Anyone who doubts that the Vancouver, B.C., band & & NOMEANSNO & & has a sense of humor has only to go a few rounds with bassist Rob Wright. He's prone to dropping hilariously sardonic bombs and cracks up with only minor prodding. I don't know, maybe we were just having a good time trading music industry observations and bemoaning the decline of the independent scene. Maybe we were both just really tired.
Often described as bizarre, challenging or just plain weird, NoMeansNo has, over the course of nine albums (the latest is No One) and countless live gigs, carved out an idiosyncratic niche for itself in the music underground. The band will be in town at Playfair on Friday night.
Too articulate and experimental to be labeled punk, too intense, primal and honest to be labeled anything else, the group's own bio (provided by its recording label, Alternative Tentacles) describes the band as, "enigmatic." After a laugh, Wright responds to the tag.
"We don't have a clear-cut message or a clear-cut image, but I think there is a very clear tone to what we do. I like things that are full of contradictions because that's a more real view of the world. It's not clear what's good and what's bad or what's wise and what's foolish. I think the band has flourished by posing these contradictions and asking questions and living within the parameters of a certain amount of confusion. There have been many bands who were very politically straight ahead and had the answer to everything -- which always made me chuckle."
Punk rock has certainly been guilty of that from time to time.
"Oh, very much so. I mean, punk rock could be very sententious and self-righteous. But that's because it's an adolescent form of music, and that's what adolescents first do. They discover the world, and then they go: 'I know what's wrong with this. It's clear, absolutely clear!' Of course, then they grow up and they go: 'Oh.' "
When real-life situations -- jobs, relationships, mortgages -- begin to dominate thoughts, suddenly, the big questions are left to hang there, unanswered.
"Many of those questions are unanswerable," Wright continues. "And basically there's no rational or reasonable solutions. But in music, the rational and the reasonable are not really high on the list of priorities. When you're dealing with emotional communication, people react on a visceral, emotional, physical level and you don't need a lot of reason and rationality. You just need to touch people."
And touching people is what NoMeansNo is all about. Not in a gross, inappropriate way (well, maybe a little bit...) but in the sense of reaching into your brain -- even as they're hitting you with strange yet irresistible bass-heavy artillery fire courtesy of Wright and his brother, drummer John. (The trio is rounded out by guitarist Tom Holliston.)
But for all their thoughtful songwriting and demented and entertaining stage antics, the group has been more or less shunned by the music industry. It's ironic, in fact, that the Wrights have gained more notoriety with the Hanson Brothers, a goofy side project that parodied/paid tribute to both the Ramones and those infamous high-sticking siblings from the hockey movie, Slapshot.
"We've never been part of the industry, although we've been on the fringe at times. The Hanson Brothers was our only taste of it, but that was basically a joke -- on them. The reason NoMeansNo never got much attention is because we never tried for that. When you see someone's picture in the press, it's because there's lots of people working really hard to get them out there. It's not by accident. It's all orchestrated."
With the popularization -- the mainstreaming -- of so-called "alternative" musical forms, the independent music scene that once supported hundreds of acts has, to a significant degree, dried up. In this atmosphere, bands like NoMeansNo that aren't easily categorized and marketed are at a real disadvantage.
"There really is no independent scene in the sense that there's something separate that works outside of the major industry," says Wright. "People who are in punk rock now are trying to get the big contract and make the cool video and get on MTV and all the things that were despised when the punk thing first started. It all changed when Nirvana came and punk rock had its moment in the sun, when it became a salable commodity. It changed because people started thinking about careers and being rich and famous and how they were going to look in the video instead of the content of the music -- it's originality, it's honesty, it's passion. I think it's unfortunate. I think it's harder now to make good, original music, and it's certainly harder to get out and play it and sell it. We've been lucky to gather a pretty loyal audience, and we've been around long enough that we have this sort of inertia and a certain amount of respect for what we're doing. But if we were starting out today, it'd be a whole different story."
In a music scene where "sellout" no longer seems to be a dirty word, and the only apparent measure of worth is how many times your album turns platinum, it's good to know these guys are still out there with mirth in their hearts, landing hits -- however oblique -- against the establishment.
"We've weathered that storm pretty well," says Wright. "I mean, we're still making records and playing and making a living doing it."
Then he adds with mock trepidation, "I'm knocking on wood even as we speak."
& lt;/i & & lt;/center & NoMeansNo plays at Playfair Racecourse with Removal and Seawolf opening the show on Friday, Nov. 10, at 8 pm. Tickets: $8; $10 at the door. Call: 325-1914. & & & lt;i &
& & Back for the Blues & & & &
& & JAMES ARMSTRONG & & had a career in high gear when an assailant broke into his Sunnyvale, Calif., apartment in 1997 and attacked him with a knife. His injuries left him with limited use of his fingering hand, and the years of rehab have been trying at times, to say the very least. He's at Capone's in Coeur d'Alene tonight.
But Armstrong is a blues artist, and though nothing is quite so devastating to a musician as to be robbed of the means of expression, the singer-songwriter wasn't about to throw in the towel. If anything, the experience provided grist for Armstrong's songwriting mill. It's also instilled a sense of humility in the guitarist who, in his younger years, thought nothing of grandstanding his formidable instrumental prowess with frequent showers of leads in which the quantity of notes in each measure seemed to be the paramount concern. It was a discovery that led Armstrong to see the blues in a slightly different light.
"I realized that I don't have to play fast just to be effective," he says. "The blues is really about feeling anyway. Albert King was a powerful guitar player, but he never played at a blazing speed. It's what you put between the notes that sometimes makes the best statement of all."
After the attack, Armstrong battled the low spirits and self-doubt of his slow recuperation with a soul-searching album, Dark Night. On it -- and because of his inability to finger leads -- he tried his hand at slide guitar. Dark Night is smoky, introspective and soulful. His latest album, Got It Goin' On, however, shuns his previous disc's soul-tinged sound and cuts straight for the heart of the blues.
"This is much more of a blues album because I'm able to play guitar on it," he says, simply.
Got It Goin' On is full of real-life stories including tales from the road ("Pennies and Picks"), of gigging night after night ("Mr. B's") and of course, of love ("Love Will Make You Do No Wrong"). Armstrong's playing sounds confident once again, and his leads are once more searing through the instrumental mix. His vocals, too, sound stronger than ever before and the slide has become a permanent fixture in his back of guitar tricks.
Armstrong has come through the fire, and his music is better and more diverse as a result of his near-tragedy. Blues fans, you should not miss this one.
& & & lt;i & James Armstrong plays Capone's on Thursday, Nov. 9, at 8 pm. Cover: $8. Call: (208) 667-4843. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &
& & Folk Du Jour & & & &
& & JANET JOHNSON & & is a singer songwriter who has paid her dues on the local scene. The eclectic folk/rocker has been performing in and around the Inland Northwest in various bands for the past five years, hitting the coffee house circuit, clubs, bars, cruise ships, just about anywhere with room enough for her to strap on a guitar and set up a microphone stand.
This Saturday, she'll be performing at Huckleberry's. For this gig, Johnson will be bringing in a few friends along to back her up, including guitarist Chris Blair, percussionist Carlos DeHerrera and second vocalist Tom Miller.
Ask her about her influences, and she'll readily cite Bruce Cockburn, Sarah McLachlan and Joni Mitchell as kindred spirits. But Johnson draws on a wide range of pop music genres for her instrumental and lyrical inspiration -- her acoustic music ebbs and flows with hints of jazz and soul as well as folk.
She's currently working on her first CD and is shooting for a release date in early January. Our advice? Don't wait for the disc. Get out to Huck's Saturday evening and lend this group an ear in an intimate, live setting where Johnson's soul-searching tunes have the greatest power to work their charm. And get there early, I'm told the place will be full.
& & & lt;i & Janet Johnson is at Huckleberry's on Saturday, Nov. 11, from 7-9 pm. $3 donation. Call: 624-1349. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &