Japanese TV had never seen anything like it. During the final episode of irreverent variety show “Tamori’s Music is the World” in March 1996, viewers were introduced to a group of silver-haired Canadians billed as “the Rolling Stones of noise music” — a sobriquet that clearly owed more to their age than their relative fame.
“Are you sure that isn’t death metal?” quipped the show’s host, Tamori, after watching a clip of The Nihilist Spasm Band in action, conjuring an improvised clamor on an array of homemade instruments. When one of the group’s members, John Boyle, demonstrated a twin-horned electric kazoo for him in the studio, he laughed delightedly: “It’s anarchy, isn’t it?”
By the standards of Friday evening TV, it certainly was. Speaking over Skype from his home in Peterborough, Ontario, Boyle echoes Tamori’s original assessment of the band.
“It’s chaos,” he says. “It still is chaos, 51 years later.”
Formed in 1965 by a collective of avowed non-musicians, Nihilist Spasm Band became a local cult favorite in its hometown of London, Ontario, where the members would perform regular concerts every Monday night. Their peculiar, atonal racket, conceived without the benefit of psychedelic drugs, had no obvious stylistic forebears.
“In the old days, jazz musicians would sit in with us and then try to teach us,” Boyle recalls. “You know — try to guide us toward the correct way to do this thing. But they’re coming from the world of music, and we’re coming from elsewhere.”
A decade or two later, one of the band’s rare studio recordings found its way into the hands of Jojo Hiroshige, leader of the influential Japanese noise act Hijokaidan and an avid collector of outre sounds. Convinced that he’d found the originators of noise music, Hiroshige contacted the group via a mailing address (still current) printed on the record sleeve, and invited them to release an album on his label, Alchemy Records.
When the band arrived in Japan for its inaugural tour in 1996, the members discovered that they had an avid underground following here. That there was even a “noise” genre in Japan had come as a surprise.
“Although some of the other band members would probably deny it, we didn’t know anything about Japanese noise music at the time,” Boyle says. “When we got here — for me, certainly — it was a shock. These people with all these electronic devices, making painful, deafening roars — I didn’t know what to make of it, but I liked it.”
Two decades on from that first Japan tour, and fresh from celebrating the band’s half-centennial, the surviving members — Boyle, John Clement, Bill Exley, Murray Favro and Art Pratten, plus “permanent guest artist” Aya Onishi — are preparing to return for one last ruckus. They’ll be playing two shows at iconic Tokyo jazz club Pit Inn alongside Hijokaidan, plus guests including free jazz saxophonist Akira Sakata.
“I’m sure that this will be the last time — it’s never going to happen again,” says Onishi, Boyle’s wife and the youngest member of the group by a wide margin. “It’s your last time to see them alive!”
The Nihilist Spasm Band play at the Pit Inn in Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, on March 19 and 20 (8 p.m. start; ¥4,000 in advance; 03-3354-2024). Hijokaidan, Akira Sakata and Yuji Katsui are also set to play. For details, visit www3.sympatico.ca/pratten/NSB.