Underground Film Journal

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Movie Review: 2001 CUFF: What About Me: The Rise Of The Nihilist Spasm Band

By Mike Everleth ⋅ August 18, 2001

What About Me: The Rise of the Nihilist Spasm Band is another documentary I missed at the New York Underground Film Festival this year, a portrait of the pioneering “noise” band, the Nihilist Spasm Band (NSB).

My first real introduction to “noise” was a couple months ago when a friend I hadn’t seen in many, many years invited me to a basement noise show out in the wilds of Brooklyn, I hadn’t known it was going to be a noise show and I was totally unprepared for the cacophonous onslaught that was to follow.

For anyone unfamiliar with noise, it is just that. The NSB is a bunch of guys who get on stage, between 5 and 6 of them, with a variety of homemade and regular musical instruments — guitar, bass, drums, kazoo, pipes to blow through, et. al. — and make an unholy racket. Sometimes it can be very musical, other times it is a discordant blob of sound.

Unlike Coffin Joe, What About Me didn’t inspire me to go buy any NSB CDs or go to one of their concerts, but that’s not the filmmaker’s, Zev Asher’s, fault. I’m just not interested in the genre of noise music. So, I felt that What About Me concentrated too much on live band performances.

The guys in NSB are interesting fellows and I truly appreciated their “We have fun doing this and don’t care what the rest of the world thinks” philosophy of music and art. They also seem like a closely-knit group of men with supportive and caring families, for the most part – one member appeared to be single. While the band members are all retired now, they have been in their “real” careers influential high school teachers, respected librarians, acupuncturists (my fave!) and talented painters.

There a lot of performances of the Nihilist Spasm Band, including a tour they did of Japan and a concert with alt-music gadfly Thurston Moore at the Knitting Factory in NYC, a pretty righteous venue, one of my favorite places to see bands in the city. It’s small but cozy.

However, as I found NSB’s music irritating more than anything, I eventually grew tired of watching them and really wanted to see more of their personal lives. One of the most telling and moving lines in the film is when the sons of some of the members of NSB, who had formed their own band, said that they were raised to be friends with their parents, unlike most other families they know. In fact, these young friends seemed more like close brothers. Unfortunately, these sons were only interviewed for one brief scene. Most of the other NSB family members garnered just as little screen time as well.

As a statement about noise, What About Me is a successful document about the pioneers of the field and should prove entertaining for fans of this musical genre or anyone just curious about it. The film may also win over people unfamiliar with noise since the guys in the band are really very charming, but, for me, I thought all the non-music got tedious.

Continue on to 2001 CUFF: Wormwood.

Go back to 2001 CUFF: The Biograph Theater.