The Flatliners survive in the social media age

A conversation on communication with the Flatliners’ Chris Cresswell.

December 12, 2016

Photo: Mike Izzy

In the last decade or so, the way that people communicate with each other has drastically changed. Indeed, this is something that happens as both human beings and technology continue to evolve, but there is something about social media that has propelled correspondence to a very different level. Its dichotomy is something that many millennials grapple with, in an attempt to understand and navigate through an entirely new world that at once eschews privacy, provides a platform for freedom of speech, and can be carefully curated for a news feed.  

Chris Cresswell has been ruminating on this — the state of communication — a lot lately. On the brink of 30 years old, the lead vocalist and guitarist for the Toronto-based punk band The Flatliners has experienced life both before and after the social media age. Examining how human interaction has changed informs much of the content of the band’s new music, the most recent of which was released this past October on a two-track EP, Nerves, and the next wave of which will arrive in a full-length, yet-to-be-named album in early 2017.  

Speaking over the phone from Toronto, Cresswell is candid. Social anxiety, he maintains, is more prevalent today than ever. “Society now is riddled with those kinds of problems,” he says. “And I think they’ve probably always been there, but they haven’t been talked about that much until now.” 

“Hang My Head,” the first track off of Nerves, delves deeper into the ways people interact online, from worrying about what’s trending, to the hate speech that gets spewed in comments sections, to the approval many seek from likes. While the song’s upbeat melody and driving riffs help to retain a sense of optimism, “Mud,” its moodier counterpart, isn’t as hopeful.  

“’Mud’ is just more — things are pretty fucked,” Cresswell laughs. “It’s okay if not everyone in the world sees some photo of you in front of some landmark. It’s okay to just exist. There’s a lot of pressure even subconsciously to deliver that information, whether it’s a photo or anything else, to the rest of the world, and I think it’s a self-imposed pressure that they don’t really realize they’re putting on themselves. For instance, travelling around a lot, I’ve seen it before — people just taking pictures of a landmark somewhere in Europe and then just putting it online, ‘oh, having a great time at this place.’ You didn’t even stop and look around. You just took the picture and kept rolling. That’s pretty lame.”

Cresswell is quick to recognize that social media is an important tool for bands to connect with fans (he runs The Flatliners’ accounts), but being an artist in 2016 certainly poses challenges, too. The musical landscape, and the way that people make and listen to music, is also constantly shifting. While streaming platforms and social networking make it easy for anyone to share their work and potentially reach millions of people — unquestionably, a truly wonderful and liberating thing — it can be difficult to separate oneself from all the noise, simply because there’s so much of it.

“And that’s a cool thing, on one hand, it really is, because it affords a lot of people that opportunity to have that cool creative outlet and follow their dreams,” Cresswell stresses. “But at the same time, we kind of live in a world where a lot of art forms are pretty over saturated at this point.”  

He adds, “It’s to the point now where you’re fighting so much more for people’s attention. That’s the thing. It’s so easy to reach people, but you’re still fighting for it somehow.”

“Basically, all you can hope for is that people still like what you do and they come see you play a show. You can’t really hope for more than that.”

It is safe to say that people like what The Flatliners do.

The band has been releasing music and touring prolifically since they were teenagers, amassing a cult following and carving out a hugely successful career for themselves that’s nearing the 15 year mark. And, one of the most likeable things about The Flatliners is that they understand how to use their reach to make a difference. Case in point: recording an acoustic cover of The Tragically Hip’s “Ahead By A Century” and donating proceeds to the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. 

“It was definitely important to us,” Cresswell says of the track, which was done while the band was on the road in Venice, Italy. “It sounds maybe a little cheesy, but when you have that opportunity, that outlet, and you have people that are interested in your band, you have that opportunity to get involved with something, in no other way than maybe raising a little money, which hopefully raises awareness and [helps to fight] all kinds of cancer.”

The Flatliners spent a chunk of last year touring with Lagwagon (the California punk band Cresswell credits getting him into the genre). After they came home to Toronto, the group enjoyed an extended length of time with their families and partners. The rare break also provided the band with the chance to work on their new music without the pressures of having to get back on the road right away. 

“That was usually how we do all the other records, but with this one, we were able to focus a lot more on what we wanted to do and do it while we’re home,” Cresswell says. “We’ve always taken, like, three years between records. That probably is our band’s biggest downfall, because in this day and age you have to stay relevant and in the forefront of people’s minds. We’ve never put a record out within two years of each other. The new one will be four years since Dead Language, almost. We just let it come to us, and it sounds pretty lame, but I mean, we can’t force it. We don’t really want to. It’s always been about putting out the best record we can for that snapshot in time for us. And if that takes time, it takes time.”

That way, Cresswell continues, the emphasis remains on the value of the work. It’s better to have quality, he says, rather than churn something out simply to satisfy a demand for it. “I think that’s when you start to cheat yourself as an artist and your fanbase. Just putting something out for the sake of putting something out, which is not really the way music and art’s supposed to happen — there’s a bit of an air of capitalism in there.” 

Indeed, instant gratification is a large part of today’s age. We want things right now and the next thing immediately after that. Too often, people are more concerned with posting a perfect photo of their latte to Instagram rather than enjoying the experience of sitting in a café with a friend. For the Flatliners, taking time with their new music has not only allowed the band to hone in on their craft, but, in turn, to really relish in their creative process. To slow down and drink in the details.

“Life isn’t as easy as it used to be for a lot of folks, especially in our age group,” Cresswell contemplates. “You have to hustle a lot to make a living, no matter what you do, and it just seems like it’s harder to keep up because there’s so much content out there, so much information being thrown at you. It always feels like there’s never enough hours in the day, that kind of thing. But I mean, just enjoy the coffee. Just savour that. Just spend the time with your friend, because that was the plan. It’s very strange. It’s fascinating to me. It’s fun to theorize about it. It’s not all bad — it’s definitely very interesting to see where things have gotten to.” 

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