Friday, April 21, 2023

Dead Bob - a John Wright mini-interview

When I last spoke with John Wright of Nomeansno, the project this article refers to, Dead Bob, which broke last night on Bandcamp, was known by a different name, 3 - 2= 1. It's a name that John briefly liked, but which he fell out of love with before the album saw the light of day, cancelling his original release date (his own birthday) and moving it to Tom Holliston's (!). I did not ask about the curious math behind the original album title that the new name was in reference to - Nomeansno's 0 + 2 = 1, which I always took to represent Andy Kerr (given to referring to himself in NMN liner notes as "nobody," or variants thereupon) in the role of 0, the Wright brothers (Rob and John) as the 2, and the band itself as the 1. One does not ask about things one feels one understands, plus my theory seemed validated by John's new equation, 3 - 2 = 1, with Nomeansno as the 3, 2 as the missing Rob and Tom, and 1 as John himself, though helped by an array of friends, notably Selina Martin and Byron and Adam Slack, whose involvement in the album I asked about here and here; I have not interviewed Kristy-Lee Audette of Rong, who contributes trumpet, or Ford Pier, at least in regard to this project, though he and I talk about his involvement with Nomeansno here, and he told me the other day at Red Cat that he's more on the follow up to Life Like, anyhow - because there is a second album in the works! Ford also assured me that whoever might be involved in either project, this is, make no mistake, a John Wright solo record...

...which is fine with me! I've always liked John Wright's songs - from the days of the Infamous Scientists' "Canada is Pissed" to the most Ramonesy song on All Roads Lead to Ausfahrt, "Slugs Are Burning" - superbly shot from multiple camera angles here - to say nothing of the Hanson Brothers (also superbly shot here), whom he fronted, or Compressorhead, which is also kind of a John Wright solo album, but played by robots (if you haven't heard Party Machine, it IS online... and last I checked, vinyl and CDs could be ordered, albeit in somewhat complex fashion, from Europe).

But during the talk, back when John was still thinking he'd be entering the world as 3 - 2 = 1, we covered the unfinished Nomeansno song, "White Stone Eyes," with lyrics by brother Rob, which has been completed for the Dead Bob release (which will be discussed in the next issue of Big Takeover, alongside a Nomeansno-referencing interview I did with Robyn Hitchcock). We also discussed how, in the absence of original masters or artwork - still in the hands of Southern Records, as far as anyone knows, probably packed in a box in a storage locker that no one wants the hassle of finding, Alternative Tentacles is having to reconstruct Nomeansno's back catalogue for reissue, a process which has begun but will probably be fairly slow-going, all things considered.  

What I would have asked about, if I had realized the relevancy, is the namesake of the album, Dead Bob, taken from a song on Sex Mad, but also, I gather, the quasi-mascot-like fella on the cover of Nomeansno's second-ever 12 inch, from 1985. See his li'l arm on the Dead Bob logo? 

I am presuming that "Bob" is actually Rob Wright (not involved on the album besides the lyrics to "White Stone Eyes" and the revamped title track, also originally a Nomeansno song, though again, do note: he is not now, nor has he ever been, dead). And I am guessing that, as with the Dead Bob cover itself, the art for You Kill Me is John's, though I haven't checked the sleeve or spoken to him much about the visual element of the band (it'll have to wait til next time!). 

Here's some of what I did talk to John about, however...  there will be more in Big Takeover (but not much)... I am in italics, John is not...

Allan: So Byron, Adam and Kristy-Lee, did they all come up to Powell River to record with you, or...?

John: No, it was Byron and Kristy that eventually came up. As you know, I've been working on my own material and some old Nomeansno material, a little bit - one song in particular that Robbie and I collaborated on that never went anywhere, but that I've now completed. But I've been working on this stuff for years and years and years. And COVID kind of gave me a break from the pub [the Wildwood, still in winter closure mode], where I could concentrate more on it. When I started recording my live drums - because I had all these demos and loops and programmed drums, as the tools of writing - I was really happy with the sounds of the results I was getting. This is kind of more talking about my album, but I'll get to Byron in a minute...

 But y'know, the songs were at various stages of completion. Often lyrics were... Robbie was the lyricist in [Nomeansno] - I wrote some, but I'm not a prolific lyricist. Silly Hanson Brothers songs were okay, but... and of course, I play drums, and I play keyboards, and some very rudimentary guitars and bass, but to be a band and to play some of these songs, some of this stuff is kind of complicated and beyond me, though I've tried to simplify things to suit my abilities. But eventually I knew maybe Ford or Byron or people I knew would come and help: "Hey, you want to play some guitar on this," or whatever. And also I said, "Hey, Ford, y'know, I've got these songs and no lyrics, got any ideas?" And Byron was sending me music for the robots, and - "Oh, I've got these demos and ideas." So we were exchanging things amongst ourselves, primarily with Byron and Ford. And I talked about how it would be awesome if Adam could play some bass for me... 

This was a couple of years ago, but time goes by, and I'm busy with the bar, they're busy with their lives, and Adam has a baby... there was no time for anything else. But eventually, Ford wrote some music for a new song that is on the album ["That Was Too Easy"] and he wrote another song that is complete that is not on the album, and he's got some other ideas, and Byron wrote some lyrics for some of my songs, and then he sent up a song and I completely re-arranged it and edited the words. So we kind of collaborated on some stuff. And then finally, after about a year of talking about them coming up and doing some recording, replacing some of my guitars and working on these songs - I'm speaking of Byron specifically here - that we had written together, he was able to come up with Kristy, whom I'd never met. She plays trumpet and guitar, she's a multi-instrumentalist, so - "Oh, well, that's awesome, I've got some horn parts, maybe she wants to play those!" And she did: she came up, she played some horn, she did some singing, and Byron did some guitar work and some background gang-vocal kind of stuff. It was awesome, and the next album is well on the way to completion; hopefully, I'm going to get them to do more. Adam never made it up - but if he can come up some time in the future, that would be great - because that is one thing that's lacking... Keyboard basses are okay in certain circumstances, but there are certain circumstances where it's like, "No, I've gotta have a real fuckin' bass player to play these songs on bass," because they're beyond me. A couple of them I've tried, and - "I can't fuckin' play this!" Plus the only bass I have is this giant Gibson's Thunderbird, the neck is so fucking long I can hardly reach down to the end, and I'm such a clumsy bass player... I do some bass playing, but it's the really dead simple stuff. 

 Having grown up and made music with a brother like Rob must make your standard a bit high...

Well... [portion indecipherable]. I'm a bit intimidated, right? Like, the people who are going to listen to this are Nomeansno fans, and yeah, Robbie set the bar pretty high when it comes to the tone and the text and the songwriting, y'know, lyrically. And I'm not that kind of writer. I try - well, I don't try to imitate him, but I try to have that kind of quality of writing, trying to articulate the feelings that I have, and... it's a talent, it's not easy. I have a difficult time articulating my feelings! I can string some words together that are clever, but Robbie could find the emotional tone in his words that makes the music mean something. And the music - it worked both ways; I could write music that gave Rob the opportunity, the palette, to emote on. So we worked well together. He didn't find it difficult to write words to my songs, and his words then gave emotional and intellectual depth to the feelings [I wanted to express]. To write a song, I know just how the song needs to feel lyrically, but I don't necessarily know how to do that [ie., how to put it into words]; I'm just not a talented lyricist. 

I realize that this is not a Nomeansno reunion, I'm very clear on that, but other than using some of his lyrics, is Rob involved in any way? Has he given you his blessing? 

Oh yeah, he's totally.. his blessing - it's fine, but no, Rob is not involved in any way, other than I've used his lyrics (for "White Stone Eyes"). And then I re-did a Nomeansno song, which I didn't really plan on specifically for an initial release of my own material. It's a song called "Life Like," are you familiar with that song?

I love that song! 

But it's utterly obscure. As a bonus track on a double-vinyl album, it never saw the light of day, really, and we could never play it properly live, and our [= Nomeansno's] version on the record - it's fine, it's good, it's well played, but the arrangement was a bit flat, I found, and it's kind of more of a pop song. I imagined it being a much broader arrangement. And I just happened to come across my original keyboard demo of it, and I thought, "Y'know what, I should just do this up as a pop song." Because I kind of wrote it to be one. Not the lyrics, because they were added afterwards by Rob; but the lyrics are great, so I thought, "I'm going to just re-do this and see what happens." And I really like it! 

Also, the economy of what I was doing... I've only been able to complete so many songs, because of the aforementioned shortcomings of  what I can actually perform on, and writing lyrics and such. So this was a completed song, and the tone of it - I just started seeing the other songs that I wanted to do on this first one, and I could see the lyrical tone matching with things. And I decided to call the album Life Like

Did anyone contribute electronically, like, emailing you parts? I gather Larry Boothroyd of Victims Family has a project right now, Specimen Box, that Ford is involved in right now, where people emailed parts to Larry and he's assembled them without them ever knowing what the whole would be like. But this isn't like that, it all happened up in your home studio...? 

More or less. Obviously we had to fire back and forth some ideas, but most of what is finished on this record was done here. 

Who else is involved? 

My son Aidan played some acoustic guitar for me. And I've got some lyrics coming from someone I don't know, actually. But the first person I reached out to was Selina Martin. I don't know her really well, but she had done a bunch of touring with Tom Holliston. She's out of Toronto, and I never really knew her before, but she came up here with Tom and playing at the pub, and that's when I met her. And I've seen her one other time, and I really enjoyed her songs and her singing. I ended up getting one of her albums on CD and it gets played in the car and I really enjoy it. She's a good songwriter, and has a unique sound to her. And thing song... I have a song that, like I say - I've got all these songs that I couldn't come up with anything lyrically for, and I thought I would farm a few out: "Y'know what, I bet Selina could do something interesting with this!" ...just from hearing her. And because we knew each other a little bit. I just fired it off: "I've got this song, maybe you'd write some lyrics, a melody, or do something with it..." [This song will be on the next Dead Bob album, apparently; it doesn't seem to be credited on this one].

And then with "Life Like" I really didn't want it to be just my voice, not just a male voice, either, but to be a bit more choral, and I thought that the whole song should be sung by a man and a woman. In the end, it didn't exactly turn out that way, but since it was finished and required no writing or creating, I said, "Here's a song, will you sing this for me?" 

So I have to say - I completely zoned when you were asking me [about emailing parts back and forth], I was thinking musically and instrumentally, but Selina recorded her vocals in France, and sent them to me. She sang along with my voice, when I sent it to her, and I sang along with hers when it came back, and I assembled the two vocals and harmonies here. But my apologies - her vocals were definitely not recorded here.

You're singing the leads on everything else, besides the parts of "Life Like" she does? No one else?

No, I'm singing the leads on everything. 

I'm curious how you envision playing this live. Who would be in a touring band, if there were to be one? 

Well, this is all very up in the air. This also occurred to me: it's like, okay, I can't lead sing and play these songs - a bunch of them. The opening track, for instance... well, maybe the opening track; there are maybe two or three of these tracks that I could sing and play at the same time. But this is a logistical problem: what exactly do I do, in a live show? As a drummer, I did some of the lead singing in Nomeansno, but I can't sing a whole set and play drums for the whole thing, like an hour and a half. There's just no fucking way! 

I don't know how anyone can do that for one song - I recall watching you sing "Humans," and it's like, how the fuck is he doing this? 

Ha! Right. Yeah, I can do some. And I think if I was able to form a band and go and play some live shows, I would have to sing more than I used to. But there's no possible way I could sing a whole show, and there are going to be certain songs here that I did here that I will not be able to sing live. So I'd have to figure out what to do about that. There'd have to be one or two other lead singers who were playing with me. But that's a bridge I haven't come to and haven't figured out how to cross yet. As far as who would play with me, of course, Byron, Adam, Ford would be awesome. Keith Rose? These are all people I know, they're all professionals, they're all great. There are certainly others out there, I'm just picking the ones closest to me. But it's also [a question of] who can. The people I know are all older. It's easy to be, "Let's be in a band and go touring!" when you're in your 20s, but when you're in your 30s and, God forbid, you have kids, that's going to be a lot tougher. You can't just up and go and do shit, and there has to be money and blah-blah-blah, there's a whole slew of things to figure out for forming a band and touring. I don't know what I'll do about that. 

But do I want to? Of course I do. I love playing shows - not only new songs, but old songs, other people's songs, I love playing live, and I've done very little of it in the last eight years. 

John Wright on the patio of the Wildwood, signin' some rekkids

Visit the Dead Bob bandcamp page for more! 


Pipo Mucks said...

Great interview and great album.

Allan MacInnis said...

Thanks, Pipo!