Published Mar 25, 2012Inside a laser light-filled bar just off of Austin's manic Sixth Street, Cancer Bats are ripping through the final set of the night, a 1 a.m. SXSW showcase for their British management. The evening's lone heavy band, their monstrous wall of amps and haggard hesher vibe work in stark contrast with the nightclub atmosphere to effectively scare everyone in attendance into observing from a long, safe distance. At the front, a "one man mosh pit" is punching vocalist Liam Cormier, who can't see anything past the club's wildly incongruous light show. He later recalls, "There's just this fist coming through the lasers and punching me."
After "gripping and ripping" through their first three songs without stopping, Cormier makes a polite request that the lasers be turned off and the mosh pit stop punching him in the face. Suddenly the front of the room is packed, and as the band mixes in unheard new songs with familiar favourites, the crowd collectively takes a turn for the intense. A table in the back of the bar is launched in the air, and a mosh pit ignites on a beer-slick floor covered in broken bottles and pint glasses. As Cancer Bats announce their final song, "Hail Destroyer," the insanity of the moment increases as kids two-step through the glass, falling and shredding their hands and backs. No one seems severely injured, and the show concludes with the crowd chanting for another song as the band's amps are unplugged by venue staff. It's a long way from the nervous dance floor they walked out to.
The next day, standing outside their Metal Blade showcase, half of the band learns of the table-toss for the first time, while the others gleefully inform them of the instigator ― their 50 year-old English manager.
"Somebody told him to flip a table, and he decided to one up them and throw the table," says Cormier. The band doesn't seem shocked. It's not typical managerial behaviour, but it's clear that after four albums and eight years of endless worldwide touring, Cancer Bats aren't terribly interested in typical behaviour. Despite churning out a stream of uncompromising heavy music since they formed in 2004, the band have found surprising mainstream acceptance, particularly in Canada and the UK. What got them there seems to be that they didn't really care much about getting there at all.
"Dude, Red Deer? Red Deer is wild," says Liam Cormier, squeezed onto a bench at Saving Gigi, a coffee shop on Bloor Street in Toronto, about a week prior to Cancer Bats' arrival in Austin. "Shows in Red Deer have gotten notorious. We always do it with our friend Brad. He always does it so it's two or three people's birthdays so everyone is raging. The bartender is blowing fire. Shit is just going off. Last time our sound guy had to break up a girl fight at the back and he got blood spit on him. And he was just like, 'Red Deer, Alberta.'"
Cancer Bats roll deep in Toronto. While Cormier waxes nostalgic about bloody Albertan sparring matches, his girlfriend sits a few feet away, going over plans for a motorcycle gear store she's opening in a few months ― with help from members of Cancer Bats on demolition, natch. The cafe owner and baristas, all friends of the band, greet Cormier enthusiastically (along with a surprise guest from Toronto indie pop troupe the Junction); even though he no longer lives in the neighbourhood, it's clear he's a fixture of the cramped cafe's long centre bench, the location of the first official listening party for the band's new record, Dead Set on Living, and just down the street from where the band played an unannounced basement show as part of the Bloor Ossington Folk Festival last year.
In general, it's not the behaviour you would expect from a band opening shows in Toronto at the Air Canada Centre or headlining at London's Electric Ballroom. Baptized in the do-it-yourself ethos of Southern Ontario hardcore, Cancer Bats haven't let big time management, booking agents, or labels keep them away from the kinetic basement show energy that brought them to heavy music in the first place. Along with bassist Jaye Schwarzer, drummer Mike Peters, and guitarist and co-founding member Scott Middleton, Cormier remains vigilant about the band's dedication to their earliest fans in cities like Brandon and Fernie, both stops on their upcoming tour and part of a hard won battle for the hearts of a nation of long hairs.
"I went to every single show that came to Waterloo," says Cormier. "Mikey went to every single show that came to Winnipeg. Jay went to every single show that came to London. In Toronto, there can be a specific scene. You can say 'I only like garage. I only go see Thee Oh Sees, Teenanger, Davilla 666.' That's totally cool. There's enough of those shows that you can do that. But when you live in Saskatoon and you love Into Eternity, they may only come to town once. And other metal bands like that might come once. So if you want to see a heavy show, you're going to have to go see Cancer Bats."
That 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."