By Sam SutherlandThat Cormier talks about the guys who book their small town shows by first name doesn't give away the fact that he's spent the past week overseas doing press, or that the band's upcoming record release consists of six sold out shows in different venues all across London, England, forming the shape of a pentagram. Cancer Bats aren't a fresh-faced collection of sweetly naive punks, but their approach isn't far off.
"We're all at a point where we are in charge," Cormier says. "We tried working with lots of other people, but now, the only people that we can blame is ourselves, and we're really serious about that. We engaged each other about it beforehand. If we're going to keep doing this, no more bullshit. If we're still a band, it's no one's fault but our own."
Prior to recording their acclaimed 2010 full-length, III: Bears, Mayors, Scraps And Bones, Cancer Bats reached a major impasse. Hail Destroyer, their sophomore release, had been a hit, endearing the band to bangers worldwide but failing to reach the commercial radio peaks of heavy Canadian peers like Alexisonfire and Billy Talent. The riffs were catchy, but the brutality was unrelenting. And not everyone was happy.
"We had management ― that we ended up firing ― who were just like, 'You just need that one song and it all works out,'" says Cormier. "They had a meeting with us where they said, 'You can either be Queens of the Stone Age, or you can be Clutch.' And I remember them leaving and us all looking at each other, like, 'What the fuck does that even mean?' Neither band is us, and neither idea makes sense. Fuck that." The out-and-out fury of Bears was a pointed response to those who sought to soften the band's attack ("You want a pop single? How about 'Sleep This Away?' Why don't you put that on the radio?"), but in some ways, it pulled the band too far into the darkest corners of their own sound. Cormier recounts fans of the band asking him where the P.M.A. silver lining of their earlier material had gone, and following a successful touring cycle for the record, he thought he had found it again. Cormier was adamant in pre-production interviews that the follow-up would be more reflective of the naturally positive, effusively joyous guy he clearly is, both on and off stage.
"I said I was going to write the most positive record ever," he says. "Positive until I die." But from the first thunderous verse of "R.A.T.S.," the opening track on the band's newest record, Dead Set on Living, it's apparent that things didn't quite pan out, as the song barrels through a full-throttle takedown of all the people that Cormier hopes will, you know, burn in hell.
"I went into this trying to write a really positive album, and then my friend went into the hospital and it was full-on, okay, life is not positive. It's not all roses all the time," he says. "It was a big wake up, a thing I need to address right now in my life." The inciting incident for almost all of D.S.O.L.'s lyrics was the hospitalization of a Cormier's best friend, the result of a heart attack brought on by a lifetime of overindulgence in drugs and alcohol. "Dead Set on Living" became his friend's recovery mantra, its implications weighing heaving in songs like "R.A.T.S." and the title track.
"'R.A.T.S.' was riding to the hospital, just thinking how much I hated everyone," says Cormier. "I wanted everyone who had affected that situation to die." Later on the record, "D.S.O.L." finds the band breaking from Cormier's lyrical voice for the first time in the band's history, flipping the story and dealing with addiction and recovery in his friend's own words, cribbing its monster bridge, "15 years is a hard habit to break," amongst other lyrics, from hospital room conversations.
"I tried to write it from my perspective, but it was almost too insensitive, like 'My friend had this happen, it really sucked,'" says Cormier. "It's his words as the lyrics, shaping the whole thing." Both songs represent the continuation of Cancer Bats' grab bag approach to modern metal, with nods to Canadian thrash greats like Sacrifice and Razor brushing against wide-open Sabbath riffs and the short attention span of early Every Time I Die. Like Bears before it, which brought the sludgy riffs of Southern metal into the band's expansive sound, D.S.O.L. remains inclusive without losing its own identity, cementing the band as an eclectic, heavy band with no time for or interest in sub-genre constraints. With nods to everyone from Entombed to Pantera to Sleep, it's clear from the diverse sounds that span the album's 11 tracks that Cancer Bats are students and fans of anything that rips. And inside its lyrical darkness, there's still the positive outlook Cormier was searching for, embodied by the "Dead Set on Living" rallying cry.
"Once our friend came up with that idea, that was it," says Cormier. "It applied to him, it applied to us. What we do with this band, what we do living day to day. No more getting bogged down. It's about living to the fullest."
There is little doubt that D.S.O.L. is the band's heaviest outing to date, even more crushing and immediate than the aggro-as-fuck Bears. The band's approach, recording as much as they could live off-the-floor, succeeds in crafting songs that sound heavy without being overburdened by excessive layers of guitars, bass, sub-bass, and sub-sub-bass-bass. While the band's inner circle had some doubts about long-time engineers and producers Erik Ratz and Kenny Luong working on what Cormier refers to in scare quotes as their "metal album," Ratz was keen to remind everyone that his career was kick-started in the Toronto suburbs with a band called Sacrifice.
"I remember them talking about needing some kind of 'story' in regards to the production team, so I mentioned that I produced a Sacrifice album," says Ratz. "I kind of said it as a joke originally, because I figured that their UK management wouldn't know who they were." Clearly, Ratz's obscure piece of Canuck thrash name-dropping worked, and he and Luong were brought on for their fourth Cancer Bats full-length. And for good measure, they brought Rob Urbinati from Sacrifice in to do guest vocals on "R.A.T.S."
Talking about Cancer Bats and D.S.O.L., it's clear that Cormier doesn't want to be misunderstood ― even when he discusses the pre-Bears managerial shitstorm or the soul-searching that followed it, the future of Cancer Bats is one thing that has never been in doubt. "Dead Set on Living" is more than a great mantra and a cool-sounding acronym; it offers a succinct snapshot of a collective headspace, of the band and the friends they consider an invaluable part of their identity.
"I want to make a point that we were never like, 'Should we still be a band?' But you do have to have that conversation, because you can get caught up in your own momentum," says Cormier. "Like, 'Do we just do this because it's what we do?' No, we do it because we love it. We do it because we love being in a band. We don't do this because this is our job and we're hoping it's going to work. If, at 32, that's our goal, I should just get a job. I do this because I love to tour. And I love playing shows. Because I love Red Deer, and I want to make it back to Red Deer."