“The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth.”
— Joseph Campbell, ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces’
If art is the performative pantomime meant to illustrate and elucidate life’s struggles, then the completion of a full-length album of heavy rock is, at peak, a completion of the hero’s journey. Whereas some artists put a finger to the wind and let whimsical urges direct them to spontaneously produce diverting pleasures (and happy we all are for all that they do), there will always be a segment of the artistic pool that birth their work in the unpleasant bouillabaisse of human torment — slogging through the pain of existence, slinging mudpies of misery on the ground, thwap thwap thwap, in hopes that eventually there will be enough raw material to fashion that crap into a towering edifice of human achievement.
Mike Scheidt has completed numerous such edifices in his time toiling in the furnace room of Eugene, Oregon, metal titans YOB; taking fistfulls of misery fueled by depression and personal misfortune, Scheidt and Co. have spent the past two decades churning out gut-wrenching fist-pounding balls-to-the-wall cataclysmic doom.
But last year, it appeared to some that the YOB train might be sadly derailed, as Scheidt found himself waylaid by a potentially fatal abdominal disease named diverticulitis. For some artists, it would have been time to put aside creative impulses in order to focus on regaining health; for Scheidt, however, the agony of the disease was an opportunity to meld the pain of the situation with the inspiration of creation. Thus was, eventually, born the seeds of Our Raw Heart, out now on Relapse Records, a triumphant return by a colossal metal crew: You can listen to the band’s new long-player and hear the torment of a hopeless time, or you can zone out Scheidt’s personal story and just bang your head to one of the year’s most dynamic and muscular doom records.
Vanyaland caught up with a pensive Scheidt on the line from his Oregon home on the eve of a tour that brings YOB to a sold-out Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge this Saturday (June 30).
Daniel Brockman: First off, congrats on the new album; while most records represent a certain kind of artistic triumph just in their completion, the creation of Our Raw Heart is a true triumph over adversity. How much would you say that the circumstances of the album’s creation consciously affected the final product?
Mike Scheidt: The circumstances around when I was writing were a little dramatic, I suppose, because I was recovering from surgery and very compromised. But I wasn’t trying to process the phenomenon of what had happened. You know, almost dying, as juicy as that is, what I was trying to dig into was some perceptual shifts that came about as a result. So that was more of where I was at. And maybe that’s one and the same; I’m not sure one can separate one from the other, but it wasn’t totally conscious. I write from where I’m at and what I’m feeling, whether that’s feeling ascendant and triumphant or whether I’m feeling something that isn’t so triumphant.
What do you mean by “perceptual shifts”?
Well, when I left my body in the ER and was kind of lifted out of existence for a while, and when I came back to it — during that period of time I didn’t exist as a person, as a history, as any kind of identity. All of that was gone, and it was almost like having a hard drive that was filled with a bunch of stuff and having it crash. And you know, sometimes with hard drives you can bring them to someone who can retrieve stuff from them, sometimes they’ll get into the hard drive and say “Well, we were able to save everything but the Creedence!” Except in this case the Creedence is parts of me, you know, that were just gone, changed, morphed into something they weren’t before.
And over time, it’s not like I’m not myself, but I felt different, sometimes acutely so, especially those first couple of months, because there was so much that was going on that was so — that I just had no reference points for. And so I think there is also within that this incredible sense of presence: With the pain and the surgeries there was no choice, you know? And that might sound cool, but it wasn’t like I attained this presence sitting on some kind of meditation cushion or something, the very nature of this thing was commanded attention — and it demanded a certain kind of attention. If I let myself get into some kind depression or story loop that was negative, my pain would go through the ceiling.
If you think about where you feel emotion or stress — if you get your heart broken you might be like “Argh my foot’s killing me, why did you do this to me?” But really it’s in your chest. It’s more like that feeling in your gut when you’re suffering from something, an emotional suffering. And that’s where I was; and if I fed those things with my energy, my pain got a lot worse. It was this sense of, like, that I can’t do that. And going through that trial — you know, it’s not that I don’t have depression still, or any number of things that are kind of well-documented, but I just have a different relationship to them than I used to. And I’m not so quick to glom onto those feelings and identity with them and get taken down the river by them. I think all of that was an obvious do-or-don’t. You know, “You can do this, this will support your healing, you can’t do that, that will not support your healing.”
There was no guarantee that any of this was going to work, there was no guarantee that blocking off this part of my large intestine, this ten inch diseased part, having an ileostomy bag, that once all that was reversed that was going to fix it or that I wasn’t going to get another infection. I mean, in the hospital I got shingles and it felt like being hammered on an anvil. But I was feverishly inspired to play music during all of that time, and I couldn’t put my guitar down, except for the pain. You know, when it hurt I had to put it down and I couldn’t lift anything over 10 pounds. Brett Monson of Monson Guitars sent me a seven pound guitar so I was able to sit down and play guitar and that’s how I constructed a good deal of the music that wound up on this record.
The biggest part of this album wound up being kind of meditative because there was no guarantee that I was going to ever be healthy enough to show it to my bandmates or when I was going to be able to sing, because everything had atrophied. So when it all came around and we were able to start working on this stuff, I think in a way a lot of the music and the actual processing of what had happened didn’t start until then; until then it was just raw emotion, and it was manic. And I also had to tell myself that it has to be good enough, to not necessarily show anyone, because if I was going to get really sick then what I had there was going to be the best I was going to get. So I had to get the music to be as good as it could be without a goal in sight.
What’s interesting about the idea of generating a metal album out of the ordeal of a near-fatal illness is it kind of inverts the idea of metal always coming from a position of strength or power.
Yeah, from that place the power was just from needing and choosing to do it regardless of the circumstance. And if anything, if I look back on it, it was maybe the most powerful place that we’ve written from, in a way.
Yeah, it seems counterintuitive but it makes sense when you think about it.
Sometimes what we call power and what we associate as power, when you start to inspect it you can see the cracks in it. It’s a perceived power, but if you start unpacking it it’s not just that.
This inverted power dynamic definitely fits within the aesthetic of Yob; in a sense it seems like a thread you guys have been pulling on for quite a long time. Was there ever a time when you were coming up with this music where you weren’t sure if this was going to actually wind up being Yob music?
Well, I write incessantly and I only bring the stuff to the band that feels legitimately — I mean, if I’m working on something and without realizing it 45 minutes or an hour or two has just gone by, then I know that that is probably something worth exploring. And if it’s something that feels like work, then I’ll usually let it sit. I don’t usually try to edit too much on what will fit the band and what won’t. We do like to have a sense of lineage in the sense that we’re always going to have a foot in where we’ve been, but there does have to be that spirit of adventure and pushing our boundaries, songs that force us to get better. And that’s usually a pretty long process!
And it doesn’t stop at the rehearsal studio, that will continue throughout playing live shows. The early times of us touring and playing the song “Marrow”, for example, we hadn’t quite gotten it yet, it took a minute, we had to hammer it out in front of people, and it’s a big risk. Like someone could watch us and go “Eh, the new Yob’s kinda sloppy!” or “This sucks” or “There’s this kind of trainwreck in this one part” and we have to risk that because it’s the only way that we’re going to grow. And just to be in a safe rehearsal space or a studio where we get get to present our best self, that’s not where we’re gonna… I mean, we grow in those scenarios, for sure, because that’s where that stuff is birthed, where it’s captured for a recording, but that’s not where we become the band that executes this thing night after night, so there always has to be this element of something that we have to struggle with in order to get better. It’s worth the growing pains.
A song like “Beauty in Falling Leaves,” you know, it’s a good example of a song that’s forced us to step out of our comfort zone. “In Reverie” too, I think, although a lot of people might not think so, because on the surface it sounds like this big heavy song with Nazareth-style vocals over top, but with tritones, so like discordant Nazareth. But the counts on that song are weird, and where the vocals line up results in a weird slow Meshuggah type thing; it does wind up at 4/4 eventually, but if you try to count when those things are happening in relation to the vocals, it’s weird. And maybe it’s only when someone else tries to learn it that you’re like “Oh, this is bizarre.” And that song, even though a lot of people don’t talk about it, felt like a milestone to us, like us being able to figure it out, to figure out all of its weird twists and turns and what happens when and where we let space go and where we beat space with a hammer.
“Beauty and Falling Leaves” was the most, um, hanging it out there thing we’ve done — just very exposed, very vulnerable, and there’s big sections of it that are clean sung without any distortion and even when it becomes distorted there’s this kind of velvety crush about it, like it still crushes, and especially live it has weight and it does the crush thing that heavy music does, but under this kind of velvety beauty. And not like we’re the first band to ever do this, that’s not what I’m saying, but it’s just our own take and it’s forced us out of our comfort zone.
So we always have to do that, and the music that we wind up doing is the music that winds up choosing us; so if I bring ideas to the band, we play these ideas and whatever resonates for the three of us, that is what we work on. Even though I write everything and get a lot of attention for it, writing the lyrics and whatnot, I mean everything meaning the songs; I don’t write bass parts, I don’t write drum parts, I may have my ideas but I’m not, you know, sitting there with a stick! No, it’s a communion that we do, there’s nothing that isn’t decided on by the three of us, and if we aren’t authentically super-stoked on something, it isn’t us.
GRAYSKULL BOOKING PRESENTS YOB + BELL WITCH + SEA OF BONES :: Saturday, June 30 at The Middle East Downstairs, 472 Massachusetts Ave. in Boston, MA :: 8 p.m., 18-plus, sold out :: Middle East event page :: Facebook event page :: Featured photo by Jimmy Hubbard