The Cover Story

Behind Blue Eyes: The Radical rebirth of Keith Buckley

Battling alcoholism, marriage difficulties and a worsening existential crisis, Every Time I Die frontman Keith Buckley hit rock bottom just as he crashed into last year’s lockdown. With the Buffalo bruisers’ long-overdue ninth album Radical finally seeing the light of day, he explains how it became a roadmap to get back on track…

Behind Blue Eyes: The Radical rebirth of Keith Buckley
Words:
Sam Law
Photos:
Andrew Lipovsky

For too long, Keith Buckley was more honest with his songwriting than he was with himself. The Every Time I Die frontman was still drinking when the quintet finished work on their ninth album Radical in March 2020, struggling to reconcile the quiet intimacy of home life with the chaos of the road, grappling with the inescapable feeling that something just wasn’t right. The lyrics he spilled inside the red brick fortress of Buffalo, New York’s GCR Audio alongside trusted producer Will Putney seethed with the claustrophobia and disaffectedness of a soul at breaking point, but he was only just coming to terms with the changes that needed to be made.

“I had to write about how miserable I was in my life to see that I didn’t belong there,” he says, bluntly. “It was radical, because I knew that once the album came out, there was no way that I could go back to the person I was before.”

Rewind to 2016’s towering eighth LP Low Teens. A milestone moment fuelled by the stress and anxiety of the emergency caesarean section that saved the lives of his then-wife Lindsay and daughter Zuzana, its emotional urgency changed the vividity and immediacy of Keith’s songwriting. Rather than picking apart ideas, he had begun depicting scenarios lived out, or plucked from the depths of his subconscious. Speaking to Kerrang! in late 2017, he mused that something similarly traumatic would need to happen to trigger the follow-up.

Already out with ETID’s regulation two-to-three-year album cycle by late 2019, no such hurt had hit, but when Keith scraped beneath his skin he began to understand that lack of stimulus was symptomatic of a deeper, more profound discontent. “I looked at myself and realised I was a rock-bottom alcoholic. I was the worst husband I’ve ever been, and probably the worst father. I was definitely the worst version of myself.”

Nineteen months down the line, everything has changed. Keith is a year sober. He has separated from his wife. He speaks to us this sunny Friday afternoon from Zuzana’s space in the tricked-out RV, having left his house behind to pitch up in woodland 100 miles from the city: palatial princess turrets are printed on her bunk curtains, with an incongruous plushie bat dangling from the ceiling. There is a serendipity, he stresses, in that Radical is finally seeing the light of day now that he’s had time to fully comprehend – and enact – the changes he was willing into existence across the record’s 16 songs.

"There was no way that I was gonna go back to the person I was before…"

Hear Keith discuss his different approach to writing Radical

With the benefit of hindsight, tracks like AWOL (‘The space between us is like a crime scene, with no blood and no fingerprints’) and White Void (‘When the warmth disappears, the end just goes on forever / We don’t have to stay here, we don’t have to live like this’) left little room for interpretation. Keith nods. “Honestly, I wrote some things in this album that I knew I was going to have to answer for. It’s full of moral declarations. There’s no vagueness. There’s no sidestepping. There’s no flowery metaphor. I am saying that I am fed up with people being treated like shit, with myself being treated like shit.”

Initially, COVID provided an opportunity to stop and take stock. For years, Keith had worried about leaving his family behind, so there was sweet relief in getting to spend real time with the now-five-year-old Zuzana without the worry of when he’d next need to pack his bag. Convinced that ETID had just made their greatest album, and feeling more pride in the band than ever before, there was no danger of momentum being lost to the grind of the road, too. As the time for reflection drew out, however, he began to realise that the root problem – which continually drove him to the bottle, had eroded family ties to the point that Zuzana had spent maybe half an hour with his parents in her entire life, and left his skin crawling within his own four walls – was less to do with band life than what was happening at home.

Keith describes his “David Byrne moment” of realisation, quoting the Talking Heads frontman’s iconic Once In A Lifetime lyric ‘This is not my beautiful house’, then continues with a more pointed metaphor: “If a bunch of trains [on the same line] are blowing up, you’ve got to go and find out who’s putting bombs on them back at the hub!”

In what Keith refers to as a “miraculous act”, Angie, an old friend from his teenage years, reached out of the blue. “She was just like, ‘Hey, how you doing? I’ve not talked to you in a while…’ And I was like, ‘I’m terrible…’ I just let it all out.”

Marriage had warped from honour to obligation to suffocating weight. “As a child of the ’80s and ’90s, who grew up in America, I was led to believe that marriages are supposed to be shitty,” Keith explains. “The guy is dumb. The woman is unfulfilled. Have some kids and make some laughs. I realised that I wasn’t married to a person. I was married to the institution of marriage.” Alcohol, meanwhile, had gone from being a tool to a tether. “I liked the person that I was when I was drinking. He was talkative and funny and honest. Eventually, I realised I always was that person. It was just about finding [another way] to bring him out.”

Discovering a kindred spirit and feeling a romantic spark, Keith and Angie (also married to a woman at the time) decided to take a mutual leap of faith, leaving old poisons behind and striking out together to find whether salvation really could be so simple. Their landing, thus far, has been blissfully soft.

“I’d written about leaving, escaping myself,” Keith expands. “Now I’m literally living the record as if I wrote it intentionally, wanting it to be a manifestation. I had gotten so far away from my own truth and complicated matters so thoroughly with alcoholism and guilt and shame, responsibility and obligation, I had lost who I really was. Once I was able to strip all that back, I could ask, ‘What do I love?!’ I love travelling. I love hanging out with my kid. I love hanging out with Angie. I want a dog. And I’ve always wanted a truck. Okay! I’m gonna have that now.”

By his own account, there are only three things you need to know about the real Keith Buckley. First and foremost, he’s someone who never litters, ever (“Really, that’s all you have to know,” he quips, “but I’ll go on...”). Secondly, he is a dog guy through and through, who introduces us to his current pooch Ripley at the start of our conversation, and has been surrounded by friendly, four-legged furballs his entire life. Thirdly, he still cries at those heartstring-tugging “fucking Hallmark Card commercials”, right to this very day.

If that doesn’t feel like the definition of an acerbic hardcore heavyweight, consider the deeper values signified: responsibility, camaraderie, emotional sensitivity and childlike wonder.

“I still feel like I’m a child sometimes, but my childhood was vitriolic,” Keith says, illustratively offering that he grew up in the on-the-street/in-the-woods pre-internet era, and employed the online ID ‘Civ1’ (in honour of Anthony ‘Civ’ Civarelli of NYHC legends Gorilla Biscuits) when the digital revolution finally arrived. “I was always into animal rights. I always felt an onus to defend things that couldn’t defend themselves. My childhood was shaped by Rage Against The Machine and Earth Crisis and these hardcore bands who were like, ‘Fuck authority – stand up for the little people.’ That [attitude] is still in me.”

Underpinning those values was Keith’s relationship with and dedication to his younger sister Jaclyn, who lived with Rett’s Syndrome until her passing in early 2017. “I was fucking five years old when my sister was born. Suddenly I need to have empathy – a lot of empathy. And as she gets older and I get older that empathy is getting more honed. My connection to her is getting stronger. It’s not like I’m going to stop having a relationship with her anymore [just because she passed]. I’m a very spiritual person. I always had a non-verbal relationship with my sister because she was disabled to the point she couldn’t speak. That’s not going to change just because she isn’t here. I think I had her with me a lot when we were making this record.”

Recipient of a Masters in Literature from the University of Buffalo, one-time high school English teacher, and author of two books – 2015’s Scale and 2018’s Watch – there is an image of Keith as the thinking man of modern hardcore. Is he comfortable with the label?

“I’ve done a lot of thinking, for sure,” he says, not-quite-wryly, letting slip that he’s been journaling for his third text, to be put out by esteemed publisher Rare Bird. “Being that thinking man and reading as many books as I have over the years has certainly made me be who I am. I’m proud of that. Being on the road has kept me reading and analysing. Being on the road has helped me understand suffering and trying to make a beauty out of it. I just hope that people don’t think I’m on a level that I’m not. I’m on the same level as anyone else, just much deeper in.”

He’s also lately been drawn to the meeting point between intellectual fascinations and spirituality. Relating that mindset to his current reawakening, he describes a type of “clairvoyant” ability that led to Radical’s collection of songs about leaving six months before he actually left. He tells us, unironically, of being stunned by a “cleansing” he had carried out by “very trusted medium” where their white candle exploded in a cloud of black smoke.

“I know it’s going to sound weird, but it’s true,” he shrugs. “It is a sixth sense, but in the same way that you or I can have a great sense of humour: something you don’t register with your regular senses, just something you can do. My relationships with Angela and my daughter are some of the best that I’ve ever had. Even if I’m wrong – this isn’t real, there is no God, and we were all an accident – it’s still working.”

“This record is just very pro-good human being. Pro spirituality. Pro progress…"

Listen to Keith explain why Radical is an uplifting album and why you shouldn't listen to shitheads

Digging into some of Radical’s broader themes, it’s hard to deny that Keith is extraordinarily dialled in. Dark Distance, for instance, pre-empted the pandemic with its request to ‘Give us our plague… Spare only the ones I love.’ Eerie, right? “I apologise,” the singer deadpans. “I didn’t realise I was really asking for a plague. That’s my bad.” We Go Together, he continues, errs uncannily close to the themes of free will and determinism he would admire in Alex Garland’s techno-thriller series Devs long before watching it.

With its evocative imagery of newscasters looking down from a helicopter at a riot outside Washington D.C.’s Capitol Building, single Planet Shit surely takes the biscuit. Still very much of the “Smash Nazis at every turn!” and “Rich people are the problem!” mindset, Keith didn’t envision the attempted revolution coming about at the hands of MAGA-capped Trump fanatics, but the song is proof of his being attuned to the American political mindset. “I was just paying attention to how the nation was moving,” he rolls his shoulders. “It felt like we were on the brink of something: a revolution of sorts.”

Ever the firebrand, he stops short of criticising people for acting on their ideals, but encourages them to think twice before cannonballing down the rabbit hole.

“You’re a Capitol Building revolutionary? Okay, you’re right that the government needs to be overthrown. But you’ve put together a picture in your head that says someone eats babies?! That’s where you’ve gotten?! Let’s have every QAnon person step back and look at where their quest for knowledge, their thirst for answers, their ability to do research went wrong. Because if that’s used correctly, it’s great.”

On August 26, Every Time I Die played their first real show in 532 days. Ruling over Buffalo’s 400-cap Rec Room, they burned through a furious, career-traversing 23-song set which, by all accounts, easily renewed their credentials as one of the most furious bands in hardcore. Since then, they’ve played four more – the most meaningful being the 21st anniversary Furnace Fest alongside veteran heroes and contemporaries like Cave In, Converge, Glassjaw and Killswitch Engage.

“I wasn’t trying to do anything different,” Keith reckons, “but it felt different. It felt magical.”

On one level, that was about reclaiming musical identity after a year-and-a-half of silence. “It’s baby steps, really,” he continues. “But considering that there was a time when I didn’t know if we’d come out of the pandemic at all makes them feel a lot bigger. The fact that we’re even able to take baby steps at all makes them huge leaps!”

On another, it’s been an opportunity to reconnect with the other four members of ETID after the longest pause of their careers. In the interim, founding guitarist Andy Williams has seen his second career as a pro-wrestler take off spectacularly, finding fame as outrageously moustachioed apron-and-monocle-sporting baddie The Butcher in AEW. “Everyone has seen what Andy’s been up to,” the frontman grins, visibly in awe of his old friend. “The fact that he still plays shows blows my mind!” Keith’s guitarist brother Jordan and bassist Stephen Micciche bought back the house in which they lived in in the early-2000s and wrote 2003 classic Hot Damn!, turning it into a two-bed, two-bath Airbnb. Jordan remains a prolific visual artist while Stephen runs several businesses in the city. Drummer Clayton ‘Goose’ Holyoak, meanwhile, lives across the country but, with Radical his first ETID album recording, he’s an increasingly integral part of the set-up.

Keith feels like his bandmates are “rightfully cautious” of him following his recent rebirth and reinvention, but he welcomes the new possibility with open arms. “I honestly don’t know what’s gonna happen the next time we all get back together,” he grins. “But I’m excited about it.”

With a 26-date tour of the United States looming, and UK/EU shows scheduled for early 2022, real planning has been put in to make the lifestyle sustainable. Keith sees that short spurt of shows at the end of summer 2021 as a “test run”. Locating supportive like minds (Alkaline Trio/blink-182 legend Matt Skiba gets a special mention) while removing the toxic energy of closed-minded naysayers and booze-pushing enablers has been pivotal. Following behind the band’s van in the aforementioned RV allows Keith to remove himself from the often drunken, always disorderly cycle of road life, while providing a safe space to retreat to should he find himself in a tailspin.

“I’m a little nervous about it, honestly,” he admits. “I’m not fully healed. There are subconscious landmines that I don’t realise are there. The band world is a hot one. Everyone is drunk or tired or angry or full of themselves. It’s an emotional boiling pot. But I am in a state where if those secret triggers are set off, I know how to deal with it now. Having that safe place is vital.”

"I’ve realised there is a way for me to get there without alcohol…"

Hear Keith discuss his relationship with drinking and why he had to stop

Embracing vulnerability, paying attention to his own behaviours (the fidgety “stimming” Keith often reverts to, for instance, he has found could be an indicator of autism) and learning about new lifestyle concepts like female-led relationships is pivotal to the continued rebuild. “This state of mind and the way I’m living now is so much more important to me than anything. This is my relationship with my daughter, Angie, my parents, my actual friends, and myself.”

Beyond that, though, there is an almost evangelical zeal. Having felt the relief of opening his mind, calling out wrongdoers and cutting out the parts of his life that weren’t working, he’s keen to share.

“I feel compelled, as I did as a child, to help people,” he stresses, his wide blue eyes flickering with purpose. “Yes, I still have healing to do, but I’m far enough along on my path to see certain things have worked already. If people need me, they know that I’m here. They can find me on social media. They know my touring schedule. Before, it was just like ‘I don’t get it either, but let’s just walk through it together...’ Now it’s like ‘I did something and I’m not suffering anymore!’

“I’m not going to pretend like I’m some new-age peace guru. This is not the time. Has anyone ever really believed that letting yourself and your peers and contemporaries be harmed and taken advantage of is a good thing? No, they need help. If that’s gonna require an anger, so be it. If it makes you feel bad about being angry, consider it a righteous anger. It’s okay to be angry at bad people…”

So important is this gospel that Keith is willing to preach it away from the band. He will undertake a six-date “An Evening With Keith Buckley” UK tour alongside ex-Kerrang! Radio DJ Matt Stocks after ETID’s shows in February next year. Going further, he suggests that he might take to pulling his RV up to public parks while out on tour, announcing that he’s there over social media and inviting fans along to talk around a campfire. “There is so much that I want to say, and this is so meaningful to me, that if people might be deterred by the loudness, then I’ll strip that away,” he presses. “Why the fuck not?”

Ultimately, though, ETID’s music remains his greatest platform, and Keith hopes that it can increasingly become a beacon to bring together righteous like minds.

“I think [the idea of] ‘virtue signalling’ has gotten a lot of good people shook. But you need virtue signalling, because you need to be able to recognise the virtuous. Those are the people I wanna hang out with. They’re the people who are gonna change things. I hope that wherever we go, ETID can become a support system for people who are frustrated by the lack of good in the world. We can come together and talk about it. Here are some songs so we can sing about it.

“And if we’re gonna be there anyway, we might as well have a mosh-pit, too...”

Radical is out now via Epitaph Records.

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