When the Straight shows up at Greenhouse Studios on a rainy Sunday night, guitarist Eric Campbell is putting a Robbie Robertson-esque overdub on something that sounds like “TV Eye” by the Stooges as filtered through Big Brother and the Holding Company. This is where No Sinner—maybe the buzziest band in the city, possibly even the best—is working on its new album.
At the back of the room, Colleen Rennison is keeping an eye on things. The 24-year-old vocalist is wearing a beaten-up varsity jacket with her name on it, although the signature cut-off denim short-shorts—the ones barely concealing her ass cheeks on the cover of No Sinner’s debut Boo Hoo Hoo EP—are missing. She is wearing pants, at least, something Rennison wasn’t doing when she was busted along with Campbell and one-time bassist Parker Bossley for running naked through the streets of Brooklyn a few months ago. “About five seconds after my tits came out, an unmarked car with two tough lady cops rolled up, and we stood naked in the rain for 45 minutes while they wrote our tickets,” Rennison recalls, “laughing the entire time.”
It seems that Rennison’s wild-child persona is no act, even if her show-biz career started innocently enough in movies like the hokey 1999 Bruce Willis–Michelle Pfeiffer film The Story of Us (she played their daughter).
“I worked a lot, but I always wanted to be a singer,” she says, recalling the strategy she eventually adopted. “ ‘I’m gonna run away from home, I’m gonna sell drugs, I’m gonna try everything, I’m gonna do everything, and then I know I’m gonna come out the other end of it with the ammunition to be a rock star’—that was always my plan,” she says, pulling on a mickey of Wiser’s Special Blend just to prove it. “I got a little bit more than I bargained for. You go down those rabbit holes and then sometimes you can’t find your way out.”
When she did emerge, Rennison started fronting the cover band Little Sister and the Time Machine with local vets like Ben Yardley (now in La Chinga) and bassist Hayz Fisher of the New Values—who happens to be coproducing No Sinner’s new material. “That’s when I pulled myself out of that dark world and started becoming a musician,” she says. It’s also when Vancouver realized that Rennison was an authentic Janis Joplin–size talent.
The rest fell into place with surprising speed, no matter how hard it is “to find people who’ll play with girls with big voices”. Bossley was man enough for the job when he cowrote the material that would show up on Boo Hoo Hoo, and she handpicked Campbell after seeing him perform with the Dirt. Bassist Matt Camirand hopped on board for the EP release, spending enough time to push the band in the darker direction we’ll hear on the next record (he recently left on amicable terms, to be replaced by Brad Ferguson). They got their dream drummer when Ian Browne—a Matthew Good Band veteran and one of the tastiest players in the city—eagerly gravitated toward the new project after catching Little Sister.
Being a little older and more seasoned, Browne is well aware of the danger No Sinner is courting with the kind of passion-and-whisky-drenched blues rock he and his cohorts are playing. Nobody wants to hear the Headpins again. Do this kind of thing wrong and…
“… It can be embarrassing,” Browne says with a nod. “I think we do feel the pressure of not wanting to be a joke. It’s a strange genre ’cause it’s so easy to fall into that bar-blues thing where it would be lamer than lame. Anytime it starts to sound pedestrian and bar-blues—well, it doesn’t really get there. I know Colleen and I both listen to a lot of the same kind of music, and the first time I heard Eric, he reminded me of Steve Cropper. The kid was, like, 19.”
Campbell is “the purest, realest soul,” according to Rennison. Not long after she says it, he adds a grimy, overdriven, apocalyptic guitar break to a track called “Mandy Lyn”, effectively wiping out any chance that No Sinner’s new album might lean too close to “bar blues”. He uses an ancient and battered Silvertone with homemade pickups that he scored for 50 bucks from a yard sale and that isn’t much use except for sounding grimy, overdriven, and apocalyptic.
“I try to play like Steve Cropper, and then I have my moments where I let the Neil Young out,” he says softly. “The closet Neil.” Campbell’s solo is only marginally exceeded in volume and impact by the blood-curdling scream Rennison produces to close out the track.
“I think Colleen’s one of the ballsiest people I’ve been in a band with, and I think that makes us a bit fearless and raises the level of what we’re doing to her level,” states Browne. “She’s got a great voice, like, a huge voice, and we have to make the context happen for her to be that big.”
Mission accomplished. “Mandy Lyn” is a monstrous slab of old-school rock, like gourmet meat and potatoes. It’s certainly no joke, and definitely not pedestrian. Taking another slug from her Wiser’s, Rennison adds, “And I just wanna be as good as my band.” Clearly, she’s got more ammunition than she ever bargained for.
No Sinner opens for the Pack a.d. at the Commodore Ballroom on Friday (November 23) as part of the Straight Series.