Interview with Rob Wright of Nomeansno: On Fire with Mr. Wrong: Article by Allan MacInnis

Nomeansno have a new album, All Roads Lead to Ausfahrt, due on August 22nd, and a U.S. tour starting in September. I agree with Nomeanswhatever.com webmaster John Chedsey’s assessment that Ausfahrt could be “the Wrong of the second half of Nomeansno’s existence.” Chedsey says, “I think the CD is as strong as, if not better, than Wrong. Actually, I think I like it more.” There is something very fresh and lively about Ausfahrt, so much so that one almost could imagine—in a saner world—the album being a hit.

Nomeansno bassist and singer, Rob Wright, feels the same way. “It’s hard-hitting, with shorter songs, and rockin’er stuff,” making it a disc which could appeal to a wide audience. The new distribution deal, with Ant/Acid, won’t hurt, either. But Wright isn’t placing any bets. “You never know what people are going to like or not like. I know people who just love the fifteen-minute epics in which all the albums had, like, four songs. This time out, with songs like ‘So Low,’ we just had a great time. We were like, ‘Who cares what it means? Put in a hook!’”

The album marks a departure from typical Nomeansno songwriting protocols. In the past, Rob tells me, he “would just come and say, ‘Here’s the words. Here’s the music. Learn it.” This time, with younger brother and drummer John Wright in charge of the music, songs tend more toward what Rob fondly calls “three chord punk rock,” which was previously the domain of the Hanson Brothers, the band’s hockey-obsessed alter-egos.

Guitarist Tom Holliston also contributed more to the process of songwriting on Ausfahrt. Chedsey tells me that, “This is the first CD since Tom joined where he had input on every song.” Rob explains:  “Basically, Tom has always written his own music for his solo albums and his Show Business Giants albums, so basically his material, which is uniquely his, always had that avenue. A lot of his songs would have sounded very odd on a Nomeansno record, simply because they’re all Tom, really. But in the nature of this album, songs were being put together quite loosely, and he had a chance to be involved.”

Holliston also sings one of the songs on the album, “The Hawk Killed the Punk,” which some Nomeanswhatever forum participants and webmaster Chedsey see as the album’s high point. Chedsey says of Holliston, “There’s the soul of a true bonafide self-deprecating frontman within. And Tom makes great facial expressions while performing it live.”

Probably the heaviest song on the new album is one of Rob Wright’s compositions: the angry and uncomprehending protest against the state of the world, “I’m Dreaming and I Can’t Wake Up.” Rob’s outraged bellow of “you call this shit reality?” carries much of the familiar gravity of classic Nomeansno. Overall, though, Ausfahrt is a peppy, energetic, playful disc; a little lighter in spirit than their previous full length CD, One. As Rob sings in “Heaven Is the Dust beneath My Shoes,” gravity just tends to weigh you down, anyhow.

Unfortunately, I’m one of those Nomeansno fans who craves gravity. Epics like “The River” can get me to drag my aging bulk into the mosh pit and bring me to the brink of an angina attack every time. I kinda miss the fact, much as I love Ausfahrt, that there’s nothing quite as heavy as “The River” here. When I confess this to Rob, he gives his unique giggle (it sounds somewhat like a cross between the joyous laughter of a happy baby and the wheezing cackle of a deranged serial killer in a horror film). “Yeah… we’re gonna get this response. All the people who used to yell at us for not doing short punk rock songs… now all the other half of the audience is gonna yell at us for not putting out ‘Bitches Brew 2.’ Though I don’t think anyone really wants that…”

What Ausfahrt may lack in gravity, it makes up for in fire and heat and bloodthirsty revelry. “Ashes to Ashes” contemplates the smell and taste of charred human flesh, with the band revelling in the barbeque, though they seem to be equal parts the cookers, the eaters, and the cooked. “I smell something burning—it’s us,” the song begins. This resonates off another one of the tunes, the very playful “Slugs Are Burning,” which, Wright tells me, is his favourite song on the new album. Musically, “Slugs” is as danceable a pop song as the band have done; but it also has some fairly intense lyrical content to grapple with, if one stops to think about it. (Having Rob Wright explain it to you sure helps.) I had assumed it to be about environmental disaster: the slugs are burning with toxins and pollution, as we dance on the hull of the world we’ve devoured. It turns out I’m way off, though the meaning of the song wasn’t obvious to Rob at first, either.

“It took me a long time to figure out why that song got written the way it did and what the hell it was about… I like songs like that, I really do. To me, they’re the most valuable because I get the most out of them: the ones that just drop out of the blue, and once you start into them—if you don’t fuck with them, if you don’t fuss with them, if you don’t censor them—you’ll end up with a little jewel there, and it may not be something that you’ll even appreciate until a long time afterwards…

“‘Slugs are Burning’ was like that. It wrote itself, and a year and a half later, I remember coming up to someone I was working with, going, ‘Eureka, I finally know what that song means!’ It’s about the joy of savagery, and how really no intellectual or spiritual institution, religion, or political ideology can deal with that or has dealt with that successfully. They all deny it, they all want to get out of it, they all want to get away from it. They condemn it overtly or they dismiss it as being a mistake, or ignorance. Even the Buddhists, who I think are the wisest of the established religions, really want to get out of that. But it’s the crux, y’know? Fucking, eating, dying, and the joy and relish with which all beasts, including the human beast, indulge in that… It’s the fire of life, basically, and it’s dark, it’s disgusting, it’s frightening. I mean, the slugs themselves crawling over dead bodies: these symbols revolt us, because we’re afraid of this… and yet at the same time, it’s the life force, basically. Your appetite, being satiated—it’s alluring, seductive. It’s what produces children, and what kills them off eventually. That’s what that song came to be about. We all are creatures who are burning, we’re full of energy and eventually that energy will burn itself out and leave us as dust. That burning involves fire, desire, and it also involves destruction, and it has no morality and it has its own agenda, a very simple one and it doesn’t give a damn about ours and any of our more sublime and sophisticated thoughts. Like I say, it’s really something that no religion is able to deal with successfully, except to call it the devil and dismiss it and ban it, forbid it. THOU SHALT NOT COMMIT ADULTERY. THERE SHALL BE NO TEEN PREGNANCIES. Okay, fine, say that from now to doomsday, it doesn’t make any difference.  The weeds come through the cracks.”

I ask Wright about Satanists, who claim to embrace these darker energies.

“Absolutely true. They do it the other way, the other extreme. They’re equally foolish. They think they’ll escape the horror of it by embracing it, by owning it, by being the master of it, but of course, they’re still dying, y’know? It’s all a defense, both the rigid virtuous and dedicated demonic are all just trying to defend themselves against the life that’s going to, like a tidal wave, just wash them away. Like it does everything.”

Since we were on the topic of religion, I have to ask Wright about Catholicism. I was raised Catholic, and find that many people with that background have a certain propensity for self-flagellation and negativity, akin to the masochistic joy of Nomeansno classics like “He Learned How to Bleed,” which has always been a personal favourite. I tell Wright that I’ve always thought of him as the Graham Greene of punk, and he responds, “Oh, good Lord, no, more like the John Knox…” The family Wright, it turns out, is Black Irish Protestant, and what I’m mistaking for Catholic masochism is in fact a puritanical streak. Wright tells me, “I get that kind of moral outrage and sternness from the Lutheran side of my family.” As for moral masochism, Wright is rightfully suspicious:

“I think for a lot of people, the self-flagellation and self-denial involved in the Catholic or other religious faiths are just a way to avoid true pain. People who choose to suffer in a certain outward way involving their faith or the personality they’re trying to project are in that way avoiding true pain that they do not want to face, because there’s a lot of fear involved and a lot of challenge to who one is… I mean, a lot of people have secrets, they have dark and painful secrets, and by not going through them they don’t learn how generic they are, and how everyone has these same secrets. Basically, the only way to get rid of them is to grow out of them, and growth is painful….”

“And Mr. Wrong?” I ask. Mr. Wrong is Mr. Wright’s black-garbed alter-ego, pictured on the album art for Wrong and the band’s Kill Everyone Now t-shirt. Occasionally he appears onstage, particularly when Wright is doing side projects with other bands, like Vancouver’s Removal or the Italian thrash-jazz unit Zu (with whom Rob is currently working on a collaboration). He comes across as a cross between a Catholic priest and a Nazi…

Wright nods. “Also a lawyer, a cop—it’s just basically all the authority figures rolled into one. It’s funny how when you get all these respectable figures and put them into one, it ends up looking really ominous.” (Mr. Wrong’s fondness for posing with a shotgun doesn’t hurt.) “The significance of the priest collar and all the other gear, it’s just a conglomeration of those figures who are well respected and in authority, in terms of caricaturing them.”

Mr. Wrong is also a caricature of Wright himself, though—check out “My Politics” off The Worldhood of the World (as Such) if you want to hear how Wright feels about the authority vested in him by his fandom. “Being onstage, one must always remember that one is in some sense a clown. And I thought, you know, I should have a clown costume. That and Robbie Hanson there—it’s all clown costumes.”

I ask Rob what his favourite Nomeansno songs are. “Usually the long epics. ‘The River’ is a standard, ‘Rags and Bones,’ ‘Heaven’ from the new album… It’s hard to pick favourites because there’s a bunch that I like and then over the years, the mix changes… I really loved doing ‘Bitches Brew,’ in fact. But in some senses that Hanson Brothers’ song, ‘A Night Without You,’ might be the best song I ever wrote. To write a hooky, three-chord pop song with a romantic lyric that is somewhat bent is very hard to do, because you’re so limited. It’s such a stiff discipline. There’s not much you can do there. And songs like that—people who write songs like that impress me a lot. And in some senses I think that’s the best song I ever wrote.”

All Roads Lead to Ausfahrt certainly is a success on those terms. The songs are varied, fun, energetic, and manage to be entertaining while still containing some fairly potent material to meditate on. It’s the perfect Nomeansno album for walking around on a sunny summer day to, if you can imagine that, and has more than a few surprises up its sleeves, many of which I have left unmentioned (there’s even a hidden bonus track). Rob and I talked at quite some length, and this interview is only the tip of the iceberg; there’s a lot more to be revealed at an undisclosed time and place in the future.

You may want to check my blog, http://alienatedinvancouver.blogspot.com/ for news about the next publication of material from this interview. Also be sure to check in with www.nomeanswhatever.com, run by Satan Stole My Teddybear’s John Chedsey, for tour dates, a lively discussion forum, and a host of disinformation about the band. Stay burning.