It’s easy to take the dramatic scenery of the Pacific Northwest for granted: most people conduct the majority of their daily activities indoors, viewing the persistent rain through the windows and admiring the forests and mountains from a distance. Similarly, Western culture still finds it more convenient to objectify and romanticize creatives as “tortured artists” than to acknowledge the complexities of the creative process or the personal experiences that underlie the production of great art. Depression is a condition with which many artists quietly struggle and, despite the challenges it presents to their lives and work, it is often a powerful creative catalyst as well. Clearing the Path to Ascend, last year’s critically acclaimed album from Eugene, Oregon doom titans Yob is a prime example, and we recently spoke with guitarist/vocalist Mike Scheidt on the subject.
On the surface, depression is an overwhelmingly bleak experience. The Canadian Mental Health Association notes on its website that, “For people with depression, it does not feel like there is a light at the end of the tunnel – there is just a long, dark tunnel.” Scheidt explains that Clearing was born from his own efforts to cope with the condition, which has a profound effect on a person’s mood and activity: “A lot of times, it’s just anything – it’s getting out of bed, getting up for work, dealing with your email. When the depression is full-on, it’s hard to get off the couch, let alone pick up a guitar and get creative, or go to work, or connect with your friends, or return emails.”
One of the greatest challenges to living with depression is its inscrutability to non-sufferers. Well-meaning friends and family members often find the symptoms puzzling. Scheidt says, “People who don’t have that kind of depression don’t understand at all, or they understand kind of a little bit, but there’s some distrust somehow where it’s just, ‘Well, why don’t you just suck it up?,’ or people will look at my situation and say, ‘Look how popular – look how well your record’s doing, look at all the good press you’re getting and all of these incredible opportunities – what do you have to be depressed about?’ And it’s not really about that, it doesn’t have to be about what’s happening with the outside world. It’s chemicals in your body that are doing a number on you.”
Although work performance and productivity can suffer as a result, acknowledgement of the condition can mitigate its effects in the workplace. Scheidt avers, “The people that we deal with on a business level have some kind of an awareness, in that sometimes it will take me a while to wrap my head around project or get things done. I struggle with certain things and they have some awareness about why that is and are extra helpful.” Scheidt mentions a mini-documentary by drummer Thor Harris (Swans, Shearwater) about his own experience with depression and adds, “He hits a lot of nails on the head as far as how to deal with it and just stay positive, be active, try to eat good food, and try not to party too hard or get too lost in your drug habits…We hung out with them in Portugal, I talked with him for a while about it and he was really very sweet.”
Direct contact with fans and other musicians through live performances and touring provides an important and meaningful community connection. Scheidt says, “Out there in the world, when I’m meeting people, when we’re playing on stage and sharing the stage with other bands, my focus is on making it really as good as I can for everybody that’s involved and for myself, and the actual act of being out there playing shows and touring is really positive. Just being active helps, being around good energy, and I do my best to bring good energy as well and not wallow in that stuff.”
Scheidt says that, while creative support is important and recognition is encouraging, when it comes to songwriting he keeps external influences and self-indulgence to a minimum. “When I’m writing [a] new album and I’m throwing myself into it, using it as equal parts joy and fist-to-the-sky and therapy and medicine and all that, it has to be working when I’m all by myself. It has to be working within the four walls of our jam space. I don’t think that it’s going to translate on the tape – it’s not necessarily going to translate to other people, not the way that I want it to. I could write a record where I just wallow in depression and wallow in feelings of hopelessness – and there are bands that do that that I love, I’m not even knocking it – it’s just not my path to do that. I need to move through it.”
Asked whether he thinks transcendent heavy music has been a uniquely west coast development, given the common regional origins of legendary post-metal act Neurosis, Scheidt says no. “I think there are bands out there in the world that do that trip, no doubt about it – there was kind of a creative family and mecca that spawned bands like Neurosis and Sleep and Om – those three bands right there, much of modern heavy music owes some kind of debt to them. There are other bands out there – Rwake from Little Rock for sure, Minsk from Chicago Peoria area, and Amenra is in similar territory. And Swans is, not exactly but they go to that, they create another kind of universe, but they aren’t overtly spiritual exactly; they are but they are kind of not. Wovenhand certainly creates a similar kind of atmosphere, although it’s not really metal at all. Daniel Higgs (Lungfish) and all the stuff that he did, so I mean… It’s not just on the West Coast, but Neurosis definitely is a whole universe unto themselves, there is ‘before Neurosis’ and ‘after Neurosis’ – the impact that they had world of heavy metal is gigantic.”
However personal experiences or circumstances might affect creative work, Scheidt has learned to take depression in stride: “To be honest, it’s just a part of my life that I have to deal with. The only reason I’m talking about it all the time is because I have a record that came from me trying to deal with it. That record and those feelings and the things that I was writing about resonated with a chunk of people, and also made the music really seem extra juicy, I guess – it has an extra X-factor in it as a result.”