We spoke with Kyle Bates about the role of personal mythology in his work, finding presence in the fog of mental illness, his relationship with sleep, personifying his fears and feeling closest to God in moments of waking nightmares.
I have a hard time staying in the present; I often feel like I’m viewing my current life as a documentary movie from the future, analyzing and obsessing over small details but not fully living it.
We asked Kyle to describe five facets of any ideas, emotions, objects or sensations he wanted.
mirror reflecting sunken in eyes, dark with bags.
four-track cassette recorder.
many scattered letters or a face in clouds.
Please give me a sense of your personal mythology dating back to when you were a child. Have you ever considered yourself psychologically on a battlefield, working against opposing forces that want to crush your spirit? If so, what are those forces? What do you consider to be your weaponry against them?
In terms of personal mythology, the “creation myth” could be a seizure I had at age four. I look towards this on the new album, Cold Air. I am always trying to tie my past to the present in an attempt to reconcile what I see as two distinct halves of my life — two very different people. The unexpected seizure, hospitalization, and deep panic surrounding everything could help explain why I am my perpetually anxious self today.
I was sitting on the couch watching basketball with my dad when I suddenly froze and stopped responding, an “absence seizure.” My parents rushed me to the hospital where I was admitted for an overnight stay and pumped full of benzodiazepines — which was strange because of my eventual reliance on these drugs. The benzos didn’t pull me out initially, and there was fear of brain damage as the result of a prolonged seizure state. This may have been my first brush with the surreal, the meaning and uncertainty beneath everything.
The second “creation myth” happened when I was eighteen. A severe mental breakdown: no sleep, paranoid delusions, loss of self, a near-suicide. This event neatly separated life. Even now, the life before seems like it belongs to someone else. I’ve heard this is common with trauma. I was quickly diagnosed as bipolar. I have questioned and worried over this diagnosis ever since.
A couple of years ago, I was reading this goofy Jacques Derrida For Beginners comic book. It was talking about how logocentrism is wrong, using deconstruction to show the problem with all centers. This is a healthy lens through which to view my life. There is no one “dominant” story of a self; I am not simply a “depressed person” or a “bipolar person.” This is reductive and ignores the multiplicity of the self. These are external elements of the self that can be acted upon.
Although this breakdown was my darkest point, there is something about it I can’t let go of. I have never felt closer to “God” than when I was out of my mind. The line between my “self” and everything else vanished. Ego death. I was seeing meaning in everything. The meaning is lost now, but I have never stopped searching to rediscover it. A problem is that during times when I think I’m finding meaning, I’m also deep inside of my head, unintentionally hurting people by keeping them out and pushing them away.
It’s interesting that you say “personal mythology.” Self-mythologizing plays a huge role in the Drowse project and is one of those weapons you speak of against things like depression and anxiety. Documenting my experiences is central because my memory is so unreliable — it fades and changes quickly. I put out memoir pieces alongside the first two releases in an attempt to preserve moments in my memory thinking; I can read these memoirs now as a guide through my personal history. I have a hard time staying in the present; I often feel like I’m viewing my current life as a documentary movie from the future, analyzing and obsessing over small details but not fully living it.
Being present is a lifelong struggle. Creative work is my answer; my thoughts are nearly always in the past or future, but when I’m working, I’m here.
We’re currently living in a time where there’s much more focus on mental health in popular culture. I myself have some anxiety, depression and schizophrenia in my family. If you don’t mind, can you describe the physical sensations when you feel less than mentally healthy? And, again, what’s your weapon against that?
I recently started seeing a therapist. She’s been having me notice physical aspects of my anxiety, so this question has been on my mind.
I used to get more of what people call a “dissociative” sensation, mostly when I was heavily depressed; you’re way up at the top of your head, the body isn’t yours, there is a veil between you and the physical world. The borders between things are being dissolved while you’re still separate, watching. Dissociation would be calming if it wasn’t so scary.
Now, I increasingly only deal with these horrible anxiety symptoms. At night, there is a TV static feeling that moves out of my chest and across my body. It, along with the quickening heartbeat, keep me from sleeping. The worst mental health related “physical sensation” is throwing up. This usually happens during heavily anxious mornings and isn’t the normal sort of “getting sick”. There is a pressure-panic in my head and then stomach bile comes out — it’s basically yellow water, thin and light. The substance of fear.
Presence — getting out of the head and into the world — is always the best weapon. Unfortunately, being present is a lifelong struggle. Creative work is my answer; my thoughts are nearly always in the past or future, but when I’m working, I’m here. I’m still figuring out how to be in the world while walking around the city or laying in bed at night.
Can you tell me about your personal history of sleep? Have you slept well in your life? Is there any connections between the dreams you experience now and those from your childhood? Do you subscribe to any Jungian interpretation of what happens in that sleeping state?
The sensation from my youth: eyes closing, body calming, mind drifting, sleep. I haven’t felt this for years. Sleep doesn’t come easily anymore — it is one of the biggest challenges of my adult life. It is also one of the biggest pleasures. My real struggle with sleep began with the psychotic break. The break was preceded by days of staying awake. Ever since, I’ve associated insomnia with mental illness.
I am obsessed with the state right before sleep. We lose control of our thoughts and they drift outwards, transforming into images and half-dreams — “Drowse: be half asleep.” This condition and music have always been linked — it is what opened me up to experimental sound. When that Boris and Sunn O))) album Altar came out in 2006, I picked it up and just didn’t understand. One night, it finally clicked, but only once I was half asleep — I’ve been seeking weird dream sounds ever since. I remember being young and into metal listening to Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse before bed at a the quietest volume: ambient music.
My dreams have always been just as vivid as everyday reality. As I mentioned earlier, my memory of childhood has faded so much; certain old dreams read like memories. These are more significant to me than recurring dreams. One example is a dream memory from when I was hospitalized at age four after a seizure: a human-dog hybrid on all fours crawled into the room daily and spoke to me for hours. I thought it was real.
Rather than looking towards Jungian interpretations of what dreams mean in the context of our waking life, I like this idea: dreaming is as much a valid form of lived experience as everything else. If life does end at death and a third of life is spent sleeping then how are our awake experiences any more or less “meaningful” than our dream experiences?
A journal entry from 2011: “Dreams carry me away and become a second life, the most pleasurable form of living.”
Pop culture is full of villains and figures meant to scare us or be faced down. It’s a thread that runs from Star Wars back to Beowulf and beyond. Please describe an imaginary being who encapsulates everything that scares you. Don’t flinch!
The villain is a breathing, walking container with an often ugly appearance only revealed to me; grossly large, lazy, entitled, and solipsistic. I am trapped inside. As time passes, I am increasingly confined. Outside, others pass by and look through it without seeing the internal. Here are some names this villain could have: body, living, Kyle.
This sort of image led to certain pages in my Cold Air production notes:
Some persistent fears: that I will push those I love away, death (mostly of my family and loved ones) and judgement (mostly from my family and loved ones). One of my worst fears right now is the idea of life narrowing as I grow older, the fear of paths being shut down and life being wasted.
Are there any shapes, textures, words or objects in the world that calm you down, comfort you or have a therapeutic effect?
Like most people, I use escapism as a way to quell the “big question” anxieties, to put off confronting reality. Anything that takes me outside of myself while simultaneously offering a glimpse of who I am:4 Books: Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso, Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner.4 Guitar: nylon string.4 Movies: Bergman’s Persona.4 Albums: Dawn by Mount Eerie, Alien Observer by Grouper.4 Objects: Memory box, journal, bottles, pillow, wind chimes outside of my room.
I’m not often attached to physical things. I have been slogging through War and Peace for several months; for some reason seeing that huge red hardcover in my backpack everyday is calming.
A cheesy quote heard in my youth: “Bateses never give up.”
I find meaning in a brown leaf drowned in water, in the turn of worn a page, in the smell of my love’s hair, in the fog of half-formed memories, in the impression of a rib beneath skin.
Do you ever feel a sense of awe when you look at ordinary plants or animals? Which ones and why? Do you relate to any of them?
Compared to most cities, Portland is particularly enmeshed with wild growth. There are trees everywhere. I feel connection whenever I pause long enough to notice the beautiful flora that grows on any given street. This doesn’t happen often enough. Just outside of the city, there are old growth forests. In broad daylight nothing can make you feel more insignificant than looking up at a canopy of giant old growth Douglas fir trees.
Here is a bit of writing that speaks to my relationship with plants. It’s from a larger piece I was working on in 2015 that was never finished:
When I walk outdoors and no one is around, I often tear a leaf from a bush. I carry the leaf between my fingers and rub along its surface, eventually rupturing it. I prefer smooth green leaves, the kind where one side feels as if it has been dipped in wax. I do this to have an object of focus that isn’t inside of my head, or to remember that life grows outside of the city, or because the sensation of leaf against hand is better than hand against emptiness.
Finally, last month, I became very interested in C.S. Lewis’ apologetic works, like like Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain. I think my favorite of his arguments is that of nostalgia — not for the past, but for the future. I’ll give you a little passage:
“That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”
He’s arguing that we are meant to have that ache for what’s in store in the future. So, I’m not asking about your religious background — I’m asking what you would add to this list. What incapacitates you with emotion or longing for a beautiful world? Can you make a list?
This “unnameable something” is a reason we make art. We are looking for this feeling Lewis is describing, the feeling beneath all of life: what I would call meaning. For Lewis this ache or future nostalgia — this flicker of meaning — is a product of God. For a secular person like me, this feeling is a product of art.
When I’m alone recording music, I’m connecting to the world under these terms; while making art, this inexpressible ache is revealed in everyday moments. Within this context I find meaning: in a brown leaf drowned in water, in the turn of worn a page, in the smell of my love’s hair, in the fog of half formed memories, in the impression of a rib beneath skin, in a face made from clouds in the sky, in the heat of the pillow against my cheek. For me it’s not a longing for the future, it’s a momentary certainty that this is the world and I’m in it, a clear vision of how strange everything is.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: February 19, 2018
Total questions: 7
Word count: 2196
Reading time: Eight minutes
ambient, anxiety, benzodiazepine, Beowulf, bile, bonfire, Boris, Boston terrier, Carl Jung, certainty, childhood, cobwebs, delusion, depression, detail, dissociation, documentation, dream, drowning, Drowse, ducks, Emperor, entitled, fear, hospital, hybrid, illness, imagination, Ingmar Bergman, inspiration, Kyle Bates, lazy, Leo Tolstoy, light, liquor, logocentrism, Maya Stoner, memoir, mirror, momentary, moon, Mount Eerie, mythology, paranoia, persona, Phil Elverum, pillow, pit bull, psychosis, reality, rib, rupture, seizure, skin, solipsistic, suicide, Sunn O))), thin, trauma, vision
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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