Chicago noise trio No Men (sort of) predicted this social and political hellscape
In October 2016, No Men released its debut album, Dear God, Bring the Doom, a title that feels a bit on the nose, in retrospect, preceding as it did the election of President Donald Trump by roughly a month.
Since the last presidential contest, these social and political ills have only continued to swell, seeping into the Chicago noise trio’s most recent long-player, Hell Was Full So We Came Back, released in 2019. Throughout the album, unnamed enemies (“You want to destroy us all,” singer Pursley offers on one song) and a lingering generalized unease (“I just don’t feel myself today,” she sighs on another) combine to paint a picture of an existence fighting back from the brink.
“I don’t think we necessarily write explicitly political songs, but we write angry music, and [politics] is the cloud that’s hanging over everything all of the time,” bassist DB said by phone in a mid-February interview. “There’s no avoiding it. I mean, it’s an influence on the record, but it’s also an influence on everything these last four years, so…
“I’d say our songs are very defiant. They’re not necessarily complaining, or naming everything that’s wrong. I think a lot of it is us saying, ‘Fuck that. We’re going to keep doing our thing and you can’t stop us.' And a lot of that comes from Pursley’s strong personality and being a lesbian, and me being queer. A lot of the stuff we deal with every day, it’s like, ‘Nah. Fuck you.’”
Sometimes these ideas will coalesce around random language the band encounters in its travels, such as the phrase “hell is real,” which appears on the record and is taken from a billboard the members regularly view while driving through Indiana. “One side says, ‘Hell Is Real,’ and the other side says, ‘Jesus Is Real,’” said DB, who will join Pursley and drummer Eric Hofmeister in concert at Dirty Dungarees on Thursday, Feb. 20. “I grew up in Tennessee and Texas and rural Ohio (outside of Toledo), so I’m used to seeing those signs everywhere. But Eric is from Chicago, and he’s lived there his whole life, so when we’re on the road down South, he’ll be like, ‘Whoa.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, man. Jesus is everywhere out here.’”
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The sounds on Hell Was Full can sound as ugly as our current political realities, building on twisting, buzzing basslines, pulverizing drums and Pursley’s vocals, which alternate between detached and desperate, depending on the mood of a given track. According to DB, though, this isn’t always the band's intent while hashing out new songs.
“I think one of the biggest influences on our songwriting is (pioneering dance-punk band) ESG, where it’s just about keeping things minimal. … We try to write pop songs, where there’s an emphasis on repetition. I don’t think any of us really draw too much inspiration from things that sound like us,” said DB, pointing to artists like Destiny’s Child, the Shangri-Las and even country mainstays Brooks & Dunn as musical touchstones. “The things that I think of when I’m playing a riff, it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah. I was inspired by this Ornette Coleman song, or this Soundgarden song,’ and it’s like my little inside joke to myself.”
Within No Men — a defiant twist on “yes men” — these influences regularly get warped, chopped and extruded. “When we write, it’s like, ‘Well, what if this is a country song but we’re playing it with a punk vibe,’” DB said. “Instead of saying, ‘Let’s write a punk song,’ we try to find a more unconventional angle.”
Regardless, the trio’s output still maintains punk’s sense of catharsis, often projecting less as an act of creation than a needed bloodletting.
“Playing music is always a great release,” DB said. “When we play [live], we play very intensely, and it’s a good way to get out the frustrations from the other aspects of our day-to-day lives, trudging through work and all the other stuff we have to do to survive.”
6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 20
2586 N. High St., Old North
ALSO PLAYING: Phlox, Wasp Factory