Making Friends With The Darkness – An Interview With YOB’s Mike Scheidt

originally written by Matt Longo

Mike and I contacted via Skype. It took a little longer than expected, as I sat in proverbial Limbo and imbibed its literal namesake. But it was well worth it, since Mr. Scheidt was another long, lost interview from years back… the Middian days, in fact — and I craved follow-ups to that improperly recorded Q&A. But before we delved into that, I noticed something was missing….

Mike is much less whiskered lately, so plans to address him as a “fellow long-haired, bearded, and bespectacled metal guy” got sidetracked into asking about the shave. And his reply rang oddly familiar when he said that he hadn’t been drinking in large quantities, but still consuming daily. In order to get himself in gear for touring, he felt it best to abstain for a spell, and off it was shorn as a statement of intent about three months prior.

But back to the task at hand, one of the first things to confirm from the lost interview was that the name YOB originates from the Chuck Jones classic Rocket-Bye Baby, and Mike began by paralleling the creative process to cel animation:

Change is constant. Things come and go—things you don’t wanna see go, and things that you do—and part of what made those guys so great is the human element that is there. Everything is so painstakingly drawn out by a human being and a human hand. With music it’s kind of the same thing. I think the thing I resonate with is knowing there’s a human being on the other end of that guitar, and feeling there’s something I can relate to… on any number of levels. I don‘t live in the past — like Why aren’t there any more video stores? or stuff like that — but I think it’s a story that still being written—and in time that hollow, empty feeling that we get from the lack of human element will be demanded more and more.

Is that what the extra quality really is? We all know about the huge analog and vinyl resurgence of the last few years, yet regardless of how something is recorded, it’s inevitably digitized at some point. How is it more special? Weighing in on two-track recordings from the 1940s-1950s:

The sound is worse in terms of production quality—grainy and hissy and the instrumental mixing can be all weird—but because of these limitations, the performances are all very, very real. No overdubbing, no cut-and-pasting, no pitch correction. I’m not really against any of that either, but then you fast-forward to 2014 when every little thing can be manipulated digitally. The problem with digital is that it can be so easily abused, and bands that aren’t really good can be made good. But people who are really rooted in the moment, are true to the reason they’re making the music and genuinely inspired, they’re the ones who have the real talent that’s gonna come through. If a band’s really killer—whether they lay it down on a tape or a hard drive—that’s the real stuff.

Part of it is consumer culture. Folks who demand a certain type of sonic perfection, yet complain when the music sounds too sterile. The way YOB approaches this is that we play everything live. I will overdub some vocals and some guitars, but as far as guitar, bass, drum, and rhythm tracks… it’s all done in one take. That’s really our way of doing it. We don’t fix every little thing, we let some things not line up, and I think it makes for a more complex, interesting album. Speaking as a fan purchasing music, you can tell when something hits you in the heart, balls, and face all at the same time. And that can be something low-fi, as long as it rises above its limitations, just as I’ve heard music that’s perfectly produced which doesn’t make you feel a thing. It just comes down to the person and the soul doing it.

This in turn made me remember the other topic touched upon during our last chat: the honesty behind deliberately paced music …something that Mike had told me about when I questioned his affinity to epic celestial doom. And this is not to say that tons of love can’t come from modern metal marvels still milking that weathered Necrophagist teat, but Scheidt still agrees that…

…it’s easily possible to get away with so-so songwriting in a group of technically astute musicians, because you can get lost in a great player—but that may not be the album you’re spinning 20 years from now. It might not connect because, though we grow up, there’s always that part of us that remains the same, the part that rides with us through everything. If the music can touch that part of us, it has a staying power that’s unique. And when you’re playing really slow, there’s a higher potential to have that level of honesty, sincerity, and authenticity, because instead of hiding behind a whole bunch of bushes, there’s just a couple …it’s less opportunities to hide, so you better mean it!

So what type of energy does Mike feel he taps into? How does he understand his higher sense of self, and how does he get into that mode as a songwriter?

Recognizing the aliveness of every moment—the highs and lows, the greatest and the worst, the fuck-ups and everything. But being able to connect that with music and notice something we haven’t seen before, or at a depth we haven’t approached before. And I think we carry that unchanging “witness” to everything. Whatever our attitudes or beliefs or religion or politics are, on our deathbed before we pass, that person is with us moment to moment, too. So when music—and this is an overused word—transcends where we were born, and what we believe, and who we think other people are, time stops and our ideas and values take on a different nuance. And then taking that something and applying it to our everyday lives to become better parents, friends, partners, musicians, or whatever it may be. My viewpoint on that is very positive— which, aesthetically, can rub people the wrong way (especially in the metal community where there’s a lot of darkness). But to me, it’s two sides of the same coin, because the darkness is why a band like YOB can do what we do. Because we do go to dark places, but we don’t wallow in that …it’s more like making friends with it.

And then, of course, you take a song like the near-19-minute album closer/game-changer in “Marrow,” which ostensibly feels like a sonic departure, yet is still quintessentially YOB. It brims with cockle-warming, tear-jerking soul, and a superbly radiant confidence that must be experienced to be fully believed. How has their development allowed for this song to just now be realized?

We’ve had albums where that gets touched on—songs and moments that have that sense of beauty and emotion—but I don’t think we’ve had a song that’s gone that far. Maybe the song “Essence” (a bonus track from The Unreal Never Lived), but we didn’t even really feel that it fit us back then. Now this may be dangerously close to the edge of “T.M.I.” …like I said, we all go through ups and downs and difficult things in life, and society wants us to keep that messy stuff to ourselves. The flipside is that it’s what we all go through, and it’s as much a real part of our experience—if not more real, honest, and truthful—than what we choose to show the world. I’ve suffered manic depression and anxiety most of my life, and I’m one of those people who the drugs are made for. It’s also part of the reason I was inspired by Eastern mysticism and the mystic aspects of quantum physics. What we see and perceive is only the tiniest tip of the iceberg. So for someone who’s suffering, there’s tremendous comfort in knowing there’s so much going on besides the stories we’ve weaved for ourselves, the feelings we have in these limited bodies.

At the same time, these limited bodies and the feelings we have are how we connect to the universe, so they’re also very important. Being able to have a bigger view of those things and give them a little more space allows us to have a richer experience that we’re more open to, and is not as threatening. Going through the process of a manic—you have your ups and downs. It’s not even like words or thoughts or a particular thing that makes you sad… it’s just your body dorking out. So it was in a real “down” spot that I started writing [Clearing the Path to Ascend]. I look at the rest of my life: I’m 44 years old, I’m a father, I’m a partner, I have a lot of friends, and I want to be somebody that people close to me can depend on. And you know, there are people out there who have modeled incredible strength and resilience from things that are infinitely worse than anything I’ve gone through, and that’s inspiring to me. I want to find that strength in myself as well. The album—from start to end— is really about sailing through that, digging into the emotions, and tapping into the earthy quality of what it means to be that down. But by the end of the album, in those last notes, it has gotten some place positive, with a sense of hope. There was a journey, and it’s not just that things got “better”, but realizing the two sides of that coin are not contradictions. You need to make an ally with it, because the dark side of our nature does not go away, and it’s not something to hide, or run away from, or pour alcohol on.

I’m glad that you brought that up, because the very start of the album says “time to wake up” and then about 11 minutes into “In Our Blood” we get the complete quote (from English philosopher Alan Watts), which says “What is reality? Obviously no one can say because it isn’t words, it isn’t material—that’s just an idea. It isn’t spiritual—that’s also an idea. It’s time to wake up.”. A specific “meaning of human life” may be something presently unknowable, but for you—Mike Scheidt—what does it mean to be alive?

Man… who knows, right? There’s this thing that’s happening, and we’re born into it. And wherever you’re born—Germany or Ohio or São Paolo—you’re born into a society, and those societies have parallels, but also definite differences built on language, history, culture…everything built up until then which is how we perceive our world. Those perceptions have a “start” in history somewhere along the line—everything from the invention of the car to the invention of the tortilla—and if we’re not careful, we can forget that. “Tortillas are a fact!” we think …well, yeah, now. They weren’t a fact for most of existence, but those things we take for granted are a main reason why we argue and fight and polarize around beliefs.

Where I dig into the mystic qualities of “what is really there” is in the fact that our definitions really only apply to us. “Reality” itself is the substratum from which we can even have a conversation about tortillas; no reality first, no tortilla conversation. So for me, it’s not taking that fact for granted, and allowing some space around my beliefs—even my hardcore beliefs, things I find really frightening and threatening. Even then, who knows why that is? Who knows where that comes from? There are so many layers of perception and reality… even around our human bodies. We see “ourselves” on the surface, but we know through science that there are trillions upon trillions of beings that live within our bodies, that make up our bodies—we’re entire universes in ourselves. So with that knowledge, I think it’s more interesting to find out what we all have in common, versus the powers that have created these crowbar separations in people and cause so much damage. But the thing is, we also learn from it. From all this hardship and pain and misery comes wisdom. It’s kinda fucked up, but that seems to be how it is.

To bring it around full circle—it’s okay to not have all the answers, to not know. Sometimes our knowledge and everything we carry around in our heads separates us farther and farther from our reality, than just acknowledging that we don’t know. And then all of a sudden, everything just becomes close and personal. It’s like looking at a deer, and we can have conversations and scientific discussion all day long about what that thing is …but all those things are just names, and does a deer know what it is? So when we can look at something and wonder and not really know what it is, then at that moment, we’re perhaps closer to “reality” than we’ve ever been, knowing and acknowledging it in an “aware” way.

Through basically all of your musical career, you have also been a parent. My wife and I are soon expecting our first child [Editor’s note: congrats to the Longos!], so what’s the best advice you can give someone whose life is so entrenched in music?

From now until she’s born, enjoy and be grateful for every night of uninterrupted sleep; do not take that for granted anymore! Enjoy having two free hands, and any time you get to sit and enjoy a meal from start to finish. And I don’t mean this negatively. Because the truth of the matter is that everything is going to change, in ways that you can’t imagine. It will be the best thing that’s ever happened to you, but it’s a full, top-to-bottom experience. There isn’t a thing in your life that won’t be affected by it. So you’re gonna lose sleep and try to eat with one hand. You may have been to loud concerts, and yet nothing will make your ears crackle like when your baby screams. There’s something about that frequency… not even Sunn O))) can blow your ears like a child screaming. It may be a bit cliché, but you can go to classes and read books, yet nothing can fully prepare you until you’re immersed in it. And it will be the toughest thing you’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding. Just take care of yourself—I guess that’s the best advice. Drink tons of water, sleep as much as you can, take vitamins, make sure that mom and you can tag team and take breaks, and if you’re physical at all—like working out—just keep doing that. Pretty soon, everything will be thrown for a loop, and those things are how you’re gonna recharge.

Posted by Old Guard

The retired elite of LastRites/MetalReview.

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