Once described as having been to “punk what Big Star are to pop music”, the Canadian group the Nils were one of the most influential, but also most under-rated punk groups of the 1980’s. Their combination of jagged punk chords and breezy, quicksilver power pop melodies were a seminal influence on their contemporaries Husker Du and the Replacements. While both those bands went on to sign major label deals with Warner Brothers and Sire respectively, and to meet with international accolade and success, the Nils were, however, less fortunate. They burned out and collapsed, the victims of both poor management and drug abuse, having recorded and released in their lifespan just one solitary album. It is only now nearly fifteen years after their initial demise, like Alex Chilton’s now highly regarded Memphis pop act , that their reputation and legacy has at last started to be restored.

The Nils were formed in the Montreal suburbs in 1978 by twelve year old Alex Soria, shortly after his older brother Carlos brought home a collection of early punk albums, including the Damned’s ‘Damned, Damned, Damned’, the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks’ and the Clash’s eponymous debut LP. Enlisting Carlos into the line-up, who had been playing guitar in another local punk act, the immortally-titled Electric Vomit, Alex, placing himself on guitar and vocals, began rehearsing the band, firstly at home and then eventually in a friend’s futon factory.

Over the next ten years the Nils would fluctuate between being a three piece and a quartet, with the other members of the group being drafted in by the Soria brothers essentially as session musicians. Bassists and drummers would come and go and change fairly regularly, often finding themselves excluded from band decisions at rehearsals by the bilingual Sorias, who would blank them out by breaking off to converse in their immigrant parents’ native Spanish, if they had something important to resolve.

The group played its first gig in 1980 when Alex was fourteen, and put out its first release in 1982, a five song self-released demo tape ‘Now’, which limited to 300 copies, it used to circulate around record labels and local radio stations. The five songs on ‘Now’ were impressive enough to attract the interest of BYO (Better Youth Organisation), a Los Angeles punk label, who sent the Nils the money to record one of the songs from it, ‘Scratches and Needles’, for ‘Something to Believe In’, a compilation LP that came out in 1983. The following year the Nils recorded another song ‘Call of the Wild’ for another compilation, ‘Primitive Air-Raid’, which, serving as a showcase for Montreal bands, was released on a local label Psyche Industry. On the back of this, the Nils released, again on Psyche Industry, their debut EP, the four song 12” ‘Sell It Young’, in 1985. Another four song 12” EP , the rare ‘The Nils’, which came out on BYO and which is better known as the ‘Paisley EP’ because of its garish paisley-patterned sleeve, quickly followed in 1986 when the Nils were offered free studio time,

The Nils, and the ‘Sell Out Young’ EP in particular ,had by now attracted the attention of Rock Hotel/Profile Records, a large-sized independent New York label, who offered the band a deal. Both Soria brothers thought this was a joke, until a 42 page contract arrived in the mail. The group’s eponymous debut album followed in 1987. While it garnered some decent reviews, and was the first LP by a Canadian band to appear on Rolling Stone magazine’s alternative/college chart, the album was something of a disappointment. Produced by the usually reliable session guitarist and producer Chris Spedding, who had worked with John Cale, the Sex Pistols and Bryan Ferry, it was an oddly muted affair which, watered down and sanitised for mainstream radio, lacked the fire of the Nils’ previous recordings and empassioned live performances. As well as several new songs, it also consisted of lacklustre reworkings of ‘In Betweens’ and “Daylight’ , two of the songs from ‘Sell Out Young’, which the Soria brothers, at record company insistence , had balkingly been forced to record.

The band toured Canada and the United States with the album, and a second LP was planned, but the writing was already on the wall for the group. Both brothers, and Carlos in particular, had started dabbling in heroin. Rock Hotel was also in financial trouble, and in 1988 folded. With no money to back them, their record label having gone bust, and both now addicts, the Sorias decided to split up the Nils. They would make a couple of half-hearted attempts to reform the band, before finally breaking up for good, without recording anything else, in 1994.

That might well have been the end of the story, and the Nils might have been forgotten about in many quarters, but for the intervention of one Woody R. Whelan. Whelan is the owner of Magwheel Records, a Montreal based punk label. A long term fan of the Nils, he had first heard the group after a friend had given him a copy of “Sell Out Young’on cassette, and had grown up tuning in to to the band’s regular appearances on local radio. After meeting Alex Soria at a party in 1993, and befriending him over the course of the next year, he started to talk him about the possibility of releasing a Nils retrospective on Magwheel . The now cleaned-up Alex was initially reluctant, wanting to concentrate on the future rather than the past, but with Whelan convincing him that the Nils catalogue was too important to remain in the vaults of history, finally agreed.

The 28 track “Green Fields in Daylight’, which followed in late 1996, is the definitive Nils album. As well as featuring the early compilation tracks and both the ‘Sell Out Young’ and ‘Paisley’ EPs in their entirety, its also includes-perhaps best of all for collectors-the five tracks from the “Now’ demo. There are a dozen live songs as well, which include much improved versions of most of the songs that make up “The Nils’ album , and also previously unreleased covers of the Who’s ’Mary-Anne with the Shaky Hands’ , Tim Hardin’s ‘Red Balloon’ and Men Without Hats ‘Pop Goes the World’.

Although the Nils were initially together for ten years and were at one level veterans of the punk scene, they split up when Alex was still only 22, and never had the experience which age brings or the time in the studio to develop their repertoire much beyond a set of three minute, breakneck-played, raucous guitar tunes. This is undoubtedly reflected on the ‘Green Fields in Daylight’. One definitely finds onself wondering with a little more money thrown at them, the right sort of studio experience and a lot more luck what might have been. While its sound is undeniably repetitive, as a energetic testament to the group before it all went wrong, and as a piece of punk history that explains where the Replacements and Husker Du, and other bands such as the Goo Goo Dolls , Jawbox, and the Meat Puppets, who have cited the Nils as an influence as well, all come from, ‘Green Fields in Daylight’, however, makes enthralling and essential listening.

Since the Nils’ finally split in 1994, Carlos Soria has remained largely out of music . Alex played briefly in another band Los Potos, but also left the industry for three years, spending the time working in a kosher food warehouse, before returning in 1998 with a new band, Chino. Chino’s debut release ‘Mala Leche’, a six track EP, followed on Magwheel in 1999.

“Mala Leche’, which features Carlos making a token appearance on hand claps, builds on from where the Nils ended. Sung part in Spanish, and adding a mandolin and organ to its mix of energetic guitars, it is the sound of punk having grown up. While many of the Nils songs were about the traditional teenage punk themes of girls, alcohol and freedom, “Mala Leche’ is, as Alex Soria was to explain an interview at the time, about “toughing crap out”. The high octane opener ‘Uno Mas’ makes reference to the courageous and resilient Panamese boxer Roberto Duran who, even after a terrible beating, would still always stagger back into the ring for another round or fight. ‘When You’re Not Around’, despite its breaknecked , fast-paced guitarwork, shows Alex Soria at his most vulnerable, and amidst macho bluster, uncertain whether he iss going to get to keep the girl. The equally dynamic, ands malaise-infected closing number ‘Nine Yards’ meanwhile finds him, weary of both his home town and also himself, thinking of trying his luck somewhere else.

The effects were stunning, and the whole EP shouted of comeback. ‘Mala Leche’ earned deserved ecstatiic reviews, and Chino quickly earned itself a reputation as a strong live act, playing shows in New York, as well as Canada. An album was planned, and things seemed to bode wll for the future, but unfortunately again weren’t to be. Founder member and guitarist Eric Kearns, who had also helped Alex produce “Mala Leche’, quit in August of 2000. The band carried on, but in November of last year, a show in Ottawa was abruptly cancelled and, for reasons that have not yet been determined, it was announced shortly afterwards that Chino had split.

Alex Soria’s musical future is at the current time uncertain. A notice which was posted on the Magwheel website in March states that he is taking a hiatus from music to work out where he goes next and that he may restart Chino with new members, or alternatively reform the Nils , or again may start another project entirely.

While it remains to be seen, therefore, whether the Nils, like Big Star with their 1993 album ‘Columbia Live at Missouri University’, will once again hit the come back trail, or instead stay apart, the reputation of the band continues to spread and solidify. Both ‘Green Fields in Daylights’ and ‘Mala Leche’ have been released in Britain and Europe for the first time, having been licensed to the English punk label Boss Tuneage. A tribute album “Scratches and Needles’, compiled together by the ever enthusaistic Woody Whelan, and which came out in Magwheel in late 1998 in America, has also been made available. The Nils continue also to influence a whole range of new punk acts, including Down by Law and Powderfinger. It has been a long time coming, but it seems that at last this most influential, but also unfortunate of groups’ place in the punk history books has at last been assured.

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Shadows and Ghosts, new album from the nils released in june of 2015

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