Rank Your Records: George Pettit Scrupulously Rates Alexisonfire’s Six Records
A look back through the catalog of Canada's definitely-not-broken-up hardcore heroes.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Alexisonfire is still very much a band, but only when they need to be. Five years ago, the St. Catharines-bred champs of Canadian post-hardcore announced they were calling it a day after guitarist Wade MacNeil accepted a job fronting UK hardcore act Gallows and guitarist/singer Dallas Green opted to pursue his wildly successful solo project City & Colour full-time. But a funny thing happened with Alexisonfire in that time: they just couldn't stay away from each other. A farewell tour the following year led to a box set and a reissue campaign the year after that. And then last year, they reunited for a string of festival dates, including Heavy Montreal, Reading and Leeds, and Riot Fest. They're back at it this coming January, heading over to Australia and New Zealand with the Dirty Nil for a two-week jaunt.
Frontman George Pettit says he's just as curious as anyone about what exactly Alexisonfire's current status is. "We're not broken up, by any means, in that we're entertaining offers," he says. "But we don't practice and we're not writing any music right now. But that's not off the table. I feel like it's just a matter of time before we have to discuss making more music while we continue doing this. I'm not opposed to [making more music], but at the same time, we'll see what happens. You'll all find out when we find out. We'll probably discuss what our future plans are, if any."
In the meantime, we got Pettit to look back on the band's back catalog and play favorites, which he did with some unrelentingly brutal honesty.
6. Alexisonfire (2002)
Noisey: Why is this your least favorite?
George Pettit: This one takes a lot of mental backflips for me to really feel good about. I feel like you need to be a mental Kerri Strug to get through this thing. I've got a list of my top five favorite mental backflips I like to do to make myself feel better about the self-titled Alexisonfire record, in no particular order.
1. It was recorded for almost no money and at, like, seven different studios.
2. We were young and inexperienced in the studio.
3. It broke us into the limelight of popular Canadiana.
4. It busted the door down for other weirdo bands in Canada to get on television and radio.
5. It sounds similar to other recordings of the era.
The reality is that this record is not so hot. We were too young and too free and not so good at self-editing. It's the musical equivalent of being a little kid and sticking a bunch of ingredients in a bowl and stirring it up and thinking that you're cooking. Flour? Yep. Pickles? Good. Orange juice? In the bowl! Anchovy paste? Why not? The motivation was good. It's creative and chaotic and messy, but all in all it's just a big bowl of fucking disgusting shit that you would never eat. I will say this though: if I had the same self-confidence now that I had when we made this record, I would probably be the CEO of some multi-national corporation.
Yeah, but last year NME called it one of "20 Emo Albums That Have Resolutely Stood The Test Of Time." What do you have to say to that?
I disagree! [Laughs] Maybe it's just that I'm too close to it. I remember making it. And it doesn't sound like music I'd listen to now. Like I said, I need to make a lot of mental backflips about it. I recognize that a lot of people love it, and I don't want to belittle that. Obviously it resonates with a lot of people and they like it for certain reasons, but it's not my shining example. If I was building my resume of music, I wouldn't lead with that one. And I'm very flattered that the NME added us to that list, but I don't know, man. I wouldn't have picked that one.
Do you still play songs from this album live?
Yeah, a few. I think there are three we still play. But they're definitely not our favorite songs to play. They're still good and they get a good reaction from the crowd, but they're also our most played songs. We've been playing them for 15 years.
So why do you think Alexisonfire broke through, when for so many years this kind of heavy, noisy music was ignored by the mainstream in Canada?
I don't know. Maybe just the right place at the right time? I think a door opened and we were just capable of breaking into the mainstream. There were some people at MuchMusic back then that were willing to take chances, I guess. Also, there was a voting show called Much On Demand where fans voted and every week they'd have a countdown. We debuted at a good spot, and when people saw we were in the top ten, people thought they could bump us up over Britney Spears or something. We eventually got to number one. And then MuchMusic felt they couldn't ignore that people wanted to see our videos. Then the VideoFACT vault door swung open for us and they knew we were competent enough to make decent music videos. But also that scene had grown for a long time in Southern Ontario. That indie-punk-screamo-hardcore scene was very intermingled at the time, and there were a lot of kids that were all pretty active putting on their own shows and making zines.
5. The Switcheroo Series: Alexisonfire vs. Moneen (2005)
For this record to succeed, everyone on the planet would have to be a cloned member of Alexis and/or Moneen because that's who we made this for. It's not too bad sounding but the artwork is bad. And the name Switcheroo bothers me some, too. Where this release fails, is in that it's really just a deeply personal love letter to our friends in Moneen. Even if you feel like you get it, like you understand the intense burning love between the members of Alexisonfire and the members of Moneen, you have no fucking clue. Let's just leave it at that.
So this was really all about the bromance going on between the two bands, right?
I think that's exactly it. We had toured the world with Moneen, we wanted to play some of their songs and they wanted to play ours, and we would just do it as an EP. There was a split series by BYO, and it was Hot Water Music and Leatherface, and Bouncing Souls and Anti-Flag. So they'd exchange songs and play them, so we thought we'd do it with Moneen. Listening to it, I don't think it sounds bad. It's okay. I think it very much an inside thing between them and us. You get on the road and live in that bubble with those people, and your inside jokes just don't make sense to outsiders listening to it.
Did you seriously name "Charlie Sheen vs. Henry Rollins" after that 1994 movie, The Chase?Yeah, that's where it's from. The song is about being pursued by the police. We all really like bad action films, and that's what we named it in the jam space. We always have fake names for songs and some of them just stick. The song in itself is quite serious, but again, it was a crazy inside joke that only made sense to us and a few others.
Yeah. That is not a movie worth remembering.
I remember there is a sex scene where Charlie Sheen is still driving the car. I feel like members of Red Hot Chili Peppers are in it as well.
4. Watch Out! (2004)
I made my peace with this record a little while ago. I took it out into the woods and set it free in proper dramatic Harry and the Hendersons-esque fashion. There is a certain lovability to this record, much like Harry the beloved sasquatch. But it's just not practical to have it in the house. Before you know it, it will be throwing onion dip at the Three Stooges on the television and fucking up all your doorframes. I had to make the decision to cut ties. While I have some extremely fond memories of Watch Out!, I don't think I can ever listen to it again. It's relegated to my memory now. I didn't even listen to it in preparation for this conversation. I seem to remember it had some good songs and some nice little melodic instrumental interludes. But honestly, it just doesn't sound like a record that I would listen to today.
To me, the first album sounds like teenagers, but on Watch Out! you can clearly hear the band mature and become better musicians. What do you think was the biggest difference?Well, it was working with Julius Butty. That changed my vocals and it changed we wrote and recorded music. I think the first record cost us maybe a couple grand to make. We used this free recording room at EMI Publishing in off-hours, basically whenever we could get in there. We recorded the drums somewhere else completely. So it was a real hodgepodge. We were new to the whole process. We didn't know how it worked. And then when it came to making the second album we worked with someone who did know how it worked. He had this amazing setup in his house. He knew exactly how to make it sound the way we wanted it to. He was just a very competent engineer and producer. So he helped us out a lot.
I'd say the first album was a real archetype of screamo and the second one was aligned with post-hardcore and heavy rock'n'roll.
Yeah, yeah. I think that's fair to say. There was a lot of stuff we were listening to back then that was more ambient rock, like Appleseed Cast and Mogwai. I think that was starting to creep its way into our music. We had these instrumental bits, more structure to our songs and not just parts thrown together. You can hear it starting to come together on Watch Out!.
3. Old Crows/Young Cardinals (2009)
On listenability alone, this should be in the number two slot. Maybe even number one. It's definitely one of the best sounding records that we made—to me anyway. So why isn't it higher? I guess the answer is that it just doesn't gel like Crisis does. The art is great—by Paul Jackson, under our artistic direction—but I feel like whatever metaphor we were pawing at was lost on the listener.
We took a big chunk of time off after touring Crisis. I moved into a loft apartment with my then girlfriend, who's now my wife, and started tackling some books I had no business reading. When time came write to lyrics for a new record I was all drunk on The Rebel by Albert Camus and I really wanted to write songs that tackled the existentialist dilemma. Like how do I exist in an absurd, godless universe? What is morality? Is life meaningless or is life itself meaning? These aren't questions that Sartre could answer so why would the singer of a screamo band think that he could? How about you write a song about your soon-to-be wife you idiot? Nobody gives a shit!
But seriously, I like this record a lot. That one-two punch of "Old Crows" into "Young Cardinals" off the hop sets the bar so high and it doesn't let up. If it wasn't for the fact that I'm mildly irked by some of the lyrics I wrote, it might be right on top of the list. It's well recorded, well written, and there's great dynamic to the track list.
On your website, you wrote that this album is the best one you made. And yet here you have it as number three?
[Laughs] I think that it's just not my preference. I think if I was to listen to a record from the band's catalog, I choose it over Crisis, but I feel like Crisis is a better album in that it has this conciseness to everything about it. It's all on point. Whereas, I feel like there are a couple of spots on Old Crows that didn't gel quite as well as things did on Crisis. I'm really proud of this record, I just feel like it was a bit of a hodgepodge as far as imagery and the songs. It's probably our best record. I
You said this album was "a little challenging for people." Do you think it was too different from the previous records?
Yes. They were used to one thing and we gave them something different. I think it challenged a lot of people. And I think we had to trim back some of the fans we got from the big success of Crisis. That album had us on things like eTalk Daily, and we got a lot of drive-time listeners that were into the record. Not saying some fans are better than others, but there are those that are interested in the saga of the band and want to see where it goes next, and there are those that just want to hear the radio-friendly stuff. We were starting to shed those. We noticed a downturn in the band too at that point. Our shows were still big, but we saw a decline in ticket sales and record sales. And I think that was the beginning of the end of Alexisonfire in some ways. That was tough, especially when you see this upturn in everything Dallas was doing with City & Colour, and this downturn with Alexis. You could see the trajectory. I don't know if we ever really bounced back from the idea that the band weren't going up again. Up until that point, everything was getting bigger and bigger, and then one small step back was enough for us to realize it wasn't going to last forever.
Is it me or were you straight-up singing on this record instead of screaming?
There are a few moments of screaming, but it's mostly yelling kind of singing. Again, I think that was challenging for a lot of people, but I got to a point where I was in this corner screaming at the top of my lungs and I was getting older and I wasn't listening to a lot of music like that so I wanted to try something else. Some people will be receptive to it and allow you to make changes. Some won't.
2. Crisis (2006)
Not every song on this record is great, but as a whole it's the most concise thing I think we ever did. Stylistically, conceptually, and sonically it's tight and well thought out. It also marks the tippy top of the screamo glass ceiling for us. It was our biggest selling album, we got the most radio and video play, and we sold the most concert tickets—pre-break-up and get-back-together—than on any other Alexis record. Not that "lucrative" translates to "good." By that logic, McDonald's deserves the highest culinary honor, whatever that is. But I do feel like the success we had on this record was deserved.
We went to number one on the Canadian charts with a cover that depicts a man with hands deformed from frostbite, and a guy whose sole station in the band is to shriek at the top of his lungs. This record is a shining example of outlier musicians pushing the limits of what is acceptable and palatable to do in mainstream media. It's a decade old and it almost pushed Dog's Blood off the top of this list.
That must have been surprising when this went to number one in Canada with an album cover like that?
Yeah. That was our ceiling. That was as big as it was gonna get and we could see that. It's an aggressive sounding album but quite listenable. I guess it was surprising but it was all very surprising. When you start a band like this, your highest hopes are maybe playing to 200 kids one day. And then with Crisis we did nine shows where we progressively played bigger venues in Toronto. It was nuts. And especially with that album cover, it was an aggressive move on our part. I didn't expect that image to be on the cover and everyone jumped on it, like, "Let's make that the cover!"
On the band's website, you wrote that this was "a record full of crowd friendly choruses and straight up bangers." Was writing it that much different from the previous records?
I think we definitely wrote the album to be bangers. There is a lot of call and response, and there are a lot of big choruses that we knew would be soaring. We were touring very hard for those first two records. We felt more like a touring band than we did a studio band. So when we started writing songs, it's like we were planning what we'd do while we're playing live. Stuff like pulling out of a song and having the crowd sing the chorus for us. I think a lot of it had to do with us getting better playing live.
1. Dog's Blood (2010)
Why is this your favorite?
This is going to be upsetting for Alexis fans, mostly because I feel like it was a pretty unpopular record. It's also a bit of a weird record. Critics said it sounded kind of half cooked. The art [by Skinner] looks like it would be more fitting of a stoner rock band. The tracks themselves are strange: there are two fast thrash-y heavy bangers, one mid-tempo dirge and an instrumental. Dog's Blood is the literal translation of a Polish swear-word that you might utter under your breath if you saw this list and you were a stanch first four-year Alexis fan.
But here's why it's on the top: Listenability. I got a copy of this a few months back on cassette and I played it in my car and I found it to be extremely pleasing to listen to. Remember when I talked about doing mental backflips to justify liking a record when I talked about the first record? Well, this one requires the least mental backflips to justify why it's good. It just plays to the hips. I like the way it sounds more than anything else we have done.
What made you guys turn around and record another record so soon after Old Crows?
Well, we were on the road in the States and we had a few songs, so we decided to make an EP. We also wanted to do it with someone else, so we got Jon Drew, who has done a ton of amazing things with Toronto bands. He's a nice guy. I had met him when he was recording Fucked Up. I remember he was playing drums for Fucked Up when they opened for the Stooges, and Damian [Abraham] asked me to come out and do "Vivian Girls" with them. So me and Jon Drew met Iggy Pop together, and I thought we should definitely do something with him. It was just a quick and easy thing to do. I like this a lot. I did put it on top of the list. Well, probably just to be a contrarian, but I think it's pretty listenable. I think it may have been a sign of where we were headed next. It's aggressive and crazy, but I think the songwriting sounds mature.
Did you have any idea this would be the band's last record while you were making it?
No, I don't think so. I'm not sure that Dallas knew that either. He may have thought about the idea of going his own way. On that American tour, there was a lot of discussion about the future and what we were going to do next. We had no idea it would be our last. I think if people hadn't started moving away from the band we'd probably still be doing it. But that being said, I'm grateful that people didn't do that, because it forced me to shake up my life a whole lot in a positive way. And now I feel less and less like I need that. I can kind of keep it as something fun that I want to do when I feel like it.
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter - @yasdnilmac