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Three Days Grace Recalibrate and Detonate

Drummer Neil Sanderson shares secrets behind the Toronto post-grunge titans’ two decades of success.

by Christine Leonard

Photo by Jeff Forney

It was in the Fall of 2019 that Toronto-based rock band Three Days Grace received the phone call informing them that they had just broken a record set by Van Halen. Cresting Billboard’s famous Mainstream Rock Songs chart with “Infra-Red,” their now-leading 14th number one single, the band passed a mark that the iconic rock outfit had held for 20 years. A 15th would follow in the form of “Right Left Wrong,” another stand-out track from the band’s sixth LP, Outsider (RCA 2018), which was their fifth consecutive Top 40-charting album on the Billboard Top 200.

Three tumultuous years and millions upon millions of streams on Spotify later, TDG drummer Neil Sanderson remains somewhat bemused by the list of outstanding achievements that have come to him thanks to joining up with a gaggle of fellow music lovers back in junior high school.

“It’s crazy that we’ve been putting out major label records for 20 years! I’ve been in the band since I was 14, so it’ll be 30 years coming up for me soon!” Sanderson reflects. “It’s still pretty surreal as much as we don’t get caught up in numbers and stuff. For us it’s just an homage to the fans and the industry that supported us. We keep our heads down, and we work hard, and we stay true to ourselves with the music we write. We write about real events in our lives, and it just happens to really connect with people on a grand level. We’re just thankful for that and remain dedicated to the work after all these years.”

Given that practice makes perfect, the run up to the release of TDG’s forthcoming album Explosions (RCA) pretty much guarantees that the hard rock idols will once again be ascending playlists across the nation, and beyond. The secret to their success? According to Sanderson, there’s nothing better for the artistic mind than starting a discipline early and sticking with it.

“It’s safe to say the 10,000 hour rule has definitely been achieved,” he says, referring to the theory of mastery popularized by Malcolm Gladwell and his bestselling book, Outliers. “I had a great music teacher growing up and I played piano when I was really young. Actually, the music teacher that really supported me in my formative years,I took him out for a beer a little while ago and gave him a platinum record and said ‘Hey, thanks!’ I’m not Beethoven, but I use my piano skills every single day. It bridges the gap between rhythm and melody and gives you a visual component of chord structure. So whenever I’m thinking about music or playing guitar I always picture the piano keys. I always tell people if you want to get into music young, piano is always a great place to start.”

Looking back at the formative moments on his  band’s way to becoming a post-grunge juggernaut, Sanderson is grateful that he had something to keep him focused and motivated, even when times got tough.“Music was one of the big outlets for me,” he says. “I definitely know that it probably saved me, to be honest with you.”

That frankness of delivery and disarming forthrightness is the hallmark of the alternative metal stylings Sanderson and his bandmates–lead vocalist/rhythm guitarist Matt Walst, bassist/vocalist  Brad Walst and guitarist Barry Stock–are known for whenever they set foot in a recording studio. It’s the kind of confidence that comes with knowing that no matter what comes your way, you’ve got an audience of millions who will remember your lyrics and riffs after your time on the world stage has come to an end.

“When young bands ask me for advice, I always say ‘Make sure you’re in a band with the right people who have the same core values as you do. And try to make sure there’s not too many ego trippers!’ We’ve been lucky all along that we’ve been an all-for-one band and we still like each other and can travel together without drama. You’re going to see the best and worst of each other at some point in time. It’s about how you react to that, and you’ve gotta let a guy have a bad day once in a while, you know.”

After all, having a bad day can often be a catalyst for change and growth. And, in some cases, unintended hilarity. Sanderson recalls some of the stranger situations the band has endured with a sense of humour and, of course, grace. “We were in a Hilary Duff movie called Raise Your Voice,” he says. “It’s funny, because at the time we were like ‘What are we doing?’ But that’s why we’re popular in Japan – because of this Hilary Duff movie, pretty much exclusively. It’s not a bad film, I suppose.”

Pressured with measuring up to the tremendous sales and spin counts garnered by their previous releases, Sanderson and his bandmates approached their newest effort, Explosions, with an air of defiance and aggression. Scraping the headlines with an observational deep-dive into the tensions and disappointments of the past two years, songs like “Neurotic,” “I Am The Weapon,” and “A Scar in Born” are designed to ignite and incinerate like rock and roll dynamite.

“I think the lyrical component is really important to weaving a common thread through the album, and we always have that strong tangible concept. It was amazing that ‘So Called Life’ came out with guns blazing. It’s one of the heaviest songs we’ve put out in a long time and people immediately grasped onto it,” Sanderson says. “The concept ‘Explosions’ just represents the fact that within all of us there’s a boiling point. It’s the human condition of having something inside you that wants to get out. It can be born out of frustration, or anger, or whatever, but it can also be a yearning to be yourself and express yourself, and go places, and say what you want, and have your own opinion, and be free. And sometimes that feels like it has to stay bottled up inside for a number of reasons. So ‘Explosions’ represents that inner burning where you just want to get out and express yourself. And I think a lot of the songs touch on that in a number of ways.”

Jokingly predicting a follow-up album titled Consequences and Jailtime, Sanderson compares lockdown status in Toronto to a “penitentiary.” It’s just one more reason Three Days Grace is anxious to return to the familiar catharsis of relentless tours and roof-raising live performances. Otherwise, they might just explode. Frequent (controlled) venting is their professional prescription for preventing unintentional discharges.

“The first single, ‘So Called Life’ does touch on that – you’re at that tipping point – do you explode or do you find something to take the edge off. It’s contemplating which direction you’re going to take.? Are you going to try to put a bandaid on the wound, or are you going to completely detonate?”