My Canada, 30/150: The noisemakers

I’ve been to some weird concerts in my life, but the cake-topper has to be the 50th anniversary reunion tour performance of the Nihilist Spasm Band at The Garrison, a hipster indie live music venue in Toronto.

The Nihilist Spasm Band, founded in 1965 in London ON, drew together a band of young friends with a keen sense of the absurd: many of them were visual artists but the group also included a librarian, a typesetter and a teacher. They evolved into a “noise band” – creating sound using homemade instruments and improvising, often playing at different tempos.

You may have ascertained by now, dear readers, that a band credited with being the inspiration for such ear-splitters as Germany’s Einstürzende Neubauten would not normally be in my wheelhouse. But then, you didn’t have Spasmist Bill Exley as your high-school English teacher.

When I was a columnist at The London Free Press, I wrote about London-born “Wild Bill” Exley, my eccentric, exacting English teacher who alluded to playing in a cutting-edge band. His students thought he was just messing with us. It wasn’t until years later that I found out, dear heavens, he’d been telling the truth.

Most of us have tales about a teacher or two from our youth but not all of those teachers end up as a major feature in the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper. Some my fellow students went on to big things in the world of education or literature, including best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, and the article credits Bill Exley with being the foundation upon which they built their success.

30-exley-nihilist
Me with retired English teacher – and Nihilist Spasm Band orator and pot-banger – Bill Exley at the 2014 Elmira District Secondary School 75th reunion. Photo: Chris Moorehead

The year after seeing Exley at a 2014 high-school reunion, I saw promos about the Spasm Band’s 50th anniversary tour, including a Toronto stop, where I live. Oh, why not? I thought. It will be fun! Finally, I’ll see Wild Bill in his other element.

So we got tickets, and headed to The Garrison. We were among the first wave to arrive. There was a young fellow selling recordings of the Spasm Band, including their 1997’s Live in Japan, a country where their sonic chaos has found particular resonance. “They’re selling earplugs at the bar, or you can have these for free,” he said, handing us each a pair of small yellow foam cylinders. “I was at the sound check. You’re going to need them.”

Out of curiosity I had listened previously to a few Nihilist Spasm Band recordings. What I did not realize was the VOLUME OF THE NOISE THESE GUYS MADE when they performed in concert. We were in a black box club space, no seating. Exley himself was wearing earplugs. He and his surviving band members (two original members are deceased – artist Greg Curnoe and librarian Hugh McIntyre) were augmented by a couple younger players. And here they were, the original players all in their 70s, cranking out meandering, driving waves of sound that made you surrender your senses.

Exley, in buttoned-up shirt and sweater vest, was the front man, in the sense that he added absurd words to the sonic tsunami. “A chipmunk is not a squirrel,” he intoned in his resonant baritone voice, one that I was used to hearing reciting Shakespeare. “Drummers cannot sing. A raccoon is not a bear.”

All the while, the pots clanged and the drum-like things banged and the kludged-together instruments wailed at peak amplified volume.

Says Toronto music writer Jesse Locke, in a feature article on the Spasm Band in Aux: “Depending on the listener’s sensibilities, the NSB can bring to mind shamanic free jazz, agitprop/absurdist poetry, junkyard concrète, or a live cat being wrung through a meat grinder.”

The cat grinders were clearly having the time of their lives, up there. After the set, Exley came out into the audience to greet fans and friends. “I think this might be our last tour,” he said, carefully removing and pocketing his ear plugs. “It has been 50 years.”

Top photo: courtesy the Nihilist Spasm Band.

Update on March 6, 2017 – a message from Bill Exley via his daughter Laura Exley: The touring continues!

Kelley Teahen might be interested in knowing about the Nihilist Spasm Band’s tour in France this month. We shall be playing in five cities for the Sonic Protest Festival:

Thursday, March 16 at Villa Arson, Nice
Saturday, March 18 at Centre FGO Barbara, 1 Rue Fleury, Paris
Tuesday, March 21 in Metz
Thursday, March 23 at Espace Culturel de l’Universite d’Angers, Angers
Saturday, March 25 at Festival Piednu, Le Havre

More information and photos are available at  http://www.fgo-barbara.fr/programmation/agenda/sonic-protest-485

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Chris Moorehead says:

    You neglected to mention the act that opened for NSB at the Garrison: someone or something called The Dead Are Those Who Have Died. It was the sonic equivalent of the exploding-head scene in the David Cronenberg film Scanners. Indeed, the aural assault proved too much even for the great Bill Exley: it was at this point he inserted his own earplugs.

    Liked by 1 person

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