Photos by Yoshi Cooper
Rooster's Coffee House sits on the east side of Toronto, peering out over the sprawl of Riverdale Park. Inside, the shop is stuffy; light pours in through the all-glass storefront like outstretched arms. Chris Cresswell strides in with a cartoonishly positive gait. "It's gorgeous outside," he prompts. We settle on musty steel chairs under a bare tree's branches. A bomber jacket draped across his shoulders, he tucks his legs under his chair, taking his tinted Ray Bans off and putting them on again, slicked hair shining in the sun. His smile is charming and warm; he seems genuinely happy today, peering around the patio.
Cresswell, the tattooed, guitar-slinging growler that fronts Toronto punk band The Flatliners, is a relatively new resident on the east side, after moving from his longtime west-side apartment. He's fascinated by the shift in scenery. "I was cruising up here and I saw a Volkswagen Jetta with a Grateful Dead sticker on the back. That's the kind of shit you see around here!" he roars with laughter. He moved to his new neighbourhood in 2015, a change that saw him thrown from the warm embrace of his west end bubble. His friends, his bars, his work, it was all at arm's reach. "If I had a wedding to go to, I even had a dry cleaner in a five minute walking radius from my house," he says. "And it was weird." He's contented to be seeing things from a different angle.
Cresswell and The Flatliners are celebrating a big year. The band turns 15 this year, having been founded back in 2002. When Cresswell, guitarist Scott Brigham, drummer Paul Ramirez and bassist Jon Darbey started the band, they were 15. The four friends at the core of the band all turn 30 this year, and Cresswell is optimistic about it. "Life is a beautiful thing, and I'm excited to be older than 30. Things just sink in a little more," he explains. The Flatliners are releasing their fifth studio record, Inviting Light, on April 7, their first for Rise Records in the US, and their second for Dine Alone after last year's EP Nerves.
It's a typically transient year for The Flats. "It's equal parts exciting and terrifying, only because artists are very dramatic people," Cresswell says of releasing the record with new label personnel, but somehow it rings with crossover applicability. "It's so fucking lame to say it's a new chapter, so I'm not going to say that. It just feels like we're onto something." After what Cresswell dubs "two chill years," they're back with new music. The relaxed years were a necessity. "You don't want to travel because you have to do it, because then that's that sad old travelling salesman who never sees his family and hates travelling," Cresswell relates. "I don't want to get to that point." After a few reconfigurations, they found a rhythm that works. "The fire has been lit again," he says.
Inviting Light is just the latest in a series of metamorphoses for a band that's constantly reinvented itself. Cresswell is more open to change than most. "People are so used to the thing they grew up on," he remarks. "It's a funny thing. With every record you put out, people will never like the new one as much as the last one. It's this weird game of catch-up." That's a routine The Flatliners are well-versed in by now (last year's "MAKE THE FLATLINERS SKA AGAIN" campaign perked the ears of Destroy To Create-era Flats fans, although Cresswell notes it was their own fault: "We're going to live to regret that," he snorts.) For a band that's worn a few different hats, from ska-punk to skate-punk to pop-punk, genre purists have had a hard time adapting. "People tend to freak out a little bit when you change things," Cresswell shrugs. "If you turn one dial a little too much one way, people get a little weird." Genre dogmatism is a fickle game at best, and certainly not worth losing sleep over. "My roots have always been in punk, but you shouldn't have to be worried about what part of the umbrella something falls under to tell you if you like it or not," he asserts. "The perception that you want to put out there is always going to be different from what people are picking up on. The way you put it together, write it, the way it makes you feel and what it's about to you, is going to be different to everyone. And that's an exciting thing about art."
Growing up in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto, he explains how his older brother got him into punk music by way of skateboarding. He says it was "the classic case of, you always want to be as cool as your older brother." He inherited all his brother's CDs and tapes, stamped with Epitaph and Fat Wreck logos. "I went so far down that rabbithole that I'm still down there," he chuckles. "That first taste was like you dipped your toes in the pool, then before you knew it, you were drowning in the deep end. But you weren't asking for help to get out."
The new record is arguably as radical as The Flatliners have ever been. Cresswell's writing is lacerating and harsh; oscillating between pointing inward and outward. But his voice is softer, more nuanced and melodic—though, his trademark gutterball roar comes out often. The music is thoughtful: their frenetic, "New Years Resolutions"-level tempo is kicked down a couple notches, and Cresswell and Brigham spin concentrated, excited, major-key riffs throughout. "We had so much more time to think about stuff, to write this way, to write the old way." He pauses and shakes his head. "There's really no new or old way, because you're always just kind of breaking the whole thing down and starting over again with every record."
But Chris Cresswell has never been a mope. "There's always been that 'light at the end of the tunnel' vibe in my lyrics," he says. "It's a brighter record." Indeed, Inviting Light is, as its' title suggests, a chaser to the dark heft of 2013's Dead Language, starting with opener, "Mammals." It stirs awake with a brooding, ominous chug, before ratcheting up the tempo and adding a pounding, sunshiney riff. "It serves as a great bridging point from Dead Language to Inviting Light," Cresswell maintains.
Cresswell tells me had an appendectomy a week earlier, which pissed him off cause he was confined to laying around and watching TV. It's abundantly clear that he isn't allowing anything to slow him down or restrict him. The song "Human Party Trick" talks about his frustration with expectations to play a part. "There are a lot of times on the road where I just want to be left alone, to put it bluntly," he says simply. He is not a party-boy Energizer Bunny. "It's something I struggle with, where I'm like, 'I don't want to be a dick [to fans], but I just want to go to bed. I don't want to do a shot or chug a beer." He grins, adding, "Because I'm already fuckin' drunk."
Cresswell is adhering to a trend of reassessing and taking stock. "These are the things you do when you're almost 30," he smiles. He says the milestones hit home in bits and pieces; not in some grand awakening, but in passing moments, before soundcheck in Japan, or in the van in British Columbia, or on a flight to Europe. "It has a lasting impact when you look back and reflect on what you've accomplished and the fact that you've done this with your friends you've had since you were a kid," he says. But it's never allowed to last. "It's a momentary thing where you stop, and you realize, 'Wow, this is incredible… Oh shit, what do I have to do now.'"
Such is The Flatliners way. It seems admittedly Sisyphean. "We're more excited about this than ever before," Cresswell starts, "but we're always excited about the new one more than the last one, so I've probably said this exact same thing for Dead Language, for [2010's] Cavalcade…" Somehow, after 15 years, they're still finding new ground. "We're in pretty deep now," he remarks. "But I still feel like we're working towards this goal. We're always just shy of that goal post. Meeting people that we really admired, that was a goal post when I was younger. You realize how special and amazing it is, but then the goal post just keeps moving. So I think trying to reach new ground, that's the goal post that's always moving."
We finish our drinks and cross the street to the lip overlooking the expanse of Riverdale Park. "I have no fuckin' idea what the goalpost is today," he says, shrugging. Dogs dart across the field while Cresswell surveys the downtown skyline. He remarks how different things look from the east; the CN Tower peeks out from behind buildings at this vantage point. Cresswell says it's his favourite view of the city now.
Luke Ottenhof is a writer living in Ontario. Follow him on Twitter.