Dave Williams Photo by Jordan Bell

Dave Williams interview by Kurt Morris

Dave Williams has been involved for more than two decades with the Ottawa, Ontario, Canada punk scene. Most notably of Crusades, he has also played in Black Tower, Steve Adamyk Band, Surrender, Sedatives, and Year Zero. Crusades put out three full-length albums and achieved a fair bit of notoriety for their tag as “satanic punk.” The band combined lyrics that showed a distaste of religion with music that straddled the line between hardcore and melodic punk. While well-celebrated, the band dissolved in 2017.

With this ending, Dave went through a reevaluation of his life. Much of that involved trying to find his footing through troubling times of depression and anxiety. He also sought to understand who he was as an adult in punk’s youthful scene. Processing these experiences led to Dave’s new musical project, Careful.

A big step away from Crusades, Careful draws more on Sugar and The Lemonheads than Off With Their Heads or The Creeps. Focusing on hooks and an indie pop sound, Careful’s debut 7” includes a cover of the Australian indie pop band, Smudge. A full-length from Careful will be released in 2021. Dave and I corresponded via email for this interview and discussed the progression from Crusades’ ending to where he is today.

Dave Williams, Crusades Photo by Marc Gartner

Kurt: As they say, let’s start at the beginning. How and why did Crusades break up?

Dave: Y’know, originally I had a pretty cut-and-dry answer about how the band had simply run its course and that we all wanted to try our hands at something different, but with a couple of years in the rearview—and a lot of time spent thinking about it—it’s certainly not as simple as all of that. 

My mother-in-law passed away from a brain tumor and my best friend’s father suffered a massive heart attack. And so I took the writing reins almost entirely so I could try and put exactly what I was thinking and feeling into these songs.

I will say that I felt emotionally and creatively exhausted after our last LP. I mean, initially, Crusades was relatively collaborative. We’d work out songs at jam, fool around with each others’ riffs, whatever. That’s how the first 7” and LP came together. And I guess with each step further, I took over the creative process more and more. Not to anyone’s chagrin, I don’t think, but that’s just how it panned out. And then This Is a Sickness was so specifically about a year in my own life—during which I lost two “surrogate parents.” My mother-in-law passed away from a brain tumor and my best friend’s father suffered a massive heart attack. And so I took the writing reins almost entirely so I could try and put exactly what I was thinking and feeling into these songs.

But truthfully, the No Idea Records implosion played a significant part as well. For me, at least. I was sure I’d forged a bond there that would last throughout the rest of my music-making lifetime. Being a part of the No Idea lineage—one that was home to so, so many of my favorite and most-influential bands: Radon, Left For Dead, Samiam, Annalise, The Swarm, Leatherface, et cetera—meant the world to me. That label and the community surrounding it was so eclectic and seemingly all-encompassing. There were elements of Dischord, of Gilman St, of ABC No Rio—it tied into all of those sounds and those ideas, and to be welcomed into that fold not only as a band on a roster but as genuine friends was something I’d long dreamt of and worked toward. To me, it meant I’d done it “right” in terms of ideology, style, and ability. It was the top of the heap, in my opinion.

I’d already felt like I was beginning to look inward on the community I’d been a part of for the past many years—in my late thirties, married with three kids, musically focused on things, mostly, outside of that world—but I’d found some very close and fast friends in the No Idea family. I fell completely in love with your Crosby-Thelins, Drobachs, Goodwins, Sweetings, Weinbenders, the whole gang worked there. I spent a few winter months in Florida having brunches and BBQs and sleepovers with these folks. It was a not-so-subtle reminder that, even if the bands and crowds look… “uncomfortably youthful,” there’ll also be a crew of older, like-minded, warm-hearted people among whom you’ll feel at home. So when No Idea’s financial concerns caused it to shut down—seemingly quite abruptly, but others may tell you different—and the aforementioned family of people splintered in various directions, with Crusades’ final LP hanging in the balance, it hit me really hard. Var and I were friends. Like, talking every day friends. And this was a complete shock to me. I was absolutely rattled. But I was also so completely focused on getting that record finished that we just trudged on. 

Rather than having it mixed in Norway by Martin Bowitz and Jørgen Larsen —of The Spectacle and Cold Mailman infamy—we hit up our pal Matt Bayles for mixing and then had the Norwegians master it. they also assisted a lot in the production throughout. I ended up releasing the LP myself in Canada/overseas and Ryan and Ranae from Anxious & Angry handled the U.S. version. 

We played two wonderful “last shows” at Fest. I cried all over everyone I saw afterward, proceeded to drink way too much, slept on our hotel bathroom floor, got splashed with my fellow grief-stricken and equally inebriated Crusade Emmanuel’s pee, and that was that.

The record did quite well but certainly suffered from a lack of the promotional tools that No Idea had in its arsenal. After a poorly-planned, on my part, and not-so-hotly attended European tour, it felt like things were winding down. All of the aforementioned stuff seemed to signal that it was the right time to wrap it up. We played two wonderful “last shows” at Fest. I cried all over everyone I saw afterward, proceeded to drink way too much, slept on our hotel bathroom floor, got splashed with my fellow grief-stricken and equally inebriated Crusade Emmanuel’s pee, and that was that.

Kurt: You know, the situation with No Idea has long puzzled me because they just seemed to drop off the face of the planet. I realize you may not know all the details of what happened to them as a label, but what did the changes they underwent look like for Crusades?

Dave: Honestly, I still don’t know all of the details that led to actual collapse of the label, and if I did, I probably wouldn’t feel amazing about airing it out. That said, I think I can pretty safely say that, like many record labels, the death of the CD and the drastic downturn in general physical sales hit No Idea incredibly hard and the resulting financial decisions didn’t pan out quite as they’d hoped.

In Crusades’ case, we’d made the plans I’d mentioned earlier to have Martin and Jörgen mix and master the record in Norway. Norway is generally quite a bit more expensive than North America, and so the go-ahead was based on an amount that No Idea had agreed to cover most of… which we later—too late, really—found out they could not. Arrangements had already been made with the Norwegians, including a substantial amount of already-delivered production help. It felt quite humiliating to have to pull the plug after they’d already done so much work in good faith.

Luckily, Matt Bayles offered to mix the record for what we could afford on our own, and we still had the record mastered in Norway. It ended up sounding terrific but, to me, anyway, it was tainted with the notion of “settling” due to whatever was happening in the No Idea camp. And, if I haven’t made it apparent yet, I’m not particularly good at settling for a final product that doesn’t exactly match my initial vision. But then again, that’s a “me problem.”

Dave Williams, Crusades Photo by Marc Gartner

Kurt: I can see how everything that happened would be stressful, but why not just take a break instead of breaking up?

Dave: I don’t think I have a clear answer for that. Again, I had that pretty-rehearsed and self-convinced response about it having “run its course.” I think it likely had more to do with my looming mental health crisis. I was feeling restless creatively, disappointed critically, and rather heartbroken, so therefore I looked to Crusades’ collaborative potential as the problem. Like, maybe I could really nail what I wanted to do and continue my fucking “upward trajectory” with another combination of people, or some such nonsense.

I don’t know. It really seems so ridiculous now. I mean, truly, we were all on diverging paths, musically. Emmanuel was ready to take an indefinite hiatus from both playing—in and booking bands. He was burnt out. And while Jordan crushed the drum parts to whatever I brought to the table, I knew that our increasing technicality and heaviness wasn’t exactly up his particular alley. Scott? I still don’t know what he listens to or truly loves, and he’s been one of my closest friends for fifteen years or so. He’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a Toronto Raptors jersey. But I really think I was just hurting and couldn’t imagine going through something like that again, ever. Melodramatic in hindsight, but impossibly heavy and real at the time.

Kurt: You mentioned to me before the interview that the breakup of Crusades led to an identity crisis. What did that look like for you?

Dave: It’s safe to say that I didn’t fully grasp how entwined with Crusades and “being a band person” my identity had become. I certainly didn’t imagine I’d feel anywhere near as lost and directionless as I did in the weeks following Crusades’ last shows. 

It felt like I’d always had something to look forward to. A reason to create, something to plan my life around, that cycle of writing, recording, touring, meeting people, travelling, keeping in touch… and having something to channel all of my big feelings into.

Kurt: What do you mean by “big feelings”?

I don’t really feel “casually” about many things. I’ve always used music as a way to convey the darker, heavier topics that I never choose to discuss in “real life.”

Dave: I think I just mean how I share the thoughts and ideas that motivate me to create. I guess, despite my chipper, outgoing social self, I’m a pretty intense person. I don’t really feel “casually” about many things. I’ve always used music as a way to convey the darker, heavier topics that I never choose to discuss in “real life.”

I simply didn’t consider what it might do to me when Crusades ended… and it felt like I was falling. I just wanted to drink and sleep and get every day over with as quickly as possible. The gravity of the band ending had quickly and deeply set in when I got home from Florida. I was terrified about what it meant for my relationships with Emmanuel, Jordan, and Scott… what it meant for my place in the punk rock community… what it meant for this thing that I’ve loved so profoundly since I was thirteen years old, and whether or not my time in it was actually finished. 

There was a Bane lyric from their last record that just kept spinning in my head: “I’m not ready, this will only leave me losing more / When I follow it down to a place where no one knows what we have done.” This idea that maybe now I move on to a life where my time in these bands, writing these songs that people truly felt and sang back at us, that the thing I loved more than anything else I’ll ever love doesn’t mean anything at all. That I’m just like all of the “normal” people I see every day—and yes, I’m well aware of just how self-aggrandizing and precious that sounds.

That the thing that made me special and allowed me to meet incredible people all over the world and made them want to meet and talk to me was simply finished. Without those relationships and that recognition and approval and admiration, what and who was I? It felt like the only possibly answers were “nothing” and “no one.”

Certainly I recognize now that not all of these feelings were entirely rational or reasonable or realistic, but at the time it was how I felt. And it spiraled into a pretty deep depression that inevitably resulted in my seeking therapy and tackling a lot of stuff that had been brewing for decades and had come to a head with this “episode.”

Kurt: Depression is such a huge term. It can mean a lot of different things to different people, so I’m wondering what yours looked like.

It turns out that getting married, buying a house, finishing university, getting a car, and trying to decide on a career all at once had taken its toll on a brain that was already on shaky ground after a lifetime of unpredictable family situations and temporary living.

Dave: I didn’t know exactly what it was at first. In 2009, I’d been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder after many months of sleeplessness, intense hypochondria, bizarre gaps in focus, and various other textbook but terrifying symptoms. I was sure I was losing my mind. It turns out that getting married, buying a house, finishing university, getting a car, and trying to decide on a career all at once had taken its toll on a brain that was already on shaky ground after a lifetime of unpredictable family situations and temporary living.

Kurt: Undertaking big life changes individually can be major stressors, so it’s understandable how doing a lot of those at once would cause severe mental health issues. But you also mentioned unpredictable family situations—can you clarify that a little more?

Dave Williams, Crusades Photo by Marc Gartner

Dave: I did a lot of growing up in other peoples’ homes. It was made pretty clear that I wasn’t particularly welcome in my own house, so I took off a lot.

Kurt: How did your parents make it clear you weren’t welcome in your house? I’ve heard you talk before about how your Dad was in a biker gang—am I remembering that right? I always thought that made your parents sound cool, but it sounds like I’m wrong about that?

Dave: I only lived with my Dad until I was seven. That’s when my parents split—undoubtedly due to my Dad’s fondness for drunken violence. My Mom then hastily married an absolute piece of trash who was, in most ways, far worse a person than my Dad. Just a lazy, angry, much more violent example of human garbage. It was apparent, even at seven, that this guy had no interest in being a parent to my sister or me. Any time I spent at home was either in my room listening to tapes or in completely age-inappropriate conflict with a frightening adult man. So I spent as little time at home as I could. And honestly, no one seemed to notice or give a shit where I was anyway.

Oh, and my Dad was always a biker, but I don’t know that he ever donned any specific “colors.” That said, I met more than a few of his pals who did and they were always lovely.

Kurt: So if you weren’t really welcome in your house, what did you do? Where’d you go?

Dave: I had a sizeable network of pals whose parents were seemingly happy to let me crash—some happier than others. But I certainly spent as little time at home as I possibly could—as much fun as it was bouncing between rural trailer parks and urban housing co-ops.

Then my Mom moved away with my younger sister and brother when I was sixteen and I stayed behind. I shared a place with my Dad—who I hadn’t lived with since I was seven—but he wasn’t around much. Maybe a day or two a week. So it was mostly just me. I still spent a ton of time at friends’ houses—mostly so I could eat actual food. But, honestly, despite not knowing what each day or week would bring, I was pretty happy to be left to my own devices when I wasn’t at someone else’s dinner table.

Kurt: So, going back to the time period of when you were experiencing a lot of life changes; did you start taking any medications to help with this? It seems that all too often, that is often someone’s first avenue to head down when dealing with mental health issues.

Dave: I started taking SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor Antidepressants) and openly chatting with people about it—which led to my finding out that—[gasps]—other people I knew, some very well, had dealt with similar concerns. Within a year or so, things were under control, mostly back to “normal”—better than ever in some ways.

For better or worse—decidedly worse—Crusades had become my only vehicle for expressing pain and sorrow and for looking inward. My daily life was on auto-pilot. And then Crusades stopped.

And then for nearly a decade, life moved forward pretty uneventfully. Well, anxiety-wise anyway. Admittedly, there were times when I was inappropriately stress-free. During the tragic illness and death of my mother-in-law, I was stoic and cold. Rather than experience the worry and pain that would normally infiltrate every bit of life throughout this process, I felt almost nothing. I foolishly chocked it up to strength and successfully living through past traumas. So rather than grieve it typically, I “took notes” and wrote a record. For better or worse—decidedly worse—Crusades had become my only vehicle for expressing pain and sorrow and for looking inward. My daily life was on auto-pilot. And then Crusades stopped.

At first, depression presented itself as exhaustion. I was just entirely depleted: physically, socially, emotionally. I offered nothing to my wife, kids, friends… I’d just check off my daily obligations and then sleep every moment that I possibly could. Inevitably, my wife Jessica began asking what the fuck was up. And I couldn’t explain it. I was tired and annoyed that I should have to explain myself beyond that. But because she is amazing and supportive and infuriatingly smart, she knew better and had gotten incredibly good at navigating my bullshit. The correlation of my shutting down with what had transpired over the past many months was painfully obvious. I eventually relayed that, despite being a partner and father and whatever else; I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t Dave from Crusades.

These chats and this exhaustion went on for some time before the idea of therapy was broached. I would get so defensive speaking with Jessica that it was becoming more frustrating than productive. We’d been together since we were seventeen—twenty years at this point in the story—but I couldn’t begin to imagine that she understood how I felt. How it felt to be falling away from this other home. This community of weirdos that was the only place I’d ever felt genuine comfort and consistency. So with some insistent nudging, I accepted the idea that I needed to speak to an objective third party. Someone whose insights I couldn’t simply write-off as judgmental or self-serving. And so I started talking.

Dave Williams Photo by Sara Buczel

Kurt: And what did you find?

Dave: It became obvious almost right away that my emotional state was a lot more deeply rooted than any initial diagnoses had accounted for. Certainly I was an anxious person, but the foundations for my stress and sadness weren’t something that could be properly dealt with via behavioral therapy.

Kurt: I hear what you’re saying. It’s interesting, though, because I know that for many people—myself included—therapy can be a good way to address depression and anxiety. What was it about therapy that caused you to feel it couldn’t address those issues of stress and sadness?

Dave: Oh, don’t get me wrong, therapy was incredible. It absolutely helped and continues to help me effectively and thoughtfully deal with situations that would’ve sent me spiraling in the past. The shortcoming I alluded to was that the nature of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and/or talk therapy was, according to my doctor anyway, not quite intensive enough to deal with my specific issues. She suggested that ECT could be an effective strategy but that she didn’t personally recommend it. The side effects can be rather heavy.

Kurt: By ECT do you mean electro-convulsive therapy? That seems a bit extreme, don’t you think? Here in the States that’s usually one of the last avenues of treatment if nothing else works. Had things really gotten that bad?

Dave: I believe the thinking behind the ECT option was that, when someone’s core values and beliefs are so deeply rooted in painful memories, ECT can be effective in separating the two somehow. I could be way off, but I recall that being the explanation. I also know that the inimitable Townes Van Zandt received electro-therapy in his youth in an attempt to cure his depression and lost most of his childhood memories in the process, which, not shockingly, served only to deepen his sorrow and woe. So ya, I passed.

Kurt: I should point out that from people I know who had ECT, it’s changed a lot since Townes Van Zandt did it decades ago. It’s much safer. But your point is taken.

Dave: In the end, I’m now much better at coping with stressful situations as they arise, but remain kinda inextricably plagued by shitty memories and resentment… for the most part anyway. Forgiveness has never been my strongest suit, but there are some things I’ve been able to put aside—if only partially.

The feeling of not being wanted or welcome had permeated everything I knew and felt about myself. I carry around some pretty textbook abandonment issues, and a “profound sorrow” that reflects the little self-worth and value I acknowledge. Writing, recording, and performing music is the only thing I’ve ever felt truly confident and relatively proficient doing. I still agonize over it, but it never leaves me feeling empty or worthless or like a disappointment. It gives me meaning in a way that even marriage or parenthood never has.

And that’s certainly not to say that music gives my life more meaning than those hugely fulfilling and wonderful parts of my life. But when I stumble in my creative life, it feels like a learning experience or an opportunity for growth. When I stumble as a partner or a parent, I feel like an utter disappointment, like a failure. And a lot of the work I’ve done in therapy surrounds that. That those feelings of failure and inadequacy are my own projections and not reciprocated by my partner or children. There’s just always the looming weight that I’m undeserving of comfort and happiness and that it will inevitably slip away of my own doing.

Dave Williams, Crusades Photo by Marc Gartner

Kurt: How does your new project, Careful, fit into all of this? Does it cover a lot of the issues we’ve talked about?

Dave: I’d been toying with the idea of doing something very Lemonheads-y for a long time. Evan Dando has been one of my favorite singers and songwriters since I was a tweenager, and while I kinda touched on that style in an older project of mine, Year Zero, it’s not something that has ever really come to fruition. My first post-Crusades endeavor was an ’80s pop-inspired synth-y thing called Surrender, with Scott from Crusades and The Creeps on vocals. We released an LP on a cool label based in Argentina and the U.K. called Aztec Records. It was a ton of fun doing something quite different from anything I’d done before—although admittedly, navigating a new music community whose aesthetic, ambitions, and motivations are so far removed from those of the world I came up in was… interesting. Still, we’ll likely revisit Surrender soon enough—I’ve already got another LP’s worth of songs written and recorded. 

Anyway, all of that to say I began to really miss just writing songs on my guitar. And having spent so much time “sitting in” the subjects we’d begun unpacking in my doctor’s office had inspired a lot of lyrical fodder. And as Evan and Juliana (Hatfield) and Smudge and Sugar and so many bands of that era had shown, pairing thoughtful, often-agonized, introspective storytelling with catchy, alternative pop/rock music can work beautifully.

But it was my pal Jordan Stamm at Drunk Dial Records who really got the ball rolling. He’s been rather enthusiastic about many of the bands I’ve been in and offered to do the debut Careful single as part of his terrific 7” series. We were both really excited about the results and now I’m almost finished the music for the first LP as well as a split 7” and some comp tracks.

Kurt: For people who don’t know, I’ll clarify that the 7” series is about musicians getting drunk before they record their songs. How drunk were you? Because it sounds pretty good! Was it something you’d done before?

Dave: [laughs] Ya, you could say I’ve dabbled in the art of playing music whilst inebriated. Hell, I’ve toured with Tiltwheel before. But in all honesty, I certainly wasn’t fall-down drunk or Cypress Hill high, by any means. Over the course of the two recording sessions for those songs, I had a few beers and some edibles and a hoot or two of the ol’ Leafs By Snoop’s Moonbeam Indica. Nothing too crazy. Gotta be able to nail those wanky solos!

But as I was saying, the Careful stuff is an attempt at talking through a lot of what got me to the point I’m at now. My first forty years. A sad, angry childhood spent in rural trailer parks and urban housing projects. Teen years spent in shitty hardcore bands and other people’s homes. Twenties and thirties spent in relative comfort and in significantly better bands, touring the world and making friends and finally having a real place in all of it.

Dave Williams Photo by Jessica Gilmore

And now navigating what it means to be forty with a wife and three kids and a career and trying to look back fondly rather than longingly. To celebrate all the good that has happened… and look ahead with anticipation and excitement and not just mourn the idea that it’ll never quite be that way again.

And now navigating what it means to be forty with a wife and three kids and a career and trying to look back fondly rather than longingly. To celebrate all the good that has happened—that weird, creative, intimate, youth-centric, often booze-and-drug-fueled, nomadic lifestyle that still so few people truly understand or experience—and look ahead with anticipation and excitement and not just mourn the idea that it’ll never quite be that way again.

I guess those are the “big feelings” I’m trying to package up in these Careful songs. And I think, despite the specifics I’m drawing on, these are pretty relatable topics for folks who’re getting older and trying to make sense of their place in an everchanging, perpetually young community that’s been home for most of their lives.

Kurt: Are you finding any themes as you’re trying to put together songs for people who are trying to make sense of their place? Anything that’s in turn helping you make sense of your life?

Dave: I hope that most of the themes I’m exploring in these songs will be relatable and will hit home for some people. I have no doubt whatsoever that the subject of growing older in a youth-centric community would strike a chord with a lot of folks. And certainly there’s no shortage of people in the DIY music community—or any community, really—who struggle with mental health issues, who are plagued by memories of tumultuous upbringings, broken homes, poverty, abuse, neglect, what have you. And I think the overarching theme is trying to reconcile who I was then with who I am now—how one has informed the other, for better and worse.