Yob and Near-death Metal Experiences
Yob's Our Raw Heart topped PopMatters Best of Metal 2018 list. Here, Yob's Mike Scheidt meets with neurophilosopher Christopher James Stevens to discuss music and mystical experiences.
Riding the tram out to the suburbs of Bordeaux to talk with Yob's Mike Scheidt before their concert in 2018, I resign myself to the fizz and pop of excitatory and anxiogenic processes bustling about in my gut and brain. I'm nervous because, later, when I press 'Record' on the dictaphone I've borrowed to complete my disguise, the first thing I'll tell Mike is that I'm acting under false pretenses: I've never conducted an interview before. Blagging an interview slot just happens to be the best way to sit down and converse with this kindred spirit, with someone who knows that for life to truly be lived, it must be played, even when the manifest aspect of that playing is some of the sombrest and most earnest doom metal committed to record, and even when that life has been wrestled back from the very threshold of death.
This dimension of play comes via celebrated interpreter of eastern mysticism for western minds, Alan Watts, whose influence on Yob's creative output is already well-known among their fans. Since their eponymous demo in 2000, Watts has almost been a second voice in the band, with extracts from his lectures providing both the sonic and conceptual cornerstone to some of their most beloved tracks ("Revolution", "Atma", "In Our Blood"). With this in mind (and after Mike's cautiously polite acceptance of my confession), I begin our conversation by asking Mike if this spiritual angle had always been a pre-meditated part of what the nascent Yob was intended to be.
"I knew I wanted to write heavy music and... particularly at that time I was really into Cathedral and Sleep. Certainly, I was into Candlemass and Trouble... but those, at the time, they were Sabbathy bands, they were throwback bands. Whereas Cathedral came along and they completely turned it on its heel. Because there was the '70s influence, but there was also that punk, Napalm Death thing there too, and I was coming from punk and metal, so..."
As he continues to paint a detailed landscape of the band's early influences, Mike's enthusiasm for music overflows, to the point that I start wondering whether he hasn't misheard my original question. But there's also a tangible wisdom yoked to his enthusiasm, and through the former I realize he's simply been taking the time to thoroughly contextualize his answer:
"The music that's the most enthralling to me is the things that feel personal to the people making it... that there's this sense of authenticity about it, almost like an exposure or a rawness. And certainly growing up in the punk scene that was what it was about - it's just raw... So for me, because of where I was at, the only way I was going to be able to be authentic was if I wrote about a sense of search and a spiritual quest, but also depression, and writing about those things was where I felt I could be authentic."
I press him on this idea of authenticity in art and enquire how, from an artist's point of view, one comes to the decision to add extended excerpts of someone else's voice and thought into the sonic palette: "Well, it's heavy! These are ideas, really, that could derail somebody's life! I mean, if it really hits home that everything we've been taught is a point of view. [Alan Watts] is an introduction to a perspective... a perspective that's almost like a deconstruction, rather than offering some kind of hardened concept."
Now teacher-like himself, Mike goes on to speak of this "mysterious thing that allows us to have delusions about it," as omnipresent yet intimate to us, he says, as the ocean is to sea life, as much an unperceived condition for our mode of living as water is to fish.
"The truth that that points to allows for the many kinds of expressions and personalities. It doesn't get in the way [of that] at all. But the personalities need this ineffable mystery, and this ineffable mystery does not need our personalities. It doesn't need our ideas."
I understand now that, without even having to ask him directly, Mike is telling me that these quotes find a place in Yob's music precisely because they don't tell people who they should be or what they should believe. A deconstruction of belief itself, nudging the listener's awareness towards a more immediate yet infinite essence of being, which is shared by all and by everything. Scheidt even appears to parallel this to the world of heavy metal, remarking that metallers "get locked in boxes about what you can and can't do," whereas for him, as long as the authenticity, the "beating heart" is there in the music, nothing is to be ruled out by any kind of convention.
"People can be so protective of their discriminations. Of the thing that means the thing to them," he says, light-heartedly drawing upon a philosophy of absolute cultural relativism.
To this point in our conversation, I've skirted around the subject of the severe illness and near-death experience Mike endured in hospital in early 2017. Unsurprisingly, he's been grilled about this at length in the rock and metal press, with this year's Our Raw Heart album -- which made PopMatters Best of Metal 2018 -- being seen as the phoenix that has risen from those ashes. I want to ask him about it from a slightly different angle; I want to know how the actual reality of facing death had compared to how Mike had pictured it when writing the lyrics to songs like "Exorcism of the Host", "Prepare the Ground", and so many others that deal directly with the reabsorption of the "self" back into this ineffable mystery he's been talking to me about. In a nutshell, did that most liminal experience turn out to be what the spiritual philosophy expressed in his music had prepared him for?
"Well, things that I thought I understood, I found out that I didn't. Or I didn't have near the understanding that I had arrogantly thought... and I mean an arrogance of belief and thinking that that belief, or that list of well thought-out thoughts, could somehow encapsulate something so giant." I remind him of something characteristically humble I heard him say in an interview from earlier this year, that he still didn't feel any closer to knowledge of where "that door" leads. Many come out of such experiences all too eager to declare to others where "that door" leads, but here someone manifestly well prepared for the passage comes back from it saying he got no closer.
"I think the mind, well, because we're so used to the 64 box of crayons in our head, we can have these experiences and then colour them all up, maybe get a couple new colours to add to the painting of the situation... but the person who's telling that story, won't survive [going through that door] and the absence of that person is not something that can be imagined. It can be experienced, but it cannot be put into words. And whatever thing did happen, it didn't go all the way. So what is the next thing? We didn't get that far!"
Experience, then, is paramount, and the respective experiences of "near-death" and "death" are not to be conflated. So what, in fact, did he experience?
"I was undoubtedly no longer a name. I was no longer a dad, or a bandmate. I wasn't in this room, dying. I wasn't scared, there was no fear. There was a vast ocean of crazy colours, crazier than any psychedelics I've ever done. It was so vast and yet so close. No distance, and yet infinite. And there was an awareness, and a slight splinter, because there was 'me' being aware of this thing being aware of me, and knowing that there was no separation, and that 'it' was me and 'me' was it. But anything that was a reference point in my life was gone... until I got pain drugs and was brought back into my body."
Here, I put it to Mike that what he's been describing is perhaps summed up in the lyrics to Our Raw Heart's most poignant song "Beauty in Falling Leaves", in the lines: "Mantra not apart, from ineffable heart / Endless worlds in endless mind /Caught in dreams of our own design". Only here does he decline to comment, telling me he prefers not to discuss the details of lyrics so as not to interfere with the interpretations other minds may have made through their own life-experience lenses. Here again, there is an admirable coherence between his visions of art and life itself; there is a pluralism held as sacrosanct in both.
Finally, I ask Mike about continuing to play heavy, sometimes beautiful but often caustic and abrasive metal music in the aftermath of such an ordeal. I mention new track "The Screen", one of the band's heaviest ever, and point out that, sonically at least, he doesn't seem to have returned mellowed or angelified at all from what was almost his death-bed.
"Yeah. There's this connotation sometimes that having these [kinds of] conversations is hippy or lovey-dovey. But there's no proof whatsoever that the universe is hippy or lovey-dovey. There's a ruthlessness. And I would rather have a conscious relationship than just live an illusion, end up on a death-bed completely unprepared for what is going to fall apart."
On this note, following a conversation about pluralism of viewpoints, I tell him I feel that metal had been in need of the unique perspective Yob has brought to it. "Oh, I wouldn't be so bold," he laughs, almost sheepishly. "You wouldn't, but I can," I reply.
He leaves me with a final thought, one which neatly completes the weave between art and life that has threaded through almost every thought he has expressed in the hour we've been talking, his simple truth that we are each of us a unique view of the same shared essence.
"For young people getting started -- say the thing that nobody else can say. Because of your particular life, where you were born, your parents, your experiences, your particular thing, you can say something that nobody else can." Doing that as individuals, as Mike Scheidt humbly and relentlessly perseveres in doing, is a way for all of us to gain a richer, more experienced knowledge of the whole; through the myriad lenses of others.