1962: Clipper Cowbridge

1963: The Swiss Invasion

1965: Marilyn Kaye

1969: The Fold

1970: Yorgi

1971: Devon Shire

1972: Sandee Saunders

1976: Rockfinger

1978: The Spooky Bunch

1979: Decoupage

1981: Bleep

1984: Tiger Love

1985: Laryssa Foxxx

1986: Smasher of Things

1987: Suthrn Cuzn

1989: ~pianogirl~

1990: Razorflesh

1995: Breaker Bear

1996: Action Plus

1998: J Lounge

2001: Eesk

2004: Lazarus Project

Razorflesh: Clubbo’s Renaissance Man (1990)

Razorflesh's Lickspittle LP

AS THE MASTERMIND behind industrial act Razorflesh, Nhoj Arpendahl is one of Canada’s most influential — and extreme — musical exports. Since his 1988 Clubbo debut, Lickspittle, countless young listeners have modeled their appearance, musical taste, and dietary preferences on his example.

But even the most influential artists have influences of their own. And for young John Arpendahl, once a bespectacled, bassoon-playing high-school pariah from Vancouver, this type of transformation wasn’t just about expressing identity.

It was about survival.

EXTRA! An exclusive interview with Nhoj Arpendahl of Razorflesh!


“Hell Hog”

“Hell Hog” lyrics and credits


Nhoj Arpendahl, the driving force behind Canadian industrial band Razorflesh, wasn’t always cool.

Nhoj Arpendahl of Razorflesh (Clubbo Records)At age six, young John (his real name) insisted on wearing a tiara every day for five weeks. At nine, he still attended school in the company of a large plush donkey named Nubsy. At twelve, he discovered Dungeons & Dragons, and began collecting miniature medieval soldiers (a hobby he maintains to this day).

By the time Arpendahl began attending Vancouver’s Diefenbaker Secondary School, he was a certified nerd: a khaki-clad, bassoon-playing weed of a teenager who could usually be found in the audio/visual lab splicing together broken filmstrips, or behind the monitor of the school’s sole Apple II computer.

Weekends were even dorkier. John’s parents, Tucker and Liz Arpendahl, were well-known figures in the CSCA (Canadian Society for Creative Anachronism). They hauled their only child to every Renaissance Faire from Banff, Alberta, to Novato, California.

Tucker was the music director of the Royale Consort, a renowned Tudor brass ensemble. And as one of North America’s most highly regarded Elizabeth I impersonators, Liz lived up to her name. (She even shaved her forehead for that authentic high-hairline look.) Meanwhile John, a natural on the crumhorn (an extinct reed-cap instrument), played alongside several leading early music specialists in his father’s group.

During the school week, John kept a low profile. His fellow students knew nothing of his closeted Elizabethan lifestyle — until CBUT-TV, Vancouver’s CBC station, ran a segment on a recent gathering that featured onscreen interviews with the Arpendahls in period regalia. Overnight, John went from being an unnoticed and hence unmolested student to a campus pariah known as “Little Lord Twinkletights.”

Graduation couldn’t come too soon. John aced his way into the prestigious music department at Montreal’s McGill University — there are never enough good bassoonists to go around — but shifted his focus to composition after coming under the influence of Patrice Chennaud, a visiting professor from Paris’s IMNS institute. (Weird coincidence: Clipper Cowbridge, Clubbo’s very first artist, had studied with enfant terrible Chennaud thirty-some years earlier.)

Razorflesh's Dermatitis Artefacta LP (Clubbo Records)This move should have set John’s nerd status in stone. Delving into atonal classical composition would seem to be the one musical pursuit less sexy than puffing on a crumhorn. And Chennaud’s compositions, with their clangorous ring modulators, tape effects, and found factory sounds, are about as daunting as New Music gets.

But thanks to an odd twist of stylistic fate, musical provocateurs from Sheffield to Brussels to Sydney had also been exploring such sounds as part of the burgeoning industrial music movement. They relied on sonic palettes similar to Chennaud’s, but deployed these colors over martial-sounding post-disco beats. So it wasn’t a major conceptual leap for Arpendahl to add a drum machine and processed, spoken-word vocals to his Chennaud-influenced compositions. And against all odds, the young composer found himself in the last place he ever expected to be: on a collision course with musical fashion.

Chennaud wasn’t John’s only transformative influence at McGill. He also encountered the volatile, expressive Tessa Baskin, later known as ~pianogirl~.

Goaded into trendiness by Tessa, he shed his ugly-duckling nerdwear for more extreme feathers. As a recent fan of such hard-edged post-punk bands as Strapjack and Hammer 49, he took on their industrial-culture aesthetic. He shaved stripes into his hair, pierced his upper lip, and dyed his entire wardrobe black. Nhoj — as he now called himself — now looked as cool as he sounded.

To his parents’ escalating horror, Nhoj sold his Schieber & Sohne bassoon (Heckel system) and invested in a small computer studio featuring an Atari ST, Steinberg Pro 24 MIDI sequencing software, an eight-bit Ensoniq Mirage sampler, a Roland TR505 drum machine, and a Tascam Porta One four-track cassette recorder. (The Canadian Music Hall of Fame recently purchased Nhoj’s old S&S bassoon for an undisclosed sum. The instrument will be displayed to the public as soon as an actual museum is constructed. Winnipeg and Hamilton are among the possible sites.)

Razorflesh's Dermatitis Artefacta LP (Clubbo Records)

Nhoj’s musical style became increasingly aggressive and confrontational, characterized by abrupt alternations between accusatory screaming and half-whispered confessions. His early song, “In My Way,” became one of McGill radio station CKUT’s most-requested tracks, and he began to get gigs, accompanied by an ever-changing roster of supporting players, as an opening act at Montreal nightclubs like Club Soda and the Spectrum.

When girlfriend Tessa scored a two-record deal with Clubbo, she made sure the label’s Bas Carlton knew about Razorflesh as well. Nhoj was awarded a two-album deal with exactly the same terms as the ~pianogirl~ contract; Carlton understood his new Canadian artists well enough to realize that any other arrangement would spell disaster. Nhoj immediately attracted the attention of the Canadian music press with his mock-violent onstage antics and confrontational interviews.

Like Tessa, Nhoj delivered two albums on Clubbo — in his case, Lickspittle and Dermatitis Artefacta — before leaving to establish his own label. He has released eight successful albums on Dentition Records, most recently the ironically titled nice. He currently lives in Vancouver with Baskin and their two pet ferrets, Taquito and Nubsy.

Despite this seeming domesticity, the passing years haven’t softened Nhoj’s music, or his words. Evidence: this 2004 interview.