Nine Songs: Wade MacNeil
From finding his chosen family at hardcore shows to finding himself through the vulnerable songwriting of his new project, Dooms Children, Wade MacNeil has had numerous personal reckonings.
Often, when painting a mental picture of what an artist is going to be like in person, you dip the brush in vignettes of other people’s experiences of them and are left with a myriad of ideas which are biased and unique to that person’s own view of the world that they live in. Even if you were to distil your own perception of the artist’s work into an idealised version of who you wanted them to be, there is an endless pool of thought which cannot always be put into one concise image.
Who we are is dependent on a multitude of circumstances; we are held hostage to the ease in which we are moulded by time, place, and consequence. Even the things we once thought about ourselves can change at a moment’s notice. For Canadian musician Wade MacNeil, this statement rings truer than ever.
As I speak to the enigmatic guitarist and frontman over Zoom, his quiet disposition and contemplativeness in which he recounts the last two decades of his career is quite disparate from the persona that that comes to the fore when he is performing with both alexisonfire and Gallows. MacNeil’s burly and guttural screams take the backseat and instead, I’m met with a soft, yet gravelly Canadian accent which, in its timbre and inflections, reflects that of a person who has possibly seen all that life has to offer and has many anecdotes to spill. As someone who has spent over half of his life travelling the world sharing his music with people from all walks of life, it’s only apt that his voice was built for storytelling.
This sonic juxtaposition between the bands he is in, and his latest solo venture isn’t a new thing in MacNeil’s life – he’s always been the kind of person who has revelled in the nuance of music and songwriting; leaning into the emotional relatability that can be found through some of the most vulnerable songs.
The new thing in MacNeil’s life is having the quiet confidence to express himself as authentically and brutally honest as possible. “The things that I'm drawn to the most in music and art is sincerity and honesty. I don't think I've ever tried to be this vulnerable in my presentation of my music and that seems to be what people are connecting with,” he confesses.
On his debut as Doom’s Children, MacNeil recounts the tumultuous period of time that he went through as some of his closest relationships dissolved and he found himself on the outside looking in at a world crumbling around him. A long road of addiction led to MacNeil undertaking a stint at rehab which proved to be the lightbulb moment in terms of confronting his inner demons. It provided him with a new-found perspective on his place in the world, and showed him just how important it is to take stock of your journey because even if you’ve taken a wrong turn at some point, there’s always the chance to turn it back around.
And so, in his Nine Songs choices, MacNeil decides to walk us through the songs that he gravitated towards during the most pivotal moments of his life; taking us on a chronological journey which starts at his formative years, discovering his musical identity through grunge heavyweights Soundgarden, all the way through to stumbling upon a new side to himself whilst emanating the vulnerability and simplicity of Otis Redding; allowing his voice and guitar to tell his story in the most candid way possible.
One distinct theme throughout MacNeil’s curation is that each artist was a trailblazer amongst their contemporaries; shaping the scene which they came from, and changing the landscape for those who would come afterwards. This forward-thinking motion; this need to constantly keep pushing on and seeking out something new and satisfying has resonated with MacNeil for all of his life.
“Foolishly, I thought at certain points in my life that there are [moments of] putting things to rest and thinking: ‘If only I could get here or accomplish this, things would be ok’, but that’s not life,” MacNeil admits as we reach the last stop on our journey. “It’s constantly evolving and there is no set place that you can get to. If you can be OK with that and be present, come to terms with that and find joy; that’s what is important.”
I wondered if he felt that Doom’s Children was the closing of a chapter of his life or simply putting something down so that you’re able to open another door. As a look of serenity passes over his face, he tells me, “I don’t think this is the end of a chapter. It’s just another step in a journey and I have no idea where it’s headed. It was overwhelming at certain points but now it’s something that I feel very good and excited about. I don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s OK.”
“When I first started listening to music and when I first got my own CDs, it would have been during the first big wave of grunge. It’s a blur of going into record stores and them telling me I couldn’t buy the record, because it had a Parental Advisory sticker on it. I remember having to go back into the food court at the mall and get my dad to walk over with me and he was like, ‘Just sell him the record, it’s fine!’
“I was really into Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. I think Soundgarden was my favourite out of all those bands, and the one I probably still listen to the most. I think that's because of the guitar playing but it's also a lot of things, because they fucking rule. Especially in a song like “Rusty Cage”, I was really obsessed with it. This was at a time when I had just got a guitar and I could barely play it, it still felt very awkward in my hands. I wore that record out and I feel like Soundgarden, the record Badmotorfinger, and of course that song specifically, is me first finding music that I thought was very cool and a little different as a young person.
“One of the most incredible things about music is when it doesn't get pinned down, and especially when it doesn't say specifically what the song is about, because everyone hears it differently and applies their own experience. Maybe you can relate to the writer and the specifics of what they're talking about, you can say ‘I'm really feeling that line and maybe I can feel the pain or the joy in it’ but everyone has a tendency to put their own experience to that, and that's what they think about when they listen to it.
“I mean, I obviously can't imagine the ‘Johnny Cash covering your song’ version of that - that's intense as it gets - but that's what's so fucking cool. It’s another artist who you know has a lot of mainstream notoriety, but always did things very left to centre.”
“When I started taking guitar lessons, I had a super goth guitar teacher who was probably 17. I would’ve been 10 or 11, but he was this goth guy that was in his last years of high school and played in a bunch of death rock bands around here. I would bring in music on a cassette, we would listen to it, and he'd show me how to play the song. One of those was definitely this song.
“I think me getting into White Zombie was when I was becoming more aware of and going a little bit deeper into music and realising that there's more of a world of strange music - especially something like this. I never really became a metal guitarist but I've been trying to write that White Zombie bounce into songs for 20 years, so I'm sure that it has shaped me as a guitarist.
“A lot of the other stuff that I would get really into was kind of horror-themed; dark and spooky. I was still young enough at this point that I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can't believe there are cartoon boobs on this cover’ and I was looking at them in secret. White Zombie was the next step in me wanting to learn how to play those songs. I thought that I could now maybe play guitar well enough that I could actually learn how to play this riff, and I was also becoming more aware of getting deeper into counterculture; especially the horror/outsider aspect of the visual part of it.
“I’d say that this is very much a time of me playing along to the record over and over again, rewinding a cassette and beginning to get to a point where I'm starting to research the stuff that's in the music. Trying to find out the horror films that White Zombie are referencing and tracking those down, or finding where the samples come from, and of course, wanting to go see them play but not being old enough to.”
“This song is very much a further step of aggression in music. All of these bands are huge bands at this point, and it was like I hadn’t really become too aware of things that were too deep - I hadn’t discovered punk yet. These are all mainstream bands, but they are about as crazy as is being shown to people.
“This song in particular really spoke to just how fucked up I felt at the time. My home life, and my childhood, were very fucked up. I was young enough that I wasn’t really understanding that and not having a basis of reference. I was feeling like a raw nerve and I didn’t have the language or emotional capacity to do anything with that.
“It was truly pivotal to find something like this and it actually helping. It was a real outlet of emotion and anger, but in the sense that people who find heavy music understand that it is a real positive thing and not something that's violent or dark - it's something that brings the feeling of relief; of finally. Because this is so aggressive, it finally feels as though it's taking some of the weight off. Whatever I've been carrying around on my shoulders, this helps. I still love that band and I still have those records.”
“I will always love The Misfits, more than I think any other punk band or maybe any other band, because they're the band that I really got into when I found punk. This is something that my guitar teacher showed me. I was bringing in these records, and I think I brought in Danzig’s “Mother” for him to show me how to play on guitar and he was like, ‘You know Danzig has this band from when he was younger called The Misfits?’ and I was mind-blown.
“I got this record and I liked some of the stuff that I liked about those White Zombie records. There was the horror aspect of it, but it's also super melodic and it’s fun. I was becoming aware of punk and it had such a profound effect on my musical interests, but also just my life - I found my people. All of the people that are still in my life are the people I met at this time, and they would become the guys in my band.
“Similarly, a lot of people that got into punk music around the same time are a lot of my closest friends from other parts of the world. When I was having a similar revelation over here in St. Catharines, Ontario, getting Dead Kennedys and Crass records, Lags [Laurent Barnard] from Gallows was doing the same in Watford at the same age, skateboarding and smoking cigarettes behind the mall. It’s a very similar experience and I think when I met him for the first time, I was like, ‘Are we best friends?’.
“I've had that experience with a lot of people. Misfits are very much the soundtrack to me starting to go to shows and having the musical world really split open in my mind. There’s this crazy music and everyone who listens to it looks fucking nuts. The shows are kind of sketchy and dangerous, but I don’t want to be anywhere else. It’s where I met all the guys in alexisonfire and it’s really where I stop spending time around my family and start spending time around my chosen family. When I started the first band with Chris [Steele], the bass player of Alexisonfire, we did a lot of melodies and tried to write a lot of their gang vocals into the early Alexisonfire stuff.”
“Every band wanted to be Refused! I’d been going to punk shows for a couple years at this point, I became aware of the old school stuff and I was starting to listen to hardcore. A lot of the hardcore punk of this era in the ‘90s was kind of knuckle dragger, and so I became aware of Refused and thought that it was heavier than so many things I've ever heard. It's super stylised, it's incredibly intelligent, it's political in a very direct and educated way, and not just a ‘fuck the system’ kind of way. It blew me away. The Shape of Punk to Come was truly the shape of punk to come. It’s definitely the fucking boldest record title, but it’s aged so well.
“What become even more interesting is that they broke up before I had a chance to see them. There was a show in Buffalo that they played with The Murder City Devils that I could have gone to, which was pretty close to me. So many bands became a blueprint of what to try and aim for, and how to be more experimental and say more. I'd say that the instrumentation was the first thing that grabbed me for sure, but it’s very much an entire package. Aesthetically, lyrically, musically… everything is just the chef’s kiss.
“There’s a Joe Strummer quote where he says something to the effect of ‘If they're really going to listen to what you have to say, you have to make them dance’. I think those two different things exist simultaneously. You're wanting to write something that rips and is emotional and makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, but then also it's important to actually say something.
“Those two things kind of get married, but at the same time feel quite apart from one another. Maybe because of how it sounds sonically. I think a lot of people check out on that kind of stuff. All of the best music is very emotional, just because it's loud doesn't mean it can't be just as sincere.”
“Hot Water Music has such a huge blueprint on the music that I make, and me as a musician in general. In the skatepark where I always skated out in St. Catharine’s when I was younger, there was pretty much just Epitaph records playing in the park all the time, and Hot Water Music was one that I heard so much.
“Sometime in 2004, maybe before we put out the second alexisonfire record, we did a really long American tour with Hot Water Music. We were really young; I wasn’t 21 and I remember because I couldn’t get into the bars. When we did a tour with them, they really taught us how to be a band. They were a lot older than us and they were incredibly kind and generous. We really came out of that tour wanting to be a better band. We thought, ‘If we could be that, we really would have accomplished something.’
“We would just try to treat other people in bands the way they treated us, and to continue to be better. The way Chuck and Chris sang together, their voices are so fucked up. That really made Dallas [Green, Alexisonfire] and I think about things. Our voices are so different, but if those guys can sing together we can probably figure something out. That tour more than any other tour changed the way that we behaved as a band and showed us a path.”
“As much as this has been about heavy music, I’ve always listened to a lot of different music. Especially around this time, I was at a point we were playing over 300 shows a year for quite a few years, which felt like an incredible thing to be doing - none of us wanted to do anything else - but we were so inundated and surrounded by heavy music, and I think in all of my time away from being at shows, being at home, driving and even being in the van on tour, we started listening to a ton of Dub and Lovers Rock.
“Sonically, for me at that time, I was thinking that this is the furthest fucking thing away from me being at a Legion Hall, listening to Between the Buried and Me, A Life Once Lost, and Underoath, I’m going to go into the van and listen to Tappa Zukie. It was a real calming moment and a nice step away from the chaotic music that was all around me.
"I love music so much that I wasn’t going to just not listen to music! I was travelling so much that myself and our singer George [Pettit, alexisonfire] - who is a huge reggae fan too - we would go record shopping every day, so I think my interest in Rocksteady and Dub and Lovers Rock and all of that music grew bigger and bigger.
“I really love his voice. Sonically, it sounds so cool. It’s incredibly well written, it could be a doowop song or an R&B song, but it sounds so fucking cool with the out of tune, upright piano. Listening to all of that stuff was a step away from the music that was around me all the time and it felt more like it was Wade time.”
“I love Motown and R&B and this is a song I heard when I was very young. I remember it playing around the house when I was a kid, and I think of that really fondly. Older R&B is the stuff that I heard from my dad, and this is his favourite song. It always makes me think of him. My dad grew up close to Detroit - he was just across the river in Windsor, Canada - so when I was finding Soundgarden, he would’ve have been at the age where Detroit was the epicentre of music. I played it at his 50th birthday party as a surprise and it was a really good moment.
“This is a song that I’ve known and loved for a long time, but until more recently, I had no idea how to even attempt to write something like that. It’s been a process, and especially trying to figure out how to put the Doom’s Children record together, it didn’t happen overnight. It was so different from everything else I’ve done and it took some doing. There was a kind of deep dive into those songs that I love, and what is it about them that is so soft and beautiful, and how can I touch on that a little bit in my own songwriting?
“I don't think you can be tougher than the world and I think the more I shed those ideas, the better I feel about myself. Maybe 10 years ago, if somebody said something that bothered me and said ‘You're so sensitive’, I'd be put off by it. If someone said that to me now, I would say, ‘Yes, I am really sensitive. It’s not a bad thing, what the fuck do you expect?!’”
“This is my favourite Grateful Dead song. A few years ago, when I began writing the Doom’s Children record, I started listening to more ‘60s folk stuff and cosier, softer music as a result of where my mental health was at. It felt like it was helping a little bit in terms of softening things up and [allowing me to] move away from things that are so heavy and bleak in a bit of a survival way.
“A large part of that was becoming more familiar with Grateful Dead. As a music fan, coming across something like that where there's a huge wealth of music - 40 years of music - is always so exciting, because you get to dive through this huge thing. They were a band that I became increasingly obsessed with over the last few years, and a bit of a motivational push to do Doom’s Children and to do something a little softer and differently than I ever had.
“This is the song that I still listen to the most and I think it really drew me into the band, because it's a hard band to get into. Everyone thinks they know what Grateful Dead sound like, and I maybe assumed it sounded like Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii because it was just like drug music in my mind. It's not that at all, it’s very nice Americana; kind of country, kind of folk, kind of jazz.
“So when you listen to it at first, you’re almost like ‘What the fuck is this?’ as it can be off-putting, but this song is an incredibly well-written folk song and that’s the thing that drew me into the band. I think about this at a time when my life felt very tumultuous, and I ended up writing about a lot of things that happened during this period of time on the Doom’s Children record. We covered this for that record and it’s so cool to have something that I feel so connected to.
“One of the things that came up earlier, when we're talking about Johnny Cash and Chris Cornell and the interpretations of the song… This is a song I've heard so many times, but I know there was a point I heard it when I felt like I was really fucking hurting. I was drinking and using a lot, and I heard the line “If I get home before daylight / I just might get some sleep tonight” and it felt different than any other time I'd heard it. I got rid of all the drugs that I had on me and I felt like I needed to get home and try to pull it together. That memory is etched in my mind when I think of this song. My relationship to it continues to change, and that's incredible.”