Alexisonfire Drunks, Lovers, Singers and Saints
Published Jun 27, 2009"If you shoot ten music videos, someone's liable to die." George Pettit, the harsh-voiced counterpoint in Alexisonfire's three-vocalist assault, is sipping a beer in the cosy back room of his new Hamilton home. He is genially recalling the dead body that surfaced while his band was shooting the video for "Young Cardinals," the first single from their new album Old Crows / Young Cardinals. Filmed onboard the historic Maid of Mist in Niagara Falls, production was briefly halted when a "big bloated corpse" surfaced and had to be towed to shore by an unlucky ferry employee. "It was gnarly," says Pettit, succinctly.
Alexisonfire are one of the most unlikely arena rock draws Canada has ever produced. Formed in St. Catharines, Ontario in 2001, the band's early mix of Level Plane-style screamo and Southern Ontario melodic edge led them to break huge while half the band was still in high school; today, they boast two platinum records and eight years of endless touring that has taken them to every corner of the globe. Their fourth full-length is the result of a self-destructive and divisive cycle of touring and the band's subsequent re-evaluation of what Alexisonfire should be. Eights years in, Alexisonfire are newly dedicated to their craft and to each other, and Old Crows / Young Cardinals is the proof.
In 2006, Alexisonfire were one of the most popular bands in Canada. Crisis, their third full-length, debuted at number one on Canadian album charts, fuelled by the success of the single "This Could Be Anywhere In The World." Their meteoric rise to mainstream fame started with the 2002 success of the video for "Pulmonary Archery" from their self-titled debut (now certified gold), and continued with its follow-up, 2004's Watch Out! Without watering down their early mix of metal, hardcore, and screamo, the band had found themselves in the national media spotlight, and with the release of Crisis, they solidified their status both as a consistently inventive heavy band and, more surprisingly, a guaranteed seller in a new music climate that rarely creates platinum-selling rock stars.
An intense touring cycle followed, taking the band to Europe, Asia, and Australia, all across Canada and through the States on the Warped Tour. In Pettit's words, the members of Alexisonfire were "taken from adolescence into the van instead of college." Initially exciting, the constant touring eventually started to wear on the band.
"[That] was the tour that went on for a really, really long time. Certain things get strained and pushed," says Wade MacNeil, holed up in the living room of his Parkdale home. "I think a lot of things just caught up with us. There are those stupid rock'n'roll clichés that start happening when you're drinking too much and not taking care of yourself. The attitude we've had for a while is just, 'We're young! We're a band!' And we got hit over the head with it." Initial staggering success had led the band directly into the "another day, drinks, show, drinks, pass out, repeat" lifestyle.
"Especially when you're on Warped Tour, there's a lot of idle time," Pettit says. "And that time gets filled up with barbarism. Alexis was in its drinking, dark period for a while. There was a lot of you being at the bar and waking up in your bunk." As Alexis's backstage life was dissolving, guitarist and vocalist Dallas Green was spending more and more time in the back of bus writing songs for his solo project, the folk-infused City and Colour.
The recognizable crooning portion of Alexis' distinct three-point vocal style, Green's solo work had started with burned CD-Rs given out at Alexis shows, but was gradually occupying more of the guitarist's time. As Alexis's touring wore on, differing lifestyles inflamed new tensions between the once-close friends. "That's when Dallas wrote all his solo work. While we were out being assholes," says Pettit. "We lost touch with each other."
"I think I was just so over being in a heavy band," says Green, on the phone from his Toronto home the night before leaving with Alexis for a European tour. "I remember being in the back of the tour bus on... I don't even remember what tour it was, but I fucking hated it. And it wasn't the band - it was the environment." When the subject of drinking is brought up, Green, sounding surprised, continues. "I wasn't going to say it, but that was one of the things that - I don't drink. It got to the point where I was saying, 'There is going to be a point where I don't want to be around this. It's not that I think I'm better than you, it's just not my thing and it's getting out of control. I'm going to go over here and clear my head, you guys go over there and clear your head, and we'll reconvene at a later date and see if we still need to be in this band.'"
Alexisonfire returned from Australia and ended the Crisis tour in a state of limbo. "We had a really long hiatus where, at times, I think the future of Alexisonfire was definitely questionable," says Pettit. "Not necessarily that we were ready to break up, but we had just come off ten months of touring on Crisis, everybody was a bit dishevelled, weird things had happened personally between people, and we needed time to recuperate. We took a really, really long time on that." The break afforded the members an opportunity to focus on something besides Alexisonfire, their sole occupation since days of skipping math class to play basement shows in Buffalo. While Green occupied himself with City and Colour, guitarist and vocalist Wade MacNeil released a record with his punk band Black Lungs, drummer Jordan Hastings formed a hardcore band with members of Moneen and the Abandoned Hearts Club called Hunter, and Pettit, along with Green, got married. Bassist Chris Steele plays a lot of golf and relaxed, smartly.
"We actually took some time off for ourselves, instead of just getting home, writing for a month, recording for a month, and going back on tour, which we had done every other time," says MacNeil. "We were able to step back from things. I feel like life caught up to all of us really quickly in that time. Alexisonfire has been this all-encompassing thing since we were 17. We put off growing up for quite a while because the band let us do that. I stayed 17 until I was around 23."
While the band rested, Green returned to touring with City and Colour and his new record, Bring Me Your Love. The album landed him two Junos and a brand new audience. "I just wanted to be quiet, to play quieter," says Green. "Every time I tried to write a riff for Alexis, nothing would happen. We had been touring with bands I didn't like and I was completely not being inspired by heavy music whatsoever. I needed to do something different for a while."
At the same time, MacNeil put the finishing touches on the debut from his side project, the punk-infused Black Lungs, and hit the road, often with Pettit or Steele filling in on bass duties. Hastings' hardcore project, Hunter, kept busy practicing and recording a seven-inch. They were consciously moving away from the kinds of big-budget punk rock bands they had been lumped in with for most of their career.
"Everybody's such a fucking businessman, and it's just like, 'Wow, did you guys go to punk shows when you were young?'" MacNeil says. "I loved pop punk when I was kid. I loved Screeching Weasel and the Queers and the Mr. T Experience. And then people figured it out and realized it was marketable and you got your Sum 41s and your Blink 182s and it wasn't good anymore. That same thing has happened with screamo. When we first started, the things that were really exciting about screamo were the seven-inches, Level Plane Records, and all that stuff. It resembled punk when I was starting to feel alienated by punk. Screamo was really interesting and cool, and it picked up, became popular, and this whole new wave of bands have come in who don't really have anything connected to that scene. We were trying to distance ourselves from these bands that, to me, don't share a lot in common with us."
Lack of news or updates to Alexis's website and MySpace slowly led many of the bands' fans to assume the band had broken up. MacNeil only fuelled rumours when he told an Australian magazine that the band "hasn't broken up, but we'll see what happens," adding that Green had moved to L.A. (he hadn't) and frequently missed band practice due to a broken helicopter. MacNeil's jokey approach to the situation bellied a genuine uncertainty that lasted well after the end of the Crisis tour.
"I didn't want to make a record just because Alexisonfire is popular now and we need to make another record to keep the machine rolling," Green says. "That's not why we play music. That's not why we started the band."
And then the uncertainty was over. Green returned from touring with City and Colour with "a thousand ideas for riffs." Not one of the members is able to pinpoint the change or just how it was resolved that the band would make another record, but Alexisonfire weren't done. "We just decided to come together, put things aside, and straighten up and fly right," laughs Pettit. "No fights ever last.
"Crisis felt like a big departure for us, so what was the next step going to be?" he continues. The writing process for Old Crows / Young Cardinals was the longest the band had been afforded since their self-titled debut in 2002, and it all began with a series of demos produced in their practice space, a room above an old insulation factory in St. Catharines. It was a process the band had never been afforded in the past. With a more traditional recording/touring schedule already out the window, the band spent more time than ever dissecting demos and honing songs until everyone in the band was satisfied. Says MacNeil: "We played the shit out of these songs."
The result is some of the band's heaviest material to date (check the Coliseum-sized sludge of the verses on "No Rest"), anchored by the sound of Green, MacNeil, and Pettit all singing together, a new approach that speaks volumes to their collective desire to return to Alexis.
"I love the fact that we're all singing together," says MacNeil. "It makes it more of a group effort, and not so much the incredibly distinct 'George in one ear, Dallas in the other, and me popping up to say hello everyone once in a while.' It sounds like a band singing together."
Gone from the new material is Pettit's barked scream, one of the hallmarks of the band's sound since their early demos. "You can paint yourself into a corner with screaming," he says. "Then I'm 'the screamer' and I scream all the time, and that's what it is. And we forever have that dynamic where I scream and Dallas sings." Downtime between records allowed Pettit to try his hand at different ways of using his voice, belting out songs in his car and experimenting with vocal styles in a way he hadn't done since the band's inception. The result is a kind of melodic shout that defies categorization; it's not screamo, but it's far from traditionally melodic.
Initially setting their sights on California to record, the band made a last-minute decision to stick with long-time producer Julius Butty, travelling to Vancouver's Armory Studios to track the record live-off-the-floor, a rare approach for a band of Alexis' stature in an age of one-string-at-a-time recording. "I think you can hear more urgency," says MacNeil, of the band's recording method. "It's people playing together and not just being stacked on top of each other." After 14 days on the West coast, the band returned to Butty's home studio in Hamilton to finishing tracking vocals and finalize the album.
The result, Old Crows / Young Cardinals, is a snapshot of a popular band who returned to the fold out of an earnest desire to continue writing, not out of contractual obligations or hopes of great financial success. Pettit's new approach to vocals is immediately apparent on epic opener "Old Crows," a song that examines the band's life on the road through the lifestyle of peripatetic nomads, and the driving "Accept Crime," an indictment of religious entitlement and the ambiguous nature of morality, all set to a crushing instrumental arrangement that would make proud parents of the members of Refused. All of it built around a band writing and playing like a band, five guys hitting hard and together not because they have to, but because they need to.
No one is more surprised about Alexisonfire's continued success than Alexisonfire. "It got crammed down my throat from a very early age that as much as I loved music and loved to play guitar, it was not a career," says MacNeil. "Even the guy at the place where I took guitar lessons when I was 16 said, 'Study. You can't be a musician.' No one is rooting for you." It was a "wild series of coincidences and hard work" that landed the band where they are today; they remain as amused by their mainstream success as when "Pulmonary Archery" first aired at midnight on The Wedge.
"Mainstream fame for us is like me being in East Side Mario's with my wife and the chef will come out and buy me a shot," laughs Pettit. "I still had a pain in the ass getting a mortgage. I'm a self-employed musician. The person at the bank doesn't know who the fuck Alexisonfire are. And rightfully so."
"There was never any idea of doing this as a career," adds MacNeil. "It's fucked. We got our foot in the door somehow and we're holding on. We have a platform to get this music out there. We've got a chokehold on mainstream Canada."