Eight years ago, I fell in love with a web series. Nirvanna the Band the Show is about two Toronto goofs, Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol, whose main aim in life is to get a show at the Rivoli. For non-Torontonians, the Rivoli is no CBGBs—but to Nirvanna the Band (yes, that’s what the duo call themselves), the Rivoli is their ticket to stardom. The web series quickly became a cult hit, with many Torontonians wondering “are these guys for real?”
The answer to that question is complicated, as Johnson and McCarrol blur the lines between reality and fiction by playing characters with the same names who are essentially embellished versions of themselves—twisted, yet sympathetic. Johnson is loud, talkative, and rambunctious, like a kid who just ate too much candy and wants to build the best fort ever; McCarrol is imaginative and a little more quiet, but no less silly. Together, they cause trouble amidst real Torontonians going about their day, essentially seeing just how much they can get away with. Needless to say, hijinks ensue.
Since the web series inception almost a decade ago, Johnson and McCarol have turned out a few critically acclaimed films (specifically, mock-docs The Dirties and Operation Avalanche)—and now, Nirvanna the Band the Show will return as a full-on TV show, premiering on VICELAND at 10 PM tonight. You don’t have to be a scholar of the web series to get with the duo’s vibes; they bend television conventions while brimming with pop culture references—like an X-rated episode of Gilmore Girls, mixed with Rick and Morty’s freewheeling absurdity. The show takes its interaction with the “real” world to the next level too, as unsuspecting citizens become stars of the small screen without realizing they’re being filmed. With this new era of Nirvanna the Band the Show, they up the ante and with it, the laughs.
I met up with the real life BFFs for a magical mystery tour of their favorite Toronto venues—which seemed fitting, both given the shows premise and as two beloved local haunts (Hugh’s Room and Soybomb) shuttered this past month alone—not to mention iconic Toronto dive bar, the Silver Dollar which announced its upcoming closure the day after our interview. The tour began as soon as I jumped in their car, with camera dude Jared Raab at the wheel. Before I could even turn my recorder on, Matt and Jay were telling me their memories of what would be our first stop: the graffiti-covered venue/nacho spot Sneaky Dee’s—the perfect joint to end up at after bars close at 2 AM.
Matt Johnson: We could be from inside 402 [Matt and Jay’s old place/old set], to at a table at Sneaky Dee’s, because that’s one of the only places that’s open at night, within three minutes. Do you remember those drives?
Jay McCarrol: Oh yeah, we used to go through the back alleys…
Matt: We’d get in the car, go through the back alleys top speed, bo-bum, bo-bum, bo-bum and then we’re in Sneaky Dee’s, sitting, ordered! And on Tuesday nights you can get half-price fajitas, when you are a broke loser in Toronto.
Noisey: I’m still a broke loser!
Matt: We would go at least once a week every Tuesday, and sometimes more, because it was one of the only places open late.
And you guys are Toronto boys, for those who don’t know. Or at least you’ve been for the last little bit.
Matt: I was born in Toronto General Hospital, Kate.
OK! Well, I know these things, but not everyone else does.
Jay: Doesn’t matter where he was born. I mean, I was born in Mississauga.
Matt: Ew, oh my God, really? I didn’t even know that about you. But yeah, Toronto General Hospital for me, check my birth certificate.
Matt and Jay in unison: Silver Dollar!
Jay: Could we talk about Dan Burke?
Matt: Of course.
Local hero. What makes Dan Burke Dan Burke?
Matt: Well, he’s willing to fight for what’s right, literally.
Jay: I also think there isn’t a single young starting-up band in Toronto that doesn’t cross paths with Dan Burke.
Matt: Dan Burke has been doing it for so long, that he’s just, like cut, like he’s like a leather piece of…
Jared: Toronto music.
Matt: He is! There’s no bullshit with him. There’s a video of it online, but the story is one time a band wouldn’t leave the stage. They had gone over their allotted time, and the next band was starting to set up, but the other band wouldn’t stop playing, and so Dan Burke punched one of the guys and then they started a huge fight. You can see this video on YouTube. Search up“Dan Burke fight.” And then the bass player from the band breaks his bass over Dan Burke’s head. You just think, “Jesus, Burke, you’re a…” Anyway, he, he’s not fucking around.
Jay: It was a guitar. Also, another story! A pigeon shat on me right here! In front of [Canadian radio host] Raina Douris.
Matt: Bad timing.
Next up, we went to the Cameron House, which is basically across the street from Matt and Jay’s old apartment/set…
Jay: You’ll be able to see our old apartment…
Matt: Yeah, it’s the old set.
Jay: Queen West!
Jared: I guess it’s worth noting that this is really the tour of, like, west and Queen West music, not specifically like all of Toronto.
Jay: Well, when I think of the Cameron House, I think of a lot of pints of beer. Tall pints, keep ’em coming.
Matt: It’s a bit of an ironic thing isn’t it, that we live literally next to the Cameron House, the perfect place to play a first show.
Jay: And we didn’t even talk about it.
Matt: OK, down here, one of these bricks at one point had come loose… Jay and I needed a brick that we could throw through the window in episode 9 [of the web series] because we were trying to do a bricking. We were gonna throw a brick, but we couldn’t find a brick anywhere. So we went over to our apartment and some of these bricks were loose and I pried it off with my foot and lifted it, and so the brick that you see us throw through a window is a brick from here.
We need a memorial plaque.
Matt: Well the brick’s gone now. Oh no, I put it back! I put it back!
Jay: You can see where the building is still charred from the fire that we used in episode 8 [web series].
Matt: Yeah, that’s right. Still burnt. That’s crazy.
Tell me about the old stomping grounds.
Matt: Well, just look at it! We haven’t deviated at all. All of our main plots take place on this strip of Queen Street.
Jay: This is, this is still our main set.
Matt: I think that it perfectly captures the naive concept of what Toronto is, which is all young people out shopping, students… MuchMusic [Canada’s music television channel] had a lot to do with it where people would line up for Intimate and Interactives, go to Speakers’ Corner, go to the MMVAs [MuchMusic Video Awards – our VMAs], all that kind of shit. It just has a reputation as being the place where young people hang out in Toronto, even though that has completely changed, and now that doesn’t happen. But for Matt and Jay in the show, it still is that heart of “young Toronto.”
Jay: You know we don’t say it in the show, but we definitely play it because it’s true, that Matt and I grew up in the suburbs, and that our view of the city is very much the way kids from the suburbs look at the city…
Matt: Who only saw it through things like Electric Circus, and out the windows of MuchMusic when they would be interviewing people.
Like, “This is it!”
Matt: “This is Toronto!” Exactly, and so it’s very much the Devil’s Advocates’ Toronto, it’s very much George Stroumboulopoulos’ Toronto, that’s what we think you do to be in Toronto.
Jay: Nineties teenage Toronto.
Matt: Yes! Exactly.
All these things that barely exist anymore!
Matt: They don’t! At all! Even a bit! And in fact now the idea of thinking like, “Oh George Stroumboulopolous…”
Jay: “You’re from MuchMusic!”
Matt: “…You’re from MuchMusic!” What a cool vision of Toronto. But that was it, that’s how I identified downtown Toronto.
Jay: We still had it during the webseries too. It was still doing stuff.
Matt: Oh yeah, of course it was! The MMVAs [the iHeartRadio Much Music Video Awards] were still happening big time.
Well I was working at Much when I first, connected with you guys. Between the two worlds of where we are now and where we were during the web series, we’re kind of all living in a post-Drake Toronto. Does this at all affect the world of the show?
Matt: Yeah. I think they understand Drake and they know that Toronto is big right now because of Drake, and they’re ready to capitalize on that.
Because everyone is kind of looking at Toronto and the Toronto music scene in a new way. Those of us that have been a part of it for a long time know how rich it is with all these different kinds of sounds and all these independent scenes within the city, but it’s really starting to get international attention. For the band within the show, does that affect them at all?
Matt: No, not how you’d think. They aren’t as calculated as that but they do know that Drake put Toronto on the map and they’re happy about that. They want to be a part of it. I think they see themselves as sort of the next wave…
The next Drake.
Matt: The next Drakes. Now that Drake has kinda softened them up, yeah, Matt and Jay, Nirvanna the Band is kind of ready to take them down.
We get out of the car, to our final location, The Dakota Tavern.
So where are we?
Matt: The Dakota Tavern. Make your calls now. Send your texts. You’re here, you’re going inside. Jay’s probably been to a hundred, I’ve been to about 20 different shows with friends at the Dakota. I would say, this is level 2 of a starting band in Toronto. Lots of really amazing bands have done residencies here that Jay has been close with, like Zeus…
Jay: Zeus was my absolute favorite time here because that’s when Zeus blew up. They had a residency and people were just lined up every week, and we were all just so jazzed up about that Zeus scene, and it like, they blew up after that. They were on the cover of every magazine, everyone was talking about them…
Matt: Yeah, everybody was… that was right when you joined the Golden Dogs, as well, and all of a sudden, Jay was best friends with all these guys, and because Jay was such an amazing talent as a musician, I think he was a real star with all these people for the first time, because it was so interesting, so odd for them to be like, “Where is this guy from? Like, how are you so good at piano and we’ve never heard of you?” And so Jay was instantly popular with all these people.
Jay: They’re all good too. I just got to join. Just got to join the esteemed circle.
Matt: Right, but I just mean it was a two way street, and me not being a musician, it was really great for me to see that from the outside, because Jay and I had always felt like Toronto outsiders. We weren’t a part of any groups…
And then you were like, “We’re in, baby!”
Matt: Exactly! And it really did feel like that! It felt like because of my friend Jay being so popular with these musicians, I got to hang out with them too, and that was really special for me.
Jay: And they were all big fans of the show. So that was fun.
It’s almost as if these characters, even though they’ve lived in Toronto for a while, still remain tourists of their own city.
Matt: Big time. In fact, that’s sort of the thrill that these characters are living through, is that they can’t believe they’re in the city, and “Oh my God, we’ve gotta go out to the city today, let’s see what we can see!” They have no cynicism about this city. At all. They get on the streetcar and are like, “Yes! I’m on the streetcar!” They get on the subway and they’re like “Yes! Oh my god, the subway is amazing!” They have no issues whatsoever.
I feel like Toronto almost suffers from a bit of a younger sibling relationship with New York in like, “Oh, we’re good but we’re not the biggest…” I feel like sometimes Torontonians don’t realize just how dope our city is, and I think why so many people love the show is that there is a genuine joy that these characters have, unabashedly, about their city, like “This is the best. Why would you need anything else?”
Matt: You’re 100 percent right, and in fact, hopefully the show changes that, and people start thinking “Oh yeah, Toronto’s cool.”
Lastly, do Jay and Matt know the band Nirvana?
Matt: No comment.
Kate Killet is a documentary photographer living in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.
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