Following on the heels of the widely-accepted shitstorm that was 2016, you most certainly don’t need a punk rock news website to break to you the fact that 2017 has been a bit of a weird year. In many ways, both nationally and globally, there seem to be a lot of previously uncharted waters being navigated socially, politically, environmentally, and on and on and on. Yet just because waters are uncharted doesn’t mean that they have to be inherently bad. Enter The Flatliners. Weird though it might be, the calendar turning to 2017 kicked off a series of fairly important milestones in the history of the long-running Canadian punk rock quartet. All four members turn thirty this year. The band itself turns fifteen, and their highly-regarded Fat Wreck Chords debut, The Great Awake, turns ten.
2017 also marked the release of the band’s fifth full-length album, Inviting Light, which as you’re probably well-enough aware by now, marks a bit of a departure for a couple noteworthy reasons: while it still contains its fair share of snarling, aggressive moments, is easily the most anthemic “rock-and-roll” album in the band’s catalog. IT also marks their first album on a new label, Rise Records, after a decade on pioneering punk rock label Fat Wreck Chords.
Dying Scene chatted over the phone with Flatliners frontman Chris Cresswell just before the band left for their current eastern US tour with new SideOneDummy signee Pkew Pkew Pkew and Red City Radio‘s Garrett Dale. Cresswell is honest and engaging, even over the telephone; his frequently digressing rapid fire delivery could fool one into believing he comes from Boston Irish stock (were it not for the fact that he’s charming and humble and self-aware and so obviously Canadian). Cresswell and his Flatliners brothers are very aware that this is a big year for them, and they’re very aware of what some of the grumblings on the message boards and comment sections of the internet might opine about their band’s recent direction. They also come across as okay with all of it. “I’m always curious what people think when we put something new out, for sure, and sometimes that’s difficult,” says Cresswell. He’s also well aware that, while paying attention to some of the critics is okay, there has to be a bit of a balance. “You can’t get caught up in what other people think, because if that were the case, bands would make the same record over and over again. Filmmakers would make the same movie over and over again. The arts would suffer if you always listened to your critics. It’s not a great idea to shut them out either, because it is nice to have that push to always be better no matter what you’re doing in life.”
Due in part to the landmark nature of this particular year within the band, Cresswell and company (the band’s lineup of Scott Brigham on lead guitar, Jon Darbey on bass and Paul Ramirez on drums remains unchanged for the duration) figured it was as good a time as any to mix things up. “You do the same thing for fifteen years as a band, and ten years with the same label, even if it’s all good, there’s a part of you that wonders if there’s something else you could try,” says Cresswell. He’s more than aware of how the move from Fat to Rise Records might look, particularly as Inviting Light has a bit of a different sound. None of those rumblings are true. This is 2017; it’s not about money, it’s not about their old label declining to put it out or their new label influencing their sound. It’s really just about branching out as a band. “When you grow up on fucking Fat Wreck Chords bands and then you become one and you are one for ten years and you reach a level of personal success and fulfillment that you never dreamed to be a reachable or realistic at all, it kind of inspires you to be like “this is cool…what do we do now?” and that kind of thing.”
The band had fun — a lot of it — recording Inviting Light, and in spite of the extended space between albums (their last full length, Dead Language, was released four years ago) they actually recorded it fairly quickly, albeit in two separate chunks a year apart. Where Dead Language was recorded live in studio using only the band’s road gear, the Inviting Light sessions saw the band change things up in that avenue too. Drums and bass were still recorded live because, well, because that’s how Jon and Paul seem to groove the best. They initially “played everything live but we just kept the bass and drums, and when Paul and Jon lock up, it’s insane. It’s incredible. In the two sessions we did which were essentially a year apart, they did twenty songs in like four days!” When it came time to record guitars and vocals, however Cresswell and Brigham holed up in a new studio with new producers Peter Pablo and Derek Hoffman and got experimental, playing with tones and textures until dialing working sounds in and ripping through final takes.
The result, as you know by now, is different; more major chords, more melodic, more straight-forward, a little more dare-we-say optimistic, especially when compared to Dead Language. As you might imagine, there’s a reason for that. Says Cresswell: “Before this record, I was in a pretty shit place. If you listened to or read any of the lyrics to Dead Language, it’s pretty fucking bleak, and that’s why that record is so angry and has such heavy elements to it. I was going through a heavy time on a personal level. Nothing dangerous, but I was having a really hard time being away all the time.“
Lyrically speaking, Cresswell has tended to paint a bit of an admittedly bleak picture. Even as a native of the Toronto area, living as a socially-aware human in the wake of last year’s US Presidential election has been bleak in-and-of itself. “There’s a lot of evil in the world, especially with what’s happened over the last couple years on a global scale.” We’ve all seen the think-pieces on how the age of Trump will at least inspire some good, angry punk rock, and we’ve already started to see aggressive, confrontational “punk” rock albums come out and tackle those issues head on. Though this may be counter-intuitive to a stereotypical punk rock ethic, maybe there are ways to attack the issue that are less in-your-face. Cresswell offers that maybe his band’s way of trying to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel — hence Inviting Light — can help some people through a bullshit time, though he acknowledges with a self-deprecating laugh how “super fucking noble” that concept sounds. “If you can be, even to a small population of people, somebody who can help them through a tough time, that’s sick! That’s what music did for me when I was a kid and it still does it for me today!“
Reflecting on being away for weeks or months at a time has been an ongoing thing as Cresswell and the Flatliners round the corner on 30 years old, particularly when you’re as inward thinking as the frontman is. Any potential ego trips are balanced — and probably eliminated — by what Cresswell calls a “rabbit hole of a self-imposed guilt trip that’s usually at play in a lot of folks who tour a lot because it is a pretty self-serving thing that we do!” The older the band gets, the older their respective family members and close friendships get, meaning additional priorities and perspectives become factored into the increasingly difficult equation. Still, especially in the punk world, the pull of the road doesn’t go away just because you’re no longer in your twenties. “There’s this insatiable desire in us to just hit the road. For instance, if you play Chicago and no one fucking comes, you’re going to go back like three months later and play there again. Punk bands are the only bands that will keep going back and playing even if no one fucking comes out, because it’s just about the experiences of the road, and being away, and the story and just fucking living in a van for real!“
While the runs might get a little shorter or more spread out, hitting the road is still very much what this whole thing is about for Cresswell and The Flatliners. So far, 2017 has seen the band already complete tours of Canada with bands like The Dirty Nil and, of course, Weezer, and Europe with their longtime buds in The Menzingers. The aforementioned tour with Pkew Pkew Pkew and Garrett Dale showcases just how varied the bands that fall under the umbrella of punk rock have become, in an inspiring way. Changes in the music industry landscape have equated to differing changes, and like many of us, Cresswell knows that when it comes to one band’s sound or one person’s musical interests, “your brain musically doesn’t have to stay in one lane. You can be into whatever you want to be into. I know today there’s a lot of pressure and social anxiety is through the roof and there’s a reason for it. Day to day, it can be a tough world to live in for a lot of people, you know? But where you should be able to find solitude is in the music you’re into if you’re a music fan. You shouldn’t have to worry about what other people think.”
Check out our full conversation below. There’s a lot of other ground covered, particularly surrounding the band’s decision to leave Fat Wreck Chords – and the yearlong process of actually leaving: “It felt like a break-up, man. It was so sad… I’m just happy that we were able to go about it in a way that everybody is still friends. There’s no bad blood fucking whatsoever.” Check out all of the Flatliners upcoming tour dates here.