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The Day Room: Cold Cave and the Humanity of the Artist

on May 02, 2013, 12:00am

day room feature artwork

The Day Room is a column by Philip Cosores that features stories from the music industry that shine a light and brighten the corners. 

I “like” 719 Music pages on Facebook, so thanks to its cryptic algorithms, it’s a small miracle that I bumped into the following post by Cold Cave at all.

Cold Cave Forever

This message from Cold Cave’s singer and creative force, Wesley Eisold, intrigued me in part because of its content, but also its candor that appeared to be the result of his sobriety. I wasn’t aware of Eisold speaking in such confessional terms to the general public without being provoked. His interviews were always honest but usually characterized by his answers dealing directly with the questions and offering little more. However, with a message about change and personal growth, atypical behavior seems precisely the point.

Regardless, these personal insights were news to me. Before this, I knew relatively little about Cold Cave or Wesley Eisold. My most direct experiences were a couple of performances and this one time when he sat at the same table as me in a pizza place while I interviewed his friend, remaining in silence without introduction for minutes before finally being introduced by his friend as “Wes,” to which I eloquently responded “Yeah, I know who you are. I like your band.”

p4k Saturday-5

Photo by Jeremy D. Larson

But the message — with Eisold candid about his drinking and depression, the responsibility he took to change his life, and the empowerment that it had allowed him — it inspired me not because I could apply it to my own life, but because most of us working in the arts want most to see the people around us succeed and thrive. Of course, Eisold makes a living creating some pretty dark music, which raised a concern of whether Cold Cave at peace would be the same project as Cold Cave at unrest?

In a recent cover story here at Consequence of Sound, Ben Kaye spoke with Jim James, touching some on the notion of the tortured artist. James goes on to say, “I feel like when I look back to Nirvana records, or I look back to like, Smashing Pumpkins records, whatever, they don’t feel useful to me. They feel destructive. They feel sad and gross.” James connects now more to music coming from somewhere different, the “light,” and uses the examples of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, with “[themes] that sometimes were very. . . very dark, or sad sounding, but they were still explorative and they weren’t miserable.”

The “myth” of the tortured artist that James describes is a part of our consciousness, and not difficult to understand. Thinking and feeling very deeply seem almost opposed to the sort of Hallmark happiness that requires blissful ignorance. Not that you have to be shallow to be happy, but to really take in the existential realities of life, the state of the world, and our own lingering issues, happiness can become much more of a choice than a natural state. I’m not sure if Jim James would agree with that, but he seems like someone who chooses to look at life through the light despite a real awareness of the darkness. And from Wesley Eisold’s statement, it appeared that James was not alone.

cold cave by philip cosores The Day Room: Cold Cave and the Humanity of the Artist

Photo by Philip Cosores

One week after Eisold posted that message, his friend and former collaborator in Cold Cave, Justin Benoit, passed away very suddenly. Coming on the heels of his revealing birthday statement, I had some concern. Not necessarily for Wesley Eisold’s well-being, but just that this state-of-mind he had boldly displayed would be snuffed out. The coincidence was so typical of how life fucks with us, it seemed unreal.

157094 629742917041396 1274543546 n1 The Day Room: Cold Cave and the Humanity of the ArtistElsewhere, story after story kept leading me to his message and a question if whether or not music fans could be doing more to help our artists? Recent months have seen Lil Wayne’s repeated trips to the hospital for what is widely speculated to be issues with codeine (though Wayne says he suffers from epilepsy), Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong enter rehab after suffering an on-stage meltdown, and piano prodigy and Flying Lotus collaborator Austin Peralta passing away at the age of 22 after combining pills and alcohol for what would have appeared to be a pretty normal night out for many young people. Everywhere I looked, from my interview with JR White of Girls touching on his band’s honesty regarding their drug use to the incidents at South by Southwest where Diiv and Foxygen were both finding it difficult to maintain their professional poker faces amid the pressures of fulfilling their commitments, where fans didn’t know if maybe there was something more serious going on with them, and didn’t seem to care as they publicly roasted the young men. And, of course, there is Jason Molina, who passed away after a career fighting depression and addiction.

It’s not isolated to music and considering some high-profile public meltdowns, it can be easy to treat Amanda Bynes, or Charlie Sheen, or Britney Spears as cardboard cutouts here for our entertainment. When someone like Anna Nicole Smith winds up dying as the perpetual object of mockery, she doesn’t seem like such an amusing story anymore. But we never seem to learn and still froth at every Bynes tweet like it was whatever substance she appears to be on. And whether or not she is on drugs or crazy or seeking attention isn’t the point, it’s that we should care more than we do now, and maybe learning not to laugh is something we can do better.

This all could be unrelated, but, as Wesley Eisold would later say, “I don’t know if I believe in coincidences anymore. Nothing’s really too random and there are usually parallels between events. At the very least a cause and effect.”

I contacted the Cold Cave songwriter and he agreed to contribute some thoughts to this piece. The idea was to incorporate them throughout, but in all honesty, the answers he gave in the interview outweigh anything I had to say on these subjects. Though his words can only speak for his experience, they make sense to me and might make some positive impact in someone who reads them. So, below is a brief interview with Cold Cave’s Wesley Eisold:

First, I guess I wanted to hear a little more about your history, with drinking or any other substance abuse, and with depression, as you mention that you (when you wrote that post, at least) had been sober for a year and had “fought off your demons.”

Just right away I want to say that I’ve suffered from life-long depression. This isn’t a dramatic statement. It’s just a fact and said without a plea for sympathy or any self-pity. It’s had different faces and different dimensions. It was always there but at different times has been accented by lifestyle. Growing up I was teased a lot, and when I wasn’t I was paranoid that I was. I moved every year or two and went through the same situations and hazing over and over and resented that and so in turn I resented life. I’ve always felt outside of normalcy. I tried dealing with it in different ways, most of which were self-destructive. I fought a lot. I drank a lot. I hid a lot. Death isn’t funny to me though. I don’t make light of it. I’ve felt close to it too many times and wanted to not feel that way anymore.

Obviously, with American Nightmare and Cold Cave and other projects, you’ve been making music for a while. Did you feel pressure to continue your pain or suffering because you thought your art might suffer and did other people ever pressure you?

I remember feeling confusion in the past when bandmates would be happy to go on tour and play songs where I have to sing night after night about wanting to die while throwing my body around, but then be upset with me when I came to the place of emotional and physical exhaustion. Labels too. That’s usually when I would quit bands and then sink for a year or two and start something new out of that low point. You know, just feeling miserable..making miserable music.. saying miserable things.. and people expecting you to be this ‘with-it’ person. I just don’t think people should expect both. I’ve found the balance now without being miserable though. I don’t want to perpetuate the suffering. Art can be uplifting and alleviate the suffering. If you have a clear head you have the opportunity to see things as they are. The reality of the world includes pain, suffering, love and happiness. This is plenty to pull from.

Have you seen any change in your music when sober vs when not sober?

Yeah. Mostly that I’m making more music now that I’m not drinking or going out or surrounding myself with people in places that aren’t realistic. Doing that puts reality on hold. It’s a trap for insecurity and you can’t even see the reality of the situation when you’re living that way. It causes delusional and irrational behavior. I would drink daily and wonder why I was experiencing depression. Why I was being unproductive and feeling uninspired. I tried doctors to get some help but didn’t realize my body and mind were out of sync. You can fall in to depression by circumstance but you can water it by drinking. People can be resilient creatures though. I’ve healed so much of my illness by taking care of my body.

The idea that great art comes from suffering, is that true in your opinion? Or, do you think it’s in the nature of the artist to be prone to depression, self-loathing, self-medication, etc…?  Maybe these go along with being introverted and thinking deeply?

Life is suffering and creating art is an attempt to understand the abstraction of emotions. Music isn’t like a book or a painting. You have to be somewhat extroverted to perform it.

Obviously, anyone who has been sober knows that there are times when it is harder. When your friend passed away days after you wrote this, I couldn’t help but think about what that meant to your state of mind. This is where you can discuss Justin’s passing and it’s affect on you, and maybe how it’s harder when already awful situations become part of the news cycle and shared with so many strangers.

If I hadn’t had this year of clarity behind me I don’t know if I could have handled my friend shooting himself, with my gun, in my house. And every second I was there cleaning up the mess reconfirmed that I have to stay focused and thankful to have come to these realizations. This is a harsh reality. You have to have love in your life to get through.

I wish I read people more about situations like yours, like people who have had demons to fight and, even if they aren’t sober or haven’t received the help they need, that awareness that they are struggling at least can get people behind them and supporting them. Like, everyone from Green Day recently, who had more press for his on-stage meltdown than for his new albums, or like the band Girls that openly talked about their drug use and it was a part of the band and cool, it’s all treated very glibly, when so many of our musicians die or kill themselves. Do you think that it is too acceptable in the music world to be self-abusive? Do you even think that an attitude shift could help people?

I don’t like anything glib. I think it’s acceptable in the world at whole to be self-abusive. It’s not just in music. It’s integrated into our culture. Everyone thinks life is a party. You have all these mindless ‘bands’ getting wasted. You have all these clowns with ‘Satanic’ imagery. Maybe drug culture had a purpose in the revolution of music but now it just seems it’s for people without ideas. It’s trite. People should change for their own sake.

Do you think music fans care more about the art than about the artist? And, either way, as an artist, how does that make you feel?

I think a good artist is their art. You’ll find integrity in them as people. I think of all the insincere people I’ve met and their music is equally empty. My fans have been really gracious and they seem to appreciate what I create.

You mention never thinking you would live this long. Is there something when you were an artist starting to make music that you didn’t know that you wish you did?

I didn’t think about the future because I couldn’t think about the future. I was fatalistic. In retrospect it was youth.

You have indicated you are getting a prosthetic. Does the desire to do this now step from your “clarity,” or just coincidence. Not to be presumptive, but based on your wording, it seems like you wanted to feel pain for a long time, and I could see getting the prosthetic as symbolic of an internal healing. Maybe I’m way off there.

I don’t know if I believe in coincidences anymore. Nothing’s really too random and there are usually parallels between events. At the very least a cause and effect. Getting the prosthesis is a symbol of healing and acceptance and embracing that this is who I am. I had one as a child. It was useful but one thing I didn’t personally like was the deception in it. They look like ‘real’ hands, with matching skin tones and shape. I felt they attracted more confusion, questions and attention because it closely resembled a hand than just not having anything there at all. Now that I’m older and have thought about it, I wanted it’s purpose to be useful for performing but more importantly to me, useful in aesthetic, which is why I had it made in black. I want it to be exactly what it is; different, inhuman, futuristic.

The idea of Eisold wanting the prosthesis to look inhuman has the opposite affect on him as a whole, which might be the point. With his black hand drawing attention on the part of him that is different, we are forced to realize that the rest of him is very human — like the rest of us. And, I guess when we see musicians or celebrities on any kind of stage, it is too easy for us to focus on what makes them different than us, what makes them seem inhuman, and not see that everything else about them is very human.

It’s something I’ve surely been guilty of, and even when I’ve tried to take a compassionate approach, I’ve been shocked to see others defend their right to make light of people who might be in mental or emotional turmoil, using the excuse that because someone performs in the public light, they deserve to have their actions treated differently than we might treat a regular person. It might not be our responsibility to care about every person in the world, but it wouldn’t hurt to try.

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Philip Cosores is a freelance writer contributing to Paste Magazine, Consequence of Sound, Diffuser.fm, The Orange County Register, SF Weekly, and many others. Follow him on Twitter.

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Cold Cave is now on tour. Check out recent singles “God Made the World” and “Oceans Without End”

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Previously on The Day Room: Us vs. Them