Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Zev Asher Memorial Interview

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 cafĂ©/ 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 before somewhere. 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 City, 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 the theatre:
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) at 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 destructible body.”
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
month plus.
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
olive [nimrod].
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.
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 story?

For a little while, I was the arts editor of Broken Pencil, this magazine?
Oh yeah.
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 Holocaust!”
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 males. 

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 hotel?
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. 
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, naivetĂ©  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 headshops legally.
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.

That’s fantastic.
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. 

Oh, excellent!
The kids loved it.

Are there photos of this?
People are pestering me to put it up on Youtube. There are videos.
Are you shy about putting it up?
No, no, just haven’t gotten around to it. It wasn’t planned that way.
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 it.
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 guy.
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 it.
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 differently?
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 experimental…
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 culture.
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 over here?
That flexidisc… We’re on a few compilations, but that’s about it. 

Are you on Merzbow albums?
Oh, of course. There’s Flying Testicle, which is me and Masami Akita and Masonna. 
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 thing…
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.

How did the karaoke stuff on Yen For Noise come about?
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’ basement.
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 that…!
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 instrumental band.
It was. But it wasn’t the full band, I think there was four of them.
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 about them…
…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 your backpack.
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 perform? 
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 awhile!
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!
No problem.
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?
Maybe, unspoken.
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 dissent -
(Confused:) An arko?
Anarcho. Anarchic.
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

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 artists.

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.

Oh really?
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 element.
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 it screened. 
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 bill.
And there’s no mention of the Nihilist Spasm Band in the film.
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 that point?
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 ask.
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 Shanghai…
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 to.
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 -
The Diskaholics 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 people were.
Oh yeah.
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 with them.
Did they?
They did.
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 oppositional?
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 Canada.
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 experiences?
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 whole bit.
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 do?
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?
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 news story.
Was he a vegan or a vegetarian?
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 SPCA once.
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 involved?
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].
Like what?
“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 wrong -
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 film.
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 Japan? 
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 defenders?
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 issues.  
It’s really unfair, because it’s a very sensitive film. It’s tough material, but it’s not insensitively presented.
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 for it?
I’m starting a label, it’s going to be called Documental.
(Laughs) Yeah.
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.