Cancer Bats on Motorcycles, German Honesty and Ska-core Origins

The Exclaim! Questionnaire

"I remember it really being like a knife in my heart to [hear], 'This show was not very good. You look like you're out of shape and you don't know what you're doing.'"

Photo: Sid Tang

BY Matt BobkinPublished Apr 11, 2022

Back in 2004, Cancer Bats formed with the aim of channelling "the Misfits being covered by ZAO being played by Black Flag in the back of a van," according to vocalist Liam Cormier. And while that foundation remains, the band's forthcoming seventh album Psychic Jailbreak, due April 15 on Bat Skull (the band's own label) and New Damage, adds some further tweaks to the formula. It's the first album since founding guitarist Scott Middleton departed in 2021, and finds the now-trio of Cormier, bassist Jaye Schwarzer and drummer Mike Peters delivering their most melodic material to date.

"We have this foundation that is Cancer Bats, and then we know that we can do some jump off points," says Cormier. "I think also, having tested those waters melodically at times with our fans … We're like, 'Okay, cool. You don't want a whole album of melodic stuff, but you're down when we want to have some different vibes.' It's really cool to be able to flesh out some of those."

Ahead of the new album's release, Cormier spoke with Exclaim! about Cancer Bats' many rock and metal influences, his ska-core origins, being critiqued in Germany and his other main passion — motorcycling.

What are you up to?

Psychic Jailbreak is coming out April 15 and that's been the biggest thing that's going on in my world. Outside of that, I run a clothing brand called Treadwell Clothing, that's also a huge, other creative endeavour that I do. I've been doing Treadwell since 2015. I'm really into motorcycles, it's my other huge passion in my life, and so I started this clothing brand to do more in the motorcycle world, also because I just love making merch. I was like, "Oh, I could make fun T-shirts and hats," and then from there started making actual jackets and riding vests and pants and things like that — stuff that I felt personally was missing from the riding world. Now I'm into off-road, so I make jerseys and bags and all sorts of stuff. 

What are your current fixations?

My current musical fixation is the new offering from OMBIIGIZI. Mikey and Jaye have a project called Julie & the Wrong Guys, and they would play with WHOOP-Szo, so I met [WHOOP-Szo founder and OMBIIGIZI member] Adam [Sturgeon, now of Status/Non-Status] through WHOOP-Szo, and then got this record [Sewn Back Together]. I grew up on '90s indie rock — that's one of my first loves, that and skate punk are what got me into music. That "Cherry Coke" song is playing in my mind as I live my life. I was blown away by this record. It's just so cool to hear something that's, on one hand, refreshing and new and then, on the other hand, really cool and nostalgic for their influences. I was just like, "This rules."

Why do you live where you do?

I just moved in 2019 out to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and I actually moved out here originally because of motorcycling. I was coming out to the East Coast a lot, there was a lot of stores that sold Treadwell Clothing and there's a lot of people that are into motorcycles and dirt bikes. And so I found myself traveling out here a lot to come and hang out with those folks. And then, on one of those trips, I ended up meeting my girlfriend and I was like, "Well, I love Halifax." So I was coming here all the time, and I was like, "I'm gonna move here." So in 2019, I moved out here officially, and then, the Atlantic bubble happened, and I was like, "Well, I'm 100 percent a Nova Scotia person!" It's been amazing. It's definitely one of the most beautiful places I've ever lived and explored. So I'm really happy to be here. There's so many cool restaurants and coffee shops and artists and people creating things. It's such an inspirational place, both geographically and then just from the community.

What's the last book or movie that blew your mind?

The last book that blew my mind was Be Here Now, that collection of Ram Dass lectures that were interpreted and then made into basically pieces of art by these followers of his. And it's actually Wade [MacNeil, of Alexisonfire], when he was playing guitar for Bats in 2019, he had this book and I was flipping through it and it's a lot of mindfulness and ideas of being present and things like that. But the graphic design and the art — it was made in 1971 — is incredible. I find I keep going back to it whenever I'm designing or making art or doing anything. I'm always picking up this book and just looking at how amazing they transpose these ideas, but it's not overthought, the design. It's very underthought in a lot of ways, where it would just feel very freeform, like, "Let's just make it and then put it out, and then it's done." This thing is the best. So yeah, constant mind blow.

What has been your most memorable or inspirational concert and why?

There's this amazing club that's in London, England, called the 100 Club. I think it's a 350- or 400-cap club. So many legendary shows have happened there: the Clash played there, Sex Pistols played there. There's photos on the walls of all these old jazz legends playing. But there's this amazing one of… I forget what era of Metallica it is, I think it's Ride the Lightning or early Metallica, but they're playing this tiny, insane show. I was looking at this photo like, "This is the most nuts thing ever!" And we played our show and it was literally the most nuts show: people singing super loud and it just felt insane. I was just like, "Oh, it's this space, this space is what makes this show insane." It's not just the fact that it's these legendary people. This legendary space is what makes it so crazy. We are the photo!

What's been the greatest moment of your career so far?

Not to sound corny, but right now. I'm reflecting on this career we've even been able to have, and I'm 42 years old, about to put out our seventh record, and we're about to play all of these sold-out shows, and I'm just like, "This is insane!" I have had this career to think [about], but it's not that I'm just sitting on my porch remembering. I'm about to step back on stage again and keep this going. I'm just like, "Oh, man, it feels amazing to be just alive in it right now."

What's been the worst moment of your career so far?

There's no specific moment. I feel like there's a few crushers that have happened. But I feel like it's realizing that we've been taken advantage of. Where you're just like, "Oh, I'm working super hard and just scraping by to make someone else a lot of money that they're not intending on sharing with us." And you're like, "Oh, okay, I think I need to shift this." And, fortunately for us, we were able to. So I think that's why I don't even have a specific one. I remember once chipping my tooth on a microphone, but [it's still been] rad playing those shows. But It was those 'pit of your stomach' moments where you're like, "Oh, yeah, I'm not getting a mansion like this person owns if I stay in this situation."

Who's a Canadian musician that should be more famous?

I'm sure this comes up all the time, but I would hands down say Constantines. Even while Cancer Bats was achieving success, we would go overseas and be like, "Yeah, Constantines!" I would say the same [about] Ladyhawk. I feel like both bands, we were talking about listening to in the van, we're like telling [people], "Why are these bands not connecting?! Everyone has ears!" So maybe I would put it as a tie, Constantines and Ladyhawk. Just CanCon perfection.

What advice should you have taken, but did not?

It's really tough [to answer] because I was always so eager to try and figure everything out. So I feel like there's never been a moment, because I would try everything. Any advice I would get, I was like a leech for it. But instead of ones that I didn't take, I [remember] the most important person who gave me advice. I remember Cancer Bats, in 2006, toured with Alexisonfire and Every Time I Die. And Every Time I Die's tour manager, Biggie, was basically my sensei for tour. He was selling merch for them and, every day, he would just impart these lessons, like, "Hey, here's how to quickly count $1000 in twenties." And it was just all of these lessons that I remember this one person downloading into my brain, and I was so hungry for it. I was just like, "Yes, okay, tell me, what do I have to do?" He was like, "Don't carry any debt," "You should always make sure your whole crew is taken care of," and I was like, "Okay, yes!" And then, the next day, more lessons. Not to toot my own horn like "I did everything right!" but I can't think of anything that I missed 'cause I was so hungry to figure it out.

What was the first song you ever wrote?

I was obviously in bands before I was in Cancer Bats, but really the first Cancer Bats song. Scott and I, when we first got together in 2004, he was playing guitar and I was playing drums and I really feel like that was the first song I actually wrote wrote — like downloaded in my brain like what I wanted to make out of a band, because I always joined other people's bands or was involved in other people's projects. Whereas, this was like the first time I really felt like I was doing something creative that was mine. And I was like, "Okay, we wanna incorporate punk, metal, hardcore," we wanted to sound like the Misfits being covered by ZAO being played by Black Flag in the back of a van. It was just like all of these ideas that we were throwing around. And so I felt like "Bloodpact" was the first-ever song, or the first Cancer Bats song, that I ever wrote [that] was really me writing a song for the first time.

I feel like I wrote other songs because other people wanted me to. It was like, "You're gonna sing in our ska band." And I was like, "[sighs] Okay, I want to be in a band…" I was in a ska-core band called Another Heather in the '90s, and I got recruited to sing for them, but I was a drummer and so I didn't even want to sing. I wanted to play drums but they were like, "We have a sick drummer." My friend Jon Halk heard me singing [when] I was goofing around at a Goldfinger show, I was singing along to NOFX that was playing in the club, and he came to me at the skate park the next day or whatever and was like, "You should sing in my punk band!" And I was like, "Dude! What?" I wrote kinda like garbled lyrics that I would sorta like fake Dicky Barrett-sing my way through, like, "Anabadoo dipadee babadoo badada zapadeh, yeahhhhh." I don't feel like I ever wrote any lyrics.

What do you think of when you think of Canada?

Ohhh, Highway 1. The one highway that connects the entire country. For Cancer Bats, or even for motorcycling, my whole idea of the country is just this one highway that winds its way from coast to coast. Yeah, our life on Highway 1; my life, personally. That's the name of my biography: My Life on Highway 1

What's the meanest thing anyone has ever said about your art?

When you tour Germany for the first time, you encounter the brutally honest review. I think, in German culture, it's respected to be honest with someone, so to tell someone that they played a terrible show or that you don't like what they were doing, but you would say it in a way where they're not trying to curry your favour. I remember it really being like a knife in my heart to [hear], "This show was not very good. You look like you're out of shape and you don't know what you're doing." And you just like, "[gasps] Excuse me?!" Because we're so used to, in Canada, everyone [being] like, "Oh my God, your band's so great!" And they're like, "Your songs are not good enough yet to be touring internationally." And you're like, "Oh, my God!" But then, as you grow up a little bit more you realize that they get it. This is the real review that I should be paying attention to, because they don't mean it to put a knife in my heart, they mean it so I can like get better and figure it out. Because if everyone just tells you you're great all the time, you're gonna probably miss a lot of the things that you're doing wrong. So I was like, "Ugh, okay, Germany, I'll be back!"

What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?

It was a double cassette of AC/DC Live. My dad had an amazing record collection, so we grew up listening to Allman Brothers and all of this rad rock, and so that was where my dad and I really bonded, but he didn't have any AC/DC LPs. So I was like, "Oh, I'm gonna buy this so we can listen to it in the car." So my dad and I would listen to AC/DC Live, the double cassette, on my way to hockey practice and stuff like that when I was really young.

What was your most memorable day job?

I sold snowboards at a ski shop, kinda like a sporting goods store, and I sold snowboards and jackets and all this stuff when I was in high school, when I was 16. I worked at the shop kinda like forever, and then I ended up working in skate shops. I always think about how working at that retail job, they really taught us how to sell, and brought in these Xerox pamphlets for us to learn how to sell to people. And I realized that that taught me so much that I now know about selling merch and selling Treadwell to stores. I can't get over how much I learned when I was 16, just like working this part time job, is kind of crazy.

If you weren't playing music, what would you be doing instead?

I'd just be doing Treadwell. I mean, especially like in these last two years, when I wasn't able to play music — we were writing, but I wasn't, you know, doing anything — Treadwell was entirely my business and keeping the lights on and the only thing I was doing and I was happy doing it. If I couldn't do Treadwell, or I really needed to, I learned how to do a lot of construction stuff in renovating houses that I've owned and been like, "Oh, the only way I'm gonna be able to own a house is if I get a really cheap old one and do all the work myself." So in the course of that, I've actually learned [how to] mud and tape drywall, I can run electrical, I can resurface floors, I can tile and put up a whole new bathroom. I feel like I'd probably be doing that. I like doing it too. It's pretty fun doing contracting stuff.

How do you spoil yourself?

A big thing that I've learned on the East Coast is that, because the weather can shift, when the day is really nice, you need to really take advantage of it. So I love the culture here of just spoiling yourself on a good day. I'll go skateboarding with my friends at the skatepark. There's like a lot of really amazing skate parks and bowls here, So we'll skate the bowl for the entire day, as like a "It's sunny, let's do it!" It's the opposite of the Toronto brain to really spoil yourself that way. I do feel like I'm spoiling myself because I have so much Ontario guilt built into me to be like, "No, no, no, it's a weekday, so you have to be working and achieving capital." And then the East Coast is like, "What are you, nuts?! You can't work today, it's nice out!" I really love it.

What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?

I really love that I still have an endless source of energy. I'm always somehow able to keep it going, like, "Okay, it's sunny, let's skate all day, let's go have fun, let's do all this stuff!" and then have enough energy. There's this weird fire that's inside of me that's fuelled by, like, coffee and pizza but for some reason never goes out. I feel really fortunate for that. But the thing that I dislike is, sometimes, I'm trying to be better about it, but I overcommit to things. I think because I'm excited, I always want to do everything, and then, at a certain point, I have to be like, "Uhhh, sorry, I can't actually make this happen. I can't fit seven things in my one day."

What's the best way to listen to music?

My favourite way is in the morning, drinking coffee, the sun is coming through the windows, you can not have your phone on, and just focus and actually pay attention to the music.

What do you fear most?

My taxes. I always feel like I've screwed up. Any time my accountant calls and I'm like, "Ugh, we're getting audited!" I just have this genuine fear that whatever I've been doing was wrong and it's all gonna come crumbling down. 

If you won the lottery, what would you do with the money?

I would buy so many motorcycles, I'd buy a bigger thing to put my motorcycles in. I own four motorcycles currently, And before this interview, I was on Kijiji looking for more motorcycles. I was just like, "What am I doing?!" They would all be used. None of them would be new. I would probably buy like a hundred, is the honest truth. Ones that I could fix, ones that I could teach my friends how to ride on, ones that are specific for certain riding. I would have them all. 

Not even a vanity one, like a Rolls-Royce equivalent?

Ooh, no, that's kinda like my least favourite part about motorcycling, is like having a real bougie showy piece. Ooh, definitely not!

What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?

The first time Cancer Bats went to Australia, we had a layover in Singapore and we were trying to find coffee. This is in 2007, so we had just put out like our first record. We'd finished touring Europe and we were heading to Australia, and we had this layover in Singapore. I went up to this kid and I was like, "Hey, I only have euros. Can I pay for this coffee with euros?" And the kid at the airport coffee stand was like, "Oh, you can pay euros but you actually don't have to pay for anything." And I was like, "Oh, what?!" And he was like, "You're the singer of Cancer Bats, your coffee's for free." I was like [explosion noise]. Brain annihilated. I was like, "What is even happening?" It felt like it was the early days of the internet, early days of our band, early days of anything. We had never even been to Australia! All of this was blowing my mind, and I barely even had any money so I felt very un-famous or -known or anything, so to have this kid at a coffee shop in Singapore know who I was and give me free coffee as a result of liking my band? I was like, "This is the craziest thing that's ever happened to me in my life."

Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?

I think, in my heart of hearts, I would love to sit down with Jimmy Page and have a coffee, and just actually not nerd out too hard, 'cause I wouldn't want to make him feel uncomfortable, but to just casually talk about how sick Led Zeppelin are, and maybe hear some crazy stories about that world and his life. I feel like that would be the gnarliest thing ever. Coffee and maybe some biscuits? I'd make us a nice pourover. I'd probably get some Dark Arts coffee — we'd be in England. I'm assuming he wouldn't come to Canada. I'd come to him. 

What is the greatest song of all-time?

This is again to my Jimmy Page [fandom], the song that I think shaped my entire life — I know I said I bought that AC/DC cassette, but "Immigrant Song" by Led Zeppelin is maybe the most kickass song of all time, and I I feel like that's the one that resonates in my brain. I think I could listen to that song forever.

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