How Alexisonfire Learned to Love Each Other
"Alexisonfire can be five forces pulling in five different directions sometimes. This time around, it felt like we were all heading in the same direction."
Published May 31, 2022For years, Alexisonfire were the band that broke up.
Was their breakup amicable? "Not really," they said at the time. Still, they licked their wounds and toured the world to say a fond farewell. A few years went by. They got back together. They played some shows. Were they back? Yes! Well, kind of. Not really? It was… complicated.
"We all needed to not be in Alexisonfire for a little while and figure out our lives," lead vocalist George Pettit says now. "We were institutionalized by being in a touring band. Most of us were plucked out of high school and lived in a van for years. We were all growing up and we needed a moment to step away from it. I'm glad we did, because we're better off now than we ever were."
Alexisonfire's reunion happened gradually. Just a few years after their 2012 farewell tour, the band played a handful of comeback shows and continued to perform sporadically between their other projects, such as angel-voiced Dallas Green's City and Colour and lead guitarist Wade MacNeil's fronting role with UK hardcore outfit Gallows. Meanwhile, Pettit became a firefighter, bassist Chris Steele travelled the world, and drummer Jordan Hastings joined Billy Talent.
Alexisonfire eventually released some one-off singles, but they still referred to the band as a "safe haven" between other commitments and a "vacation" from their regular lives. They'd get together, but they weren't really, fully back.
Suddenly, that changed. This is no longer the story of Alexisonfire's breakup: this is the story of how Alexisonfire slowly and carefully pieced themselves back together, and how, in mending the cracks in their relationship, they ended up stronger than ever. In other words, Alexisonfire are back — and there may be nothing that could tear them apart again.
The band's fifth studio album is their first in 13 years. Most fans (and, for a long time, the band members themselves) didn't think it would ever exist. But Otherness is almost here (due June 24 on Dine Alone Records), and if you ask Alexisonfire, they'll tell you it's the best music they've ever made.
They'll also tell you why: the five of them learned how to love each other. Openly, unreservedly and unashamedly.
"We all felt so lucky to be able to be doing this, having 20 years of experience with one another as brothers," Green says in a video call with Exclaim! as Pettit nods fondly. "It transformed into this [idea]: let's just love each other and be supportive and proud of each other that we still have this beautiful thing … Let's take advantage of how much we actually do love each other."
Now in or approaching their 40s, Alexisonfire are in a much different place than they were when they released their self-titled debut on Halloween of 2002, fresh out of high school in St. Catharines, ON.
The dawn of the 21st century was a time when a "screamo" band could not only cause tremors in the underground, but fully break into mainstream pop culture. Alexisonfire's music videos — "Pulmonary Archery," in particular — gained enough traction on MuchMusic that they became almost a household name. In interviews, they'd explain the origin of that name ad nauseum: that they borrowed the moniker of an adult performer and "lactating, contortionist stripper," and that their website was (and still is) theonlybandever.com because she was already using alexisonfire.com. (Today, that URL is a good way to acquire malware.)
This was a time when the streets of downtown Toronto were filled with the earth-shaking guitars, high-flying melodies and blood-curdling shrieks of "No Transitory" at the MuchMusic Video Awards; when the band would play at the radio station 102.1 The Edge, where Pettit would run outside mid-song, carrying a life-size cutout of Danko Jones that he'd pulled off the wall, and stop traffic on perpetually busy Yonge Street; when they'd appear on a Comedy Network talk show alongside Dawson's Creek star Joshua Jackson.
Alexisonfire capitalized on their unexpected exposure on TV and radio by touring relentlessly and recording three more albums in a span of five years — 2004's Watch Out!, 2006's Crisis and 2009's Old Crows / Young Cardinals — each of them charting in the Top 10 in Canada (with the enduringly influential Crisis hitting No. 1). All four albums sold enough copies to go platinum. Their highly aerobic, intensely physical live performances left them with blood and bruises. But the real harm they were doing to themselves was psychological.
"We grew up in a van together. You have that locker-room brotherly chirp-fest while driving 14 hours a day to the show," Green says.
"When we were younger, the way we would communicate that we loved each other was by mercilessly making fun of each other," MacNeil echoes in a separate conversation. "Maybe it's an obvious thing to do, for other bands to be nice to each other, but it wasn't obvious to us for a long time."
It's easy enough for boys to find camaraderie in their shared love of music (or sports, or comic books, or whatever). It's not as easy for men to be openly loving and supportive of one another in a society that implicitly dissuades them from doing so. Close male friendships have become more normalized and idealized recently with the popularization of the "bromance" — thanks in part to Hollywood comedies like I Love You, Man and the 21 Jump Street remakes — but it remains challenging for men to reach a meaningful level of closeness and tenderness.
"When you put up your sarcastic forcefield, you don't get to truly know someone," Pettit says. "You get to know them when things aren't going so well. We've all been through a lot of those things together, so there's a sensitivity to one another. Because we've nurtured that relationship, that bleeds into the way we create music."
You can catch little glimpses of it, if you're looking. In photos, they're laughing together, hugging each other, kissing each other (like on the front cover of the latest issue of Exclaim!), leaning a head on a pal's shoulder, resting a hand on a best buddy. At one point in the music video for "Sweet Dreams of Otherness," Pettit feels Steele's presence behind him and reflexively extends an arm to pull him into a hug. At a recent show in Toronto, the band had all of the electric energy they've always had, along with a palpable sense of graciousness for sharing in this experience more than two decades later.
No one likes a breakup. But for Alexisonfire, it turned out to be a blessing.
"It was one of the most difficult things all of us have dealt with, but maybe it was the thing that will allow Alexisonfire to go on to do much more," MacNeil says. "By stepping away and finding our way back to it the way we did, maybe that's what actually set the stage to make this record, and the next one, and hopefully the one after that."
Most importantly, Alexisonfire's love for each other comes through in the music. The making of Otherness took place during the early stages of the pandemic shutdown, when the world's slower pace and smaller scope gave them a chance to get together and eat pizza, watch '80s sci-fi movies, have some laughs and make a bunch of noise like they did when they were teenagers. It was only intended to be a hangout with no strings attached, but almost as soon as they picked up their instruments, the songs started flowing out.
"I told everybody when we started demoing, 'I think we just started the record,'" says Green. "And everybody was like, 'What are you talking about, Dal?' I just heard this vitality. It was like we were a different band all of a sudden. There was this youthful exuberance."
The band says it was the most collaborative, supportive environment of their career, and that it changed the way they made music. Previously, writing lyrics was a private, personal exercise that they conducted separately in their own closets: "There's something very naked about presenting your poetry to the pit of vipers that is Alexisonfire," says Pettit. For Otherness, they sat in Green's basement and worked on the lyrics together. Even Steele broke out of his shell and wrote the lyrics to two songs: "Blue Spade" and "Reverse the Curse."
Additionally, the band so well-known for having effectively three lead vocalists — each of them with distinctively different voices — decided that, instead of trading off the mic, they'd be singing in unison. (Pettit's panther-like roar is here in full force, but he also sings on the record — in a rich, haunting low register that corresponds neatly with his love of Nick Cave, adding a fascinating new dimension on its own or when layered with Green's striking high notes.) In the studio, everybody felt freer to share ideas based on a broader variety of influences. There are songs inspired by the psychedelic jams of the Grateful Dead, the stoner rock riffing of Kyuss, the synth soundtracks of John Carpenter films, the prog rock of Rush and Goblin, the soulful harmonies of Sade, and the artful chaos of Grinderman. The band threw away the internal rules and regulations that governed how they should make music.
"Alexisonfire can be five forces pulling in five different directions sometimes," Pettit says. "This time around, it felt like we were all heading in the same direction."
Otherness is a record that simply couldn't have been made a decade ago. Paradoxically, it's also a record that sounds like almost no time has passed. Alexisonfire have returned as the band their fans have always loved — and they sound as inspired and invigorated as ever.
The full bloom of Alexisonfire's love and support for each other is also particularly notable in the context of what can be broadly described as "heavy music." In the most general terms, the idea of metal and hardcore is to be, by definition, not soft. In the music being made by some of Alexisonfire's contemporaries in the 2000s, there's plenty of aggro-male posturing, plenty of unhealthy processing of emotions, and plenty of anger aimed in the wrong directions.
Then again, Alexisonfire always steadfastly refused to adopt many of the tropes and clichés of their music scene. Their songs didn't have breakdowns. They didn't buy into most of the aesthetics and fashion trends of a suddenly mainstream "screamo" scene. They didn't write songs laced with misogyny, toxic masculinity or overly violent imagery. They weren't afraid to wear pink, they weren't afraid to smile and they weren't afraid to get political (as they've continued to do on Otherness songs like "Committed to the Con" and "Mistaken Information").
Most crucially, they didn't want to be anything other than themselves. During that time, a lot of emo and screamo bands were trying to sound like the next Thursday, the next Taking Back Sunday, the next Dashboard Confessional or the next My Chemical Romance. Alexisonfire came to reject and resent the term "screamo," wanting to distance themselves from what they viewed as a scene that was overrun with copycats and trend-hoppers. They wanted to "put the knife in screamo," as Pettit infamously put it in an oft-quoted interview. "I don't want to be the band that saves it," he said. "I want to be the band that kills it."
But today, the band that set out to kill screamo has returned to bring it back to life.
"When we started, that's the community we wanted to be part of. But over the 2000s, 'screamo' became a dirty word," says MacNeil. "I don't think it is anymore. I think we can feel good about being a screamo band again."
Yet in their early days and now, Alexisonfire have always felt that they don't belong. That's what inspired the new album's title, Otherness — the idea that their band is for weirdos, by weirdos. They want their shows to be safe, inclusive and supportive. Alexisonfire is for anyone and everyone who, in their otherness, can find a sense of togetherness.
"We're still the kids that met in the record store back in the day, who were always seeking out secret corners of music," says Pettit. "I feel like it embodies our band and our story," Green adds. "It's been 20 years of strange living. It's become our mission statement, our rallying cry."
More broadly, the major through-line of Otherness is the idea of making room for love, acceptance and care for yourself and others. "Sans Soleil" is a song about healing from hurt and learning to love yourself that calls to mind the power ballads on Watch Out! as well as the angst of the Cure and My Bloody Valentine; the two Steele-penned tunes deal with personal growth and self-actualization; "Survivor's Guilt" posits that self-care means letting some things go; and "Conditional Love" muses about being actively involved in the love you give and receive, all while channeling the high-speed intensity of something like Refused or Motörhead.
"It's a collective of everyone's ideas, so obviously the better we're communicating, the better it functions," MacNeil says. "In the way we're interacting with each other, it's inspiring more creative thinking. I think it's going to allow us to increase the scope of what we do."
Alexisonfire's return to make this long-awaited yet unexpected new album ultimately comes back to the love they've nurtured for themselves, each other and their fans. They repeatedly express how grateful they are that this extraordinary group of misfits were successful enough that they can come together and make music as if a lifetime had passed in the blink of an eye.
After years of turmoil and uncertainty, Alexisonfire are better off for it. The five of them understand each other better than ever. They're still free to live their lives individually, in whatever shape that takes. But when they're together, it's all love. When they're together, nothing else matters. When they're together, Alexisonfire are the only band ever.
To celebrate the release of Otherness, Alexisonfire are hosting the Born & Raised concert series in their hometown of St. Catharines, ON from June 30–July 3, featuring two headlining sets each from City and Colour (June 30 performing Sometimes front-to-back, and July 1) and Alexisonfire (July 2, and July 3 performing their self-titled debut album front-to-back).
Also performing at: RBC Bluesfest (Ottawa, ON, July 13), Festival d'été de Québec (Quebec City, QC, July 16)