A Window Into AHF – Exclusive Interview
Randal Wark & Alex Henry Foster
Imagine opening a leather-bound journal. You touch pen to paper and, without filter, you begin to explore your trauma and pick at the fresh scars.
At the end of the exercise, you have poured out your innermost feelings, you faced your deepest fears and relived trauma you wish you could forget.
To what lengths would you go to hide that journal from curious eyes? A bank vault? Armed guards? Bottom of the ocean?
Alex did the opposite. He took his journey, gently placed in on a layer of music and release this soundtrack of his recent life.
What starts as darkness, pain and trauma becomes a story of finding your true voice, feeling the light and finding forgiveness.
Montreal Rocks sat down with Alex before his sold-out performance at L’Astral on November 30th, 2019. The dressing room is filled with pictures of the band, memories of past shows and Your Favorite Enemies milestones.
We first spoke about the recent Nick Cave Evening of Talk and Music that we both attended.
Alex Henry Foster: I’ve been a fan of Nick Cave for a long time. He suddenly evolved into a very public figure, with the letters, being in every music media and on the website every other week. I was wondering if it was a move, where fans like me, might feel that it’s not the same anymore.
Montreal Rocks: Like the never meet your heroes thing.
Alex: Yeah, exactly. We’ve met him and the Bad Seeds in London. It was a completely random thing. We were rehearsing at John Henry’s pretty early in the morning. We are a pretty hard-core band in the sense that we get there early and do our thing. There was a band already before us, which was like…whoa, those guys are serious! As we are setting up, we started hearing the music. “That’s funny…they’re playing a Nick Cave cover.” We keep doing our thing and eventually went: “Wait a minute…who would keep doing Nick Cave covers? No….” Then Miss Isabel comes in and says she just saw Nick Cave in the common kitchen area. So, out of the blue, we spent the whole day with those awesome guys.
Sometimes, with the other band (Your Favorite Enemies), we played so many festivals, so we got to meet a lot of bands and people that we really like. I’m sometimes reluctant to talk to them because you never know if the relationship with their music will be affected because of who they are that day. If they are acting like a** holes, it doesn’t mean they are.
MR: Everyone can have a bad day.
Alex: Exactly. I’m always very careful when I’m meeting people, regardless of what is going on in my life. That one moment is very important…
MR: For them…
Alex: And for me as well. When you lose that perspective, you lose everything; the reason you communion with people.
Even with those seasoned artists, like Nick Cave…it was HIM.
MR: It wasn’t an act.
Alex: Exactly. It’s a good thing, especially now in the music business, it feels like there is a disconnection. It’s shrinking and everyone is fighting for a piece of something that doesn’t exist. There are rivalries, for whatever reason. We have never been in cliques like that because we evolved in different areas. We’ve never been a “Montreal Band” for instance, because everything started elsewhere. We’ve never had that perspective of; are you in the right crowd or clique?
MR: I want to go back to the beginning. Because “The Beginning is the End.” (first song off his Windows in the Sky album)
MR: You are a young child and you are flipping through your parent’s record collection. What stands out as something that changed your life?
Alex: I don’t remember a day without music at home. I come from a very humble family where my father always struggled to get a job and keep it. We were always moving. It wasn’t till I was 13 or 14 years old where I could say: “This is home.”
Music was what preserved me from that crazy environment of always moving.
MR: It was like the one constant.
Alex: Yes. It brought so much joy. My mother was really into old school rock-n-roll like Elvis and Jerry-Lee Lewis. I remember, as an only child, dancing with my mother every Saturday morning.
My father was into Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, CCR, Black Sabbath, Rolling Stones. The fondest memories I have, spending time with my father, was through music. He would go: “Let me show you something.” He had an enormous collection of LPs and 7 inches. It was so powerful.
I think that music impacted me in a very positive way and preserved me from understanding the reality I was in. It was also able to connect me with my folks in a very special way.
Those are the fondest memories of my childhood.
In my teenage years, I discovered music of my own.
MR: I’m also an only child.
Alex: By the nature of an only child, you are always alone. My mother was really pushing me into art and to read. I understood later that these are the dreamy elements that shaped me into the person that I became. I can now understand my passion for words, sounds and to connect with others through music in a very special way.
MR: I want to ask you something, out of burning curiosity. At one point, in your teens, you went from one side…to the dark side, the Neo Nazi direction.
MR: You then swung way to the other side, where you are helping Amnesty International. You said it was something your dad said that brought you to your sense. What did he say?
Alex: I now realize the reality of being bullied in school because I wasn’t wearing the right stuff. It was difficult to understand because I came from inside this reality bubble at home.
Suddenly, my dad became an alcoholic, a very heavy drinker. That safe environment that was preserving me from the exterior world was suddenly shattered.
I was very angry, confused and frustrated. It was through the music that I was introduced to those groups (Neo Nazi).
When I share my story at conferences, I share that I was so alone. If someone would have come to me and said: Do you want to play Chess? I would have been the biggest champion of Chess! Chess would have been cool!
But it was those groups that could see and detect kids like me, living what I was living. I found myself in a place where I had these people to be with. It went way beyond the uniform thing, behind the ideology. Still, I was part of this thing that was completely crazy.
When I saw my dad turning his life around, I really hated him for that. It felt that what my mother and I had to go through; it was an easy way out for him to say: “I found Jesus…I’m saved.”
I was like; “You might be saved, but I’m going to give you hell to pay!”
But again…I was a teenager…
MR: You don’t know how to process it.
Alex: Exactly. I was in a constant storm with this and school. The only way I had to protect myself was in the music.
With my dad, it was always confrontation. I was always picking on him. I was even reading the bible to go back at him. It wasn’t that I hated him, but I was in a place where I wanted him to pay.
MR: I think we all go through a rebellious phase. My pendulum swung from one side to the extreme, but you find your middle eventually.
Alex: One time, he came to me and said: “Well…you are right.”
He apologized for all those years. It was the first time I saw my dad cry. He talked about his own experiences as a child and things that happened to him.
I think it impacted me, because deep inside, I wasn’t someone who was into violence. That wasn’t part of who I was in my core.
I started to process that and break it down. The price to pay to be in those groups versus what I was gaining…it was just weird.
Also, you grow, meeting other people and they can have an impact on you when they are patient and compassionate. They were able to see through my uniform.
There was a wall where you don’t want to be touched or have people approach you. You want to be safe in your own bubble. The message is so strong and repulsive that nobody would dare come close to you…but friends where still coming to me.
It’s been a whole process to realize this. It’s not so much something he said, but it was looking at someone and saying: That’s the real deal…for him.
MR: That vulnerability shows a lot of strength. That was back in the days where men didn’t cry. You held everything in and pretended you had everything figured out. When you see that vulnerability in man, it’s a good thing.
Alex: Yes. I think it was a breaking point.
MR: Your album is about being vulnerable. You’ve taken that from your dad, and now you are giving it to other people.
Alex: Yeah. It’s a beautiful thing to stop for a moment. It feels like the whole world is turning so fast, especially now, and you don’t quite understand what is going on. You pretend that you do.
At that moment, when he sat down with me, even if we didn’t have a follow up conversation to that out of the blue moment…it has been THE conversation.
I was very touched to see that. My dad was a big man, 6.4”, 250 pounds and always worked very hard…that whole cliché, you know what I mean? Then there was me, small frame but with that drive…going at him…you know….let’s drop the gloves!
It was a turning point for me where I realized that I was hurting myself more than I was hurting him. It just didn’t make sense anymore. It was time to acknowledge that through those years, I hurt people, even without knowing it, because of what I represented.
MR: Yeah. It could be a symbol you wore even…
Alex: Yeah. When I did my first mission trip to Haiti and was working with people that were dealing with AIDS, I got caught in a place where I was the only white guy. I wasn’t very popular. (laughs) I understood, then and there, what it meant to be judged. They were experiencing things that I was representing. That moment was very significant for me.
Being with Amnesty International, I had a very different perspective than being on the other side.
I still have a lot of compassion for those still stuck in those groups (Neo Nazi). It’s difficult for people to understand my point of view because it’s very easy to react to those groups with hate. It’s the reflection of what they are showing you.
I have a different perspective because I want to see the person behind the uniform. I was one of those guys, but I was still reachable. Rejection will feed…
MR: Feed the hate.
Alex: Exactly. Because I have a different point of view, I’m able to reach out to them without being judgmental. We can talk about so many other things.
MR: Find the human side.
Alex: Yes…there is! Whenever there are chances to do a conference, I like to do them because it gives a different perspective to people who are working with them or people who have been victims of these groups.
MR: I don’t know you that well, but I think you found a way to conquer your ego. You made this decision to break away from Your Favorite Enemies. You said it was so that your ego would not take over, and you could stay true to yourself. What triggered that desire to preserve yourself and the enjoyment of what you were doing?
Alex: We’d been on the road for something like 12 years. At some point, you lose the perspective of reality. It’s a normal process in that business to have a little bit of traction, which we had with the band, going everywhere in the world.
There is always emphasis on the lead singer. I had a very particular past along with what I was doing with Amnesty International.
It was important for me to keep my sanity, in a way. It goes so fast!
When you start believing in your own press kit…it’s already too late.
When you start believing in your own press kit…it’s already too late. – Alex Henry Foster
I always kept a little bit of distance and perspective from all the glamour…what you want other people to believe…how you want to be perceived as well. It’s a business of image. There needs to be a strong message of how you look and what you believe.
Maybe because I’m coming from that very special background, I know how easy it is to fall into those same traps. I never really want to play that game. It got to the point with Your Favorite Enemies, all that attention…it was fantastic! We were really fortunate. But I needed to take a step back. Why am I doing this? Do I still enjoy it?
When you never press the pause button, there is a reason for that. Maybe you don’t want to ask the real questions. You don’t want to be the one to tell the others that you need a break. If you do that, you will impact other people’s lives, the people that you love.
I was at a point where I really needed to stop. It was time. I was destroying myself slowly. I wasn’t enjoying it. It was becoming a real burden for me because I was tired. I wasn’t able to connect all the feelings of how important it was for people, with what I was doing. I wanted to keep that connection, but I felt I was losing a bit of it. I didn’t want to be a rock-n-roll cliché where you only do the same thing, the same jokes, the same set.
It was necessary to take a break. The rest of the guys would surely agree, because we are like brothers.
Going to the studio to rehearse and writing new song was like a bad picture that was just a little off. It’s not that much out of focus, but you could see that I was the guy in the back not having a good time. It was obvious for those outside of this thing (music business). But when you are always on the move, you don’t realize that.
MR: But they are here. Obviously, they are supporting you.
MR: When your dad passed away, that was a catalyst for you. We were both at that Nick Cave show where he described going through such a grief was like your life being shattered into a million pieces. You are then grasping at all these shards, trying to put yourself back together. But you will never be the same person.
MR: For Nick, he had more compassion. You went to Tangiers. Was that to put yourself back together?
Alex: When my dad passed, there was still tension between us. I was always on the road. I wasn’t easy to connect with long distance. We were able to see each other a good ten days before he passed.
What was frustrating and difficult, for me was, where do we start from that conversation we had so many years ago?
Now I’m seeing my dad, this big invincible guy, who is now so fragile. He was weak but yet his spirit was still so strong. I was so moved by him being so full of faith. I had never seen him like that. It was so confusing for me.
When he passed, I just shut everything down. We were headlining a festival in Taiwan five days after. Even the band said we could cancel the gig. My mother said: “If you want to cancel, cancel. If you want to go, go.”
We played there, in front of 90,000 people and I wasn’t feeling anything. Even the band was seeing me doing my thing, but they knew I was not normal.
That’s what I had to touch in Tangiers. Through the years, I was so disconnected to all the emotions we’ve been through as a band, friends, brothers, family…that I was completely out of touch emotionally.
MR: Dead inside.
Alex: Yeah. That’s why I had to stop Your Favorite Enemies for a moment. I needed to go to a place I’d never been before, where I didn’t have friends and it woud be a completely different culture. Somewhere where I’m completely invisible.
I didn’t know if I wanted to come back. Completely lost, but not in a way where I wanted to waste myself. I was confused but aware of it, and I had to address that.
I realized all my friends were really worried, thinking I looked like a suicidal guy.
It was only a few years after my dad passed till I went to Tangiers, but in that time, I don’t remember much. We did so many things…tours…festivals. It was the most successful period of Your Favorite Enemies…but I don’t remember much emotionally. Obviously, I remember places…but I don’t remember feeling anything.
MR: It was time.
Alex: Yeah, and to allow myself to grieve.
MR: It’s like a complicated puzzle. You have to put it all on the table and see all the pieces…what the heck is this life that I’ve had…before putting it together.
Alex: Even if everyone was so supportive and they really wanted to help me, in my head it was: Where do I start? What should I do?
Some people will experience someone’s death when they are a little bit older. I lost someone very close to me, my grandfather, when I was four or five. I understood what loosing someone meant and had that conversation.
MR: Even at that age? Wow.
Alex: Yeah. I had that understanding, but as an adult, I was like: “Let’s keep going. Let’s keep going. Let’s keep going.”
In Tangiers, I remember looking at the bay and I had to admit: I’m so lost. What the f#$% is going on with my life?
All this, even though months prior, everyone was screaming when we performed. It felt like when you watch a TV show and you think: Maybe that was a season too much.
MR: Jumping the shark.
Alex: Exactly. I felt like that. When it’s your life, it’s weird.
MR: Water is featured a lot on this album. If you close your eyes now and pictures yourself back in Tangiers…what feelings do water bring back to you?
Alex: Peace. It was what I was looking for. I was in the midst of living in the noise. I don’t remember how many days I spent on that terrasse just looking at the sea. The thing about Tangiers is that the sky is always blue. It’s the perfect reflection of the water. You lose perspective of where you are.
MR: What’s up and what’s down?
Alex: Yeah, exactly. That’s how I felt and that’s why I really recognized myself in that situation. That peace…to close my eyes and listen to it.
Even all the boats, because there was a ferry every 45 minutes that would go from the Bay of Tangiers to Spain. I was thinking about all those people travelling, all those images in my head. I would look at the people in the streets…the lifestyle.
I was in a little hotel in the oldest part of the city owned by French people. We became friends. When you ask them why we became friends, they say it was because they saw this guy and he looked so sad.
Even to strangers, and I wasn’t playing the guy who was emotionally unstable…it was that obvious.
MR: Interesting. Do you feel that this record was something that was inside of you and needed to be released, or was it more of a process, a journey of self-discovery that you need to take?
Alex: It was more of a process because it wasn’t like I was going to release a record. It was just like water. I was in the middle of it for so long, drifting to wherever. My friend, who went through the same thing, gave me this little journal and said: “You have to write, whatever it is. We know you are writer, but don’t think about it. Write about whatever you feel.”
I was in the plane going to Tangiers and I looked and saw in the plane all those little windows. Windows in the sky. It was the beginning of that process. I wrote that on the top of that journal. I just wrote, wrote, wrote.
At the end, those words had a different incarnation than what they were at the beginning. I was exploring things in the same realm of reality but suddenly in the end, it was something different.
At the end of that whole process, I realized that I was writing a little bit of music here, some words there. But I wasn’t contemplating putting out another record, not even something on my own. I was so far away from that. I didn’t want to get back together with the band. I was just in the place where I wanted to be free and peaceful for a while.
In the end, those words became alive in a way that was very special for me. I started to put them on the music I was writing. I was writing a score for films…that’s the thing I wanted to do.
MR: OK. That makes sense. I was walking here from the Metro, listening to the second song off the album, Winter is Coming. I’m picturing a scene from Apocalypse Now in the hotel room.
(Alex burst out laughing)
There was just this intensity. What the heck was going on in his mind at that time?
MR: Even in real life, I think Martin Sheen had a heart attack. That scene was intense. In the end, it creates a beautify artistic thing.
I’m really curious how you will bring this to life, because I’ve never heard you play live. You have a sold-out show tonight.
Alex: It’s a different experience, especially now. I got through the record and the band was so instrumental in the process.
As I was writing the score for an independent movie, Ben, the guitar player that I always write with said: “What is this thing?”
“No…don’t worry about it…don’t touch that.” (referring to the journal/music).
He said: “Dude, this is very…Wow…very personal.”
We talked about it a little. He said: “Do you want to keep doing it? No pressure…just for fun and for you to be able to let go of all those emotions?”
That is how it started. Even to the point of us being in Tokyo for the pre-listening session, in the green room with Jeff…I was still thinking: Do I really want to release this?
To the very end, I didn’t know if I had enough guts to share that record and those songs with other people.
To the very end, I didn’t know if I had enough guts to share that record and those songs with other people. – Alex Henry Foster
Have I exposed myself too much? Would I be able to live with the fact that now I could not go back? Where do you go from being that honest to going back to Your Favorite Enemies…if we do go back? This was my reality now.
It’s something to have the record, all the songs, with no pressure. When it was time to cross that line and to share, I really freaked out. I remember Jeff was there and said: “Alex, it’s your call now. Everyone is waiting. If you want me to cancel it, there’s no pressure. It’s your thing. What do you want to do?”
I took a deep breath and said: “Alright man…let’s do it.”
That was the beginning of it. I didn’t want to play the record live because my biggest concern was first, would I be able to stand in front of people and live those emotions over and over again. For me, it was out of the question. It was not something I wanted to perform.
Maybe because I was doing movies…I could have images to the songs, something like that we could share. I was doing Q & A after, and maybe I was OK to do something like that. Playing live was completely out of the question.
Then Laurent Saulnier of Le Festival de Jazz heard the record and kept calling. “You need to come and play that record. It’s very cool and I really dig it. People will really like it.”
Then with the sales…everything went out of control. I got so scared when suddenly I had to give interviews. “Oh…you sold THAT amount of records…”
I never cared about that, even with Your Favorite Enemies.
I took a long break, for months. Laurent was really persistent. Out of love, he really wanted me to perform. So, I said OK.
It was completely different from Your Favorite Enemies. We were rehearsing and I was thinking: Will I cry? How will I experience all those emotions? I don’t just want to play them like a jukebox.
Even if I had ten to twelve years’ experience, playing everywhere, doing every sort of gig, jumping from the third balconies…all those crazy things…I was so scared…so scared.
MR: This is completely different. It’s like you are being almost naked on stage.
Alex: The guys were so good with me. They really nurtured me into going back into the light. I said: “I don’t want to do Your Favorite Enemies Part II.” I wanted to have other people come into the band. We are now nine, which is completely crazy.
It was a different experience at Club Soda for the Festival de Jazz. I received so much love. Close friends telling me it was MY VOICE. It wasn’t about the jumping around. It was my voice, and I was really happy that I didn’t turn it into some sort of rock-n-roll gimmick. It was me incarnating those emotions, because they were still there.
MR: You mentioned at one point that this album was almost like a communion, which is a sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings. Because you are getting so much feedback from others about the way they are interpreting these songs, what are some things they are getting from it that you weren’t expecting?
Alex: I’ve been set free from what I was feeling when I received that feedback.
I knew I had a responsibility to not just throw the record out and “see you later guys, whatever you want to make out of it.”
When they were writing to me about their own grief, what they were experiencing and the difficulties they had, it was very very poignant.
MR: You realized that you put something out there that had an effect on other people’s lives.
Alex: Yeah. It was very transcending in many ways because I realized that it wasn’t my record anymore, and that felt really good. It wasn’t done out of selfishness.
MR: That why I think you found the key to releasing your ego. It wasn’t about you anymore.
Alex: Yeah. I felt humbled by that. At that moment, I was releasing the vinyl edition and I wrote a personal letter to every single person who ordered one. That period where I didn’t want to give interviews, I didn’t want to promote…that’s what I did. It was a connection with people.
It was very intimate. I was writing why I wrote the record. I answered those that bought the record and sent me a message with it.
My friends thought I was crazy. It’s such a labor of love. I didn’t see it as I HAD to do it…it was that connection…
MR: I WANT to do it.
Alex: Exactly. I felt like that record opened a very intimate line of communication with people. I felt humbled. I didn’t feel like I was obligated to answer and write them, but it was such a beautiful opportunity.
Some people would get something different out of the words on the record.
It’s true! That what those words meant for me. I could relate.
I was discovering the record differently because I was able to have a bit of distance with it.
It was an exchange off the grid, one person to another. It wasn’t an artist answering his so-called fans. It was very personal and emotional.
I was talking with a Japanese girl. In Japan, emotions are complex and different. You need to people, love that culture and dwell on what it means.
Someone wrote to me and said they experienced being abused, in their family. She said: “I want to forgive. I want to let go.”
That’s the kind of messages I was receiving. Pretty powerful!
It goes way beyond the music. Is it good? Is it special or not?
What can you say to something like this, more than just: “Wow…Thank-you. You have so much courage. There is a beautiful power in acknowledging that you can give forgiveness.”
For me, forgiveness is the most generous gift you can give others.
“Forgiveness is the most generous gift you can give others.” – Alex Henry Foster
You will set them free, whether they will take it or not. It goes way beyond what truth is about. It goes beyond morals and religion.
MR: Have you forgiven your dad?
Alex: Yeah. That’s what we talked about on his deathbed. It’s fifteen minutes that shaped my life and leads me where I’m going.
December 10, 2019