Interview with Crusades guitarist/vocalist Dave Williams | By Kayla Greet
One of the hardest things to go through in life is loss. It is an albatross of grief, anxiety, and pain that quietly takes root in one’s heart and mind. The darkest of human emotions harbor within depression to the point where even one’s physical body is affected. This isn’t about losing a job or a bet or things of even lesser consequence—though those certainly carry weight of their own. It’s about living on while others don’t and can’t. Joy and hope are replaced with guilt and fear, and somehow, people are still expected to get by day-to-day.
For Crusades guitarist and vocalist Dave Williams, this is a story he put into song. Eight of them to be exact. They are collected on the band’s new album, This Is a Sickness and Sickness Will End – released March 7 – a joint release from Ryan Young’s Anxious & Angry and the first for Williams’ new label, Countless Altars.
For a few years, there was a steady output from Crusades. What sparked this three-year gap?
Nothing in particular really “sparked” the gap other than working pretty tirelessly on this new record. There were some digressions in terms of other projects—Black Tower, which [bassist and vocalist] Scott [“Skottie Lobotomy”] and I also play in, recorded and released an LP—but no actual decision was made to take this long between releases. More than anything, we just took our sweet time on this new album. We collectively had a very specific vision and worked until we achieved it.
Were you still playing shows or practicing occasionally since the last record?
There has rarely been a period in the past six years where we haven’t met up weekly. We typically take a short break from jamming after a trip or a recording, but other than that, getting together to work on new songs or a live set has remained a constant. Historically, we don’t play a ton of shows, but there have actually been a decent number in the past couple of years—for us, anyway.
What other projects were you working on in the meantime? You had Black Tower to focus on, but were you still working on new Crusades material then?
Yeah, we were working on the Crusades record throughout the Black Tower writing and recording process. Scott and [drummer and vocalist] Jordan [Bell] have also been working on a new Creeps LP and [guitarist and vocalist] Emmanuel [Sayer] is always busy planning the Ottawa Explosion festival. It was likely the multitasking that allowed us to remain sane during a pretty intensive writing phase. Having somewhere else to focus your attention and kinda hit the reset button was certainly helpful to me, anyway.
I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your parents. You allude to the challenge of mourning with a religious family. How did you manage to cope through all of that?
I suppose it’s not quite as simple as all of that. The two parents who passed were my wife Jessica’s mother and my best friend Alex’s father, so while not my biological parents, I spent most of my “growing up” time in their two homes, as my own was sorta splintered.
Regardless, I thought of both of them as parents, and to have both of them ripped away in such a brief period of time in very different ways—my mother-in-law died of an inoperable brain tumor over the course of a year and Alex’s father died very suddenly of a massive heart attack—was naturally pretty devastating. My particular perspective—grieving that profound loss, but feeling almost as if I shouldn’t mourn in the presence of their real children—was quite… confusing. My resulting reaction was to remain “strong,” to maintain a brave face throughout the ordeal, to be a rock for my wife and kid regardless of what I was actually feeling. And ignoring my own need to grieve for that long, it kinda hardened me. It sapped me of a lot of sensitivity and empathy, and I still don’t think I’ve properly dealt with the emotions that I probably should have in the wake of those deaths.
The “religious” aspect played into this even further. There was always the looming question of what the fucking catechism dictated should be done. There was often an oafish, foolish priest milling around my in-laws’ home, offering “comfort” and judgment, reminding the widower-to-be that, in spite of what his heart may tell him, “God” insisted otherwise. It was a sickening display of manipulation and only further solidified my deep loathing of that particular institution.
This new record is largely about mortality and grief through the eyes of an atheist and less of the challenge to organized religion that Crusades are known for. What was the process of writing that record like?
The record was essentially my only cathartic outlet. I guess that writing and creating remains the only real vent for the constantly churning, anxiety-ridden mess that is my brain. What I can’t verbalize to even those closest to me, I seem to have no problem putting into a poem and putting that poem to music and allowing people to dissect it and draw meaning. I suppose that’s the safer route, really. While on one hand, it might seem more difficult to share these intimate concerns with whoever wants to listen, sometimes it’s a lot easier to just yell it out—to throw it to a crowd of strangers and walk away for the night—than to sit and discuss it with people who share those specific concerns, who these things directly impact and who are truly interested in my well-being.
Anyway, perhaps needless to say, writing the record was exhausting and relieving and painful and immeasurably heavy. I hadn’t planned on writing a record about death and loss, but when you’re so deeply entrenched in something for every minute of the day, I think, inevitably, your art is going to reflect that—unless escapism is your game, which is an artistic avenue I’ve never embraced.
So, I began looking to some of my favorite poets’ works for their own reflections on coping with loss: there’s no shortage of incredibly effective poetry on the death of a loved one. The more I read, the more of my own words I was able to muster. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t always say things quite as beautifully and lyrically as the greats, so I chose to borrow some particularly relevant lines here and there and incorporate them into my own songs, which I feel highlights an undeniable parallel between my recent feelings and how other artists have felt in similar situations throughout history. It shows how the human experience—and the many anxieties surrounding relationships and mortality—have remained constant throughout the centuries.
How did you set the tone and buildup of the songs? There’s some interesting instrumentation on these songs—maybe even some tambourine on one track?
From the outset, we collectively wanted this record to be more grandiose and dynamic than our earlier stuff. Truth is, none of us really listen to much of the music from the particular subgenres that Crusades has been cordoned into. I think that upbeat, melodic punk rock was a common comfort zone for the four of us when the band started, and as each of our individual creative personalities reveal themselves more in our songs, the music evolves more into something that we would actually listen to and can be truly proud of and connected to.
Personally, I’ve always been drawn to music of a “grand” or cinematic nature. Be it Peter Gabriel or Cave In or Bonnie Tyler or Cold Mailman or Rush or Between Earth & Sky or even Buried Inside, my favorite music—regardless of genre—almost always ebbs and flows with its accompanying lyrical content. When dynamics are constantly shifting to reflect the mood of the storytelling, that to me is when songwriting is at its most effective. And that’s kinda what we hope to achieve with this record. Obviously, we’re not composing a prog symphony, but even just incorporating some modest string arrangements and additional percussion, it can add a lot of atmosphere, which is something we’ve felt was lacking in our earlier records.
It also helps that we enlisted many of our favorite engineers—Mike Bond, Matt Bayles, Martin Bowitz, and Jørgen Larsen—to help mold it all into what we heard in our heads.
Concerning the title of the record, did you start to look at loss and grief as a mental and/or emotional sickness that you were healing from?
The notion of a “sickness” is meant to play out on various levels. There’s the cancer that took my mother-in-law from us and its stronghold on my wife’s bloodline, the genetic predisposition that now lives on in my own wife and children. There’s the religious disease that infects, distracts, and destroys countless people all over the planet, that swells and oozes even more in these times of grief and need. And there’s also the sickness that is masculinity, of maintaining a front of bravado, of unwavering callousness when those around you so badly need your real humanity. I suppose the sickness is whatever runs rampant that needs to be done away with, that even the most seemingly enlightened of us are guilty of at times.
What is the release date of the record? Will you be touring to support it?
The record has a planned release date of early [March 7], 2017. Arrangements have changed significantly since we started writing the record: we’re no longer working with No Idea Records, and we’ll be co-releasing the LP on our own label, Countless Altars, [in Canda and overseas] and with our pals Ryan Young—of Off With Their Heads infamy—and Ranae Hummel on their Anxious & Angry label [in the U.S.] We’re currently planning a short European tour shortly after the release date, followed by more dates later in the year.
Oddball question—have you had interesting or challenging experiences being a left-handed guitar player? As a fellow left-hander, I found it really difficult to learn bass, since I didn’t have any friends to show me how to play “backwards.”
[Laughs] Good question! Not only do I play left-handed, but I play with my strings strung upside-down. I learned to play on right-handed guitars when I was a kid, and so all of my scales and chords were embedded into my brain and muscle memory that way. Which, not surprisingly, has proven tricky when trying to show parts to other band members, when trying to read tablature, etc. I’ve been playing this way since I was about 12 years old, so I’m not about to switch it up, and I’ve been playing in bands with Emmanuel for the past 10 years, so he’s able to follow me with little trouble at this point.
But yeah, being a lefty can be a real pain in the ass. Especially since guitars are less available and, therefore, more expensive—particularly since, in my own case, I have to have the bridge and nut flipped and even the pickups reversed in some cases. Luckily, the fine folks at Reverend Guitars have custom-made my last two guitars to my weirdo specifications.