We talked to Mike Scheidt about going off psych meds, going beyond riffs, and going into a new reality.
Photo by James Rexroad
YOB have never shied from the big questions. Throughout their 18-year career, the Oregon band have made a name for themselves by lacing speculations on quantum physics and God into their mountainous, roaring doom metal. They're known for records that crawl toward an hour on a track listing just four songs long. They've sampled philosopher Alan Watts on multiple albums, including their last full-length, Atma, fitting snippets from his lectures into pauses in the noise. Among metal's often tongue-in-cheek images of blood and guts, YOB stand out with a sincere yearning to explore cosmology, philosophy, even religion. Their live shows aim for a kind of transcendence, for a temporary community forged around the music's sheer size—church, only louder.
The band's forthcoming record Clearing the Path to Ascend, due from Neurot on September 2, weighs among their heaviest. It starts with another Watts clip, this time a command: “Time to wake up,” the philosopher says on “In Our Blood” before the music erupts into a tectonic disaster. Later in the song, his displaced voice muses on reality and its innate indescribability. In the worlds YOB make, the music's solidity pulls against its subject's uncertainty. The slow drips of percussion and roars of guitar feel geologically real, while the lyrics and samples hidden in the songs hint that “real” is only a feeling. The album is the first they'll put out since signing with Neurot Recordings, the label founded by members of Neurosis, one of YOB's biggest influences.
Mike Scheidt, YOB's frontman, guitarist, and core member, says that Clearing the Path to Ascend is the most personal work he's done with the band, written and recorded in the wake of a divorce and an ongoing struggle with mental illness. We spoke with Scheidt about the process of growth behind the new album, and what it's like to embrace mysticism while playing metal.
Clearing the Path to Ascend feels more mournful than your last record, Atma. What was your headspace like as you began writing this new album?
It's definitely heavy. All the riffs are heavy. I think it's heavy in the heart, too. We all go through ups and downs, and sometimes those ups and downs are speed bumps, and sometimes they're tsunamis. When I was writing Clearing the Path to Ascend, I was at the low part of a tsunami in my life. My focus philosophically has always been trying to be positive, even if things are really brutal for me. I hope that people take away a certain sense of hope and positivity out of it even though it is emotionally full. I think for a lot of artists, their life and the way they live it and their passion and their path and their art is all one thing. There's no real separation. I think that's true for me as well. Music is therapy and it's also your connection to life as you see it. I think this album perfectly captures where we were at at that time. And it helped. It helped me get through it. It's serving its purpose in that regard.
What specific events in your life led to this tsunami?
In the last three or four years, I've gone through a divorce. I was on psych meds for about 15 years and got weaned off of them. The last number of months, I've been moving towards not drinking anymore. No matter how strong you are, life will throw things at you. You have to get through it. Not having psych meds was a big change in my life. Depression is just such a brutal, brutal thing. It's unforgiving no matter what your life circumstance is. It doesn't matter how good things are going on the outside. It doesn't matter how much money you have. It'll wreak havoc on you all the same. I had to almost relearn how to be. The album happened in the real crux of that.
What did it feel like to make a new album at the same time you were going off meds?
Without having Celexa or Cymbalta involved, I felt everything quite a bit more. The feelings were a lot bigger. The ups and downs seemed a lot bigger, too. Thankfully, I had a guitar and a pen that I could use to process. But it's more than that, too, because it still falls in the category of what YOB has always written about. It's just gotten more and more personal, more and more human: feet in the earth instead of spirit in the stars, though that's there, too. It's hard to look at it objectively. I always feel like a reader or a fan may be at an incredible disadvantage hearing me talk about it. I don't know how clearly I see it. All I know is that it helps me get through it. It's also fun and it's a celebration. When we play these songs live, they just feel so good.
What did you learn from writing and recording this album that you didn't know about yourself before?
In 2012, I finally decided to take voice lessons. I'd never done it before and had periods of times where I'd sing really great and periods of time when I wouldn't sing so good, especially on tour. I was struggling and I just finally decided that I wanted to get some lessons, to see somebody who at least understood modern singing. I found this guy named Wolf Carr up in Portland who's a Berklee music graduate. He's a younger dude, and he understands death roars and screams as well as classically trained vocals. So I was able to look at all my different styles of singing with him on a technical level and get some tools that have really changed my life.
I've always felt this, but I feel it now more than ever: Riffs are great, but they're not enough. There has to be an aura or a flavor or a spirit that flows through the entire album start to finish. Something that makes the riffs more than riffs. I'm not comparing us to this band—this band's on the highest pedestal—but when you see Neurosis, that level of courage and emotion and power and songwriting all come together as one thing. You can't even separate where one starts and the other begins. But there is this overall cathartic, emotional, religious, spiritual experience when you see that band that's bigger than their music. And it can't be faked. It works with those guys because they just dig so deep within themselves. I really felt like I had to dig deep into my own experience of what I was going through and be really honest with it. I think that that emotion found its way on this new record.
You have always engaged with spirituality and philosophy in your music. What about these bigger ideas appeals to you?
I think it's really easy to succumb to all the heaviness of this world. The mysticism to me just breathes in some space. We can change our reality. We can change the way we see the world. We can change the way we see other people, and we can change the way we treat ourselves if we allow questions to exist rather than hard answers. That's what I like. I've been a happier person in general when I've been able to just breathe and not let everything have to be defined all the time. Or not let the definitions determine how I see the world. It gives me a little more space in my mind, and it allows me to feel better. When I feel better, I make better decisions and I think I'm more helpful to my family and my friends. I see positive results concretely in my own life.
Metal as a genre tends to be associated with nihilism or Satanism in its most reductive sense. Has the way YOB engages with spirituality and mysticism ever brought up any kind of tension?
It can for sure. What I sing about can be regarded with all sorts of skepticism. Just aesthetically, it's too messy. Goats and horns and spikes are so much more aesthetically metal. I like all that shit too, man. I have a huge collection of black and death metal. I'm not turned off by any of that. The thing is, styles come and go, genres grow and change, all sorts of things in our lives change, but there's this thread in human existence of questioning reality and questioning who we are that's thousands and thousands and thousands of years old. It's much older than any genre of music. So for us, what we write about is much more of a human questioning of the world around us. It's not right or wrong and I don't pretend to be in the right in any way. It's just what I feel like writing about. I have so much more to learn, and I may be on my deathbed and cross over and find out I was completely wrong. And I'm willing to be wrong, because I want to know what's real. I want to know what's real as best I can in this fucked-up human form that doesn't have the instruments to see things clearly.
Do you feel that making music gets you closer to whatever might be real?
I don't know. The music is an abstraction. I can kind of judge it from the live experience. When a band successfully taps into a certain vibration, whoever in the room is attuned to that vibration starts having their own experience. You'll have all sorts of feelings in the room that will sometimes congeal into one overall vibration. I think everyone's been at a show when you felt like the entire environment was in flames, or just humming. For each live show, the challenge is to be open to whatever experience we're having. If we're lucky, people start to connect, and it becomes this exchange. Then the entire room becomes an experience that we all get to take part in for a small period of time. It's just about being completely present in the moment. If I can do that and not be living in my head too much and just let the music and everything be one experience, not what I want it to be but what it is, then it becomes something that's really positive and feels good. We're there to have a kick ass time, too, to have fun and have a sense of celebration. It's not crazy heavy all the time.
Sasha Geffen is also here to have a kick ass time. She's on Twitter - @sashageffen
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