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City and Colour: Embracing the Negative

June 3, 2013  |  1:07pm
City and Colour: Embracing the Negative

Dallas Green kept his secret for six months.

Sitting in a Boston hotel room shortly after playing a show with his screamo band Alexisonfire, Green shot off an e-mail to his management team letting them know he’d come to a decision: “I can’t do both anymore,” he wrote. “I can’t.”

At the time, January 2010, the then-30-year-old from St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada was trying desperately to simultaneously manage his two projects: The acoustic, ethereal and hopelessly catchy solo project City and Colour and the aggressive, melodic hardcore band Alexisonfire.

“It was on another bunch of squeezed-in Alexis shows in between City and Colour shows,” Green recalls of that night. “I remember playing the show in Boston. It was a wonderful show…and I hated it. I got back to the hotel and I was exhausted—mentally, physically and emotionally. I was just trying to squeeze everything in.”

Fearing he had made an emotional decision, he decided he would keep it private from his bandmates. This was not unusual behavior for Alexisonfire’s reserved, tattoo-covered co-frontman (screamer George Pettit rounded out the group’s vocal twosome)—he practically went out of his way to avoid informing the rest of the group of his other band’s existence. “Every time something good happened I wouldn’t tell anybody about it because I was worried that they would be mad at me,” he explains. “I think secretly everybody knew what was happening but no one wanted to talk about it.”

That May, on the last day of Alexisonfire’s last U.S. tour, Green and the group found themselves once again in Boston. As the rest of the members prepared to drive back towards the border, Green sheepishly informed the group he wouldn’t be joining them on the ride home. ’I’ve got to go to the airport,’ he explained. ‘I’ve got to do Carson Daly tomorrow.’ “They were like, ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know, I just didn’t know how to say it.’”

Green addresses this moment in, “Of Space and Time,” off City and Colour’s latest record, The Hurry and the Harm:

There’s an elephant in the back of the room,
And it’s standing in plain view,
Everyone can see,
That it looks just like me.

Now 32 and with considerably more gray hair than in his fringy Alexis days, Green is quick to point out that City and Colour, or a primitive form, at least, existed before Alexisonfire began performing in St. Catharines—a telecommunications and auto industry hub in Canada’s Niagara region—around 2001, but that one would not exist today without the other. As a young teenager, the boy named after the former Philadelphia Phillies manager played coffee houses around the city, selling copies of his basement demos to locals and friends. When Alexisonfire began to gain notoriety, those songs began to appear online.

“People tried to find stuff out about us and ultimately found these old songs that I had written and recorded in my basement that I would sell for a couple of bucks at a coffee shop or open mic night in St. Catharines,” Green remembers. “So people would come up to me and ask me about these songs that, at that time, I thought I would never play again.”

Soon, Alexis’ fervent fan base—a staple for any emo band—began demanding more of Green’s mellow, personal tunes.

“Ultimately it came down to: ‘People are interested in these old songs, I should go and record good versions of some of them and then record new songs that I had that were on the side,’ and that’s what the first City and Colour record would become,” he says.

Titled Sometimes (“I called it Sometimes because it was something I did sometimes.”), City and Colour’s 2005 Canadian debut wouldn’t come out in America for another four years, but in his native Canada, its lead single, the jangly “Save Your Scissors,” would eclipse anything Alexisonfire had or would put out.

Green can recall the exact moment he realized his little side-project had struck a chord with the popular culture. He was on tour with Alexisonfire in Edmonton, Alberta when he decided to take a stroll through the West Edmonton Mall—North America’s largest. Walking on the second story of the massive complex, he noticed a skating rink below and paused to watch the figureskaters perform a routine.

“I was watching it for a minute, and then I started to focus and realized ‘Save Your Scissors’ was on the loudspeaker. They were figureskating to that song,” he says, a hint of amazement still lingering in his voice. “That was the moment I realized this had got out of control.”

Still, Green insists, even with his newfound solo notoriety, “there was no idea that I would just leave the band.”

“I did both for nearly six years,” he says. “And even though City and Colour grew and grew and grew, I still would always go back and do Alexis tours and records.”

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Dallas Green officially announced his resignation from Alexisonfire in the summer of 2010, shortly after the Carson Daly appearance, in which he performed “Waiting…” (Chorus: “Say goodbye to love and hold your head up high.”) off his second album and U.S. debut, Bring Me Your Love.

Upon Green’s return home, the band held a meeting to discuss their plans for the rest of the year.

“‘I’m going to leave the band at the end of the year,” he announced. Guitarist Wade MacNeil left the room in frustration, Green recalls. “I thought for second that Wade and I may not be friends anymore.”

It would be just under a year before Alexisonfire officially publically announced their break-up via a posting on the band’s website.

“There is no good way to put it so I’m just going to say it. After ten years, Alexisonfire has decided to part ways,” Pettit wrote before outlining the series of events that had led to the reveal. “Was the breakup amicable? Not really,” he concluded. “Was it necessary? Probably.”

“The media took that and ran with it,” Green says. “But George was telling the truth. If you had asked any of them, if you ask any of them right now, if they had preferred I stayed in the band they would all say ‘Yes.’ So when I left the band it was not amicable. But I didn’t leave the band because we hated each other; it was because I decided I needed to do this on my own.”

“I knew the position I was putting them in,” he continues. “I obviously had a backup plan. I knew what I was going to do. That’s why I also appreciated that they didn’t want to announce it yet until they figured out what they were going to do.”

So, for the record, why did he leave the band?

“The main reasoning behind me leaving Alexisonfire was because I didn’t feel I was there creatively anymore. Not because of success on my own. It’s because musically City and Colour was where I was at, and I felt like, for myself, I needed to focus on one direction. If I didn’t I knew that I would be forcing another Alexisonfire record.” Green states. “I knew that, ultimately, I would look back and resent the years that I knew I needed to leave.”

For a man who prides himself on honest, emotional songwriting, it’s telling that it would take nearly three years for Green to address his feelings about the band’s breakup in his songs, which he does for more or less the first time on The Hurry and The Harm. Free from the pressure of presenting band polarity, his first post-Alexis album, 2011’s Little Hell, allowed Green to explore a fuller band sound, tested while opening arena gigs with P!NK, and exposed on the album’s seductive first sing, ‘Fragile Bird”—a song about his wife’s nightmares whose video is fittingly NSFW.

Green’s wife, Leah Miller, also acts as muse for his latest record, though in a more round-about manner.

Green met his future wife on television. The blonde actress had just begun working as a video jockey on Canadian music channel MuchMusic when she was assigned to cover an Alexisonfire video shoot. “We didn’t really keep in touch, just said hi whenever I was at Much,” Green recalled in a 2009 interview. “But Valentines Day 2006 I got an email from her saying ‘Happy Valentine’s Day,’ and I returned the message; we went on a date.”

“She doesn’t care that I’m Dallas Green from City and Colour and I don’t care that she’s Leah Miller from television. And we never did, even though we met on television,” Green says today. “Probably from the first date we went on we could tell that it didn’t matter; that we just liked each other for each other.”

The pair were married on New Year’s 2009 in a private ceremony, but with Green constantly on tour and Miller’s career taking off, the singer/songwriter says the couple have had a hard time finding time for each other.

“We would see each other never,” he says. “We missed out on a lot, and our relationship missed out on a lot. I remember talking to her one day in the thick of it, at this point we’d been together about six years and married for a few, and we realized that in that span we realized that we had never spent more than a month straight together. That’s fucked. So that was a whole another set of problems.”

Towards the end of his tenure with Alexisonfire, Green and Miller began spending more time in Los Angeles, where they were regularly photographed with Miller’s friend, Hilary Duff—a topic he discusses on The Hurry and the Harm track “The Golden State.”

“Occasionally spending time in that L.A. world and being as close to it with Hil as we are, it gives me a lot of insight into how I absolutely don’t want it,” Green explains. “I remember the first time I went out to dinner with Hil and there was paparazzi following her everywhere. I thought, ‘I can’t fucking handle this.’ And she was like, ‘You can’t say anything to them.’”

“That had a lot to do with that song ‘Golden State.’ That song is ironic, it’s tongue and cheek and it’s basically saying, ‘it’s not for me.’”

These days, Green, who lives in Toronto, where Miller is a host for the Canadian E! channel, says he’s considering moving to Nashville.

He fell in love with the city while recording The Hurry and The Harm there with a brand new group of musicians, which included Pearl Jam drummer Matt Chamberlin, My Morning Jacket keyboardist Bo Koster, former Hacienda and Dan Auerbach guitarist Dante Schwebel, and Raconteurs/Dead Weather bassist Jack Lawrence.

“When Dan Auerbach moved his studio to Nashville, Jack White challenged him to a fight—two Midwestern, white, blues guys, there can only be one, that kind of thing,” Green smirks. “I like to joke with them that the Canadian had to come in to bridge the gap.”

On the other hand, the new group also meant that Green once again dumped his old bandmates. Understandably, it’s a touchy subject for the singer/songwriter but one which speaks to the heart of his artistic process.

“I’ve learned to be more comfortable with who I am—this weird, self-deprecating, never-satisfied person,” he says. “As hurtful as it can be and as difficult as it has been on my relationships with certain people in my life I know that creatively I always need to be moving forward. Sometimes that means leaving people behind.

“I take solace in someone like Neil Young who’s renowned as this guy that’s difficult to work with because at the drop of a hat he could move into something else and leave a bunch of people, but he follows what he feels is the direction he needs to be going in. I think I’m learning more and more that that’s who I am and that’s what I need to do.”

It’s not an easy pill to swallow for a man who prides himself and his music on intense honesty, but it’s one that weighs heavily on his new album, which led the singer/songwriter into some really dark places.

“I read this Louis C.K. interview about sadness, and he said it’s okay to feel sad,” he says. “Sadness is a good feeling to feel. It makes you feel something as opposed to living this clouded life of happiness, which life isn’t. It isn’t that.”

“The way that I am pisses people off,” he admits. “They say, ‘You’ve been successful, you should just be this happy guy.’ Well I’m just fucking not. I’m just not.”

Instead, Green says that he’s learned to “embrace the negative.” It’s this philosophy that he credits for being able to finally open up about his experience breaking up with Alexisonfire; after all, it led to the group’s surprise 15-date international farewell reunion tour that took place at the end of 2012.

“I think the fact that we have rekindled our relationship and did that last tour allows me to speak about it,” Green acknowledges. “I did feel responsible for them, but now we became friends again and we had the tour I can start dealing [with what happened].”

Over 15 years since he first performed in the coffee houses of St. Catharines, it sounds like Dallas Green is finally able to once again look toward the future without the albatross of his past decisions hanging around his neck.

“When I was younger I felt like maybe when I was 40 years old I’d retire with the acoustic guitar; that was my retirement project.” He smiles. “When you’re in a bigger band you forget that without people listening to you you’re nothing. You’re just another fucking guy with a guitar, and there’s enough of those out there. And there’s enough people out there trying to be the biggest and the best and thinking they’re god’s gift.

“I thankfully don’t think that way. I just write the songs.”

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