The Cover Story

The Dirty Nil: “We despise and cackle at the carnival game that is the music industry”

The Dirty Nil are through playing games. After a period of mismanagement and being forced to jump through industry hoops with no actual benefit, they’ve rediscovered what really matters: rock’n’roll. With a newfound lust for loudness, the Canadian punks are back doing things on their own terms and will fight any deity who gets in their way…

The Dirty Nil: “We despise and cackle at the carnival game that is the music industry”
Mischa Pearlman
Nicole Mago

“Are you having a good time at the rock’n’roll show?" asks The Dirty Nil’s Luke Bentham with a huge shit-eating grin spread across his face. It’s nearing the end of the Canadian band’s biggest headline gig to date, at New York’s iconic Bowery Ballroom, and the response from the capacity crowd suggests that they definitely are, but possibly not as much as the frontman or his bandmates – drummer Kyle Fisher, who started the band with Luke back in Dundas, Ontario, in 2006, and relatively new bassist Sam Tomlinson. Even during their high-octane set full of kung fu kicks and guitar-held-high power stances, their smiles shine, and without a doubt, this is a night (in spite of the booze that will follow) that they’ll remember for a long, long time.

Following the 20-song set, which closes with bombastic covers of Metallica’s Hit The Lights and Alice Cooper’s School’s Out, it feels like everybody is queueing for merch. Once the line has dissipated, the guys hang out in the venue’s downstairs bar, talking to everyone who approaches. It's sweltering – New York is in the middle of a heatwave which, when combined with the sweat and funk of a punk show, and struggling air-con, is not pleasant – but Luke is still wearing his trademark heavy denim shirt with studs, stars and other elaborate embellishments. The Dirty Nil look spent, but beyond happy.

After a brief exchange, Kerrang! leave the band to celebrate their epic night. After all, it’s only 11pm in NYC, and even though the city that never sleeps does now go to bed a little earlier than it did before COVID, there are still plenty of bars open until the wee hours. As he waves goodbye, Luke apologises that he may not be on his best form the following day for their debut K! Cover Story. That’s fair enough. After all, anything other than excessive, rock’n’roll celebration would be a travesty.

The next morning, the band are sitting at a table outside their hotel. They don’t look particularly worse for wear, but admit that they are. Despite the heavy heads, they’re still revelling in the success of the previous evening, jubilant behind the tired eyes. Because what makes last night all the more impressive is that it was achieved entirely on their own terms. The Dirty Nil, you see, aren’t ones for the bullshit of the music industry. They don’t pander to fashions or trends, and they’re certainly not going to compromise the integrity of their art for a few more Spotify listeners. Yesterday's landmark gig was achieved through blood, sweat and years of hard work, of intentionally swimming against the tide. That’s precisely what makes The Dirty Nil who they are, and their music is drenched in – and shaped by – that disruptive and rebellious attitude.

“We despise and cackle at the carnival game that is the music industry,” states Luke with an articulate fortitude that belies his hangover, “and we refuse to do it. There are elements that you cannot get by without participating in, of course, and we participate in them. But we will fall ill to as few snake oil salesmen as possible moving forward. We don’t listen to people that tell us, ‘You’re going to be the biggest band.’ No, we’re not. We’re just going to do our thing and we’re pretty happy with just doing that. I don’t really give a shit about..."

He trails off for a second as his thought changes direction.

"Like, last night we smashed it with 500 people. It was fucking amazing. The first time we played New York was to, like, 30 people, and then the next time it was probably 20 people. This seemed very, very far away, even two years ago when we headlined here at [renowned and since relocated venue] The Knitting Factory. People like our band because of the music and not because we’ve invented a new fucking dance on TikTok or any of that bullshit. We’re just a good band and I’m personally happy to accept the consequences of not playing the game. I don’t want to play the game. I want to be happy. I want to feel fulfilled with the songs and that’s it. I fucking hate all that [other] stuff.”

“People like our band because of the music, not because we’ve invented a new f*cking dance on TikTok”

Hear Luke on accepting the consequences of not ‘playing the game’

“I disagree with you there, Luke,” smiles Sam with perfect comic timing and tone.

“And you’re free to,” counters Luke with a knowing smile.

“No, I’m joking,” says Sam. “I do agree. And it feels good. We’re doing a good thing.”

“It just sucks,” Kyle chimes in, “to feel like a dog and pony act when you’re already out there playing your heart out, doing what you want to do, and then somebody tells you to do a backflip or kiss someone’s ring to get found out.”

“And it’s a smarter business decision anyways,” adds Luke, “to just bet on yourself and back everything that you do, rather than pandering and doing the things that we’re always told to do. Desperation reeks, and when you make these fucking little clips of yourself being like, ‘Hey, be sure to like the thing!’ and ‘Here’s the new dance move!’ you look like a fucking asshole and I don’t want to listen to your music.

“My opinion is that we’re making a career by not doing any of that bullshit. We are building a trust and rapport with our audience that’s based around our music and it’s not based around short-term grasps at new fans. We don’t care about that. If you want to hop on the train, you’re welcome, there’s plenty of room, but we’re not making any fucking stops to cater to people.”

It’s a sad truth in life that nothing lasts forever. And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Patterns and history repeat as external forces exert pressure on them, and it’s easy to get swallowed up by it all, to give in to those forces and let the tide take you in the opposite direction of where you want to go. The Dirty Nil, however, are one of the exceptions to that rule. That’s something increasingly rare in and of itself, and more so within the music industry. But since forming in high school in 2006, the band have remained staunchly dedicated to their ideals of putting their music first.

They released their debut album, Higher Power, in 2016 – after a long string of singles and EPs, many of which were self-released, in case you were wondering why it took so long – and then won the Breakthrough Group Of The Year award at the 2017 Juno Awards, the Canadian equivalent of the GRAMMYs. Second album, Master Volume, came out in 2018, followed by the brilliantly-titled (and just brilliant) Fuck Art in 2021. It was around that time, however, that The Dirty Nil felt those external forces trying to reshape who they were to capitalise – in every sense of that word – on the reputation the band had built for themselves over the past decade or so. What had started as something joyous was being derailed, and turned into something it was never meant to be.

“We got into this just to do it,” admits Luke humbly. “Our ambitions when we started the band consisted of, ‘Maybe we could play a show in Hamilton,’ which, for all you geography nuts, is 10 minutes down the road from where we’re from. We weren’t like, ‘Let’s be like rock’s...’”

He doesn’t finish the sentence, but was presumably going to say ‘next big thing’ or ‘new Metallica’.

“We didn’t know we could do that,” he continues. “We didn’t have anyone to look up to that could tell us, ‘Oh, here’s what you do there.’ We just stumbled backwards into the whole thing and made a million mistakes and did one right thing here and there. But it wasn’t until the middle – where we had like some shitty management and other things where people started putting all these expectations on us, and basically trying to impose their shit on us – where things got really messed up and really un-fun.

"I can’t tell you how not fun it is to write songs when you have that kind of bullshit in your ear. What’s that Lord Of The Rings guy where he’s just sitting on the fucking throne and he’s all rotten and the guy’s like whispering in his ear? I felt like that guy.”

“I can’t tell you how not fun it is to write songs when you have that kind of bullsh*t in your ear”

Listen to Luke compare that time in The Dirty Nil to being King Théoden from LOTR

To escape being King Théoden to the industry’s Gríma Wormtongue – an apt analogy of the predatory nature of the music business if ever there were one – The Dirty Nil decided to go back to basics for new album Free Rein To Passions, but had already started making changes during the Fuck Art cycle. They fired their manager, and then Sam took over as bassist in time to take that album on tour. They grabbed the newfound zest for doing what they love and injected it directly into their new songs. Thankfully, it was easy to recapture what they’d lost, to remind themselves why they started doing this in the first place – and also that they were right to follow their anti-music industry instincts. Although Fuck Art was positively received by critics, but it didn’t set the charts alight. None of the stuff they’d been told to do to promote it really had an impact.

“I shouldn’t put it all on one person,” concedes Luke before launching into a powerful diatribe. “It was the mentality that surrounded this whole thing and the direction things were going in, like, ‘Listen, we’ve got to hit these metrics and do this.’ I was suspicious the whole time. I was just like, ‘Even if we get that stuff, it’s not going to lead to what you think it’s going to lead to.’ The more time you spend developing your social media, the shittier your music probably is. You should be focused on your craft; write good songs, play them as well as you can, and then fucking move on.

“I hate the matrix of the music industry. You always get people telling you, ‘You’ve got to be doing this. People are on Threads now, you’ve got to get on Threads.’ Fuck you! I don’t have to do anything. I have to play my guitar tonight. That’s all I have to do. Anybody that tells you that they understand how all this internet shit works as it pertains to rock’n’roll bands is full of shit. Nobody knows, and I’m very suspicious of anybody that thinks they know how this stuff all works."

He continues, barely pausing for breath, “Kyle and I had a conversation where we were just like, ‘This sucks. I’m not having fun. I’m on fucking three long Zoom calls a day and there’s very little electric guitar in my life. This sucks.’ I felt like I worked at an office job. This is a rock’n’roll band and it was all just strategising on how we’re going to get (former Global Head Of Rock for Spotify) Allison Hagendorf involved. Like, who cares?

"It was the pandemic so we couldn’t tour, so there are mitigating circumstances, but Kyle and I got together and were just like, ‘If we’re going to do this, it has to be fun. We have worked way too long and way too hard for this not to be enjoyable. So leisure, and fulfilment more specifically, is our North Star. That’s it.”

“We had to destroy the structure that had been built around us and start anew”

Kyle explains how they made the necessary changes for The Dirty Nil to survive

“We had to destroy the structure that we realised had been built around us and start anew,” adds Kyle.

Was that an easy thing to do?

“It turned out to be easier than we thought was going to be,” the drummer continues. “But it did have its challenges. Luke and I – and Luke did a lot of it – had to call all the people that we like and make sure our relationships were still good. There’s a lot of shaking hands. There’s lawyers, there’s money, there’s all that bullshit that comes with business, but gun to my head, if I had to do it again, I’d do it again but faster.”

After managing themselves for about a year, The Dirty Nil found a manager whose principles aligned with their own. The result is a huge weight being lifted from their shoulders. You can hear that on the new album, and you can see it in practice at their live shows. They’re free to be themselves again.

“He basically pitched us the coolest vision of the future,” remember Luke, “where he was just like, 'Hey, all this social media shit and all these metrics, fuck all of that. None of that stuff matters. All you have to do is make loads of music and play lots of shows and work really hard and have fun. We'll all win.’ And we're like, 'You're hired. Let's do it.' Because that's all we want to do.”

Even at around 11am on a Sunday, New York isn’t quiet. As the band chat – and as Luke, in particular, swerves between unprompted anti-capitalist/anti-music industry invectives and expressing his desire to just enjoy life – there’s a busy world swarming around the periphery. There are other hotel guests drinking coffee at a nearby table, probably wondering who the three hungover-looking dudes sitting by them are. At one point, a homeless man starts having an intense shouting match with a security guard just behind the band that continues for a long, long time. At another, during one of Luke’s incendiary tirades about the music industry, a truck beeps incessantly and rattles its engines loudly as it reverses, almost drowning out an impassioned speech of which Bernie Sanders or Mick Lynch would be proud.

But what the New York noise can’t drown out are the smiles on display, smiles that are just as wide as they were 12 hours ago. Because The Dirty Nil are happy again. Or, more accurately, the thing that originally made them happy does so once again. They’ve rediscovered their lust for life, even if it is somewhat morbid.

“The happiest that I ever get is writing songs about death,” Luke says with a grin. “The most spring in my step that I get is when I write a song about dying. I grew up going to church, but when I was 12, I was just like, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to this shit. I need to watch Scooby Doo. I’ve prayed 70 times and nothing’s ever happened.’ I just told my parents, ‘I ain’t going.’ So when I can get something down that feels cheeky about, say, fighting God with my fists, I feel really happy about it. I’m just like, ‘I can’t believe that I can put this into a song and no-one’s going to stop me!’”

The song he’s referencing is Celebration, the opener on Free Rein To Passions. It’s a blistering, balls-out rock’n’roll song that captures the band at their energetic, reckless best. After all, this is a project they formed as an alternative to doing dumb kid stuff like blowing up things in the woods. It was a different way to channel their energy, but that attitude has remained intact ever since – indeed, there’s a song on …Passions called Blowing Up Things In The Woods.

Although they’re older now – early-30s as opposed to being in their teens – that youthful abandon hasn’t diminished in the slightest. It looked, at one point, like it might have done, but they pushed and pulled through, remaining true to themselves and keeping their integrity unharmed and thriving as a result, as the previous night proved. It felt – and still feels the next day – like a monumental occasion for The Dirty Nil. But they’re very much keeping it all in perspective.

“My goal,” says Luke, right as the nearby argument starts to intensify, “is to just keep doing what we’re doing on our terms and write some more songs, make some more records, play more shows and see what happens from that, rather than saying, ‘Well, next time we play New York, I want there to be 700 people.’ I learned long ago to stop thinking like that and to view everything that happens as, ‘This is awesome!’ Whatever it is, it’s the only way to get through life.”

“And we’re happy to be here,” concludes Kyle. “We’re stoked.”

As the shouting match escalates to fever pitch, the band for a brief moment are consumed by New York City. But last night they ruled over it and they will do so again, on their terms. The Dirty Nil will fight to the death to be who they are and who they want to be – they’ll even fight God. It’s going to be an epic battle, but money’s on the Canadians to win.

Free Rain To Passions is out now via Dine Alone Records. The Dirty Nil tour the UK from July 26 – get your tickets now.

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