Mental Health Series Spotlight Featuring Backwards Dancer & Flatfoot 56

Mental Health Series Spotlight Featuring Backwards Dancer & Flatfoot 56

Mental health is a prominent issue within the music community, so New Noise Magazine reached out to a diverse group of artists and asked them to speak about their personal experiences with mental illness. This is an exclusive ongoing spotlight—coinciding with Issue #31, The Mental Health Issue, of the print magazine—that showcases a refreshing transparency on the struggles many individuals face and the coping mechanisms they’ve developed to overcome them.

Ryan Kelleher of Backwards Dancer

Worcester, Massachusetts’ Backwards Dancer—comprised of vocalist and guitarist Zack Shaw, formerly of The Hotelier, guitarist Ryan Kelleher, bassist Sam Creager, and drummer Andy Underwood—released their debut EP, New Life in Old Shoes, in May of 2015. Their self-titled full-length follow-up dropped March 3 via Max Bemis’ label, Rory Records—an imprint of Equal Vision Records.

Are there any personal experiences with mental health issues you’d like to share?

I’ve struggled with symptoms of bipolar disorder since I can recollect, though I was misdiagnosed with comorbid depression and anxiety until my early 20s. This misdiagnosis—or, equally as common, a lack of diagnosis altogether—is all too prevalent due to a lack of adequate mental healthcare in the United States, among various other societal roadblocks. Being a male with this disorder, I was more encouraged to deal with my feelings through anger and logic rather than openness and self-empathy. I still struggle with these poor coping mechanisms, though I am currently on mood stabilizers and constantly working towards a healthier self.

How does your mental health status interact with or inform the way you make music?

The push and pull between mania and depression is equal parts inspiring and detrimental. When one has such a vast observation, such a lucid understanding of the emotional spectrum, it becomes much easier to manipulate art in a way that is truly representative of those feelings at a seemingly molecular level. The sort of emotional conviction that people with bipolar have is also a huge push to share these ideas and fully dive into their subtleties. At the same time, this disorder makes motivation incredibly difficult—especially within a depressive episode—and can result in feeding the senses rather than creating art. 

What are some mechanisms you’ve developed and/or discovered that help you cope?

I’ve found that cognitive dissonance exists exclusively in a state of unbalance; the mind is processing information in an unhealthy way, and the scale is thrown off. With that said, I am constantly trying to find ways to create balance. Everyone needs to do this in their own unique ways, as our minds are all different, but for me, it is about healthily exercising my sensation, creativity, empathy, and logic. Finding healthy ways to hone these cognitive functions creates equilibrium for me, and I find that I am able to take the bipolar experience and harness it in exceptionally powerful, magical ways.

Are there ways you think the music world could better accommodate and/or include those living with mental illness?

The absolute most impactful way we can help is to create, maintain, and care for DIY art spaces in our communities. These are places that are typically few and far between, and when they exist, are typically decrepit, unsafe, and unsanitary. The music world needs to truly understand the importance of these spaces in giving ostracized people a place to thrive and live creatively, and contribute to making safe, inexpensive spaces more readily available.

How are your personal experiences impacted by external forces—subculture, dominant culture, political rhetoric, policy shifts, the news media, social media, etc.?

It is incredibly overwhelming to be fighting a constant battle in your mind in the midst of a constant battle in your world. Sometimes, I look out at it all and shut down, wholly overwhelmed by the amount of information presented and my inability to act upon it. This detachment often leads to feelings of alienation, in turn imploding into a sort of isolated void in which I find a strangely euphoric sort of creation. In this state, I typically lie with my eyes closed for hours, hearing sounds and watching visualizations that seem to pop out of nothingness. This is where I seem to find most of my art—or at least their catalysts and inspirations.

Brandon Good of Flatfoot 56

Upbeat Chicagoan Celtic punks, Flatfoot 56—comprised of vocalist and guitarist Tobin Bawinkel, his brother and bassist Kyle Bawinkel, guitarist and bagpiper Eric McMahon, mandolin player, guitarist, and vocalist Brandon Good, and drummer Conrad Allsworth—released their seventh studio album, Odd Boat, digitally via their own site on March 3. Sailor’s Grave Records will officially issue the record on CD and vinyl on April 28.

Are there any personal experiences with mental health issues you’d like to share.

I personally have struggled with a bout of depression in the context of an existential crisis that eventually brought me to a point of wanting to stop existing altogether and wanting to commit suicide. I haven’t ever really talked much about it until this point, but this happened to me starting about four years ago. The culmination of that crisis was at a cabin with all of my friends for a friend’s 25th birthday, and I drank probably enough to inebriate a medium-sized horse, went outside, preached a very drunk sermon, threw up an extraordinary amount—several large mixing bowls, I’m told—and admitted before passing out that I didn’t want to exist anymore.

How does your mental health status interact with or inform the way you make music?

At the time of my first mental struggle, I had started another band outside of Flatfoot 56 that was more of my own songs, just because the content didn’t fit in with Flatfoot’s feel. The songs all kind of came from a place of me questioning and deconstructing the beliefs I was brought up in, which we all know today as the Evangelical Right. There was just a lot of it that didn’t quite add up, and the philosophical implications really threw me into a state of confusion, anger, depression, and anxiety. All of those songs were an attempt to make sense of the breakdown I was having. So, for me, I think my mental health sort of affects every part of me; it informs everything I do, because it’s difficult for me to separate anything I do from my thoughts. 

What are some mechanisms you’ve developed and/or discovered that help you cope?

I think now one of the big things is that I go to a therapist once a week. I know I didn’t develop that, but it has really helped me work through a lot of issues. I wish I would have figured this out before I got to the point I had. I have figured out that when I start to panic and fall into depression, I need to take a step back and ask myself what is it I can do about these seemingly enormous problems I see with the world around me and faults in my own life? The answer to the first question is “not very much.” The answer to the second is to try my best and educate myself; I remind myself I am trying my best and that is all that I can do. I think reminding myself that I am not superhuman and no one else is important! I just remember we all have problems, we just have to accept ourselves and try to improve where we can.

Are there ways you think the music world could better accommodate and/or include those living with mental illness?

I undoubtedly think there is! I think we all can be honest about our struggles and try to bring light to them! Having mental struggles is normal and nothing to be ashamed of. I really feel those of us who are in positions where people listen to what we say [should be] honest and let people know they are not alone and they are not freaks. I also think that giving a space and platform to people in their local community will allow for people to get support and help they need. I’m not saying this will help everyone, but I think it’s a start. It is also important that people in their local communities support one another! It’s so important also that this is not left up to bands; this is an effort that includes all of us.   

How are your personal experiences impacted by external forces—subculture, dominant culture, political rhetoric, policy shifts, the news media, social media, etc.?

External forces impact us all in almost every way. All of the above listed examples affect either us personally or someone we care about. In my opinion, outside of a medically classified psychopath, we all are affected by the things that happen in the outside world, from immigration to food, from government to friendship, culture to religion. For me, all of these things help me decide how to interact with people and the world around me [and] who I need to be to make the world a better place.

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