The things we learned at DesertFest 2022
Last weekend, DesertFest once again hit the venues of Camden for three days of volume, weed and riffs. Here’s what we found…
“I was a goner,” says Mike IX Williams with a disarming sense of nonchalance. Talking to us from the kitchen of his New Orleans home, the Eyehategod singer is casting his mind back to the fateful morning October 10, 2016 – the day he found himself coughing up blood and in abject pain.
Two years earlier while on tour, he had been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and told that he had 12 months to live. Regardless, he carried on drinking what he estimates was at least a bottle of vodka a day. Rushed to a critical care unit on that October morning, the singer was placed on a life support machine and told he needed a new liver in order to survive. As a man who had enjoyed what he calls “hard life lived”, he resigned himself to his fate.
“I’m quite pragmatic so I just said to myself, ‘This could be it. I could be gone soon.’ I wasn’t really scared at all,” he says. “I just thought, ‘If I go, I go, and if I stay, I stay.’ And I was great with staying, you know!”
For Mike and his wife Michelle, the wait to find a suitable donor was long and expensive. An intensely private man, at first he refused to inform the wider world that he’d been hospitalised. In August of 2016 he’d missed two shows with Eyehategod due to his faltering health – his friend Phil Anselmo had stepped in to replace him. He’d also been absent for another U.S. run of shows in October with UK punks Discharge where another friend, Lamb Of God’s Randy Blythe, assumed vocal duties. While fans knew he was ill, no-one other than his bandmates, close friends, and family knew just how unwell he actually was.
As the medical bills increased and Mike’s insurance tripled, Michelle was forced to set up a crowd-funding campaign to cover the spiralling costs. “We can’t do this anymore. The expenses are astronomical and overwhelming,” she wrote on her YouCaring page. The response to the campaign was instant, the pair reaching their target of $50,000 dollars in mere days. But the bills continued to mount and they needed more money. The crowd-funding continued, famous friends rallied, and benefit gigs were also organised as Mike grew ever weaker and awaited a transplant.
“I didn’t actually die because I’m still here talking to you. But when I say I was gone, I was right up to the edge,” he continues without flinching. “Your liver is connected to everything, so when your liver goes, everything else goes too. I was sinking lower and lower, but with the help of science and some of the best doctors in the country – New Orleans has some of the best doctors when it comes to liver disease and transplants – they put me back together again. I’ve felt 20 years younger since it happened, to be honest with you.”
Mike received his new liver in December 2016. Once he was discharged, a month of convalescing at a hospital-approved apartment followed before the singer was finally allowed to go home. In the statement that accompanied his release, he declared: “This miracle of the modern medical process has literally bought me a second chance at living!” For a man armed with a reputation as one of metal’s great nihilists, this was a remarkably un-Mike-like expression of joy.
“It was an emotional moment for me!” he laughs. “The ’90s were one thing where we lived for the day and didn’t care what happened. You saw us then, so you know how that was. But then you finally get older and you reach that day where you realise, ‘Wow! This may actually be killing me.’ It made me think. After three months in there it was quite a shock to be out of hospital. There were still a lot of steps for me to take so it wasn’t like an immediate thing where I was back out on the street jumping up and down. Having said that, four months after the surgery we were back onstage.”
Mike is the first to admit he has led a life of extreme excess. Alongside his alcohol abuse, he has found himself dependent on drugs and opiates, their impact evident on landmark Eyehategod albums like Take As Needed For Pain (1993 – and the promo film of the same year, Peace Through Addiction) and Dopesick (1996). In 2005 he found himself jailed for possession and was bailed by Phil Anselmo who also offered him a place to live. “I stayed in his guest house above his studio for like 10 years,” Mike says.
For all of his past misdemeanours, the man we meet today is clear-headed and full of humour, his face animated by a mischievous smile. He is also brutally honest about his own life and his career.
“There’s a lot of rumours about our band and most of them are true,” he shrugs, discussing Eyehategod’s heavy-duty reputation and his own addictive tendencies. ”People do like to have their fantasies about us. They want to think we’re living out in the swamp, shooting drugs all day. Some of that’s true, you know. Not the swamp part. But people have to have to realise that we’re just normal people too. Anybody that’s met us knows that we like to have fun. That’s why we’re still doing this band. It’s still fun after all these years.”
‘Fun’ is not a word often associated with Eyehategod nor with Mike himself, whose bleak worldview and propensity to write about the darkest subject matter has defined so much of the band’s music. Despite his misanthropic outlook, he admits he would feel lost without Eyehategod, and that his need to continue playing was key to his successful convalescence.
“When I was in the hospital I tried to keep a positive mindset and I told myself that one day we’d be back onstage playing,” he says. In fact, against all odds, he returned to the stage on 14 April 2017 – alongside his long-serving bandmates of Jimmy Bower and Brian Patton (guitars), Gary Mader (bass) and Aaron Hill (drums) – as Eyehategod headlined the Bezerker festival at The Crofoot in Pontiac, Michigan.
“That show was pretty emotional,” he beams. “It was also my birthday so it was doubly emotional. Everything was fine until I got back onstage and I got a little teary-eyed. The kids started screaming ‘Eyehategod!’ and [the band] ended up bringing a cake out for me, so it was really emotional but it was great to see all the love. I mean, we’re called Eyehategod, and that stirs up a lot of negative things – which we want – but on the other side, it’s really good too see the love that we get.”
Mike’s return to live performance marked the start of a short run of shows that also took in gigs in Philadelphia and Brooklyn. As always, the singer was determined to give it his all, his performance based around acts of sheer abandonment and a ferocious vocal style which, on occasion, appear to move beyond words themselves.
“I was a little unsteady, I guess you would say,“ he recalls. “I wasn’t 100 per cent there but we still put our all into it because it’s all about that energy. It took me a few shows and some travelling to get fully back.”
Being on the road came with its own set of challenges, specifically around Mike’s propensity to head off the rails and drink. Whereas self-destruction had previously been the order of the day, now temperance was required.
“Well, I still have a glass of wine,” he confesses, discussing his pre-show routine. “The doctors are fine with that and that’s not going to kill me, but the hard stuff is pretty much gone. I’m only speaking for myself here, of course, but it’s all about fighting that temptation, and everybody is a bit different these days. Jimmy’s got kids, you know. Brian Patton – who’s not in the band right now – he has kids, too. As you get older, these things happen so before the show things are a bit more mellow with us.”
After that initial clutch of shows, Eyehategod found themselves almost permanently back on the road and travelling to places that they’d never played before including South Korea, Vietnam and Tasmania. Despite their increasingly exotic and never-ending tour schedule, the band had also worked up some new material during Mike’s enforced absence in a bid to follow-up their 2014 self-titled effort, the demos being cut while he was in hospital.
“We pretty much stayed on tour from 2017 up until the start of 2020. Brian had decided that he couldn’t do that much touring and he left [in 2019] to take care of his family which is a noble thing, I think. So Jimmy said, ‘Brian’s gone, you’re out of the hospital, so let’s re-do all those songs and add certain elements and sections.’ So we re-worked stuff around 2018, and then I recorded my vocals last July in Chicago. That became the new record.”
A History Of Nomadic Behavior is Eyehategod’s sixth album since they formed back in 1988. Prolific they are not. “I always saw us a weird slow punk band and our evolution has been pretty slow too,” reflects Mike, contemplating one of the most extreme catalogues in modern music. “But I think we have evolved.”
In fact, the band’s latest album is proof of that evolution. Jimmy Bower’s riffs – which have always boasted a blues-edge alongside the band’s punk blast – are no less hulking but they are more defined. Mike too has developed his vocal style far beyond his initial chewed-glass invective.
“I heard recently that people were talking about the new album and saying, 'Eyehategod sold out! You can hear what Mike’s saying now!’ You can’t win! You can’t make everybody happy so we don’t care. We’ve never cared,” he chuckles. “It’s been seven years since the last album and this time I did pronounce my lyrics a little more. They’re not as drunkenly slurred as the old stuff! But it’s just the normal, nihilist Eyehategod outlook. That seems to always be there. I’ve always got that kind of outlook even during the most positive times.”
If Mike is a changed man in terms of his own circumstances, he admits that his lyrics on A History Of Nomadic Behavior – a title that could easily relate to his itinerant experiences as a young man – have been shaped by recent events. Opener Built Beneath The Lies and the blasting Fake What’s Yours are examples of tunes that, while remaining oblique, are clearly loaded with Trumpian imagery. High Risk Trigger, meanwhile, sounds like a blaster for COVID times.
“I don’t write stories. I tend to pull lyrics from all over the place. I also write the songs out almost as poetry, I suppose you’d say, before the words get pulled into the songs,” he says. “Mostly, my lyrics about the desperation of life as a whole, but I guess some stuff did creep in terms of what we’ve all been through. It was unavoidable.”
“The album isn’t directly about 2020. But these issues have been going on for a long time – these issues of corruption, government abuse, police brutality. It all kinda came to head and I thought that maybe I would add some of the ‘buzzwords’ – if you want to call them that – and add some of the tension from 2020 in there. I think it would’ve been there no matter what because that’s how we are, but this album does seem as if it was made for 2021.”
Throughout their 33-year career, Eyehategod have always maintained that they are not a political band per se. Instead, Mike has focused on delivering fragmented lyrical blasts that deal with existentialism, a slew of taboo subjects, and the reality of America’s underclass. Looking at the country as a whole now, however, he admits he finds it hard to recognise what he sees.
“I don’t know how to view it, to be honest. It’s horrendous,” he sighs. “All these people appear to have an umbrella under which they’re protected and where they can say all these racist things, all these sexist things and homophobic things. It’s become that now. It was an underlying right-wing current before, especially under Reagan and Bush, but it really came to a head under this last guy. It’s shocking that it happened to America.
“It’s divided the country and made it unbearable. But you have to deal with it day-by-day. That’s the only way you can do it. We can’t change it over night. It’s going to take time. There’s a little hope with the new president but, at the end of the day, they’re all politicians, so does that even really matter? I definitely feel as nihilistic as ever. Maybe even more so.”
As the self-appointed leader of the Southern Nihilism Front – a name he uses as his Instagram handle, his website and assorted other musical projects – where does Mike’s enduring sense of nihilism come from?
“You’d have to ask a psychiatrist,” he smiles. “It has something to do with the series of events in my life. That feeling has always been there. I think that’s what attracted me to this type of music in the first place – I don’t know how you even describe the music I like. Extreme, I guess. It’s always going to be there for me. It’s just the way I think. I feel more positive now but I got a new liver, I didn’t get a new brain. My brain is the same as it always has been. It’s about not falling into super-negative holes and into a cycle of drugs or alcohol. It’s just a matter of staying afloat and taking it day-by-day. I don’t worry about things now. There’s no point to worry because worrying just wastes more time.”
Mike’s emotional identification with music lies at the heart of what he does and how he performs. Music, he admits, is the defining force in his life and he is constantly working on new ideas and collaborations. In the summer of 2020, just as he was finishing up A History Of Nomadic Behavior, his collaboration with hip-hop hardcore punks Ho99o9 emerged, with Mike guesting on Firefly Family, the closing track on their most recent mixtape, Blurr.
“They’re a great band and great guys and that was fun to do. They’re one of the only new things I’ve gotten into recently because mostly I listen to old stuff. But they’re really original in what they do,” says Mike. “I also did this thing with Nick Oliveri and Steven Hanford – Thee Slayer Hippie. He passed away before we even put the record out.”
Steven, the former Poison Idea drummer and well-loved pillar of the U.S. punk community, assembled the project under the name of Dead End America along with guitarist Tony Avila (of World Of Lies and Aborted Cop fame) before enlisting Mike, ex-QOTSA man Nick Oliveri, Blaine Cook (The Accüsed A.D/the Fartz) and Ian Watts (Ape Machine). Steven’s sudden passing in May 2020 from a heart attack at the age of 50 saw the band release Crush The Machine, a four-track a 7-inch single, through Southern Lord in October as a tribute to their fallen friend.
“I found out he passed away one morning very suddenly,” remembers Mike. “That was a bummer, and I’m still bummed out…”
In the last five years Mike, now 53, has had plenty of time to contemplate his own mortality. He’s also had time to face his own emotions and examine how he really feels. So, when all is said and done, what does he think he’s learnt about himself?
“I don’t know if I’ve learnt much, but I think I’ve become a more caring person maybe?” he says with slight hesitation. “I think I’ve gotten to be more of an optimist. Being more optimistic is also a part of survival at this point. It’s going to help me get through whatever obstacles I face instead of the way I was in the ’90s, where I wanted to basically die and didn’t really care about anything. There are lots of reasons why I want to stay alive now. I can’t really explain it but it’s just about the world in itself. There’s lots of things I still want to do and we’re not done with annoying people just yet.”
A History Of Nomadic Behavior is out now via Century Media Records
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