The Dirty Nil’s ‘Master Volume’ Puts A Punk Spin On Arena Rock

Steve Gullick

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Before they started a band, Luke Bentham and Kyle Fisher were just two Canadian kids from the Ontario suburbs who liked to blow stuff up.

“We were obsessed with terrorizing the neighborhood with fireworks,” Bentham, 27, tells me. They would grind up sparklers into powder, pack the explosive material into action figures, and watch them melt. But this mischief soon caused problems — one time Luke burned his hand, and another time an older kid from the neighborhood chased them off for making too much noise. Eventually, the budding delinquents agreed to “transition into something else,” like rock and roll.

The rest is history for The Dirty Nil, a Hamilton-based power trio that specializes in setting off bombastic, ear-splitting fireworks of the musical sort. Formed in 2006 when the band members were still in high school, The Dirty Nil subsequently hit the road, embracing the maxim of “play everywhere and anywhere,” honing a snotty mix of punk-rock abrasiveness and arena-rock posturing in basements, dive bars, and VFW halls. As the band’s frontman, Bentham emulates the power-stance theatrics of Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen and Kiss’ Gene Simmons while furiously strumming caterwauling, mile-a-minute riffs over Fisher’s maniacal drum fills. Musically, The Dirty Nil’s ecumenical love of rock covers both the genre’s high and low cultures — Bentham can namecheck semi-obscure Who bootlegs, as well as write a quintessential pop-punk tune like “Zombie Eyed,” from 2016’s Higher Power, which sounds a bit like Lit’s late-’90s American Pie staple “My Own Worst Enemy.”

Against all odds, Higher Power nudged The Dirty Nil toward mainstream respectability in Canada, garnering the band a Juno (that country’s equivalent of a Grammy) for Breakthrough Group Of The Year in 2017. But the new Master Volume doesn’t betray any willingness to go pop — on the contrary, The Dirty Nil is now even more firmly entrenched in underground rock culture. Master Volume delivers the band’s sharpest set of songs via gloriously drunken guitar heroics and Bentham’s strutting, histrionic vocals.

It’s the opposite of the sort of easygoing, vibe-y music that tends to populate indie music playlists on streaming platforms — as Bentham explained when he spoke by phone earlier this week, he prefers to make music that elicits physical reactions, even if it’s pain or even annoyance. Either way, The Dirty Nil is impossible to ignore.

What was the lightning-bolt moment for you that made you care about rock and roll?

I remember sitting in the morning watching TV: My whole family’s just done eating breakfast before they go to work, and we were just flipping channels. We had the equivalent to MTV — it was called Much Music — and the video for Nirvana’s “You Know You’re Right” came on. The video is just a montage of live footage, but the song itself is so raw and so powerful. I remember hearing that and hearing my parents saying, “What the hell is that? Change the channel!” And I looked at them, and I was like, “F*cking cool! I’ve never seen adults get so riled up by music before, that’s awesome.” When you’re 12 or 13, everybody gets an angst towards their parents, because it’s all rules, all the time. But seeing what a song could do was a powerful feeling. That made me a lifelong Nirvana fan.

Another rock and roll moment was the first time I saw the Who playing on the Rock And Roll Circus, which was this movie that The Rolling Stones shot in 1968, but they didn’t air until the ’90s.

Yes! That has the best-ever version of “A Quick One While He’s Away.”

The Who just destroy everyone, it’s insane. They’re so energetic, they’re clearly sipping a bit of brandy, they’re super happy and super cheesy, knocking over microphone stands, and are so good and so tight and so fun. When we were starting the band, we would practice and then watch that video, and then go back out and practice. We would watch that video a gazillion times.

They were so good in that performance that The Stones refused to air the thing, because they got so out-shined! That kind of really physical performance, and seeing people having fun and not feeling sorry for themselves, that was one of the most important things we ever saw when we were kids.

The Dirty Nil actually opened for The Who in 2017. I imagine that must’ve been a real “full circle” moment.

The Who have had more of an impact on our band than almost any band. The fact that I actually got to meet Roger and Pete was the part that I really wasn’t counting on because they had their own entire separate complex that was quartered off backstage, that you couldn’t enter. I just happened to run into Pete when I was walking back to our dressing room. I gave him the most 14-year-old excited face, and he’s like, “All right, let’s do this.” We took some pictures together, and then Roger Daltrey showed up. I used to think that there were no perfect days in life, but that’s the f*cking closest I think I’ve ever come.

It’s interesting that you mentioned this cathartic, abrasive Nirvana song and such a bombastic Who performance as influences because I feel like that sums up The Dirty Nil. When I saw you guys play live a few years ago, I loved how exuberant you were. There were so many grandiose rock poses. You’re basically a punk band that plays arena rock.

There’s less intention in what we do physically, and more just expression. I definitely think that’s a fair assessment though. We’ve always been into classic rock, even when we were starting to get really snotty about our tastes. But a band that really blew my mind the most, and is probably still my favorite band, is The Replacements. I just looked at the songs they would cover — they would play a half-drunk Beatles cover, and then do a Black Flag song or whatever. That’s a pretty accurate description of their sound, too, at least in certain parts of their career. That really was blowing open the door, where there are no rules in rock and roll. It’s also really fun just to f*ck with people.

Do you feel like you troll your audience?

I think we definitely do in a song sense, especially on our new record. Always with a smile, to see who we can rile up. I think that’s how you know you’re doing your job. When we see just unanimous positivity, that’s lovely, but it would be way better if there was somebody like, ‘I miss the way they did it back in 2011!’ That stuff I love. We have no hate in our hearts, it’s always just some sort of genre thing. ‘You can’t do that, or you can’t steal that.’ Yes, we can. We can steal anything we want.

What always makes me laugh about hard-core punks is how conservative they are musically. If you don’t hew to this incredibly narrow set of sonic parameters, you can easily piss those people off.

That’s our prime demographic of trolling, for sure. If there’s anything that I want to do in my life, I want on my tombstone, ‘He pissed off as many punks as he possibly could.’

How did it feel to win a Juno?

It’s hard to sound genuine saying this, but I really do mean it: We really did not think we were going to win. Even though we were like, ‘We are better than all these stupid other bands.’

We’re on a different axis. They played everyone’s music before they announce the winner, a little snippet of it, and I had heard all of those songs on the radio at least once. Then they came to our song, and there was a crash of feedback, and all the people in suits all around this hall clenched up their shoulders. It was the first few notes of “Zombie Eyed,” and everybody winced like they were about to get hit with something. That was probably one of my biggest points of happiness and accomplishment in our entire band, that one moment. Seeing everybody in their really nice, fancy suits just clench up and recoil, and feel a little mild, physical pain at the sound of our band.

Master Volume is out now Dine Alone Music. Get it here.