Wide Awake and I’m Dead Tired:
How Five Punk-Rock Lifers Are Making One Last Stand in Hamilton
It’s nearly 8 p.m. on a warm evening in June, and the sun is still floating lazily above Gage Park in the city’s east end, refusing to dip below the horizon on one of the longest days of the year.
On Cumberland Avenue, a group of retirees are strolling up and down the wide, quiet boulevard in the shadow of the Niagara Escarpment. The low rumble of traffic on nearby Gage Avenue South is the only sound on an otherwise peaceful night.
In a few short weeks, the largely residential neighbourhood will be transformed by a bustling array of cars, strollers, food vendors and artisans for It’s Your Festival — a four-day cultural fair that turns Gage Park into one of the region’s most popular Canada Day destinations.
During the summer months, when the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats are in town, the area springs to life with barbecues and tailgate parties, as packs of rowdy fans sip covert beers and trek north toward the football stadium. In July, the team will unveil their contemporary yet controversial Tim Hortons Field on the site of the iconic and lovably decrepit Ivor Wynne Stadium — ending an 18-month absence of pro football in Hamilton.
For George Pettit, frontman and principal lyricist of Dead Tired, the entire east end of Hamilton holds a special place in his heart. When Pettit’s former band Alexisonfire began to gain momentum in the early 2000s, he moved into a modest two-bedroom apartment on nearby Emerald Street, and hasn’t left the city since. Pettit is also a lifelong Tiger-Cats fan, and was a regular fixture at Ivor Wynne Stadium when not on the road with Alexis. His team suffered a heartbreaking loss to Saskatchewan in last year’s Grey Cup final, and it’s been an especially long and bleak winter for the black and gold faithful.
But on this particular evening, even as the Ticats square off against the hated Toronto Argonauts in a preseason game at Varsity Stadium, his focus is primarily on music.
Pettit and guitarist Franz Stefanik are the first members of Dead Tired to arrive at Boxcar Sound Recording, clamoring up three flights of squeaking stairs to the top level of a converted loft not far from Gage Park. The band is less than a week into recording what will become their debut record, and the mood is light in the brick-lined control room. Under the direction of producer Sean Pearson, the group managed to lay down a remarkable 13 tracks in one five-hour session earlier this month — a wall-rattling barrage of live-off-the-floor recording that was followed by an unexpected visit from Hamilton’s finest.
“The police showed up about an hour after we stopped playing, and that was basically the end of that,” says Pettit, reclining in a black leather chair in the studio’s control room. “They just sort of walked into the studio to see what was going on. I think they received a complaint earlier in the afternoon, and wanted to make sure we were finally calling it a day.”
Sitting opposite Pettit on a second-hand couch, Stefanik pulls out a new folding knife to show off its unique square blade. “It looks like a prison knife,” offers Pettit, while handing out a round of Molson Export cans. Stefanik remains quietly consumed with the blade — opening and closing the device with heavily tattooed hands, and monitoring the smooth gliding action from behind a pair of thick black glasses. For the past several years, the Fort Erie native has been building a reputation as one of Southern Ontario’s premier tattoo artists, plying his trade at Toronto’s Okey Doke Tattoo Shop near College and Ossington, and mastering a traditional style defined by bold colours, clean lines and a reimagining of iconic tattoo staples such as pin-ups, eagles, crawling panthers and kewpies. It’s been a long time since he’s played in a band, but music has always remained a core tenet of Stefanik’s many passions.
“I played, like, four years ago with a couple of my friends from Welland,” says Stefanik. “We recorded something, never released it and played maybe 10 shows. Really, I’ve been struggling to do anything musically since.”
Drummer Chris Whetstone is the next to arrive, perhaps best known around town for his work in post-punk outfit Bird Rentals and their fantastic Suburban Crawl EP. He’s followed closely by second guitarist Mike “Biff” Young — a Hamilton music veteran who cut his teeth in ’90s sludge rock pioneers Shallow North Dakota, and made waves across Canada on the strength of three punishing full-length records. Everyone is dressed in some variation of black t-shirt, dark shorts and sneakers, and the band members immediately take to cutting each other up and swapping stories from earlier that day. Bassist Phil Waring, a longtime friend and musical peer of Pettit’s from Grimsby, is the only absent member. A former member of Rise Over Run, Keep It Up and Alexisonfire side project Black Lungs, Waring is also no stranger to the rigours of the road.
Dead Tired is far from a full-time pursuit for any member of the group. At this stage, it’s really more of a hobby. With a median age of 30, rehearsals and recording sessions often shift to discussions of friends, family, work and day-to-day life in Hamilton. For members such as Pettit and Young, the prospect of winding up the machine and touring behind a new record is almost intimidating — despite growing interest from as far away as England and Brazil. Regardless, all of the members agree that a weeklong tour is not out of the question once the album comes out. The prospect of touring anywhere is relatively strange, given that Dead Tired was created on a whim during Young’s birthday party in February, when four of the five members found themselves sitting at the same table.
“Myself and Phil and Chris and Biff were all sitting in a circle, and we were like, ‘is this a band? Did we just start a band?’” says Pettit, letting out a big laugh. The group retreated to Whetstone’s basement to start working on a handful of riffs and rough song ideas, and soon relocated to a rehearsal space north of the city’s dowtown core. Stefanik was brought into the fold to help beef up the live sound, and the five-man lineup was solidified.
“Franz was a later addition when I found out I can’t sing and play guitar at the same time,” explains Pettit. “I think we always had the idea of having another guitar player, and there was literally, like, a practice and then we brought Franz in.”
In April, a nondescript Instagram account known as @zdeadtiredz (secretly run by Stefanik) began posting cryptic black and white photos and heavily distorted video clips, catching the eyes and ears of underground music fans across the city. On April 13 — a full five days before revealing the band’s roster — Dead Tired announced that their debut show would take place May 16 at The Spice Factory, a gritty warehouse rehearsal space and venue on Hughson Street North. By the time the not-so-well-kept secret was out, demand was huge. Pettit also launched a Twitter account to see just how popular his mysterious new project had become.
“I was at work at the beginning of a shift, and I just Tweeted, ‘hey, I’m in a new band, check it out, it’s Dead Tired,” he says. (The actual Tweet, delivered April 10, reads: I’ve got a new band. Follow @zDEADTIREDz on Twitter and Instagram. More info soon).
“That was literally all the strategy and thought that went into it. We had no idea. And then, at the end of the shift, we had 700 Twitter followers and people were getting in touch with me, old Alexis people … there was something nice about the intrigue of it all, because we were holding all the power at that point.”
On the evening of Dead Tired’s first concert — an event promoted largely by word-of-mouth buzz and social media marketing — the lineup snaked all the way from the club’s front door to nearby Wilson Street well before show time. Pettit and co. opened a three-band bill featuring Toronto’s Teenanger and Hamilton’s TV Freaks, and debuted songs such as “All Hands” and “Dead Tired” during a brief, chaotic and unfathomably loud opening set. Former Alexisonfire guitarist Wade MacNeil was on hand for the show, along with a veritable who’s who of the Hamilton music community.
In a live setting, Dead Tired is George Pettit unchained. At The Spice Factory gig, the imposing frontman spent half of the band’s set in the middle of a roiling mosh pit, sinking his teeth into the meat of every song while bouncing from one end of the club to the other. Despite more than 10 years in the music industry at the helm of a hugely successful Canadian band, this is Pettit’s first time standing alone as the chief lyricist and singer. Writing unaccompanied may offer more freedom, but that same freedom brings a whole new set of challenges — filling space.
“Writing lyrics, for me, doesn’t get easier with time,” says Pettit. “I’m still kind of hashing stuff out and second guessing myself. A lot of the time I’ll write a big thing out, and then I’ll just be, like, constantly be trying to cram a square peg into a round hole with a song. And then I’ll just scrap all the lyrics from it and go back over it … I get an idea, I write down a bunch of stuff and sometimes it fits and sometimes I have to trim it and pare it. But it’s been good … I don’t have to bounce anything off of other people because no one else is singing, which is different.”
At Boxcar, Dead Tired producer Sean Pearson is preparing to listen back to an unmixed recording of “All Hands,” captured a few days earlier in just three takes. Pearson’s relationship with guitarist Biff Young stretches back to his days in Shallow North Dakota, when Pearson manned the soundboard for the band’s death knell, 2004’s Mob Wheel, and collaborated with the guitarist on a variety of other projects. In Canadian music circles, the soft-spoken, shaggy-haired producer is known as a go-to workhorse for the heaviest of heavy acts. His roster of past clients includes the likes of Cursed, Crux of Aux, TV Freaks and, most recently, Montreal’s The Great Sabatini. The latter’s new LP, Dog Years, was recorded, mixed and mastered entirely by Pearson.
For Young, the opportunity to work at Boxcar with and old friend and one of the most respected punk producers in Canada was a no-brainer. It didn’t take much convincing to get everyone else on board.
“Me personally, I’ve worked with Sean since almost the ’90s on three or four things, and Chris has too,” says Young. “I brought these guys here and they got the vibe and they loved it, and it was that easy.”
“It’s always nice when the band has their sound, that’s the most important thing,” adds Pearson, seated in front of a bank of high-end studio monitors. “I went to one practice and then a month later went to another one, and I could really see how the band just got suddenly really tight. They were tight before, but it was far more solid at that point.”
At the conclusion of the interview, Pettit quietly slips out of the control room with Pearson to begin work on more vocal overdubs in the dim and cavernous live room. Each night between 8 and 11 p.m., with a pair of water bottles lined up on a nearby barstool, the vocalist charges through as many takes as possible before succumbing to a migraine that has been plaguing him throughout the sessions. Regardless, as the recording process nears its conclusion and the finished product takes shape, there’s a sense that anything is possible for the newest addition to Hamilton’s thriving punk scene — as long as they all still want it. All that remains is playing through the pain, pushing through the pit and fighting off the inevitable march of time for as long as possible.
Andrew Baulcomb is a freelance writer based in Hamilton, Ontario. He’s currently working on a non-fiction book titled Evenings & Weekends that chronicles the local music community in Hamilton from 2006-2011.