To completely appreciate everything you have, sometimes you have to lose it. From the time he was a teenager to the end of his 20s, George Pettit made his living playing in one of the most respected and uncompromising bands to ever come out of Canada; Alexisonfire started out in the fiercely DIY Ontario punk underground and mushroomed into a platinum-shifting juggernaut. And then it all ended in 2012, leaving the singer with a wife, a kid, and a complete sense of panic about what the future held.
When he’s reached at home in Hamilton, Alexisonfire’s cofrontman acknowledges that he’s in a good place today, and not just because his band has parlayed a series of 2015 reunion shows into new music and a 2020 arena tour across the country. He’s grateful that he has plenty going on to fill up his calendar, mostly by working as a firefighter, a job that he decided he’d be good at after the band that had consumed most of his adult life sputtered out.
Asked to flash back to Alexisonfire calling it a day in 2012, Pettit recalls being almost paralyzed by stress, well aware he was going to have to do something to pay the bills for his young family. Tensions were running high within the band when it all came crashing down—emotions were tied into everything from the endless grind of the album-tour-album cycle to singer-guitarist and cofrontman Dallas Green having his solo career take off with his City and Colour project.
“It was ‘Holy fuck—what now?’ more so than relief,” Pettit recalls candidly of the disbanding. “We were 19 years old, we get into the van, and then we don’t get out of the van until we’re approaching 30. You spend 12 years playing shows, and then you’re suddenly faced with the reality that you have to rejoin society. I think we all struggled in our own way to figure out how to proceed after the band. And most of us kind of found something that worked for us. I had a new kid and a home and a wife, so I started writing down all of the things that I thought I might be able to do. You pick one, and then you kind of dive in.”
The trajectory of Alexisonfire convinced Petit that he’d be able to change careers with some degree of ease. The band blew up almost immediately after forming in St. Catharines, Ontario—initial offerings like “Pulmonary Archery” and “.44 Caliber Love Letter” delivered a blowtorch strain of posthardcore that was heavy, raw, and thrillingly vicious. Alexisonfire couldn’t have been more user-unfriendly from a commercial standpoint. That didn’t stop the band’s eponymous debut from going platinum, turning the group into an eventual stadium headliner at home and an emo-screamo standard-bearer around the world. It was that unlikely rise that helped Pettit navigate into the next phase of his life.
“Our approach to the band was that we went all-in right from the start,” he muses. “We kind of made lightning strike right away, so when we were done with the band I think we all thought we could do whatever we wanted—it was like, ‘Okay, just do it.’ ”
So Pettit did.
“I’ve been a full-time firefighter for five years now,” he says. “That’s more so my day-to-day than, you know, being the internationally jet-setting rocker. It’s more what I do now than Alexis. Mind you, Alexis is still very much part of my identity.”
And that’s increasingly the case in 2020. The return of Alexisonfire started with a handful of 2015 reunion shows, and the general consensus was that the band looked thrilled to be back after a bitter ending. Offers for comeback shows started trickling in long before the decision to test the waters with some initial one-offs. That people were still interested came as a surprise.
“So much of our career was keeping the plates spinning in the air,” Pettit notes. “You’re trying to keep everything going, so to do that you’re touring constantly to keep yourself in the public eye in one way or the other. When we let all that go, it was like, ‘There’s a thousand other bands waiting to take over the spotlight and step into the place that we were at.’ So we thought whatever we had going would be gone, or at least take a big hit. But it was the exact opposite. If anything, it was more beneficial to us to step away and give people some time. We didn’t need to come through town twice a year for people to be interested in us.”
A couple of 2019 singles (the metal-barbed grinder “Familiar Drugs” and gang-chant punk thumper “Complicit”) on Spotify proved Pettit, Green, guitarist Wade MacNeil, bassist Chris Steele, and drummer Jordan Hastings still had plenty to say. That was followed up earlier this month with the almost symphonic slowburner “Season of the Flood”, which suggests that Alexisonfire might spiral off into uncharted territory in the future.
The slow and deliberate way new material is being rolled out suggests lessons have been learned from the past. After redlining right from the start, Alexisonfire eventually burned out, writing and recording three full-lengths between 2004 and 2009 while maintaining a gruelling tour schedule. Pettit and his bandmates know today that the industry has undergone seismic changes over the past decade, creating viable alternatives to cranking out a new album every 24 months.
“If our outside lives were completely erased, it would be very easy for us to go and make a record,” Pettit says. “When we get into creative mode, it’s really productive. But the fact of the matter is that we’re five people who all have separate careers now, so it’s complicated. Aligning our schedules is hard, so we have to take little windows of opportunity to play shows or have practices. The creative bug is there, so we’ll probably make more stuff, but this model really works for us right now. Making an album would be incredibly time-consuming, and we’d have to disrupt a lot of things in our lives.
“Then pressure comes into things from a label standpoint,” he continues. “If you release an album, you can’t just play 10 shows a year. You gotta hit the road. So the current way of just releasing singles benefits us. I like it. We get to really focus in on each song. But that said, nothing’s written in stone. We haven’t had the big band meeting where we’ve been like, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen for the next year.’ ”
Whatever does happen, Alexisonfire is one of the lucky bands that’s gone away only to discover that it was legitimately missed.
Like pretty much all of us, Pettit has had moments where he's found himself seriously wondering what he was doing with his life. A particularly rough patch came beween the breakup of Alexisonfire and his successful transition to firefighting.
"There was a real low point," he acknowledges. "I did non-emergency transfer for a while. You're driving an ambulance, but not for emergencies—it's basically carting patients from one place to another. It was a good company, and the people that I worked for were very nice. But you didn't get paid much, and the hours were long and difficult. I remember sitting and waiting for a call in my uniform in an ambulance in the parking lot of a hospital. I was sitting there feeling like I was just spinning my wheels. Like 'I've put two and a half years of effort into this firefighting thing, and it's not going to pay off. And my band is done. Maybe I should just go and become a bartender, and I'll probably get paid more.' No disrespect to bartenders. I remember that being a particularly difficult time in my life. But looking back, I just pushed through it."
And that helps explain why Pettit is so grateful today, not only for what he once had, but also for what he has with Alexisonfire.
“I could speculate on why people are so interested in us in 2020, but the reality is that I really don’t know,” he confesses. “Maybe there’s not a lot in modern pop music or modern radio lately that really appeals to people, and we were one of the last few bands in Canada to be a weirdo, outsider band that broke into that world. Maybe people still want something that’s a little bit more original. That doesn’t necessarily mean heavy music. It’s just more that we still offer something different.”
Alexisonfire plays the Pacific Coliseum on Saturday (January 25).