Photo by Martin Christgau, courtesy of Nina Canal
Nina Canal is an artist and musician. She was a member of the seminal No-Wave band Ut (pronounced Oot), and has been name-dropped by such other influential bands as Sonic Youth and Le Tigre. They were a favorite of John Peel’s, and worked with engineer Steve Albini on their album Griller. Their list of associations reads like a who’s-who of underground rock. Canal was also a member of the band The Gynaecologists, and has worked with Rhys Chatham doing both the guitar trio and 100 guitars.
In addition to being a talented guitarist, drummer, and vocalist, Canal is a painter and fashion designer, crossing deftly between different art mediums. I talked with her over email about her history with Ut, what equipment she uses, and what’s going on in her life artistically at present.
When did you begin playing and why?
I started to play guitar in NYC in early 1977. I went to NY from London after finishing my Fine Art degree. I had a very good friend from London, Robert Appleton who had been living there 2 years, and he had met Rhys Chatham, and they had started a band called The Gynaecologists and asked me to play with them.
What was your first guitar, and how did you get it?
So Robert had a friend Jimmy who worked at a music store in Long Island, he would get me a good deal, so I went out there and bought a beautiful blond Telecaster, pre CBS (just) for something crazy like $250, not sure exactly!
What equipment do you prefer now? Which guitar? What amps or pedals? Why? Has this changed over time?
Sadly, that Telecaster got stolen in London after a gig in 1986 or so, and not very long before we started working on GRILLER LP, so when I saw Steve Albini he offered to buy me another one in the USA. However, the prices had gone through the roof, so he suggested a copy made by these guys in Chicago. They have an outfit called Rubber Ducky Replicas, and they made me a beautiful one. I was able to ask for a custom colour, hence my trademark bright green telecaster with a mirror scratch board.
I like using few pedals, I have a Big Muff and mainly just love the sound of real tube amps, good ones that deliver that wonderful warm yet ripping distortion.
What is your songwriting process like? I know that when you were with Ut, you and your fellow band members emphasized collaboration and equal exchange. Have you found that method effective over time, or do you feel more like you’re a solo artist now?
Yes, with Ut we always worked together, in a total collaboration. I have worked on a few collaborations in recent years, in a similar process where everyone has equal say and we go by feel and mutual confidence. I am starting to work on some solo stuff. It’s not so easy for me. I always did a little of this even in NY, so yes I am becoming a “solo artist.”
Can you talk a little about your work with Rhys Chatham? You were in at least one formation of his guitar trio, and participated in 100 guitars.
Rhys and I were together as a couple at the time he composed Guitar Trio, and I played it with him the very first time and several other times in NY in those amazing days, and also occasionally in the years between, so it’s a piece you could say I have an intimate connection with.
Yes, I also have played in the 100 guitars, initially at the London performance in 1990 something, and then I was also very briefly a section head for two concerts, one in Nantes, which was a wonderful experience and then we went to Reunion Island with it. That was a particularly incredible experience. The volcano erupted while we were there, and we went to see the hot lava jumping into the sea, amazing.
Documentary film maker Laurence Petit Jouve made a film about it, but it has never yet seen the light of day due to lack of finances….
You’re a musician — writing songs, and playing the drums and guitar, but you also paint, and make clothing. Also, I read an interview where you said you came to rock music from a background in performance art. Do you feel that your work across mediums informs your perspective as a guitar player?
I am also a painter, fascinated by colour and energy, I got into painting on different textiles, mostly silk and wool or cashmere. I love clothes, and I had started to make my own clothes line in NYC around 1980 and recently found a lot of photos which I will eventually put up on line. I need to make a new web site, as mine, although it looks pretty good, is simple and old fashioned www.ninacanal.com.
I studied fine art, and was into performance art yes, of course everything feeds everything. I do not know how to distinguish in that sense, but that’s for some else to do not me.
What are you working on right now?
Well, now having moved to Marseille, the Ut re union has taken up a lot of my time. We did some touring last autumn, and are now working on the re issues of our entire back catalogue soon, starting with Conviction on Reactor records
There’s been a lot to organize to enable this processs to proceed, and I have hardly found the time to paint. I plan to start painting pictures and not on silk anymore.
Which artist or artists do you find inspiring? Why?
Well, there are just too many to mention! I can say I recently went to see an astonishing show in London by Grayson Perry at the British Museum and that was inspiring because of the many surprises, but he’s certainly not my only inspiration….