sure, like all bands, people who listen to us regularly can spot things coming, though.

How do you pass the downtime while touring these days? How has that changed over the years, if it has at all?
The same way as before, generally. I read a fair bit, as does Rob. Go for a walk and see something of the town when it is possible. The biggest (and best) thing for me, though, is having a computer. It is so nice to be able to talk to my wife, Carrie, almost every day as I miss her very much when I am on tour. I tend to spend as little time as possible at venues. Sometimes it is great to play with and discover a good band but this does not always happen.

What’s your level of comfort on the road now? Getting from place to place, getting a good night’s sleep, etc – has it got more or less difficult over the years? 
Easier by far. I am asthmatic so I tend to hotels as private access are great but I cannot be around cats. Also I like to hole up with a book and a glass of something tasty after a gig; not much of a partier or joiner, I guess. The best thing, far and away, though, is that almost all venues now are non-smoking.

A big theme for the band, from your songs to the excellent on-stage banter, is old age. But to me it seems like none of you have aged a day in years. What’s your secret?
Oh, our secret is the people who have followed our music over time have aged at the same rate as we have. The banter about ageing came up simply because we are constantly asked how old we are. I am curious why so many think that what we do involves a great expending of ergs. Gee, go check out a stone mason or a parent of two pre-school toddlers. Now that is stamina! Mind you, at some point we need to call a tour ‘The Antiques Roadshow’. Though who knows how many more there will be? We have never entertained long term goals.

At least two of you have families with kids who must be in their teens by now. Have they listened to your music at all? Or is that something too embarrassing for them – or for you?  
Well, John has two boys in their teens. Rob’s kids are still quite young. I think that John’s boys are quite musical but into whatever it is they are into. Who knows? Some people still have not heard ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ or ‘Marquee Moon’, etc.

Is NoMeansNo something you live, or something you do?
A little bit of both. Live it before the tour and do it during the tour and undo it after the tour until I can live with it again.

NoMeansNo play Whelan’s on Thursday 23 May with support from Jogging. Tickets are €16 from the door or from Tickets.ie, Elastic Witch and Sound Cellar.

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