In January 2017, Mike Scheidt missed an early appointment with death by only a few hours.
Scheidt’s immersive doom metal trio, Yob, had been at home in Eugene, Oregon, for about a month, resting after a brief tour with their spiritual antecedents, Neurosis. The time off was good for Scheidt: After a lifetime of struggles with depression, a regimen of exercise, diet and medication had made him feel “better than I had felt in a long time,” he remembers.
But Scheidt had also been battling diverticulitis, a painful and potentially fatal abdominal disease in which tiny pockets of the colon become infected and sometimes rupture, dumping bacteria onto nearby organs. That’s what happened in January in the middle of his neighborhood grocer. Doubled over in pain, Scheidt raced to the emergency room, where he underwent the first in a series of surgeries that saved his life. A subsequent MRSA infection almost killed him again.
During the next six months, the infection faded and the incisions healed. At home in bed, Scheidt feverishly wrote new music, hoping to capture as many ideas as possible in case he didn’t fully recover. For Scheidt, Yob has long been an outlet of emotional and mental turmoil, a platform for exposing his demons to the light of day. On 2014’s elegant and glacial Clearing the Path to Ascend, for instance, Scheidt addressed his depression, chronicling its despondent nadirs and his attempts to crawl from them.
Largely penned from what he worried would be his deathbed, Yob’s eighth album, Our Raw Heart (due June 8th and available for pre-order now), is a riveting document of Scheidt’s year. A gauntlet of sickness and health, clarity and confusion, the record wrestles with mortality and ultimately perseveres. During “The Screen,” the first music to be heard from Our Raw Heart ), he seems to rebuke the pain itself, demanding that it surrender his body. “From holes in my gut,” Scheidt later sings on the gorgeous title track, his vibrato wavering between the highs and lows. “To love from miracles.”
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At home in Eugene, Scheidt spoke candidly about the near-catastrophe and its impact on his music and outlook.
You were diagnosed with diverticulitis in 2016 and had largely learned to manage the symptoms and risk factors. What was different about the attack that almost killed you?
I had had one major attack before the really big one, so when this one was coming on in January 2017, I knew what it was. I had weathered smaller attacks with diet and rest, so when this started, I just tried to approach it in a similar way. … About halfway through the visit to the grocery store, I had [a] wave of attacks, and it almost put me on the ground. Everything became this mortal sense of urgency.
I was at the hospital within an hour. Within another hour, I had deteriorated to the point that the pain just kicked me out of myself. I lost everything. I have done a lot of psychedelics in my life, and this experience was something entirely different, though no less psychedelic. It was just far, far out. I forgot everything. I wasn’t a person or a name or a father or a bandmate. I wasn’t in a room. I wasn’t sick. Everything was gone. It was seas of color and things that are impossible to describe. That was my reality. My pain was totally gone.
Meanwhile, what was happening around you?
They had put an IV in me, and I was writhing all over the table. They started me on doses of antibiotics and gave me Dilaudid, and that brought me back into my body. My pain went from zero to 10. My sigmoid colon had ruptured, and a whole bunch of air bubbles had been traveling throughout my midsection. They kept me on antibiotics with no food or water. The surgeon, who has done a lot of emergency surgeries to deal with diverticulitis, told me what I was up against. If I could wait a couple weeks, he said, I could have a less invasive surgery that would give me a much better chance of having something like a normal life. But if the antibiotics didn’t work and the infection got worse, they would have less intestine to work with, which would mean a permanent colostomy – or dying.
They were going to discharge me and have me schedule the less invasive surgery. They gave me some soup to make sure I could eat. When the soup hit where the perforation was, I went into shock and had a seizure. My body temperature went up to 105 degrees in two minutes. They put me into surgery. I was told the surgery was going to take three hours, and it took about three times that long. I was pretty messed up. The antibiotics were killing the infection, but there was so much infection that it was very difficult to clean up. There was damage to some of my organs. They decided to play Yob in the surgery room. Maybe they were worried about me and wanted to keep me there. They thought that might help.
You were in the hospital for several more weeks and had more surgeries, but what was the transition from recovery into playing music again?
I had no idea, really, if the band was going to be able to continue – or how it would continue. If I had a permanent colostomy, for example, that would be the end of touring. Not to mention having no idea how my body would spring back from what they had to do to me to get me to live. I had an ileostomy bag, and I was on Dilaudid and pretty heavy antibiotics. I was cut up. I had a long list of things to do and not to do, with some potentially really bad things that could happen if I didn’t do it right. I contracted MRSA in the hospital. I also had shingles, and the MRSA had attached to the shingles, because my immune system was so down.
But I also felt manic to write music, so I played as much guitar as I could. About six weeks after my first surgery, I was cleared to be able to pick certain things up, but they couldn’t be over 10 pounds. Brent Monson of Monson Guitars sent me a seven-pound guitar, so I was able to situate it in my bedroom with a little amp and my pedalboard. The most important thing was that I didn’t forget my ideas.
The part about the writing that was different than any other album was there was no guarantee that I was going to live long enough to record the album – or maybe even long enough for my bandmates to hear it. I approached each writing session as an arrival. The excitement and joy and inspiration that I felt had to be good enough right then and there; it couldn’t be goal-oriented. I was able to sit down and really play and enjoy myself – not that I hadn’t before, but it was new, different. I was different.
When you began writing lyrics again, did you sense a change in what you had to say?
I’ve always written from a place that has one foot in mysticism and another foot in where I’m at in my actual life – struggle, the groundlessness and insecurity of life, trying to make some kind of sense of what is being experienced. That that was no less the case in writing Our Raw Heart, but I felt a sense of joy and of being more at home in that groundlessness. I was writing about how my heart and mind get hung up on certain attachments – the ways I would like to see my life go, the way I would like to see the world go, the stress and anxiety that comes from watching the world eat itself, how my own self can do the very same thing.
Any number of the things I had struggled with mentally, emotionally, my fears for the world, for my children: If I died on that table, that would have been the end of that struggle for me. I’m trying to then have a step back or beyond, so I have a little bit more zoomed-out perspective. It’s cliché to say your perspective on life changes after a near-death experience, but it’s a cliché for a reason. It really shined a light upon things I need to work on, things about me that aren’t so good – past wounds that either need to be healed or let go. I haven’t always lived a life I’m proud of, so the only thing I have control over is here and now and what kind of choices I make. I wrote from that place.
The surgery and the subsequent pain forced you to take a break from singing and then, to some extent, relearn how to do it. What did that process entail?
I basically sat in a bed at home, and I was not able to do a lot with my midsection. The power of any great singer comes from your midsection. All of that was compromised. I had two big incisions in my abdomen, and 10 inches of large intestine were gone and rerouted. But I was given clearance try to sing five months after my surgery.
My vocal coach, Wolf Carr, had been teaching me for years about different resonant places in the body, where a person could add more timbre and tone to their voice. I had gotten part of that memo, but now, having not sung for basically six months, I was starting from zero. I started experimenting with what parts of my head could I send air to where it would get some more depth. What parts of my upper chest could I explore that might have some tone? I have a new normal now. My body is not the same as it was. But I now had all these new places that I had been experimenting with for timbre and tone. My voice got better.
When this happened, did you have health insurance?
I had health insurance, but it didn’t cover all of it – surgeries, specialists, all those things. I was in the hospital for three weeks, but then there was my inability to work for a lot of months.
Your fans and friends raised $30,000 to support you through GoFundMe. What did that mean to you emotionally?
I didn’t want to do it. But I had a conversation with somebody who had been through something much worse. … He was in a coma for four or five months. … He said that there was a medicinal quality in helping for the people around him. When he was conscious, they could bring him books and music, help with his medical bills. He was resisting all of this, and his girlfriend said, “Look, if you don’t let people do this, you’re an asshole. People love you and they want to help you.”
What did that process teach you?
The outpouring of support, messages, people sending me books and monetary support from all over the world: It was a humbling lesson. I’ve always struggled with being gracious around compliments and being helped. At the same time, I’m all about community. I want to help. I want to be helpful. I just wanted to live from one side of that coin. That’s not how it works, if it’s working right.
This gave me these jolts of energy and a sense of overall connection that went into the new music. There’s a Peruvian concept called ayni. It’s a sense of reciprocity; when things are in balance, this sacred reciprocity is a natural occurring phenomenon. Being given all of that and being able to channel it into new music, and having recorded it and put it out into the world, I have this overall sense that this wouldn’t have happened without every single bit of what I was given in this process.