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July 2022
Feature

Alexisonfire: "This is the best era of Alexisonfire"

Back with their first full-length in thirteen years, Alexisonfire are a band reborn.
Published: 11:05 am, June 22, 2022Words: Alex Bradley.
Alexisonfire: "This is the best era of Alexisonfire"

There are a thousand different similes that could be written in countless different ways when it comes to Alexisonfire: "The dying embers from which they have returned..."; "the fire which still burns deep within the band"; comparisons with the phoenix and so on and so forth. They're all easy parallels to draw because they're also all true.

The match was struck on the Canadian post-hardcore scene when five guys from Ontario exploded onto the scene in 2004. With their red-hot sound and incendiary live shows, they blazed a trail far and wide in a 10-year burst that exploded as dramatically as they first arrived. In 2011, following the departure of Dallas Green and Wade MacNeil, it was over. Ashes to ashes. They were done.

But. Faintly, there was a flicker. Then another. And another. Then, in 2015, Reading & Leeds fanned the reunion rumours by adding them to their line-up, and a flame burst into life again. Flash forward another six years, and there is an inferno in the shape of a heart-skull roaring into life again. Alexisonfire are back.

And that's how we arrive at 'Otherness'. 13 years on from their last full-length 'Old Crows / Young Cardinals', it's an album that acknowledges the difference but celebrates the refortified whole.

When laid out flat, the truth is, the band weren't away for too long. Between a farewell tour in 2012, the odd reunion show, then a few more shows snowballing into a tour, 'Familiar Drugs', a few more singles and a pandemic, and here we are. But the mindset has shifted during that time away. Dallas did City and Colour and became a folk star. Wade replaced Frank Carter in Gallows and started up Black Lungs and his alt-psych project Doom's Children. Drummer Jordan Hastings has been helping out Billy Talent on a semi-permanent basis. Chris Steele, the band's bassist, travelled the world and took a well-deserved break. And, for George Pettit, the band's focal point? He became a firefighter to only further extend the ease with which those similes and metaphors can be written.

"Change is sewn into the fabric of this band" 
George Pettit

"For a very long time, I don't think Alexisonfire has had long term goals," George admits. He is at his home fighting off the tail end of COVID, which has finally caught up with him after managing it dodge it from work colleagues, bandmates and near enough everyone else in the world for the last two years.

We are discussing how we got to this point of Alexisonfire's return - not just playing their hits a few times a year, but back with a new full-length album. In the space of a year that started with the release of 'Familiar Drugs', the band released three singles. The question that was volleyed back in response was whether this was the foundation for a full album. Always, in one way or another, the answer was "no".

"I don't even think when we started writing this record that we thought it was going to be an album," he says. "We were about a year into the pandemic, we were all living locally, and we felt like we were squandering this opportunity because we are usually to the wind - everyone is off somewhere else doing something else. Getting us all in the same room is difficult, but the pandemic brought us all back to southern Ontario."

"We made the decision to jam a little, and that's as far as it went. At that point, it was "let's just see if we can write a couple of songs". Then we had four songs, and we were discussing whether we should do what we did with the last group of singles. And then, I don't know, we keep rolling with it. We had eight songs, and we were like, 'this is a record'. Dallas invited us up to his cottage, and we sat and had the first real discussions about what this is about and what we were going to do with it.'

"That's when we came up with the idea of 'Otherness', so it wasn't until late in the game that we decided we were going to make another record. We were flying by the seat of our pants for a while there."

Taking George at his word, it would seem there has been no master plan for the resurrection of Alexisonfire, just a lot of happy accidents. The singles were only ever singles, and the album came about as lockdown boredom hit. That said, when 'Otherness' is fully released in late June, the trio of singles that whetted the appetite might just be the stepping stones between the young cardinals of Alexis' last album and the…" older" crows they've become in their time away. The final single, 'Season of the Flood', a seven-minute masterpiece of a slow, controlled burn that unfurls into a deafening colossus, is representative of the Alexisonfire sound presented on this record.

Many of the band's foundations are still intact, but skyscraper ambitions are fully imagined on this album. "I think change is sewn into the fabric of this band," George comments. It's true. Alexis have always had a creative forward momentum propelled by some of the most diversely influenced individuals you could possibly meet. But nothing that Alexis or their individual members have ever done could prepare you for 'Otherness'. It's almost as if all that time on huge stages around the world on their reunion shows has turned them from a rowdy underground bunch of punks into out-and-out rock stars.

And George feels it too. "You are seeing a different Alexisonfire if you come out to see us now than you were in 2006," he reasons. "That being said, I think this is the best era of Alexisonfire."

"Alexisonfire are hardline socialist lefties, and conservatism is a fucking con" 
George Pettit

Pulling together the strands of 'Otherness', the album opens with a war cry. 'Committed to the Con' bursts alive with a challenge of "Which side are you on?" The track came after guitarist Wade suggested the album "needed" a political song, something Alexis have never shied away from. The only problem for George was writing it. Despite being vocal about social injustice and politics, the singer has found "the message" is often detrimental to the song. "The second I try and sit down and write a song that's about "something", that kind of turns to dog shit pretty quickly,' he concedes.

"So Wade had a few lines, and then he sent me the Woody Guthrie song 'Which Side Are You On' - a song about union versus management - which is something I deal with personally in my life as a firefighter." The result is one of the most visceral moments on the album. It's a straight to the point reminder of the line in the sand this band has drawn with their music. "Alexisonfire are hardline socialist lefties, and conservatism is a fucking con," George declares. Just in case there was any doubt left.

By track three, following the soaring lead single from which the album takes its name, the record begins to shift. 'Sans Soleil' has Alexis baring their soul against the glistening flourish of bar chimes and bubbly riffs. George likens the track to 'Rough Hands' and 'Burial', but it does feel different. Wade wrote the lyrics, but Dallas takes the reigns on the track to pull the pain and beauty into full focus. "Wade had some very real deal personal stuff going on his life that he felt he had to address, and that song became a vehicle for it," George explains. "We were all taken about with how earnest the lyrics were. There was a lot of exposure on this record with people saying, 'here are the things that are happening with me' point-blank."

When diving further into the album, that vulnerability comes to the surface more and more. 'Survivor's Guilt' details George's struggle in the fire service, while 'Blue Spade' finds Chris Steele stepping up to the plate to battle his demons. As the singer and previously chief lyricist, George describes the latter as "a really impressive and special moment in the studio for every one of us."

"When that one was done, we walked outside of the studio, sat back and went, 'wow, I can't believe that really came out of us'," he recalls. "That we are still capable of doing something like that, it's a special song for us."

There has been a lot of living done in the time that Alexisonfire have taken between albums, so maybe it's understandable that there is a lot of emotion poured into 'Otherness'. "Lyrically, this is the most open we've ever been with one another," George offers. "I think there is something very private about writing lyrics. Like, 'I'm writing down my feelings, and I'm going to show it to everyone'. There is something that feels weird about it, not necessarily in writing it but in the process of showing it. For years we were doing it very separately in our own little corners, our own little hidden spots, writing our lyrics then showing up to the studio to record them.

"With this one, we went to Dallas's house in Toronto when we were recording the demos and walked through each song. We talked through the lyrics and what each song was about, and collaboratively we came to agreements on what the lyrics would be for certain songs. Nothing was off the table. It was a very open, collaborative, creative process that we have never really had lyrically. That's kind of where we're at. Alexisonfire is currently very in tune and very much in love with one another."

The love-fest that took place seems vital to the end product. It lends itself to the respect, admiration and appreciation the five members of Alexisonfire have for one another. With many new hats being tried on in the studio, from different lyricists to George testing his singing chops in more equal balance to his screams and Dallas taking on the role of producer, there is a newfound confidence and trust in one another. It shows throughout the long, winding instrumentals that decorate the album as they all get a chance to flex their muscles.

Take a track like 'Dark Night of the Soul', which opens the record's second half. The horizon seems endless, from the acapella opening that spirals in every direction with new wave synthesisers, blissed-out guitars, an alt-psych influence on the bridge and a death march on the drums. It feels like no ideas were off the table.

"There were some moments where we like, can we do that?" says George. "A lot of the stops got pulled out on this record. Maybe we couldn't have done that when we were making 'Crisis' or 'Old Crows'. We would have stopped ourselves, whereas now it seems like what's the point of limiting ourselves?"

"Our musical tastes are all over the map. We don't draw from a small pool of musical tastes. We draw from across the board," he adds before reeling off a long list of from ambient music to weird electronic, black metal and current hardcore bands that they were each listening to at the time of recording.

That's the "Otherness" that makes the album. It's all these different proclivities from music, film, art and fashion that pulled five kids from Ontario's clubs and art spaces in search of "things that were a bit avant-garde and a little bit strange". "I feel like we were paying homage to Rush with that song," he concludes.

"Alexisonfire is currently very in tune and very much in love with one another" 
George Pettit

George struggles to identify why it is different this time around. It's easy to call it "maturity". He considers whether it's the friends they've lost recently, the pandemic, general life experience or their individual struggles. Regardless, the camaraderie and good feeling between the band is clear to see and hear.

It certainly wasn't this way when they called time back in 2011. It was well documented that the Alexisonfire split was not amicable. So, 11 years on, with their love for one another stronger than ever, does George regret the way things ended?

"The break-up was absolutely necessary," he states. "I don't know if this record would have been made this way if we had slugged it out and had not stopped being Alexis for a while."

It's important to remember that Alexisonfire were teenagers when they started out and spent their entire 20s making sweat drip from the ceiling of venues all around the world. That's bound to take a toll on anyone after a while, physically and mentally.

"That's all we ever really knew. And it was good for me to step away from that, figure things out on my own for a while. In that, I found a different career as well, and that's something that is another huge passion in my life. Now, when we come back to Alexis, it's not this… you know," he trails away.

George refers to 'Otherness' as "a creative pursuit". This album isn't a contractual obligation or something they need to do to join the dots between one world tour and another. Instead, Alexisonfire are back on their own terms. And with it, the excitement is back too.

"It's important to step away. I'd been on the road for so long that I had made myself numb to it too. As much as Alexis were good live back in the day, I just did it,' he reflects. 'It didn't make me feel anything anymore, and now I'm a bundle of nerves before we play. There is a bit of the fear there, and that keeps me a coiled spring. It's easier to get to the place of performance than it was back then, when I was just present and "oh, it's just another show, no big deal". Now every show matters, and it's good. I'm glad it played out the way it did." 

Taken from the July issue of Upset. Alexisonfire's album 'Otherness' is out 24th June.

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