The Dirty Nil | Behind The Lyrics

Photo Credit: Steph Montani

Raised on the out-of-tune guitars and on-stage banter of Johnny Cash’s iconic live ‘At Folsom Prison’ album and fronting Ontario’s The Dirty Nil since his rebellious high school days, Luke Bentham is a songwriter with rock ‘n’ roll coursing through his veins.

With an approach to rock ‘n’ roll that collides a youthful spirit and a distinct thoughtfulness, The Dirty Nil have spent three records carving out their own gnarly, honest space in the rock scene. Guided by Luke’s simple yet brilliantly sharp stories of soul-sucking jobs, living the dream, and personal growth, their winning streak is set to continue with upcoming fourth album, ‘Free Rein to Passions’. To celebrate its release, the frontman talks Rock Sound through ten lyrics that are vital to The Dirty Nil’s story so far.

“Don’t wilt before you bloom // ‘Cause you are fuckin’ up young”, ‘Fuckin’ Up Young’ (2011)

“This was the single that kickstarted our humble but righteous little career. This line is the pre-chorus of the song, and I was quite proud of it when I was 19 years old. To me now, it’s a little on the nose, but I still take great pride in singing it every night. It was a lot of fun when I started singing those lyrics in my parent’s basement, and I could hear them yelling from upstairs telling me to stop swearing.

When we were writing that song, for a few months we would just jam the verses, but it took a while to build a song around it. During that time though, one of my best friends was destroying himself with alcohol. He wasn’t listening to anybody who was telling him how much he needed to stop. He denied the gravity of the situation, and I remember getting a call that he was in the emergency room one day. I went to see him, and he was making light of the whole thing and planning on going out that night. I felt completely powerless to do anything, so I went home, picked up my guitar, and I belted those lines out.

A lot of people over the years have reached out about that song and what it means to them, and it still reminds me of seeing the first set of casualties from your friend group as you transition from adolescence to adulthood. It marks a transitional era for me.”

“I don’t care about your boyfriend // He doesn’t like me anyway”, ‘Wrestle Yü to Hüsker Dü’ – ‘Higher Power’ (2016)

“Honestly, I just think that opening line is so funny. It’s hilarious every night to see everybody singing along to it, especially when you see people push their significant other out of the way to get closer to the stage to sing it with us. I don’t know why but for some reason it seems to have taken on its own momentum at our live shows, which is just awesome to witness.

It’s kind of disconcerting but really impressive when you write something and then you lose control over of its impact. It takes on a momentum of its own for the people that listen to it or enjoy it. It’s funny, sometimes the things you work the hardest on nobody really looks at, but the things that are thrown together in the spur of the moment are what resonate the most with people.”

“Got a temper and an eye for truth // Got a shot to shit sweet tooth”, ‘Bury Me At The Rodeo’ – ‘Higher Power’ (2016)

“We did our first US tour when we were about 23 years old. It was my first time across in the United States, and we had the greatest time of our lives. It was just the three of us in a minivan playing DIY shows that we had booked ourselves, and we such an amazing show in Denver, Colorado. I had a great time with the people there, and it inspired me to write this song about how when I die, I’d like to be buried at the rodeo there. That was my takeaway sentiment from that trip.

This is my favourite line from that song, and it’s my best attempt at emulating my hero Paul Westerberg from The Replacements. Like many young men my age at that time, I was still learning how not to be a dick. The early parts of my twenties were spent working in bars and living a life of hedonism. I was seeking an alternative way of living, and my transition from my early twenties to my late twenties was me trying to figure out my life a little bit. I was watching more and more people crumble under drugs, alcohol, and other bad decisions, so I was trying to educate myself and seek other things. There’s a yearning sentiment behind that line.”

“Caught up like a canine // Howling in your headlights // Rolling through the windshield // That’s what heaven feels like”, ‘That’s What Heaven Feels Like’ – ‘Master Volume’ (2018)

“This was my best attempt at describing what it feels like to experience the excitement at the beginning of a relationship. I wanted to capture that feeling. I actually came up with the guitar riff for the song whilst we were all practising. We had been listening to Queen and the riff that we spontaneously constructed in that moment was so exciting that I instantly got all the lyrics together. The music directly inspired the lyrics, and that’s what I felt like in that riff. It’s a fun classic rock song about having a good time, but also rolling through the windshield. It’s a whirlwind of emotions.”

“Hello Jesus, hello Elvis // It’s good to see ya’s // Hello grandma, you’re looking good // I knew you would”, ‘Bathed In Light’ – ‘Master Volume’ (2018)

“I sang those words over the demo one day because we got bored of playing that song over and over again. My mind started drifting and I was trying to get a reaction out of my bandmates who were plugged into their headphones. I sang it, and we ended up keeping it on the final recording.

We had this ongoing joke at the time that my grandma was in jail because she had been put into a long-term care facility. She was losing her wits, and it was very sad. She would call me and tell me she was in jail and that no one would let her leave. We’d go over and take her chocolates as we prepared for the inevitable, because we knew that she wouldn’t be around much longer. That line was just for me to get used to the fact that she wasn’t going to be around, and unfortunately, she wasn’t. I sang that to soften the blow, so it’s a really special line to me, even though it’s a bit comedic.”

“Now I’m no stranger to bending the truth // But I swear to God and his skies of blue // There’s something off with me // And maybe something off with you”, ‘Evil Side’ – ‘Master Volume’ (2018)

“I had the guitar for this song sitting around for three years before I actually wrote a song around it, and it was the last song that I brought in for the ‘Master Volume’ sessions. I was playing in the basement the day before we were starting pre-production, and I just whipped out that riff again. I started singing and came up with all the words in one go, and it’s somehow become the most popular song this band has.

It’s a pretty simple love song, but it focuses on the ideas of misfit love. To be honest, I really don’t know why I wrote ‘I’m no stranger to bending the truth’, but I just liked the way it rhymed. The last part of that lyric captures the core sentiment of the song. It’s about saying to someone, ‘Listen, neither of us are particularly well suited to the arena of love or adulthood. We’re both a bit insane but maybe that’s what makes us right for each other.’ It’s about two people pooling their resources and trying to navigate this crazy world together.

I love country music and John Prine especially, and I was listening to a lot of his music around writing that song. I walked to our practice space listening to his album ‘Sweet Revenge’, and even though I didn’t directly rip off any of his lines, I think the spirit of his music infected me with that one.”

“I could be your doom boy // We could hold hands // Listen to Slayer // In the back of my Dodge Caravan // (It’s my mom’s Dodge Caravan!)”, ‘Doom Boy’ – ‘Fuck Art’ (2021)

“My parents were buying a new car and I said, ‘Well, what are you going to do with the old Dodge Caravan?’ They replied, ‘Well, I think we’re gonna throw it out’. I gave them 1000 bucks, and I bought it off them. I was driving around in it listening to ‘Raining Blood’ by Slayer at maximum volume – with all the windows rolled down because the air conditioner didn’t work – and I came up with the lyrics to this song.

I just thought it was a really funny image – I had a Pantera hoodie on whilst driving around listening to Slayer in my mom’s Dodge Caravan. All of the lyrics in this song are designed to make myself laugh, and I hoped other people would find it funny too. Whilst we were recording it, I realised that I forgot to reference that up until recently it was my mom’s Dodge Caravan, so I yelled it out right before I played the guitar solo.”

“Question number one: Did you have fun? // Did you reel the big one in? // Question number three: It don’t matter to me // Why didn’t you call your mama more?”, ‘Elvis ‘77’ – ‘Fuck Art’ (2021)

“This was the first song that I wrote for the for the record. I have a fantastic relationship with my mom, and over the years through all of my trials and tribulations during a life of rock and roll, I’ve always called my mom for advice. When we were in our early twenties, we thought we could be the biggest band in the world, like anyone in a rock band at that age thinks. When we got to our mid to late twenties, we realised that we weren’t going to be the biggest band in the world, but we were going to be a great little band in our own right.

This song represents that shift in mentality. I wrote it as if I was having a conversation with my mom, and the lyrics are me griping and her responding with her steady wisdom. I get to have a life in rock and roll, and that’ll have to do because most people can’t actually do that. The title is inspired by Elvis Presley, who died in 1977. He was also a mama’s boy, and he’s one of my musical heroes. It’s about the death of an old dream, the realisation that you are living a very real dream, and celebrating that.”

“To the guy who stole my bike // I hope it serves you well // I hope the brakes don’t cease // When you’re riding down the hill to hell”, ‘To The Guy Who Stole My Bike’ – ‘Fuck Art’ (2021)

“I wrote this song on the way home from having my bike stolen. I was working at a bar in Hamilton, and I was by myself closing up. I went out the back door and propped it open with a mop and bucket, and it slid. The door locked behind me, and I couldn’t get back in. I went around to grab my bike and go home, and it had been stolen.

I was feeling quite dumb and defeated, so I wrote the lyrics to this song on the long walk home and figured out the chords as soon as I got to my bedroom. The opening line was the first one that I wrote, and then the rest of the song deals with other unresolvable conflicts that I’ve had with people. It all relates to the idea that there is no closure with these conflicts, it’s just something that you carry with you for the rest of your life. You just have to be as civil as you can, but there’s no such thing as ‘closure’ when you had a big blow with somebody. The first line is very specifically pointed at whoever stole my goddamn bike, but the rest are just vaguely pointed sentiments at other people I’ve had conflicts with. I miss that bike still.”

“Last will and testament of a spoiled and entitled brat”, ‘Atomize Me’ – ‘Free Rein To Passions’ (2023)

“I wrote this song when I was really sick with COVID, and I was watching The Beatles ‘Get Back’ documentary. I was really sick, and my partner was also really sick. She was taking a shower, and I was up in my room playing my guitar. I was throwing a few more chords into things than I usually would because of the documentary – they loved throwing fancy chords in there – and it wasn’t long before I had this song.

I was in this COVID haze where I wasn’t necessarily thinking that I was going to die, but it was on my mind. It killed a lot of people, so it was hard not to have thoughts about how eventually I would die too. I was thinking about how people always want to have something that outlives them and stands the test of time long after they’re gone, and I realised that I don’t want any of that. I just want to live my little life whilst I’m alive and that’ll be the end of it. That’s where the opening line came from, and I thought it was pretty funny. I was singing it upstairs and from downstairs I heard my partner yell, ‘That song is really obnoxious!’

Anybody in a band has some sort of inherent concern over their ‘legacy’, but this was my intentional push back against that sentiment. It would be fine if it all went away because who cares? I’ll be dead, it doesn’t matter. It’s a rejection of that self-aggrandizing need for posterity.”

The Dirty Nil’s ‘Free Rein To Passions’ is out on May 26.

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