Friends Recall the Brilliant Montreal Musician Too Few Heard
by CHRIS BARRY
Up until his tragic passing at age 39 last December, Alex Soria was the impetus behind one of Montreal’s finest rock ‘n’ roll bands ever, the Nils. One of the first punk bands on the local scene, going all the way back to the ’70s, the Nils were responsible for creating some of the most criminally beautiful music to ever emerge from these parts. And though they never quite made it to the toppermost of the poppermost, like so many feel they deserved, Alex’s musical legacy continues to touch and influence countless musicians around the globe. The following is an all-too-brief accounting of his life and times, as told by his friends, associates and brother Carlos, now 42.
CARLOS SORIA In the late ’70s, I was playing in punk bands around town and I’d come home and show Alex songs. Eventually I bought an $80 guitar for him, showed him three chords, and a week later the guy’s playing solos. He was about 13 years old. You’d show him something and then he’d be playing it better than you. He was like that with a lot of things though. He was a killer hockey player, soccer player. As soon as I brought the Pistols and Clash records home, he took them to his little corner and turned their ideas into his own thing. We shared a bedroom in our house in St-Hubert, his bed and my bed faced each other and we’d just sit on our beds writing songs. They weren’t great tunes but, like, a week later he was coming back with better songs and really cool covers of songs he’d figured out. The rest of us had to work pretty hard at it but Alex, it’s like a light shone on the kid, he had a natural God-given talent. And it made no sense either, because just to get a word out of the guy took a week, but dude, when he came onstage and sang it was like, “Wow, how does that come out of that guy?”
BILL MOSER [Nils road manager ’87–’89] Alex and Carlos had this twin-like thing. They knew what the other was thinking. I mean, Alex never had to talk, he’d shoot a look to Carlos who would tell people what was going on based on what he’d just read in Alex’s look. I think he must have been so quiet because of the family issue. The mom ran off when they were kids and stuff.
CARLOS SORIA The very saddest day of both of our lives was on my 18th birthday when my mother took off. I think it had a lot to do with the sadness Alex carried with him.
JIMMY HYNES [friend/roadie] Carlos, Alex and I all went to Macdonald-Cartier on the South Shore together. I used to go over and listen to records in the brothers’ bedroom. Their dad was never around, which probably wasn’t a good thing. So they both kind of ran wild, dropped out of school. Well, maybe Alex finished high school, but no more than that. But they didn’t seem troubled. Man, we used to laugh our heads off together, watching Carlos ride this little girl bicycle up to Grande-Allée Blvd. to go to this bar to buy hash and come back with the stuff on this little bike. All we talked about then was music.
CARLOS SORIA In 1979, the Nils started playing out a bit as a four-piece. They did a song “Scratches and Needles” for this BYO compilation, Something to Believe In, and split up shortly afterwards. I convinced them to keep going, joined the band, and that’s when we did “Call of the Wild” for that Primitive Air Raid compilation and recorded the Paisley EP – around ’82 or ’83. What makes no sense is that everyone agreed the Nils had the best song on that BYO compilation but they never contacted us again. All they cared about was SNFU and Junior Gone Wild, and we were, like, “Hey dude, give us a chance, we’ve got killer songs, come on.” We’d gotten a lot of press, people were into the band and all that, but they didn’t care. I’ve always said if the Nils had John Kastner’s business skills we would have succeeded. But everyone looked at us as these crazy little kids, you know.
JOHN KASTNER [Asexuals/Doughboys singer] As soon as the Asexuals left the suburbs around ’83, after our first single, we started playing Cargo downtown and the first band we met were the Nils. The Asexuals and the Nils were always close because we were kind of similar – punkish but with a lot of melody. Right away you could tell Alex had something more than everyone else. But there was always something going wrong for the Nils. They could never get out of their own way, those guys. There was always something fucking them over, be it money or people or… And it was frustrating to be around them. I tried to help the Nils in every way possible, but nothing ever panned out.
SEAN FRIESEN [Asexuals guitarist] Nobody played an SG like that little fucker, crushing his big nose into the mic and singing a great lyric while playing a great riff. Alex was very underrated in the guitar department.
MONTREAL’S NEXT BIG THING
JOHN KASTNER If the Nils had been from the States, they probably would have been as big and influential as the Replacements were. But they were from Canada, and at that time, nobody was really able to shoot out from there. And worse, they were from Montreal. Montreal is a great city for talent but there’s not a lot of industry, at least there wasn’t then.
CARLOS SORIA We never had a proper manager. Nobody ever approached us for anything like that. The Asexuals, 39 Steps, all these bands had people working for them. We always thought, “Fuck, this isn’t fair,” but I guess we had a bad reputation. Around 1985, we became pretty good friends with Ivan from Men Without Hats, who took us to his bank to co-sign a $3,500 loan to record Sell Out Young. We wanted Ivan to produce it because of his pop sensibilities. We wanted to be on the radio, you know? Ultimately he brought in his brother Stefan, and together they were great. At the time we bitched about it, but in hindsight that was a pretty good record. And it helped us a lot. It was voted one of the top 50 records in Canada or something.
IVAN DOROSCHUK [musician/producer] I honestly don’t think Alex was capable of writing a bad song. But it was really hard for me to get anyone – even my own label – interested in them. They would’ve rather seen me produce something more like Men Without Hats, something they could bank on. The Nils were a hard sell. People never understood why I was involved with them, including my wife at the time, who didn’t understand what these four kids were doing in my living room every morning, eating all our food and drinking all our beer. But then they got that deal with Rock Hotel/Profile and Chris Spedding, which was a pretty big thing for them.
CHRIS SPEDDING [musician/producer] Alex never really said much making that record, he just stood there. Still waters run deep, you know. But as soon as the band started playing it was obvious he was the guy to concentrate on, to bring out. The Nils was a very good record, I was proud of the results. [Rock Hotel CEO] Chris Williamson hired me to do the job, not knowing what would happen. He gave me a small budget but as soon as the record started sounding really, really good, he decided to put his name on it as executive producer. I don’t think I ever got any royalties for it.
BILL MOSER Rock Hotel was run by Chris Williamson, a real dickhead. Profile had Run-DMC and were making lots of money. It was a happening label. The Rock Hotel division was actually designed to lose money. So they signed a bunch of rock acts like the Nils and the Cro-Mags. The Nils started out okay with Williamson. He bought them equipment and shit. But when the record came out, they just didn’t get behind it. He said, “I’ll have you opening up for these guys and those guys,” but nothing ever materialized.
CARLOS SORIA Everyone told us not to sign the Rock Hotel contract, going, “Wait, you’re going to get better offers.” But dude, we’d been working it for 10 years and this was the only offer we’d ever got. We’re supposed to turn it down? Our lawyer, this big respected character, told us to just sign it as is and send it back, saying, “Look, you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t.” So we signed it. We just wanted to make a good record. In the end I think it sold something like 50,000 copies.
JIMMY HYNES 1987/88 were great years for the band. There was a big vibe about them, they were hugely popular and we were able to get decent sums of money. They could pull $750 a night when only a year before they’d be lucky to get $200.
CARLOS SORIA So the record comes out, everybody’s going nuts, we’re listed in the Rolling Stone charts, it’s going great. Profile paid to get us in on this amazing U.S. tour with the Godfathers, who were happening back then. Those fucking Godfather guys never gave us a sound check the whole tour, but we were still blowing them away every night, and they knew it. After a few weeks, we’re playing Minneapolis with them. I remember Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum, Paul Westerberg, all these guys were there that night. Anyway, the next leg of the tour was the West Coast, where we’d actually sold most of our records, and where the Godfathers had some killer gigs lined up. But that day Profile calls us up and says, “Sorry, you’re going home.” Just like that. We were devastated. We had to drive all the way back to Montreal, and let me tell you, that was the most silent trip anyone has ever been on. The beginning of the end, that day. Profile didn’t want to pay for us to tour anymore. If we could’ve finished that tour I know things would have turned out very different.
IVAN DOROSCHUK That was a hot tour, but again, they didn’t have a manager. And they were all nice guys too, you know, up against these cutthroats in the music business.
THINGS TURN TO SHIT
CARLOS SORIA Everything turned to shit once we got home. When Rock Hotel went under, Profile wanted to keep us, but Williamson saw us as his guys and wouldn’t let us out of the deal. We got held up in legal shit for over a year. All these other companies wanted to sign us but without that fucking release form, we couldn’t do fuck all. Shortly afterwards, [Nils member] Chico and I had a little punch-up in the van coming back from some show and he left the band. I lost my girlfriend Tracy, the girl I should have married; Chico, who was one of my best friends, and my record contract all in one week. We tried to keep it going but it was over. The momentum had been killed and it never picked up again.
BILL MOSER We were doing a show in Montreal and Williamson shows up. And you know, the Nils actually sold a few records, but they never saw a dime. They were flat broke, but the brothers still had some Marshall gear the label had bought for them. Williamson arrives and decides to take their equipment back. So not only does he completely fuck them over, he reclaims their beloved Marshalls. Alex always took on these menial, shitty jobs, going way the fuck up to Montreal North for six bucks an hour and coming home depressed. He hated those fucking jobs. But there wasn’t one night when we were living together where we wouldn’t pick up the guitars, cop a six-pack and just start playing. I often had to coax him into it, but once he picked up the guitar he’d forget about shit and go for hours. Alex knew enough about the music business not to be delusional about becoming a rock star. He just wanted to make enough money so he didn’t have to go to the factory the next day. I can’t tell you how many times he told me, “Man, I just want to make another record.”But they couldn’t because of the legal problems, and that really depressed him. You know, he was fucked.
JIMMY HYNES Carlos and I lived together. One night in 1989 he went out for cigarettes and never came back. He was just freaking out in Montreal. Which left Alex, the world’s worst organizer, to take care of things.
CARLOS SORIA I was so down about the Nils that when I got an offer to play with Mike Conley from MIA in California, I just took it. As soon as I left, I began to get wind that Alex and his girlfriend Karen were using [heroin]. I wrote it off that they were just experimenting but when I returned a few years later I discovered they were full-fledged fucking on it. I started hanging out with them, and yeah, I fell into it too. I think it’s important people know the Nils never started messing with heroin until it was, like, very clear everything had gone very bad.
JIMMY HYNES Karen’s previous boyfriend had been that junkie guy [Dave Rosenberg] from the Chromosomes, and you know how he ended up. [dead]. She was this older woman who took care of Alex, and Alex always wanted a mommy. He loved to be mothered by women and women loved to mother him. Karen mothered him for 10 years or more. After they split up, things weren’t so easy for him anymore.
JOHN CAMPBELL [friend] Alex always had Karen to take care of him, but when Carlos got into dope it became more problematic. Alex felt a kind of responsibility there. At the same time, Carlos felt responsible for Alex, and I think in a way he got in to heroin to be closer to his brother.
BILL MOSER Alex, no matter what his situation, would never rip you off – I dunno if I can say the same about Carlos. Alex never hustled people. Drugs were not the primary focus of his life, music was. I had money, but he never asked me for a dime. He was very embarrassed about his drug problems. It’s kind of fucked people started seeing him as just this junkie guy.
TRYING TO COME BACK
CARLOS SORIA When I got back from L.A, we decided to make a Nils comeback with another lineup. We were using, but there were possibilities there. That was one of the best Nils lineups ever, with Alex McSween on drums. There was hope there, but at the same time you’re battling addiction, so people realize that and sure, they want to help you but they’re saying, “They’re not reliable, they can’t tour because of drugs.” Of course, even before we were on drugs they were telling us that. It was bullshit, gossip talk. We were reliable, we never missed one show. On the contrary, if we were told to show up somewhere at 3 p.m., we’d be there at noon.
JIMMY HYNES After 1995, there was nothing. That’s when Carlos became a mess, and if Carlos was a mess, not much got done. Other people had to organize things for Alex. If there was nobody to organize things, Alex would have stayed on his couch for the rest of his life. How many shows do you think Alex played in his life outside of Montreal without Carlos? The answer is five. Eventually Alex moved in with one of his friends from St-Hubert, Eric Kearns. He’d been doing nothing for three years and Eric just bugged him relentlessly to start playing music again. So much so that he found Alex a band, found him a guitar because Alex had sold his, bugged him to practice, and borrowed $2,000 to pay for the Chino EP, Mala Leche.
CARLOS SORIA By late ’96, Alex had split up with Karen, was pretty clean, and started Chino. By then we had both gotten ourselves together. Well, at least, we both weren’t dependent on it. He put together Chino without me. I knew his reasons. I’d been in Portage rehab clinic for six months anyway. I roadied for them and shit, but yeah, it stung. It was awkward for him as well.
BILL MOSER Carlos had done some pretty shitty [junkie-type] things which led to the demise of the Nils. Alex was cautious about letting him around again, but it was his brother, so he’d always let him back into his life.
CARLOS SORIA I’m not denying that when I was fucked up on heroin, I did some shitty things, but I wasn’t the only one. Alex was no angel either. It was just a really bad situation. You do things for money when you’re strung out that you regret, you know. It was a lot easier for Alex to just maintain than me. He had Karen looking out for him.
JIMMY HYNES Alex never should have let Carlos back in his bands but he always did. It was always the same thing. Alex would have something good going – which he should have kept going – and then he’d stop it to let his brother back in the band. He could never say no to Carlos. Like, Chino were doing pretty well, why didn’t they keep playing? Because Carlos had come around helping out as a roadie. And then he’d be in Alex’s ear saying, “I should be the bass player,” and before you knew it they would be the Nils again. You know, to a lot of people it was kind of a joke that 22 years later, they were still playing around, going, “Look out, the Nils are back!”
MARK DONATO [Chino/Nils guitarist] Chino never had any push. The typical story: no tour, poor distribution. You can’t push your record sitting in your apartment in St-Henri. Of course Alex was frustrated with his career, hearing all these nothing bands on the radio when he’s got all these wonderful songs in his head. But he never really vocalized his frustration. It was more ‘Los who was saying, “My brother should be up there, that should be my brother.” Not Alex.
WOODY WHELAN [Mag Wheel Records] I’d been a huge Nils fan back when I was growing up in Newfoundland. Alex’s lyrics always moved me; there was something about the way he wrote songs, the way he said things, that got to you instantly. I must have listened to that song “Scratches and Needles” nine times in a row when I first got it. I still can’t believe how good it is. When I reissued their Paisley EP and put together [Nils tribute album] Scratches and Needles, it was mostly a labour of love. I’d no idea if they’d sell or not. Same with their [“hits”] compilation, Green Fields and Daylight. I figured some people would be interested, but primarily I thought it important to get their stuff out. I’m sure they’d talked to other people about releasing their records but at that time they were pretty down, you know? People in Montreal were saying to me, “What, are you crazy? Don’t get involved with these guys, they’ll burn you, they’ll never go anywhere, don’t you know they have problems?” But I decided to just do it and see what happens. And funny, when it came back from the pressing plant, all these people who’d told me I was crazy to get involved with the Nils were thanking me for getting their CD out. They still sell, you know. I still get these strange letters from Nils fans, so happy these records are available.
CARLOS SORIA Alex could never understand why somebody would put up money for the old records when he could just give them a bunch of new songs. I’m not ragging on Woody, who I love and who did a lot for the band, but you can understand our frustration. Alex was always about new songs. He didn’t care about the old stuff. It was like, too little, too late.
WOODY WHELAN In 1998, Alex was back, straight, had Chino going, and was really happy and energetic. That’s the thing people are heartbroken about now. For that brief time we thought we had him back again, that things were finally going to go right for him. But you know, again, it didn’t work out and by 2001, they’d split up. Basically, they didn’t get their FACTOR grant to make their record. They were only looking to get eight grand and I know it kind of broke Alex’s heart. He felt bad his dreams weren’t coming true, and one thing kind of leads to another and they started getting in to other things again.
CARLOS SORIA He got more cynical as time went on. We both did. Especially after Chino went the same way as the Nils. A few years ago, we were working at the same place, Alex was my boss there, and he comes in one day feeling down and says to me, “You know, I’m getting tired of this shit. If this fuckin’ music doesn’t work, I don’t want to be moving boxes around my whole life.” I realize now he was saying, “If this is all there is, I don’t want any part of it,” but I didn’t see it as a red flag at the time. Maybe I should have. His cynicism was really beginning to show.
JOHN CAMPBELL The last year was very difficult for him. Alex liked stability, and he was starting to slip into drugs again. Maybe a month before he died, he went into detox and when he got out he sounded really good. For the first time, it seemed like he was really taking serious steps to combat his drug issues. He’d already signed up to go to Fosters, which is a serious rehab facility. But apparently he was feeling the pressure that his family had become aware of his addiction problems. His girlfriend Debbie had pretty much outed him. She loved him tremendously and it was killing her to watch him slide.
CARLOS SORIA I saw him two days before he died. We were jamming, drinking beers, smoking doob, he was starting a new job that Monday, thinking about playing again, everything was looking good. I knew he’d been having a hard time a few weeks earlier, feeling very down, but I really don’t think he was planning a suicide.
BILL MOSER The day he died, something snapped in him. It was probably like two hours of psychosis in his life and he just didn’t see any way out – just black. He and Carlos had some job packing kosher products or something, and they went into work one day to discover the place had been shut down. So they not only lose their jobs but they don’t get paid at the same time. I know things started spiralling from there. Alex was definitely not a violent guy, but I know that on the day he died he’d had a big fight with Debbie and one of their neighbours called 911 because of all the commotion. After he left their apartment, he went to some restaurant up the street and apparently spent a bit of time in the bathroom there, doing what, I can’t be sure. But when he comes out of the place, he sees the cops at his door and in a panic, takes off towards the tracks. He just freaked, I guess.
JOHN CAMPBELL He might have been high. Whatever the case, he clearly wasn’t in his right mind when he ran down to the train tracks. I dunno what he was thinking. Apparently he gave a half-salute to the conductor, as if to say, “Sorry,” before diving in front of that train.
JOHN KASTNER Alex Soria was more rock ‘n’ roll than anybody I’ve ever met. He had a bit of that Kurt thing to him. I can picture Alex wanting to go out in some weird way, where people would go, “Holy fuck, man!” I honestly think he’ll be remembered as one of the great rock ‘n’ roll guys to ever have come from Montreal. I really don’t think he’ll be forgotten.
BILL MOSER I’ve worked with a lot of people – John Cale, David Johansen, Lou Reed, all of these clowns – and talent-wise, this kid was right up there. I think if he’d been able to just play music, not have to do all these shitty little jobs, none of this would have happened.
CARLOS SORIA When he was with me, even if we weren’t angels, I made sure nothing ever happened to him. When I saw he was freaking out, I’d put him in my arms and wouldn’t let him move until he calmed down. And I worked that guy, I picked him up when he was drunk, sick, I fuckin’ wiped that kid like he was my own little baby, you know. Nothing ever happened to him when he was in my care. If I’d been there that night, no matter how stoned, I would have grabbed him and sat on him until he calmed down. And I know this probably sounds stupid, saying all this, but dude, that’s just how I feel. I dunno, to this day I still don’t understand. It’s almost like it’s not real, like he’s on a trip and is going to come back. A lot of people have come up to me and said, “I never thought it would be him, I always thought it would be you.” Thanks a lot, you know, have a nice fucking day. Nobody loved that guy more than me. Even my mom and sister say, “Carlos has not only lost his brother, he’s lost his best little buddy.” Honestly, everything I ever did was for him, not for me. I always figured that no matter what happened, I’d at least have a job carrying his guitar around. And he always used to say, “‘Los, no matter what happens, I’ll always be with you, man.” And it was the one thing in my life that I always knew was true.
Watch here the Alex Soria memorial concert with John Kastner, Chris Spedding, Ian Blurton, Mack Mackenzie, Idées Noires, Chris Page, Jerk Appeal, members of the Nils, Chino and Los Patos, and other special guests, at the Main Hall on Friday, March 11, 8:30 p.m., $10. Proceeds go towards the MIMI’s Alex Soria Fountains Award for most promising local songwriter, and to the Portage Program for drug dependencies.
Chris Barry just started a new blog called looselips.ca check it out!
Note from Publisher: If you want to know more about Alex Soria I would very strongly advise you to check out Johnny Campbell’s blog who was his closest friend.he made it easy for Alex fans to find all the posts concerning anything related to Alex and/or The Nils, Los Patos or Chino. Lots of very intersting stories on there and related links. Thank you very much Johnny for these precious memories you shared with us.
Here is just about everything you need to hear of the music Alex composed and sang with The Nils, Chino and ”Next of Kin” his unplugged post-mortem solo album. Give it a good try. It is most definitely worth it. Also post-mortem was an album released called ”The Title Is the Secret Song”.
Also here is for you the legendary ”Green Fields In Daylight” to play on spotify:
Also for you the ”Mala Leche” album by Chino also on Spotify:
I suggest you buy the vinyl ”It Must Be Something” (IMBS!). The very best album from The Nils to my taste. There in an insane second release of all The Nils albums on colored split vinyls here in Montreal.