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.