Sometimes you need to forget, and sometimes you need to feel. Deeper are all about the latter. The Chicago quartet, currently made up of singer and guitarist Nic Gohl, guitarist Drew McBride, drummer Shiraz Bhatti, and bassist Kevin Fairbairn, are about to release their new album Auto-Pain, and there’s a lot of pathos to be wrung from its compact 35 minutes of hooky post-punk. The idea of “auto-pain,” as they conceive of it, is the opposite of soma, the numbing escapist drug from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. On auto-pain, you see, you feel everything, all the time.
The follow-up to Deeper’s already excellent 2018 self-titled debut, Auto-Pain is bigger, more ambitious, and more direct in just about every way — lyrically, emotionally, even melodically, with chilly synths joining their tangled yet precise assault of prickly guitars. What started out as a loose concept about threading loop-based textures throughout the record soon morphed into something else entirely, a deep-dive into inescapable cycles of anxiety and depression and a moving portrait of the healing process.
Even beyond the psychic trauma of living in today’s world, Deeper have a lot to heal from. Midway through the writing and recording of the album, original guitarist Mike Clawson decided to leave the band, increasingly isolated by his mental health struggles and at odds with the rest of his bandmates. Deeper finished Auto-Pain as a trio; bassist Drew McBride moved to guitar and the band’s friend Kevin Fairbairn joined as the new bassist; they soldiered on. Shortly afterwards, Clawson died by suicide, and an album that already dealt with heavy themes took on a whole new tragic relevance and poignancy.
If all of this makes Deeper’s music sound hard to listen to, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Even at their darkest, the band play with this urgency, a buzzing creative energy that sounds infectiously alive. Similarly, Gohl, McBride, Bhatti, and Fairbairn give off more “wisecracking friends” than “dour post-punkers” energy, peppering even the most serious of conversations with pop culture references and self-deprecating humor. A few weeks ago — seemingly eons before terms like “social distancing” and “self-quarantine” entered the public lexicon — I caught up with the Chicago boys in a Brooklyn bar to talk about mental health, their new album, and the importance of eating shit. Read our conversation below.
STEREOGUM: The title, Auto-Pain, was inspired by Brave New World. What drew you to that?
NIC GOHL: That was from “Helena’s Flowers.” It was kind of a spur of the moment lyric. While we were messing around, I just said that, and then it kind of stuck. “Auto-pain,” the way we think of it is like, we’re on autopilot for depression. The way that the world has been changing throughout the past 10, 20, 30 years, it’s just gotten more grueling and nothing seems like anything is really getting better. With social media, we’re just bombarded with content after content, and “auto-pain” was just the idea of, you’re constantly being assaulted with it.
DREW MCBRIDE: I think of it like the inverse of soma, where you just kind of zone out and don’t think about anything. I think what felt a lot more realistic was the inverse, where it’s like, instead of just taking something and numbing yourself you’re constantly consuming media to numb yourself in a different kind of way. So that’s kind of how we started working through the idea.
SHIRAZ BHATTI: While we were practicing, we were all kind of bitching to each other about how the times resemble Brave New World or 1984, a surveillance state. We’re slowly, without knowing, immersing ourselves in this science fiction world. For “4U,” the intro synth, we would call that the Blade Runner synth.
STEREOGUM: The cover of the record is a photograph of the Northwestern Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago. Why did you choose that?
MCBRIDE: It’s a very obvious place of healing, but the reality is something like mental health, it’s not where… We touch on this with “Lake Song,” the recurring line is “I just want you to feel sick,” and wishing it was a cold or a scrape or something you can just put a band-aid on. The process of managing your mental health is not something you go and you’re like, “Oh, OK, here’s a band-aid, you’re gonna be good now.” It’s a lot more involved than that.
GOHL: We grow up learning how to take care of ourselves when we have a cold but we don’t learn how to take care of ourselves when we’re feeling depressed or have some sort of imbalance.
STEREOGUM: Obviously, a lot of the album is about mental health and depression and being in these of cycles of anxiety. I know your friend Mike was struggling with that. Were you feeling similar things while you were working on the record?
GOHL: I deal with a lot of depression. Mostly, anxiety is my issue. I’ve struggled with that. I grew up with Mike. He was the first person I lived with outside of my parents’ house. He really helped me get through all of those times, being 18 years old and living in the city by yourself. This feeling like you can’t breathe and your head’s about to fall off and you’re not comfortable. That’s what we’ve always been trying to make. It’s almost therapeutic to try to recreate that kind of feeling in music sometimes. And also it gives you a break from it because you focus so much on something else and you forget about what’s going on in your own head.
With Mike in general, with his passing, “Lake Song” is totally about him and my relationship and dealing with my best friend for so long having this manic depression that I can’t fix by just taking him outside, [the way that] he helped me. Just struggling to try to help somebody through those periods of manic depression, it’s almost impossible. It’s impossible for that person, it’s impossible for the other person, it’s impossible for a doctor to be able to fix that. And it’s something that we just don’t understand as a society. There’s no cure for any of that.
MCBRIDE: With Mike, we definitely knew something was wrong, but I think the gravity of the situation was almost obscured by the fact that we were also playing music and we’re all drinking and jumping from city to city. It’s like, “Is he just kind of moody today or is this a persistent problem?” The song “Willing,” “It’s the willingness to ignore,” just kind of denying to yourself what you’re feeling — that was also about Mike. We wrote that almost directly after Mike left the band, kind of like, “You know what? We don’t get what he’s going through but it’s rough and we don’t know how to really help him because he won’t acknowledge it himself.” So yeah, it was really hard. Really really hard.
GOHL: That’s probably the hardest part, too. You yourself don’t understand what’s actually happening to you. Just struggling to understand what’s going on in your own body, you feel crazy. It drives me nuts when I go through those manic feelings like that. And I do stupid fucking shit, you know? I drink like crazy. I’m a piece of shit. But after Mike passing away, the only thing we feel like we need to do is we need to fucking destigmatize this shit because it’s just going to keep on happening if you don’t talk about it. So many people die from suicide every day throughout the world. The second we start talking about it, that’s when we get to the point where we can actually start to figure out what’s actually wrong. We keep on pushing it down, more people are just gonna get hurt and we’re just gonna look like fucking idiots, doing more damage that we could avoid.
MCBRIDE: Something that I constantly jump back to is the notion of feeling like you have nowhere to go. The headspace of that, just feeling so anxious and depressed that you don’t know where to turn is just… it’s really hard. That’s why we were writing these songs, to have a space to talk about this stuff.
STEREOGUM: How much of the record had you guys already finished when Mike left the band?
BHATTI: About half. After he left the band is when we realized that the material we had and what we were creating was becoming more of a concept that could mold everything together. We understood how to take things to darker elements because we were all angry about how Mike was living his life, how he was treating people close to him. We just saw him slowly changing.
MCBRIDE: Yeah. I would say some of the darkest songs on the record did end up coming from after he left the band. “Willing,” “The Knife,” stuff like that. Some of the most poignant lyrics are definitely after he left.
STEREOGUM: Do you know how he felt about the songs before he left?
GOHL: He was up and down with it. When he left the band, we had five of the songs done. “Lake Song” was already done. And that one was definitely very pointed, it was a conversation between me and him. And he definitely did not like playing it. I mean, here’s my best friend for so long. Me and him fought like brothers and we also loved each other like brothers, and I still think about him like that. When he left the band, he said that we could keep on playing the songs. And then we got in a further fight and he started just talking shit about all of the songs, and that was basically it. And then he never heard any of the other stuff.
MCBRIDE: I think in terms of how he felt about the songs… he was getting into heavier music. He loved, like, Show Me The Body. I feel like some of the songs that he was playing, he was like, “These are too poppy,” almost.
GOHL: The songs that he was on, he was the one making those pop lines.
MCBRIDE: He was like, “Dude, these songs are too poppy,” and then he’s making the hook. And then yeah, as I said before, some of the darkest songs came after he left. It was certainly an interesting turn of events, the way that the songwriting process went after he left because he wanted to write darker stuff.
GOHL: Very peculiar person. Most interesting person I’ll ever meet. Definitely taught me a lot about things. This guy was just this plethora of fucking music and film knowledge. Taught me how to mess with a delay pedal. Everything I can do today is because of this guy. And he also drove me completely insane.
MCBRIDE: They were like bickering brothers on tour.
GOHL: I remember when Shiraz first joined the band we did our first tour. First show of tour, we were in a college town and we’re a little bit older and there are these kids doing dabs. And I took the blowtorch and I’m like, “Yo Mike, what’s up?” And I turned it on and I seared the side of his hair. And he almost quit and me and him almost got in a fistfight. So Drew turns to Shiraz, who’s like, “Are they always like this?” And he’s like… “Yeah.”
BHATTI: Yeah, like, “They’ll be fine in a couple of hours.”
GOHL: So until like five, six in the morning me and him just hung outside and drank beers and smoked cigarettes until we were hugging and telling each other how much we loved each other.
MCBRIDE: The arc would always be an argument, and then Mike would be pissed, or they’d both be pissed, and then Mike would start smiling, like, “You’re fucking stupid.” And then half an hour later they’d be having drinks just hanging together.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel differently about playing the songs now since his passing?
GOHL: The first tour we did after Mike passed away, we were just starting to play some of the newer material. “Lake Song” is very hard for me to play still. For a little bit, I didn’t think I really wanted to play it anymore. I’ve gotten over that a little bit more just because to me now, and talking with his mom, playing the songs kind of memorializes his life and I feel like we’re doing him justice to keep on playing the stuff that he made.
MCBRIDE: There was definitely a moment after he passed away when we started practicing where it was like, “Damn, are we ever going to be able to play these songs again?” There’s so much emotion and memory bound up in these songs now. It’s hard to pull them apart. The first couple practices, we didn’t even play. We’d be like, “Hey let’s meet up,” when we’d get there’d we be like, “We can’t do this.” We’d just like, have a beer or smoke and just talk for two hours. Like, “Alright. That’s effectively the practice for the day, working through this together.”
GOHL: Now it just feels therapeutic. I feel like we just kind of beat the shit out of our guitars every time we play. It’s the only thing we can do to make sure that this is not just something that gets forgotten in time. It probably will, eventually, but for right now, we gotta make sure that we do all we can just to make sure that we do him justice, we do ourselves justice, and we make sure that we’re making something that we’re proud of. And I feel like that’s what we’re doing.
STEREOGUM: The album deals with these very heavy, dark themes. How do you go into all of that without making things feel hopeless?
KEVIN FAIRBAIRN: I’m the person that joined the band to … not really replace Mike, because Drew switched to guitar, I went to bass. But I’ve been close with these guys for a while and knew their music really well and knew the new songs, but I didn’t really know Mike that well. We probably had more conversations through Instagram DMs or replying to his story where he would recommend a song than actual real life conversations.
MCBRIDE: That also speaks to how Mike interacted with people.
FAIRBAIRN: Yeah. And I enjoyed that kind of relationship, but that was kind of where it started and ended. I didn’t feel like I really knew him. So when I joined the band, and through knowing them and getting to know them even more than I already did, I could tell the direction of the songs, knew them more and more intimately, knew what they were about pretty specifically. But they still spoke to me, before and after his passing. Not so much as a relationship with him personally, but just in a broad way. Something that is relatable to anyone you might know or people you don’t know. And in that way, they’re equally as cathartic for me in a different direction. So the way that I see them I think is maybe how a lot of other people will see the songs.
BHATTI: Even the way we play our instruments, we’re throwing out a lot of emotion. I’m Pakistani, from my other half I’m Native American. I grew up with that culture ingrained in me. I grew up with my grandpa who’s full-blood Native American. And with these Native communities, people think that we’re gone, we don’t exist anymore. That’s why there’s mascots of us. They’re idealizing the past or whatnot. But we all deal with generational trauma. Two in three Native American women are sexually abused. Four in five are victims of violence.
But we’re resilient people. I deal with that kind of depression and I’ve dealt with that my whole life and I feel like I try to portray that kind of anxiety and energy in how I play drums, but our people are very resilient and we’ll always be around. And I feel like that’s all of us. We’re all resilient people. We’re here for a reason. Life is beautiful. Any little interactions we have are beautiful interactions and they take us to the next step.
MCBRIDE: We’re talking about very heavy stuff. I think in general though, we’re pretty goofy, goony buds. So I think the energy that comes off is this more positive energy that allows us to speak to these things.
GOHL: We’re not dark people, we’ve just seen some shit, and we wanna fucking talk about it so we don’t forget. We gotta learn from it and that’s all we can do. That’s all anybody can ever do.
MCBRIDE: We’re all middle class kids. I think especially playing music or just being in the arts, you see a bunch of rich people that are trying to downplay what they have access to to make art. Trying to pretend like they’re going through the same shit as you. I feel like what we’ve had to grind through to get here is very real and important and that is felt in the music.
GOHL: What Mike always said was like, “You gotta eat shit to make something that you’re proud of.” And I feel like we’ve eaten a lot of shit in the past couple years. And we’re still gonna eat a lot more shit.
Auto-Pain is out 3/26 on Fire Talk Records. Pre-order it here.
If you or someone you know needs help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 or go to SuicidePreventionLifeline.org to chat with someone online.