Mike Scheidt | Staying awake

This interview has been published on Radio Metal the 25/02/2017.

For music lovers in general, and doom fans in particular, the release of Clearing The Path To Ascend by YOB in 2014 was one of the highlights of the last few years. Both crushing and elevating, it is also, and above all, an astoundingly beautiful record where the three musicians outdid themselves and took their own brand of carefully crafted, enlightened doom to new heights.  After seeing a  live performance of the band at Desertfest Antwerpen that turned out to be an incredible display of power and grace, I had to find out what kind of magic was at work there.

A few weeks later, I got the chance to talk about this and more with the headmaster of it all: Mike Scheidt, the vocalist, guitar player, and main writer of the band. Inspired and inspiring, he evokes in great details his creative process, his views on live performances, art, life, music, and reality. We also talked about his many other musical endeavors and projects, and if everything must have been put to a halt by the very serious health issues he had to face at the beginning of the year, we can only hope for the best, and to hear about it soon!

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A few weeks ago, you came back from a big European tour. How did it go?

It was fantastic! Great turnouts. Touring with Black Cobra was an immense pleasure. They’re very good friends of ours, we love their band. We have a similar kind of mindset on how we like to tour, so it just made for a really smooth, fun, relaxing one.

Clearing The Path To Ascend has been out for almost two years now. When it came out, it got extremely positive reviews. Now that things have kind of settled down, what do you think about all that?

It was wonderful! And very much unexpected, because every time you put out a new piece of music or whatever it is that an artist does, you just throw everything that you feel into it, make sure that it’s everything that you want it to be before anyone else hears it, and then once you sent it out into the world, you kind of don’t have a say on how it’s received. The fact that it was received so well made us feel like we’re on the right path, but even more so, the fact that it resonated so strongly allowed us to do things we couldn’t have done otherwise: we’ve had a lot of fantastic tours, met a lot of people, we were able to have a lot of really heartfelt interactions… We felt it particularly on the last US tour and on this last European tour; when we played anything off of that album, people would immediately react to it. It was wonderful! Not to overuse the word “wonderful”, it’s just the most appropriate word.

With this record, you also drew attention from mainstream media—Rolling Stone for instance to name just one. With hindsight, what do you think about it? Do you think it made a difference?

To a certain degree, I think it had an effect. We’ve seen people at shows that we hadn’t seen before. We’ve been touring long enough that, when we play in particular places, we know certain friends that we’re gonna see and there’s a vibe that is familiar, and yeah, it’s grown! There’s no doubt about it, but I don’t think that’s unique to us. It seems that the media is paying more attention to underground and heavy music in general; that’s something that is becoming more a commonplace straight across the board for underground metal and punk in general. I think the heavier end of the spectrum especially is getting the magnifying glass treatment right now.

Why now, according to you?

I don’t know why. Let’s imagine a particular listener, and let’s say that they’d written off metal as being brutish, criminal and evil, all the kinds of stereotypes surrounding it, and didn’t give it the time of day: then, all of a sudden, maybe they discovered a band like Satyricon that has been making albums for twenty years and are very intent on creating serious, well-composed art that wasn’t looking for their approval, and that didn’t need it. Which means that all of a sudden, they discover both this band and this wealth of back-catalog of really true, sincere, passionate music. The same could be said for The Obsessed or any other band that has been around for a long time and that existed without mainstream approval; that didn’t stop them from being really passionate artists.

I think there’s been a bigger group of people that look at this music and see it in a different light, see that there are many different shades of it, just like there are many different shades of pop; there’s really meaningful pop music and there’s pop music that is obviously a product. In the underground metal scene, you’ll have the bands that you’ve heard of but then there’s also a sea of bands that are out there playing music they love, and when the artist loves what he does, it can be infectious!

Clearing The Path To Ascend came out on Neurot Recordings. It’s well known that you’re a big Neurosis fan, so how was it for you to work with them?

A tremendous honor, and a privilege to have their trust. They signed us based on not hearing a note of the new music, so just purely on faith in us. Handing off your album to a label, of course you want them to like it, but I never felt as nervous as I did handing off the album to Scott [Kelly] and Steve [Von Till] to hear. Their music has been such a big part of my makeup since I first heard Pain Of Mind, the first Neurosis album I ever heard. They’ve always been torchbearers, leaders, fearless in their creation, so when they received our album, worked with us and liked it so much, no words adequately express how great that felt.

Clearing The Path To Ascend - 2014

You’ve been open about the fact that this record was tied to a very rough period in your life. Should we listen to it as a recollection of what you went through or was it a way for you to go through it? And if yes, do you think it helped you?

I think most artists consider their work to be medicine and expressing what’s going on internally through whatever medium they choose is something that helps, or at least, takes off a bit of the pressure. So yeah, working on that album, working through the things that I was struggling with in that process, and having the arc of the album end towards “Marrow” was very intentional, to have a lighter, more open, celestial kind of feel to it. The record is ending on what many have kind of perceived as a hopeful note.

But as far as how anyone else wants to hear it, that’s open to interpretation. It’s partially why I don’t talk in depth about particular lyrics and what they “mean”, because I think that potentially takes away a listener’s own experience that’s original, and might color it too much. When I’m asked questions about where the album came from, I choose to be honest about it, but to keep that honesty on the vague side too because I want people to buy the album, listen to it over and over again, and have their own relationship to it.

Throughout history, a relationship between creativity or genius and depression has been noticed, to the point that it can get romanticized—if you’re an artist, you have to be a tormented soul. So as an artist that is struggling with depression, what do you think about that? Do you think your depression feeds your creativity or does it makes creation more difficult actually?

It can do both. It can make the creativity really juicy, but it can also grind it to halt for weeks or months at a time. And creativity isn’t the only thing that suffers in that process, unfortunately. So my life efforts lately are towards taking responsibility for that illness, and doing things that are healthy: being a lot more active, getting out of the house more, hitting the gym, working with the doctor to have some light medication, staying in touch with my friends, playing music, being engaged with my family, being aware of what I use my attention and energy towards, and watching for warning signs. It sounds like a lot, but it’s just building habits, and it just makes me a lot more available to be a better friend, a better partner, a better father, and I hope a better artist. I’m not attached to being depressed and I’m not the kind of person that needs to get in a depressed state so that they can write an album. If I start writing lackluster albums because I’m happy and engaged in my community and with my family, then I think there’s validity to that. I’m not attached to the outcome. I just want to grow and continue to be a healthy person on the planet, if I can help it.

Obviously, the path from Clearing The Path To Ascend is yours, and like you said about “Marrow”, it’s an elevating record to listen to. Did you intend to guide the listener through it?

When I write an album, I want it to have a direction and an arc to it. I love doom metal, but I’ve always wondered if YOB even is doom. Maybe we’re doom influenced; we’re doom for ADD because we don’t do long droning sections with minimal changes to them. I always try to write each album and passage with changes, from subtle ones like changes in vocal inflections, in how a riff is hit, slight changes in drum hits, to really extreme, obvious changes, making sure that each moment has a stepping forward and urgency to it. And then within that, also having peaks and valleys, tensions and releases throughout the album, so there’s lots of payoff moments for the person that can get through everything that’s leading up to it, and all the tension that gets built up in a particular section of a song.

The other part of that is that indeed, the album is starting out pretty heavy and dark, and then moves to a second section that’s really high energy and has a lot of rage to it, and then a place where it goes even darker, to eventually come out to a place that is really a lot lighter, and that journey is definitely very much intentional. My mindset is not taking somebody through my journey though. My journey was what transpired to make all those different things become songs on the album, but once the music is sent out, it’s not necessarily ours anymore. If somebody really loves an album, and I’m talking about any album, it kind of becomes theirs. In the Iron Maiden catalog for instance, certain albums are my albums by them; I have my personal relationship and stories about when I bought it and how it affected me and still does. Whatever it is that went into that album for them, I have my relationship with it, it’s mine. It’s really important to me that listeners can have that as well with our music.

Stay Awake - 2012

The record opens with a sample from Alan Watts that says: “Time to wake up…” With records entitled The Unreal Never Lived or The Illusion Of Motion, and “Stay awake” tattooed on your knuckles (it’s also the title of your solo record), it feels like reality—the question of what is real and what isn’t—is an important theme for you. What is reality to you?

[Chuckles] I don’t know! I know I’m sitting here in Eugene, Oregon, talking to you via this computer. There’s lots of creation and language that’s helpful to be able to connect and interact. Right now, I’m picking up a pen, and if I tell you I’m holding a big round pen with blue ink, you immediately have an image in your mind that’s probably pretty close to what I’m holding. If was sitting next to you and saying: “Hey, hand me that big pen, would you?”, you would grab it so I could write with it, and you could read… It’s all very useful. That’s great, the creation’s great, no problem there. But in reality, I don’t know what it is, I don’t what this thing is. An electron microscope could travel into it as far as we can travel into the night sky with the Hubble telescope. What seems separate isn’t separate at all.

We give names to the things that we observe, we give descriptions to phenomenon and actions that we see but our sight, our words, our abilities spring out of the thing itself first, the reality is first, the mystery is first—it happens before we can even think about it, and our thoughts spring out of it. A lot of things have to be taken for granted as true in order for us to do all of our creations, the good ones, the bad ones, the experience we create for ourselves on this planet.

This isn’t very useful in a worldly sense, it doesn’t help you buy a latte or go to a rally, and I think a lot of people would just say: “Even if that’s true, so what? It doesn’t help me feed my family or anything else.” But for me, having struggled so hard with depression and with every single thing that you get taught growing up about what is real, what is true, who you are, where you’re from, what you’re supposed to believe… These are just creations out of this gobbledygook of reality, and when I die—and so many people have died, and crossed over into a thing that we don’t understand either—, I have no idea what’s gonna happen there either. Each and every moment it can happen. There’s just this incredible uncertainty in this reality of ours. It goes beyond our creations. I tend to find comfort in that. It doesn’t absolve me of my responsibility of being alive in this world and trying to be a positive part of it, but I do feel like there is a lot more to it than what our senses and creations allow for.

Do you think that your music is a way for you to get to grips with what we don’t know?

With the music, I don’t pretend any lofty claim like that. I mean, I still think of us as a weird kind of punk-minded band where it’s just about passion and vitality: whatever we’re exploring into a song, we’re exploring it all the way, and whatever we play live, we’re giving it all of our calories, attention, and physicality.

But then, I can write riffs all day long, but I don’t feel like I can ever move forward with a piece of music or an album until the vibration of it is there, that kind of aura, atmosphere, or taste of the album. It’s something that becomes this overarching, mysterious thing that I know when it’s not there and I know when it’s there. That’s the mystery part of it; until that happens, I feel like I’m just playing with math on a fretboard, it’s just a matter of intervals. I can write interesting sounding riffs that are almost music, but without the heart of it there, the thing that really makes it alive… It’s like in a human being: if a human being just dies, if they get an embolism and hit the ground, they look exactly the same than they did the moment before, same clothes, same make-up, but something isn’t there that makes them alive, something is gone. That’s what I have to try to find in the music in order for it to move forward. And once again, I’m not saying some grandiose things that anyone would agree with, maybe people listen to our music and say it’s dull or boring. I’m only speaking for myself and what I feel, but until that happens, an album doesn’t move forward, and real songs and music don’t happen. To me, that’s the interface with the “reality”.

You said earlier that YOB isn’t a doom band but borrows elements of doom. It makes me think about the fact that although doom metal tends to be quite nihilistic and bleak (it’s called doom after all!), your music isn’t at all—it appears to be fueled by eastern philosophies and spiritualities, not just pure negativity. How do you weave these together?

Doom is pretty broad, I think, in what people bring to it, and it has certainly broadened a lot more, like every genre and subgenre as the style of music continues to evolve. A lot of people in the early doom scenes, like the Maryland one, for instance, were Christians, and there’s a lot of Christianity in those riffs. There is this kind of mournful darkness, but there is also this gospel hymn quality to some of that early doom stuff.

In early The Obsessed, there’s a lot of rage and defiance too, it’s not just about the fact that the world is screwed, it’s about standing up and being strong. I resonate with that more than I do with “we’re screwed” in doom. There’s a lot of bands that I like that sing about that subject matter, and it’s a valid point because there are a lot of things to look at in this world, in humanity, in history and in current events that could spur a lot of angry, nihilistic, no hope feelings that would go in the music. It’s just not what I wanna write about.

But then, it’s only in the genre that anyone would say we’re a super positive band. If you’d play “Unmask The Spectre” to a bystander who knew nothing about it, they’d probably be like: “Oh my God! That’s dark, evil and twisted!” [laughs]. You really have to know what you’re listening to, you have to know the lyrics to understand that it’s not the case. You can also say that of Neurosis; under the visage of this powerful, bombastic, screaming music is actually this tribal, deep, spiritual undercurrent. A lot of the punk that I grew up on had this defiant, powerful, “stand up for what you believe”, “believe in yourself” thing too. So that’s more where I come from; add some Alan Watts, Sri Nisargadatta, Ramana Maharshi and rudimentary quantum physics, then you have YOB lyrics.

Catharsis - 2013 reissue

You’ve actually used samples of quotes of Alan Watts, Eckhart Tolle and so on. How do you work with these? Is this an inspiration for the song or its theme, or is it something that you add at the end of the process and which makes sense with the music?

It’s just things that I resonate with personally. I spend a lot of time listening to spoken word lectures and books. It usually goes into the lyric writing process, but when I find a moment on spoken word CD that I have that captures something that’s important to me, then I’ll try to work it into the music, either as an intro or as part of a song. Then I’ll write to the publishing company explaining who we are to get their permission and credit them for letting us use it. No one has ever said no.

Do you write the lyrics and music at the same time or do you need one before the other?

I have broken metaphors for describing how I write because I think it’s kind of a broken process. When I’m writing, I’ll pick up my guitar about ten plus times a day, and play anywhere from two to forty-five minutes. When I’m feeling like I’m not going any further, I just put down the guitar and walk away from it for a minute, and just try to let go of it. The way I think of it is like fishing: you’ve showed up to the shore with all your fishing gear, you cast your line, you were fishing, but you haven’t caught a fish. Sometimes you’re just sitting there and waiting, and then, something bites, so you reel it in and you determine if that’s something that you can keep or if you throw it back. But if you don’t show up and at least create the space for it, it’s not gonna happen. So in times when I’m not feeling inspired, it’s particularly important that I still pick up the guitar and just keep it moving forward.

Since great minds think alike, more on fishing and creativity…

The other thing that I compare it to is to entering a dark room, and looking for the light switch. There are things in the room that might be useful, but I don’t really see them in the dark. It’s kind of clumsy. Eventually, there comes a moment where I’ll find the light switch and turn it on, and then I just see it all clearly. That’s when the album actually really begins. It usually starts with the first truly inspired song. It could take me two years to get to that one song, and then usually all of a sudden the rest of the album comes within three months. It’s about finding that first flicker of clarity. The feeling of it is different every time.

When I’ve found a group of things that I feel really strongly about, I bring those to practice, and Aaron [Rieseberg], Travis [Foster] and I go through everything that I’ve been working on. There’s a hundred percent veto policy in our band, so if one person isn’t feeling it, it doesn’t become our music. Then it develops further with all of us together.

Since your albums are really coherent and feel like a journey with a beginning and an end, how do you compose your setlists? Do you envision the live experience as something completely different?

We try to have our setlists be like an album, in the sense that each song covers peaks and valleys that are unique to that song within the set, and they bring something that another song doesn’t bring. Occasionally, we’ve done things that were fun to us like a set once that was only epics. It was a long time ago; we played “Revolution”, “Catharsis”, “The Illusion Of Motion”, and I think we ended with “The Mental Tyrant”. It was a very long. Typically, we don’t do things like that, because that’s asking a lot to the public, that’s for a real die-hard audience. We like to have sets that have really energetic moments; then crushing, slow, powerful ones; ascendant, beautiful, kind of almost tangent releases; sad moments; and we always try to end on a high note. We have lots of songs that still work really well live mixed with our new material. We try to construct sets that bring something new each moment, from beginning to end.

You’re a very intense and powerful band live, and you switch from clean vocals to really deep grunts very smoothly. I’ve read that you actually took singing lessons in between the last two records. Is it important for you to keep progressing and challenging yourself, even though you’re now established as a musician and as a band?

I grew up in a time period before Pro-Tools, listening to music from the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, and those vocal performances were real performances. I think it was more common for singers back then to have some kind of training. Maybe not so much in the punk scene, but I think even among death metal vocalists, some of the better singers have proper technique; it’s how they’re able to still do it and still tour a lot after all these years.

Personally, I started taking vocal lessons in 2012 because even though I have a natural ability, I was frustrated by going on tour and having good nights, bad nights, blowing out my voice, having multiple nights in a row that were bad or having next level incredible nights, and not knowing why. Starting to take lessons was starting to understand the instrument and proper technique. There’s a reason why people like Rob Halford, Ronnie James Dio, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and so on are consistently fabulous: it’s because they’ve learned how to sing! So I learned how to do it. Luckily, I found a teacher named Wolf Carr who now lives in Seattle, Washington. He’s a Berkley School Of Music graduate, his mom is a professor of voice as well, but he’s a young enough guy that he understands modern singing and modern vocals like death metal growls, black metal screams, or hardcore shouted vocals, while still having a deep history in classically trained singers, jazz, theater… He just gave me the techniques, body awareness, and exercises to build my voice up, like where to sing from, and how to deal with my voice when I’m ill or if I’m injured.

My vocal heroes have reached such high level that I’m fairly sure I’ll never reach those heights, but I still can get better and better with my practice, and working with these techniques is only proving it. These last years, I’ve spent more time dealing with vocal health as well as what habits great singers have. It’s different for everybody and there’s always the exception to the rule, but I’ve had to work really hard to get what I have. Ronnie James Dio on the other hand, I don’t know what his early history was like, he was probably in some choir either at school or at church, but his warm-up for when he was in Black Sabbath, Rainbow or Heaven And Hell was a beer and a Marlboro 100; he never even warmed up and was consistently amazing! But it still came down to how he sang and how he used his body and nasal cavities, all the same rules applied. It’s been very important to me as a singer to get better, for myself if for nothing else, whether a thousand or a million people hear us. I love to do it!

The Illusion of Motion - 2004

I’ve read and heard a lot of people saying that seeing you live was life-changing or some kind of revelation. I know that you’re very interested in mysticism and spirituality, so is this something that you’re deliberately trying to induce with your music, or even that you experienced yourself?

Yes, it is. In the live setting, I’m trying to create as much space and openness within myself as possible. That means that when we climb on stage, we start where we start: maybe we didn’t have a lot of sleep that day or haven’t had enough food, maybe I was feeling a little sick, there’s all sorts of different things that are the starting point for a particular live set. It’s starting there, and opening with what’s actually there. That’s less mystical than just an energetic process: rooting, really rooting to the stage and to my band mates, creating roots with the audience and the room, just trying to expand and include everything that’s there, and then once it’s done, just throwing every single bit of energy and vitality into it, and making sure that the connection isn’t cut off so that we’re not just lost on stage in our own experience. If there’s an audience, a band, and some separation in between, it gets a little stale and boring. It’s a lot more interesting when we’re all in the room creating that together. It gets attributed to us because we’re the band creating the music that allows for some people to have the experience that you’re talking about, but to me, it’s really everybody in the room creating it together.

In 2015, you released an album with Vhol. You also have a solo acoustic project, where you sing really stripped-down songs. You’re also in Lumbar that sound a bit more like YOB, but still, these are completely different things. How is it for you to work on such different projects?

It’s great. Each project has given me new inspiration and allowed me to stretch muscles that maybe I don’t stretch in YOB. In Vhol, I’m working with John Cobbett, Sigrid Sheie and Aesop Dekker, who all are very high-level musicians with long histories of excellent music. They’re also trained musicians; John and Sigrid are classically trained and they have an ear for melody and harmony with vocals that I certainly hear, but without having the language and the ability for it that they have. When we’re working on an album, I rely heavily on them to help me construct good harmonies, we plot them out together, and then it’s my job to execute them. I bring my ability to it, but I learn so much from that process and from them… I hold them in the highest regard. It’s a very different experience than collaborating with Red Fang on the song that we did, or doing Lumbar with Aaron Edge, or doing my own solo music.

And I have some new projects that are coming down the pike too, a couple of guest vocals, a couple of other album projects that I wanna do, another solo album that is gonna be a bit different from the first one… I just learn so much every time I’m working with all these different people. Of course, there’s the energy component to it, and the only bummer about all of that is that I have to say no a lot too because I want to do each thing to the best of my ability, which means not piling too much on, and really trying to see projects through before I include new things.

What’s next now for you and for YOB?

I’m working on new YOB music right now. It’s still in its infancy and there’s no rush, though I do feel a really intense drive to figure out the vibe of the next album, this mystery factor I was talking about earlier. I feel pregnant with it, for the lack of a better word, and I feel like I’ve gotta give birth to that thing. Vhol is talking about working on our third album. I have two others project that I have to be kind of quiet about, but they could be really exciting collaborations. And then, some guest vocals and new solo music.

This new solo music might be the hardest of it all because I really wanna come up with a collection of music that’s different from everything that I’ve done so far, but I don’t know what it is yet. I get offers to do solo shows all the time but I’m completely bored and tired with what I’ve done, I don’t wanna play any of it anymore. I have to come up with something new. That’s all the stuff that’s coming on but the new YOB music is the big priority for me, I want to get that moving forward.

Great! I know you just came back home but do you think you will come back to Europe anytime soon?

Oh yeah, God, we love touring over there! It’s just gotten better and better for us, we felt a lot of passion among the people that came to the shows. They were being really excited, and of course, that makes us really excited too. We got to check out tons of new bands that we couldn’t get to see otherwise… Touring with Cremation was a blast, I love those guys. My favorite new band is Opium Lord. They’re from Birmingham, England, and they’re just so fantastic, they completely blew me away. It’s got all the elements of doom and sludge, maybe even a crust take on heavy, but they have their own sound and their own way of constructing their riffs. It’s not just Sabbath worship, and maybe more akin to something like Neurosis, although they don’t sound at all like Neurosis. When I played it to Scott Kelly he was like: “What the hell is this?! It’s like Eyehategod meets Christian Death!” They also have these weird harmonies, almost like the death metal band Portal, it’s really good!

Many, many thanks to Mike for his time and his kindness. If you don’t own Clearing The Path To Ascend yet, buy it now and thank me later!

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