Four years on, I know now that when I quit music in 2017, it wasn’t simply a career change. It was a rejection of the life I had, a purging of the poison I’d ingested so willingly. In losing every last bit of myself as an individual, I had hung my entire identity on my role in that group – once again, willingly. I didn’t think of it like this at the time, but it was a breakdown, an existential bloodbath. Now, with next year marking not only the fifth anniversary of my leaving, but also the 10th anniversary of my joining the band, I’m looking back on the depth of that breakdown and what that was like.
I left the studio that Saturday morning a tearful mess, lost, adrift. I returned home with whatever random possessions I grabbed. I spent the rest of that day watching Twin Peaks and thinking – I may have seen my sister that day, if not the next. Due to the length and intensity of my stint in the band, I had my entire sense of self wrapped up into my role in that band. Without it, I was unable to find myself again for a while. My family was on edge, and rightfully so.
While it took some time before I found a path, went back to school, and channeled my energy toward writing and bettering myself, I still had to wade through the dismal mire left in the absence of the band. Music being so intertwined with my being, I carefully turned to it for solace of sorts – but things had changed. My former band’s music pained me to hear. Not long after I left, the band put an EP or sampler out for the record still yet to be released as of February 2021. I listened to it on a walk in the park, and cried. It hurt me to hear. That music held no comfort for me, only pain. Later, I would come to criticize the music – perhaps tactlessly, but my criticism was born of the pealing the scales from my eyes and seeing everything for what it was.
Not only my former band’s music hurt to hear, but so did the music that we listened to in the band. I couldn’t listen to Depeche Mode or any of the other music we as a band had enjoyed. I turned to a variety of other music. One record in particular, Manchester Orchestra’s “A Black Mile to the Surface” came out not long after my breakdown, and it proved to be crucial. I listened to it again recently, which prompted my writing this, and it moved me. The record reminded me of just how lost I was. But at that time, the record was the soundtrack of a breakdown. It was with me on my aimless drives, my long walks, whatever I could do to keep moving.
Manchester Orchestra wasn’t the only band. I found myself diving head on into music that brought me lower. The strange and mysterious music of Scott Walker drew me in, as did the cathartic cacophony that is Swans. To me, that’s as dismal as it gets, and remarkably so. The music had the ability to bring me lower than I already was, and I found it mesmerizing, albeit not especially helpful in the moment. My therapist at the time advised against my listening to that music, and I listened somewhat. But also, I pushed through those low feelings, became comfortable with them. Now when I listen to Scott Walker or Swans, I see only the art, but with none of the dread. It’s why my tolerance for unpleasant music is unspeakably high.
Two other artists were critical to my getting through that existential crisis. The first, Nick Cave, I had found while I was still in the band. His writing was the best I’d ever seen, and every record had its own unique identity. There was something so perfect about the marriage of the poetic and visceral lyrics with the band’s unique contributions. Father John Misty too held a lot of value for me, especially the “Pure Comedy” album. The writer/singer, Josh Tillman, had such a humorous, sarcastic, and cynical way of writing such beautiful, sad songs – I ate it up, and the melancholy nourished me like sunshine.
So, I did wallow in sadness to some extent. The music I leaned on was depressing, all of it. But, it helped me understand those feelings and channel them. The endgame for me wasn’t to stop being sad, but to use sadness. I don’t think the aim of expelling all unpleasant feelings from the mind is a worthwhile one. Those elements are part of life. I used the music I loved to help me understand those feelings, and accept them as part of myself and my voice as a human and a writer.