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Breaking Benjamin Battle Mystery Illness on Painful Road to Number One

“Basically, my only relief is intense pain,” frontman Benjamin Burnley says

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Breaking Benjamin's new album 'Dark Before Dawn' opened at Number One, but frontman Benjamin Burnley has little relief from his mystery illness.

Annie Atlasman/Press Line Photos/Corbis

When Breaking Benjamin frontman Benjamin Burnley heard that his band’s fifth album, Dark Before Dawn sold more than 140,000 copies and hit the top position of this week’s Billboard album charts, it’s possible that he got dizzy and saw spots. The symptoms weren’t a reaction to good news, but part of a chronic condition that kept him out of the music business since June 2010, when he halted a tour the band’s last album, 2009’s Dear Agony.

“I’m still extremely sick after getting the same answers from some 300 doctors: ‘We don’t know what’s wrong with you,'” says Burnley on his way to an acoustic performance and signing in Northeastern Pennsylvania. “The last time I was in a doctor’s office, I slammed down my medical records, which are as thick as a phone book, and walked out. I’m tired of being a guinea pig. Now I push through the horrendous pain and do my thing.”

For Burnley to ignore his intense discomfort and write, record and produce crunching and atmospheric melodic hard rock songs like “Failure” — which has held the Number One slot on Billboard‘s Mainstream Rock chart for eight consecutive weeks — is impressive enough. But Breaking Benjamin also have a tenaciousness that keeps them topping charts 13 years since their breakthrough, “Polyamorous.”

“It’s crazy because not only have we held onto our old fans, but we’re gaining new fans all the time,” says Burnley. “We’re up to 5.8 million Facebook likes and 242,000 followers on Twitter. . .It’s the fans that broke us in the first place and I think that’s why they continue to welcome us.”

When did you first become ill?
Back in 2007, and I can only speculate that it was caused by excessive drinking. I used to be an alcoholic and I stopped drinking in 2007 because I got sick. I stayed up drinking for three days straight. When I woke up I was weak, seeing spots and dizzy and it never went away. I thought, “Wow, I really did a number on myself. I’m gonna chill for a few days and not drink and I’ll get better.” But that didn’t happen. It got way worse.

How have doctors treated your illness?
The medical system tries to cure your symptoms, but not your illness. That’s how the drug companies make so much money. And if you’re a person whose symptoms get worse with every single type of medicine you take, guess what? You’re shit out of luck. I’ve tried anti-depressants and they’ve made my symptoms 1,000 times worse. Now, I have a symptom that is beyond torturous. It feels like I’m being poisoned, electrocuted and spun around all at the same time. I’m in constant agony and torture and I also have severe joint and muscle pain.

Does that make it hard to play guitar and sing?
No, the muscle and joint pain is so horrendous it distracts me from my other symptoms, so it’s relieving in a sick way. Basically, my only relief is intense pain. It’s a horrible, horrible condition and if I didn’t have the support of all the fans, and if I didn’t have my incredible wife and son it definitely wouldn’t be worth living through.

Do the endorphins produced by playing shows make you feel better?
No, the agony never goes away. People ask me how I deal with it and it’s because I have no choice. Now I get angry. If I’m dizzy onstage it’ll push me even harder. I don’t let it peck at me little by little, I charge right through it. And if I go down, I go down doing what I love for the people that want to see me perform.

It must require immense persistence to write, record and perform when you’re in such distress.
One of the things my body has done to adapt is it strengthened my will. For years I lay in bed suffering between doctor’s visits. I’d rather suffer doing something I love and that makes people happy. I can actually see the joy in people’s eyes. That was the motivation to come back full-force. I won’t cancel a show now no matter what. When you go on hiatus, your whole world gets taken away from you, and I’ll never let that happen again. Simply put, life is for living, not for waiting around for doctors.

When did you write Darkness Before Dawn?
I never stop writing. I wrote some riffs and lyrics during the hiatus. I record all of my ideas and write my lyrics on an iPhone. I always have it on me so if I’m lying in a hospital bed getting a spinal tap, which actually happened, I’ll write lyrics at the same time. After I stormed out of the doctor’s in 2013 I started to go through all this material and piece it together into full songs. But 2014 is when the whole album became really cohesive.

Your lyrics are cryptic but there seem to be slivers of light in the darkness. Do you consider yourself an optimist?
Now more than ever because I am pushing through all this bullshit and the music is getting a great response. It makes me really optimistic that things can be pleasant through darkness. You can still have a great time while you’re suffering as long as you’re strong enough to endure your pain.

There aren’t as many successful hard rock bands as there used to be. Are you trying to hold the torch?
I wouldn’t say that. I just think the state of rock is reflected in the bands representing the music. If there are great bands around, rock will be around. It’s not like you can put out any old rock band and expect it to survive. And when the material starts catering towards only a limited amount of people, that’s when you start to see the decline of a genre. A lot of rock bands today aren’t interested in being melodic or catchy. Pop music is starting to get heavier, so a lot of heavy bands are getting so heavy that they’re too heavy for the masses. We want to straddle the lines and stay melodic and lyrically adept. I try to write songs I would be comfortable with my mother listening to. I don’t like growling vocals. It seems that stuff rose to the surface when bands like us Three Days Grace and some other bands took some time off. I’m just glad to be back now to give fans another option.

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