On the eve of the Southern Ontario screamo kings’ final shows ever, friends and fans—including Fucked Up’s Damian Abraham, Billy Talent’s Ian D’Sa, and the Cancer Bats’ Liam Cormier—reflect on the band’s incredible impact and influence.
A decade after its self-titled debut album brought Southern Ontario’s vital screamo scene to national attention, three years since its last record cracked the top 100 on Billboard, and 16 months since singer George Petitt announced on the band’s website they had “decided to part ways,” Alexisonfire will play its final shows this week: four sold-out nights at the Sound Academy on Dec. 26-29, followed by a final performance at Hamilton’s Copps Coliseum on Dec. 30.
It’s a bit of a Christmas present for the generation of local punk-rock kids who grew up with Alexisonfire. Those who followed the band’s rise—from long-gone all-ages spaces to the Kathedral and the Kool Haus, onto the Warped Tour and Edgefest, and all the way to the Air Canada Centre—responded to the break-up by begging for a chance to experience the show one more time, to have a proper goodbye. And so the band is on a farewell tour that, over the past three weeks, has hit the U.K., Brazil, Australia, and across Canada. (Death Letter, a six-song EP of old songs re-worked and newly recorded is also out now.)
Pettit and co. have been pretty direct about the reasons for their split: singer Dallas Green was tired of juggling two full-time bands once his City and Colour project took off, and guitarist Wade McNeil was eager to accept an offer to join Britain’s Gallows as lead singer. And so rather than ask the band (which also includes bassist Chris Steele and drummer Jordan Hastings) to reopen their break-up wounds, we decided to talk to those who know them best for one last look back at the life and legacy of Alexisonfire.
2001-2002: Basement beginnings
Call it post-hardcore or melodic hardcore if you want but, back in 2001, the sound was simply known as screamo. And of all the bands bashing it out in basements across the Niagara Region, no one pushed the sonic territory of duelling screaming/singing vocalists over spastic, aggressive riffs into more exciting spaces than five teenagers from St. Catharines who named themselves after a lactating contortionist.
LIAM CORMIER (Vocalist, Cancer Bats): I first met George because he was wearing an Evil Dead t-shirt at a show; I think it was at the Pine Room in Oakville. I just walked up to him, said “nice shirt,” and we were friends. We went to all the local hardcore shows back then. Moneen, The Fullblast, Jerk Circus, Everytime I Die, or Love Lost But Not Forgotten would come to town and we’d all be there.
JOEL CARRIERE (Alexisonfire manager; owner of Dine Alone Records): I was about 20, DJing in clubs, and promoting shows, and [the Alexisonfire guys] were in bands I used to go see. I was always impressed by these 15-year-olds throwing their own punk-rock shows, really organizing themselves, and creating a scene. Dallas was in Helicon Blue, which kind of sounded like a grunge version of Mogwai. Wade and Steele and Jesse [Ingelevics, original drummer] were in these punk bands and George was in a thrash/death metal band. Their first few practices as Alexis, I believe, were in Wade’s parents’ basement. Shortly thereafter, they did one of their first shows in Niagara Falls. I don’t think Dallas faced the audience. I remember watching it, kind of confused, at all the elements coming together, and thinking it was rather wild and new.
LIAM: I don’t remember the club I saw them at for the first time, but there was definitely no stage. It was just a PA on a table. George had long hair. There was such awesome brutality in the music but also friendly, positive energy. It was a cool time in Southern Ontario, because lots of bands were starting up, these newer screamo bands that were following up with what Grade had done. Alexis was part of that.
KYLE BISHOP (Vocalist, Grade): I was probably horrified, to be honest. Our band, we were for the most part giant outcasts. I never thought that what we did was very good, so why would anyone else want to sound like that?
JOEL: When people started asking what the music sounded like, we had a hard time describing it. We would go, “What’s your favourite band? Oh, it’s like that… but heavier.” “Bad Religion? Oh, we’re like Bad Religion, but heavier.”
SAM SUTHERLAND (Former assistant editor, Exclaim!; Author, Perfect Youth: the Birth of Canadian Punk): They were this swirling rumour of an amazing hardcore band from the Niagara region. Where I was, in Etobicoke, we didn’t know if they were called “Alex is on Fire” or “Alexis On Fire.” We had heard two songs on MySpace or somewhere on the internet that were absolutely fucking mind-blowing. A lot of bands coming up were doing the screaming/singing thing, basically ripping off Grade, but I never thought [Alexisonfire] were remotely derivative of anybody. They had Iron Maiden guitars! Well, like Iron Maiden with Kyle Bishop singing! Aesthetically, they were unique. They were coming from a scene that was very codified, and had rules about beards and haircuts and pants. They abided by none of those rules.
JOEL: We begged and begged [promoter] Ewan Exall to put us on one of his free Wednesday-night shows at Lee’s Palace. Not many people knew who we were, so I was just rounding up industry people. The guys from Billy Talent were there.
IAN D’SA (Guitarist, Billy Talent): We had just signed a publishing deal with EMI. Greg Below, the in-house engineer at EMI, told us to check out this band playing at Lee’s. There wasn’t that many people there, but it was kind of like a showcase. I had never seen anything like it. George had climbed the ladder at the side of the stage and jumped off of it at the end of the set. They were awesome. It was different from what was popular then in Canada: the pop-punk sound.
JOEL: We always had these sayings. Like, we want to be the biggest band we can possibly be, but on our own terms. We weren’t willing to compromise. Some bands will say, “Yes! Yes!” to get things going, then complain afterwards. We were up front in telling everyone to basically fuck off.
2002-2004: A video turns Alexisonfire into punk-rock stars
The band described its self-titled debut album (released September 2002 on Distort Entertainment) as “the sound of two Catholic high-school girls in mid knife fight”—not something you’d expect to top the MuchMusic Countdown. But with the arrival of the video for “Pulmonary Archery” by director Marc Ricciardelli, that’s exactly what happened.
DAMIAN ABRAHAM (Vocalist, Fucked Up): I had moved into a new apartment and Rogers had that free-cable-for-the-first-few-months thing, so we had all the channels. Alexisonfire were on all the time. It was shocking! It was the first band with screaming vocals that I’d ever seen on MuchMusic. I don’t think people can appreciate now how you just did not hear someone in a band yell on TV.
CRAIG HALKETT (Former Senior Music Programmer, MuchMusic): I’ve always been a believer that the best music pisses off your parents. When I first saw the video for “Pulmonary Archery,” it blew me out of the water. There was that incredible edge, but also an underlying melody, a great song to it. Some people thought it might be too heavy. And, certainly, in terms of upper management, I was going out on limb. But kids were embracing them online in so many ways I thought, “I’d like to do this”: to throw something completely out of left field into rotation.
CRISTINA FERNANDES (Publicist): Getting “Pulmonary” on the air was a big deal. Because some of the band was still in high school, they really couldn’t tour.
CRAIG: I remember we had them on live at 3 p.m. for an interview and George had to skip school to be there.
JOEL: This pre-dates Broken Social Scene or the new wave of indie music, remember. It was funny at radio, also: They were too afraid to play us, but they had no problem presenting every single one of our shows, because we had the kids.
CRISTINA: There was a lot head scratching at radio. They were not familiar with this kind of music.
IAN: Music-industry people would say that there’s no way you could play that on radio. It was more of a live-performance experience, for people of that generation.
SAM: The first time I saw them live was at the Kathedral, right when the first record was blowing up and MuchMusic was playing “Pulmonary Archery.” People were losing their fucking minds. I think there was an equal amount of curiosity from people who had just seen a totally new thing on television and people who had been there from the beginning. There was real enthusiasm for something that felt like music of the moment. It belonged to us.
JASON GRANT (Promoter, Live Nation): I’m from Vancouver, and that’s where I first saw Alexisonfire. I think it was their first ever tour to the coast, about nine years ago, a show at the Croatian Cultural Centre. I was just kind of amazed at the power that was coming off the stage. It was anarchy. And I was equally amazed by the legions of teenagers, a lot of them girls, who didn’t fit the stereotype of what a punk-rock fan looked like at the time, who were completely head over heels devoted to what the band was doing. Punk/emo/screamo gigs had a hard time in Vancouver, but this was like hardcore had finally gained mass appeal—it was a revelation.
SEAN MCNABB (Former tour manager; bassist, The Creepshow): My old band, Jersey, toured the east coast of Canada with Alexis. I actually couldn’t understand why kids were going nuts over them. We ended up sharing a bus on the Warped Tour and we had a blast. I remember them playing a stage that was way too small, and their crowd was so big and crazy that the stage almost collapsed. After Warped, Wade asked if I would be their tour manager. It started with a sold-out show at the Opera House for the release of [2004’s] Watch Out. I was watching from side stage and, as soon as they started, the crowd exploded — every person in that room knew every word to every song. It gave me goosebumps. There was this weird, amazing connection this band had with the kids, something I hadn’t seen before. I finally “got it.”
SAM: I went to see them at the Opera House with some university friends. Alexis played last, and after Moneen, which we all thought was a mistake. Moneen had signed to Vagrant and it seemed they would be the band to break, because Alexis was just too weird. Then Alexis just came out and eclipsed every other band that played that night in such a dramatic fashion. It was one of the best shows we’d ever seen. From there, they became one of the biggest bands in Canada.
2005-2010: Music for the masses
A Juno award for Band of the Year. A third album, Crisis, that entered the Canadian charts at No. 1. The emergence of Dallas Green’s solo acoustic project, City and Colour, as its own musical force. It was a very good time to be a fan of Alexisonfire.
JASON: It became obvious the only way to accommodate the numbers of people that they needed to speak to was to keep putting them in a bigger and bigger box: Kool Haus, Arrow Hall, Edgefest at the Molson Amphitheatre… I feel like a key to their growth and success was related to what stellar musicians they all were. Sometimes, that kind of stuff gets lost in the energy of bands from their scene but, for them, it gave them room to expand beyond the confines of the genre and pull even more people in.
KYLE: As time went on, the band really developed from their anemic beginnings into something really tight and fantastic. The songwriting came together, the vocals came together. A lot of bands become good as they age. With Alexis, they became great.
IAN: I saw both of our bands starting to get nods in the music industry, like Junos and MMVAs—that’s when it made me think it was almost becoming mainstream.
SAM: There were so many things that could have been done to make the band more palatable, to endear themselves to the Ben Mulroneys of the world. That never happened. They didn’t just put Dallas in the centre and relegate George to the bridge parts. George told me about getting invited to the MMVAs. The first year they went and had a good time, but the second year it was on Father’s Day so he just went and played bocce ball with his dad. They didn’t give a shit about music-industry frivolity.
DAMIAN: Fucked Up used to play the falafel place on Queen Street; I remember them coming to our show there. Kids were acting like, “What are they doing here?!” They were legitimate rock stars at that point, but they were still coming to shows, crashing on people’s floors after.
JASON: In the winter of 2006, they played six shows in six nights in Toronto. They wanted to celebrate their journey to date and recreate it, in miniature, for the fans. Billy Talent did a surprise opening set at the Reverb. It was insane. Not a lot of bands want to go back and play the dirtiest, crappiest-PA club that they could find in the town, but the Reverb kind of qualified at that point, and they were psyched about it. We made these custom posters for them to celebrate: “Six sold-out shows, 9,000 tickets, and, on the seventh day, Alexisonfire rested.”
IAN: Both Billy Talent and Alexisonfire were big enough that we could play a place like the Air Canada Centre. It was our second time there when they opened for us, in 2010, with the Cancer Bats. Here we were, starting out at the Masonic Lodge in Streetsville that holds 150 people—to see it get to that [ACC] level was insane. We watched them play every night. It made me feel a sense of pride that a band like that could come from here and get that kind of response.
DAMIAN: My favourite memory was going to see City and Colour play for the first time, at Harbourfront Centre. I went with George, but all the guys were there. Walter [Schreifels] from Quicksand was opening. This guy was a hero of mine growing up, and he was there hanging around these guys I know, from my Toronto scene, talking to them like peers. That really showed me how important this band was going to be, ultimately.
2011 to infinity
The band members already knew their 2009 album, Old Crow/Young Cardinals, would be their last, but the world had to wait until August 5, 2011 for official confirmation that Alexisonfire was, indeed, over. And then, a year later: the announcement of one last tour. See you there.
SEAN: I was living with Wade and his girlfriend when I heard the band was breaking up. I was bummed about it, but some of the guys had other things going on, and all good things must come to an end, I guess.
DAMIAN: I was kind of shocked. But with Dallas having two full-time bands, you knew there would be a breaking point. I was bummed out. But I thought they’d get back together. But now it really is forever. There is no tawdry side of it, at least. No drug problems. No violent blow-out. It ends in a classy way, with a victory lap.
IAN: We played with them in St. Catharines at what was supposed to be their last show [in 2010]. It was around Christmas, and so we could all get together, we were all home. The Bats played, too, and we all got to hang out together backstage. But it was sad, also. Everyone was biting their tongues about the break-up.
JOEL: There was a little bit of a negativity near the end. But we—a bunch of kids from St. Catharines—accomplished a few amazing moments, together, as friends. No matter what was going on, the relationship was based around trust and having lots of fun.
LIAM: Everyone will always remember Alexisonfire and Billy Talent as the two bands that brought heavy music to the forefront and broke that scene wide open in this country. Cancer Bats wouldn’t be where we are in the world without Alexisonfire. One of these days, I’m going to get an Alexisonfire heart-skull tattoo.
KYLE: Previous to them, Canadian content was pretty lame, palatable stuff. Then you had Alexis come in, George shredding his larynx and smashing his face against the wall. They destroyed everything. And a lot of people gravitated to that, and I’ve never seen that happen in Canada before. They opened up the door for a lot of bands to be appreciated, and brought a whole new group of people into punk rock.
JASON: These December farewell shows speak volumes. They’re going to play for 20,000 people in the GTA to say goodbye. It shows how many lives they touched here for many years. What a powerful communion they created each night. I felt proud to have played a role in bringing the band and fans together. They deserved each other.
SAM: I’m happy knowing there is not going to be a carcass of a band that I care about trotted out in front of me for the next decade. I’m disappointed, because Old Crows, Young Cardinals is my favourite record of theirs and I would love to know what would have come next. But I know that whatever they do—City and Colour, Gallows, whatever George does—they’ll be where they want to be, not doing something just for a fucking paycheque. The success of a band like Alexisonfire proves you can play the music you want to play, hang out with your friends, and not fuck everyone else over. Nine times out of 10, it won’t pan out, but you will always be satisfied and proud of what you’ve done.