The Dirty Nil have always been outsiders. “We’ve never given a shit about being cool,” says vocalist and guitarist Luke Bentham defiantly. “Our fans love us not because of a fashion or for how trendy we are, they’re into the universe that we built brick by brick.” The band have a few mottos, and ‘brick by brick’ is one of them. Another is: ‘If you’re not bleeding, you’re not trying.’
Those two adages have got them through a slow-burn, 14-year ascent that has lead to the release of their fourth album, Fuck Art. At times, though, it seemed that their dreams were destined not to come true.
Bentham formed the band with drummer Kyle Fisher in 2006 (current bassist Ross Miller joined in 2017) in their home town of Dundas on the outskirts of Hamilton, Ontario. Initially there was very little appetite on the local scene for the Nil’s brand of “howlingly loud”, sparky power-pop and punk-indebted rock’n’roll. For years the band were ignored by the press, while their peers leapfrogged over them in every sense.
“Everyone else was touring internationally and had management, a label, booking agents,” says Bentham, who is effervescent in conversation and possesses a dry, self-deprecating wit. “We had nothing. We were just basically bouncing around southern Ontario like a bunch of numpties.”
While the media was apathetic, the public weren’t much better. “I was sitting on the [travelling punk festival] Warped Tour [in 2015], playing with shitty bands that were running all tracks, not even playing their instruments on stage,” Bentham recalls. “But they were selling like ten thousand dollars’ worth of merch a day, while our band was hauling our shit out to play for four people. We had two T-shirts, no one was buying either of them, and I thought maybe I should go back to school.”
In the end it was “the sublime highs of rock’n’roll” that kept their will alive – along with a ton of hard work. Having resisted working with a label after years of being offered “garbage contracts” (“I thought everyone was trying to screw us over,” Bentham admits), the band finally decided to sign with Dine Alone Records in order to complete their debut album, 2016’s Higher Power.
Soon their luck began to change. In 2017 they opened for their childhood heroes The Who in Quebec, then won Breakthrough Group Of The Year at Canada’s prestigious Juno music awards.
“We learned a lot of lessons the hard way that’s for sure,” says Bentham, who is speaking to us over Zoom, surrounded by plants in his new flat. “One of the things I really believe is [that] life is all about consistent and persistent effort.”
Dressed in a black hoodie, his bleached blonde hair brushing his forehead, the frontman looks conspicuous, even without the outlandish, custom sequin and stud-encrusted shirts he is known for wearing onstage.
At the beginning of March last year, having spent a year and a half honing the songs that would make up Fuck Art, the band booked themselves three weeks in Toronto’s Union Studios, flew in John Goodmanson, the Seattle-based producer who worked on their 2018 album Master Volume, and laid down the drums and bass parts in four days. Then the reality of COVID-19 hit the fan.
“[Goodmanson] turned to me and said: ‘They’re closing the US/Canada border, I have to go now,’” Bentham remembers.
With their producer gone, the band had two options: take over production of the record themselves, or put the whole thing on pause. “I was like, fuck that,” Bentham continues. “I would rather record this thing on a yak back or an answering machine than stop.”
But their challenges didn’t end there. As COVID cases continued to spike, a state of emergency was announced in Ontario, leaving Bentham, helped by engineer Darren McGill, with just 48 hours to record the guitars for the album before the studio was shut down. While the rest of the band stayed at home, the pair worked in two frantic 16-hour stints, spending three hours on each song before moving on to the next.
“I’ve never experienced that level of fatigue mentally and physically in my life before,” says Bentham. “When we finished, it was ten minutes before midnight. All we’d consumed was a case of sparkling water, a few pots of coffee and four pizza pockets. I drove home. I was the only car on the highway. And I was crying I was so happy.”
The straight-to-the-point way the album was laid down has resulted in the band’s most taut, urgent record yet. Despite their playfulness, there’s desperation fizzing through the full metal throttle of Doom Boy and Ride Or Die.
Lyrically, too, some of the themes on the new record are hitting harder. This year [we did this interview in December 2020] the band all turned 30, and it’s a milestone that’s clearly been weighing on Bentham’s mind.
“There’s certain expectations at this age now,” he says with a laugh. “Most of my friends are not in rock’n’roll. They’re like, ‘I’m trying to get this baby seat in this KIA’, and I am just not there at all. I’m trying to figure out how I sneak a beer into church on Christmas night.”
He might seem to be continuously engaged in a battle between embracing and fighting the ageing process, but Bentham insists that the album is more about finding happiness by looking forwards rather than backwards, and that these one-time underdogs have a lot to be grateful for.
“That’s why we called it Fuck Art,” he says. “Even my angry, senile grandmother couldn’t say it without smiling. And that’s what we’re ultimately trying to do here: to bring joy with copious amounts of volume, swearing and feedback.”