Astral Weeks:
Beyond the Abyss (and Back) with YOB’s Mike Scheidt

Pondering mortality, one’s place in the cosmos and the meaning of life (or lack thereof) is a task for philosophers, intronauts and all manner of eggheads. Then again, it’s something we’re all going to end up doing at some point –provided we live through tomorrow morning’s hangover with enough brain cells left to contemplate much of anything, that is. C’est la vie and all that.

Still, in life there are moments of rupture – hopefully only a few of them – for which there are no words. The experience of extreme pain is certainly such a numinous moment of rupture, a moment for which no preexisting vocabulary is adequate to describe.

Eugene, Oregon-based stoners, YOB, have been purveying much heavier-than-lead amalgams of psychedelic sludge rock for over a score of years. With albums like The Illusion of Motion (Metal Blade, 2004), The Great Cessation (Profound Lore, 2009) and Clearing the Path to Ascend (Neurot Recordings, 2014), the band has consistently delivered deftly executed meditations on the eternal, the abiding and the transcendent. In other words, the band has done some really, really heavy shit.

The last couple of years have been some really, really heavy shit for YOB vocalist/guitarist/auteur Mike Scheidt.

In January of 2017 he was hospitalized with diverticulitis, an extremely painful, chronic intestinal disease that is described quite adroitly in umpteen medical journals – all of which are about a million zillion times grosser than the lyrics of a Carcass song or the visuals of any slasher flick. So it wasn’t being able to describe his affliction that eluded Scheidt for the weeks he spent in the hospital following some scary surgery and an infection that damn near killed him. It was the atomizing pain that rendered him mute.

Then again, Scheidt had in a way been prepping for the affective turn of his illness for decades – through the means of YOB’s ritualistic, seismic stoner/doom rock and via repeated ingestions of hallucinogens. So, did all of Scheidt’s prior psychedelic and musical journeys in any way enable him to articulate his unforeseen, unspeakable ordeals?

“It prepared me, in a sense,” says Scheidt. “I’ve had big chunks of time where being mindful, and meditating, and trying to be a good person – I’ve had times where that was difficult. I kind of lost myself in some periods where I didn’t have much of a handle on anything. And I’m still not sure that I do. But what I will say is that when I had a mortal sepsis in my illness that led me to hospitalization and surgery, that led me to the totality of my life pending, um, a couple of key practices came to my aid. This helped me to utilize my presence in choosing to be positive and kind of focus my energy.

“And I don’t mean that is some kind of Hallmark card way,” Scheidt continues. “I mean it as using my energy to survive – and also to channel it. It’s hard to describe and I don’t want this to seem trite, you know? I felt kind. I felt a bigger picture in my own smaller picture. When my family came to visit or people reached out to me, I felt a general sense of purpose that was sharpened. I don’t know how else to explain it and I don’t mean it in some kind of grandiose way. It just is what it is.”

Sheidt’s newly honed sense of purpose, the “bigger picture in a smaller picture” is made unquestionably clear in YOB’s new album, Our Raw Heart (Relapse Records), their most amazing album thus far. Yes, it’s super-heavy – a sonic black hole that eclipses the tectonic rumblings and guttural roars of boilerplate doom with crystal-clear, anthemic melodies: Doom that defies doom, if you will.

“Parts of it were composed before my illness and parts of it after,” says Scheidt. “There were three songs that I had been working on. The direction was good, but not in focus. The actual ‘math’ on the fretwork hadn’t quite arrived yet. While I was sick I didn’t play guitar for almost two months. And I thought maybe some ideas had been lost. I mean, sometimes I couldn’t remember a particular cadence for five minutes, much less two months.

“Luckily I did remember those things later,” Scheidt continues. “I don’t do a lot of demos. And if I can’t remember something, then maybe it’s not worth remembering. So, when I’d remember something, that felt good. And the rest of the album kind of unfolded after I started remembering and getting better.

“To be honest, what I’m thinking about now is what the band wants to do next, writing-wise. The process of doing this album was kind of a way of putting a period on some vibes we’d touched on in the past that I think are fleshed out more. Some of the themes we’d worked on in the past kind of came into better, or at least different focus. And then there are some kind of new areas on the new album – and I feel myself kind of wanting to take the next step. It’s really hard to be objective about it. But I do think there are some key moments on the album that represent our having to grow as a band. I look forward to playing this stuff over and over again live – and to really flesh it out even more. I think a band really learns to play their songs after they’ve recorded them – when they’re out in the world playing in different environments.”

But to experience the aforementioned growth and transformation on the road, well, YOB has to be on the road. Touring on the indie club circuit is a hard life for anyone – let alone someone with a chronic condition who is on the mend from a literal brush with death.

“I feel pretty good,” says Scheidt. “I’m not 100 percent, but I really don’t know what that is anymore. I’m certainly better than I have been. I can’t complain.

“I’m gonna do everything I know to live as well as I can on the road,” Scheidt continues. “A lot of that just comes down to habits. I’m gonna drink a lot of water and try to keep the mind and body as clean as possible – and if I need help, I’ll ask for it. That’s the best I can do.”

Clearly, Scheidt is doing his best. Presently the band is amid a barrage of publicity for Our Raw Heart¸ much of which focuses on Scheidt’s recent health issues. As a result, Scheidt has become something of an unwitting spokesman for mindfulness and positivity.

“I’m pretty sick of talking about it,” says Scheidt, laughing. “But at this point, you know, I acknowledge that there are people who may be new to the band that don’t know about it – and that there’s been so much talk about it that some people may be wondering what’s up. So that kind of keeps me in check with it.

“The other piece, too, is that I’ve talked to a lot of people that are going through similar things, or have relatives that are going through similar things – or people that are going through their own thing, their own version of some kind of life event that is pretty epic. So I’ve gotten to have a lot of really good conversations. A lot of people have been really supportive, sharing their experiences as I was going through mine. Having gone through this experience, of course, I want to kind of share my observations and any kind of strength that I got.”

In the live setting, YOB is an awesome force indeed. But experiencing YOB is in its own way an ordeal, a bombardment of sound that is perhaps more endured than enjoyed per se. For those who endure, there is catharsis, release, and even a kind of ritualistic ecstasy.

“When we play, our goal is to connect with the whole environment and give it everything we’ve got in that period of time,” says Scheidt. “By the end of the show, we want to make sure that we’ve given our all – that we’re sweaty and exhausted.

“Sure, it’s ritualistic,” Scheidt continues. “By the time we’re onstage, we’ve already been in the environment as participants. When we get onstage, a lot of things can happen. Sometimes people are there just to hang out with their friends – and that’s fine. There are people that love the heaviness – and that’s fine. Then there are people that climb a little bit deeper into it and find something within themselves – and that’s amazing. It’s all good.”

Photo by Orion Landau.