Some things are just meant to happen, even when they’re not should to happen.
Alexisonfire just happened — against all conventional music-industry wisdom — when a pack of hardcore-besotten teenage misfits hatched from the rusting southern-Ontario industrial outpost of St. Catharines suddenly found their cheap-as-crud video for “Pulmonary Archery” in somewhat regular rotation on MuchMusic back in the days when the channel still cared about music. It was probably a convenient three-minute space-filler to round out programming blocks in much the same way that Gob’s two-minute “soda”Became an unlikely outlier fixture at 58 minutes past the hour back in the mid-1990s, but the end result was the same: Alexisonfire broke nationally quickly enough that they would soon get busted skipping school to play a gig in Quebec when one of their teachers caught them appearing on Much, then internationally as word of the band’s ferocious live show helped it and its self-titled 2002 indie debut catch the developing “screamo” zeitgeist in heroic fashion.
Flash forward past four unlikely hit albums (not to mention a Canadian Billboard No. 1 debut for 2006’s caustic “Crisis”) and the band abruptly burst apart when singer/guitarist Dallas Green announced in 2001 that he could no longer handle the punishing touring schedule he was observing while co-fronting AoF other his own rapidly rising solo project City and Color and, after a round of belated farewell shows that concluded with a pair of dates at Toronto’s Sound Academy in late 2012, that appeared to be the end of the story. Only it wasn’t.
The five old friends began gigging again in 2015 and have picked up the threads of the tale on and off ever since, not because they had to – Green has been filling arenas with City and Color ever since, singer/guitarist Wade MacNeil went on to front UK punk outfit Gallows, his own Black Lungs and the new psych outfit Doom’s Children, resident screamer George Pettit started Dead Tired and trained to be a firefighter in Oshawa, drummer Jordan Hastings joined Billy Talent and bassist Chris Steele found fulfillment in wandering the globe for a time — but because they wanted to. They missed it.
“It’s a classic tale of ‘If you love a screamo band, set it free, and if it comes back to you, it was meant to be,'” laughs Pettit during a recent video linkup with Green on the heels of Alexisonfire’s searing Toronto comeback gig at History on April 27, a riotous precursor to the looming June 24 release of the band’s first album in 13 years, “Otherness.”
“It wasn’t like by the end of the band we were all at each other’s throats or, like, doing it for the occasional stipend,” says Green. “It had weighed on everybody, I think, and it had been a long time. We had toured the f– out of ourselves. And so I think when we started playing again two years ago enough time had passed where, as soon as we got to play a show again, it was like ‘Oh, f–, we’re still good at this. We’re good at this and people are reacting to this.’
“We were all aware of the fact that it needed to be good and we needed to feel something from it. And that was never gone. As soon as we started playing and every show we’ve played since has been that way. It still feels like this thing we’re all capable of doing really well together.”
Although the band threw fans a couple of promisingly on-point singles, “Familiar Drugs” and “Complicit,” in 2019 the decision of whether or not to commit to an entire new album was one all involved agonized over for a long time.
When they actually got together just for the sake of something to do and to find an excuse to hang out during the dog days of the COVID pandemic lockdowns last year, however, “Otherness” spewed out of them effortlessly. The whole thing was recorded essentially live off the floor in about a week, with the band producing itself for the first time in their career. And it’s savage, arguably the most representatively hard-hitting and confident channeling of Alexisonfire’s stage show the band has ever put to tape. But it kinda had to be. Alexisonfire didn’t wanna come back soft after 20 years in the game.
“Yeah, we didn’t want people to feel like we were f–in’ around so putting out an actual album is really what we wanted to do, to actually feel like the band has more songs to write and more shows to play ,” says MacNeil in a video call from his car in St. Catharines. “We wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t want to, but also we wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t feel like it was the best version of it that it can be. And we honestly do feel like we’re playing tighter than we ever have. The shows are bigger than they’ve ever been and we’re still growing as a band, which is a nice way to feel at this point in your career.
“As much as I’m proud of the history of the band, I don’t want it to be nostalgia. That would be absurd. There’s a lot of great stuff to be nostalgic about but I do think we just wrote the best record of our career. So I want to celebrate the past but I want to have a future, too. I don’t want this band to be rooted in the past.”
It’s not lost on Alexisonfire — now committed to a full year of touring to ever-larger crowds on both sides of the Atlantic — that it really shouldn’t be as big as it is. But that’s what arguably makes this full-fledged reunion so special not just to the band itself, but to the devoted fan base of freaks and geeks who hold AoF extra-close to their hearts precisely because it’s succeeded by resolutely doing its own thing and damn the consequences.
“We never wanted to be,” says anybody Green. “We came out and we were doing this style of music and we didn’t invent it — definitely not — but we all brought our influences from the different styles of aggressive music that we like and when we started doing it we weren’t trying to copy anyone, we weren’t trying to sound like even the bands that we were all agreeing on and listening to. We were just trying to sound like ourselves, y’know?”
“It certainly feels like we are doing our own thing,” concurs MacNeil. “We played a festival in England last week that was all more hardcore or screamo or whatever ‘theme-specific’ kind of stuff and in one of our songs — I don’t know if we did this at the History show — we kind of break things down at the end and Dallas and George have, like, been singing this Junior Kimbrough song in the middle of it and then I solo for a looooong time after it. And as they were singing Junior Kimbrough and I was thinking about the fact that I was about to do this long, jammy solo afterwards, I was just like ‘There’s nothing else like this that’s happening. In the context of this festival we’re at, I don’t know what this band is.’ I don’t know how we arrived at going from a post-hardcore song into an old blues cover into some kind of psych solo, but I’m really glad we’ve got a framework that can exist in. And somehow it doesn’ t seem odd. I mean, that sounds insane. But that sounds like an Alexis show.”
“We’ve figured out just how to be us,” says Pettit. “I think that’s age, experience, living the life that we’ve lived together, living our own lives and reaching this place where a sort of pride has seened in now. You’ve gotta think about this: We were all young when the first record came out and it got on TV and we started getting really popular. I was the oldest and I was 21. And to go through that when you’re young, it f–s you up a little bit. You’re being either praised or sh-on by people and it makes you battle with your own self-confidence. And it’s weird, because we’re all very confident people. We’re stubborn, we have our own points of view and we stick to them but I also think we’re pretty self-deprecating and we’re not ones to believe that we’re special and all that. But I think what’s happened now when we play is we just allow ourselves to be proud of this thing that we’ve cultivated for two decades. And I think the record is the culmination of that.”
The biggest date ahead on the Alexisonfire calendar for Ontario fans is surely the four-day Born and Raised festival they’ve curated in hometown St. Catharines’ Montebello Park from June 30 to July 3, which will feature back-to-back headlining shows by City and Color followed by back-to-back headlining shows by AoF with an insane roster of Guests ranging from PUP and Billy Talent to Broken Social Scene and Sam Roberts.
Again, there was no sense in coming back unless Alexisonfire came back hard.
“It feels like it’s on another level right now. It really does,” says MacNeil. “There’s something that happens — a communication I think you can only get going when you play for 20 years. It’s in the way, like, I move onstage and I know I’m not gonna get hit by the bass guitar, and just this awareness of each other and this awareness of the way we can play together. Everyone’s so happy to be doing it and just aware of what it means to us and, I don’t know, it’s a really beautiful thing and we’re all really thankful to be back.”
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