Chris Cresswell – ‘Working on this record was a complete exploration of sound, energy, and tone’

Words: Miljan Milekić

Chris Cresswell is one of a kind. Best known as a singer and guitarist of Toronto’s cult heroes The Flatliners for more than two decades, as well as a member of legendary Hot Water Music in recent years, he is so much more. A non-stop songwriter and performer, Chris released his brand new album ‘The Stubbornness of the Young,’ embracing different sounds and influences we don’t often hear him explore with the bands he is a part of. With that being the case, and the album being so good, it was a no-brainer to catch up with him for an interview.

Chris Cresswell / Photo: Riley Taylor

Hi Chris! Thanks for finding the time to do this! How are you?
Chris: Good! Thanks for your extreme patience in making this interview happen three months later. (laughs)

I really love this apology! I did the same to Andrew from Comeback Kid when I interviewed him after their last record, and he looked at me like I was crazy. He was like – “What are you talking about? It’s been out for three months!“ (laughs) But, I guess that’s the world of trends and the Social Media world, although I try not to look at it that way anymore.
Chris: Oh, I know! It’s a heartbreaker when you think of how long you put into each record, and then like a month after it comes out, people are like – “What’s next?” I don’t know – this took five fucking years! This is next! (laughs) 

So, let’s talk about your super-old album, which I love. Can you tell me more about it, and how happy are you with the general feedback so far?
It feels great. I mean, I have the opportunity to put new music out with The Flatliners, I’m involved with Hot Water Music, I have my own stuff, and Melt Away – a new band with Paul [Ramirez] from The Flats. And it doesn’t matter which moniker new music comes out under, it’s always exciting. You’re showing the world a part of you, these pieces of you that you discovered through writing these songs. And, sometimes, these records take years to come together – between writing a riff or a lyric to the very end where you get the master, the artworks dialed, and you have the record in your hand. So much work goes into it. And with these few outlets I have musically, I’m just elated to hear that people like what I’ve toiled over for a while. (laughs)

But this one is a little different from all the bands. It’s almost like a pop record. I feel like that’s what I was trying to make. When I had the songs and picked songs for the record, and when we got into recording it – the way I wanted the production to come together – I was a lot more inspired by pop music than anything else. So it was interesting to put that out into the world, being known for being in punk bands, and have people celebrate it. I mean, I’ve done acoustic stuff in the past, but that’s very stripped down. And it took a while to put together – ’cause basically, I started recording ‘The Stubbornness of the Young’ in early January 2019. So, in between tours – I was working at a restaurant so life was pretty busy – but I found the time to chip away at all my stuff in the studio. Then Paul came in to play drums, and Scott [Brigham] from The Flats played guitar on a few songs. My friend Sarah [Cogan] from this amazing band, Tallies, from Toronto, came in to sing, and Matt [Howes] from Sights & Sounds came in to play bass. We had all these people come in between January and April of 2019, and then all the studio stuff was finished.

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Then, I worked with Dave Grabowski, who really took all these songs to a whole new level. He’s a friend of mine through Andrew Neufeld and Comeback Kid guys, ’cause he joined Andrew’s other band Sights & Sounds, years ago. He’s been a really good friend for a long time now, and he’s such a gifted piano player. He’s so great with soundscapes and textures – things you can feel more than even hear – important stuff for the kind of production I wanted to go for. And once he and I started digging through songs, it was like a rabbit hole, but in a good way. We were in no rush to put it out. By the time spring rolled around and early summer of 2019, I was on the road a lot. So I would pop into Dave’s place, as we were recording all his stuff at his home, which made it easy to chip away. And by the end of 2019, or early 2020, we had a few songs done. We tried a bunch of stuff and it was a really fun exploration of sounds and vibe. There were a couple of songs that he did so much to, that we ended up deciding not to go with all that, but kind of keeping it in our back pocket for something because we had the time.

So, by early 2020, we had maybe two-thirds of the record to go. And then Covid hit, so we didn’t see each other for a while, but once we were able to get back together a few months later, we just spent the rest of 2020 and a bit of 2021 considering these parts that really took the record to a whole new level. And it was amazing having that much time to go through it. It was funny, looking back, how little time, when you added up the days in the studio, all it took. We were pretty quick with it. And then, once we got to that, it felt like a very important piece of the puzzle. We probably finished tracking all that stuff at the very beginning of 2021, so it was two years of working on a record back and forth. And, you know, when you have that much time working on one thing, your mind can change about songs. You can come back and be like – “I don’t even like this song that much.” You might just be sick of hearing it so much or realize it’s not as strong of an idea. It was just new then, and I was excited about it. 

But luckily, getting to work with all these buddies and Matt Snell, who’s gone on to do a bunch of stuff with Flats, in the studio – it was just a really fun gang of people to make something in secret with. And then we sat on it for a while ’cause then Hot Water Music had a record, Flats had a record, and I wanted to give this record its shot. So the day I had to tell Dave“Hey, man, this record’s totally done. The master is finished, but it’s not gonna come out for two years.” He was like – “Oh! Okay.” (laughs) I was so lucky to have him in my corner and for him to be cool with that and be patient to put it out, ’cause he put a lot of hours into it, man. But all that made it so exciting to finally share this secret we’ve been keeping from people.

Honestly, it’s just insane to me that you were able to pull it all off completely in secret. To do the Hot Water Music record, The Flatliners record, and then just come out like – “Hey, I also have this!”
Chris: It was by design. Personally, whether it’s a band record or a solo record, I don’t love letting people know like – “Hey, I’m going into the studio to make a new record,” because it could take years for it to come out. And by the time it comes out, people don’t even remember that you brought it up. Maybe that works to your advantage, but also, I feel like you might just be getting some people amped up for something that you can’t deliver on for a while. I mean, certain friends had had copies of the record for a while. Andrew Neufeld was one of the dudes who we sent it to pretty early on ’cause he’s such a good buddy of Dave. We were sharing it with certain people and were like – “This is not coming up for a long time, so please keep it under your hat.” (laughs)

And Andrew, he would send me videos sometimes or just texts of lyrics from the song, and be like – “Man, this part was…” It was fun to scratch that itch of people, friends whose opinions on music I respect, people I look up to, weighing in on it and letting me know how they felt about it way before it came out. If someone was like – “Yo, I don’t know about this part,” we’d have so much time to fix it. (laughs) But we were lucky that people were digging it. We worked hard on it, but it was all really fun. When I look back, nothing was labor intensive. We put a lot of hours into it, but it was a complete exploration of sound, energy, and tone. The word “vibe” is just such a catchall, it almost means nothing now, but for the whole ecosystem of the record we wanted to make, I think we nailed it. Looking back, I wonder if it would’ve turned out the way it did if we didn’t take that much time. Sometimes, you gotta let it breathe.

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How different was the approach to the writing process, compared to writing for The Flatliners, Hot Water Music, your own stuff, or now even Melt Away? Do you intentionally write for a different project, or do you just write, and then figure out later what to do with it, and how do you know which drawer to put it in?
Chris: It’s tricky. I mean, as my comfort level grows, being a part of HotWaterMusic, it gets a little trickier to know which band the song goes to between Hot Water Music and The Flatliners
. That’s not to say that I was ever made to feel uncomfortable in that band. Never, ever – everyone has been so welcoming and cool from the jump and just made me feel very much a part of one of my favorite bands growing up. And now I get the ultimate peak behind the curtain. But, there’s such a musical identity to Hot Water Music that I, as a fan first, coming into the fold, don’t wanna fuck with too much. I don’t wanna alter that too much.

You should always have evolution and progression in your music, in any kind of art form. Maybe you don’t always succeed, but you always hope for that evolution. You know more about what you’re doing and discover more about yourself each time you write a riff, a lyric, a song, a record, whatever. Flats have almost made a career out fucking with the formula. (laughs) And not intentionally. Our heads will swirl around different kinds of music all the time. And then, in the end, I think we were always able to make music that sounds like us. With Melt Away, it’s a little clearer, even though it’s such a new band, and we’re still finding our musical identity. It’s a lot heavier. So, that’s the heavy band. Hot Water Music has its own music identity. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but I can feel what it is. And Flats, now especially, I feel like all these years in, there’s this energy to it that we want to hit. We’ve tried a lot of stuff over the years, so now it’s pretty clear what we want to do. And I hope things will keep evolving and changing.

But it’s tricky. Sometimes, I could have a chord structure sitting around and not know what band it goes to. And then, if I have a melody that comes to mind that goes over that course structure, that can tip the scale. If it’s something that I think can live as a stripped-down song and doesn’t need a lot more, that would probably stay with me personally, you know? I kinda hope I can never answer that question ’cause that’s part of the fun. I have a pile of ideas all the time and all these half-baked songs and riffs and stuff. So sometimes, I’m like – if I send it to these guys for them to hear and they don’t like it, can I bring it to these guys? Can a song that’s been rejected by one group go to another? Does who I send it to first further define it? It’s a hilarious maze in my mind, but it’s part of the fun. I’ll never be bored! (laughs)

Chris Cresswell / Photo: Riley Taylor

And in the same vein – as we mentioned, we saw your show in October, and in between the songs from your own records, you threw in a couple of The Flatliners songs, and while they might be different in their original form, it still very much felt like they are written by the same person, and you were able to make it work. I especially liked the way ‘Souvenir’ sounded in the new edition. So, I guess my question here is – how do you pick and choose songs to do on your own shows, as you don’t necessarily go for the biggest hits?
Chris: I think that if there are these different ideas coming from one person, you still have that fingerprint. And not just one person – if you take four people in Flats or five people in Hot Water Music and then have only one of those people on stage, it still conveys that personality of the song. You won’t get the exact same effect ’cause, obviously, you’re missing some elements, but you get the same idea across. And I do think that the strongest songs, no matter what genre – if talking about songs played by a full band – should be able to be stripped down. The melody, the chords, those two things existing together, still convey the same message.

But it’s tricky. I like giving people a taste of songs that may not be “big hits” when playing acoustic shows ’cause it’s a fun way to play those songs live if the band hasn’t been. ‘Souvenir’ is a song Flats have been playing on probably half the shows since ‘New Ruin’ came out. And I just love that song. We did a full-band acoustic show in Toronto at the end of 2022 and played ‘Souvenir’ as a part of that set. And we almost made it into a country song. Scott [Brigham] and I love Wilco, and it had that kind of energy to it. And I was like – “Man, that song can live that way too.“ So, I stand by what I said earlier – when I’m writing a song, and it can stay small, it will likely stay as a solo song. And if it’s clear that it’s strong enough that you can easily add these other elements, like bass, drums, big and loud parts, peaks and valleys, all these dynamics that a band brings, that’s great because that song can have two lives.

I think that the soul of a song is the recorded version, one you can listen to over and over again. The life of a song starts on the road. Little things and nuances change and evolve. It could be years since you’ve played a song so you forget to play a part and you’re like –  “I just don’t play that part anymore.” (laughs) Doing ‘Souvenir,’ for instance, in that set in Saskatoon, is part of the life of that song. And I love exploring that kind of stuff. And then, Flats put out a seven-inch at the end of last year to celebrate the 10th anniversary of ‘Dead Language.’ We didn’t have demos of that record, and we typically put demos out to celebrate something like that. So, we wanted to do something like we did at that acoustic show in Toronto, to do this stripped down, fleshed out, and hopefully, dynamically produced thing. It’s very stripped down. It’s acoustic, it’s mellow, it’s a new side to the band, and a new life for that song. And I think that’s why a lot of bands do these cool sets these days. Bands are doing these “all request” sets or wanna play a certain record on the road every night, and things like that. 

Playing just the hits every night – it’s great. It’s a powerful feeling to be the performer on stage, playing those songs and having people react to them. But sometimes, if you have a lot of songs, it’s easy to forget about some of them, right? So, it’s fun to keep that fresh, keep that blood pumping on that music. I think someone coming to a show who knows the music and knows a song in the style of the band and only that way – and then you hear it this other way – a little part of the intro or something can make you like – “What song is he playing right now?” And maybe the melody hits and you’re like – “Oh, cool.” I mean, I’m sure some people may not enjoy the acoustic versions of otherwise loud and angry Flats songs, but that’s okay. No one’s right or wrong. It’s just fun to be able to pave that second route to the message of the song.

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Yeah. I mean, even with the band, it’s one thing when you play some places in Europe where you haven’t played for 10 or 15 years or play for the first time, and other when you play Toronto or some other city you played a bunch over the years.
Chris: Totally. If you’re going somewhere for the first time in a while, it’s probably a safe bet to play hits. And maybe you throw in a few deep cuts for you and your buddies on stage. (laughs) With The Flatliners, we have a song called ‘Daggers.’ It was on a seven-inch, and then it was on our B-Sides compilation ‘Division of Spoils.’ And I did an acoustic version on my first solo record with Joey Cape. So, that song already had an interesting life just because there are two versions, and everyone was cool with me doing that acoustic version for my record. We all love that song, but we didn’t play it too much live until recently, for the last six or eight months. John was like – ”Yo, this song’s sick!”“OK, we’ll play it for you.” (laughs) So now, we play it every night, and we dedicate it to John, who’s standing right there about to play bass for the next three minutes of that song. (laughs)

But then, if you’re playing a hometown show where you play once a year or twice a year or other places you go to a lot, you gotta with the formula a bit and keep it fresh, even just for yourself. The Flats, we’ve been playing for 20+ years. My involvement with Hot Water Music has obviously not been as long as the band’s been around – I think I’m already six or seven years in, but the band turns 30 this year, you know? So, when you think of how many songs that many years yield, it’s easy to keep creating these setlists and dreaming up these scenarios. It’s a constant spinning rolodex. The hard part is relearning those songs and retaining that information as you’re also writing new music. The challenge is putting it into practice. We have all these songs. We could do whatever we want. The possibilities are endless in terms of the setlist, but keeping all that information fresh and being able to nail it alive is a little tricky. (laughs)

Especially with Hot Water Music, I would imagine. I think it’s safe to say you don’t really all live in the same place. (laughs)
Chris: Oh no! (laughs) Most of the band does – Chuck’s [Ragan] in California and I’m in Canada, but everyone else is in Gainesville. But yeah, that’s enough of a split on the map. (laughs) The first few years I was playing with Hot Water Music, we would basically have soundcheck at each show on the road to jam. We only do four or five songs of soundcheck, and then, you’re kind of practicing in front of however many people come to the show. (laughs) Everyone shows up prepared and goes over the material, but there are some question marks sometimes. But it’s fun though, it keeps it exciting.

There’s a jam at the end of ‘Jack of All Trades’ that Hot Water does. And I’ve known about it, I’ve seen the band do it live a bunch before I ever got involved. And then, the first time I played it with the band, I completely forgot about it. I had only played one or two shows and then got invited to play more in a few weeks, so in those few weeks I studied, I crammed like crazy, and I just listened to records. I was playing along the records. There were a couple of question marks where I had to look up live footage, but this particular song was not one of those, as it’s pretty clear who’s playing what. So, the first show in Boston, we hit the outro, I ring it out, and then the drums keep going. I was like – “Oh, shit! I completely forgot about the jam!” (laughs) I fumbled my way through it, and I think I was okay. I love that jam, and it was a question of mental capacity at that point. (laughs) I just added so much to the pot that I forgot to add that one ingredient.

I would like to get back to ‘The Stubbornness of the Young’ for a bit. The album explores lots of different elements and genres, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s rooted somewhere between the folk-rock, and acoustic, singer-songwriter sound. What’s interesting to me is that we had the chance to hear all these elements in The Flatliners as well, but here they are front and center. What motivated you to dive deeper into these waters for this record?
Chris: I think I’d just been writing these songs and then spending time with each of them. And then, by the time they’d all come together, I was able to choose which ones I wanted to record. It’s a half-careful and half-careless process. I want to make sure that every record is a fun ride. I love listening to records fully through, with all the peaks and valleys and dynamics, but at the same time, I tend to get very excited about the newest idea I have. So that’s the careless part. I’m just pumped about it.

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When I booked studio time, I went into making the record, knowing what songs I was gonna make and what kind of record I thought it would turn out like. But I never saw how it all came together really coming. I had a very clear vision of what I wanted to do. I like going into the studio 90% prepared and leaving that 10% for magic. So, I knew I wanted to make a record that showcases these ideas, and these ideas showcase different parts of my sensibilities as a music fan, as a songwriter, as a guitar player, and as a singer. I just wanted to make a record I could be proud of forever. That’s what I try to do every time. I take making records pretty seriously, which is part of the reason why Flats’ records are sometimes four or five years apart. (laughs) We like taking the time and making sure it’s right. We don’t want to half-ass it at all.

So, the same approach with this. I knew that, especially in terms of production, there was a lot more pop stuff. I just knew these songs were different, even from things I’d done with my previous acoustic stuff. I wanted to give them the time I thought they deserved to really gestate and loom into what they did. And I’m glad it did, man. I love listening to a full record, and I think there’s a good flow to it. Sequencing is such an important part of every record. There’s a lot of alternative records, especially in the nineties, where the sequencing is just fucking brutal. You can tell the major label was like – “We’re gonna just make CDs, and it doesn’t matter if the last stick songs on the record are all stinkers or just have all the same kind of energy or all have a bit of a lull. We’re putting the four hits up top.” But each part of putting that record together was just as exciting as putting a Flats record together, now, in my experience, a Hot Water Music record.

There was a bit of a different feeling to it because there are some full-blown pop moments on the record, and there are some really delicate and quiet moments as well. I’m doing fucking guitar solos! (laughs) There had been “guitar solos” on band records I’ve done before, but this is like a blues progression with a nasty, unapologetic guitar solo. Borderline corny. (laughs) But this is just me. It’s not going through the filter of all these people in this band and this democratic process. Just me scratching the ultimate itch. And it feels good.

Chris Cresswell @ Capitol Music Club, Saskatoon / Photo: Tamara Samardžić

I’ve always felt that releasing music under your own name, while also being in an established band like you are, can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gives you more freedom, somewhat free of any expectation, but on the other, it puts you under the spotlight, with no bigger entity to hide behind. How do you look at it? Is there more pressure in doing it?
Chris: You know what? It’s funny – no, I think I have less. I don’t exactly know why. If you put something out – you’re always curious to hear what people think. I mean, you wouldn’t share it with people if you didn’t want them to listen to it – celebrate it or shit on it. (laughs) And it’s different for some reason with this stuff. Knowing that it’s just me, it’s a little scary, but knowing where I am and where I’ve been for the last few years, songwriting-wise, I’m just down to keep the fire lit. I want to keep working on music and putting music out. Sharing parts of myself with people and finding parts of myself in these songs because it makes me feel good. It makes me feel like myself, and it keeps me busy.

It’s a very positive way to spend my time, and it’s something that I love. And when it comes down to releasing music under just my name – I see the whole solo record thing as such low stakes. During a typical year, bands take up a lot of time, and I don’t mean that negatively. That’s the priority. I’m on the road with The Flats, on the road with Hot Water Music. We’re making a record, working on this and that. And then, when I have these moments, these pockets of time to work on a record of my own, to play some shows of my own, it’s just low stakes. It’s freeing. All the activity with the bands is great – it’s me traveling the world with my best friends, whichever band it is, and it’s a blast. But this is just – “Hey, I also got this.” I’ve been very lucky to surround myself with people who support my musical ideas and vision, no matter which band or project it is. Having Dave, and Matt Snell in the studio, having Paul and Scott both play on it… I would’ve loved to get John [Snodgrass], but he lives far away. Maybe the next time! (laughs)

But you got to be on his!
Chris: Yeah, man! I was recently in Fort Collins, Colorado, and Jon came and picked me up after the soundcheck. We went to his house, and I kicked it with his family for a little while. So, me, him, and his son were playing basketball, and Jon was like – “Hey, I got this song I wanna show you!” He’s always got a song he wants to show you. (laughs) I mean, he’s Jon Snodgrass, he never stops. That’s what you gotta love about the guy. He is prolific, a road dog, and he is such a joy to be around. When we saw you on that tour, in Saskatoon, we were in the middle of that stretch of the Western Canadian tour where you’re more of a truck driver than a musician. You’re a truck driver that plays music for an hour every night. So, those are some long days, late nights, and early mornings with no sleep, even on a mellow acoustic tour. But with him, man – he doesn’t have to say much to make you smile or keep you laughing.

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So, he shows me this song, and it’s about baseball – everyone who knows Jon knows he loves baseball. And he was like – “Yeah, Bill [Stevenson] is playing drums on it,” and was thinking, “Okay, that’s pretty fucking cool.” – “Do you wanna sing on it?” – “Yes, yes I do.” And, you know, 20 minutes later it’s done. That’s just the way he works. He’s got this knack for creating a moment and inviting you into it. And before you know it, you’re onto the next moment, and it’s beautiful. He showed me some of the record on that tour, and it rips. He’s also a rocker, and it’s cool to see him rocking with a band. He’s fuckin’ great at it. It’s a pleasure to spend time, and to work on music with him.

When I got to contribute a little bit to that second Scorpios record, that was a trip. Getting to write a little bit in the room with those guys and to record that record with them… It’s fascinating to see each of those guys work – Jon, Brian Walstrom, and Joey Cape. It was really cool to witness firsthand, and try to get in there a little bit. And I learned a lot. That’s the best part of keeping the door open, so to speak, when touring with people. It’s easier to do it when doing an acoustic tour, to hop up and play a song with someone. You just go over the song before the set. It’s harder to do it in a band scenario where there are more factors to play – “We’ll get you an amp, we’ll plug in here, we’ll do that.” (laughs) It’s one of my favorite parts about this corner of my musical existence. The acoustic, stripped-down stuff, it can really make collaborating just happen like that.

So, you’re bringing your new record to Europe, and then back to Canada. What do you expect from those shows?
Chris: I don’t know. I know I’m very lucky to be hitting the road with Northcote. He’s a good buddy of mine. I love his music, and look up to him in a big way. So, that’s gonna be a blast. Dave’s coming with me to play piano. We got Matze Rossi playing all the German shows, and Sam Russo playing all the UK shows. So, yeah, I don’t know. Like all these acoustic shows, it’s low stakes to me personally. I’m there to have fun. I’m there to have fun with the bands, too, but there’s infrastructure there. There’s more people around, and there’s there going shit on. (laughs) These shows are like – let’s just distill it down. We’re in the kitchen making a little reduction of songs. (laughs) If nothing else, if all the shows suck, the hang will be good with all those people. (laughs) I go into it with low expectations, so I’m blown away every time. It’s the key to my happiness. (laughs) But I think it will be great.

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*Interview edited for length and clarity

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