Steph Montani

Lovers & Lifers: The Dirty Nil

Chatting with the upbeat face of today’s punk rock scene.

From the opening slug of “Celebration” to the closing twinkle of “The Light, The Void, and Everything,” The Dirty Nil’s new album, Free Rein to Passions, is a punk rock jewel. The band has continuously pumped out solid releases for almost a decade, but is dropping their most fun and enjoyable tracks yet right now in 2023. There’s not much else that can be said about the music, besides the fact that the band behind it is awesome. If you haven’t listened to The Dirty Nil, some of us may feel that your life is significantly less enriched… but that can be changed. 

The Aquarian had the privilege to chat with Luke Bentham, vocalist and guitarist of The Dirty Nil. We discussed everything about the band’s Canadian upbringing, their new album and tour, the difficulties of talking to a crowd, and even funny moments regarding the album’s messages. It’s a comprehensive conversation with one of punk’s most modern, optimistic, and energetic bands. 

Right out of the gate, about your new album Free Rein to Passions, how are you feeling now that it’s out? 

Fantastic! It’s really nice to take a little break, known as the pandemic, and to come back and play new songs for people. They’re screaming them back louder than ever before. When we were making these songs in the depths of lockdown we were dreaming of this time, so we’re just trying to soak it in fully and really enjoy it. 

That’s a good point. Since your first record in 2016, you never really slowed down. Every two years you released a record. You’re touring constantly. It was nice to just, as you’re saying, take a break and just be for a bit. 

Yeah! It was really nice to kind of get our home lives in order a bit. We had basically been living together since we were about 25 years old and we only used home as a little place in-between tours. Being forced to kind of spend more time at home gave us a chance to get our affairs in order. I’ve got to tell you, after the first month or two I was like, “Alright! It’s time to get back in the van.”  Alas, the world did not allow it. We’ve been really looking forward to getting on a full North American tour and so we’re just having a blast right now. 

Exciting! For our most local readers, I know that you guys are coming to the Bowery Ballroom on July 8th. We don’t want to miss that show! You guys are from Canada, though, so what’s it like being a Canadian band touring the States, Europe, etc.? 

Well, every place has really fun aspects that we look forward to seeing. I think I’ve been vocal in the past that my favorite place to play is the United States. Part of it is because we’ve made so many friends there; part of it is also because we grew up on rock and roll myology – that’s why we got indoctrinated into this whole carnival thing. It feels very fulfilling to get to play at a place like The Bowery in New York City! I mean, how much better does it get than that for a bunch of bumpkins from Ontario, Canada?

That’s such a great way to put it, especially Bowery being in the heart of the city. You leave the venue, you’re in Manhattan. It’s insane to see. I want to ask about your upbringing in Canada. Was music always around in your household? Did you grow into it when you were older? You said you got that punk rock bug. 

Music was definitely always around when I was a kid, but there were two different sides of the coin. My mom aggressively listened to ‘woman’ songs: Enya, Sara McLachlan. She would battle for control of the cassette player with my dad who would listen to Johnny Cash, John Prine, Stompin’ Tom Connors. I don’t think he’s really quite made it into the States, but he’s a big hero of mine from Canada. Other kinds of drinking/fighting country music from the fifties, sixties, seventies… I would say that was kind of my dad’s thing. Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen was on a lot. That was one thing they could agree on: Springsteen. There was a lot of battling and CDs being thrown out the window of moving cars. That was my childhood, I would say. 

The first day I lit my fire, so to speak, was when I was getting ready for school. I was about 11 years old watching Much Music – which is our MTV up in Canada – and a Nirvana song came on. My parents were like, “What the hell is that? Turn that off!” Seeing how revolted they were by this sound made me really like it. Anything that can piss my parents off that much is worth investigating, so then I got into Nirvana, and from there a lot of people discovered alternative music and punk music. For me, the entry point was definitely Nirvana. 

That is such a funny story! I feel like a lot of people from the punk scene have similar entry ways. Even myself, I remember hearing My Chemical Romance for the first time and my parents hated it. That just made me want to get into it even more. It’s like the forbidden fruit at that point. 

It’s very true. I still think that my musical tastes are a combination of Enya and Stompin’ Tom Connors. 

I love to hear it/ The thing about the Dirty Nil is you’re not just a classic pop punk band, but you’re also not a punk band… and you’re not alt or indie. You take influences from everything. 

When Kyle and I started the band we would just play Black Sabbath covers and Weezer covers. We were just kind of getting into it. We were trying to figure out how to make songs so I think anything that we felt like playing was on the table. We’ve never had a song where we were like, “Oh, this can’t be one of our songs”. We just do whatever the hell we want and are just appreciative and happy that people seem to follow us along whenever we do. 

I think we generally tend to live in the slow/loud songs or the fast/loud songs kind of reach. We rarely turn things down. We like being really loud and we still use the same PA system that my mom rented for us when we were 16 years old… and it’s pretty underpowered. I have to sing hard through it to be able to hear it. That’s how a lot of our songs get formed: just me trying to hear myself. 

Even with the new album, that opening track “Celebration” just explodes. It is one of the heaviest tracks you guys have made to date. 

My favorite Nil songs are always the ones that kind of start at the chug. That was one of them where I just went with the most stinky, ignorant sounding riff ever, and I was kind of joking, but Kylie said, “No! Keep doing that!” We just kind of made a song out of it. I know it sounds very cheesy, but it’s when you’re just having fun and not taking it too seriously that you find the real sweet spot. 

Stinky. Ignorant. Riffs. I love that terminology to describe it. Obviously you talk about having fun musically, and when you guys play live, it also just feels like you’re having fun with the crowd. Did you have to work to get to a stage presence you were comfortable with or is it just sort of like playing with your friends?

No, it’s definitely something that developed over time. I would say it was a good six years before I stopped fearing the microphone (for singing and for addressing the crowd). I remember early gigs when we were 20 – I would be tuning endlessly between songs and Kylie would just yell from behind the drum kit under his breath like, “God, Luke, ask them how they’re doing or something, dude!” [Laughs] Yeah, it took a while. 

My watershed moment that changed things for me was I remember my parents coming to see us play once and my mom said, “You should introduce the band to the crowd. I think people would like that”. I said motherfucker so many times to the crowd into the mic my mom said, “I’m never going to come see you again.” I was like… cool. It was like that Nirvana moment. If I’m pissing off my parents it means I’m doing something right here. They’ve since returned to the shows; they just choose to grin and bear through all the swearing. I think I swear a little bit less than I used to on-stage. That’s not saying much as I used to just swear so much on stage. It felt like a lot fun. It certainly took time to get comfortable in that position, but there’s no better feeling now. 

Absolutely. I have even a hard time fathoming that. You’re right. You’re standing in front of a crowd to talk to them, but they can’t really talk back. It’s just a mass of people. You have to make it seem like a conversation but also make it seem natural and fluid. It’s a very tough thing to navigate I imagine.

We try to keep it lean and mean, addressing the crowd. There are a few times per set we do it. We’re trying to play as many songs as possible but it really does feel essential, especially post-pandemic how I try and really acknowledge while I’m up there, “Enjoy this man! This is what we all were thirsting for the entire lockdown/sweatpants period of the last few years.” I really have to say there’s no better feeling than being up there. I really really feel very fortunate we get to do it still. 

I don’t want to stereotype, but a lot of bands in the punk scene, after the first or second record, see the hype die down. The Dirty Nil is bigger than ever and the shows are more energetic than ever. 

Yeah, I think we’re fortunate that we just really like doing it. We don’t have anybody telling us what to do. We have a manager, but it’s very collaborative, the ideas and conversations. “What if we did this? This would be funny! What about this?” It’s still really fresh and exciting for all the stuff we get to do. I think that’s how we feel about the music, too. We’re always just trying to satisfy ourselves first and make things we like. It’s nice that other people like it, but I think that at this point in the game our main prerogative is just to make something that we like. We feel very fortunate that people continue to follow us along and still like what we do a lot. We’re just enjoying the hell out of playing rock and roll! It’s not lost upon us how many of our peers have stopped for whatever reason. We just love it. We’re lifers. 

I have another question, this time veering in a different direction. Regarding your last record, 2021’s Fuck Art, you did a really interesting marketing move that feel like I’ve only ever seen one other band do in my experience [Fireworks]. You dropped the album on on New Years Day. What went into that?

Well, it kind of seemed like all traditional timeliness… nothing really mattered at that point. We kind of decided, “Let’s have some fun with it.” We had some ideas for a New Years show, but then things got really bad again with the ‘Rona [COVID-19] so we couldn’t quite do that. It still felt like a really cool way to flip over the year and drop our record. It was a reflection of the fact that the situation was so fluid and we’re just much more happy and content to take some risks. 

Also, from a strategic point of view. we knew not many people would be doing that around the same time. We had some open space on the highway. Yeah, it was a fun move and it definitely got us some new ears because not much was released around then. It seemed to pay off! It was a lot of fun to do. […] Listen, sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind.

As you said, it paid off. We were all trapped inside in January 2021 anyway, might as well check out some new music. 

“We’re already going through a plague right now, let’s just see what happens!”

Exactly. Switching gears, going back into the new record Free Rein to Passions, with every Dirty Nil record there’s imagery. Blowing shit up in the woods or hating all these stupid jobs I’m working. Are all these based on true stories you have or are these lyrics just coming as you’re writing the songs? 

Some of them are! Those ones you’ve mentioned, yes, those are true stories. Kylie and I, before we started the band, we had a bad habit of just shaving sparklers from the store into a powder and packing action figures full of them and lighting fuses to try and see if we could blow them up… just generally causing mischief. There was one incident in which a flaming piece of plastic hit me on the top of my hand and we decided, “Well, I think we should shift our hobbies because it’s getting a little dangerous. I’d like to avoid flaming plastic stuck in my skin in the future.” That’s when we started the band basically. 

With “Stupid Jobs,” yeah I’ve worked at most chain stores that are available to a young Canadian minimum wage worker. One of my wildest ones was cleaning limos. All the lyrics in that song are true in terms of what happened  with that job. 

“I crashed a limousine when I was 25.
It was my fault, I should have been fired.
But instead I quit, and said sincerely… This whole ‘working for you’ ain’t working for me.

“Stupid Jobs, Verse 1”

The postscript to that was that limousine place got busted a few years later because they were dealing coke, which I had no idea about – it just seemed like something was wrong there. Rest In Peace!

Do you feel like you’ve had an “I made it” moment in the band? If so, when was it?

As cheesy as it sounds, I feel like I have one of those moments every night we get to play. When we’re up there and we see people are being made happy by our presence in their city and they’re singing along and getting some kind of release from this whole thing and we’re covered in sweat exchanging smiles with one another, that is the “we’re doing it” kind of moment. When I was younger, I had these ideas, that watershed moment where it all paid off, but post-pandemic… I reevaluated my goal. I think art and sharing a moment with a few hundred people matters to me. That’s my little “I made it” moment every night I get to have.