Photo by: Phil Taylor.
Jeff Plewman aka Nash The Slash, a trailblazer for Canadian experimental musicians and artists, died this weekend. He was 66.
Both as a member of progressive rock group FM and in his lengthy, renowned solo career, Nash never let anyone else plot his journey. Wrapped in bandages and a suit, the violinist/multi-instrumentalist stunned with his global performances, the artistic expression he loved best. His sound and style led him to a remarkable streak of opening gigs, including Gary Numan and Iggy Pop ("Both very special, wonderful people," he said), 70,000 people in Toronto for The Who, The Human League, The Stranglers and many more. Writing for Rolling Stone, Lester Bangs gave Nash his favourite review ever: "Nash the Slash is the kind of opening act that makes the headliner work twice as hard."
In 2013, I visited Jeff in his Toronto home. As we spoke in his attic, with CDs and instruments spilling out of every surface, I noticed that I was surrounded by relics. It was nothing Jeff hadn't long accepted: the previous year he retired Nash The Slash, citing illegal downloading and boredom with gigs as the main concern. Still, there wasn't a trace of nostalgia in Jeff's voice as he spoke on his career. He knew what a finished chapter looked like, and that he should have been proud, even if only a few people read it.
Compare the record industry from when you started to when you retired.
The most radical change is the drum machine. The public now thinks of them as conventional devices that everybody uses. Back in the ‘70s, drum machines were illegal. Keyboards that had string sections in them, illegal. According to the musicians union, which ran the big concert halls, using any kind of keyboard or box that imitated another instrument was against the rules. You were fined, you were told you couldn’t play in the hall, or you had to “compensate” the musicians. I got around it by saying I was a performance artist. Music was just a part of it. I have a costume, I design the lighting, it’s a theatrical performance.
Even at the time when I was observing this and hoping that we'd get this stupid ruling taken out of the books, I knew drummers who loved drum machines. They're not taking the job. They're improving.
What are the advantages of going solo compared to playing in a band like FM?
The drum machine is a parallel analogy for myself: I like being solo. You have total control, in terms of the music, the creative energy. I very rarely found musicians who could play my music. Its sonic characteristics were indigenous to me. You could simulate, but it didn’t sound the same to the way I’d orchestrate it.
This is the nature of music. You put out stuff with your integrity intact, and there should be an audience for it. It just won’t get played in the supermarket.
My greatest joy was playing live. But it’s a lot of work for one guy. I would make some decent money but it was a ten hour day from my doorstep to back to my house, and that’s just in Ontario. It was one and a half hours of sheer joy and the rest was just backbreaking work. And as I got older it became more of a grind.
What were some of the most significant ways your character and music evolved?
I didn’t change the presentation so much as I changed the tools. I’ve always been aware of the type of presentation I wanted to do. Way back in the ‘70s I used reel-to-reel tape recorders and my projections were 16mm film. So that gives you an idea of how antique I am. And of course the projector evolved into a digital beam projector, the recorder evolved to DAT tape and then to disks...I never did use a computer on stage, although let’s face it, a keyboard is a computer. I already had the method of the presentation. The means changed.
Did you keep up with technological advancements over the years?
No. Very little. I was aware of it. But I liked using the tools that worked for me. I’m of the generation that was at the crossroads of analogue to digital. It was a huge effect. The trouble with digital is it’s incremental. Analogue was, I believe, faster. You experiment and create noises very quickly. Unfortunately with digital, because it’s all there, people don’t experiment as much. You can experiment, but you’ll be there twiddling your thumbs working with the layout. I wanna get a sound, I don’t want to be playing with the way you get a sound. I want a toaster. I want to put in bread and up comes toast. I don’t wanna know about hydraulics, electricity, or how the goddamn thing works. Bread goes in, toast comes out. That’s what analogue was to me. I could get a result very quickly.
I was creating very heavy sounds on drum machines in 1982 that, to this day, I think The Chemical Brothers would sample. Anytime I meet sampling guys and I play them some of my early stuff, they’re usually quite shocked. They say “This was made in analogue?!” Sound signals are not pure. There’s all kind of debris, especially on a tape.
Are most of your fans in one country?
I would say Britain, from touring with Gary Numan and signing to Virgin. England’s a fabulous place for music. It’s an island. Compact, concentrated, 50 million people. Fits in the province of Ontario, and every little piss-pot town has a hall or a bar to play. So a tremendous concentration of musical energy. And that’s why I think England puts out so many eclectic bands that do well, because they have so many places to play. America is a very good market, but it’s spread out. Canada is very difficult because of its geography. It’s a very difficult country to tour in, and certain regions, although they respond well to a performance, it’s difficult to follow up. Every time I played in the Maritimes I was very well received, but I could rarely play there. It’s hard to have a collective feeling of a concentrated Canadian audience. But I’ve got lots of fans in Winnipeg, Alberta, B.C., Toronto.
Did you have any rules for maintaining your integrity?
Don’t ask me about that. Shit happens. How many great bands have you heard? You ever heard of Course of Empire? Fabulous group out of Texas. No one’s heard of them, and anytime I play it for someone they shit themselves. This is the nature of music. You put out stuff with your integrity intact, and there should be an audience for it. It just won’t get played in the supermarket.
What about online music distribution?
I’m still recording, and I don’t know how to channel my audience, but I’ll get to that point when I’m ready to put it out. But the idea of having a website is so old school. Everybody stole my music who wants to steal it, so may as well put the closed sign on the door. Product is kind of irrelevant today. People just pop it on their Facebook page.
Do you have any figures to back that up?
I’m not Metallica. I can’t get some fancy lawyer to sue people for downloading my music.
So it’s just a feeling?
Sure. I’m the perfect artist for that kind of thing. Independent, weird. I’m sure my fans share my music with their friends and turn people on to me. That’s all well and fine. They might have come out to a gig, these new fans, but other than that, they’re not beating a path to their record store, and they’re not going to find it there anyway, or to my website.
So keeping up with the Internet and how the music industry has changed was a factor in your retirement.
Very much so. I don’t do any of these modern things like Facebook. It means nothing to me. I’m confounded by its headspace. The music industry is a facade, but it's even phonier than it was before because of this new world of communicating. If you've got a shitload of [Facebook] fans, they'll release you and go along for the ride.
To me information on the Internet these days is so massive, things are just forgettable. They become irrelevant. There’s too many breadcrumbs in the damn woods. I didn’t know how to sell myself or market myself. I’m not knocking other bands who have made this thing work, but when I look at bands in the Facebook world, I think “That’s contrived. That’s bullshit.” It’s all about how self-important you are. Are you delivering the goods? It’s an ego trip. You’re not on stage competing with other musicians. That to me is the great standard, it’s comparative. Are you actually up to it? Just because you’ve got a bunch of “friends on Facebook,” are you aware of your own calibre? Are you aware of if your music sucks or not? Like, you’re a great guitarist but your vocals suck. You write great songs but you can’t play them very well. Hype is great, but you have to live up to it. And how you live up to it is comparative [with other bands]. You can’t just say you have more fans on Facebook.
I don't think the integrity is there in the audience anymore. It's all very superficial. The thing about having records or going to the record store, the point was you compared things. You met other people with similar tastes. I know this happens today as well, but you were more likely I think to discover musicians by accidents, not by hype, acts with next to no publicity. Today you'd think that works perfectly with the Internet, but they're not really listening. They're waiting for something else to come along.
Were you overlooked in your career, or were you happy with the audience you had?
I had a sizeable audience for the type of music I was making. In Canada it’s very difficult to have a career in the music industry. I was signed to Virgin Records for one year, the only major label, otherwise independent. I sort of did everything wrong. No agent or manager wanted to touch a solo guy playing weirdo electronic music. I was not a value commodity to a business. A manager or an agent couldn’t make a lot of money off me. In some ways, I’m in the wrong country. If I had my career in Germany or England or New York City, I would have had a bigger career. It’s amazing I had a career as an artist in Canada.
How did you beat the odds?
Because I had a certain value: I was one of the best opening acts any performer could have. One guy, no hassle, my reputation preceeded me. Promoters liked me a lot. This list is endless of big bands that I opened for. Iggy Pop searched me out, he overruled his manager to have me tour with him. Gary Numan, he was rehearsing in Toronto for his first North American tour, and he came to a club I was playing at to see his Toronto opening act I was playing. On a handshake I had the North American tour and Gary cancelled all the other acts. I was a professional, a damn good artist and performer, and I also lived up to the hype.
You rejoined FM for a long time and you've spoken about how you weren't a song writing force during that period. What made you stay for so long?
I think we broke up and reformed about four times. It wasn't just once. Bands are like a bad marriage. You're not getting together because you like each other, it's because you make good music together. The personality stuff can be difficult, but when you play together you know you're damn good. And FM was damn good.
I'm a slow songwriter. We were working on Tonight, and we had Cam [Hawkins, FM bandleader] and the producer [Michael Waite] with a bunch of material, ready to hammer out another album. I didn't contribute at all, I was along for the ride. I had a bunch of my own stuff I was working on.
When I first left FM in 1979, they ended up signing to Rush's label Anthem. The people at Anthem said not to play gigs. They'd pay salary, they just stayed at home and kept writing songs. Bad advice. They did a few neat gigs but they weren't out there trying stuff. I did more gigs in the next three years than FM ever did. And I didn't have a manager, I wasn't hyping, it was plain work. Just do it. Things like this can happen to bands. It's not FM's fault, it's not anybody's fault. But it's bad advice to don't do gigs and just write songs, just like it is to just tour.
What was it like playing songs from these new FM records that you didn’t have a huge hand in and didn’t really enjoy making?
When we started doing gigs, that’s when I realized my heart wasn’t in it. It wasn’t fun. The material was trying to do something that FM wasn’t designed to do. I’m pretty sure Cam would agree with me, he attempted to write at the time a style of commercial music. FM’s most successful album was the first, Black Noise, and it wasn’t an attempt to be commercial. It was just a damn good album. So eclectic. Damn good music. If you try to write music because you think this is what people want to hear, that’s a big mistake to make. Write it from your heart, write it from what you know, and write what’s good in your world.
Here I was kicking ass in a top hat. And I opened for a bunch of punk bands.
I’m saying to the young musicians out there in iPod land, don’t make that mistake. It’s pointless. To follow along with a formula, it’s a mistake, a complete fallacy. Very very little of it has any staying power or credibility. And it certainly didn’t do FM any good in terms of its musical credibility. You have to do your own thing.
So during your solo career, there wasn’t any temptation to do something more commercially viable?
My idea of a performance artist was a very strong aspect of what I was doing onstage. If I had a low point and was considering going more commercial, I wouldn’t form a band because I’d just think “What’s that drum kit onstage taking up all the room for the light show? I can hold a drum machine in my hand!” I would have done something more like Blue Man Group, three Nashes on stage, something theatrical. But I never did.
Did your character of Nash help you express things you couldn’t under your given name?
I guess in some ways I was being alien. In having this persona, a character, there’s no need to express your personal opinion or emotions. I don’t write about my personal life, more about ethereal things. Keeping it in context can be kind of challenging.
The character of Nash The Slash could do many things. I quite purposely created a character with stage presence. White tails and top hat. I did use many costumes over the years, but always went back. This was at a time when punk was coming out. Everybody’s wearing torn blue jeans and ripped t shirts. The look was street and rough, and here I was kicking ass in a top hat. And I opened for a bunch of punk bands.
I managed to pull off some very strange opening gigs. Here in Toronto in the same month I opened for Gentle Giant and Human League. Very different bands. I’m very proud of who I’ve opened for.
What did your cover songs do for you?
I love doing cover songs. And I’ve had people criticise me for it, and maybe they’re right. I just liked doing them. I don’t do them in the sense that a band does them, to get airplay. I do weird stuff. Scorpions, Killing Joke, The Residents, Gordon Lightfoot. The songs that I cover mean something to me.
Wouldn’t that give insight into the person behind the character?
In the world of electronic music, you won’t find too many Roy Orbision fans. There are people out there who would go “What the hell is he doing Roy Orbison for? He should be doing a noise song.” It can be a little off-putting, I learned that from comments over the years.
You said a couple of years ago that you just weren’t hip anymore. Why do you think that’s the case?
I had a selfish approach to things. I really like analog stuff and I still do. I like the way the toys work, and they are toys. Digital toys, you played with them once and the glitter fell off. I didn’t know how to use them. I’d hear a group like The Chemical Brothers, and my pants would fall off. They’re electronic, I’m electronic, but it’s kind of night and day. Or Nine Inch Nails. Ooh. That’s seriously peel the paint off the walls. Great. If I’d been thirty years younger I’d create a band like that. But music’s not created by knowing all the programming. Programming’s got nothing to do with music. I can make an album beating on an ashtray and a garbage can. It’s been done. That to me is more interesting.
I’m a footnote in the pages of rock and roll history and that’s fine. I know what my credentials are.
You spoke about your disdain for how crowded the Internet is. Are you worried that Nash The Slash might get lost in all that information?
I don’t care. I’m a footnote in the pages of rock and roll history and that’s fine. I know what my credentials are. People have already forgotten that, but who gives a crap. I’m not the kind of guy to remind them. I’ve forgotten more about music than most will ever know. And it feels great.