by Jason Thayer
From Fall 2018
The woman I’d moved across the country with was no longer in love with me. She spoke the words plainly, no preamble, as I stirred gnocchi into a velvety gorgonzola cream sauce. That first winter in Chicago, snow had buried parked cars while we slept. I had met a stretch of unemployment with day drinking, the weather confining us to the apartment we shared. My moodiness must have played a part—the way I dismissed an oval cast iron pan she’d found at an antique market while visiting her mother in Wisconsin for the weekend. “It’s too small to cook on,” I’d said.
After I moved out of the apartment, I relied on a carousel of Melatonin, Scotch and Ativan to get to sleep, tranquilizing fits of panic and dread over the uncertain future. We had moved to Chicago on a whim, she and I fitting our lives into two duffel bags, leaving behind Portland and a network of friends. An adventure, we’d thought. A testament to our spontaneity and to the gravity of our relationship.
I stayed on a friend’s sofa. I knew Nick from college in Oregon; he had moved to Chicago a few months after we relocated there, also on a whim, he, too, now struggling with the crushing isolation felt in our new city, buried in apocalyptic winter.
The sofa I slept on was in what was meant to be the dining room. Nick slept in what was meant to be the living room, the apartment’s two official bedrooms already occupied. Nick had strung up a makeshift tent for himself with an old set of Star Wars sheets for privacy. Each morning, I was woken at 6 AM by the gong of the church bell across the street. Nick used this as his alarm and would shuffle past me to the kitchen to fry hash browns and eggs, the greasy smell filling the apartment, the place lacking ventilation.
Nick had recently broken his radius and ulna and couldn’t work. After he ate, he returned to his tent to hit a small bong and lay on his back, strumming the guitar with his surgically repaired arm in a narcotized manner, channeling his own blend of seasonal and situational depression. I’d drift in and out of sleep while he played, and sometimes form vocal parts between the two states of consciousness. If I was lucky, I would jerk awake and jot the lyrics into a notepad I kept beside the bed, or record the vocal on my phone.
Sophomore year of college, Nick and I had started a band. I had yelped erratically into the microphone, whipping my body as if continuously struck by lightning. I had tried to make up for what I lacked in vocal control and general musicianship with stage presence and spectacle. Nick played my father’s bass. The instrument had passed to me after my dad died of a heart attack when I was little. Before I was born, he had played in a band called Myth, his cousin on drums and another guy on guitar. The guitarist, according to my mother, was the only one who knew how to play his instrument. “It wasn’t serious,” she tells me. “They played in people’s basements while their friends hung out and drank beer.”
My mother was in a band herself in the seventies, a group with her sisters who sang Carpenters songs at weddings, funerals, and church picnics.
Musically, I take after my father, ranging from clumsy, to almost capable on guitar, bass, and keyboard. Like my father, I too, shrugged off this incompetence. I quelled waves of insecurity with alcohol and the David Berman lyric I held in my head: “All my favorite singers couldn’t sing.”
I have a half-submerged memory of my father playing acoustic guitar out in our garage, me sitting next to him cross-legged, wearing one of his oversized tees as a night shirt. Perhaps this memory, and the other half-memories I hold of my father remain complicit, his death feeding the latent sadness I held that winter, a co-conspirator derailing my relationship. I’d stammered, sobbed, bargained. “We can work through this,” I pleaded. “Relationships change,” I’d said. “Love changes.”
“I don’t love you anymore,” she’d said again. There was no crossing back over the shadow line.
On Nick’s couch, in the weeks and months that followed, I countered despondency with surges of desperate creative impulse. The harsh winter tapered off and Nick and I began practicing music on the roof of the apartment, the Chicago skyline illuminating on the horizon as the red sun set. We lived in the Ukrainian Village. A network of Eastern Orthodox churches peaked their domes and steeples out from between the apartment buildings. Nick played his plodding chord progressions on a guitar he’d de-strung to hold only four strings, wrenched to a special tuning. This was easier for his busted limb to manipulate. Samantha, who also lived in the apartment, and who was in an ill-defined relationship with Nick, learned drums, banging on a kit pared down to a snare, some sleigh bells strapped to her ankle, and a floor tom she hit so hard you swore she was going to bust right through it. I goth-crooned oblique lyrics about the metaphorical hole in my chest, the undercurrent of self-destruction that had lead me to lock myself in the bathroom and smash a Bic razor apart with the wallop of a hair dryer, fingering the blade out and tracing in my thigh until slick blood came the night of the breakup.
In the beginning, our band’s sound was primal, guttural. We locked onto a groove, closed our eyes and rode it out until the three of us were emotionally drained, lying on our backs on the tarred rooftop, no one talking. We played the songs again and again, sometimes draining a bottle of whiskey as the sky got dark. We were the most depressed band in the city, amplifying our anguish on the rooftop so the neighborhood could hear. Someone across the street eventually complained, so we began renting a practice space in an old meatpacking plant. The ceiling in the room was impossibly high, the previous tenants somehow installing a disco ball.
We called the band Hotegaia, this name, a product of our echolalia, or maybe the result of all of us smoking too much weed, the word an approximation of the Japanese for sea scallop, hotategai, a menu item at the fancy restaurant I worked at, a word that had lodged itself in my brain. The levity of this name countered the melodrama of our music. We wrote an album, five long songs, 35 brooding minutes. We played the work in its entirety, start to finish, in bars and punk basements. Generally, we split the audience. Those who had come to have a good time, to socialize and try to hook up, fled to smoke cigarettes or retreated to the bar to try and chat over our clamor. The rest stayed, nodding their heads to our dark groove, either stoned or severely depressed enough to recognize something of themselves in the music we made.
We practiced the set five days a week. We rehearsed the album over and over, continuing until one of us was too exhausted or too drunk to continue. The latter was usually me. One practice, I had begun drinking earlier in the day, and so was drunk by the time we started playing. I was pulling from a bottle of Fernet Branca—that was the problem, the amaro going down easy. During the first song, I banged along on the keyboard; I rammed it into the amplifier dramatically and the thing went silent. Nick took off his guitar. He angled it against the amp. Feedback came. He killed the power.
“I’m done,” he said.
“I’ll use the other keyboard,” I said.
“You’re too drunk,” he said.
“I’m not,” I said. “I’m not. Let’s do it again. From the top.” I turned his amp back on.
He shut it off again. “You’re out of control.”
I started to protest but Samantha was already putting her coat on. Nick chugged the remainder of his beer and they both left. I stayed at the practice space and sulked. Why did he get to decide that I was too drunk? He was just as unpredictable and reckless as I was—fuck him. Did I ever stop practice—just up and leave? This defensiveness devolved into shame. These people were comforting forces in my life, their friendship familial, our project an emotional salve. I pressed record on my laptop and hit the drums violently, bellowing the word “control,” not a scream, but something like it, chanting and hollering as more words, mostly incoherent, came to me. I’ve never made it through all 17 minutes of this recording. It is the ragged sound of someone raging at the sky from within the cement walls of an old meatpacking plant.
Eventually I lay down on the floor. I looked up at the rafter beam and thought for the first time ever about looping the mic cable around my neck a couple times and enacting the most dramatic suicide. I remember testing the cable—would it hold? If it were doubled or tripled, it might. In our apartment, the night prior, I had watched the Ian Curtis biopic, Control, by the filmmaker Anton Corbijn. Our band genuflected at the altar of Joy Division; my vocal style was an homage to the singer’s baritone croon, albeit a bit more unhinged, like Nick Cave circa The Birthday Party. Before he hangs himself, the actor who plays Ian Curtis says, “When I’m out there singing, do you know how much I give? How much it affects me? I’ve no control anymore.”
The next morning, Nick opened the door to the practice space, letting in the light from the hallway. I was curled on a section of soundproof padding I’d pulled off the wall. I had slept under the old blanket we stuffed in the bass drum to soften the kick’s boom.
“I wanted to make sure the amps got turned off,” Nick said.
I sat up. Didn’t meet his eyes. I stuffed the blanket back inside the bass drum. My head felt bludgeoned from the booze.
Nick sat down on the amp.
I turned to face him. “I can’t tell if playing this music is the only thing keeping me sane, or if it’s what’s keeping me in this chronic state of depression.” Nightly, I channeled the bad vibes of the previous months, repeating a mantra of loss, of regret, of self-hatred into the microphone. At practice, sometimes I turned my back to Nick and Samantha, my face a crumpled piece of paper.
On stage, during a show, it’s different: you think about what you are saying, sure, but if you think about it too much and feel yourself tearing up, you open your eyes, look out at the audience, feel the reality of the situation. You understand that the words, the music, the sound, it is all a construct; it is all a performance.
At practice, it wasn’t uncommon for any of us to break down. In fact, it was more unusual if one of us didn’t end the set in tears—or take some critique the wrong way and storm out. This was personal for all of us. Nick and Samantha each harbored their own sadness, stories not mine to tell. Playing this music was painful, but we reveled in the ache. We needed to trudge through it all again and again and if we didn’t come out cured, at least we would have something to show for it. Maybe it wasn’t about being cured. Maybe it was about reinterpreting the experience, creating a space where we controlled the narratives of our own lives.
That night, the three of us practiced late to make up for the previous day’s rehearsal, which had been truncated by my drunkenness. We ran our set six or seven times and then walked home together in a kind of fugue state. A couple blocks from our apartment, two kids—teenagers—darted from the alley, one gun between them. I do not remember what they said, if they needed to say anything, their intentions clear by the pistol’s aim, alternating from Nick’s chest, to Samantha’s, to mine. What I remember is that I was calm, strangely unworried that the thief’s finger would twitch, that the gun might spasm awake.
After we filed the police report, I lay awake in bed. I could hear Nick pacing the house, stopping intermittently to steady himself, smoking the weed the thieves had neglected to snatch when we laid the contents of our pockets on the sidewalk. I kept turning the mugging over and over in my head—not the event so much, but my reaction to it. Being unafraid of death was jarring. My complete lack of concern for my own well-being was something foreign, something liberating, I ultimately decided. But as soon as I formed this thought, another, more unsettling one came to me. Outside our practice space, I was mirroring the abject persona I harnessed within. The boundary between art and artist had caved in—or maybe, the boundary had never existed in the first place. I understood just how far I’d readily sunk into depression singing these songs, and how far I would need to climb back up toward stability.
We recorded our album at a discounted price in a ritzy studio where Nick interned. Then we retired those songs and spent the next month writing new ones. Now our sets began with a pulsing drone, me on the thrift store Casio with my head hung, holding a chord as it frayed with distortion, my body undulating with the sound wavering through the cheap guitar amp. The drone progressed, finally, after five or so minutes of this, to a plodding, lethargic melody. Nick strummed pensively, and Samantha tapped the crash cymbal, the sound building before my booming vocal came in, finally, a bit off key. Before we played a show, we’d turn off the lights in the venue and switch on clip lamps we brought, outfitted with blue gel screens, any definition in our faces and figures obscured.
Normally, you want to start a set off strong, make sure the audience doesn’t disband. Our creeping overture was a challenge. Or maybe a declaration. Not everyone stuck around, and we took pride in weeding these people out. Nick played with his back to the crowd, the vibrations from his guitar coursing through his body, his feet thud-thudding to the rhythm of the drums. I gyrated, danced erratically like some deranged Elvis impersonator, clad in all black. Some songs were structured to devolve into us playing one chord for as long as we could, until it became hypnotic, the goal being that both musician and audience would enter a meditative state. We took cues from 1970s Krautrock, but also from Buddha boxes, these cheap plastic pocket machines that loop the same rhythm, aimed at facilitating concentration.
I stayed relatively sober for these performances. One, two beers. I approached the set with more precision than before. Our new material was as dark as the old, but catchier, tighter. Nick and I spent marathon sessions in the practice space, working through riffs and song structures. My lyrics were more narrative, the meanings no longer encrypted. I wrote about cutting up my leg in a song called “Trust Issues,” a tongue-in-cheek allusion to a Drake song of the same title that had just hit the radio. Our version proclaimed, “I can’t trust myself these days,” a self-loathing counter to Drake’s more sexist hesitance to “trust these bitches.” The album closed with a song called “Catatonic,” a hip-swinging ode to self-medication, which bled into a bookending keyboard drone, me whispering into the microphone indistinguishably as I ground my forehead into the Casio keys.
The sadness lingered; the fear of the future remained, but I began to feel a sense of purpose, direction return to my life. We started getting more show offers, playing the gamut of DIY venues: the low-ceilinged basements, the living rooms, the dilapidated warehouses and garages that defined Chicago’s underground music scene.
These spaces were always preferred to bars. Instead of a five-dollar cover, they asked for a three-dollar donation at the door. And instead of paying steep prices for drinks, the crowd could bring in their own six packs. The venues encouraged experimentation—the weirder, the more outside of the box, the better. With bars, you invariably got some frat bros in the crowd who were there to drink Michelob and talk over your set if you didn’t play straight ahead rock and roll or basic electronic dance music. In contrast, there was community built around DIY spaces. Many doubled as artist communes, makeshift bedrooms partitioned off with curtains or plywood. Each venue had a name ambiguously tied to its own unique space. Ball Hall—a hundred-year-old defunct ballroom; The Whip—a basement in a house on Whipple Avenue; Small World—a cramped one bedroom coach house. Occasionally, we hosted shows on our rooftop, against a backdrop of the city’s iconic skyline, a venue we called Rare.
Most nights, I went to Big Forever, a three-story house with an expansive basement, run by a few other Pacific Northwest transplants, acquaintances Nick knew growing up in Olympia, Washington. A guy named Shelby lived there with his girlfriend, Katy. Shelby performed under the alias Richard Album, strutting around like a big bird in impossibly tight jeans, singing pop vocals over backing tracks. Katy ran a monthly salon at the house, open to anyone who wanted to perform. Some people played music, some read poems or stories, some danced or staged puppet shows. Katy did performance art. In one piece, she spit up onto a mirror. In another, she appeared naked with disposable cameras strapped to her crotch and each breast, taking a succession of pictures of audience members from these vantage points. Shelby and another one of their housemates sometimes performed as Weird Tim Allen, their set consisting of noise collages comprised of Tim Allen’s iconic grunt from the TV show Home Improvement, dancers masked with massively blown-up photos of Tim Allen’s face twirling and twisting through the audience.
My favorite band in the DIY scene was ONO, a self-dubbed “noise-gospel” ensemble, formed in 1980, legends in the Chicago underground. They had been part of the no-wave movement: musicians hell-bent on making anything but music. They were fronted by a flamboyant black man from Mississippi with a long white beard who wore wedding dresses and recited bizarre and confrontational poetry about sodomy, about racial and sexual persecution, about his time in the Navy, and about Jackie O. His counterpart sequenced beats, a headlamp strapped to his noggin so he could see the nobs and buttons in dark basements. They were joined on various instruments by a cast of younger musicians from the scene. Whenever the music started sounding too much like music, the frontman would trigger abrasive sounds from a little machine he kept in the corner, in hopes of derailing the groove.
Any band could get a gig at a shitty bar; to play the DIY circuit meant the tastemakers of this community acknowledged you were making cool music. And, by extension, that you were cool. Or at least that’s how it felt to me, the insecure person I was, the insecure person I remain. A sense of self-worth returned. I stopped lamenting my life’s unforeseen zag. I began to accept the tradeoff dealt: amped up creative output in lieu of domesticity, making gnocchi and raising children in the suburbs, the stable family scene I’d always imagined would finally fuse the fissures from my father’s death.
Then life veered again.
That summer, my friend Stephen was T-boned by a drunk driver back in Portland. I booked a ticket in the middle of the night to fly home immediately. I arrived in time to hold his hand for a few minutes and voice some parting words he wouldn’t hear, his body—what was left of it—sputtering out, despite the machines’ persistent pulse and pump. I spent the next few days writing a eulogy.
After the funeral, the benefit concert, the week and a half of sleeping on the couches of stunned friends from college, I returned to Chicago. Gutted, I doubled down on performative sadness. In the evening, after I finished waiting tables, I biked to the practice space at midnight to work on a new project. I wanted to play solo, something I’d never done before. The need for self-sufficiency was accelerated by Nick’s announcement that after Hotegaia recorded our third album, he was packing his belongings onto a train and riding with them to New Mexico. He planned to begin anew in the desert where another mutual college friend lived. Samantha had already left the band. Her friendship with Nick had blown up and she had moved out, deciding that pounding her frustrations into the tom, night after night, like she wanted to punch right through the drumhead, was killing her.
I couldn’t play an instrument and sing at the same time very well, so hip-hop was the obvious genre I gravitated toward. I rapped, sang, screamed into the microphone over some backing tracks I’d recorded, my distorted voice ricocheting off the practice space walls until the sun rose. I drank steadily to sustain emotion, to remain in the right depressive state as exhaustion set in. I smoked weed to energize myself, the nights blurring into the gray of the early morning.
I was listening to a lot of Danny Brown. I was drawn to the way the rapper unflinchingly depicts his darkest moments. He raps about loss and trauma, and complexly about addiction, examining his pattern of “breaking day, sniffing Adderall writing.” Brown is conscious of the duality of this productive self-destruction, confronting the likelihood that he’s going to “go out like Kurt Cobain.” That he’s going to “die like a rockstar.”
In the wake of Stephen’s death, I remained fucked up, but productive. I wanted to make some incarnation of hip hop music that was hyper-personal like Danny Brown’s brand, something soul-crushingly sad that people could dance to. No jokes, nothing corny or contrived like white hip hop tended to be (see Beastie Boys, see Macklemore). I would not rap with a fake accent—God no. I would not make this an imitation. There would be no punch lines. This would be an homage, not appropriation—or at least that’s what I told myself. I wonder now, if by definition, white hip hop is inherently an act of cultural appropriation. That at its core, it employs sacred elements of a minority culture. I didn’t think about this then. I knew only that I needed to continue hearing my voice run through the PA in our practice space. That I could stomach the loss, if the pain was generative.
In earnest, I rehearsed my variation on the genre, rooting my lyrics in the long-standing themes of traditional hip hop: Loss, Adjustment, Drugs, Sex, Escapism, Death. I wanted to tell stories about how each of these applied to my own life and to the lives of those around me, albeit through the lens of hip hop’s tendency toward hyperbole, construction of a persona, the contrast bumped on the image of the self, the employment of sensationalized, auto-fictitious elements to tell a story.
I began playing the DIY circuit, dressed in all white with a splotch of fake blood painted on my chest, pouring High Life over my head between songs, singing or kind of rapping to distorted instrumentals, which I ran through a bass amp. I recorded an album called Bummer Summer, which traced a fictionalized narrative of the exceptionally shitty year, beginning with the break up, charting the speaker’s descent into self-destruction, culminating in the final songs with Stephen’s car wreck. The album focused on those losses, and also the loss of my father, the sour taste of his death lingering for twenty years, now wrapped up in a renewed concern that a heart attack like the one that took him down might be waiting for me on the ever-approaching horizon, as my substance abuse dovetailed with long nights rehearsing and recording. I plain-spoken rap: “I’m searching for the other half of my heart, before the engine click, click, click, but don’t start.”
I sent the unfinished album to a music journalist acquaintance. He had asked to hear it after I bumped into him in a coffee shop. Without a head’s up, he published a review in the Chicago Reader the next week:
“The album is heavy on the downer side as the dude raps about consuming a grocery list of drugs, keeping his shirt on during sex, and choking back tears while packing up his dead friend’s bedroom…his beats are lo-fi, gritty, and sometimes so skeletal they make Thayer’s caustic words sound even bleaker—I had to take a few breaks in order to make it through the whole album, but it’s worth it.”
Zadie Smith defines joy as “that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight.” With equal parts excitement and crippling anxiety, my body vibrated as I read the review. I was still wavering over whether to release the work, fearing people would conflate person and persona. The speaker was me, but also, decidedly not me: I didn’t take that much Oxycodone; I wasn’t generally prone toward the reckless, destructive and irresponsible sex the speaker recounts. Some of it was facsimile of my experience, and some of it explicit invention, with no decoder to untangle fact from lurid fiction, art from artist.
I was second guessing the raw obscenity of it all, wishing I hadn’t distilled the experience to such grotesque concentration—to the point that the music was so unsettling that the listener needed “a few breaks in order to make it through the whole album.” I flinched. I didn’t release Bummer Summer for another five months, not until I was thousands of miles away from Chicago, blowing my savings wandering in South America while I waited to hear back from MFA programs.
We didn’t release the final two Hotegaia albums until this last winter, five years after they were recorded, long past the period of anything broaching popularity. Nick had sat with the recordings, unwilling to master them, lest he submerge himself in the emotions of that life again, a place he was so far from, living a relatively happy and stable existence now in Seattle.
Maybe this was fitting. It was never about the audience. It was about the process of playing the songs, again and again, internalizing the words, the rage behind a tom hit, the melancholy within a guitar strum so that the pain became performance, a construct we controlled. When I listen to these albums now, I am not flung headlong, back into the specific sadness from which they were birthed. They are just songs.
One night, before Nick left Chicago, the two of us picked up burritos and a six pack and headed to the practice space. On our way there, a guy in a leather jacket darted out of an alley.
“Really?” Nick said, his disbelief justified, this the second time we’d been mugged at gun point in less than a year.
This mugging was different from the first. The first time, I had felt no fear. Now, I was terrified his fingers might flex and I’d be gone. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to play the show we had booked that weekend. I wanted to go to grad school, to return to writing, to drink a beer on the rooftop of our apartment in the middle of the day. I wanted to fall in love again, to unearth another’s private history, and to share, generously, my own.
And so, I relinquished the money in my wallet, set it on the asphalt and put my hands back up. The man looked at me. Then down at the wallet. Satisfied, he snatched my offering and darted back into the night.