Note: this took a long time to put into the world, but I woke from odd dreams tonight with the strong feeling that today was the day. Sorry the spacing is a bit wonky - I've attempted to descend into the HTML to fix it but with longer blogposts that's a real can of worms. Hope you enjoy it. Hope Zev would have enjoyed it...
Zev Asher in Nagoya, courtesy of Jen Morris' Zev Asher page
The first time I can distinctly recall hearing Zev Asher’s
name - the first time I heard it so it stuck - I was at a (since defunct)
Vancouver café/ live music venue called the Sugar Refinery. Masa Anzai - known now
as the bassist for Vancouver metal band Bison, but in those days a figure on
the free improv scene - was playing saxophone, I believe with a collaborator in
noise named Kelly Churko (RIP). At that time, I was visiting from Japan - I
taught English in the suburbs of Tokyo between 1999 and 2002, and took the odd
trip back home to visit family, and was chatting with someone about Japanese
avant garde music. I had made an effort to get out to see shows by the likes of
Keiji Haino, Yoshihide Otomo, Kazutoki Umezu, Akira Sakata, Ruins-Hatoba, the
Boredoms, OOIOO, Audio Active, Dry and Heavy, and others, but I was finding my
efforts to access the scene somewhat daunting. I had no friends there who were
interested in the same range of music I was; the western entertainment publications
like Metropolis - then called Tokyo Classified - mostly listed when
foreign artists were playing, and usually only mentioned mainstream ones; and
most of the websites devoted to the consumption of Japanese music that I came
across were in Japanese. My Japanese-language reading skills basically ended at
being able to shop for CDs in stores where they were filed in “katakana-order.”
The end result, I complained, was that I was getting out to fewer shows than I
would have liked. I could use a friend, a guide, a cohort, or a brain to pick.
I have no idea who the person might have been, but someone
turned and said to me, “you should look up Zev Asher.” Zev had collaborated
with artists like Merzbow and Masonna and done live performances with his band
Nimrod that included Japanese bondage. He knew his stuff. And he had a
connection to the Vancouver scene, too, so we likely knew some of the same
people. You really should look him up.
I didn’t. I was a shier man back then, and it sounded like
Zev was in a higher bracket of cool than I was. He was some sort of celebrity
figure, after all - because even at that moment, I know I had heard Zev’s name
. I had bought CDs by
the Canadian noisesters the Nihilist Spasm Band on the Japanese label Alchemy
Records, and by the time of the Sugar Refinery concert I might have heard of
Zev’s brand new documentary about them, What
About Me? The Rise of the Nihilist Spasm Band.
Or perhaps I had heard his
name in passing when shopping at the (also now-defunct) Scratch Records, who
distributed music by his projects Nimrod and Roughage. Even though, feeling
unworthy, I declined to contact him at the time, from that moment, Zev’s name
was now lodged in my head, and in 2005, when I was getting started as a freelance
writer in Vancouver, I heard that Zev’s film Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat,
was going to be playing at the
Cinemuerte film festival, I found his email address and did an interview withhim
. It came out in the final issue of Terminal
, another defunct Vancouver institution. It was an important moment for
me as a writer.
Flash forward: in 2011, I was asked to curate a noise
festival at the Vancity Theatre - the home-base of the VIFF. I had seen that
Zev had a new film, Subcultural
Revolution: Shanghai, dealing with Chinese noise band Torturing Nurse. One
of the other confirmed films for Noise Night 2011, about pioneering Vancouver
noise band Tunnel Canary, was scheduled to play, and by strange coincidence -
we didn’t realize how strange until we saw the films back-to-back - there was a
section on Torturing Nurse in that film, too. I definitely wanted to screen the
film, but said it would be even better if Zev, who was back home in Montreal, could
come out and do a short set of music. I gathered he’d been ill, but if he felt
well enough to travel…
We chewed it over via email for awhile. He explored whether
he would be able to get reimbursed for the flight via an arts grant. He talked
to his doctors - his treatment for leukemia had left his immune system in a
fragile state, and being in a plane with passengers who might have various
viruses could be a bad idea. I think restlessness finally won over; he
hadn’t travelled in some time, and wanted to visit Vancouver again, and touch
base with friends like Alex McKenzie (experimental filmmaker and former
proprietor of the Blinding Light cinemas) and Keith Parry of Scratch. Zev came
out, performed a “short sharp shock” of noise and video collage prior to his
film, sold a few CDs and DVDrs at the merch table, and hung out for the rest of
the evening, listening to the other bands, like Vancouver’s Ejaculation Death
Rattle. Vancouver punk photographer Bev Davies snapped this picture of him at
Zev Asher by bev.davies
The next day, or perhaps the day after that, we explored
Vancouver. Zev wasn’t in great shape - I offered to carry his bag, and he took
me up on it - but he was interested in seeing some of the changes to the city.
We wandered around Gastown and parts of the downtown eastside, so he could
visit the temporary (and what turned out to be the final) home of Scratch
Records. We talked about the tension between gentrification and deep poverty
visible in the neighbourhood. I recall Zev being nervous about getting too far
into the eastside wasteland, since there is a lot of ill-health to be found.
One of the stranger effects of his illness was that he was a little twitchy,
mostly in his hands, and he explained, with a wry smile, that he had a mild
form of Tourette’s, which manifested itself thus; his treatment had exaggerated
it. Mostly, though, he seemed okay - smart, perceptive, curious, and not averse
to a bit of a walk. We began our talk over a meal, took a break, and either
that day or the next, continued, ending up at the Cannabis Culture
headquarters, the business run by Canadian marijuana activist Marc Emery, the
self-described “Prince of Pot,” now in a US jail. Zev took photos and listened
to my tour-guide-like ramblings as we made our way upstairs, where you bring
your own pot and pay a small fee to use the Volcano vaporpizers. Zev carefully
sanitized the mouthpiece of the vapour bag with an alcohol wipe whenever I
passed it to him. He had brought his own pot from Montreal, saying that being a
cancer patient had emboldened him in such matters.
Zev never got to go over the final interview with me, to
correct the errors, to fine-tune the spots where my questions were too vague or
his answers provisional, or to edit out spots that might cause his family and
friends embarrassment (though he did have a couple of requests in our subsequent correspondence, as did members of his immediate circle so the following is mildly censored). Readers should bear in mind that this was only partially
an interview, and partially a conversation between people who maybe were going
to be friends, one of whom did not know very much about the work of the other. I regret not having asked him more about his fondness for what in free jazz get called "little instruments" - toys, kazoos, and so forth. I should have asked him more about his relationship with Tim Olive, as well (who continues to make music, still based in Japan). I
hope no one takes umbrage at anything herein - Zev was an adventurous guy,
experimenting playfully in the laboratory of life, and had the virtue of being
able to refrain from judging people until he had met and spoken to them
himself, regardless of what strange things he’d heard about them. Those with
delicate sensibilities should proceed cautiously: some of our conversation gets
a little weird.
Complications from Zev Asher’s cancer treatment -
graft-versus-host autoimmune issues - reared up and took him from us in early
August, 2013. He had been working on assembling final DVD presentations of three
of his feature films (What About Me: The Rise of the Nihilist Spasm Band;
Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat,
and Subcultural Revolution: Shanghai
the time of his death. We had stayed in touch, because the plan had always been
to put this interview into the world in time to promote that release. I cannot
say without certainty what the future holds, but without the artist himself
around to oversee and spearhead the project, and with the home video industry
in terminal decline, Zev’s movies may well get stuck in limbo. I hope not. At
least his music can be found online for free download
: Scratch Records ceased
to be operational as a store in 2012, and is likely not that active in
distributing CDs anymore, either - who is? - though Keith Parry still has Nimrod
and Roughage discs in boxes somewhere. (Last I saw, he even had a couple Nimrod picture discs).
I’m glad to have briefly gotten to know Zev Asher, and I’m
happy that he did manage to get out to travel a few more times between 2011 and
2013. He told me via email, after his Vancouver visit, about getting out to
visit his friends in Sonic Youth; he was excited that they were into the idea
of him doing a film about them, which he wanted to do in 3D. He talked about
plans to do a “commentary track with the Spasm band” for What About Me? He said his health was “a bit wonky,” and - this in
May of 2012 - that he was “awaiting surgery on my shoulders and a double
hernia,” which he described as “further efforts in the creation of my new less
Then he didn’t answer emails for awhile. In November of 2012,
I received the following:
sorry it took a while to get back to you. been sick and weak for the last
anemic so i've been getting blood transfusions and all kinds of other
still organizing the 3 dvd releases. working on a collaboration with tim
this is avant-improv soundscapes. with videos for each track.
watched dirty harry the dead pool the other day. this is a hilarious scene
with Jim Carrey,
if you've not seen it...
thx 4 writing and keep in touch
That was the last email I received from him. I sent a couple
more, a few months later, to see how he was doing. He didn’t write back. Then
my emails to him began to bounce. Maybe he had simply changed email addresses?
Then I got the news
from Alex MacKenzie.
There are obits online from people who knew Zev Asher better
- Keith Parry and Philip Fine
, for instance. His friend Jen Morris has a section
of her site devoted to him, from which some of these photos are lifted, and
there’s a surprisingly informative Wikipedia page which I’m guessing she had a
hand in. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zev_Asher
The following conversation took place between March 7th
and 10th, 2011. Imagine Zev speaking with a deep, sardonic voice -
he had a tendency towards the deadpan, and occasionally his jokes would entail
only a slight rise in intonation at the end of the sentence, letting you figure
out yourself what was funny in what he had said.
Hey, this tape has part of my old interview with Michael
Gira of Swans on it. You’re going to be right after him.
Years ago, in New York, I just went for a weekend or something
and I thought - “I’m not going to see any celebrities”, because every time I go
I spot people. And suddenly there, the entire Swans walk by me on Broadway. “Do
I follow them? Do I say anything?”
(Giggling) Did you?
No! They looked nasty. It was early morning - they had to do
something, and I’m sure they were up too early.
Swans travelling in a pack… so tell me about this Udo Kier
For a little while, I was the arts editor of Broken Pencil,
Out of Toronto. And I got fired, because I wasn’t following
their credo. But using that, I got an interview with Udo Kier when he was in
Montreal for the Fantasia Film Festival. He was there with a very young, very
attractive boy sitting with him. He was quite friendly. It was early morning…
but at one point I asked him, “you played Hitler four times. How does it feel
playing ‘the man?’” And he went into a whole rant about - “I’m so fed up with
this, we’re blamed - out whole lives we’re supposed to feel guilt about the
He didn’t know I’m Jewish. It wasn’t an issue at all for me
- I was just curious how it feels to play Hitler over and over. So that got him
really angry, that question. Otherwise it was fun. But later that night at a
QA, after a screening of one of his films, made by a Vancouver director -
something 2.0? (actually probably 2004’s One Point 0, made by a Seattle and an
Icelandic director, and shot in Romania) - anyway, he was supposed to show up
at a certain time at the end of the screening for the Q&A. He wasn’t there,
so the programmer ran to the hotel where he was, pounding on his door - “let’s
go, Udo,” pounding, pounding, pounding. Finally he walks over in his underwear,
blasted out of his face on wine, and he grabbed him and pulled him out to the
theatre and dragged him in there. Very abusive to the audience. Lots of fun!
Speaking of Jewishness, I don’t know anything about the Biblical Nimrod. He was
related to Noah, or…?
In that crew. We were more impressed with the slang, Nimrod
being “idiot” or “stupid.”
How does the Biblical Nimrod get to be Nimrod the idiot?
Actually, in the Bible, Nimrod was the grandson of Ham.
Which was the title of our first CD. And it’s also a common name in India for
But was the grandson of Ham a particularly stupid character?
I never actually researched that. I was sitting with Tim
Olive, the bass player, who sort of formed the band - it was his band, really,
that I joined. We were throwing names back and forth in this coffee shop and
then he wrote down the word Nimrod on a piece of paper and said, “what do you
think of this?” “It’s not bad.” It just stuck.
So the first two Nimrod albums are kind of rock oriented.
They’re kind of noise-rock.
Was there a context for that… what were you listening to
when you recorded them?
Tim and I were both big fans of the Minutemen and the
Butthole Surfers and the SST era. Tim was also into free jazz - that’s kind of
what he’s doing now, guitar improv, very minimalist.
Were you listening to avant-garde music at that time?
Oh yeah. Everything from John Cage to Evan Parker… all the
big free jazz people…
Was there an entry drug?
Probably the Velvet Underground’s White Light/ White Heat,
which I bought when I was fifteen years old. That flipped me right around.
Before that - the first concert I went to was the Beach Boys, so… that gives
you a sense…
How did you find out about the V/U?
Well, “Walk on the Wild Side” was the first one that got me,
then I got that - Transformer - and then I was completely obsessed with Lou
Reed. Then in this record store in Montreal called Cheap Thrills, which was the
best used record store, the guy I talked to all the time said, “if you like Lou
Reed, you gotta hear this.” They had a nice copy for a few bucks of White
Light/ White Heat.
What year would that have been?
It would have been around 1978.
I found out about that album through that Henry Rollins
article in Spin, a few years later. But okay. Then Nimrod were performing in
Montreal and made it to Vancouver?
Nimrod kind of formed in Montreal, and then the bass player
Tim, I kind of followed him. He moved to Vancouver for a little while, and I
decided to join him. Uh, no, actually - what was it? He went to Vancouver, kept
playing, and then moved to Japan. I’d already been to Japan, in 1987. And he found
this drummer, Sam Lohman, who’d played in hardcore bands in New York - the Dirt
Devils, I forget the other ones, but he was in a few big hardcore bands. And
Tim wrote me and said, “I found a good drummer, if you’re not doing anything,
you should come to Osaka and let’s get the band rolling here.” That was the
heyday of Japanese noise, the Boredoms - everything was exploding, and Osaka
was the place.
You had been in Vancouver previous to that?
No, my long stay here was after Japan.
Okay. If we can go back, how did you first end up in Japan?
How did you get interested in Japanese culture?
Sure. A girlfriend that I was with in Montreal decided she
wanted to go to Japan to try modeling, teaching English and such. I had nothing
else going on, so I followed her. A friend of mine was in contact with John
Duncan - I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, he’s a performance artist
and noise artist - and Merzbow, Masami Akita. He gave me both their phone
numbers and said, if you’re feeling bold, call these guys and they’ll show you
the way! So I got there, and called those guys, and after a few glasses of
sake… John Duncan was famous for this performance piece he did in Los Angeles
called Blind Date. He had broken up with his girlfriend, he was devastated by that,
and he went into Mexico to a morgue, paid someone to get a fresh corpse, had
sex with the corpse, recording the audio, and then did a series of performances
where he described that whole scenario and played the audio to a shocked and
horrified L.A. art crowd, which got him ostracized from L.A. He fled to Japan. I knew all this, and was a
little nervous about meeting this guy, but he turned out to be very friendly
and - it was no problem.
(Laughs): Okay! In terms of Japanese avant-garde music, what
was your exposure to that?
The first time, in 1987, I went to see Suicide, and opening
was the Boredoms. And it was the first incarnation of the Boredoms - really
early, and it got me very excited.
Where was that?
In Tokyo. Maybe La Mama?
I spent three years on the fringes of the Tokyo scene, and
found it a little difficult as a foreigner to find places. I ended up at this
little place called The Penguin House in Koenji…
You find this place called Noise Bar?
No! Was that a hangout for you?
No, I heard about it after I left. Maybe it’s Osaka, I’m not
sure if it’s Osaka or Tokyo. What it is - it is what it sounds like, it’s a bar
that plays noise.
Did you run into John Zorn over there?
Yeah, I ran into him a few times. Masami Akita was actually
the catalyst who got me into the whole noise music, and I played with Merzbow a
couple of times.
There’s some stuff on the Roughage CD of you and him.
Yeah, there is.
What was playing with him like?
Nerve-wracking, because you couldn’t hear yourself. He’s
really, really loud. No matter how hard I tried - I turned the amp up to 11 -
there was just no competing, so… it was fun. I provided visuals, too.
I remember hearing stories of him playing at an abandoned
I was part of that show, that was in Kobe. That was later,
in 1992, I think. Noise and butoh - three days in this abandoned hotel. They
wouldn’t take yen. You had to transfer all your yen to this weird currency they
developed for this. The whole thing was like some surreal art/ noise camp. I
played with two other guys, Nakajima Akifumi, who is Aube, and another guy who
was doing Monde Bruit. We did a trio of ambient noise.
How did Japanese people react to you? Were they welcoming?
They were extremely welcoming! They just weren’t happy that
my Japanese was so limited, and as you know, they don’t speak English so well.
Right! I mean, flashing forward, I was impressed by
Torturing Nurse. They had a very high standard of English compared to what I
experienced in Japan. Were people more fluent in China?
Not at all, I just got lucky! I was very excited when I
found that they could speak quite well, except the leader Junky didn’t want to
- was not comfortable with it. But (their English ability) was not indicative
of the Chinese English ability at all.
Did you have memorable culture shock stories from Japan?
Losing it, a few times! Losing my mind, sort of - being fed
up with being the gaijin, having people sit next to me on the train and put
their feet next to mine to compare size. Pointing. I knew all the basic insult phrases,
that I could hear sometimes. It’s more xenophobia, as you know - fear. It’s not
a nasty nastiness, really. There was one day I kind of lost it. I couldn’t find
a bathroom and had bad stomach issues and ended up crapping my pants, had
diarrhea running down my legs. Started to weep. It was a bad day!
Did you ever encounter anti-Semitism when you were over
there? Because I remember having a conversation with this Japanese guy who
wanted to cultivate me as a business connection, for some reason. I’m not sure
how, but he got on this anti-Semitic rant - he said he had met Jews and
understood what people were talking about and… it was kind of shocking.
He didn’t ask if you were Jewish?
He didn’t. I’m not, but he didn’t consider the possibility.
You could have been.
So were you ever exposed to that over there?
I found there was a whole bunch of books published that were
somewhat anti-Semitic. I don’t know if you noticed those - with swastikas on
the cover. There’s this weird attitude towards Jews - either they’re geniuses; they had a list
that people would say over and over, Woody Allen, Einstein, and famous Jews -
and then there’s also a big fear of them controlling the world and the banks
and the standard anti-Semitic stuff.
I wondered if Japan’s past allies had anything to do with
It could be, yeah. I never really researched it too much.
You never encountered anything personally.
I got a “gaijin go home.”
Oh, just the general thing. Yeah, I got that sometimes, too.
Not very often.
Yeah. It’s more from, I think, naiveté and ignorance.
So were drugs widespread? When I was there, there was no
tolerance for stuff like pot, but ‘shrooms and peyote could be bought at
That I wasn’t aware of! You could buy hash from Iranians
around the central subway systems.
But it was all pretty covert and fraught with danger.
I actually bought mushrooms for a Boredoms rave on my credit
card, mostly just to have bought mushrooms on Visa.
But that’s all illegal now. I think you could still get peyote. It was illegal
to ingest it, but not to sell it - some weird loophole.
There was some cough syrup called BRON, don’t know if you
were aware of that. It’s popular with bikers, apparently. It’s got heavy
codeine content, and you’d see bottles of it littered on the street on a Friday
or Saturday night.
Hm, I missed that. Anything else we should talk about, in
regard Japanese experiences?
Well, the first tour we did was with Mayuko Hino. Are you
familiar with her?
She was quite a famous S&M pornstar in the 1970’s. And I
mentioned her name to some of my students - I was teaching as well as doing
radio and voice-over work - and they said, “Oh, I had her picture up in my
college dorm! Wow - I can’t believe you’re friends with her.” That got us a lot
of attention when we toured the US, and she did an S&M act with me. She was
also a noise artist in this group, CCCC. And she’d come on in makeup and a
kimono, looking like a dainty little Japanese princess, and do this blasting
ten minute noise intro. And then we’d come on, and I’d be wearing some kind of
dress of some sort. She’d run over and tear it off and I’d be down to my
red leather g-string, and she was in
almost nothing, and throughout the set she slowly tied me up. I was wearing a
headset mike so I could keep screaming while I was tied up. And she’d whip me
and pour wax on me.
The kids loved it.
Are there photos of this?
People are pestering me to put it up on Youtube. There are
Are you shy about putting it up?
No, no, just haven’t gotten around to it. It wasn’t planned
Was that Roughage or Nimrod?
That’s Nimrod. We were opening for a lot of semi-famous
bands in that day. The Cows… There’s a lot of people who came out because of
that that I met along the way. Steve Albini, Jello Biafra, Bob Mould.
Were there ever, uh, troubles putting on that show?
There were! In Milwaukee, for one. It was just after Jeffrey
Dahmer had done his duties there, and we told them, “we’re having this
performance piece, it’s just kind of theatre, it’s nothing to worry about, just
heads up - she’s going to be almost naked.” And the bartender, slowly, from
behind the bar pulled out a 44 magnum and placed it on the bar and said,
“you’re doing a clean show and then you’re getting the fuck out of here!” Okay!
And you did a clean show?
We did a clean show. In New Orleans, they said, she has to
wear tape over her nipples, because we don’t have a license, we’re not a strip
bar. So five minutes in, she ripped the tape off her nipples. The guy screamed
at us after but we got out unharmed.
What was your exposure to the Japanese S&M/ noise
juncture, when you were there?
Through Masami Akita, who was doing soundtracks for S&M
films. He just introduced me to a little bit of that - I didn’t get involved,
and I’m not really that interested.
Your involvement was just as a performer.
As a performer. And it was pseudo, it wasn’t full-on.
Yeah. I’ve had candle wax dripped on me - one of the people
at the show last night, we explored some things. She was a girl when I knew
her, but he’s a guy now (JC Newman, author of a forthcoming memoir). But we
tied each other up, dripped candle wax on each other. It’s probably the
kinkiest stuff I ever did. And then I invited him to the films last night, and
it turns out there’s people getting candle wax dripped on them…
Right. It can be fun. A little painful.
But not too painful.
If the candle is held high enough.
If it’s held high enough... the woman from Torturing Nurse seems to be genuinely into
Right. Because she seemed into it, I decided to put a whole
sex theme into the film, which you saw.
We’re sort of rupturing the chronology, but - I was quite
struck by how open the sex industry is in Japan, compared to here, say, but I
had no idea that there was any such thing in China. That market in the film was
quite eye-opening. Was that open to the public, or a kink convention, or…?
It was a trade-show/ convention kind of thing. And when I
saw it was happening, I didn’t expect much, I thought it would be kind of
ramshackle. I brought my camera, of course, and when I started to shoot, nobody
stopped me. So I spent all day salivating and shooting in every direction. I
was shocked, too. I couldn’t believe that that was going on there.
It’s not what one associates with China at all. Japan has a
rep for being kinky - China doesn’t.
Sure. But there’s over a billion Chinese and there’s every
kink possible, I’m sure.
Were there any particularly outrageous things you witnessed on the Japanese S&M front?
In terms of performances, there was one sort of in-the-round
performance with acts playing on five stages at the same time, and that same
woman, Mayuko Hino, was whipping and waxing herself - actually with another
female. So it was a lesbian S&M scenario, with the noise happening all
around. And Eye Yamatsuka was there. It was a big event - it was in a museum,
actually. They take it seriously.
They accept it as art.
It interested in me in the Torturing Nurse film that one of
the members was saying that he didn’t think noise was art.
Right. Yeah. I was surprised by that. He’s kind of a cynical
Which member was that, was that Junky?
No, that was the other guy, Xu Cheng. And he said he didn’t
think his photographs were art, either, which I thought were quite nice. He’s
just a sort of grim guy. I liked him, because of that - he’s outspoken about
But if noise isn’t art, what is it to him?
It’s just pure noise. Sound. He didn’t like the idea of it being art, I guess,
for some reason.
Puzzling. Was there a big difference in reception, in terms
of performing in Japan and performing in North America? How was Nimrod received
When we did our final farewell tour in Japan, we got good
turnouts, finally, but generally we played for 25-30 people. That was standard.
But at ticket prices of $40 a seat?
I think it was probably 1800 yen, average. $15-$20 on a bill with five other
bands. But in North America, when we brought the pornstar with us, we got big
crowds. Although not always. In Eugene Oregon, we had twelve people, as I
recall. And one of them happened to be John Zorn’s nephew. And he kept
referring to his uncle John, how he’d get to play with his Uncle John and his
friend Arto Lindsay. He didn’t really know who these people were. I said,
“you’re a lucky kid!”
Yeah. Any John Zorn stories?
Ah, he wasn’t so friendly actually. I don’t know if he has
that reputation. Well, actually. He does.
Did he ever see you guys perform?
He may have, but he never said anything to that effect.
Any other interactions with Japanese musicians? Haino Keiji?
I met him. Again, his English was limited. He didn’t want to
speak, just shook my hand and walked away. One interesting thing: Bob Mould saw
us. He was playing in Nagoya, with Sugar, I think. Or just solo. And he had a
couple of days off, and we were playing in a small bar, and he showed up -
just, here’s Bob Mould! And we went for dinner with him and his boyfriend/
lover or whatever, and he was very, very encouraging. He loved us. And later we
played in New York at the Knitting Factory, and again, Bob Mould showed up.
This was during the “rock” phase of your music, or the more
No no, this was the rock. We were very very tight, that was
part of the thing. There was no improvisation in there at all. We were like the
Minutemen: short, tight blasts. And the most exciting thing about the whole of
Nimrod was that we got played on John Peel! In London, somebody sent me a tape.
He called us Americans, which is a bit annoying, but he was one of my heroes
when I was growing up…
I’d like to talk about Nimrod - about how, and I think this
is common for independent bands, in Montreal we could get gigs, we couldn’t get
audiences, until we got a little bit of notoriety in Japan. Suddenly everyone
was interested. All over Canada, it was the same thing. No one gave a shit
before, but suddenly, they’re interested.
Nimrod in 1991, by Monoshiro Iriyoshi
Is that a universal phenomenon - no one cares about the
hometown boy until he goes away and makes it big - or is it a Canadian quality?
It’s probably universal. I met people who told me, “If you
guys were from New York, you’d be big, and you’d be on Touch and Go or some
label like that. Unfortunately, since you’re from Montreal, it’s much harder”…
there was a really fun Roughage show with Nimrod opening at a club - Foufounes
Electriques in Montreal. I called it Circus Maximus. I couldn’t get animals, of
course, so we had footage of animals, films of animals: 16 mm films of tigers
and monkeys and stuff. We had a trapeze artist in the club. We had a fake
Filipino faith healer who would dig into someone’s stomach with his hands and
blood would pour out - he had tubes running through his sleeves with blood
bags. A lot of people enjoyed that. That was really fun.
Did he remove any fake tumors?
Yeah, he pulled out some big liver - I guess it was from a
cow or something. Threw it on the floor of the stage, to the crowd’s delight.
That was probably the most fun Roughage show I did.
Have you retired Roughage?
Roughage is still sort of ongoing. Whenever I travel I like
to do a show, just as a way to meet people, to see another part of the city and
Does your musical past follow you? I mean, I wasn’t aware of
a lot of what you’ve told me, so…
Occasionally. When I went to Norway, to show the Spasm Band
film, this guy Lasse Marhaug (who later recorded with Zev as the Sleazy Listeners; you can find that album for download here)
was there. He knew all about Nimrod and Roughage.
I was shocked, I guess, that Scratch got distributed decently in Europe. This
was way up above the Arctic circle, a really cool festival.
What year would that have been?
It would have been 2001.
Cool. So help me with my timeline. You were in Nimrod, then
you went to Vancouver, and then you went back to Japan?
Yeah. It was ostensibly for the Visa thing. I guess it was a
working holiday Visa, and you have to leave the country. I had to come to
Canada, and Vancouver was the cheapest flight, so I came here, and met a girl
that I liked, and went back to Japan again, but kept wanting to be with that
girl. The third time, actually, that was.
All your recordings that I know of were on Scratch Records -
were there Japanese releases, as well?
The first Nimrod release, Grandson of Ham, was released on a
Japanese label called BRON, named after that cough syrup, and Keith re-released
it, he liked it so much - when we came back, we came in, met him, and he said,
“This is fantastic, I want to re-release it.” We were fine with that! And
actually, the second album, Mighty Hunter, he put out on picture disc, which
was very exciting for us.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen that!
It probably sold out.
And then the third album - why is there a translucent cover
instead of a CD booklet?
That was just a concept. We were bored of trying to find
nice imagery for covers. Actually, the first thing we released on BRON was a
flexidisc in Japan. I wanted to have something out in every possible format.
Is there any Japanese only stuff that hasn’t made its way
That flexidisc… We’re on a few compilations, but that’s
Are you on Merzbow albums?
Oh, of course. There’s Flying Testicle, which is me and Masami Akita and
Right. I love the karaoke stuff on the Roughage CD with him.
That was a lot of fun. He actually released a hand-cut - I
forget what they’re called, a lathe for making 45s. He made a ten-edition
handmade karaoke double 45 from that session.
Where does that fit in the chronology? Did Nimrod stop and
you did a different project, or…?
No, I was doing Roughage shows all along. They were a little
more noise-based, and I met these guys and they were friendly and I got to know
them. And Masami Akita said, “let’s try doing this thing. Flying Testicle, you
like that name?” “Yeah yeah yeah, it works!” And then there was a larger band,
they called it a supergroup, called Bust Monsters. I had a New Zealand
roommate, sharing the same sort of crappy old Japanese house. He was
downstairs, I was upstairs - a surfer guy. He said (puts on Kiwi accent), “I
never met a fackin’ Jew before - no offense mate!’ He told me that Kiwi slang
for a slutty girl was a “Bust Monster.” “Bush Pig” was the other one. So I
dropped those names and they liked Bust Monsters. I guess it’s the Godzilla
Is that in print?
Just 45s. It was two members of Merzbow, Masami and another
guy, and Masonna, and this guy, goes by Soulmania. There were another couple of
guests. It was more rock-based. Masami played drums. It was more like “noise
metal” I’d say.
That was just an idea I had. You know how it works, you rent
a room. [Japanese karaoke is not like the public spectacle we have in the west
- groups of friends get a private room and drink and snack and pass the mike,
without having to sing in front of strangers]. I was not a karaoke fan, but
with him we thought it would be fun. We went in - we brought lots of cough
syrup, got pretty wasted, and had fun.
There’s a few people who have come back from Japan who are
sad that they don’t have lasting social connections - the Japanese, once you
move on, you move on… was that true with you as well?
Pretty much, though I went back in 2005. I’d been invited to
show Casuistry in Taipei, so I had a stopover in Kyoto for a few days, and I
kept running into people - Yamamoto, the guitarist from the Boredoms, Omoide Hatoba - they toured with us in the States, and he’s a really nice guy. He had
this club in Osaka called Bears.
Bears as in chubby hairy gay men?
I don’t know if it was intended that way, but you never know
with the Japanese. But he was super-friendly. Everyone I ran into ten years
later in 2005 was friendly. I think with the limited English and email it’s
difficult to keep up. And friendships are a little superficial…
Did your time over there overlap with the Nihilist Spasm
Band getting on to Alchemy Records, by the way?
It did. I was quite shocked to find that a lot of these
noise guys were quite familiar with the Spasm Band. In fact, one noise guy,
after a gig - I don’t know if you ever went to one of these, but it was
standard that all the guys would go out to an izakaya (Japanese bar) and blow
all the money we made on booze and food, and one of these guys was in
Incapacitants, another noise band, a really good one. He jumped up on the table
- this guy is a banker by day, and a Spasm band fan the rest of the time. And
he jumped up on the table in this bar and started shouting, “No Canada!” He
went through the whole song, all the lyrics. I was shocked and delighted…
Were any of the members of the Spasm band present?
No, they were just being discovered in Japan in a big way.
When did you actually start making films?
There’s a Vancouver connection to that. When I was living
here, I had a Croatian girlfriend, who had come to Vancouver to escape the war
in ex-Yugoslavia, and she was going back to her hometown near Zagreb, a smaller
place. I went with her, and I was interested in how artists were affected by
being in a war zone. I brought my camera, and she helped me by making
introductions. So I did my first film, called Rat Art: Croatian Independents
at that point that was 1994 or 5.
Is it a short, a feature?
It’s 45 minutes long. Mid-length. Awkward to get into film
festivals at that length. It played here at the Cinematheque. It’s a portrait
of a variety of artists, from the punk rock kind of “GG Allin of Croatia”
called Satan Panonski
, a wild man who enlisted in the army just for fun and
stole a tank and went on a rampage, ended up dying some crazy horrible death.
And I had comic book artists, theatre people, a music video director. I tried
to give a widespread picture - different artists. This was, at that point, on
Hi-8 video. I travelled all around Croatia - the war was still officially on.
It was 1995. But it was quite relaxed - I didn’t feel like I was in danger.
You had come from a bit of a cinephilic background, right?
Your father used to bring home 16mm film prints?
Yeah, my father was teaching in a college called CEGEP in Quebec, between high school
and university. In Quebec only, high school goes to grade eleven - here it goes
to thirteen or something?
So there’s a two year program with free tuition for
residents. He was teaching film studies when I was a teenager, and he would
bring home films that he would order for his classes, so I got exposed to stuff
like Deliverance, The Tenant - a couple of Polanski films - and Apocalypse Now,
that was a particularly eye-opening one. So I had this rare experience of
sitting watching 16mm films - this was in the late 70’s - in my parents’
You were threading the film yourself?
Yeah, I would do it myself.
So it was your first hands-on experience.
Pretty much. Prior to that I’d seen Super 8 - Three Stooges,
Chaplin - they put out that stuff on Super 8. My Dad had a big collection.
What about documentaries?
Documentaries I never formally studied. I studied film in
school, but documentaries I always had an interest in. It seemed like the
easiest DIY approach - when I decided I wanted to start making films,
documentaries seemed like a good way to start.
Are there any influences you’d credit?
All the usual - the Maisles, Nick Broomfield, Frederick Wiseman.
I met him once at a festival in Toronto. I was honoured… Pennebaker, of course.
All the big names.
Music documentaries? Any that particularly influenced the
Nihilist Spasm Band film?
I can’t pick one off the top of my head, but yeah, I was
interested in music documentaries.
When did you first see the Nihilist Spasm Band play?
I think around 1983. Greg Curnoe was still alive then,
playing drums. One of his sons was playing in the band, as well. And the first
show I saw, they had no vocalist; Bill Exley didn’t come to Montreal. So it was
just instrumental. But it sounded good - it was fine; I didn’t even know they
had vocals at that point.
That was before you were involved in music yourself?
I wasn’t playing then. I was keen enough to be aware of them.
What happened was, in 1967, my father took a film workshop at the NFB [National
Film Board] in Montreal. And Hugh McIntyre, the bass player for the Spasm Band,
was also in that workshop, and they became friendly, and McIntyre gave him a
copy of No Record, the first album. And I found it in my father’s vinyl
collection - he had a huge collection, mostly crap! He’d just go to garage
sales and buy the whole box, he was a hoarder - but I don’t want to get into
But I found it sometime in the late 70’s or early 80’s. I’d
heard the record when I saw them - I’d kind of forgotten, I thought maybe there
were no vocals anymore.
That would be an interesting way to see them, as an
It was. But it wasn’t the full band, I think there was four
Impressions of the instruments?
Kazoos, of course. I think I was particularly inebriated, so
it’s a bit of a fog, that show, but I was impressed overall, especially that
they were Canadian and from a small town.
And when you came back from Japan, you wanted to make a film
…because of the interest in Japan I saw. I was proud to be
Canadian. I mean, they’d talk about Cronenberg or something like that, but it’s
rare that it comes up. This is one of the first times that a band - they never
discussed April Wine or stuff like that.
Did you find yourself getting more nationalistic over there
- more proud to be a Canadian in Japan?
Certainly, because there’s anti-Americanism everywhere, and
I’d always correct people: “no, I’m Canadian,” and you’d get a warmer
reception. I wouldn’t wear a flag on my backpack like a lot of tourists do,
but… people were more receptive.
I think that’s an American thing, wearing a Canadian flag on
Oh, maybe, yeah. They figured it out...
It happened to me too over there, though maybe it’s just
being in a foreign culture that made me more aware of my own culture.
I read my first Timothy Findley book when I was in Japan. I
bought my first Canadian history book of my own accord when I was in Japan.
So did you screen the film in Japan, when it was done?
I got it translated, actually. There’s a Japanese-subtitled
version that did screen.
Is it on DVD in Japan?
No, it never came out. I tried to get Alchemy Records to put
it out, but they didn’t respond.
Are they still interested in the Nihilist Spasm Band? Did
that relationship continue?
I haven’t heard anything about that. I think they
re-released the entire back catalogue on CD, and a live album. The last thing
that came out was a kind of greatest hits, I don’t know if you’ve seen that one
- a local London label. It’s called The Best We Can Do.
(Laughs). Right! Any favourite memories of seeing them
Um. Well, I followed them on tour - I went with them in the
van when they played the Knitting Factory. Nothing in particular, but just
being around them 24/7 was a lot of fun. There was no age gap. They drank and
they would smoke weed - some of them - and… I felt like a peer. And I played
with them a few times - not opening, but with them, onstage.
I should confess that I haven’t seen all of the documentary.
I bought it just after having seen them in Vancouver and… it was enough for
You should sit through it, it’s pretty funny - they’re
pretty funny. There’s a section in Japan.
I’ll look at it again - just didn’t have time. Sorry!
Do they have a serious political stance - that they see
themselves as cultural -
Ambassadors, of sorts? Or anti-ambassadors. They’re pretty
left-wing, anti-government. Some of them - it varies. Not overtly - it’s more
about humor and surrealism. And anarchy is somewhat prevalent, the colors that
they use, red and black. I got particularly friendly with John Boyle, the kazoo
guy, and he was unhappily married to a local woman his age, and then Aya Onishi
joined the band. She hooked up with him, she’s like 30 years younger than him,
and that split up his marriage. That’s not in the film, because that was
before. Now they live together in Peterborough. And he told me, he looked in
the dictionary, and I forget the term now, but there’s a term, a -philia term,
for young women who love old, aged men. And he said, “She’s got this, and I’m
so lucky!” They’re an odd couple…
Did you have romantic liaisons with Japanese?
I had a couple, sure. Including Mayuko, who was married.
I had a few dates with Japanese girls when I was over there,
but there was too much cultural baggage. I found it difficult to connect . I
found them repeating everything I said.
Oh, it’s infuriating! Absolutely. Being in a band, that kind
of helped, I didn’t have to make a big effort.
I imagine that some of the more interesting people were
coming to see you, too. How did you connect with Mayuko?
I went to see CCCC, her noise band - she did an S&M
thing there, and she was friends with Masami Akita, and I said, “introduce me
to her, please.” So he did, and just, instantly, without even asking the other
guys in Nimrod - because our tour was being planned at the time - I said, “if
you’d like to come with us to the States, we could do a noise set and you could
perform with us.” I thought, “there’s no way she’s going to say yes to this.”
But a week or two later, she called me up and said, “okay, I come!”
Excellent. Was that a bonding point between you and John Boyle?
The reason that I was asking about the politics of the
Nihilist Spasm Band was that I was really interested in the section in the
Torturing Nurse documentary. I don’t remember which member it was, but where
someone is talking about how sick they are of foreigners asking if their music
is intended as a form of dissent.
It’s Junky. Yeah.
I’m used to thinking of noise music as kind of a form of
(Confused:) An arko?
Ah. So was he just being cynical, or…
No, he wasn’t being cynical. Noise is just pure sound, joy…
they don’t have any particular interest in politics.
Does the Chinese government have any interest in them? Are
there ever problems with authorities on the noise scene?
They’re not really aware of it. There was one show - that
show with the girl, Jiadie, tied up and waxed, the cops showed up at that. It
was packed. The word got out - they wisely spread the word that there was going
to be something interesting that night. I think they were using social media, that’s
how they drew people out, back when it was Myspace, more. He was using the
international site - that’s how he’s hooked up with other people.
Did you hook up with other noise fans over there?
A handful. I wasn’t that social, but people would approach me.
Sometimes they’d see me shooting.
Zev Asher and Leah Singer in Montreal, circa 1988, courtesy Squirrelgirl.com
Okay. So let’s talk about the Sonic Youth story.
Yeah. I’m kind of friendly with Lee Ranaldo, and Thurston I
interviewed for the Spasm Band film, so I know them a little bit, and they were
coming to play Shanghai, and Leah, who is Lee’s wife, emailed me and said, “if
you want to go, I’ll get you on the list.” I said sure, of course. So I went to
the show and afterwards talked to Lee and they invited me to come for dinner
with them, which was nice. And I asked them why there was no opening act, and
they said, “Well, we wanted Torturing Nurse, and the government wouldn’t allow
a noise band.” I’m surprised it got to that point, where the government would
be consulted - I didn’t know they meddled in such things, but apparently they
do. And the venue was a very old, classy opera theatre or something, and they
were afraid - it was a deterrent, I guess. I’m sure they had never heard, or
heard of, Torturing Nurse.
Has the film played in China?
Apparently. That’s why I didn’t want to say that [the
Vancouver screening] was the world premiere. They asked me, could we screen it.
I said sure, go ahead.
I wondered watching it if they were couching their feelings
about the Communist party. Was that an honest reflection, or were they trying
to protect themselves…?
No, I think it was honest - they’re kind of conservative,
nationalistic, proud to be Chinese. You wouldn’t expect that out of noise
Do you think have noise as having a revolutionary potential?
I mean, the Tunnel Canary film last night -
Nathan is clearly intending what
he’s doing as political provocation, describes his music as a form of sonic
terrorism, to upset social structures. It’s weird fitting my mind around noise
not being seen that way.
Sure. Amongst a lot of people, in that community, there’s
certain political elements. It’s kind of, to me, the real punk rock. Punk rock
was just rock and roll sped up. Other than Crass and the anarcho British scene,
I don’t think a lot of Canadian and American bands were that political. Maybe
D.O.A. and a few here and there, but it was more just a fun, antisocial music,
whereas noise has more of a history of being more subversive. I played a show
in Israel at a noise festival.
There, they’re more driven. Everyone been in the army there
- it’s mandatory. So they’ve all had these horrific experiences fighting in
Lebanaon or whatever, and to them, this was like a release of pent up
aggression and frustration. So that was quite interesting.
Noise seems to be good that way. There’s a cathartic
There is. Absolutely.
Did you amp it up in Israel, try to
produce a more aggressive form of music?
I did something similar to what I did here, with video.
Is that a regular component of your performances?
Yeah, since I got into film. Especially if I’m playing a
laptop or an iPod, in this case. It’s like cheating the audience if there’s
nothing else to watch. I’ve seen plenty of shows of a guy sitting in the
spotlight or in the dark - okay, it’s fine, but keep it brief. Some of them go
and on. And I’m just a fan of visuals.
What you were doing yesterday?
That was a DVD I made in China for a festival there, and it
just seemed to fit perfectly. It was outtakes of that film.
I noticed you cut some hardcore into it.
That was a Chinese band. It was all shot in China.
No, I mean the facial cumshot.
Oh, hardcore. That was just to kind of to see if I’d get a
reaction. It was just something I downloaded.
Was there a reaction?
It was so brief and subtle - no, I just got a few nudge-nudge
wink-wink reactions, but nothing major.
Were you disappointed?
No! I didn’t even know people would notice it, but if you
did then I guess it’s pretty obvious.
It pops up twice!
But quick. It’s just me being cocky.
Speaking of Tunnel Canary, the performance where the wax is
being dripped - is that the same performance by Torturing Nurse appearing in
both films? [Note: this question and what follows are based on a “long version”
of the Tunnel Canary film that screened; shorter cuts - such as the one available
in the deluxe edition of
Bloodied But Unbowed - may omit some of this
material. Those unfamiliar with Tunnel Canary are directed here].
It is indeed.
It is indeed!
That guy was probably standing next to me. You can see the
angle from where he was. There were two performances in the Tunnel Canary film
and those were both in my film. Different performances. I noticed in the
credits it said, “unknown” - I was curious as to who it was.
Torturing Nurse just sent it to Eric [Lohrenz]. A lot of the
footage is stuff he got from people he talked to, and then he distorts it
visually - a lot of it is stuff he didn’t shoot himself.
Has it screened around?
A bit - it’s played in Vancouver a couple of times in
different cuts. He’s always tweaking it. He’s a bit new to things, so there are
some minor issues here and there.
It’s a little rough around the edges. It certainly does a
good job of giving a sense of the band.
I know Eric would be delighted if you have any mojo to get
Actually, you may know Kier-la [Janisse], who ran the
Cinemuerte, she’s now in Montreal, running the cinema Blue Sunshine. She
emailed me last week, saying, “I want to show the Spasm Band film,” in the
theatre, and I said, “I have a new film,” the Shanghai one, and I sent a link
to the Georgia Straight article. And because of that link, she’s now booked the
Tunnel Canary film.
Oh really? Excellent. They work really well as a double
And there’s no mention of the Nihilist Spasm Band in the
It is a bit of glaring omission.
In a Canadian film!
I’m embarrassed that I didn’t catch that myself.
Mya Mayhem in the film says that Tunnel Canary are the
fathers of noise. Yeah: no!
Yeah, she’s a black metal girl, I don’t know if she really
knows her noise.
She’s cute, though.
Yeah, and she’s got pipes! She can sing.
Yeah! Was she there last night?
No, she didn’t make it. But I saw her live. The end credits
was a show at the Sweatshop - I saw that show. There’s a “woo” that’s probably
me.... so how did you end up in Shanghai?
I had a Chinese girlfriend from Hong Kong. We were just
bored with Montreal, as I tend to get. And so she said, “we could go to
Shanghai,” which seemed to be like Japan was when I went there in 1987, kind of
just booming, and still a new place, or relatively new for English teaching
jobs like that, so I said, “yeah, let’s try it.” Just sort of arbitrary.
Did you have any feeling of connection to Chinese culture at
Not at all. I lucked in and got an interesting job there,
directing a live internet shopping network where people in the States or
anywhere could buy jewelry or pearls and such, online. I’d be directing in the
store and they’d pan the camera on the store and they’d say, “ooh, I like that
red piece over there, can you zoom in on that?” This would be over the phone.
So that was kind of fun. That was a good gig.
It seemed to me in the film - it’s one of the things I like
about the film, but, say, if you were to make a film about the Japanese noise
scene, it would be from an insider’s position. You would know the questions to
But what’s interesting about Subcultural Revolution is that
it’s almost like you’re fishing around - you’re not sure what the right
questions are, because it’s all kind of new. Did it feel that way?
Yeah, it did. And these guys are kids, and they’re a new
band, and there’s a language gap as well. I thought it should be more of a
general film about Shanghai, interspersed with their story. In that sense, I
thought I could just ask them a lot of questions about modern China and
You talk about homosexuality, but you’re just seeing what
they’ll say. It has no particular bearing on the band.
Well, yeah. The guy mentioned - the couple mentioned that he
liked her boyfriend. So I went with it.
Just to see how they’d respond.
Did you safe as a filmmaker? Were you ever hassled?
There’s one scene in there where I’m shooting the military -
they put their hands up and tried to stop me. I was feeling kind of aggressive
and I just kind of ignored them. And they’re kind of afraid - they can’t speak
English at all, and they assume I can’t speak Chinese. Which I couldn’t. They’d
rather not deal with it if they can avoid it.
What are they actually speaking, by the way?
Where did the kid come from - the kid on the parade ground. That’s
a brilliant shot.
The kid was just sitting there! I had a friend shooting that
for me, and I said, “the kid would be a nice shot.” He got a beautiful shot of
it, just to illustrate - she was saying that the military service was
compulsory, but you don’t have to really do anything.
It illustrates that brilliantly. Most hardcore military
maneuvers are probably like, “no kids!”
No kids. We did have
guy come over and say “you can only shoot the cadets and the students -
don’t shoot any of the generals” or - I
didn’t know who was who, but after that, I focused on shooting the generals. I
was sitting alone in the stands in the stadium. Clearly, obviously, a white guy
sitting there alone with a nice camera. But they didn’t stop me, surprisingly.
What was your impression of communism in China?
I didn’t get a sense of it, other than street signs
indicating that buildings associated with communism or the Communist Party. It
seemed more like capitalist hell, like Japan. Everyone’s hustling you and
they’re trying to sell you knockoffs of Luis Vuitton bags or Rolex waches, or
DVDs you can find on every corner, for the equivalent about a dollar. I
couldn’t believe some of the stuff I found - the Criterion box set of Stan Brakhage,
pirated for $3.
Did you buy it?
No, I had it already. I downloaded it!
Right. Is there - I
know Japan is a haven for music geeks, there’s all these cool shops you can go
You can spend your
entire life looking for records. Is it similar in China?
I guess so - I find a couple of shops. Actually, Thurston
Moore, he’s a massive collector -
Anonymous thing. I was in Japan when they toured Japan and distributed these
flyers saying “come to the show, we have Trade Only vinyl for you! Bring us
your weird records.”
Right. The first question he asked me was, “hey, Zev, do you
know where the cool record shops are?” And I said, “sorry, I don’t.” I couldn’t
hook them up. They would have fallen on the floor if Thurston walked in.
Yeah - there was a huge crowd when Sonic Youth played China.
Oh really? So Sonic
Youth is big there.
I was shocked, too! Indy rock is big there, Dinosaur Jr.
played while I was there - a few other big bands. It’s not rock but I saw
Kronos Quartet doing Hendrix, there was a big crowd for that.
Wow. Was it a
different kind of music geekdom, the quality…
Well - the term in Japan is “otaku.” There was nothing to that extreme that I found. But again,
I couldn’t communicate well. Somehow with the Japanese I could communicate
better, with limited Japanese and help from people.
Where did Torturing
Nurse get into it?
Junky started it, and he was inspired by Japanese noise
artists. He totally looked up to the Japanese. He was totally impressed that I
knew some of them and had played with some of them.
So he knew who these
How did you connect
with Torturing Nurse in the first place?
Just looking around on the internet for underground art/
music in China, in Shanghai, and I wrote to them and said “I’m coming and I’d
like to possibly do a documentary about you and other groups.” I wasn’t sure
what I was going to do at first. They just seemed like a good focus point.
Were there other bands
you saw over there?
There was a band from Beijing called - I’m thinking Cop
Shoot Cop, but it’s not that. Car something. Carsick Cars! (Note: Carsick Cars
play Vancouver with Chinese band White+ and Shearing Pinx on March 21st, at Pat's Pub).
I like that.
They were very good, sounding like Sonic Youth a lot.
The rock thing?
Noise rock. Indy rock, post-punk, whatever. And they were
also set to open for Sonic Youth in Beijing, and again, the government at the
last minute intervened and told them at the last minute, “you can’t play.” And
Sonic Youth felt really bad, and actually invited them to go tour in Europe
It’s weird - it sounds
like the government are more threatened by the noise artists than the noise
artists are threatened by the government. Like the government think it’s an
oppositional thing, almost.
Yeah, I think that’s the case. They don’t know anything
about it, but it’s based on presumptions and assumptions.
Right. But you talk
about noise as being the real punk… was it disappointing that they weren’t more
In a way. I mean, Junky is a super-friendly guy who’s never
tried any drugs, despite the name. A conservative kid who lives with his
parents. Well, he’s not a kid, he’s around 30. But I was a little surprised at
how conservative they were. I didn’t meet anywhere who was anywhere like Nathan
[Holiday, of Tunnel Canary] - a real character, playing on his own, kinda
thing. They all live with their parents and have jobs.
Why did they call
themselves Torturing Nurse?
I thought there was a connection with Nurse With Wound, but
apparently not. It was just a random name that he came with up.
Okay… we’ve talked a
LOT, man. Maybe we should wind down soon. But I want to ask you about your
illness. You were thinking of making a film about it?
I may or may not. I’ve been trying to get funding. With
funding, I would do it. I usually don’t get funding, I just make the film with
my own limited resources.
That’s one of the cool
things about what you do, that it feels very DIY. Did you edit and shoot Subcultural
Revolution mostly by yourself? There were
a couple of other cameras?
A couple of. But I did most of it.
And you just made it
on your laptop.
Desktop. Mac. And the previous two, not this one but the
previous two, both got into the Toronto Film Festival. That’s quite a coup, for
So do you have plans
for the film about your illness?
I will probably end up making a short at least on my own. I
don’t have that much footage. It’s more to enlighten people with stem cell
transplants, because nobody knows anything about these things.
Can you recap your
Sure. I had a kind of leukemia - blood cancer. I was told -
in Shanghai, I got a work visa for that job that I got, directing the internet
shopping channel, and I had to pass a medical test for the work visa. An
official one, where all the foreigners go to this hospital and they put you
through a battery of tests, blood tests, all sorts of tests. And they told me
your white blood cell count is very high, you should go to a doctor. And I knew
what that meant, because I had chemo before, and I decided that risking my life
in the Chinese medical system, I went back home to Montreal to deal with that,
and when I went back, my doctor told me, “you’re a good candidate for a stem
cell transplant,” which didn’t mean anything to me. So I said “fine.” It’s
basically a modern version of the bone marrow transplant, more high-tech. And
they had to find a match and they went through twelve million possibilities
around the world and had given up. Finally one guy surfaced and it was a
perfect match, so I went into the hospital, and they slowly wiped my immune
system down to nothing.
And one day they came in and announced, “you have no immune
system, don’t cut yourself or you’ll bleed to death, you can’t catch a cold.” I
was in an isolated room, sealed off, temperature controlled, the windows didn’t
open. Everyone who came in had to wear a full gown and mask and gloves and the
How… It seems to me
that people with aesthetic sensibilities can make more of that, but… it would
still probably get pretty tiring and draining after awhile.
Yeah, it was, and I was weak, although I never got sick to
the point of puking and being nauseous. But I was weak, I couldn’t walk, and
this drug I was taking, prednisone, which is a steroid, did a lot of damage to
my bones. But it does good in terms of keeping the cancer at bay. But it does a
lot of damage, too, and it ended up with me having to have two hip
replacements, two cataract surgeries in both eyes. At one point they let me out
for a weekend pass and said, “don’t go walking around alone” and I didn’t
listen to them. Stubborn. I ended up falling and smashing my face and having my
jaw wired shut for a month, had a liquid diet through a straw… yeah, I’ve been
through the ringer, kind of. So I shot a little bit, I tried to keep a diary
but I just wasn’t motivated. Now I’m starting to think back and I’m writing a
lot about the experience, so it’ll probably be a kind of experimental/ personal
kind of essay film.
Stem cells are still
controversial in some places, right? What’s the issue - they’re harvested from
aborted fetuses or something?
That’s not the way I was treated. You can make body organs
out of stem cells, from animals or from other people. I don’t know all the
details myself, but the controversy has nothing to do with these transplants,
which are saving a lot of people’s lives. If this happened to me ten years ago,
I probably would not have survived.
Did it change you,
coming through all this?
Yeah, a little bit. It’s bewildering, and it’s left me a
little more antisocial. And I’m pushing fifty, and I’ve never really had a
steady job, and now I’m wondering. I have no RRSPs or anything like that,
nothing for the future, just debt.
And you’ve worked a
lot outside of the country, so your pension isn’t going to be that huge.
I don’t think I’ll have one at all! So. Yeah, that’s one
thing that’s mildly disconcerting.
Yeah, what do artists
The Spasm Band are a good example of that. The artists John
Boyle and Murray Favreau never worked, don’t have pensions, they have to keep
pumping out their art and hope for the best. Bill Exley was a high school
teacher, so he has a pension. Art Patten worked for newspapers, so those guys
are set, but the other guys, they have no money. Well, not much. I try not to
think about it - I’ll deal with it when it comes.
Do you think about the
future? Do you want to get a job, to make more films…?
Yeah, uh… It’s frustrating trying to get funding. I’m just
not a good business guy, I’m not good at selling myself. I’ve never found a
producer to work with who could hustle
for me. I would like to make narrative features, actually. I did make an
attempt at one shot in Venice Italy called Aqua
Alta, with an actor friend of mine, but it ended up being more experimental
than narrative, and a little awkward and… I was trying to use some of the
current European transgressive film techniques, like Bruno Dumont, Gaspar Noe.
Also in Asian films - long takes when nothing happens, it requires a lot of
patience to sit through.
Bela Tarr is a good one, sure. So that kind of sensibility.
It didn’t quite translate, but it’s an interesting film. There are various
cuts, different lengths. I think I’ll probably just put it up on my website.
You seem to be
attracted to extreme things.
Yeah. Which is why I
don’t get funding. Casuistry caused
such a controversy that I could be sort of blacklisted from arts funding.
Did you have grants to
work with on that film?
No, nothing. And I haven’t gotten any since.
Can we talk about Casuistry
a bit? What happened, how you heard about
it, and any recent developments?
Sure. I’d heard about this case in Toronto, these three
kids, one was an arts student, and these friends of his, who tortured and
killed this cat as an art project. They were intending to cook it and eat it as
well, apparently. It caused a big controversy. The word got out, and the cops
came to the house and found the corpse of the cat in a beer fridge. The gallery
that had shown it, Jesse Power, his work, got into trouble. It was a national
Was he a vegan or a
No, he’d made previous films of himself killing a chicken
and then eating it. And then after that, he became vegetarian, that’s right.
And he decided that if people eat meat, you should know how the animal suffers
and dies. He’d worked in a slaughterhouse to experience it, and found it a
horrifying experience. So basically he got arrested, the other two guys got
arrested, and I had a friend in Toronto who knew one of these guys. I
approached them and showed them my Spasm Band film. I didn’t think they’d be
open to a film, but they were, and I interviewed them all, including the lead
cop in the Toronto police, who worked on the case. I found some other
characters… when I finished editing it, I knew I had a kind of hot - it felt
like a bomb in my hand. I remember the day when I sent it into the Toronto Film
Festival, I said, “this is a bomb and it’s going to explode.” And it did. After
the film came out it made international headlines, mainly because this guy
Jesse (the art student, Jesse Power) showed up at the screening, and there was
about a hundred and fifty protestors across the street. And he engaged with
them, and they started fighting, and the cops detained him “for his own good,”
they said. And they accused me of giving him tickets. They thought it was all
orchestrated by me for publicity. It wasn’t at all! I just got lucky, I guess.
Or unlucky. You’ve had
serious negative repercussions.
Yeah. And I haven’t made money from it - I don’t make money
from any of these films at all. A little bit trickles in here and there, but
it’s not commercial filmmaking.
I think you told me
once that Casuistry was used by the
It was. In New York City. It kind of made me aware that I’d
done useful to society in that sense. That was just a one-off, though.
Has it had any life
since 2005? Have there been developments with Jesse Power, or any of the people
Unfortunately, I haven’t kept in touch with him. I know one
of the guys lives here in Vancouver, and is often busking on Commercial Drive.
I don’t know if he’s seen the film. Alex (MacKenzie, filmmaker and former
proprietor of the Blinding Light) says he sees him all the time.
When we spoke in 2005,
some people had vilified you for making this film.
Oh, actually, I still get hate mail [because of Casuistry].
“Dear. Mr. Asher, you make me sick, you make me puke, you
deserve to die.” This is obviously someone who hasn’t seen the film, and is
reacting to the title [the full title is Casuistry:
The Art of Killing a Cat]. And I did an interview for Cinema-Scope magazine
with Mark Peranson, it’s up online (note: not that I can find!), and apparently it gets the most hits on his
website of anything. It alludes to the fact that I’m friendly with Jesse Power.
It was just like a courtesy - I was never his friend. People assume that I was
his friend and I did this whole thing as an extension of his art project in a
way. I don’t know the guy, and I’m just being friendly.
He seems to have
gotten a tough break, as well. Obviously what he did was misguided, it was
And there were drugs involved.
And there were drugs
involved. But he seems like he actually - I don’t know what his intentions
count for, but they weren’t the worst in the world.
No, not at all. He got shafted, because his roommate
snitched on him, that’s how it fell apart.
It’s a very painful
I wanted it to be a difficult viewing experience. And I like
the fact that is showed here in this horror festival! They called it a “horror
documentary,” which never occurred to me. There isn’t really a genre as such.
Did that play in
Not Japan, but Taiwan. It played in the Melbourne Film
Festival in Australia, it had a week’s run in New York, but only a few people
came out to see it because the Tribeca Film Festival was on at the same time.
Austin, Texas, it played there for a
week as well in a rep theatre.
Did it attract
Sure, especially in Toronto. I was disappointed that the
Vancouver Film Festival turned it down. I was kind of led to believe that once
one of these festivals supports you and shows one of your films, that they try
to support your career. That’s not the case. People are particularly touchy, I
think more so here than East Coast, about animal rights, environmental
It’s really unfair,
because it’s a very sensitive film. It’s tough material, but it’s not
No, and I happen to be a cat lover. I wouldn’t have shown
the footage if I had access to it, so I didn’t know what all the hoopla was
about. It was animal rights activists who haven’t seen the film, and the title
alone had stirred them up. Half of these people are mentally ill, they love
animals more than human beings.
What are your plans
I’m starting a label, it’s going to be called Documental.
I’m working on the cover designs and artwork, and somehow
I’m going to figure out how to get bonus footage in there. By the end of 2011,
or sooner, hopefully. I’m debating whether to do commentaries. But do people
still buy DVDs?
Yeah, if you release
it, people will rip it and torrent it.
I buy DVDs, but -
you’re a downloader yourself?
I am, I’m guilty of that. But I figure if there’s enough
bonus footage and commentaries, enough reasons for people to buy it…
Yeah. But I think
there are still people who would be interested. I mean, I personally use
torrents to watch stuff that you can’t see, or would never pay money for. Like,
I watched Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend the other night. It’s not like you can buy it at Wal-Mart. Torrents
are perfect for that.
If you had access to
funding, what are some projects you’d really like to do?
I had an idea for a future film for a kind of World War II/
Hitler theme park. You ride the Holocauster… I wanted to really push it, see
how far I could go. I could get away with it, being Jewish, I think. [It’s set
in] a sort of fascist future in America, where people come to experience the
Holocaust in an amusement park setting.
I started working on a script for that. It’s half-finished. [Note: as Zev is
describing this, the restaurant/ lounge where we’re talking starts to play a
mutated dance version of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” in the background].
That sounds really cynical.
I guess it is a little bit dark. It would be a comedy, a
dark comedy. A lot of people would find it offensive. I like kind of pushing
the envelope if I can.