When the three members of The Dirty Nil spill out of their van onto a Lower East Side street corner one sunny Thursday afternoon, they might as well be stepping out of a time machine, transported from a time when rock bands ruled the world. And when they play to a small smattering of people later that night in the basement below a bar, they might as well be playing to a sold-out, cheering arena.
Rock and roll has taken a bit of a beating lately. Guitar bands are having trouble rising to the same level of celebrity they enjoyed in decades past, and the genre is getting largely eclipsed by the looming shadows of pop and hip-hop. But you wouldn’t know it to watch The Dirty Nil, who perform like they’re the most famous act on the planet. And in another lifetime, maybe they would be.
The Dundas, Ontario, trio has boiled rock down to its purest form—effortless riffs, knobs-to-11 volume, and feedback for days. And then there’s quintessential frontman Luke Bentham, a born rock star. A human guitar pick. A consummate showman. A windmilling, power-stancing, bubble-blowing savant of the stage. Decked out in custom shirts festooned with stars and lightning bolts, the charismatic singer/guitarist shreds like he grew up studying videos of Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix while other kids were out riding their bikes. The guy is so handsome that he took a photo with Canadian Prime Hunk Justin Trudeau and made him look like a grotesque troll by comparison.
Rounded out by the wrecking crew of drummer Kyle Fisher and bassist Ross Miller, the trio is a high-voltage machine—an opening act that blows away every headliner with ease and a smile. For their appropriately titled sophomore album, Master Volume, the band set out to make a perfect rock record and they succeeded.
On “Pain of Infinity,” the Nil crafted a spiraling, hypnotic hook capable of boring its way into any eardrum. “Auf Wiedersehen” is the album’s Germanic fuck-off power ballad. “Always High” and “I Don’t Want That Phone Call” both break from traditional “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” norms, pleading with a friend to pump the breaks on their substance intake before things head south. And the closer, “Evil Side,” features a slow build-up that carries the record out on a wave of feedback and distortion.
We caught up with Bentham before a New York show to talk about Master Volume, drugs, death, and, of course, rock ‘n’ roll. Listen to Master Volume below.
Noisey: Can we talk about rock and roll?
Luke Bentham: I love rock and roll, man. I’ve loved it since I saw the effect it had on my parents in pissing them off. I love my parents, but it was a powerful thing to witness the disdain and uncomfortable reaction of my parents from things that would come from MTV or whatever. I immediately recognized it as a very powerful thing.
Right now seems like not the best time to be in a rock band since the genre’s being nudged out at the top.
If you look at the metrics and streaming numbers, they don’t lie. In certain ways, it’s being marginalized like jazz. But streaming numbers are only one metric. We saw the Voidz last night and there were people losing their fucking minds. I recognize that certain elements of the stock are low at this point, but we’ve never really paid attention to any of that stuff. I read all the books as a kid—in ’75 they said it was over and then we had the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. These things work in cycles. But it’s been a fantastic thing to witness the diversification of rock and roll. There’s so many talented bands from different backgrounds, and that’s such a much needed breath of fresh air for the genre.
It seems like the bands at the top are ones that incorporate pop elements—Imagine Dragons, the 1975, etc. What do you make of that?
Not rock and roll. That’s pop music with guitars, and that’s fair enough. It’s funny, sometimes I hear moments from those kinds of bands where I’m like, “All right. I can get my foot tapping along.” But I think it’s clear that most of the bands that are filling venues on a large scale are bands that got big before the year 2000 or so. There’s exceptions. But the top-grossing rock shows, it’s the Foo Fighters and Def Leppard or whatever.
Artists over 45.
Yeah, but I’ve gone to a lot of those shows this summer. I saw Cheap Trick a couple nights ago, and Poison, which is fucking hilarious.
Do you want to one day be like Bret Michaels—still playing in your 50s?
I want to do it forever. I enjoy every single aspect of it, including carrying my guitars up a million flights of stairs. As cornball as it sounds, even in the most hilariously bleak situations we’ve been faced with, in the back of my head I have that riff from “It’s a Long Way to the Top” by AC/DC. When something makes such a strong impact on you as a teenager, it’s just inseparable from you.
The kind of rock you play is such pure rock devotion, where it’s almost—I don’t want to say parody—but very true to form.
I love the hilarious, laughable aspects of rock music. I think that the times when rock becomes depressing is when people take it too seriously. I celebrate your Chuck Berrys and your Muddy Waters and your fuckin’ St. Anger-era Metallicas. In my 20s, I’ve been able to expand upon my puritan views of the whole thing and develop an appreciation for all the fringe elements grunge was rebelling against. I love it all.
The video you made for “Bathed in Light” was sort of a nod to that—the over-the-top fireworks and pyrotechnics. But are you ever worried about coming off like The Darkness?
It’s obviously a fine line to walk. It’s a marriage between the image you present and the sonics. So I’ve never really feared treading into that territory too far because at the end of the day, the next move for us with this record is gonna be this era—I kind of view it as incompetent stadium rock.
Do you ever wish you’d been born in a different era?
I think anybody who plays a guitar could be tempted by those kinds of fantasies, but at the same time I recognize the luck that I have by being born in the time I was, because bands like us probably would never have had a chance in the landscapes I’d plant myself in in the fantasy sense. One of the most equalizing, beautiful things about the time we live in now is social media and the ability to reach a worldwide audience if you can put out things people enjoy.
At times, I’ve experienced certain, like, “Oh goddamn, it would’ve been sick to play at Woodstock” or be around in the Midwest in the 80s when Hüsker Dü was happening, but then you read the accounts of these things and these people were miserable. The Who talk about playing Woodstock as the worst thing they ever did. Same thing with Hüsker Dü, as just speed-fueled miserable people. I find myself very fortunate in this time.[Plastic Bertrand’s “Ça Plane Pour Moi” comes on over the bar’s speakers]
Oh fuck yeah, it’s a ripper!
You’re such a rock devotee. Do you care about what’s happening in other genres like hip-hop or country right now?
We blast hip-hop, mostly. A lot of it’s pop stuff from when we were growing up. We listen to a lot of Missy Elliott and DMX. But the newest albums that I listen to in hip-hop sound wicked, and it’s an exciting time for that genre.
Do you take any influence from that in what you’re doing?
Certainly. Regardless of the form, confidence is universal. Seeing the way people are presenting themselves and the hustle they’re putting into their craft is applicable to whatever you’re doing in music and life in general. They push themselves, they go for it.
In your live show, you act like you’re playing to a sold-out stadium stadium every night. This venue you’re playing downstairs tonight, how many people does that hold?
Like, 30 people. [Laughs]
But you guys will play like it’s 30,000. Is that the “fake it ’til you make it” mentality?
There’s no point in going up unless you’re going to risk cutting your head open and leaving it all there. I think a lot of bands are too nervous to display a certain confidence. You see a lot of bands that aren’t engaging live. A lot of the guitar bands that are happening just can’t kick out the fucking jams when you see them play. They’re very focused on what they’re doing, and they’ve got good songs, but they’re just boring. We saw Grizzly Bear. I like them, they’ve got some great songs. But Spoon played before them and smashed them to pieces because they fucking rip. That’s the thing that isn’t going away. You see people at a rock show from all walks of life and they’re shaking their hips if the band can fucking play.
A lot of the bands you idolize romanticized the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” lifestyle. But one of the songs on your new album is an anti-substance abuse song.
Yes, there’s a few songs that are definitely influenced by my experiences with the people I grew up with, and seeing where they’re at now. It’s a lot of fun drinking beers and climbing on your high school roof and stuff, but seeing people that never quite got it together and went much further in that direction is tough. In Ontario, there’s a massive opiate problem. One of the most nefarious things I’ve seen is people who just can’t stop doing blow and don’t have an ability to call it a night. It’s not fun watching people disintegrate into a powdery oblivion.
You have another song on the record about dying. Do you fear death?
Absolutely not. It’s just a ride, baby. Death is actually the thing that makes me most happy playing rock and roll, because a ceiling fan could fucking take my head off tonight.
If you could choose how you go out, how would it be?
That’s a good question. I think my ideal death fantasy is a jealous woman in my life shooting me in the face. There’s a certain romanticism to me about being murdered by a woman, I don’t know why.
And what song would you go out on?
I’d want “The Wanderer” by Dion playing in the corner.
What song do you want playing at your funeral?
I’d say “X Gon’ Give It To Ya.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Master Volume is out on September 14 via Dine Alone Records.