Like his hero – and fellow Canuck – Neil Young, singer-songwriter Dallas Green is a bit of a chameleon.
Green launched his career in 2001 as a guitarist and vocalist in the post-hardcore band Alexisonfire, providing the soothing, melodic counterpoint to lead vocalist George Pettit’s raw screams. The band released four albums over the following decade, with three of them reaching platinum status in Canada, and Alexisonfire developed a rabid cult fan base in the United States. The tours that accompanied the albums were intense affairs full of sweaty, slam-dancing teenagers. For Green, as fun as that world was, it eventually came time to try something different. Rather than call his side project “Dallas Green,” he picked a moniker that “described” his name: City and Colour (get it?).
Green’s new venture proved a stark contrast to his previous work. His first City and Colour album, 2005’s “Sometimes,” was a collection of 10 songs dating back to his time as a teenager, most of them nakedly recorded with an acoustic guitar and Green’s fragile tenor.
Over the course of the next two releases, 2008’s “Show Me Your Love” and 2011’s “Little Hell,” Green would refine his sound, adding intricate arrangements of instrumental color and the occasional room-swelling rocker to his avant-folk wheelhouse. His dark lyrics remained as haunting, captivating and therapeutic as ever.
City and Colour’s music has become so widespread in Canada – with one song currently running as the background music to a Toronto Blue Jays TV ad – that Green disbanded Alexisonfire on 2011 to focus on it full-time. Accompanied by a four-piece band, Green will make his first South Florida appearance as City and Colour next Monday, June 4, at the Culture Room in Fort Lauderdale. This week, he took some time away from his current tour to chat with us.
I heard you just returned from Australia. How was it over there, and how do they take to your music on other continents?
Australia is actually pretty insane for me. At this point, it’s arguably my biggest … I hate to use the word “market,” because it makes the people sound like they’re something less than people, but it’s arguably the biggest market for my music. Usually, I would say Canada is, because it’s my home country, and it’s sort of where I’ve had the most exposure. But Australia is quickly becoming pretty crazy.
And why do you think that is?
I don’t know. A lot of people say that there’s a sort of kinship between Australians and Canadians, and I feel that when I’m down there. Ever since the first time I went there with my old band, the people there were nothing but kind and supportive of what we were doing, and it seemed to grow every time we went back. I’ve now been there three times on my own. I think there’s a sense of loyalty. It seems like if you make the effort to get all the way down there and play music for them, they’re going to stick with you.
I see that you don’t get much of a break for the whole summer. How do you like life on the road?
It’s pretty much just like any other job, and I say that because, although it’s a cool way to make a living, there are good days and bad days, just like anything else. But I always say that the bad days on tour are better than the best days I ever had at a normal job. You just take it as it comes. I’m acclimated to it by now; I’ve been touring pretty heavily for the better part of 10 years. It just seems like it’s part of me now.
The audience response, and the way that City and Colour fans handle themselves, must be quite different from the atmosphere at an Alexisonfire show. Are they two different worlds?
They are, definitely. If someone who had never heard either band went and saw both shows, they would obviously say that there is a lot of difference in the shows. But for me there’s just as much energy in the room. It’s just shown differently. I’m lucky enough to have been able to experience both kinds of energies. There’s nothing like staring out into a sea of a thousand people who are all moving to the rhythm of a song and screaming and sweating and all that. But there’s also something really amazing about being able to stand in a room with a thousand people who are completely quiet.
I’ve been doing this thing lately – I split the set list up into a bunch of different sections, like the loud songs and the quiet songs, and the ones where I just play by myself. And during those songs, I’ve been trying to play as quiet as humanly possible, to see how quiet I can get the room, and to see if people pay attention. It’s a really beautiful thing to be a part of, when it works.
I assume you’ve had a lot of Alexisonfire who are now City and Colour fans. Are you often asked to play some of your old band’s songs?
Yeah, every night, there’s somebody yelling out an Alexis song. Sometimes I’ll do it. There’s a few songs I’ve figured out a way to strip down. But obviously, there are certain songs that just wouldn’t work with me. It all depends on if I can turn George’s screaming sections into a melody.
I’ve come to associate City and Colour with acts like Red House Painters and Mojave 3, bands playing folk-influenced music that’s both timeless and modern.
That’s very kind of you to say. I like both of those bands a lot.
Did you always see yourself in that camp more than the post-hardcore camp of Alexisonfire, or did that influence come later?
I’ve always been a fan of melody first and foremost, but I did grow up listening to aggressive music. I’m 32, so I was coming of age in the grunge years. I was really taken by Nirvana and Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, bands that were heavy rock bands but also had a beautiful sense of melody with it. That sort of shaped my love of loud guitars and nice singing.
But when I started playing guitar as I kid, it was on an acoustic guitar. And I think that’s how I was able to come up with the songs that would become City and Colour songs, because I would write a song first on an acoustic guitar, and then if I thought it worked, I would try it with my electric. But most of the songwriting I’ve done on an acoustic guitar. And then of course, just being a Canadian kid, you’ve got to listen to Neil Young, or you get deported. And that seeps into your DNA. As a songwriter and acoustic guitar player, to not be inspired by Neil Young, something might be wrong with you.
I read that when you were writing the first City and Colour record, “Sometimes,” that you revisited lyrics that you wrote as a teenager. Is that right?
Yes, most of the songs on “Sometimes” are songs I wrote when I was a teenager.
And you still relate to them?
Some of them, no. When I put that record out in 2005, there were a bunch of songs from my past, because they were a bunch of songs I had, and people started asking about them and finding old demos of them, so I thought I’d make some good versions of them. A lot of those songs I don’t play today, just because you fall out of love with certain things that you create, and I don’t want to be one of these guys that just plays a song because someone wants to hear it. I want to play the songs that I want to play, because if I do that, I feel that I’m giving you the best performance that I can give, as opposed to going through the motions of playing the popular song. It aggravates a lot of people, because I don’t play a lot of songs off that first record, but it’s just how I feel.
Your lyrics are nothing if not melancholy, even on the more upbeat numbers. Are you a confessional songwriter; are these your personal anxieties?
A hundred percent. I’ve always approached songs lyrically that way. From a very young age, instead of writing in a journal, I tried to write a song as an outlet for whatever I was going through. Once I started to put these songs out and saw how people were affected by them, I kept going that way, because I felt that if I could help myself with whatever I’m going through but write it in a relatable enough way that someone else can listen to it – not knowing what I’ve been through and what I’m actually writing about, and can take what they need from it – then it’s the best of both worlds.
It’s a strange feeling to be able to write a song like “The Grand Optimist,” which is a song about my parents, and have people come up to me and tell me how much the song means to them. It’s cool, because I didn’t write it for them, but they’ve been able to take whatever they needed from it. That’s my favorite thing about music, is that you can do that. You can have 100 people listen to the same song and take 100 different things from it.
So much of your sophomore album, “Bring Me Your Love,” sounds like a meditation on death. Is mortality really something that disturbs you that much, even at 32?
I don’t necessarily know if [death is] disturbing to me; more that it just came into my view of life in that period, when I was writing it. The first record was very relationship-based. I wrote those songs when I was going through my first experiences with heartbreak and things like that, and when you’re young and you go through that stuff, you feel like it’s the end of the world. With “Bring Me Your Love,” I started analyzing more about myself and how I felt about growing up and becoming more mature, for lack of a better word. I became a little more analytical on mortality. I don’t necessarily think that I’m scared of dying. I may be a little obsessive about the idea of it.
I was wondering if you had a brush with death during that time, because some of those lyrics really seem like you’ve been living it…
I guess you could say that because of the nature of what I do, I’m always having that brush with death. I fly probably a hundred times of year. I know it’s the safest way to travel, but I do have that thought, and I have been through a couple of weird, almost-getting-hit-by-cars situations, but nothing crazy.
It seems that your three records have gotten progressively fuller in sound, with each one incorporating more instrumental color than the one before it. Was that an intentional choice going into each recording session, and do you think it will continue?
It was definitely intentional. The first record, if I could and if I had the time, I would make it more than it was. I recorded that in two days. I sat in front of the microphone with my acoustic guitar and sang those songs, and that was it – mostly because I didn’t think it was going to come to anything. That’s why nowadays, when we do play some of the old songs, I play them in more of a full-band arrangement, because it’s how I heard them in my head in the first place.
And then with “Bring Me Your Love,” I started writing for full bands, and I didn’t want to brush those ideas off because someone had a preconceived idea of what a City and Colour song should be. And then with “Little Hell,” I got a little more comfortable with the idea that if the song is good, then it doesn’t matter if it’s just me and a guitar, or if I have a band or a cool, funky organ line.
I was surprised to see how big your music is in Canada, and I only say surprised because terrestrial radio stations really don’t play music like yours in the States, and I guess I thought it was doomed to be underground. Do you have any thoughts on that seeming disconnect from one border to the other?
Maybe when I was younger, I would have had more of a stance on that. Now, after touring for so long, and touring America with little to almost no media attention whatsoever, whether it be the big magazines or radio or television, I’ve learned to deal with it and just hope. I’ve been very lucky that people have just told their friends about my songs.
We struggled with it with Alexisonfire. We toured America probably 35 times and never played to more than 200 people. It was fun. Some of the shows were awful, but it was always kind of exciting to come back down to America after we’d play arenas in Canada or go to the U.K. and play the Brixton Academy in London, and then we’d play “the bar” in America. Doing that so much told me that there is this imaginary line, and some bands cannot cross it. I think we were one of those bands that just never crossed over. But I think with City and Colour, it has in a way that never did with Alexis. We’re very fortunate that word of mouth and the Internet has allowed me to tour America and have the shows grow every time I come back.
City and Colour perform at 7 p.m. Monday at Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. David Bazan and Dan Romano will open the show.