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Monday, February 11th, 2013

Nick Flanagan's Brutal Knights and Brutal Nights

Independent musicians are often thought of as self-serious crybabies, holding their craft to the highest imaginable standards and scoffing at anything resembling fun. Often, that's not the case, however, as many musicians moonlight with comedic output. From follow-worthy Twitter accounts to viral videos and other projects, we're here to point out some of the best secret comedians in the world of independent music.

While Phil Elverum and Mac DeMarco are full-time musicians who happen to have humorous side projects, Nick Flanagan is a different story. A former Canadian punk frontman with a penchant for live antics, he’s channeled that momentum into a respectable comedy career.

Some know him from his impeccably maintained Twitter account (is it just me, or does he write the perfect amount of tweets?), while others may have heard his fantastic album I’m Here All Weak or his Tumblr blog. Still, Flanagan’s biggest claim to fame is that he fronted the rock ’n’ roll-tinged hardcore punk outfit Brutal Knights.

The group came up alongside Fucked Up and Career Suicide in Toronto’s mid-2000s punk scene. There, they combined raw aggression, live terror and Flanagan’s twisted sense of humor, channeling punk’s rich history while remaining entirely of the moment.

After countless singles (well, actually eight) and three LPs on the venerable punk powerhouse Deranged Records, Brutal Knights called it quits in 2010. Since then, Flanagan’s remained onstage, though he’s now channeling hilarious awkwardness rather than extreme aggression. I caught up with him to find out how he writes jokes and whether or not stand-up comedy is the perfect punk retirement plan.

How and when did you first get involved in music? Was Brutal Knights your first band or did you play music before as well?

I was 13 and moved to the Annex in Toronto, an area that, in the 1990s, was far more bustling than my former neighborhood — it had record stores, a radio station and weird coffee shops. So I quickly became a fan of "the grunge movement," New York rap, punk music and indie rock. I soon started a band with my friends and later on I joined a more for-real band with my friend Allyson Baker from Dirty Ghosts. We were called Teen Crud Combo. I was also in a band called Killer Elite, but Brutal Knights was the only that put out an LP while we were still together. They are responsible for me eating a lot of vegan and vegetarian food too, as I was the only omnivore in the band. I love fake meat. Should I call my next band Fake Meat?

Absolutely! There was a lot of humor in the lyrics and song titles of the band. Was comedy something you were always interested in?

I only ever wrote lyrics that made me laugh, mainly because it was a formula I responded to well in other bands. Whenever something in a straight-ahead, no-eyebrows-raised song was funny, I loved it. I also love super serious emotional music, but I am far too afraid of my emotions to write anything like that. The first song I wrote was called "Magical Shoe," and my lyric-writing only gotten more dumbed-down since then. And yes, I always loved comedy. Abbott and Costello and Looney Tunes, and then Adam Sandler and Norm Macdonald, then Mr.Show, Dave Chappelle and Dr.Katz… and now it's random YouTube videos and Worldstarhiphop, I guess.

Punk and especially hardcore circles can be very humorless. Did you stick out or were you generally accepted? Did your sense of humor get you into any uncomfortable situations?

I think punk rock and hardcore has gone through a lot of phases. The first punk stuff was more nihilistic, but bands like The Ramones and The Dictators had a sense of humor. And the Dead Kennedys, DOA and Angry Samoans did too. But the DC stuff and straight edge in general was a far more sober take — and those bands are the ones that amassed fanbases that really mobilized for shows and organizing stuff, so I think that's why that element is so present in hardcore. And that's good. But I think the bottom line was everyone in Brutal Knights were so involved in bands (Chokehold, Hacksaw, Endless Blockade and Countdown To Oblivion among many others) and the scene in general, and they had been since the ’90s, so people couldn't really disallow our presence. And why would they? We were fun. Although, we were occasionally barred from playing non-profit youth centers in small towns by people with crappy beards who chastise people who eat honey. Plus, we were considered by some hardcore fans to be closer to “rock and roll punk,” which has way more of a tradition of being snotty. It wasn't until our last album (Blown 2 Completion) that we got closer to “real hardcore.” And even that one has too many digressions to satisfy the Earth Crisis face tattoo guy. Proud to say our band never really approached being labeled “sketchy,” although I'm sure we came close.

In what other ways has the punk scene shaped or helped form the way you approach what you do now? Or maybe it hasn't?

I think about that a bit more lately. I couldn't say exactly. In a lot of ways I feel like a punk dropout. There's so much stuff I love but I've never had the dedication you see in the people that really sustain the hardcore/punk community internationally. Obviously just being in a band and touring and getting to know people everywhere feels like you're part of it. But I'm not making zines or documenting “the scene” through pictures or tribute songs. That said, I feel comfortable around dogs with saddlebags, so I think that means I'm punk?

I've thought lately about approaching stand-up more the way I did as a frontman — putting out energy and never letting up. I think that when I was singing in the band I actively enjoyed a slow paced, low energy style of stand-up because it felt like such a contrast with what I was doing in Brutal Knights. Now that I don't have a band I've tried to get a bit more energetic onstage, marginally. I don't think I'll climb on top of an amp and scream jokes anytime soon. But maybe? Who can say but Jah?

When did you start doing stand-up? Did you find that being a frontman of a band helped you with confidence in that area? Or was it vice-versa?

I was 21 and working at a warehouse with the musician Danko Jones and a lot of other musician/artist types, and one day he basically dared me to do stand-up. So I went to a folk jam open mic and did… something. I don't really know what it was, but the people at the warehouse were stoked that I got up there. I was so freaked out about it that I didn't go to work the next day! I think that having the performance experience before gave me initial confidence and faith in what I was doing, but I also think that confidence was a bit misplaced. At some point I realized that stand-up is hard and there really aren't any shortcuts. There's very little in comedy that's an equivalent to inaccessible noise music, even trippy stuff like Xavier: Renegade Angel is replete with jokes. I also feel like I found my voice in lyric-writing very quickly but in stand-up it keeps changing, at least the way I see it. I'm still writing jokes as dumb as the first time I got onstage though.

Most people don't play punk music forever… is comedy something you can do forever?

I think that being in a punk band forever is not something I'm cut out for. I don't play instruments and I'm relatively apolitical. Plus I'd probably wind up a fat drunk who everyone in my life would worry about. I want to talk about the stuff that is happening to me, but documenting all the changing people do with words seems easier and less of a narrow path than unintelligibly singing about it in two-minute songs. That said, I really like playing music and it shows a side of me that probably doesn't gross out girls quite as much as my jokes. Comedy is something you can do until you make some sort of equivalent to Mr. Saturday Night.

What advice do you have for aspiring comics? What about aspiring musicians?

I feel ill-equipped to give advice, really. Mainly because an older comedian once told me he doesn't have much to give people in the way of advice. He's older than me! So what would I know? All I can say is as soon as you put an album or something out, register with Soundexchange. And try not to worry about how everyone else is more successful than you are. They too will die. This has sustained me through many an unslept night.

Who is the funniest frontman?

I feel inclined to say Fred Schneider but I have no evidence to back this up.

You mentioned you're dabbling with some music right now. Can you tell me about it at all?

I've been getting together with my friend Andrew from Deadly Snakes and Quest For Fire in the last couple of months and coupling dumb lyrics with dumb riffs. I'm really hoping it comes together and we get to record soon. But we are having a hard time coming up with a name! Any ideas? So far lyrical topics include: making smoothies, going to a bazaar, having an imaginary friend named Jake who will only bake you a cake if you pay him a lot of money, and wanting to be a grandparent. Who won’t sign us to their label?!

What else are you working on? What do you have coming up?

I'm just getting ready to open for Duncan Trussell in Toronto, which I'm pretty stoked for. I'm really looking forward to those shows and to some other upcoming gigs. I love writing new jokes and lately I've been enjoying writing onstage. It's not fun for audiences, but boy do I feel good eventually saying something funny after two minutes of babbling. I'm also working on something with my friend Tim Gilbert, who was in the second season of the web series Moderation Town with — he's also hilarious and probably the best person at Twitter. If we get to make it we will be very excited! It's a ridiculous idea about two brothers. Otherwise I'm busy writing animation stuff. And looking for a place that will rent to me month-to-month.

Josiah Hughes is a freelance writer and the music and film editor for Fast Forward Weekly. He Tweets.

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