GREYHAVEN Frontman Talks Opioid Epidemic Taking Over His Town, The Power and Pain Behind Empty Black
There is an epidemic in the United States. That much is clear. It is pressing, dire and deadly, and it is on the rise.
A 2017 report by the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, revealed that over 63,000 lives were lost due to drug overdose in the United States in 2016. Over 42,000 of those involved opioids.
Twenty two states had drug overdose death rates that were higher than the national rate (19.8 per 100,000). Among them was Kentucky, home of emerging metalcore prospects Greyhaven.
The band's hometown of Louisville has been ravaged by the opioid epidemic. Frontman Brent Mills knows the sad reality of the situation better than most.
"It’s one of those things that was just so embedded in my thought process that it always seeps out a little bit," Mills shared with Metal Injection. "People that I know have drug addictions.
"I love my step-dad, he’s amazing and awesome. I grew up with him my whole life, but I always watched distantly as the drug problem made a decline in his life. That sucks to see. I know this person 10 years ago is a different person than they are today because of drug use. A lot of problems associated in their life – money, health, general attitude, acting like an asshole for no reason and getting in a random car accident and it’s like what the fuck are you doing? – you know it’s all because of that, and that was always in the back of my head. Drug use affected people around me, people that I loved, and it always bothered me."
The 25-year-old recalls that upon graduating high school, it became glaringly obvious that the rising drug culture in Louisville was becoming more than just a passing trend.
"I started seeing it everywhere on Facebook with people I went to high school with," he says. "It’s like so and so has overdosed. It’s something that was constantly in the feed."
Of course, seeing the gradual increase in statistics from afar is one thing. It takes a shock to the system – something more deeply personal and close-to-home – to bring the problem from the static background to the grim fore.
"It hit home with me with my ex-girlfriend that I knew in high school," Mills explains. "She got into it pretty heavy. I worked with her parents for awhile, so I wasn’t away from it. I always got the news of what was going on. It broke my heart to hear that over and over. I got a couple of calls that she had overdosed … That phone call doesn’t get easier to hear."
These thoughts swirled through the minds of Mills and fellow bandmates Johnny Muench (Bass), Nick Spencer (Guitar) and Ethan Spray (Drums) in the lead-up to what would be their sophomore album Empty Black.
As production grew closer, cruel serendipitous fate would intervene, as Mills would receive the life-changing call (on his 23rd birthday no less), that he was in desperate and immediate need of open heart surgery.
Post-op, with a pain-managing opioid prescription in tow, the fear of a dependency-turned-addiction creeps in once more.
"After my heart surgery you get prescribed heavy opiates to deal with the pain. I had gotten home after my week stay in the hospital and they had given me my prescription. You’re supposed to take one every four hours for however long they give you. I think I took them for about four, five days. I noticed, almost a week after I got out of the hospital, that I would take one and the pain wasn’t going away. It was the same level of pain, and it was like, oh shit. I would have to take more or I'm just not going to deal with this. I didn’t want to double up. I noticed that the time periods that they had gave me wasn’t affecting anything. I just stopped when I noticed that and didn’t want to take anymore. It sucked, really sucked. But it scared me, it scared the hell out of me, because that’s how a lot of these people get hooked on these things. You get prescribed a heavy opiate and its effect start to wear off and you become kind of dependent on them. Your prescription ends and you don’t know where to go from that, because now you need this. Some people turn to where they can get it on the streets, buying pills from people and escalating up to heroin. It’s super common, it happens to so many people. They prescribe super heavy opiates, and that’s something I wanted to avoid coming off of that surgery."
Mills had the foresight to realize that popping a pill for pain leads to a slippery slope of dependency. Much of his wherewithal to stave off these particular vices comes from his mother, who herself battled her own demons some 15 years prior.
"My mom had struggled with it growing up," he admits. "She got off of it and has been clean for 15-16 years. She was very vocal about it in those later years saying ‘don’t get into this.’ She’s always been very honest and upfront with me. She had me young, so we kind of grew up together. We were both learning things all the time, and she was quick to pass that stuff that she was learning onto me."
With a broken heart made new again and the baggage of witnessing a cultural collapse of sorts in his everyday, Mills and Greyhaven were cocked, locked and loaded for what would be their finest statement of artistic expression to date – Empty Black.
"That whole world was really in my face while we were working on some of this material. My surgery happened literally when we were talking about recording dates and talking with our manger about working that stuff out. Two months later, boom, heart surgery. It was intense. I thought, we had finally done something cool, and this was just a crush in that cog in the machine for a second. I thought my heart surgery would ruin all of this. All of these things really play in your head, and those are some really strong emotions."
There's a catharsis that comes from songwriting, a deep release and expulsion of pain, angst, anger and everything in between. The system shock of a life threatening surgery provided ample ammunition for Mills when it came time to put pen to paper.
"I think if you put a piece of paper in front of you and start to let things happen then you learn more about yourself in a way," Mills said. "You can look at that song and look at that piece and say that’s where those emotions are now, instead of swimming around in here and making me feel bad. I can look at that and say that’s where a lot of that went. I think there is a release and it feels better to talk about it that way. Just scream in a vocal booth for a few hours and then you’ll feel a lot better about it."
The end result is an album that is as emotionally impactful as it is blisteringly heavy. Dark – grim at times – while also representing a band present in the here and now, and one who are not content to coast or produce mindless, meaningless music.
"If you are going to be the artist that just draws crazy circles then cool, you don’t have to explain anything to anybody, but political art does come with the notion that you’re probably going to explain, or probably going to have to lean on something or take that next step," Mills said. "That’s what I’m starting to learn with our record. It does poke and point at some of those things."
It is that idea of creating an expressionist form of art, one that does bring with it questions from the media, the public, and perhaps some internally, that weighs on the mind of Mills in the immediate aftermath of the albums' release.
Greyhaven never set out to craft a politically charged time-bomb that underscores our precarious present, but it just so happened that reality seeped in drips and drapes into the art of a band that are still finding their voice.
"You can make a piece of art and leave it alone and let people pick apart what they want to out of it. The artist bares no responsibility to decipher what that is. There’s a beauty in that, because there are so many things that you can pull out that is unique to your own perspective looking at it. I also think that on the other side of that coin, which is where I’m starting to find myself, that if you’re going to make art that does inevitably say something, then you could have a responsibility to mean it," Mills admits. "Mean what you’re saying. If you’re going to talk about that kind of thing in your art, when you start getting questioned about it you might have to pick up the responsibility to say this is wrong, this is a problem. I’m still struggling with that, because I’ve never had to answer for the things I’ve written down. They are some heavy things.
"We’re living in a time where there are so many issues to talk about, and I don’t know the answers to any of them. I don’t know exactly where I lean on every side of every issue either. I’m still learning, just trying to figure out what does work, but clearly something is wrong. When it comes to opiates in the country we’re doing something wrong and we need to figure that out. When it comes to gun violence there is something wrong. Racial tensions and societal tensions, where is all this coming from? What happened? What went wrong? People are very angry and there’s a lot of tension going on. We need to talk about that. Why are we so divided? We don’t need to be and we can come together on things. There’s a lot of groups, a lot of tribalism and a lot of really negative things getting thrown at all sides. I guess there is a responsibility in artists to at least rope that in, if that’s the art you’re going to take."
Though don't get it twisted. Artists can fucking mosh too.
"There’s a lot of stuff I say to get off my chest because I want to expel it from myself, but at the end of the day we want to make heavy riffs so we can play shows and jump on people," Mills says with a smile. "At the end of the day that’s the most fun thing to do. We have a lot of fun playing music."
Empty Black is available now on iTunes, Spotify and more. Check the band out on their official social medias.
(Band photo by Mickie Winters)