Published on April 29th, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant


Interview: Tom Holliston (NoMeansNo, The Hanson Brothers)

We chat with Tom Holliston, part of seminal Canadian underground bands like NoMeansNo and The Hanson Brothers, on the eve of his latest solo tour.

 tom holliston web

Tom Holliston started The Showbusiness Giants in Victoria many moons ago, which lead to him being in The Hanson Brothers and later, a part of iconic Canadian underground band NoMeansNo.  The bands, and Holliston by extension, get labeled a lot as punk, but they really don’t fit within genre constructs that one might associate with punk. They don’t bear the stereotypical punk uniform, or any uniform, really (besides maybe a Canadian tuxedo) and their music is more technically skilled than most punk.  Their writing dips and dives, in and out of everything — rock, punk, prog, jazz, blues, hardcore — if anything they’re defined by a refreshing lack of clear definition. Though that said, the fact that they don’t push to conform to a certain look or sound makes them more punk than punk, if you ask me. 

Holliston himself started doing solo shows in the early 2000s, and he’s embarking on a Western Canadian tour, where he’ll be playing music (duh) as well as aping Alex Trebek in a version of Punk Jeopardy.  We recently got the chance to catch up with Holliston to ask him about fire drills, being labeled a ‘godfather of punk,’ and avoiding becoming a nostalgia act. 

THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: You do a lot of fun things at shows to keep the audience engaged, like say, a human pyramid or fire drills (or Punk Jeopardy!).  Have you ever tried anything that turned out to be a bad idea? 

TOM HOLLISTON: Well, Craig, I don’t think so. Obviously, if people are not into doing some things it is foolish and counter productive to push. I am not a huge dynamic showman and am not given to exhorting anybody to put their hands together and get crazy. Being the [billionth] person people have seen singing into a mic while strumming an acoustic guitar, one needs to get attention somehow. A good way to achieve this is never start off with five songs in the same tempo. Ditto for the same key.

THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: What are the main differences between a solo show and a show with one of the bands?

TOM HOLLISTON: The mistakes are more obvious [in a solo show]. Being on stage with John Wright who is a fantastic drummer, very, very rarely making mistakes is a godsend. Whereas being solo acoustic you can’t exactly turn around and blame your amp for putting you off.

THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: How did you get into playing music in the first place?  What kind of music informed your tastes?

TOM HOLLISTON: I was born in 1960, so The Beatles, of course. I always liked The Kinks and I always wanted to play and write my own songs. Later on The Rolling Stones really turned me on to blues and R & B.  I bought ‘Who’s Next’ when it first came out! That just blew me away, as did hearing The Ramones and XTC’s ‘Drums and Wires’ album. Nowadays my listening pleasures are largely derived from classical and some jazz; I have heard an awful lot of electric guitar! 

My favoured bands at the moment are Vancouver’s Invasives and there is a good band called Buildings from Minneapolis. Also a band called Beards, from Leeds, England. We’ve played with Beards a few times and would love to connect with them again. We tried getting them on a bunch of shows in the U.K. recently but that did not work out, sadly.

THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY:  How has being Canadian made a difference to your professional path in music? 

TOM HOLLISTON: Not so much. I have had far more options in life than most of the planet, for which I am grateful.  I do not think anyone outside of Canada really cares that I am Canadian. The Cancon ruling, though being well intentioned, has not proved a great success on the whole because it essentially promotes and nurtures mainstream mediocrity.  And then there is Canadian classic rock…April Wine…mercy.  My Wife is from America and I would like to live in southern Minnesota at some point. I would not consider myself a Canadian or an American but rather as a man who is where he is.

THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY:  How do you plan the set list for a show?  How much do you think about playing crowd-pleasers vs. covers or material you’d rather play?  How important is this balancing act of making sure the audience is into it vs. not just playing the hits and becoming a nostalgia act?

TOM HOLLISTON: Good question.  NoMeansNo is taking a hiatus at the moment and won’t do any touring until we have a new album or new material that we like and want to play night after night. We do not want to be a nostalgic act. At the same time it is fun and exciting to play old material, so why be draconian about your own choices of live material. As for myself I like to have alternatives planned rather than a straight set which I follow from beginning to end. It’s better to gauge audience reaction, if necessary, to find that one person who likes what I am doing and playing to him [or] her.  People will pick up on that and get more into the show.

THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY:  I’m as lazy as the next guy, but it seems like some journalists and writers want to tie you to punk, which makes sense on certain levels of course, but it feels a little lackadaisical to me, in that you encompass so much more.  Do you feel like being treated like a ‘godfather of punk’ follows you around?  I feel like it would frustrate me, if I was hitting so many different styles and pushing boundaries, but always being lumped into an easy classification.  Isn’t that what’s wrong with a lot of music writing? Or do we need to accept that it’s just the way of the world?  Is there even a question here?  Have I lost the plot?

TOM HOLLISTON: It is just the way of the world; genre obsession promotes laziness. A lot of music journalists are that in name only, anyway. Some can’t write worth shit and it is patently apparent from the get go.  Many writing about music, punk, for example, evidence little if any comparative experience. It’s as if there is no world outside of what they are into. I do not think it wrong to expect a writer or critic to show some degree of experience and objectivity. Why is something good?  Compared to what? I might as well be reading a billboard. As to being tethered to idle classification the term, ‘math rock’ strikes me as particularly inane. What does it mean? 5/4 time? Have reviewers never heard ‘Take Five,’ even?

THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY:  Thanks for taking the time to chat with us!  In the spirit of shameless self-promotion, aside from the tour, is there anything you’d like to promote right now?

TOM HOLLISTON: As always the Golden Rule. And Shostakovich, not that he needs it.




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is a D-level celebrity with delusions of grandeur. A writer, critic, creative director, editor, broadcaster, and occasional filmmaker, his thoughts have appeared on radio, television, in print, and on the web. He is a juror on the Polaris Music Prize and the Juno Awards. He loves Saskatoon. He has horrible night terrors and apocalyptic dreams.

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